Monday, October 7, 2019

Revisiting SuperM... oh yeah I'm Jopping

I thought it would be worth revisiting my (infamous) post comparing the images and audiences of SuperM and BTS in the American market in the wake of SuperM’s debut on October 4, 2019. The CD sales numbers for the mini-album have not yet been released but the newly announced American tour appears to have already sold out and the title of the lead single from the mini, the infectious “Jopping”, has already become something of a playful twitter meme (“If she’s your girl why is she out jopping at the club with me”). The SuperM hashtag on Twitter is packed with fans singing the praises of their favorite member. To me, that feels like a success.

Going back and re-reading my post, what I think I missed (or rather talked around) is something touched on in this excellent Baffler article from Kyle Paoletta:

No, there’s no single piece of intellectual property that constitutes the monoculture, but that was never really the case—at least, not since the heyday of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Top 40 radio. Monoculture has more traditionally revolved around a set of self-similar properties (such as network sitcoms in the 1990s), and today’s iteration is no exception. Set aside the peculiarities of each franchise, and it’s obvious that today’s monoculture is beholden to the conditions of fandom.

What I mean is this-- when I said there is no more American music mainstream, I was referring that Top 40 radio everybody listened to. That obviously doesn’t exist anymore. But Paoletta’s piece really hit the nail on the head with his observation: the new American mainstream is these smaller fandom subcultures. When you look at it that way, what has happened with BTS and what Lee Soo Man is aiming at with SuperM suddenly falls completely into place.

BTS, as I’ve said a million times before, was adopted by the American boy band fandom. It’s a fairly big but ultimately rather shallow audience and moves on quickly when their favorites begin to curdle and collect scandals. (Now would be an excellent time for Hollywood and/or Simon Cowell to launch a new property featuring fresh-faced and vaguely homoerotic dreamboats, just saying…)

SuperM, on the other hand, is not aimed at the mainstream Top 40 crowd or the boy band crowd already claimed by BTS. SuperM is aimed squarely at the existing Kpop market who has been craving this kind of Powerful Epic Dancefloor Anthem since Big Bang vacated the marketplace after dropping “Bang Bang Bang” and entering military service.

Think about it.

There is a clear hole in the Export Kpop market for a group dropping EPIC ANTHEMS. The kind of songs that generate memes, become catchphrases, and stick in your ears for weeks.

And to be clear, I’m not downplaying the quality of any of the other groups in the Export Kpop market when I say this. Seventeen, I think, would be making Epic Anthems if they had a bigger budget to play with. “Hit” is a bop and a half but “Hit” doesn’t have Big Three fun money and knack for an over-the-top eye popping video and that is the point I want to land on.

Lee Soo Man clearly saw what I saw when I said: “K-pop has been able to gain a foothold in America/the West because we've gradually bled all glamor and aesthetic beauty from our own arts culture. Left with a crumbling husk of virtue signaling and personal redemption narrative, many just tuned out or turned elsewhere.”

SuperM will not appeal to the American general public but they will appeal to the existing, but balkanized, American audience for export Kpop. And, even removing BTS from the equation, that audience has become a fairly large one over the last decade. Here is a super group aiming to be so big and epic that it pulls curious fans not from the audiences of Taylor Swift or Lil Nas X but from the American audiences for all the SM boy groups, as well as boy groups like Seventeen and Monsta X, who both have significant but dispersed American fanbases.

Export Kpop audiences in America don’t want music that sounds like what’s on the charts here (feat. Halsey) we want music that sounds like Kpop and we want it performed by larger than life idols in outrageous outfits and multicolored hair.

The video for “Jopping” skips completely past “cool” and aims at being like awesome in the way that the Fast & Furious series is awesome. The video is just frame after frame of completely unselfconscious flexing of how awesome all the members are and it. Is. glorious. There’s no faffing about and “relatable” here. It’s just panty-wetting raps and dance moves. And yes, it is extremely masculine. And powerful. And beautiful.

“Jopping” is “Bang Bang Bang” done SM-style where instead of the vaguely grimy Mad Max action movie feel, you’ve got Michael Bay slickness. And I am here for it.

I honestly have no idea what to expect from SuperM moving forward but even assuming they don’t touch BTS sales for Persona (which it won’t) I really do think SuperM has already been a success for SM, if only for being able to get people like me who were only interested in one of the members curious about and excited about the others to the point that I’m now feeling compelled to go fill out my collection of EXO and NCT albums. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw back catalog sales for EXO, SHINee, and NCT spike along with SuperM. All part of the plan.

And now I need to get back to Jopping.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Chicken Noodle Soup, Fries, and a Soda on the Side: What does it all mean?

Much of the conversation centered around the recently released J-Hope and Becky G cover of “Chicken Noodle Soup” has focused on cultural appropriation. What is cultural appropriation? Who has the right to call it out? When is hair just hair? Who can be offended?

As a white American, I can guarantee that nobody wants (or needs) my opinion on that specific topic so this is what I want to talk about: Why on Earth did anybody think resurrecting this specific 2006 dance craze was a good idea?

Let me rewind the clock for the youngsters back to the sweaty summer of 2006 in America when a talented and ambitious 15 year old kid from Harlem and her older DJ friend put together an insanely catchy song based off of one of the dances going around the neighborhood, chicken noodle soup, fries, and a soda on the side. The single made the rounds of the local party circuit--15 year old Bianca having to sneak out to attend--until it eventually caught the ear of a local radio DJ who wanted to know what this dance craze was that was sweeping Harlem.

DJ Webstar and Bianca Bonnie got some major label attention, filmed a professional video, and released the song officially in the fall of that year. It was one of the first viral YouTube hits and earned the pair national attention from baffled mainstream (aka “white”) media as well as more conflicted reactions from an older generation concerned about the way Black culture was being portrayed to that mainstream media:

"The problem is that the young people are unaware of the mockery -- the correlation between the minstrel shows of the past and the 'Chicken Noodle Soup' dance," says Chloe Hilliard, news editor at The Source, the New York-based hip-hop magazine. "It's the whole issue of airing our dirty laundry. It's one thing of laughing about it among ourselves. But it's another thing of showing this behavior to the mainstream as if this is all we do -- dance around and eat fried chicken."

Young Bianca got some money from the deal but she was also still in high school with parents who were neither interested in becoming nor qualified to be “mom-agers” and still having to deal with the realities of living in a neighborhood where a 13 year old girl could get shot and killed while leaving a Halloween party.

She wouldn’t pop back up to mainstream attention until 10 years later when she appeared on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York.

What did the young Jung Hoseok see while watching Bonnie's video and the other viral Black dance crazes on YouTube in the provincial city of Gwangju, South Korea?

“Chicken Noodle Soup” was no outlier. This was also the era of songs like The Dougie (currently at 50 million views on YouTube and referenced in J-Hope’s verse in his “Chicken Noodle Soup” remake) and the global spread of these formerly local neighborhood dances enabled by YouTube opened them up to a whole new audience, one that didn’t always understand the culture of what it was they were looking at, as a 2007 article from the British newspaper the Guardian amply demonstrates.

Did young Hoseok think these exotic foreign dancers were cool? Did he find them funny? Did he think about them at all beyond trying to imitate their moves? I wonder what the young Hoseok would think knowing that he and his culture have now become the decontextualized dancers on YouTube.

This is where the remake of “Chicken Noodle Soup” comes in. That kid, Jung Hoseok, has become a global superstar. He’s the J-Hope of BTS. He now has a worldwide platform and a built-in audience for absolutely anything he would like to try. His previous solo effort, the utterly delightful mixtape Hope World blew all our collective socks off with its combination of danceable beats, catchy hooks, and poignant, almost bittersweet lyrics. “Airplane,” was a special stand out for me with the achingly beautiful melody, the video shot in a vacant parking garage, and poetic lyrics drawn from his own experience talking about going from a poor kid watching planes fly overhead to actually being on one himself.

“Airplane” was one of those videos that gets it. That gets what idol magic is and what it can do. J-Hope fills that vacant parking garage with depth and meaning. His very presence turns it into a sacred space. The shot of him standing there, arms outstretched, surrounded by mundane concrete, with a plane in flight above him, is iconic. I’ll still stop and watch the whole video all the way through when it pops up… like right now.

This song and video are beautiful; it’s completely J-Hope.

So, knowing what he is capable of as an artist, and what he is capable of as a dancer (see also: Boy Meets Evil and the 3J performance @ 2018 Mama) why did the Korean man capable of unique and gorgeous pop art that highlights his own taste and talents decide to make his next big solo work a remake of a 2006 local Black American teen dance craze from Harlem, shot and filmed across the country in Los Angeles, and featuring a Mexican-American (Californian) singer?

Well, Big Hit Entertainment just signed a deal with TikTok and judging by the slew of nearly identical pieces in mainstream (aka “white”) media outlets on the “Chicken Noodle Soup” dance challenge, a cynical observer might suspect that the desire to go viral on TikTok with a dance challenge based on a dance that has already proven to be viral may have had something to do with the decision.

Am I that cynical? Yes and no.

What I see when I look at J-Hope’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” is a genuine attempt from a Korean pop star to give mainstream American audiences what they want.

I see a man who understands the metrics behind the viral tweet of him doing Drake’s In My Feelings challenge and mixed it with his own somewhat surface level appreciation of the loudest American pop music and tendency to just tell us the things he actually likes, including problematic SoundCloud Rapper Lil Pump with no deeper meaning behind it than he finds them catchy and colorful and vibrant.

This remake of “Chicken Noodle Soup” is what happens when a very specific local minority culture is exported with no context, ingested as simple entertainment by a global audience, and then sold back to the mainstream majority culture as Camp. It’s taking the cultural product of a very specific minority experience (one that is very much looked down on in mainstream culture), stripping it of the original minority experience, and then selling it to the mainstream culture as lighthearted fun.

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, ask yourself this: would the mainstream media be as kind to this remake if it had been done by a well-meaning white kid who grew up poor watching dance compilations on YouTube in Appalachia instead of in Gwangju?

I’m not against cultural borrowing but I do think that if a global act is going to be localizing their material and targeting a complicated market like America then they have to be prepared for questions like this and for pushback when a borrowed song, when a borrowed style, is challenged by the people it was borrowed from.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What is an idol?

What is an idol?

Why do I keep making a big deal about separating a male idol group from a western “boy band”?

Will I ever shut up? (No.)

In episode 17 my friend brought up the idea of the “magic circle” from gaming. In professional wrestling they use the term “kayfabe”. What it means is “suspension of disbelief.” The idea that you, as an audience member, walk into a theater or concert hall, turn on a wrestling match or reality show, and can simultaneously hold in your mind two separate ideas: what is happening is not real; what is happening feels real.

Professional wrestling is not “real” in the sense that the heels are not all terrible people, faces are not all good people, and the wrestlers are not working out actual grudges in the grudge matches. But professional wrestling is “real” in that the wrestlers step into that ring and take their lives and health into their hands with every piledriver. The hate for the opponent isn’t “real” in that the wrestlers are not trying to genuinely injure each other and instead must trust each other to execute dangerous moves with skill. But what is real is the catharsis it whips up in the crowd. The feeling of joy when the wrestler you support wins her match; the release of the boos and jeers at her opponent when she doesn’t. Kayfabe, magic circle, suspension of disbelief. The emotion is real in that moment.

Idols are like this.

Idols are real people. Idols are performers. Idols can whip up real emotion within the magic circle. Idols, like wrestlers, like theater actors, need to be able to drop character when they step offstage. Idols need us to understand that there is a divide between the public and private life.

This last week has seen a truly awful shitstorm for BTS and my favorite member Jungkook when images leaked showing him with a girl, who appeared to be a friend, possibly even a girlfriend. And fandom exploded. People were mad that he seemed to be dating, mad that he seemed to be dating a woman (and not Jimin/Taehyung, strike one), mad that the girl worked at a somewhat seedy tattoo parlor which isn’t where the nation’s darling baby boy should be seen hanging out, mad that the statement put out by Big Hit looked like a lie, mad that Jungkook himself didn’t say anything...

I’m not going to litigate “evidence” and “proof”; it’s really none of our business what their relationship is. As long as it’s between consenting adults I don’t care what idols get up to in their off hours.

Because idols exist in the realm of suspension of disbelief. That is what separates them from a boy band, from plain old musicians. They have a magic that others performers can not access; they drive a loyalty that other artists can only dream of.

The danger with the magic circle or kayfabe is that not everybody understands it. Not everybody can hold the two conflicting ideas in their heads: this is not real but this feels real. When you insist an idol actually be the image they project, not just on stage but off stage. Back stage. In their private time. It’s dangerous for the idol and dangerous for the audience. Chaining an idol to the image, not allowing the person behind the mask to ever remove it. To allow their own personality to develop free of the responsibility of being, for example, “BTS’s Jungkook.”

Are we going to keep him as the nation’s baby boy forever? Is he never allowed to grow up?

This isn’t about encouraging public dating (which I continue to disagree with mainly because I think using romantic relationships for publicity is disgusting) but it is about letting a man step outside of the magic circle. About understanding that our own position as fans is also bound by that magic circle.

One of the biggest complaints I have with Big Hit Entertainment is that they haven’t allowed the members to grow beyond their initial image. This is what I mean. Jungkook has been the babied golden maknae since he was 15 years old. He is now a 22-year old man and yet at a recent fansign just months ago a fan gave him a baby bonnet to wear.

What is he supposed to do? If baby boy is an image he can put on and take off, then there isn’t an issue. SMAP’s Katori Shingo still plays the nation’s baby boy on occasion and he’s 1) no longer in SMAP and 2) well into his 40s. It’s cute and silly when he does it but we, as fans, also know that he’s a 40-something man with a life and it’s just an act to make the fans happy. But if it’s not something you can take off? That’s a problem. Even professional wrestlers get to play with their image, going from heel to face, playing up a double cross and going back again. Being human means changing, means growing up, means maturing. To be stuck at 15 years old forever must be torture.

We, as fans, especially in the West, if we want to engage in idol culture have to understand that just because being an idol is an act, doesn’t mean it’s not real in the moment. And that being “just” an act doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful or that the emotion these idols generate is meaningless.

The literal minded insistence that ships are actual homosexual relationships, that the members must all live together in a dorm, must never tarnish the image we’ve built or it’s all fake-- this is the attitude that will burn you out as a fan.

Let Jungkook grow up. Let him change his idol image if he wants to. Do you think the abs flash in “Fake Love” was a mistake? That he wouldn’t love to pull a Lee Taemin (another baby boy) in 2014 and just go full sexy for a song or two?? Just to show that he’s not the eternal 15 year old in a baby bonnet?

That even if he does go full sexy for a song or two or gets an ill-advised hand tattoo, it doesn’t mean he’s still not the same Jungkook we know and fell in love with? That it doesn’t change anything?

Friday, September 13, 2019

SuperM vs BTS: A Study in Contrasts

The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth! I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!

-- Nietzche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

To what end, the Superman? To what end, the SuperM?

I was linked to an interesting article by Kate Halliwell in The Ringer titled, “SuperM and the Futility of Trying to Win Over K-Pop Stans”. While I didn’t necessarily agree with her reading of the situation--something I’ll get to in a bit--what I did like about the piece was that Halliwell had a sharp eye on the ridiculous behavior of K-pop and BTS Stans:

Two recent attempts to feed U.S. demand were met with immediate backlash—as is the case any time various K-pop fandoms are pitted against each other. Try to create a K-pop category for the MTV Video Music Awards? How dare you! Combine some of the most popular K-pop idols into a megatalented supergroup that will tour the U.S.? The nerve! It makes you wonder: Can anyone please all K-pop fans, or should everyone just stop trying? After all, hell hath no fury like a K-pop fan with a hashtag.

You can almost hear the clunky gears of the Anglo-sphere Entertainment Brain Trust sputtering into motion in Los Angeles, New York, and London. Frantically asking themselves, what the hell do these god damn K-pop Stans want from us? But what they don't understand is that K-Pop Stans are not a perfect circle Venn Diagram with BTS Stans.

If you’ve listened to my Idol History series episode 4 then you’ll have heard a longer version of this story but the quick version is that Korea emerged from under grim military dictatorship into a shiny new capitalist world with somewhat mixed results (to put it mildly). Following the horrific economic crash in 1997, the Korean government settled on an ingenious strategy, they would goose both their image and their exports through soft power. A small investment in the film, drama, and music industries with a potentially large payoff for the tiny, broke (oh so broke) nation.

And who was right there to take advantage of this golden opportunity?

One Mr. Lee Soo Man and his SM Entertainment.

Lee Soo Man is many things as a businessman but one thing that cannot be denied is that he has a genius for what we can call Cultural Technology. Lee Soo Man has a background in engineering and he applied that same mechanical vision to music and pop art with remarkable skill. Taking the sounds and visuals he saw on American MTV while studying abroad, deconstructing them and then reconstructing them in a Korean context.

He then did the same with the incomprehensibly huge boy group SMAP from Japan--giving us H.O.T. and spurring a flood of imitators. He was poised and ready to begin the project of market domination through culture. Through music and dance, specifically. Choosing and tailoring his groups to suit the markets for which they were intended. Gathering native speaking members to attack the Chinese market. Sending groups to Japan to acclimate to the culture and language for the notoriously insular market there. And it worked. Lee Soo Man is right up there with Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. in the canon of Machiavellian music entrepreneurs.

At least in Asia.

But what about America?

Earlier this week I tweeted that, “K-pop has been able to gain a foothold in America/the West because we've gradually bled all glamor and aesthetic beauty from our own arts culture. Left with a crumbling husk of virtue signaling and personal redemption narrative, many just tuned out or turned elsewhere.” And it’s true but it’s only half the story.

The problem with the American market is that there is no American market. I’ve written about this before but there is no more mass culture in America. Certainly not like there is in countries like Japan. There is no one thing we all watch or all listen to. Enjoyment of art has become a marker of class, a signifier. What you like, what you listen to, has become who you identify as. Are a person who “gets” references to Broadway musical Hamilton? Are you a Game of Thrones fan, Star Wars fan, or Harry Potter fan? Prefer the D.C. or Marvel universe? Team Swift or Team Perry? Or do you like K-pop?

And be careful what you chose because it signals your moral standing. Your values.

Here’s what nobody could have predicted back in the dark days of the 1997 economic collapse: Export K-pop had initially come over to America as sort of an East Asian parallel to the Bollywood Industrial Complex. It was a safe, fun, light alternative to mainstream white culture that recent immigrants from Korea could enjoy as a taste of home and that their children (and children of other East Asian immigrants) could adopt as something that was theirs, that showed the faces of people like them. (Although in both cases there have always a handful of white folk like me who also enjoyed the content, but we were very much in the minority until recently.)

What happened is what I alluded to in that tweet. As the grim march of personal narrative and virtue signaling and adherence to canon and the all might property took over American mass culture (what was left of it anyway), K-pop revealed itself as a shiny, fun new toy. It was full of beautiful people, catchy songs and dances, unashamedly interested in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure above all else. Unlike so much of the product offered by the American mainstream entertainment industry, K-pop was just… enjoyable.

But this being America that wasn’t enough, we had to make it our identity too. You couldn’t just enjoy the nonsense lyrics and peppy tune of songs like Bingle Bangle like those old first generation immigrants had done or nor was it part of a shared (and secret) pop culture code among other Asian-Americans. Enter the K-pop Stan. And their mission: to protect their subculture through use of annoying fancams, online voting, and attacking anybody remotely critical of the genre.

(Obviously not everybody takes it this seriously--before I get indignant comments, I mean, I count myself as somebody who enjoys Bingle Bangle export K-pop too--but enough act like K-Pop Stans that it’s a thing big enough to be noticed by pop culture writers like Halliwell in her piece.)

And this reputation has only gotten worse since BTS has come to America because BTS is K-pop in that they are part of the export Korean music industry but BTS is not K-pop in that they are no longer considered part of the K-pop identity held on to by K-pop Stans. BTS has become a boy band in the West and their fans exist in a circle of hell far below your stereotypical K-Pop Stan on hand to troll you with fancams of Rose.

If you listen to my Episode 10 on the Rise of Bangtan then you’ll also know where I’m going with this--when One Direction imploded it left a huge opening in the market for entertainment for the horny teen girls and their horny moms demographic. And for whatever reason, many ex-directioners straggled over to the BTS fandom. Directioners took the template of boy band fandom that they had developed and shoved BTS right into it. Voting? No problem. Directioners knew all about that. They were experienced in getting their boys wins in all sorts of fan driven awards. In it just for Larry Stylinson conspiracy theories? No problem. Take your pick--TaeKook or JiKook. Fanfiction? There are currently twice as many BTS fanfics on AO3 as there are 1D fics. And new fans had the added bonus of getting to layer all sorts of trendy social justice lingo to justify their new boy band obsession. BTS are Asian so obviously that’s points over fans of white groups. BTS talk about “mental health” and… stuff. It’s about loving yourself (myself).

With lyrics in Korean and a cultural gap as wide as the Pacific Ocean, new BTS fans from outside the old export K-pop circles saw whatever it is they wanted to see in the group. And what they wanted to see was their own identity as special, woke, very special people reflected right back at them.

Bangtan didn’t understand this at first, if they even really grasp it now. But Big Hit Chief Bang saw his chance and grabbed it. What happened was not Lee Soo Man with his Cultural Technology but more like something on one of the lesser episodes of Star Trek. Big Hit picked up on the surge of interest from these boy band fans and, by god, they would give them a boy band in exchange for 1) sweet, sweet cash and 2) accolades at home for cracking the American market.

Notice what I haven’t mentioned: art and music.

That’s not a mistake. These boy band fans don’t care. It’s not about that. It’s about the fandom. The personal connection. The ships. The fic. It’s about ARMY.

And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But it does mean that both the group and their fans are seen as Not Serious by everybody else. Hypothetically speaking, obviously, but you can’t gloat that your group is changing the world and then spam human rights organizations with fancams when they try to bring attention to a concert that your group is performing at the special request of one of the worst human rights abusers on the planet.

If you move like boy band fans, behave badly like boy band fans, shriek on the street outside hotels like boy band fans, create elaborate Charlie from It’s Always Sunny charts with ACTUAL REAL PROOF of your ship like boy band fans… then you are going to be seen as boy band fans no matter how much you insist otherwise.

And rather than attempt to change the fan culture in any way what Big Hit did was double down on the boy band thing. Instead of taking the more adult direction the group was moving in with songs like Blood Sweat and Tears (October 2016) and Spring Day (February 2017) they began a long downward march towards Boy With Luv feat. Halsey (April 2019), their biggest hit in the American market is a boy band song. The bland western songwriters, the cotton candy visuals, the inoffensive lyrics, the simple dance moves, the token “girl” that we can all self-insert ourselves as…

Bang took his group and insisted they fit into that boy band audience’s demands. But guess what? Their demands are exactly what I said in my tweet that the American culture in general is full of--lack of aesthetic beauty, virtue signaling, personal redemption stories. And the thing about personal redemption stories is that they rely on the person and a large dose of sincerity. No surprise then that Bang’s second attempt at a boy group--the cute young kids of TXT who have no virtue signals or redemption arcs but do have a months long case of pink eye--have completely fallen off the radar. The otome game based on BTS? A flop. Although from the way Bang spoke at his State of the Union address on the State of Big Hit, he is convinced that these boy band fans will follow him to the Extended Bangtan Universe--just like the extended Marvel Universe!!--where he is planning on recasting the members with younger actors and re-telling the angsty youth storyline from The Most Beautiful Moment In Life. (An unintentionally ironic title since the “fleeting” moment of youth appears to be dragging on well into the members’ mid to late 20s.)

Enter the SuperM.

Lee Soo Man is not here to play around with “boy bands” or faff about with Halsey and an ongoing series of terrible suit fits. Lee Soo Man introduced SuperM right off the bat as the Avengers of K-Pop. It’s a masculine image. Powerful. The focus is on everything that Big Hit threw in the garbage in an attempt to chase the former Directioners: TALENT, ART, BEAUTY.

The trailers for SuperM don’t show talking head footage of what their fans mean to them or “relatable” dorky moments. These men are idols. They have glamour. It’s exactly what the American culture industry has forgotten how to provide.

Watch the most recent trailer for SuperM member Lucas:

He’s mysterious. Beautiful. Adult. Not of this world.

And here’s Ten. Artistic. Talented. Also Beautiful. And adult.

It’s not like the members of Bangtan can’t provide content on this level. Compare those to the comeback trailer for “Boy Meets Evil” (September 2016):

Imagine this with SM Entertainment money behind it.

It’s not a matter of talent or ability from the idols. It’s about whether the company and the company’s management are leaders or followers.

SM Entertainment is leading fans into a deliberately crafted and self-contained Marvel Universe type situation built specifically for the type of K-pop Stans that exist in America. The kind who like to bicker over who is better and enjoy slick visuals, catchy songs, and the type of glamor American entertainment no longer provides.

Big Hit followed fans off the deep end with no plan in place other than to grab as much cash as possible in the moment. Turning Bangtan into whatever he thought we wanted them to be and in the process crushing their health, their souls, their group bond.

SuperM has positioned itself in such a way that it’s accessible to both the long time K-Pop Stans who know SHINee, EXO, NCT, etc. but is also open to discovery from curious non-Stans. No hug boxes or virtue signaling. No complicated backstory. There is only the cool gloss of professional glamour and talent. There are English subtitles on marketing materials. And, most importantly, there is no stink of ex-Directioner keeping potential fans away.

I don’t know whether SuperM will gain inroads into the American mainstream but it’s a smart gamble and one that I have a feeling with pay off. The problem with boy band fans is that they tend to lose interest after a brief romance. Chasing them is like chasing a puff of smoke. K-Pop Stans are a potentially growing market. Why not try to win over as big of a piece of the pie as possible...

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

[Review] Bring the Soul: Episode 3 "Relationship"

Episode 3 of Bring the Soul was not what I was expecting from the teaser. The theme of the episode was “Relationship” and a scene of Jungkook and Jimin sharing a meal in one of their hotel rooms post-concert had been highlighted, all of which filled me with a sense of dread because I have spent nearly my entire time in this fandom desperately avoiding the delusional former “Larrys” pushing the “Jikook” agenda. Ah, yes, the former One Direction fans and their horrific fandom habits of getting overly invested in the conspiracy theories that say two of the members of the group are actually dating and making babies. It feels like years ago but it was only a few months ago in late June that the Jikook takeover of twitter with #ReceiptNation, posting sasaeng photos and gossip of dubious origins in an attempt to “prove” that the imaginary couple was REALLY IN LOVE.

Ahem.

The one personal thread running through this episode was Jimin’s loneliness as the lone extrovert in a group overflowing with introverts. While the rest of the members seem more or less content to do their own thing in their own hotel rooms--whether that’s playing FIFA, watching YouTube, or whatever--Jimin, in particular, misses the physical closeness of their earlier years. In that scene teased as shipper-bait, Jimin and Jungkook are filmed having dinner together in the hotel and as the soju flows so does Jimin’s loneliness. He laughs a bit, embarrassed, as he tells Jungkook the story of getting blackout drunk and telling the staff how much he missed all his members.

But the “relationship” hinted at in the title of episode 3 wasn’t one endorsed by either side of #ReceiptNation but seemed more like a continuation of the theme from episode 2. What is the relationship between the members of BTS and their careers? Between BTS and their audience?

And this is the meat of the episode. We see what was happening as Bangtan left Los Angeles for Texas and then on to Canada (with the Canadian jaunt filmed for RUN ep 69-71 merely hinted at).

(Words of wisdom from Namjoon. This fame may be a blip but the after effects--the garbage--will linger.)

Episode 3 brings up a disconnect between Bangtan and their audience so big that my heart ached hearing them speak to it. Here’s the thing: the audience for BTS concerts in America (and for Kpop concerts more generally) doesn’t know or care about performance. There’s a reason Kpop groups generally half-ass their choreography and setlists here and it’s because we’re easily impressed by anything. I don’t know if I’ve linked this recently but I will never forget reading the reviews of Big Bang’s 2015 concerts here and wondering if we’d seen the same shows. If you’ll allow me to quote myself:

The review at Jezebel really hammered home how differently people can view the same show. Where the Jezebel review saw an extravaganza of confetti and background dancers, I saw a subdued stage with only a handful of confetti cannon blasts and a minimum of required background dancers. It all depends on where you're coming from. When your baseline for pop act are the slackers of One Direction--who don't even dance--then twelve dancers seems like a lot. When your baseline is a Johnny's & Associates concert featuring sixty-plus backing dancers, many of whom have fans of their own, then twelve feels like the absolute minimum for a decent concert. When you've seen concerts that feature hundreds of multicolored balloons released into the air, water features, harness work, multiple moving stages, random sword fighting, skits involving cross-dressing and robots, and a record-breaking number of backflips in a row, then a couple of confetti cannons and some pyrotechnics feel subdued, rather than cra-zy pop stuff.

And if Bangtan had a competent management team and guidance from people experienced in this market they wouldn’t be grinding their bones into dust sharpening choreography and performance for a western audience whose baseline for appreciation is ONE DIRECTION (who doesn’t even dance).

But Bangtan does not have that. They have a management team who “suggests” sharpening moves after a show that had left the group in a pretty good mood judging by their happy faces and comments.

Does it matter if they perform sloppily if both crowd and group go home happy?

Maybe. Maybe not.

If it motivates them to be in the zone on stage instead of feeling like they were “punching through water” as Yoongi put it, then yes. If it induces anxiety over failure, then no.

Because the American crowds will scream either way. And we see the camera linger on the crowd, hidden behind phones, caught mid-shriek, may as well have been ripped directly from This Is Us.

(An English-speaking fan saying how glad she is that Bangtan is always there FOR HER put over footage of the group doing their newly sharpened moves to "DNA". The performance goes unmentioned.)

You see it’s not about Bangtan. That’s the ending message of this episode: it doesn’t matter what they do on stage because the fans will see what they want to and what they want to see, according to the two English-speaking fans interviewed for the episode, is seven woke oppas who are here for us to sheppard us through dark times, agree with all of our opinions (represented by a “...” we can fill in the blanks), and validate our every feeling of micro-injustice served up by a society who doesn’t understand that I’M SPECIAL.

Towards the end of the episode Jin says, “The idea that fans who only see us once a year won’t see us at 100% felt like getting slapped.” The meaning the episode wants us to take from that, I think, is that he’d gotten complacent about performing and the scolding from the staff member was a wake up call. But coming next to the narcissistic statements from the fans it just felt sad. They were up there on stage giving their all to their art and all that Army wants from them is to hold up a mirror back at us in the crowd.

I was at those shows in Hamilton, Ontario (read about it here!) and they were incredible. The atmosphere was warm and I’ve seen enough idol concerts to tell that the members were having a genuinely good time on stage. We even literally hear Jungkook say that these shows in Texas and Canada were great, he’d had a lot of fun, and the audience knew how to have a good time. And yet the mood of the episode was all gloomy music and tragic undertones. Why?

It’s something I feel like it’s worth hammering at again and again because the message never seems to come across to certain parts of fandom but reality shows and documentaries are scripted and edited to tell a story. Jungkook’s GCF in Newark gives his side of the story. What we are watching in this documentary is not objective truth, it is a subjective narrative pieced together from some real events, yes, but editing matters. Music choice matters. The inclusion of certain interview snippets matter. The decision to mix and match interviews from random days and times with no context for the questions was a decision made. The decision to score these happy concerts with wistful or sad songs was a decision made. What we need to ask ourselves is why.

(Jimin eyeing the camera before they begin their dinner.)

Why did they title this episode “relationship” and tease the Jungkook-Jimin dinner? Is it because they know their audience is filled with former Larrys who have moved on to Jikook? And, knowing that, deliberately encouraged Jimin and Jungkook to film a dinner together in order to deliberately include it in the documentary as Jikook bait?

(A cheerful Jungkook post-concert.)

Why was this episode of happy concerts edited together to be so depressing, especially when we know the awful stuff that happens as they death march this tour into Europe? We won’t know the full narrative arc until the end but either they are going to try and whitewash the parade of injury and illness that was Europe 2018 by making this early part of the tour seem far, far worse than it was or it’s just going to get worse from here as we fall down an emotional porn rabbit hole with nothing to grab onto.

Either way, the episode left me feeling sad. And wishing Bangtan had more support--the idea that Park Jimin cannot have his preferred in-ear monitor is just astounding--and better guidance in their journey.

(Edited to remove the mention of Taekook with #ReceiptNation. It was pointed out (kindly) that the hashtag was for JiKookers to post their "receipts" of their relationship after some gossip about Taehyung and Jungkook going to the movies had come out.)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Daddy Bang talks to Variety Magazine and gets asked zero follow up questions

I’ve seen bits from that interview with “Big Hit Chief CEO” Bang from Variety magazine going around and thought it was worth weighing in with my own opinions.

This will be very much in the spirit of my posts on that Atlantic artlice written by the women who has been a fan for four months and now TOTALLY speaks fluent Korean, that ridiculous and omg like so totally random Cosmo piece, that one post from the Conversation where The Birth of Korean Cool was considered a real source (lol), the Cloud Atlas guy’s dumb review of Speak Yourself, and, last but not least, my post on the BBC’s garbage documentary on Kpop because, gentle readers, I am very tired of media coverage of BTS (and Kpop more generally) that just gullibly takes the press releases at their exact literal word. Whether out of intellectual laziness, covert racism, or because they don’t consider the subject a serious one.

Anyways, let’s start at the beginning. “Big Hit Chief CEO Bang Si-Hyuk” or as I like to call him, Daddy Bang, got his start in the business working with JYP--one of the “Big 3” talent agencies in South Korea. So, at some point in the late 2000s, Daddy Bang sort of starts this talent-agency-on-paper that has not much of anything going on until JYP--themselves struggling for cash after a failed American venture--foists the talented but dead-in-the-water boy group 2AM off onto him. He gets them some mild ballady hits and picks up a few key players like the G-Funk obsessed “P-Dogg” (yes, I know, it’s adorable), assembled the mixed-sex group 8eight, and started collecting his own trainees, including a bright young rapper named Kim Namjoon.

Big Hit was built more on the YG model than the other two companies and much like YG quickly discovered that there’s no money in “real music” and you had better get yourself an idol group or perish, Bang threw some of his trainees together to form… yes, just like YG because this was 2012-2013 and Big Bang were IT, a “hip-hop” idol group Bangtan Sonyondan. After a tough period of loss upon loss upon loss, with Big Hit swirling the drain, they relaunched the group with the low budget “I Need U” that introduced what has become known as the “HYYH” storyline (including heavy elements of boys love) as kind of hail mary pass and… it worked. The group started gaining ground and a barn burning K-Con tour in 2016 snowballed into a Billboard Music Awards win for “Top Social Artist” in spring of 2017. A combination of Bangtan’s talent and personality, as well as heavy doses of luck and timing did the rest. The hole in the market for a “boy band” was the saving grace for Daddy Bang’s Big Hit and he marched this group of young men right through it and then kept them on that forced march even after chronic injuries began to wear down their bodies and the pressure of supporting not just the company but the entire nation’s economy wore down their souls.

So, here we are in 2019 with the eldest members of Bangtan on the verse of enlistment and with nothing to replace them as money earners for the company. Because unlike YG, SM, JYP, etc. starting in 2017 with that first American push, Daddy Bang had gone all in on BTS as a group and stopped the members doing any sort of solo work to establish their own names as actors or talents or solo artists so that when the group eventually went on hiatus--as all male idol groups in Korea must--then you could have Park Jimin doing arena tours in Japan just like Lee Taemin is doing right now while SHINee’s elder members are in the military. But Daddy Bang didn’t do that. Daddy Bang, instead, launched another group, TXT, five cute as button kids who were not ready for prime time and have not been seen for what feels like months and have pushed back their second single because of what appears to be the world’s worst case of pink eye.

And, now, we get to hear from the man himself how he did it.

But here’s a tip from me when looking at interviews and articles in the English-language media: check their sources and check to see if they mention translation. In this case we get a footnote that tells us the interview was translated from Korean and edited. Note the passive tense. Does the interviewer speak Korean or were the questions asked through a translator, the translator translated into Korean, and then translated the answers back from Korean into English? Because those are two very different dynamics and the second will limit the interviewers ability to ask any kind of follow-up question or prod for real answers.

Guess which one I think this interview was?

Daddy Bang gets lobbed a bunch of softball questions that boil down to, “People are saying you’re really great, can you tell us about that?”

Here are some telling statements:

When asked about why they had that briefing (available with English subtitles!): People were speculating about our involvement with gaming. We saw misconceptions about how we were expanding “uncontrollably,” so we wanted to explain and alleviate these concerns. We also want to show what we are doing and what we have done every six months to build credibility in the market for Big Hit as a company.

Were those the concerns about how your cousin’s company NetMarble actually LOST money on the BTS World game? And it’s looking more and more like there’s nothing to replace Bangtan when the members begin cycling out for enlistment?

With the remarkable success of BTS, we’ve built up knowledge and fine-tuned processes that are used to become experts in this realm.

This is that same old bullshit about how he thinks he cracked the code for export Kpop success with BTS and yet… if that is true why have TXT been sequestered with pink eye while X1 is tearing up the charts? The truth is that Bangtan had a huge hand in their own success between self-selecting themselves for their group--members leaving and deciding on their own to return--and just their own unique combination of skill sets, like Kim Namjoon’s ability to speak colloquial American English. You can’t “engineer” a person like Kim Namjoon into being. Lee Soo Man, on the other hand, does have that Johnny Kitagawa style of being able to pick trainees that fit together but I haven’t seen anything from Daddy Bang that proves he has it too.

I can say with confidence that we have some of the biggest stars in the Korean IT industry. For big games, of course it’s necessary to work with large developers like NetMarble, but for games of a smaller scale, we want to be the creators so we can build them into our ecosystem.

Again, NetMarble lost money on BTS World so… it would have been nice to get a follow up question about that.

Storytelling is a bit complex in K-pop — or perhaps I should say with BTS in particular. We didn’t necessarily start with a grand plan, but we wanted to convey a message to the audience through BTS, and this was the best way to do so. We also received a more passionate response than we had anticipated. There are some people within the BTS fandom who dislike the storytelling and expansion of our universe. However, many people also enjoy the narrative and we can’t let go of this opportunity to expand the business.

What was that message though? yOoNkOoK 4Evaaaaaaaa? The truth is after the hard image failed to connect, he threw them into an angsty boys love world that managed to strike a nerve. It was... is an “official” slash fic, another avenue for the fans to enjoy BTS. But the hook was never the story, the hook is BTS. That is who we like and that is who we connected with. To even hint that the appeal of the HYYH universe is the story and not the members is just top tier gaslighting.

We see the overall potential as a business in storytelling, so it is not just my hobby.

Have you ever tried to read a fan fic that had the serial numbers filed off and was published as “real” fiction? Falls kind of flat without the characters we love, doesn’t it.

Weverse is a platform for direct communication. A lot of the pre-existing platforms are not IP holders and are mass-target systems onto which content is grafted. As IP holders, we’ve noticed that there are certain needs that aren’t fulfilled by these platforms. As far as functionality, Weverse is not too different from Twitter or V app, but it is not going to be what it is now years down the line.

Was that need a direct cash stream because Weverse is a god damn mess. There’s no moderation, all sorts of garbage gets through, Korean fans and international fans jealously mass report each other’s posts, the platform can’t handle when Jungkook comes on to accept birthday wishes, and it’s also gated. If you are looking to build an audience, why would you segregate yourself into a separate platform that nobody who is not a fan would use? And if you are creating something just for fans to interact with artists, why is there no moderation and gatekeeping to protect your artists from harassment? The whole thing is a mess. AND if it’s not too different from Twitter--except worse--literally what is the point except to line your own pockets? “Music for healing”, ammirite?

BTS is one of the first K-pop groups to have a large following overseas, and these consumers were not able to use our existing networks. For consumers outside of Korea, it is difficult to access our products. They are paying the same amount of money and should receive the same level of service.

Okay, no. HOW DO YOU NOT FOLLOW UP ON THIS GARBAGE? Literally WHAT?!!!!!!!!

Number 1, no BTS is not one of the first K-pop groups (suck it, “bTs ArEnT kPoP” culties) to have a large overseas following. They’re called TVXQ and we respect that name in this house. Secondly, how do you say that you want foreign fans to “receive the same level of service” and still refuse to put English subtitles on YouTube content or provide official translations for the members letters to fans.

TXT started on a higher level so it’s harder to showcase growth.

It’s also hard to showcase growth when apparently the building has been quarantined for a call in the Red Cross relief fund level of Pink Eye.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

[Review] Bring the Soul: Episode 2 "Passion"

Bring the Soul episode 2, “Passion,” picks up with the Love Yourself tour in Los Angeles, September 2018. Episode 1 was a jumble of scrapheap montage footage left over from the Love Yourself: Seoul DVD combined with decontexualized talking head footage and some intrusive backstage scenes. Episode 2 also had some of the jumbled scrapheap footage and the decontexualized talking heads but rather than being pointlessly intrusive or voyeuristic, the backstage footage was… revealing.

Let me tell you a story. There was a big Hollywood director looking to make a film set in India. He wanted “authenticity” so he hired real slum children for his film and swooped them up into a shining world of celebrity and riches they couldn’t have dreamed of, even taking these kids to the Oscars. And then he moved on. The west--so charmed by their “authenticity”--moved on. But the kids? They couldn’t move on. Their lives had been irrevocably changed:

“The film stole my childhood. My mother and father didn’t know much, they’re not educated so they had no idea how to handle the fame and attention. It was too much for them.” She says the film also brought her “fake friends” as she found herself a target for opportunists who tried to take advantage of her success.

What happened to Rubina Ali is obviously an extreme story of what can happen when well meaning westerners swoop in to play star maker but I couldn’t help thinking of the young woman as I watched episode 2 of Bring the Soul and saw the members of Bangtan Sonyeondan grapple with what their American success has brought them.

When Danny Boyle plucked little Rubina out of the slums to become young Latika, she lost her childhood, her home, and her community but she did get a trip to Los Angeles, valuable life lessons about dealing with grifters, and a flat from Uncle Danny. When well meaning ARMY decided to push Bangtan Sonyeondan in the West for that first Billboard Award, they started a chain reaction with unforeseen consequences. As that first award snowballed into BTS receiving American media attention, more fans, more articles about obsessive fans, more media attention, more awards, more pressures, even more fans, even more articles about obsessive fans, more American television appearances, even more pressure, gifts from President Moon, the biggest concert venues, the weight of the Korean economy resting on their shoulders... but the price for this global recognition was steep. Episode 2 gives a small glimpse into what exactly that price was.

There was enough going on in episode 2 that I feel like I could dedicate an entire commentary track to it but because this is a blog post I’ll try to keep it short.

The biggest and most telling reveal for me was seeing Bangtan discuss how to get the Los Angeles audience engaged. They had loaded up the set list with some songs that hit emotional points with long time fans: “I Need U,” their first real hit; “Run,” part of the beloved HYYH universe; old fan favorites “Attack on Bangtan” and “Boyz With Fun.” But the Americans, in 2018, weren’t connecting.

“‘I Need U’ and ‘Run’ are the biggest problems,” says Seokjin as the members walk off stage.

“It feels like we have to be dancing to get their energy up,” says Namjoon as he hustles into his “Fake Love” costume.

The fans at the barricade, the only fans Bangtan can really see under the bright stage lights, weren’t engaging with the music. Why?

Well, for one thing, they probably didn’t know those songs. Hearing Namjoon discuss “I Need U” (released April 2015) as the group’s first hit song really hits right at the heart of the disconnect of the Love Yourself era because in 2018, Bangtan was entering stadiums filled with American fans for whom “Mic Drop” (released September 2017) was the group’s first hit song.

Should these new fans have known “I Need U” and “Run”?

Well, that depends on who you think BTS is.

If you see BTS as a Korean idol group, then yes. It is your duty as a fan--and especially as a concert attendee--to learn the songs, learn the fan chants, learn the group, and learn the fandom rules and traditions.

If you see BTS as a pop act in the way One Direction or Ariana Grande are pop acts, then no. It’s enough to just show up and wait to be entertained.

Bangtan put together a set list meant to please idol fans--the fans who know the deep cuts and who understand the way idol concerts only really work with audience participation--and instead they found themselves on a world tour performing for pop music fans who knew none of those things.

The members struggle with this disconnect. Both Namjoon and Jimin say feel the mood flag without choreography--the times when usually in an idol show the members would walk around and interact with the crowd. And it’s not surprising they’d feel awkward when you look at fancams from those Los Angeles shows and see nothing but a sea of cell phones held up filming them (“We’re really exposed,” says Namjoon) and hear nothing but a wall of screams.

What exactly is it that fans are connecting with?

“Energy,” says Namjoon, when asked what makes a BTS performance.

“Sincerity,” says Hoseok later on in the episode.

“Don’t say that we want to go back to Korea,” says Namjoon, joking around before an interview. Because here’s the other big takeaway from this episode: touring is lonely and life on tour is monotonous and dull, broken only by the endorphin high of getting on stage.

There’s a fantastic sequence of Yoongi sitting at a desk in his hotel room in front of his laptop just futzing around with some audio. I went out and ate and came back, he says. There’s nothing he wants to do here. And what can he do? Partying? No, he has to watch his condition for the concerts. Shopping? No, he doesn’t shop. Write lyrics in his hotel room? And what is he supposed to be writing lyrics about? The ennui of life on tour? The loneliness of a middle distance runner? His thoughts on Army? On being away from the familiar foods and sounds of Korea? The grind of performing the same songs day in and day out for months without a break? The broken bodies and souls they’re dealing with? Jimin facing a lifetime of chronic pain due to overwork injuries before he’s even hit 25?

The small freedoms they’re allowed seem to come only through the open window of their vans.

Speak yourself, said Namjoon, but what is it they’re supposed to be speaking to us. If BTS is nothing more than a boy band, a bunch of pretty men trotted around to the approving screams of teen girls and their horny moms, then that's one thing. But I don't think that is how BTS saw themselves on that 2018 tour... at least not at first.

When Army dragged Bangtan Sonyeondan out of Asian idol subculture spaces and into the mainstream west’s attention, along with handing them awards they were also handing the members of Bangtan a brand new set of expectations and pressures--expectations that the members would be forced to figure out on the fly, jet lagged, in a foreign language, and with the weight of the Korean economy and the nation’s pride resting on their back… waiting for them to make a mistake.

Fear of falling permeated episode 1 and the stench lingers all through episode 2, as well. As Jungkook quite literally spells it out for us, the pressure of not living up to everybody’s expectations is frightening. When Yoongi revealed last summer that he cried alone in the shower after the American Music Awards it should have been a wake up call for the fandom.

When Seokjin revealed they’d almost broken up it should have been a wake up call for fandom.

When Jungkook released a song with lyrics about wanting to be the person he sees on the video screens, it should have been a wake up call for fandom.

And yet here we are, speculating about Grammys, bickering over whether SuperM is “cheating” (because only one Korean group can “win”? Win what?), and asking for an October 4th comeback and more tour dates.

There’s another band I’m quite fond of that had to deal with a massive and sudden boost in popularity and expectation. My fellow olds may remember a band called Pulp who hit it big, quite unexpectedly, in the middle of the Britpop boom, after years of struggling. The lead singer and lyricist, Jarvis Cocker, is the one who infamously stage crashed Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards in 1996.

Well, Pulp’s first album after their massive, massive, MASSIVE hit was called, This is Hardcore and it opened with a song titled simply: “The Fear.”

The lyrics go like this:

This is our "Music from A Bachelor's Den"

The sound of loneliness turned up to ten

A horror soundtrack from a stagnant waterbed

And it sounds just like this.

This is the sound of someone losing the plot

Making out that they're okay when they're not

You're gonna like it

But not a lot

And the chorus goes like this

Oh, baby

Here comes the fear again, oh-oh

The end is near again, oh-oh

A monkey's built a house on your back

You can't get anyone to come in the sack

And here comes another panic attack, oh

Here we go again

 
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