Sunday, December 8, 2019

Kpop Kayfabe... (why it's worth knowing something about professional wrestling)

There’s a term in professional wrestling used to refer to the “fake” reality that exists within the ring: kayfabe. Audiences know (well, audiences over 10 years old know) that the outcomes of matches are decided in advance, that heels aren’t necessarily nasty guys and faces good ones, but kayfabe says that we all play along and cheer for the face to win a match as if the outcome was not predetermined.

Ew, why do you like a fake sport? But that’s just it. Professional wrestling isn’t fake; it’s just not a “sport”-- it’s entertainment.

The wrestlers go into those rings and perform dangerous and very physically demanding choreography. Those moves aren’t “fake”; they take an incredible amount of skill to perform safely.

Wrestlers also play out storylines that can be months long, slowly building a feud or rivalry as fans follow along match by match. Or they can make sudden heel turns, sending crowds into a frenzy of boos and shocked outrage as the man they thought was a Good Guy turns out to be a jerk. I’ve been in wrestling audiences on many occasions, both professional and amateur, and there’s nothing fake about the way a good team can craft a drama in the ring, leading the crowd along in a cathartic release of emotion. We aren’t all pretending to boo… we’re booing.

Of course back in the old days, before social media, kayfabe was less of an open secret and there were fans would get furious if you even hinted that professional wrestling wasn’t a “real” sport. As a child I had a treasured T-shirt with the slogan “Who says professional wrestling is fake” over top of an angry wrestler’s face. But audiences became more sophisticated and wrestling has absolutely boomed in this new era.

Why am I bringing this up? Because Kpop has its own kind of kayfabe and I’ve seen a lot of evidence over the past couple of weeks that there are fans acting like the infamous old lady who is so mad at “Hollywood” Hogan’s heel turn that she tries to beat him up.

Hilarious, right? She got carried away with the kayfabe.

Well, so are the people insisting that Kpop awards are 100% absolutely awarded on pure merit when their fave wins one and absolutely 100% fake news attendance awards when they don’t.

I said this on twitter but these awards shows are as “real” as professional wrestling… maybe even less so. There are narratives dictated by behind-the-scenes politics and personalities. Export Kpop is a huge business for Korea and the men with the power and money are the ones drawing up the business plans. Where did the manipulated votes come from in 2017 MAMA? How did a certain group that didn’t make a particular impact on anybody win Best Debut Act over others who very much did? Is it a coincidence that groups who don’t attend happen to not win any awards even if their songs were extremely popular over the year?

There are two explanations: 1) awards are decided according to behind-the-scenes politics and aren’t necessarily a reflection of merit or 2) TXT is more talented, objectively a better group, and more popular than ATEEZ, ONEUS, or WAYV.

But I’ll say it again… just like wrestlers are extremely skilled in what they do, so are all of these idols who get up on stage and perform for us. Does the fact that awards shows follow a script mean that it’s not a lot of fun to see underdogs rewarded or see your favorite group make a victory lap? No, it doesn’t. If we didn’t have awards we would not have seen Jackson’s hilarious reaction at JYP’s plastic pants.

The drag is when the fans don’t understand that it’s all a show and try to, as above, flail around trying to prove, objectively, what cannot be proven and getting angry when reality outside the Kpop kayfabe is brought up.

It’s not like the artists themselves don’t know the reality…. G-Dragon spells it out quite clearly in his kayfabe-breaking rap from 2014.

We can either accept awards for the pomp and nonsense they are or become like the old lady getting carried away trying to beat up Hollywood Hogan. It's fun to boo and cheer but when you let it get too real, let that anger or gloating get too real, that's where the problems come in.

There’s a reason that Johnny’s & Associates never participated in awards shows in Japan for years and years…. the gated Johnny’s world had no place in the broader entertainment business. How can Hey!Say!JUMP compete against a “normal” band like One OK Rock when they are creating two completely different types of art? One is an idol group who makes music, yes, but also personalities and ships, who have fans invested in the idols' career narratives, cheering on drama and stage appearances, and so on. The other is a rock group making music. Is there some overlap? Of course. Arashi has songs that almost any Japanese person could sing for you from start to finish (“百年先も、愛を誓うよー”) but the appeal of these songs exists in the heart and it seems almost profane to evaluate them on the same criteria as you would an artist like Shiina Ringo.

Export Kpop is also a walled entertainment sphere. Things like voting for music shows, streaming, watching the sales charts… this is part of the kayfabe. It’s real but also not real. Nobody outside the export Kpop subculture cares which group won the award on Music Bank this week because the awards don’t mean anything. Or, rather, what they mean is not something that can be measured in an objective way. Sometimes it means the acknowledgement of years of hard work from the group and of love from the fans--Nu’est and Astro both getting their first wins this year fall into that category--sometimes it’s flexing from a fanbase to sweep every single award. But the award itself is just plastic.

Much like winning the WWE championship doesn’t objectively prove anything except favored status, neither do Kpop awards. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to watch and discuss and cheer and boo… just remember what it is that you’re cheering and booing. And that claiming a group or artist is better or worse for winning or lack thereof makes you look as silly as child me in my wrestling T-shirt. Let's just have fun instead...

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Melon Music Awards 2019, what does it all mean?

Two days ago I had a very strained exchange via Twitter DM with an Army who was convinced that BTS’s streaming numbers and sales for Map of the Soul: Persona meant that 1) Persona was a high quality album and 2) proved that the group was hugely popular in South Korea and this Army was offended that I would dare imply otherwise.

Yesterday the Melon Music Awards were held and BTS swept all the major categories. Doesn’t that prove this Army’s case?

Here is what I want to say, as a long time fan:

Awards, streaming numbers, sales numbers… these things don’t matter in the long run. Hell, they don’t even matter in the short run.

The only time that knowing who won which award in what year matters is if some sadist decides “Kpop Awards Winners” is the theme of your bar trivia night.

Sales and streaming numbers only matter as far as they can push your favorite group or artist onto the radar of the types of people who book drama OSTs and variety show appearances… as well as hooking a few new listeners.

Awards, sales, and streaming numbers are not objective measures of how liked a group or artist is, the quality of that group or artist’s music, the moral character of fans, or, indeed, of anything else. They are a transitory measurement of popularity filtered through whatever industry politics are happening that day.

Let’s take the Melon Music Awards as an example. Let me give you a more rounded picture of what was happening on the Melon Charts during the past year. I trawled the Melon charts that mapped the top 100 songs on Melon by month and tracked the top 20 songs from November 2018 to October 2019.

There were 106 individual songs in the Top 20 in those months from 69 individual artists/groups (excluding 4 foreigners and combining the Show Me the Money rappers and producers who were mostly a jumble of credits I didn’t bother untangling).

Here are the artists with at least 3 tracks in the Top 20 Melon monthly charts over that time period:

1. Paul Kim, 5 songs

2. Heize, 4 songs

3. Ben, 4 songs

4. Beom June Jang, 3 songs

5. BOL4, 3 songs

6. Kassy, 3 songs

7. Twice, 3 songs

8. Punch, 3 songs

Here are the songs that spent 5 or more months in the Top 20:

1. “2002” by Anne Marie, 6 months

2. “Your Regards” by Song Ha Yea, 5 months

3. “If There Was Practice in Love” by Lim Jae Hyun, 5 months

4. “Every Day, Every Moment” by Paul Kim, 5 months

5. “Me After You” by Paul Kim, 5 months

6. “The Day Was Beautiful” by Kassy, 5 months

The highest ranking idol groups (and idol soloists) are all below these ballad singers: ITZY, WINNER, EXO, Sunmi, Taeyeon, and, yes, BTS all had 2 songs in the Top 20. (Although if you include D.O. and Chen's solo songs then that's 4 for EXO... and with Mino's solo that makes 3 for WINNER.)

ITZY, Twice, Jennie, and BTS all had a song that spent 4 months in the Top 20.

(And Jennie’s “SOLO” spent 3 of those 4 months in the top 5!)

Winner’s Mino, Mamamoo’s Hwasa, Taeyeon, and N.Flying all had songs that spent 3 months in the Top 20.

So, where was Paul Kim when the performances were announced? Where were the ballad artists?

Well, maybe they don’t command the type of media coverage and ratings the idol acts do. Fair enough, but then where was Twice? Winner’s Mino? EXO? Blackpink's Jennie to sing what was one of the most popular songs of the year by any measure?

To dig into this (and to understand why BTS essentially had the BTS Awards yesterday) you have to wade into the muck of Korean music industry politics and be prepared to color in shades of gray.

Melon remains the most popular streaming service but there are competitors but there’s also services like Genie etc..

The Big 3 export Kpop companies--SM Entertainment (EXO), YG Entertainment (Winner’s Mino), and JYP Entertainment (Twice)--don’t like Melon as a company very much. In fact, they went as far as to launch their own rival streaming service called FLO… so why would they lend their talent to promote a rival?

The answer is: they didn’t.

And is Melon going to assign awards based on strict objective criteria, deliberately not looking to see who is going to be in attendance and who has a large fanbase that will generate streams and media coverage?

If you truly believe that, well, I just may be in possession of a bridge crossing the Han River that you might be interested in purchasing but the reality is... no. They gave awards to the artists who were going to attend.

Does that mean the acts who attended and won awards at the Melon Music Awards were bad? No, of course not. But attendance and awards don’t represent an objective measure of quality nor of popularity among the Korean general listening public either.

Because let’s really get into it: Export Kpop is not a perfect Venn Diagram circle with the music Koreans listen to in Korea.

Is there some overlap, of course. But your average Korean music consumer is not leaving their computer on all night to stream with the sound off to help their favorites in the chart rankings nor are they voting for their favorite ballad singers to win the top prize at a music show. The idol export market is a different world than the one Ben, Paul Kim, Kassy, and artists like that operate in. Neither is better or worse or more or less authentic but if you really want to “prove” things using the Melon streaming charts or award wins, you have to understand what it is these things are measuring and the varied audiences they pull from.

It is fact that fans of export Kpop living abroad can and do stream competitively to get their favorite groups to rank into the Korean charts. I personally know people who have done this for groups like MonstaX and have seen the screenshots from the Baidu bar for BTS (with well over 100k members) giving explicit instructions on how to stream most effectively to get songs to chart.

Is this cheating? It depends on what you think the game is. Does 1 stream represent 1 person who listens to a song all the way through 1 time because of the objective “goodness” of the song? No, of course not. Charting is a game like anything else. Groups with large but niche audiences can get their favorites to chart alongside the mainstream Paul Kims and BOL4s and congratulate themselves on their flex of mass power. But does it mean anything more than that? No.

And how can I be so confident that BTS is in the former category and not the latter? Because I’ve seen the tweets, the screenshots, the discussions of fans who organize things like mass streaming and voting. That’s how. When you have a fandom as large as BTS’s Army--especially in China--then you will see the evidence reflected in the charts.

I got ratioed to hell when I said this on Twitter but you have to understand that in Korea, BTS are just one more idol group. Their birthday signs and advertisements blend into the many, many others that appear around Korea. Idols are like wallpaper to most of the population unless you are part of the idol subculture. That shouldn’t make your enjoyment of your favorites any less valid to you. I started listening to Winner because Mino’s song “Fiance” dominated the charts last winter. That is what the charts can do: help highlight things you might not have otherwise listened to and document what people were listening to in a moment in time.

When it comes to these types of awards, accept them for what they are--a sign of recognition from the industry and/or of hard work from the fanbase--and simply be happy as a fan when your favorites win one without needing to use it as a hammer against other artists and fandoms because there will come a year when your favorites do not win. Will you like them less then?

When GOT7 won their first Daesung at the Asia Artist Awards after years of ranking in behind bigger groups, it was extremely touching. That is what these award shows are good for. Appreciate the moment for what it is and then let it go.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

My time as a Belle & Sebastian Superfan or 1 Troubled Teenager

One reason I try to be very kind to fanatical fans who are teenage girls is because I was one myself. This isn’t a time of my life I’ve publicly written about much before perhaps now is the time.

This is all ancient history, of course, but back in the late 1990s I had a radio show at my campus radio station. That was where I first heard Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister CD. I fell in love immediately. Hard and fast. The melodies and arrangements hit right at the core of my strange 1960s-soaked musical taste and the lyrics seemed to speak directly to my confused, depressed, hormone-addled teen mind.

“Ooh! Get me away from here I'm dying

Play me a song to set me free

Nobody writes them like they used to

So it may as well be me

Here on my own now after hours

Here on my own now on a bus

Think of it this way

You could either be successful or be us”

“Get me away from here I’m dying” was the phrase cycling through my mind 24 hours a day back then and here was a band who didn’t just make great songs, they understood how awful it was to be trapped in my head.

This was back in the very early days of the Internet and although I didn’t have my own computer I could use the ones in my dorm’s computer lab. You couldn’t just check Wikipedia in those days and the band had (unintentionally) cultivated an air of mystery by refusing to speak to media or even to have proper press photos taken. Fans--true hardcore fans--may not have known what the members even looked like let alone their thoughts on the latest album, politics, or, well, anything that couldn’t be gleaned from pouring over their liner notes and lyrics.

Somehow or other I found my way to the fan-run Sinister mailing list and traded self-conscious banter as well as actual cassette tapes (live recordings, homemade mixes, the legendary Tigermilk...) with other Belle & Sebastian fans.

And the fandom grew and grew.

The media took notice, writing their own version of what was happening. The music was great, sure, but have you seen these fans?! They’re starting a movement! Organic growth! Authentic! Without selling out!

But as Paul Whitelaw put it in a footnote in his excellent 2005 biography, “A lot of the antipathy people feel towards B&S is undoubtedly aimed less at the group themselves and more at the self-regarding, smugly exclusive nature of much of their fanbase, many of whom will no doubt be reading this book. It’s all your fault, you dolts.”

Ouch.

But if the shoe fits…

Most of these articles trashing the band and their fans or hyping up the twee nonsense are lost in the ether--not published online and never uploaded outside of a curated collection on the Jeepster website--but I vividly remember the sense that something was happening and I wanted to be a part of it. Girls in hairslides and vintage dresses. Boys in fuzzy sweaters and scruffy haircuts. The stereotypes were as true as for the blue-haired, “streetwear” attired Kpop fan today and the desire to belong to something, to be around people who understood, was just as strong.

(For a taste of the band back then, here’s them performing the title song at the 1999 Bowlie Weekender. I was in the crowd that night.)

(A couple of pages from my scrapbook. We didn't have cellphones to take video in those days and you either remembered in your mind or brought your film camera to the venue and took shitty photos which you then developed, hoped for the best, and pasted into your scrapbook. Yes, that is a young me with Jarvis Cocker.)

It was about the music but it also wasn’t. Not that I would have understood that at the time.

I studied abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, home of Belle & Sebastian. One of many kids drawn to the scene there. To the band. The media used words like “pilgrimage” and they weren’t wrong. An almost religious fever had built up in a certain, very loud, very self-righteous section of the fandom.

When Belle & Sebastian were nominated for a fan-voted Brit Award, all of us early adopters to the Internet raced to vote. Early and Often.

According to the Whitelaw biography, they got lots of online votes, “[t]housnds of votes, in fact, many of which came from the same servers in Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities, which could either have been the result of one or two particular committed fans, or the endeavors of a whole sweeping canvas of Belle and Sebastian fans. It’s impossible to say.”

We dedicated fans won Belle & Sebastian that award in a stunning upset over super popular pop group Steps.

The win was so unexpected that only trumpet player Mick and drummer Richie had even bothered to travel down to London for the ceremony.

Belle & Sebastian were accused of rigging the vote but the truth was that fans had smelled out the weakness in the voting system and organized ourselves to the win the award for our faves… an award that came to be more of a millstone around their necks than anything else. Although we wouldn't really understand that until years later if some fans ever did.

Because here is what I really want to talk about:

Looking back as an adult, it’s clear the fey, soft exceptionalist “love yourself” image cultivated by the fandom was nothing but a fantasy we had projected on the band ourselves. The band was caught up in their own struggles and in no position to play mentor to 200 Troubled Teenagers let alone 2,000 or 200,000. Cellist Isobel Campbell has said she was so overcome with anxiety in those days she couldn’t even look at the faces in the crowd when they performed. I have a vivid memory of seeing Isobel at a dance party at a student union and trying to speak with her. She was polite but dismissive and at the time I remember being disappointed and hurt but now I’m just embarrassed. That an anxious young woman of 22 or 23 was in any position to take on my garbage-filled emotions and help me make sense of them… Really, I offer my sincere apologies to Isobel.

(That was me referenced in the underlined section. I never crossed the line to sasaeng-type behavior but if I'd had the same lack of judgement and lack of guidance combined with the tools available to fans today I cannot with certainty that I wouldn't have.)

And that disconnect, between the group and the fans they had collected, what we were each trying to do. Stuart Murdoch wanted to make good records. Stevie Jackson wanted a band. The superfans wanted a direction in life. And a hug.

Belle and Sebastian’s superfans ran away with the fandom. We internalized the outsider status of our heroes. We became the underdogs, fighting against evil corporate record companies. We wore the thrift store cardigans and hairslides as if they had transitive properties, imbuing us with the rebellious spirit of Stuart’s lyrics so that when others looked at us they didn’t see plain ordinary teens worried about a math test but the deep artistic souls we knew ourselves to be… even if we’d never written a single worthwhile line of verse ourselves. Anybody who criticized the group for their less than professional behavior was criticizing us and that could not stand. Belle and Sebastian fans were as loathed by music journalists as much as if not more than BTS are fans are today.

In the end, Belle and Sebastian sorted out their internal contradictions, shook off the twee rebel image, signed with a major label in the USA, and have had an extremely good career, continuing to make excellent music to this day. There are only a few bands that I genuinely look forward to seeing what their next single will be after 20+ years but Belle and Sebastian is one.

I think it’s worth sharing this story because I see so many parallels to the way the media has covered BTS over the last couple of years. The focus on the fans, hyping that sense of a building a movement rather than simply enjoying good music. The big difference is that Big Hit, BTS’s management company, has leaned into the coverage. Belle and Sebastian didn’t talk to the media or issue press releases in part because they were a DIY band who practiced in a church basement who didn’t see the point in talking to the press or trying to control the narrative. In the late 1990s, you could still get away with “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” I’m not sure why Big Hit has let the narrative be driven by articles like this one on fan translations and personal essays by women who have been fans for 4 months except that it feeds into the ARMY-first narrative that is, for now, a money generator. Plucking dollars from the wallets of impressionable fans who want to prove their favorites are the best, just like they themselves are for liking them.

Will BTS be able to shake off this mania like Belle and Sebastian were? Do they have the freedom to hiatus and come back with the best album of their career to date like Belle and Sebastian did? Will their teen fans be able to let go of their idealizations and enjoy the group for what they actually are and not the semi-religious experience that they’ve been hyped up to be?

Only time will tell.

But in sharing this story I hope to reach a few teen girls who may be struggling with their own fan experiences and offer a little empathy. You are not your favorite band. Their fights are not yours. You are your own person and special and important just the way you are. Listen to your auntie who has been there and has the battle wounds to prove it. Fandom is a incredible experience but it is no substitute for true community or personal growth. ♥

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...

 
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