Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A few random thoughts on BTS canceling the Akimoto "Bird" collaboration

It’s been a long while since I was involved in a fandom as large and active as BTS. I’d forgotten both the good--large amounts of content--and bad--large amounts of drama--involved. There is another layer of difficulty in dealing with the BTS fandom in that with BTS’s sudden growth in popularity in the English-speaking world there are suddenly large numbers of fangirls falling for BTS who have absolutely no understanding or knowledge of the cultural context in which BTS exists.

What I mean is this: there are suddenly a lot of well meaning English-speaking fangirls coming from fandoms like One Direction who simply do not understand anything about Korean history or culture let alone the complicated web of relationships that exists between the entertainment industry, politics, and the fans. And worse, they don’t even know that there are things they don’t know.

On the one hand, no, you really don’t need to know anything about Korea to appreciate a fun dance performance and a bunch of cute guys being charming.

On the other hand, when a huge controversy erupts in the Korean fandom about lyrics to a new Japanese single written by Akimoto Yasushi, you really do need to understand what’s happening or it gets spread to the English language press in the most vapid of terms: i.e. “concerns about past misogyny”.

My immediate reaction seeing that is, you’ve got to be kidding me. The idea that BTS’s management in Japan wouldn’t know that Akimoto--one of the most famous men in Japanese show business and the guy behind such classic girl group songs as the lingerie slumber party themed “Heavy Rotation”--may have some issues with “misogyny” is ridiculous. Of course he has issues with misogyny. SHOW BUSINESS HAS ISSUES WITH MISOGYNY!

I’m not excusing Akimoto’s lingerie parties but I also don’t think it’s helpful to women's causes to use misogyny so casually as an excuse for a business decision in this way. Why pick on Akimoto specifically and not, for example, the rampant misogyny in the Korean music business or, for that matter, the American music business? I mean BTS just did a collaboration with Nicki Minaj and for my money by using her sexuality as a promotional tool she encourages just as many negative stereotypes about women as AKB48 does.

Misogyny is serious and it's endemic in show business (as well as everywhere else in modern life).

So, here’s what American fans need to understand: it’s not about us and it's not about our ideas of "social justice".

Akimoto is a hugely powerful figure in Japanese show business and this deal falling through will probably have some negative consequences in the Japanese market. (How big, I don’t know but I would guess they’re going to get frozen out of some television promotions and possibly the end of the year music shows.)

BTS didn’t tank a new single with lyrics written by a hugely influential and legendary songwriter because somebody showed them “Heavy Rotation” and they thought it was sexist. This was a calculated decision stemming from the negative reaction from the Korean fanbase that is rooted in Akimoto’s nationalist political leanings.

Folks, Korea has a long and difficult relationship with Japan. Korea is still extremely bitter about the years of colonization, among other things. I mean, Japanese music was literally banned in Korea until fairly recently.

But K-Pop can’t ignore Japan, considering it makes up a considerable percentage of their export market for entertainment.

But Japan doesn’t need K-Pop like other markets need K-Pop, which is why Korean idol groups have to go out of their way to try and appeal to the market there, releasing not only Japanese language versions of their Korean songs but Japanese songs meant to appeal to mainstream Japanese pop tastes.

BTS are no different.

Or are they?

I still need to write up my concert experience in Seoul but one thing that really stood out to me was the large number of foreign fans in attendance. I’m not talking about Americans or Europeans but Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian fans. I’d guess that at least ⅓ of the fans in attendance were not from Korea, which explains why the stadium announcements were given in both Korean and Japanese.

My impression is that Japanese fans of K-Pop groups like BTS have negative feelings towards Japanese show business and the men with sleazy images like Akimoto (or Johnny Kitagawa) who run things behind-the-scenes. Is Korean show business different? I mean, not really, but I think it’s easier to pick and choose what you pay attention to when it’s all in a foreign language. American and European fans of East Asian entertainment act the same way.

BTS’s management miscalculated with the Akimoto collaboration. They were aiming for a link-up with the mainstream Japanese public but didn’t realize that a lot of their Japanese fans enjoy BTS because they’re not mainstream Japanese show business. Add to that the outrage from Korean fans over Akimoto’s nationalist reputation and it makes more sense to cancel the collaboration than risk further backlash.

I’ll be honest though: I am disappointed. I’m not a huge fan of AKB48 or of Akimoto himself but he is a great lyricist and one with ties stretching back to the glory days of Showa era J-Pop.

I understand and support the decision from BTS’s point of view but the Japanese single will now only feature remixes and Japanese versions of songs I’m not overly fond of. I’m canceling my preorder.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Response to Lim's piece in The Conversation on BTS

This post by Susanna Lim, a professor of Korean studies, in The Conversation was making the rounds on English language BTS twitter yesterday and I thought it was worth making a quick response post because I found it interesting. Lim invokes the book The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong as a touchstone for understanding the BTS phenomenon and about identifying with the author’s observation that being Korean didn’t used to be “cool.”

Lim’s conclusion in the post is that BTS has broken through in America because of social media and how they appear to be more authentic than other groups.

But unlike other K-pop groups, BTS have done more than perfect their choreography and looks. They also put their personalities on full display.

Via social media, they’ve been able to connect with and cultivate a community of utterly devoted fans. On Twitter – in English and in Korean – group members give fans a window into their lives, express themselves, and talk about issues important to teens, from mental health to body image.

What I find so interesting about this is that much like Euny Hong in The Birth of Korean Cool Lim has no idea what K-Pop is and how it works. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it very frustrating. Hong was on firm ground writing about her own past and the difficulties in navigating being Korean-American but she had absolutely no understanding of how K-Pop groups work and was unable to shake the extremely American view of “real” musicians being singer-songwriters who write personal lyrics about themselves.

Lim, in her post, says this:

K-pop is a particular style of South Korean popular music that’s distinguishable from other popular forms of Korean music, such as trot and sentimental ballads. Many trace its origins to the early 1990s, but the genre came into its own in the 2000s and 2010s, with acts such as BoA, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang and 2NE1 becoming hugely popular in Asia and beyond.

The “pop” part of K-pop seems easy enough; you’ll hear American pop musical influences – mostly dance pop, but also rap, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, techno and rock — in K-pop songs.

What strikes me here is the complete lack of mention of Japan. There is a huge feedback loop with K-Pop and Japanese musical tastes because Japan forms such a large part of their export market. BoA, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang--which Lim mentions--as well as SHINee, KARA, T-ARA, Twice, etc. were/are very popular in Japan and even spent time training there. Most of these groups have had hits that were hits first in Japan in Japanese before bringing them home to Korea.

I’m not discounting the American influence baked into those early 1990s R&B roots of the “K-Pop” genre but Lim here echoes what I’ve seen a lot in English language coverage of “K-Pop” in that the music is heard through a reductive and very American filter. I’ve written this before but a song like BTS’s shimmering pop love song “DNA” with its uneven tempo and perfect for karaoke melody is aimed at Japanese musical tastes and it’s no mistake that of the “DNA/Mic Drop” single, “DNA” was by far the more popular song in Japan while the more jock jams, rap-heavy “Mic Drop” was the song that Americans could make sense of.

But what about the “K”? This is where the unique Korean flair plays a role: infectious melodies sung mostly in Korean, a few English words strategically placed in the sing-along refrain, and single-sex groups made up of seven to 15 members.

Again, this just shows how little Lim actually knows about “K-Pop” because there is nothing unqiuely Korean about this format. Japan, China, Taiwan, and numerous Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam have identical idol group cultures where single-sex groups sing infectious songs mostly in their native language with English words scattered throughout.

I’m going to talk about this in one of my idol podcast series but you can trace a lot of contemporary idol culture in East Asia back to Japanese idol group SMAP (1988-2016), who were extremely influential in recognizing that the key to idol popularity and longevity comes through packaging personas and natural group interactions on television variety shows.

The group dynamic is huge part of the appeal for idol groups and fans love when the members write each other heartfelt letters or talk about their in-group friendships or film group bonding trips. The appeal of the group dynamic is also a big factor in prohibiting idols from publically dating. Fans need to feel that the group comes first and we don’t want a boyfriend or girlfriend to break up the camaraderie. This changes, obviously, as members age and longtime fans feel comfortable in the group bond. Longtime Japanese idol groups like Tokio and V6 have married members without dropping in popularity. And Big Bang’s Taeyang just got married with an overwhelmingly positive response from fans.

K-pop’s global ambition is another quality that distinguishes the genre from other Korean music. Exporting K-pop to the rest of the world is not only a goal of the Korean music industry, but also a government priority.

Ding ding ding!! This is what actually separates K-Pop from other East Asian musical cultures. Korea has a small population and the Napoleon complex that comes from being a proud culture with a history of getting colonized by it’s more powerful neighbors (and, also, America).

The American market offers not just the potential for large monetary gains but also external validation that Korea is now “cool” and have beaten the cocky American cultural hegemony at their own game. And Korea wants that validation more than anything. Other groups besides BTS have tried to crack the American market and with the exception of PSY’s novelty hit none have made more than a small impression. (i.e. check out American coverage in the mainstream entertainment press of Big Bang around when “Fantastic Baby” came out.) Why?

Lim points to social media and how BTS is seen as “real” by fans and not robotic like Americans typical stereotypical impressions of East Asians. The problem with this theory is that literally all idol groups put out cute images and selfies and behind the scenes videos and showcase their personalities on variety shows and so on. BTS aren’t unique in that. As a long time idol watcher I think there are two huge factors in BTS’s American success, such as it is:

1) RM speaks colloquial English and interviews well on American television. Americans are terrible at languages, cannot understand foreign accents, and are uncomfortable with foreigners in general. The fact that RM can speak American English makes him and the group immediately more understandable than a group like Big Bang, who were charting on Billboard back in 2012 but did not speak English.

2) The current teen pop vacuum for girls in America. There is nothing big popping for teen girls right now--no hot young thing like Justin Bieber, no group like One Direction, no franchise like High School Musical or Twilight or Harry Potter--so BTS essentially has an open playing field.

And this second reason is also why I think it’s way too early to take any lessons from BTS’s success in America as anything other than a novelty. Will BTS be able to hold on to the fans coming in who have no context for BTS outside of “they’re a cool boy band like One Direction”? I don’t know. Unlike idol groups “boy bands” are ephemeral and meant to be disposed of after a few years. And Americans have all sorts of expectations that they put on artists that they have no context for coming from the East Asian music world: “Speak fluent English,” “be able to navigate the complex web of American identity politics,” “validate my existence,” “don’t be too fake,” etc.

Not to mention that finding success as a “boy band” is still considered embarrassing and very gay in an American masculine context and certainly not dispelling American stereotypes of East Asian men as “effeminate.”

Maybe some new American fans hooked by BTS will find out about the joys of idol group fandom but I think most of them will move on as soon as the next teen girl craze comes out.

But until then let’s just enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

While I'm waiting for the English Language BTS media hype to end...

I’m in the middle of compiling information for my idol history podcast project--which is definitely happening--and unfortunately I keep coming across articles from English language media about BTS and their chart smashing success in the United States with their new album Love Yourself 轉 Tear that make me want to use the glossy photo cards that came with my (absolutely glorious) albums to poke my eyes out so I don’t have to read any more.

Let’s start with the basics: BTS moved 135,000 “album units” this week in the United States to grab number one on the Billboard album chart. To put that in perspective, this week last year saw Harry Styles top the album charts with with 230,000 “album units”. 135k is not exactly a record-breaking number so why is it getting so much attention? The only answer I can think of is that 1) BTS are Korean and sing in Korean which makes them a novelty and 2) because the English-language media has figured out that BTS is reliable clickbait.

What frustrates me about the majority of these pieces is what has always frustrated me about English-language coverage of Asian popular culture, the inability to understand any cultural perspective outside the American one we’re currently suffocating in. My favorite was this line from Amanda Petursich’s hastily google-researched New Yorker piece:

BTS differs from the boy bands of yesteryear in that its members’ presentation is fairly androgynous—they wear dangly earrings and visible makeup, and when they’re shot in closeup it’s to emphasize their soft, dewy skin.

BTS are not a “boy band” like N*Sync. They are a Korean idol group and that art form comes with a completely different set of artistic and cultural conventions to the “boy bands of yesteryear.” If you don’t understand that much, you have no business writing from a position of authority about the group.

Everything about male idol groups is tailored for women’s pleasure and the female gaze. The aesthetics of boy bands, as we think of them, are much more rooted in the gay male gaze. Luckily for horny teen girls and their horny moms, their tastes in cute boys and catchy pop overlapped just enough with Lou Pearlman’s to make the Backstreet Boys a hit group but that is all that boy bands have to offer women: cute boys and catchy pop. But even the smallest idol groups offer both of those things and a lot more.

(And saying this, please know that I don’t think there is anything wrong with boy bands. I also love boy bands a hell of a lot.)

When outsiders look at an idol group and see a boy band they are missing the full picture. An idol group isn’t just pretty faces on an album sleeve and a song on a radio. Fans develop relationships with the group by watching them interact naturally on television reality shows (sometimes acting silly, sometimes very sincere), by tracking their artistic progress and hard work through immeasurable behind-the-scenes footage from concert tours and music video shoots, by reading their social media posts and devouring interviews so that we know as much about what and how they're doing as we know about our irl friends.

Amanda Petursich expressed surprise at the androgynous look because she didn’t understand that many of us also enjoy taking our style cues from our favorite male idols. There’s a reason one of the most popular BTS fan twitter accounts is a fashion tracker and it’s not because we’re all rushing out to buy this stuff for the men in our lives. The horny teen girl element is only ever part of the idol group appeal, there are far more of us women who simply want to exist in their fantasy world of pretty men who are out there working hard to please us. Wearing a shirt that you thought looked cool when your favorite idol wore it is like being able to capture a piece of that beautiful fantasy for yourself in real life.

Allow me to quote myself from an older post about why I love idols that you should also read if you're interested in this stuff:

Idols exist for us to watch but they also exist for us to identify with and to fantasize about. And, very importantly, they enable fans to bond with each other. Japanese idol culture has a strong lateral component. The top down idol - fan relationship comes first but the fan - fan relationships are almost as strong. I’ve been to a handful of idol (and idol-type) concerts in Japan and at almost every one, people went out of their way to talk to me and help me out with things like… the intricate audience choreography during certain songs. Yes, we want to be waved to by the idol but the overpowering feeling that comes from joining thousands of other fans in a coordinated dance is just as strong.

While the Korean male idol aesthetic has its visual and musical roots with Teddy Riley and Max Martin, idol group culture borrows much, much more from Japanese idol group culture. There are the organized fan clubs that host special activities and help create a sense of a unified fan culture; fans learn special dances and songs to sing at concerts; fans are encouraged to write letters and talk about their lives with their idols. And because idol groups have a much longer life span than any boy band, these fan cultures take deep roots. Fans watch over their idols as they grow from young, inexperienced teens to confident, mature men. We become invested in their success and happiness. We form deep and lasting friendships with each other.

There is nothing equivalent to this in American culture and certainly nothing that exists so purely for women’s pleasure.

The post I read that best hit the nail on the head for BTS’s appeal in the West was from the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis. His review of the album is tepid--which is fine, not everybody likes this kind of pop--but what stood out to be was this:

The reasons traditionally given for BTS’s success back home – their lyrics are, by K-pop’s germ-free standards, pretty raffish and controversial – don’t hold here: you can’t imagine British teenagers are that desperate to hear youthful criticism of societal conventions in South Korea. So theories abound, ranging from the prosaic – they’re filling a vacuum in the market created by One Direction’s split – to the philosophical: if boyband fandom is all about projecting your fantasies on to the performers, then perhaps a group whose lyrics you don’t understand represent an appealingly blank screen.

BTS may not be a boy band but they are filling the boy band vacuum here. At least for the moment. The problem is that it’s a poor fit. In my short time in this fandom I’ve seen fans not familiar idols and Asian cultures project so much nonsense onto BTS. Assigning outsized value to things like BTS writing their own music--plenty of other idols also write music--and attempting to read faddish American/Western identity politics into everything. There was one interview from BTS’s recent appearance at the Billboard Awards where the interviewer asked RM about the meaning of Fake Love and he said something like, if you don’t love yourself then how can love between a person and a person last. English language fans immediately jumped to the conclusion that because he didn’t say “a man and a woman” that meant something huge re: representation or whatever. Nobody considered the fact that he was translating his thoughts from the Korean language where words don't necessarily carry the same meaning or that maybe the song wasn’t about a romantic love at all, that maybe it reads best as the group singing to their fans:

For you, I could pretend like I was happy when I was sad

For you, I could pretend like I was strong when I was hurt

But the funniest part of all the English-language fandom hype over BTS “making it” in America is how we still don’t understand that we’re not the target market for any of this. I watched part of the BTS’s comeback special that aired on V-Live and it really struck me how much they hyped up the fact that the world was watching. This was all meant for the Korean audience. A Korean group had the entire world watching and they, as Koreans, were proud of the fact that they were out representing their country and their culture around the world and the world liked it. The Billboard chart itself isn’t the prize, the American media attention repackaged for the audience back home is. Whether it will turn out to have been worth the effort is another question. Americans aren’t used to not being the center of attention and our demands on BTS (learn fluent English, be authentic the way we understand it, immediately absorb a set of foreign cultural norms you have no context for) may prove to be too much. Or it may not.

Either way, I'll be at the tour this fall. Just try to stop me.

In conclusion, I’ll just leave this here:

A-yo, when it's tough

Doong tah dak, lean on the rhythm, oh

With our song for you

Everyone a-yo, everyone a-yo

translation credit

Friday, May 25, 2018

[REVIEW] BTS: Burn the Stage, episodes 1-8

The eight episodes of BTS: Burn the Stage aired weekly on YouTube Red from March 28, 2018 to May 9, 2018. Although the series was produced in South Korea, the target audience was the United States (and the English-language international market more broadly) with the final episode airing just before BTS returned to Las Vegas for the Billboard Music Awards and the launch of their new album. Each episode of BTS: Burn the Stage mixes talking head “confessional” interviews with video taken from backstage, on stage, and at various hotels during their 2017 WINGS tour. The constant ticking of the tour clock is the main narrative push as the seven members lose passports, sit around hotel rooms, do a bit of sightseeing, and perform all over the world.

I watched the series twice all the way through--once as it was airing and then again before sitting down to write this--and I am here to report that I have very mixed feelings about it. (You can read my thoughts on the first two episodes over here. All of my initial concerns about the voyeuristic elements of the series remain.) But let me start with the good. There were two things I really liked about BTS: Burn the Stage:

(One of many enjoyable, casual dinner scenes.)

(RM attempting to set up his computer.)

1) All of the Terrace House-esque scenes that featured the BTS members having a glass a wine and a chat or just going about their daily routines. There was one incredibly funny sequence in the third episode where the seven members are unpacking their suitcases at the hotel. We see RM, J-Hope, Suga, V, and Jungkook setting up their computers but the director edits it so that footage of RM’s bumbling around and not being able to figure out which plug goes where is intercut with the others smoothly unboxing, hooking up microphones, and getting to work (or in Jungkook’s case: gaming.) It’s a gentle reminder that RM may be articulate and intelligent but he’s also just a normal, somewhat clumsy 20-something young man.

(Suga explaining how he wants to do a warts and all documentary.)
2) Suga’s importance to the group comes across very well in this series. One of the things I’m most frustrated by in BTS’s American and English language media coverage is that RM is the main focal point. This is understandable to an extent because RM speaks fairly good colloquial English and he knows American pop culture references. The American media is very bad at dealing with foreign artists who do not speak English and who do not know these American pop culture references so of course they’d focus on him but it doesn’t give a complete picture of BTS.

When he’s in a Korean language environment Suga (Min Yoongi) is thoughtful and very funny. He’s put a lot of thought into what it means to him to be an idol and into his relationship with the fans and the other members. (Suga fans know that despite his grumpy exterior he really does value us.) The younger members of the group obviously look up to him and for good reason. He may not be the group’s leader but he is a huge influence on the group musically and intellectually and Suga’s interviews in the series were always the most insightful on what it actually means to be an idol.

(A crabby Suga who would rather be home in his studio than on an LA beach.)

What Suga also brings to the group is a grounding in Korea and everyday normal Korean culture. There’s a great scene in episode 4 or 5 where the group is in Los Angeles and go out to the beach for some sightseeing and photos. Suga is dressed all in black and moping around while the others are in hawaiian shirts and splashing in the water. The guys tease him for dressing like he’s in Korea and Suga says something like that’s where his heart is. RM is the guy who taught himself English and has worldwide dreams and Suga is his counterweight, keeping the group grounded.

But I don’t think Suga’s importance comes across in the English language press. In English language interviews, even with an interpreter there, he tends to stay silent and he appears to have little patience for interviewers who clearly don’t know or care who BTS is outside of the “crazy” fan base they have. He also seemingly has little interest in American pop culture. In one of the interviews BTS did for the Billboard Music Awards this past week, the interviewer quizzes them on the music of recent (ish) pop artists and Suga--to my delight--didn’t know songs from any of them other than some classic Justin “Sexy Back” Timberlake. (Also the only one I could answer.)

Which leads me directly into what I really didn’t like about BTS: Burn the Stage. It feels completely untethered from any sort of cultural context outside of the American one. And I think it does a huge disservice to the group because they are not American, do not interact like Americans, and should not be understood as an American “boy band.”

(Jin discussing how moved he is that foreign fans take the trouble to learn the Korean lyrics by ear so they can sing along.)

It’s not just the way that certain interactions can really only be understood in the Korean cultural context--i.e. Jin’s, the oldest member, incredible generosity with the youngest members reads much clearer when you understand the strict hierarchy in relationships baked into the DNA of Korean culture--but also things like when Suga says at one point that he knows this period won’t last forever. In the American context this is read as an acknowledgement of the brief flickering of “boy band” fame [See also: One Direction, 2010-2015, etc.] but fans familiar with Korean culture would understand that he means a race against the military draft. Male K-pop idol groups have a limited number of years before members start cycling out to do their two years of mandatory military service. This may seem like a small thing to nitpick but I think it makes a huge difference whether we understand “not lasting forever” as a frivolous teen craze coming to the end as dictated by the whims of the market or as a discrete period of youth that necessarily comes to an end with mandatory military service.

Then there is the complete lack of any sort of Korean musical context. We see BTS go to the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards but no Korean awards shows or other Asian awards shows. You don’t get a complete picture of BTS’s popularity if you don’t understand that just as the WINGS tour was wrapping up with BTS’s very first dome show in Japan and the final encore performance at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, veteran Korean idol group BIGBANG were launching their massive 6 city-16 date Last Dance dome tour in Japan that would also end at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. Other groups have also performed to similar sized crowds in South America, North America, South East Asia, and China… yet the way the series is edited it feels like BTS simply popped into existence. That these fans cheering for them arrived out of nowhere. It’s surreal.

(RM confessing that he envies America's place in global pop culture.)

I didn’t expect a complete history of “K-Pop” in the series but the complete lack of any non-American context for BTS made the series feel whitewashed in a way I wasn’t expecting.

Adding to the dissociative feeling I got watching this was that as somebody who has enjoyed hours (and hours) of backstage and rehearsal footage from the various WINGS tour DVDs (as well as on special broadcasts like the Kyocera Dome Concert Documentary that aired on Japanese TV and the actual concerts themselves) the series really didn’t have much to offer in the way of backstage and rehearsal footage that added in any real way to my understanding of how the group puts together its concerts. We see a few different cuts of incidents and interviews but for the most part it felt like stuff rescued from the cutting room floor, used as visual filler for one of the many, many (so many) montages. There’s no sense of the artistic process or the hard work that goes into crafting massive stadium show.

And then on top of the dull, scrap pile feel to the concert footage, I found the hyping and drawing out of backstage conflict and injury really, really voyeuristic and uncomfortable to watch. I wrote about this in my review of episodes 1 and 2 but I found it disturbing the way Jungkook’s collapse from overexertion in Chile was hyped up and lingered over. Instead of protecting him, the director deliberately offered up his distress for consumption and hungry fans had no qualms with screenshotting and fetishizing his prone form. Later episodes show RM injuring his foot but soldiering on anyways; Jimin crying and upset over not being able to perform due to muscle pain; V and Jin getting into a heated argument right before a concert is to begin. Who benefits from this? What larger purpose is it serving?

(Jungkook's reaction to RM's foot.)

(BTS discussing the previous day's show on the Korean WINGS tour DVD documentary.)
I can’t help but feel that these moments were deliberately chosen to linger on because of the Americans only want to see “authenticity” and “authenticity” to us means confessing a personal struggle. But “authenticity” is a cultural construct just as much as anything else is and while lingering on Jungkook’s prone form may get some praise as “bravery” in “showing vulnerability” from American reviewers, what I see is the American market’s hunger for the commercialization of personal pain and distress. I much prefer the “authenticity” of the documentary for the Kyocera Dome concert that aired on Japanese television and featured an extended sequence where the group was going over choreography they hadn’t done in a while and laughing among themselves at how rusty they were as members ran into each other.

There is some value to the series, in the interviews and the causal dinner scenes, but the episodes are larded with too many montages and devoid of any outside context. It's certainly worth a watch for people who are already fans but I don't think it serves as a good introduction to the group for American fans new to Asian idol culture. Too many things are left unexplained and it's too easy for outsiders to draw the wrong conclusions.

Towards the end of the series, there is a bit where RM talks about how “unknowable” J-Hope is and the director chooses to use footage of J-Hope mentally preparing to go up on stage for his solo song “Mama.” The normally chipper J-Hope’s face is kind of blank as he glances up at the camera. Is he unknowable or is this an editing choice meant to imply that? Yes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

GSploitation: The Tigers in Hi! London 『ザ・タイガース ハーイ!ロンドン』 (1969)

Apparently, I write about the Tigers every two years. You may want to refresh your memories with their first film The World is Waiting for Us and their second film Fabulous Invitation.

________________

I’d been holding onto the dream of the five of us being the best in the world so Katsumi quitting was a relief. My anxiety dissipated. It was like popping a balloon with a needle, effectively the dream was shattered. What was left behind afterwards was like, it already seemed empty. While performing I started to think, is all we’re doing selling our youth?

2011, Hitomi Minoru (1)

(L-R: Shiro, Sally, Taro, Julie, and Pi on drums)

The Tigers final feature film 『ザ・タイガース ハーイ! ロンドン』 (The Tigers: Hi! London) was released on July 12, 1969, not quite three months after they’d finished shooting in London and not quite half a year from when Kahashi Katsumi (“Toppo”) quit the band and Kishibe Ittoku’s (“Sally”) brother Shiro was drafted to replace him. The Tigers were poised for a big global push but Toppo leaving popped the band’s momentum. They would travel to London and meet the Barry Gibb and Mick Jagger but the only one still invested in superstardom was Sawada Kenji (“Julie”). By the time filming started Hitomi Minoru (“Pi”) was already starting to plan his exit. The Tigers would release one more studio album--arguably their best one--『自由と憧れと友情』(Jiyuu to Akogare to Yujuu, Freedom and Desire and Friendship) on December 15, 1970 and on January 24, 1971 they played their final concert.While Hi! London isn’t a break up film like the Beatles Let It Be you can definitely see the writing on the wall.

(自由な時間が欲しいな~, thinks Julie. Although in reality he wanted anything but that.)

(The late, great Fuji Makoto as "Demon Onitaro" a name which in Japanese contains like 5 puns about demons.)

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, Hi! London is a souffle of a film, the run time fluffled with at least 75 minutes worth of montage footage including the song sequences. Written by Tanami Yasao, who wrote the two previous Tigers films, and directed by teen film specialist Iwauchi Katsuki (若大将シリーズ or “Young Ace” series), the story is incredibly simple: The Tigers play themselves, an overworked rock band hounded by young women and whose only desire in life is a day off to relax. When Julie thinks this to himself one day in the green room (自由な時間が欲しいな~) his wish summons a demon or, rather, Mr. Demon Onitaro (played by the great Fuji Makoto) who offers them a deal--he can give them a few hours of freedom but if they don’t return within the allotted time, he gets their souls.

(The lovely Kuma Kaori...)

The Tigers take him up on it but Mr. Demon is tricky. He and his witch friend (the absolutely delightful Sugimoto Emma) attempt to delay them by luring them out to the beach where their car gets stuck in the sand. As luck would have it they’re saved by their old friend… Kuma Kaori, star of the previous two Tigers films!

Kuma Kaori, who makes her first appearance about 45 minutes into the movie, plays Megumi, a young woman who is desperate to find the music her late father wrote and left behind somewhere in London. The Tigers decide to help her out and--with some magic from Mr. Demon--are soon on their way to London where they meet up with Megumi and find the songs at the Prospect of Whitby. But Mr. Demon still has some tricks up his sleeve and delays the Tigers just long enough for them to miss his deadline.

Before he can take a soul, Megumi asks that he wait just long enough for them to play her one of her father’s songs (the mournful 「嘆き」(Nageki or Lament)… but the song’s power turns Mr. Demon into a toad! The souls are safe!

But the Tigers weren’t.

(Pi getting herded into a van post-performance.)

(Listening to the game on the radio.)

Hi! London is incredibly claustrophobic. Pushing in at the margins of every scene are the fans. Rapid, shrieking fans. They are a gaping maw of need that these five men--one of whom joined the band 3 months ago and can’t be trusted with more than a tambourine--can never and will never fulfill. They chase after the Tigers’ van like a pack of hungry dogs while inside poor Pi is listening to a baseball game on a transistor radio, imagining what it would be like to actually attend the game himself.

(At Young Mates)

Unlike the two previous films with their catchy music video style performances, most of the music scenes take place at Young Mates, a music club in Tokyo. There are a handful of very nice transitions where the song begins and we can only see and hear the Tigers but as the camera pulls back and the shrieking girls come into view the song fades into the background. We have trouble seeing and hearing over the frantic girls. Do the girls even know what song they are screaming over? 50 years later you can still feel the anxiety and fear wafting off the screen.

(Julie, wandering free)

(L-R: Sally and Taro)

In contrast, when the Tigers are set free by Mr. Demon, they wander through crowds without being hassled. They play, run on the beach, laugh and talk and smile. They have nobody to please but themselves. The sense of freedom is intoxicating, released from the boxes of their tiny dressing rooms and vans.

(Kaori having fun in London)

(Looking out over the girls that drove her from show business.)

Kuma Kaori also shares both the Tigers anxiety and freedom. She roams freely with them in London but in the scenes taking place in Japan, she only appears with the Tigers when they are alone. Kaori would also soon leave show business. Despite being a talented singer and actress--she contributes the lovely 「髪がゆれている」 (The sway of my hair) to the film--Kaori had been harrassed non-stop by Tigers fans since the first Tigers film and was tired of it. You can almost see it in her face in the final scenes of the film as she hides behind a pillar at Young Mates, out of sight of the hordes of fangirls. These girls had been ruthless towards her simply because she was friendly with their idols. How she must hate and fear them…

(Pi, lying down, explaining to Sally, with the bass, that his "cool" expression on television was because he really had to use the bathroom while Taro, in the foreground, looks on and laughs.)

(Sally and Julie feeding Taro some juice.)

(The gang enjoying the flight.)

Hi! London isn’t a bad film, despite all the hurdles it faced. Director Iwauchi captures some charming performances from the Tigers as a group. Taro and Shiro, the non-actors of the group, are delicately managed while the other three do the heavy lifting. Pi and Sally are both very natural in their line delivery and serve up some funny quips. Julie, while never the greatest actor, has that it factor and doing everything he can to audition for his future career as a matinee idol. The film is alternates between claustrophobia and floaty day dream. Watching it is like taking a nap on a hot, summer afternoon and waking up sticky, lethargic, and covered in sweat… uncomfortable but also satisfying somehow.

NOTE 1:

個人的には5人揃って世界一を目指している僕の夢は、かつみが諦めたことによって心の張り、精神的な緊張が緩み、風船に針を刺したときのように、事実上破れた。後に残るものは何か、もう何もないように思えた。僕は演奏しながら青春の貴重な時間を売っているだけなのだとおもうようになったいった。

2011 瞳みのる

Monday, April 16, 2018

[D.C. Untied INTERLUDE] Here's what not to do when women report sexual assault and harassment by one of your members...


Ladies, how many of you have had a male friend come and get you out of an uncomfortable situation like this? 

"Is he bothering you?"

"Yes."

Thursday, March 29, 2018

REVIEW: BTS: Burn The Stage [Episodes 1 and 2]

The tomorrow we’ve been waiting for becomes the name of yesterday at some point

Tomorrow becomes today, today becomes yesterday, tomorrow becomes yesterday and is behind me

BTS, “Tomorrow”

Yoongi and Namjoon holding court with a make-up free BTS.

Before I talk about the YouTube Red series BTS: Burn the Stage let me tell you a story. Many, many years ago I was in a community theater production of the extremely un-politically correct musical Kismet. (“Baubles, bangles, and beeeeeadsssss!”) I didn’t have a huge role. I played a handful of tiny background characters, as well as one of the “exotic” princesses who does the Diwan Dances. I also happened to be working close to full time as a waitress at Chili’s and taking a couple of community college classes. I was 20 years old and it didn’t even occur to me that I might not be able to handle everything.

One Saturday night I drove straight to the theater after a busy Saturday shift at Chili’s. I got into costume and make-up. I went on stage. And then I started to feel as if I was underwater. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast over 12 hours ago. I wasn’t in control of my body any longer. My limbs and voice moved in muscle memory as my mind became sludge. I’d hit a brick wall of exhaustion. I don’t remember how I made it through the performance or even how I made it home that night. I just remember knowing that I had to go out on stage. I don’t think it even occured to me that I could just… not.

I bring this up not because it says anything about me specifically but because I think anybody who has performed has had a moment like this. Going out on stage with broken toes, a fever, the heaviness of a personal sorrow fogging the mind… the show must go on. Your castmates, your crew, and the audience are depending on you… whether it’s a hundred people in a tiny theater in Southern Maryland or ten thousand in an arena in Chile. Pushing past exhaustion, pushing past your limits, even as your mind shuts down and hours of rehearsal are all that’s animating your frame.

That’s show business.

But it’s not a side of show business we idol fans see all that often. We tend to hear about these types of incidents years later, offhanded asides in interviews. That time Kawai Fumito broke his leg on a bad jump coming off stage in PLAYZone and had to be quietly carried out on piggyback by his bandmate Tsukda as the play continued, the audience left to wonder as he just didn’t appear in any further scenes. “Oh, that’s what happened!!” we fans cry later. “Poor Fumito.”

And that response is why we so rarely see those moments. Our idols don’t want us to worry about them. Their job is to make us happy.

RM says as much in one of the first two episodes of BTS: Burn The Stage, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 2017 WINGS tour that’s now available (!) on YouTube Red. (Possibly the only thing that could have gotten me to sign up for a subscription to YouTube Red.)

I’ve only been a real BTS fan--an ARMY--for about 3 months now so I didn’t see BTS when they came through the United States on tour. What I have seen is both the Korean and Japanese concert DVDs of the WINGS tour as well as all accompanying behind-the-scenes materials for both sets of DVDs. When I fall, I fall hard and I’ve watched both of these sets multiple times. And I consider the behind the scenes materials an essential part of the concert DVD. We idol fans love seeing the craft that goes into producing a music video or concert as much--if not more than--the final product itself. (There’s a reason my Japanese vocabulary is heavy on theater, music, and television production vocabulary.)

There were two big differences between the Korean tour DVD--filmed in February 2017--and the Japanese tour DVD--filmed in June 2017 (besides the obvious production factors because nobody knows how to film a concert DVD like the Japanese. Nobody.)

1) How much more comfortable and polished the guys were with the staging and choreography after months of performances. 2) How much more intimate the boys were in their native Korea interacting with Korean fans but how much better the atmosphere in the stadium was in Japan.

The language barrier gives and the language barrier takes away.

What is it that we want out of an idol concert? What is it that we want out of an idol concert when we don’t share a language or culture?

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of BTS: Burn the Stage or even what I wanted to see. Would it be similar to the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the concert DVDs? Would it be similar to the travel series BTS had filmed? Who was the audience? Korean fans, Japanese fans, Chinese fans, Southeast Asian fans, Latin and Brazilian fans, and Westernized fans all want something different.

Judging from the first two episodes, I think the main audience for this series has to be English-speaking Western fans who primarily interact with BTS through youtube clips. The first episode is really a teaser, interspersing random rehearsal footage for the tour with reality show style interviews where the members give their thoughts and feelings about the scenes. The most memorable moment in the first episode is Jungkook realizing the camera in their green room is on and immediately starting to clean up the messy coffee table because he doesn’t want to make a bad impression. It’s in the second episode--the one behind the paywall--where things start to get a little more intense.

The second episode also mixes concert footage from the Seoul dates (February 18-19, 2017) and Chile (March 11-12, 2017) with interview clips but also includes some candid moments: J-Hope delivering leftovers to Suga’s hotel room because Suga missed dinner; Jungkook entertaining his bandmates with impressions of their dancing; the excited chatter on the van from the airport; Jimin dumping an entire cake on Suga's bag; Jungkook barely able to stand from exhaustion but forcing himself on stage anyways; Jimin working himself into a state of extreme anxiety about a couple of small mistakes.

The good stuff: Suga's baffled expression at his birthday cake covered bag.

I’ll be honest. Watching Jungkook collapse and Jimin cry felt voyeuristic in a way that behind the scenes materials usually don’t. And seeing the screenshots and gifs of their moments of distress floating around on Twitter really made me uncomfortable. What is it that we’re demanding of them as American fans? Do we understand what we’re asking for when we cry for “authenticity”? For the mask to be ripped off? An idol’s mask isn’t just there to conceal flaws, it’s also for the idol’s own protection.

Ironically the best part of the series so far has been the interviews. One of the things I dream about doing for my idol book project is to actually speak with some idols candidly about their relationships with the fans, with performing, and so on. I was absolutely fascinated by the different responses the seven members of BTS gave to questions asking about those things.

Jin, the eldest, is the most focused on the internal dynamics of the group. He frets and worries about the members, even letting the youngest ones take out some of their nervous energy on him.

J-Hope is completely focused on the performance. His main connection to the fans seems to be through the YouTube videos they upload--reaction videos, dance covers--rather than the people live in front of him.

RM is stuck in his own head and that is something I identify a lot with, no surprise. He’s intellectualized the idol-fan experience to something that makes sense to him. He doesn’t want fans to like BTS because they’re cute but because they have formed an emotional connection. He thinks and feels a lot and wants to share his true thoughts and emotions with fans across the world. (Please participate in my book, RM, if you’re reading this.)

Jimin is insecure and needs a lot of reassurance from the members, from staff, and from the fans. He needs our love more than any of the other members and that makes me more worried for him than any of the other members. BTS, please take care of Jimin. Please.

V and Jungkook are the least articulate, verbally, and had the least amount of interview footage. V has trouble taking the thoughts in his head and saying them in a way that makes sense to others. Jungkook just doesn’t use a lot of words but the way he covered his embarrassment at having to talk about his collapse with a smile and said something like, I didn’t know when we’d be back so I had to go back on stage. It broke my heart.

Suga, though. Suga gets it. Ironically the member who appears to be the grumpiest, most antisocial, and least concerned with idoling is the member who truly gets what an idol concert is all about. In the behind-the-scenes DVD for the Korean concert, right before the rap line--Suga, RM, and J-Hope, go on stage for “Cypher pt. 4” they say if the audience doesn’t stand up, they’ll have failed. (Luckily the audience did stand up and it’s actually at that point in the DVD that the flow of the concert really starts to get going.) The moment had stood out to me when I watched it and hearing Suga explain how the excitement of the crowds created a feedback loop with the members on stage until every single person in the arena is part of something magical… it’s how I feel when I attend these concerts. It was incredibly moving and validating to hear Suga say he feels it too. (Suga, also please participate in my book okay? I’m learning Korean.)

It’s hard to say where this series will end up. And I haven’t read any reviews or reactions, American or otherwise, to have any opinion on whether it’s hitting the target market or not. I’m on record as saying I don’t think it’s good or healthy for BTS to cater to the English speaking or American market and I stand by that. Americans don’t understand idols and we don’t understand or respect the very real cultural differences in how we interact with idols. We ask a lot--learn English, stop being fake, show us everything--and don’t give back nearly enough. I don’t want to have to worry about BTS worrying that we’re fetishizing Jungkook’s and Jimin’s moments of distress. As much as they want us to be happy, especially as a noona fan, I really want them to be happy too. And to continue to walk with us through life. Together. A relationship stronger than romance, different than friendship. A relationship of mutual support and emotional connection, sharing pleasure and comfort and sorrow.

The director loved Jin. As do we all.

It really has only been about three months since I fell into this fandom but I regret nothing. And my month and a half or so of studying Korean has me saying this: 나의가족는 방탄소년단이에요.
 
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