Girls on Top (걸스온탑) by BoA (보아): Lyrics, Translation, & Explanation


Why open a post about music with a mascara ad? Good question, to which the simple answer would be that Girls on Top came out nearly 6 years ago, and high-quality, eye-catching images of BoA from back then are hard to find. But also, serendipitously, it helps focus our minds on just how unconventional the song is.

In particular, ponder how “sexy” she appears in it. With her exposed navel; navel piercing; hand thrust in jeans; tight clothes; confident gaze at the viewer; hole in her clothes deliberately revealing her chest; and long windswept hair, then she’s every inch the sexually-empowered and assertive female, or at least modern advertising’s definition of one.

But still, that slight body cant does look a little awkward. And with her head raised back, accentuated by the BDSM-like clothing that covers her neck, then surely I’m not the only one reminded of poses you usually only see done by porn stars?

And just how sexy do those porn stars themselves feel doing them? Take Alex Arden for instance, a former Penthouse “Pet of the Month” (July 2001, if you’re curious):

When you get yourself into the really contortionist position that you’ve got to hold up and your back hurts and you’ve got to suck in your stomach, you’ve got to stick your hips out, you’ve got to arch your back and you’ve got to stick your butt out all at the same time and suck in and hold your breath, you don’t feel sexy. You feel pain. And you feel like you want to kill [the photographer].

Like Ariel Levy says in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, from which that was taken (p. 42), “if sexy means passionate or invested in one’s own fantasies and sexual proclivities, then the pictorials [in Penthouse] don’t quite do it.” Nor, I’d wager, that ad.

Now compare the back and front covers of BoA’s Girls on Top album from 2005:


About which her Wikipedia page says:

BoA reinvented her image on her fourth Korean album, My Name (2004); she left the “cute” and “youthful” style that had characterized previous years and presented herself as “sexy” and “sultry”.[7][19] The album was the beginning of a foray into the Chinese market and contained two songs sung in Mandarin Chinese.[19] The sales of BoA’s Korean albums began to decline: the album sold 191,000 units and became the eleventh-best-selling South Korean album of the year.[20] Her fifth Korean album, Girls on Top, continued her image change. The album portrayed the singer as more “mature and self-confident” and was a “declaration of war on male chauvinism”; the “bohemian” look of the cover photograph represented “freedom and depth”, while music videos and album photographs that portrayed BoA in traditional Korean dress brought the “idea of Korean womanhood” into her music. The album also continued BoA’s foray into the Chinese market and, like the previous album, contained Mandarin Chinese songs.[21] The album sold less than the previous album; it was the fourteenth-best-selling record of the year in South Korea with 113,000 units sold.[22]

Granted, the album covers don’t set out to present a sexy image of BoA per se. But if one considers the subjects themselves feeling sexy to be essential to them looking attractive (and hey, it’s important enough to affect the way women rate men at least), then those covers win by default (my weakness for smouldering stares notwithstanding).

Which leads me to the song itself, which I chose to look at because a reader sent me the following intriguing email:

…I have been following your girl group lyric translations but there’s one song I am really curious about, mostly because I’d like to know if it’s as overtly feminist as I suspect it is…

…It’s not only the gold lamé and skull ring that’s tough but the part at the end where she fake kicks her male dancers into submission in a Take Back the Night inspired bit of of pop choreography. I know you’re focusing mostly on girl groups, but I think this one’s interesting in the context of K-pop because it seems to fall outside the two ever present concepts of “sexy” and “cute.” I have tried to find the lyrics in English but most of them are poorly done. What I’ve gleaned so far is that she may be talking about the myriad conflicting expectations a modern girl must fulfill and might even be bemoaning the constant pressure to embody male views of sexiness (!). Or it could be a girl power-lite anthem conceived by greedy business men; but either way I’d like to hear your views.

Whereas the concept of “cute” really needs no explanation, it’s the mascara ad that helped me realize what version of “sexy” BoA might have been trying to avoid – and challenge – in Girls on Top (although I beg to differ on that being a “male view of [female] sexiness,” and would argue that it’s more a media one). Certainly the choreography and costumes give that impression:

As do the lyrics in this English version, although unfortunately they don’t at all match the Korean ones (and, call me picky, but that picture of her is actually from 2010!):

Or at least, what I think the Korean ones are. Maybe I’m just rusty, as it’s been 2 months since I last translated any song lyrics, but even my wife and sister-in-law really struggled with understanding some of these ones, let alone with what they might be in English. I apologize in advance for the numerous mistakes then, and would really appreciate any corrections:

모든게 나에게 여자가 여자다운 것을 강요해

날 바라보는 네 야릇한 시선들이 난 싫어

(약한 여자 사랑에 약한 여자)

내게 강요하지마 틀에 갇혀버릴 내가 아닌 걸

(내뜻대로) 전부 나의 뜻대로

Everything forces me to be feminine

I hate your strange stares as you gaze at me

(A woman that goes crazy in love, a woman that goes crazy in love)

Don’t force me, don’t confine me in a cage

(My way) Everything done my way


Line 1 is literally “everything-to me-woman-womanly-thing-force”, which hopefully gives you an inkling of how open to interpretation these song lyrics are. Next, in line 2, “야릇하다” means “odd; queer; strange; peculiar; curious; mysterious” according to my electronic dictionary, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who gets much more everyday speaking practice than me (probably most of you!) if it has connotations of “sleazy” or something like that, which sounds more appropriate for the song. Either way, in line 3 by “crazy in love” I mean someone who gets distracted and/or can’t think straight when in love rather than being deeply in love, and finally in line 4 “틀” is technically a “frame” that she’s confined to, but – after being distracted by the “think outside of the box” idiom for a while – I think “cage” works better in English.

Next is the chorus:


나는 나인걸 누구도 대신 하지 말아

(그렇게 만만하게 넘어갈 내가 아니야)

내 모습 그대로 당당하고 싶어

(그늘에 갇혀 사는 여자를 기대하진 마)

I am myself, nobody can replace me

(I’m not someone who lets go easily like that)

Myself, I want to be confident

Don’t expect a woman who hides in the shade


Two things in this verse, I couldn’t have understood without a native speaker to help. The first in line 1 – “나는 나인걸”, literally “I am myself” – probably because my Korean isn’t remotely as good as I like to think, but “넘어가다” in line 2 has no less than 11 meanings, only the last of which “be swallowed; be choked down; be taken/got down; be drunk in” sounds remotely like the “let go [take/endure it]” that my wife said it means.


섹시한 차분한 영원히 한 남자만 아는 따분함 그건 바로 착각 모든 남자들의 관심사

난 이 세상을 모두 바꿔버릴 꿈을 다 가진걸

Get it up 난 부족해 Get it up 모든 게 다 말이 되지 않잖아

그들만의 평등 같은 건 그대들이 만든 기준에 맞게

The boring notion [that women] want forever to be with only one sexy, quiet man is a direct illusion that all men are under

A dream I have can change everything in this world

Get it up I am insufficient Get it up Everything doesn’t make sense

Their thing like equality only matches their standards


Yeah, I liked the “get it up” too, a barb very appropriate for the tone of this song, but the level of the Konglish in the rest of the song means it’s probably accidental. And any humor I found in it was soon ruined by trying to figure out those god-awful opening couple of lines, which I wish I’d realized much earlier (and have consequently presented as) were actually just the one.

In a nutshell, they say “sexy-quiet/calm-eternally-one-man only-know-boredom/weariness-that-directly-illusion-all-man’s-affair/interest”. After half an hour’s discussion between my wife, sister-in-law, and I (and – for good measure – my daughters trying to get us to talk about farting instead), we think that “The boring notion [that women] want forever to be with only one sexy, quiet man is a direct illusion that all men are under” is what is meant, but accept that – repeated distracting farting sounds aside – it doesn’t really make sense in the context of the song, and so are more than open to alternatives.

Meanwhile, it’s my significant other that says that “말이 되지 않잖아” means “doesn’t make sense”. And on that note – lest we’ve made mistakes with those also – that from “Get it up” to the final “맞게” was originally 3 lines, but I’ve rearranged them so that they make sense for you at least!

Next is the chorus again, then the next verse. But I don’t think there’s really anything to explain in it, although I’m quite happy to if anyone wants me to:


모든게 나에게 여자가 여자다운 것을 강요해

더 이상은 참지 말아

Shake it Everything I like that

마음을 더 열어봐 우린 같은 곳을 향해가잖아

모두 함께 영원할텐데

서로 다른 성일뿐 존재하기 위한 인간인걸

Why 이젠 부정하지마

Everything forces me to be feminine

Don’t endure it any more

Shake it Everything I like that

Try opening my heart more, we both want the same thing

With everything eternally

Each other, we are humans that only exist to be different sexes

Why Now don’t deny it


남자들 모두가 세상의 진리는 절대로 불변의 법칙이라고

이 칼을 잡은 난 세상의 지배자

힘의 논리 남자만의 법칙들

아주 웃기시네 Blurr Blurr Blurr Blurr

(Do you need money? I pay you)

돈에 눈이 멀어 자존심을 사는 남자

그대 이젠 맞이해라 Dooms and a Dooms

자 이제 보아 얘길 담아 듣자

새 시대 Story Girls on Top

All men [say/think] the world’s truth is an absolute, unchangeable law

I [am] the world’s leader grabbing this knife

Strength’s logic is only men’s rule

Yeah, right Blurr Blurr Blurr Blurr

(Do you need money? I pay you)

Men that only have eyes for money buy pride

Now you greet/welcome Dooms and a Dooms

Well, now listen carefully to BoA’s story

New age, Story Girls on Top


Spoken with the confidence of someone with 2 bilingual speakers helping him, but that was refreshingly easy!

First, in line 1 I wrote “say/think” because which one it is isn’t actually mentioned in the indirect speech (there’s nothing after “법칙이라고”). Then in line 3, “웃기시네” is slang for “Yeah, right” (with or without the “아주”), and finally in line 5 “눈이 멀어” literally means “eyes far”, but combined with “[something]에” then it means “only have eyes for [something]”.

And now we’re in the home straight:


이 세상의 반 그건 여자들이 만들거야

(Go baby Girl Rise up Throw your hands up Do you like that)

당당하게 난 멀리 앞을 향해 걸어갈래

(Go baby Go baby)

Women will make half of this world

(Go baby Girl Rise up Throw your hands up Do you like that)

I will walk further forward confidently

(Go baby Go baby)


Again I got a little distracted by the first line, originally thinking it was an allusion to Mao-Zedong’s quote that “women hold up half the sky”, but apart from that then there’s not much of note language-wise there. And with just the chorus after that, then now it’s time to ponder the original question of whether BoA is “talking about the myriad conflicting expectations a modern girl must fulfill, [maybe even] bemoaning the constant pressure to embody male views of sexiness”, or if the song is merely “a girl power-lite anthem conceived by greedy business men”?

What do you think?

The cynic in me says the latter, as it’s just too incoherent to justify the former, no matter how much I’d like to. But some things may well be be lost in translation, and as this is in fact the very first song of BoA’s I’ve ever really listened to — let alone translated — then I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, although frankly I don’t particularly like it, it’s definitely piqued my interest in both the development of her image over the last 10 years, especially in her American debut with Eat You Up in 2008 (covered extensively in “Playing the Race and Sexuality Cards in the Transnational Pop Game: Korean Music Videos for the US Market” by Eun-Young Jung in Journal of Popular Music Studies Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 219–236, June 2010; email me for a copy), and also in how female singers and girl groups use sexuality to rebrand themselves (and for more on that, see ‘What’s Your Definition of Dirty, Baby?’: Sex in Music Video” by Andsager, J.  & Roe, K. in Sexuality and Culture, 2003, Vol 7; PART 3, pages 79-97; again, email me for a copy).

So, needless to say, I’ll be covering some more BoA songs this summer!^^

Korean Advertising: Just Beautiful Women Holding Bottles?

Source: Wonder Nostalgia.

Some words of wisdom from Londoner Bruce Haines, currently head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide (my emphasis):

Q) What’s one big difference between advertising in Korea and the UK?

A) Celebrity endorsement – a huge proportion of Korean ads depend on famous people. Of course, it’s not uncommon in the West for stars to endorse a product, but generally the ad has a core idea and makes use of the celebrity endorsement to enhance the original concept. Not so in Korea. In its crudest form, Korean advertising degenerates to beautiful people holding a bottle. This is one of the things holding back the reputation of Korean advertising worldwide.  (10 Magazine)

At first, I thought “Korean advertising degenerates to celebrities holding a bottle” would have been more accurate myself. And regardless of the rather unflattering picture of Wondergirls singer Sohee (안소희) I chose above!^^

But Haines’s wording does have a nice ring to it. And however obvious his point may be to readers, I confess that it would never have occurred to me personally. Spending most of my adult life in Korea, he made me realize that I fail to notice Korean advertising’s peculiarities sometimes.

Which got me thinking about others. An obvious one, at least to a blogger forcing himself to include more images of men in his posts(!), was that although male celebrities are increasingly used to advertise alcohol in Korea, I really struggled to find any men endorsing a soft drink to illustrate this post with.

Yes: even after half an hour spent flicking through my old Korean advertising magazines, this was still the only one I could think of (although as I write this, this recent one for Powerade is coming to mind; but the actors are not celebrities and thanks to Seri for pointing out that it features the group Epik High). If anyone can think of any more, then please let me know.* But if not, then overwhelmingly having women in Korean soft drink commercials aimed at women seems to provides additional evidence for their preference for passive approaches to losing weight, in the sense that “drink this and get a body like mine” – rather than, say, “drink this as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle” – is the only narrative offered.

Source: unknown

Of course, soft drink commercials would say that. But the point is that this narrative of passivity is echoed in Korean advertising for a surprising array of products aimed at women.

In particular, as reader Seamus Walsh recently commented, it’s strange (and a pity) just how many Korean female singers get great bodies by dancing, only then to appear in advertisements claiming that it was all the result of drinking, say, a watery tea. A good illustration of which is the Brown Eyed Girls (브라운아이드걸스; above), who – to my great dismay – recently choose to endorse the diet company Juvis (쥬비스), a company I’d already criticized back in February.

And for alternatives? Again I’d struggle, as female celebrities advocating something involving mere exercise instead are unfortunately very rare, either personally or via endorsing related products like exercise equipment or sports clothing. BoA (보아) is one, but can anyone think of any others?

Lest you feel that I’m overemphasizing and/or exaggerating Korean differences regardless though, none of that is to deny that marketing to Korean women does indeed still share many similarities with that of Western countries for instance. And apologies for rehashing a topic already familiar to many readers, albeit from a new and – to me – rather unexpected angle.

But the differences are real, and as a final surprising demonstration of this, consider how gendered yogurt is in Western countries for instance, as demonstrated hilariously by American comedian Sarah Haskins below (see here for many more videos like it). As far as I can tell though, so far yogurt has yet to become “the official food of women” in Korea:

Is that difference because the idea of, well, “drinking” for health is so ingrained in the Korean psyche? Or perhaps for some other reason?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

p.s. For examples of what Korean advertising does have to offer the world, see my “Creative Korean Advertising” series here.

*As soon as my head hit the pillow, a few more examples came to mind, and I realized I needed to make a greater distinction between different kinds of soft drinks: advertisements for tea-drinks at least do indeed almost exclusively feature women, but those for sodas are more mixed, and – with the exception of laxatives – the more medicine-like a health-drink is marketed as, and to be found in a pharmacy, the more likely it is to feature and be intended for men. But I think the distinction I identify in the text is still generally true, and as further evidence for that I suggest thinking of what celebrities you know of that have regularly endorsed any form of soft-drink. I’d wager that while several women will come to mind, you’d still be hard-pressed to think of any men!

How Korean Girls Learn to be Insecure About Their Bodies

Seriously, it’s great that the makers of this video are trying to encourage children to eat healthy foods with fermented bean paste (된장) rather than candy. But do they really need to be told that it’s good for their “S-lines” and “V-lines” too? For those few of you that don’t know what either are, this next commercial in particular makes the former pretty clear:

(Source: ¡Hoy mejor que ayer, mañana mejor que hoy!. The text reads “The S-line you want to have.”)

Note that Go Ara, the actress in the commercial, is actually much younger (16) than she may appear above. Meanwhile, here are some commercials for a tea-drink which supposedly gives you a V-line chin, which at least have actual grown women (BoA, 22; Kim Tae-Hee, 28) endorsing the product:

Not by coincidence, here are some “face rollers” which started to appear all over Korea not long after I first heard of V-lines. I’ve read that they’ve been used for many years in Japan and Taiwan too, so Korean women too may well have been using for a long time before they started worrying about their V-lines specifically. But then they weren’t popular enough for me to have noticed them at all until last year, and certainly sellers of them have been making explicit references to V-lines ever since the concept first appeared:

(Source: GMarket)

Alas, I’m not entirely certain why an ad explicitly for women opens with some not particularly flattering shots of men either (Lee Seung-gi and comedian Kang Ho-dong), but I guess I’m not the target market. That they do so humorously though, does help reinforce the notion that dieting (etc.) is only something for women to be serious about.

Or perhaps just girls, as I’ve never actually seen a woman using one. My 13 year-old students, however, use them every other break…(sigh).

Update: See here, here, here, and here for much more on the constant invention of new, often impossible body shapes and “lines” for Korean women to strive for, and for North American and European parallels.