Tuesday, October 16, 2018

BTS Love Yourself Tour: Amsterdam, Netherlands, October 13, 2018.

BTS left America after the overwhelming hysteria of their final concert dates in the major media market of New York City topped with the Citifield show in front of 40,000 and then touched down in London only to find that the hysteria had followed them, much to the bafflement of the Europe.

I followed the hysteria on Twitter and Facebook with a sinking heart as I prepared to leave for Amsterdam myself. Two of their most passionate dancers--Jungkook and Jimin--injured themselves almost immediately upon setting foot in the UK and the voyeuristic photos and videos of Jungkook’s pain and distress during the London shows whipped around the BTS fandom like a brush fire. Jimin sat out of at least one performance schedule entirely, for which I am thankful.

Meanwhile the hashtags and Facebook groups exploded with bickering. There was the mess made over the fan project where the organizers claimed that the messages from Big Hit had gone into their spam folders and that’s why there would be nothing done for Jimin’s birthday. There was the fight over ARMY camping out in front of the venues despite explicitly being told not to by the event staff culminating in a mini-stampede at 5 in the morning on the day of the show when word spread that the unofficial numbering system they’d been using wouldn’t be honored. Police and an ambulance were called in to deal with the injured.

“We don’t come to concerts to make friends,” said one of the Amsterdam campers.

That’s not exactly the message that BTS puts across in their music and it put a huge cloud over everything.

In the shows I attended in Seoul and Hamilton, women had passed around stickers and treats and had communed over our love of BTS. I spoke in Japanese, English, and broken Korean to BTS fans from all over the world.

In Amsterdam, there was a cultural gap I couldn’t cross. The gap between idol fan and pop music fan.

On October 13, 2018, the same day that I saw BTS perform at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, H.O.T. reunited for their first concert in 17 years at Seoul Olympic Stadium.

(Listen to those women do the fan chants!! Incredible!! I really wish I was there.)

I’d been following along with H.O.T. on Instagram and the atmosphere seemed magical. 40,000 fans filling the stadium with their love and their voices for the idols they’d never forgotten. H.O.T. themselves seemed overwhelmed with the emotion of it all, five men who must have felt like the world had forgotten about them.

But a true idol fan never forgets. The love may lie dormant for a year--or 17--but all it takes is a spark to reignite the flame. And then out come the white balloons and the fan chants.

I couldn’t help but contrast the atmosphere at Ziggo Dome with that of Seoul Olympic Stadium half a world away:

H.O.T. had an idol concert for an idol audience.

BTS had an idol concert for a boy band audience.

There were a small minority of idol fans in attendance and the tension between the two was made explicitly clear when I was tapped on the shoulder during the hype medley--during “FIRE”--and told to sit down. Sit down. DURING “FIRE”?!! I mean, what? (I didn’t sit.)

There were also the stone cold silences during sing along parts and the lack of response from the crowd to moments that should have generated big cheers like Jungkook making a big return with the shoot dance during “So What”. I lost my mind as he hopped down the walkway on one foot--keeping his injured foot elevated--but the wave of cheers I expected, the cheers I heard in Hamilton, weren’t there.

And there there was the lack of Army Bombs in the audience. Neither of the women to either side of me had one and looking around before the concert started I’d say maybe half the crowd had an Army Bomb and was using it. When Taehyung said “I purple you” during the ending ment and all the Army Bombs in the venue turned purple, it should have been magical but the moment passed almost unnoticed.

I say this not to drag Amsterdam--since there were an overwhelming number of non-Dutch people in attendance, myself included--but because I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe I should have.

As BTS has boomed in popularity in markets that are not traditional K-Pop idol group markets, inevitably there will be fans who don’t know that there is a difference between how to act at a K-Pop concert and how to act at a normal boy band or pop music concert. That the light stick isn’t just an expensive souvenir but an integral part of creating atmosphere. That you don’t buy a ticket to sit back and enjoy the performance but to participate in it. That we are building a moment with the other fans, building a moment with the group, a moment in time that is bigger than each of us individually, that we can carry in our memories as one night we shared something special.

There is nothing wrong with attending a pop concert or sitting back and watching a pop concert. I just don’t particularly feel the need to travel halfway around the world to do it. Not like an idol concert.

Again, I’m not saying this to drag Amsterdam or BTS, who put on a great show. There may not have been the warmth and connection with the crowd of other idol shows I’ve been to but BTS are nothing if not professional entertainers and they rolled with the atmosphere, having fun on stage despite the awkward silences.

Jimin had recovered from his muscle strain enough to return to dancing--even if he had to modify his choreography to avoid all the floor moves. And Jungkook, my dear Jungkook, looked smiley and happy despite his injured foot. He sat for the group choreography but he had clearly figured out how to modify the moves so he could join in on his chair and it was beyond cute.

The highlight of the entire evening, though, was Jungkook’s solo song, “Euphoria.” For that alone I’m glad that was in the audience. The choreographed version I’d seen before was beautiful but to hear Jungkook sing the song seated, just him and his voice filling the venue, so in the moment. It was magic.

(Even now I tear up watching it…)

When he takes out his earpiece and just looks so happy to hear everybody singing along… that is what makes an idol concert. That moment felt like home.

I don’t know when I’ll see BTS again. I’m tempted to visit my friend in Hong Kong for the 4 day extravaganza in March but I’m also waiting to see what may be announced for South America, as I have friends there as well. And, of course, I’m almost certainly going to try and make it to Seoul for the final shows of the tour.

I love BTS and talking about BTS but I’m not going to lie, it will be a relief when BTS leaves the English-language media markets--and the markets that the English language media focuses on--and returns to the relative normalcy of the K-pop specialty press and East Asian media coverage. I would rather a million Japanese talk shows where BTS eats unusual foods and plays silly games in broken Japanese than have to deal one more faux-deep interview featuring an English language reporter making the incredible “discovery” that South Korea exists and there are people there who do things like make music in Korean.

There’s a reason I checked out of American (and English language) pop culture years and years ago…

Bye-bye, Amsterdam!! I'll return for a football game or something soon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

G.F.C. in Newark: A Day in the life of Jeon Jungkook

As a long time idol group watcher, I not only love attending idol group concerts and watching idol group concert DVDs but I also love the behind-the-scenes concert films and consider them an essential part of the tour materials. (Again, there is a reason my Japanese vocabulary is so heavy on stagecraft terms. What do you mean “lighting” is not an everyday word?) I love the films where we see the concert grow from the planning stages with setlists on dry erase boards through rehearsal room footage and ending the day it begins. I love the films where we follow the group members as they run around backstage and underneath the arena, shedding costume pieces and being trailed by hair and make-up staff. I love the films where we get talking head interviews with the members in the green room in various states of undress as the director quizzes them on what this tour, like, means, really.

I have seen a lot of these types of behind-the-scenes films and they all have their own special charms.

But until BTS’s Jeon Jungkook uploaded his “G.C.F. in Newark” I had never before seen a behind-the-scenes concert film from a member’s point-of-view.

“G.C.F. in Newark” is a stylized “day in the life,” conveying what it feels like for Jungkook to experience one of these North American concert dates. The 16 minute film was compiled by Jungkook from both video he shot himself during BTS’s stays in Hamilton, Ontario and Newark, New Jersey, as well as concert footage filmed by a staff member. Jungkook chose to use a “VCR” filter to emulate the washed out feel of old magnetic tape, you can almost feel the comforting buzz of tape hiss in the background. It tells us that the film isn’t meant to be a straight documentary, Jungkook is going to try and capture the feel and mood of his day for us.

The first timestamp we see is 3:30 a.m. on 9/29. The camera gives us Jungkook’s point of view from his hotel room bed. He’s presumably just about to fall asleep, perhaps he just came up with the idea for the film and is excited to get a start on it. The room is empty, devoid of personality. Some belongings are thrown around. As Jungkook lays down in bed, the camera flashes to the ceiling and then we cut away.

It’s 11:25 a.m. and Jungkook catches the elevator down to the waiting car with Taehyung.

It’s 12:08 p.m. and Jungkook is making nutella and banana toast at the venue.

It’s 12:17 p.m. and Jungkook is eating breakfast with his sleepy-eyed and bleary bandmates.

It’s 1:27 p.m. and Jungkook is on stage with his bandmates running through some songs to check sound levels.

It’s 1:51 p.m. and Jungkook catches Yoongi over by the coffee machine.

It’s 2:42 p.m. and Jungkook is on stage performing for the few hundred fans who won access to “sound check.” Their screams are like a wall of noise.

It’s 5:34 p.m. and Jungkook is milling around in the green room with his bandmates waiting to go out on stage.

It’s 7:14 p.m. and Jungkook is on stage.

It’s 8:53 p.m. and Jungkook is back in the green room. The concert is over.

It’s 9:25 p.m. and Jungkook is back in the car, heading back to the hotel. The work day is over.

It’s 9:57 p.m. and Jungkook hangs up his track jacket in the closet. The film is over.

What struck me the most about the film was just how much it captured of what Jungkook sees and hears every day when he’s on tour. A brief shot of him playing with the shadows made by the stage lights. The sun through the car window. The endless, nondescript hallways. The familiar clothes and mannerisms of his bandmates. The silence of the early morning breakfast table and the good natured joking that fills the spaces between the members throughout the day.

As the youngest member of BTS, Jungkook has followed behind his hyungs for years and it’s always touching to see how he films them. The two he’s closest in age with--Taehyung and Jimin--also appear to be the two he hangs around with and teases the most. Through Jungkook’s lens we see the same quiet Jimin watching Taehyung play video games explode on stage during “Fire”. The same Taehyung who starts the day trying to spread some sunshine to a sleepy bucket-hatted Jungkook is drained and quiet on the return trip back to the hotel, escaping to the relative calm fantasy world of his game.

Dorky Hoseok in his dad hat becomes J-Hope in leather pants and returns to being Hoseok.

RM appears in the background, busy with some other work and enjoying himself on stage.

Yoongi is only seen in the green room; Jungkook affectionately catching his vocal mannerisms and smiles and saving them for us.

Jin flits in and out. Playful when the camera catches him.

And at the heart of everything is Jungkook himself. This is what he wants to show us. The beauty of his friends and of the things he sees everyday. The quiet of his life contrasted with the wall of noise during the brief moments where he meets the fans. The rush of performing and the emptiness it can leave behind. The way the stage lights shine so brightly in the dark.

Again, as a long time idol group watcher, I found Jungkook’s choice of footage of the fans really interesting. It reminded me a little of the Tigers’ film Hi London (which I wrote about here). The wall of indistinguishable faces and noise. What are they connecting with? Are they connecting? Can they even hear Jungkook? Are they listening?

Earlier this year I attended 5 A.B.C-Z concerts in Japan. I have been attending A.B.C-Z concerts for years and (because I’m a foreigner and I’m quite tall) the members occasionally pick me out of the crowd and wave hello. Their audiences are small enough that they must be full of familiar faces for A.B.C-Z.

BTS is on a whole different level. I did catch RM’s eye at the Sunday show in Hamilton and got a smile for the goofy dance I was doing to “Anpanman” but it’s not the same thing at all. If BTS did once have that intimacy with their audiences in Korea--and perhaps they still do--it was completely missing from “G.F.C. in Newark.” And maybe that’s one reason Jungkook wanted to put the film out. The language barrier, the culture barrier, he can’t cross them for the fans who attend one concert every 18 months in Newark, New Jersey. Maybe this film is Jungkook reaching out, picking us out of the crowd and waving hello. He sees us. Do we see him?

Friday, September 28, 2018

BTS Love Yourself Tour: Hamilton, Ontario, September 20, 22-23, 2018.

On Wednesday evening I traveled alone from America to Ontario for a long weekend of BTS concerts in the city of Hamilton, which is about an hour outside of Toronto. 5 days later I spent the Sunday evening concert dancing like crazy with the woman I’d sat next to at the concert on Saturday, had a belly full of cookies provided by two amazing women who’d flown in from Alberta for a whirlwind 36 hour BTS-extravaganza that included matching BTS tattoos, was keeping a watchful eye over a tiny, nervous but excited high school freshman whose parents had dropped her off alone at her very first concert, and then chatted all the way back to Toronto on the bus with the same lovely woman I’d befriended when we stood in line together all the way back on Thursday.

BTS call their fans ARMY but this weekend I truly felt like I was part of a big fandom family. Women passed out cookies, stickers, postcards to other women in line, offered up water and places to store backpacks, and I know I wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on the younger (and shorter) fans to make sure they didn’t get overwhelmed in the crowds. I saw women (not unkindly) giving young fans lessons in good fan manners at the venue--don’t shriek during the speeches--and making sure those around them knew where to go, when it was time to raise their banners, and helping with fan chants. I met fans from Hamilton, from all across Canada, from the US, from Korea, from Japan…

This wasn’t just a concert; it was a celebration. A joyous festival for BTS and for ourselves. We raised our voices and sang together. Peaches and cream, Sweeter than sweet, Chocolate cheeks, And chocolate wings...

Hamilton has been called the armpit of Ontario and as I looked around the area where the from the bus from Toronto dropped us off, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Like Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Worcester, Massachusetts, layered over the drug problems and discount clothing stores of Hamilton are the ghosts of former prosperity. But the steel mills are long gone and the riotous labor battles waged on these streets took place over 100 years ago. (Although Hamilton residents are still fighting the good fight. One of the most interesting news stories I saw while researching the city was about Hamilton residents trying to get the provincial government to reinstate the Universal Basic Income program begun in 2017. There were some truly heartbreaking stories of people finally able to do things like… buy a bus pass to go to work only to have it ripped away.)

In short, the redevelopment that in other cities put flimsy glass condo buildings over the proud early and mid-20th century infrastructure and architecture never happened in Hamilton and the city’s biggest claim to faim remains Conway Twitty writing It’s Only Make Believe in Hamilton’s now defunct Flamingo Lounge in 1958. And, honestly, me being me, I liked the city that much better for it. New York City, Los Angeles, even Toronto… these are cities with a lot going on and where famous acts come through all the time. Hamilton? Not so much. And I think the combination of self-selecting BTS superfans who made the effort to get out to Hamilton, combined with the overall curious and welcoming mood of the city really made for a unique kind of energy over the long weekend.

The BTS concerts were held at the FirstOntario Centre, a boxy early 1980s-vintage hockey arena that seats about 18,000 and is directly adjacent to what would quickly become my home away from home: the Jackson Square Mall.

Every morning I would depart bright and early from the bus depot at Union Station (clutching a giant cup of Tim Horton’s coffee) and arrive in Hamilton around 9:30 or 10 a.m. ready to PARTY. Each day passed by in an absolute blur of excitement for the upcoming show and the buzz of meeting new friends. We bought merch and explored the area around the venue. I was introduced to “timbits,” a donut hole type snack special to Canada’s beloved Tim Horton’s chain and giddily took selfies in front of the birthday ads for BTS’s Jungkook that had been purchased in some local bus shelters by Chinese ARMY. Down on James Street I found a incredible BTS-themed art exhibition put on by a local Hamilton ARMY at the Factory Media Centre and snacked my way up and down the little coffee shops and bakeries (some of which were even playing BTS inside the stores!)

(THANK YOU CHINESE FAN ARMY!)

(The Magic Shop exhibit was so cool!! Definitely check out their stuff here!!)

Most of the store clerks and cashiers I chatted with were happy and excited to see us. Everywhere I went the mood was one of joy and celebration. You could walk up and talk to anybody and make a new best friend. In all my years of attending concerts, festivals, fan conventions, etc. I’ve truly never experienced anything quite as positive and joyful and open and friendly as I did this past weekend. People were smiling and happy. Even when the merchandise sold out. Even when we we’d been lined up for a few hours and feet were starting to ache. Even standing on the crowded bus back to Toronto.

Even the street musicians got into the party atmosphere. The violinist camped out in front of the venue on Bay Street was having a blast (and making mad cash) jamming along to “Airplane Pt. 2” and other BTS songs while ARMYs walked back and forth getting merchandise and coffee. I actually chatted with him a bit. He was an older gentleman and he said he didn’t know who BTS was before Thursday but quickly figured out that it was what we wanted to hear and was having a great time improvising over the songs. “It’s your day!” he said with a smile.

(I mean, I did spot a few of the more unpleasant types of fans--the competitive ones who will ruin the day for everybody with their jockeying for status and access--but they were by far the minority and easy to avoid.)

(Hamilton's own SOPE!! These girls were awesome and gave me a flower!!)

Far from the stereotype of hysterical teen girls, the crowds in Hamilton were made up of women of all ages and from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Women in headscarves stood chatting in line excitedly with women with multicolored hair and tattoos. I saw moms and their daughters in matching gear. Women dressed up as their favorite members. I also spotted a handful of “ARMY Dads” including one in a handmade T-shirt announcing his status, along with boyfriends, husbands, and (my favorites) men who appeared to be BTS fans themselves. Korean, Japanese, Canadian, American, White, Black, Desi, Muslim, Christian, old, young… for three days we were all one big family.

Before I talk about the concerts themselves, I feel like I need to explain a few things. I am well into my 30s and have been a fan of many (many) bands over the years and have gone to (and played at) many (many) concerts of all different sizes and genres: punk, country music, jazz, indie, rock, rap, and, yes, idol groups. There are a lot of things that can go wrong to absolutely ruin a concert going experience that have nothing to do with the band or the performance. There is a reason why I didn’t even try for tickets when the BTS concert at Citi Field in New York City was announced and that reason is this: getting in and out of Citi Field is a goddamn nightmare. I’ve heard horror stories of people stuck in the parking lot until 3 a.m. and not to mention the intrusive American security checks entering almost any venue these days and the high cost of New York City hotels… and for what? To see BTS as tiny little ants or on video screens? Forget it. No way. I love BTS but not enough to get groped by security, have my tampons pawed through, pay as much for one night in a hotel in New York as I paid for 5 nights in Toronto, and potentially end up surrounded by people on their phones who are only at the show because it was the trendy thing to do.

Like I said, I’ve been at this a long time and believe me when I say that I want to thank the city of Hamilton, Core Entertainment, and GO Transit (serving the Toronto-Hamilton area) for their excellent handling of this event. Communication was good. People knew where they were supposed to line up (and when) and everybody got to where they were going. Security was firm without being crazily intrusive or on some power trip. By Sunday evening, even the security guys were smiling and enjoying the music and performances. This doesn’t normally happen.

But back to the show. For those of us who have been around a long time in the Korean and Japanese idol group fandom, we know that you can’t absorb everything attending one show and seeing it from one seat. You will need a view of the center stage, the main stage, from up close to get the details on the costumes and faces, from far away to appreciate the intricate choreography and stage craft.

Hit a concert tour too early and the performances may be strained and anxious. Not to mention that the fan chants and light stick choreography from the new songs may not have settled yet and the performers themselves may not have figured out the best places to put their improvisations and fan service into the choreography. Hit a concert tour in the middle of a long slog of dates and travel and the performances may be tired and energy flagging. And sometimes it’s just a bad show.

Even BTS are only human. Performers feed on the energy of the crowd. We hype them up; they hype us up even further; and by the end of concert--if it’s a good concert--the energy and endorphins of both performers and audience are through the roof. Now amplify this feedback loop from a single night through three incredible days of concerts and you’ll understand why by Sunday night every single person in the FirstOntario Centre felt like family.

And this feedback loop is the other reason why it’s worth seeing the same idol group show multiple times in the same venue. Over the course of a few shows, the audience will learn where to react, where to sing, where to cheer in order to best hype up the performers. And the performers learn the idiosyncrasies of the venue and local crowds. I’ve written it before but these idol concerts are collaborations between the audience and performer and are meant to be seen and experienced multiple times.

There’s a different kind of enjoyment that comes from attending a concert on the opening night when everything is a surprise and you can actually feel the gasps from the women around you as we collectively realize that Yoongi is actually going to dance in his solo song than when the tour is a few weeks in and fans can see the smile on his face when we sing along to the lyrics in the right places. On Thursday night BTS discovered that Hamilton didn’t want to tweet about the show, we wanted a party. And BTS gave it to us. We danced, sang along, cheered, and jumped up and down until throats ached and feet were blistered.

On Saturday night, during the middle of the show, RM explained that they’d been surprised at how much energy we’d had on Thursday and had had a band meeting about it and made some adjustments to hype us up even further. It worked. Even in the “seated” section, I jumped up and down and cheered like I was the same age as the group of teen girls next to me.

By Sunday night, I felt like I was floating. The energy in the room was incredible and I could see it reflected back in both the faces around me and in BTS themselves. At the end of the shows, typically the fans will hold up fan slogans thanking the group for the show. At the end of Sunday night’s show, BTS instead surprised us by turning their stage set into a giant Canadian flag. We were all honorary Canadians that night.

I’ve now seen BTS’s Love Yourself Tour 5 times (with at least one more show in October!) from a bunch of different views and I think I’ve gotten a pretty good feel for it. By every measure the production is a massive step up from WINGS, the previous tour. The costumes, not something that BTS is typically known for, are gorgeous--for both the group and solo stages. A sparkly deep cornflower blue jacket over a beautiful white linen tunic shirt with bell cuffs for Jungkook’s “Euphoria”, every movement of his arms making the cuffs flutter like butterflies; Taehyung looking just as dashing as if he stepped directly out of The Rose of Versailles in flowy 1970s-inspired trousers and blouses; Yoongi’s shoulder-emphasizing cross-tied, diner seat vinyl red jacket for “Seesaw”; J-Hope’s cowboy fringe jacket and leather pants spotlighting every hip thrust in “Baepsae”; RM’s long, long legs and height played up with a vertical striped coat; petite Jimin’s cropped shirts giving freedom of movement; Jin’s absolutely breathtaking deep navy, flower-studded suit coat for “Epiphany.”

There is a playfulness and expressiveness in these Love Yourself costumes that just wasn’t there for the WINGS tour. The WINGS costumes were practical, utilitarian. A lot of plain shirts and trousers. I can only guess the company had more money to work with for Love Yourself and one more reason to love BTS is that they put the money back into making the concert tour better.

The setlist was also well constructed. While BTS leave out some of my favorite songs from the past year (Daeng, 134340, etc.) they selected a nice balance of “hits”, hype songs that get the crowd going, old favorites, and more thoughtful, slower songs to give everyone a chance to catch their breath.

BTS have become really good live performers over the years. Their choreography tends to have places where only a few members will be “on stage” while the rest wait to jump back in. When those songs are performed on the center stage where there are no wings to wait in, the members interact with the crowd, dancing with us, singing along off mic with the “on stage” member, and so on.

For the Love Yourself tour, BTS are using a combination of pre-existing choreography from their television singles--Idol, Mic Drop, DNA, Fake Love, Anpanman, Airplane pt. 2--and songs where they basically just free dance around the stage and play off of each other and the crowd.

Both are a lot of fun live and for the choreography that we’ve seen a million times on television, it gets a new life when seeing it with your own two eyes. You can focus on what you want to see rather than what the camera selects for you--whether it’s watching your favorite member the entire time or just enjoying the overall flow of the song, life size and unboxed from the tiny box of your iphone screen. You can watch for Hoseok’s small improvisations, for Yoongi’s smiles when he’s feeling it, for the way Jimin and Jungkook turn every movement into a thing a beauty, for Taehyung’s barely contained hype for the songs he loves, and, of course, for the utterly endearing looks of concentration on Jin and RM’s faces as they work their way through the more complicated steps.

Take a song like “Mic Drop.” It’s a song that I have never been particularly fond of and will usually skip when it comes up on the album but seeing it live gets me hyped up every single time because a) it’s fun to yell along to the lyrics with a room full of people and b) it’s fun to watch BTS as they get hyped up from the song and choreography.

For me, however, for this tour, while I enjoyed every single song, I feel like the standouts, artistically, were the solo stages. A lot of thought, effort, energy, and passion was put into every single one and was linked to the theme of the tour: LOVE YOURSELF.

Jungkook’s “Euphoria” stage is breathtakingly beautiful. It builds on his previous solo “Begin” using the same basic format of the lightly sung verses with the danced choruses but everything is just a touch more confident, more grown-up, more assured. The dark coat and trousers with the white shirt of “Begin” are flipped for the previously mentioned flowing white tunic shirt and trousers topped with a rich cornflower blue coat. And rather than simply being shadowed by the backing dancers, they form an integral part of the performance, flowing gently around Jungkook, like a stream in a forest. When Jungkook hits the high note at the climax and the confetti cannons go off, filling the air with fluttering blue and silver tape, I don’t think there’s a dry eye in the venue. I could watch Jungkook perform this song a million times and still feel overwhelmed with emotion. (And once I get the DVD of the concert tour… I will.)

J-Hope’s “Trivia 起: Just Dance” is a party in just under 5 minutes. Unlike the busy “Mama” with its full choir, video slideshow, and hordes of backing dancers, the only special effect in J-Hope’s solo this year is… J-Hope. Dressed in a snazzy all-white suit, J-Hope pops up on stage and just dances. And it’s fantastic. J-Hope uses the full range of the stage to build some momentum, first using the elevated stage in back before strutting down the walkway to the center stage during the build-up where he leaps over two dancers and then just explodes into the chorus. It’s an exciting and incredibly fun performance. And it’s all J-Hope.

I wrote about Jimin’s “Serendipity” being as warm and soft as a sunbeam in my album review of Love Yourself 承 Her but the live performance is a bit different in tone. Jimin’s choreography is much more playful than I expected, finding hidden bounce and rhythm in the track. The way Jimin moves reminded me of a cat’s tail, expressive, curving gently as the mood takes him. And when he turns his back to the audience and gracefully bends backward to the floor as the lyrics hit “just let me love you” the crowd rightfully loses their collective mind. It’s an absolutely lovely performance and even if Jimin’s focus is much more on the dance than the singing and he lets the backing track carry him for some of the song, I had no complaints.

RM’s bouncy “Trivia 承: Love” is another gem. I’ve written before about seeing him hold an entire arena in the palm of his hand with “Intro: What am I to you” but I’d only seen it on DVD. To experience that magnetism in person was on a completely different level. The biggest contrast between “Trivia 承: Love” and “Reflection”, RM’s solo for WINGS, and even “Intro: What am I to you” isn’t just the light and breezy feel of the song but that the RM involves the audience in the performance. Rather than performing for us, he pulls us fans into the song and performs with us. The effect is electric. Thousands of fans singing along “사람사람사람” (human, human, human) and “사랑사랑사랑” (love, love, love). The song itself is so uplifting and joyful and watching RM bounce along on stage with his long legs and cheezy grin is just… if you aren’t just bubbling over with happiness by the end of it, you’ll never get it. RM just seems like he’s in a good place mentally and to hear him singing about loving yourself instead about how he’s the loneliest whale on the planet earth is just extremely Good, at least for this noona fan.

V’s solo “Singularity” overlaps a bit with his WINGS solo “Stigma.” I’m incredibly fond of Taehyung’s deep, soulful voice and both “Stigma” and “Singularity” are nice showcases for it, sort of jazzy, smoky ballads that let him tickle our ears with his low register before stretching higher. But here’s the thing. I’ve always kind of gotten the feeling that V doesn’t quite believe in his own talents for singing and dancing, so just to see him holding the stage, confidently, with the intricate choreography for “Singularity” was such a huge change from the stationary (and somewhat stiff) staging of “Stigma” just filled me with so much pride for how far he’s come.

The choreography for “Singularity” was created for the promotional video but like all the other songs they used existing choreography for, it was very different experiencing it live. To actually see the way V’s long coat would flare out with his movements and to be able to watch his expressive face while he sang… it was a beautiful performance and I hope he’s proud of it.

One of the things I found most interesting in Burn the Stage--and something I’ve brought up again and again--is how Suga’s understanding of how idol concerts are supposed to work aligns 100% with my understanding of how idol concerts are supposed to work. The way we hype each other up until the endorphins are peaking and every single person in the venue is on their feet dancing. Suga’s solo for WINGS was a personal and very angsty solo rap about his relationship with music. A year and a half later and “Trivia 轉: Seesaw,” his solo for Love Yourself, is a cheeky and very idol-y midtempo jam that includes a singalong chorus, choreography, and room for fan chants.

Suga’s non-idol idol persona is so strong that when I saw the Love Yourself tour in Seoul on opening night--before anybody knew what was coming--I was just one voice among thousands of startled cheers that swelled up through the stadium when we realized Suga had choreography. His relaxed, comfortable stage presence is so much fun to watch and the song is so much fun to sing along with. The skill in Suga’s solo stage isn’t in the execution of the dance or song but rather in the way he uses his persona to play with the us, the fans. That takes incredible skill in idol-ing.

Last but certainly not least is Jin’s “Epiphany”. Like V with “Singularity”, “Epiphany” builds on Jin’s WINGS solo, “Awake”. They’re both slow, steady ballads that give Jin a chance to showcase his voice in a way that he doesn’t usually get to do in BTS’s songs. But where “Awake” has a safe, almost conservative feel to it, “Epiphany” takes more musical skill to navigate. The melody has a nostalgic 1950s I Only Have Eyes For You feel to it and Jin has to switch back and forth between his lower and higher registers, support extended descending runs, and fill the whole arena with emotion. It’s a tough song to get through but Jin sells it like a champ, standing in front of CGI rain looking absolutely breathtaking in his flower-studded suit coat.

Love Yourself is a fantastic concert, crafted with all the love and respect that BTS clearly has for their fans. It’s would be so easy for a group as big as BTS to half-ass a global concert tour, doing the bare minimum while still raking in cash. That they’ve taken the effort to create something so special for us really means a lot. Nothing is skimped on, even a detail as small as what appear to be handcrafted buttons on Jungkook’s white fluffy shirt in “The Truth Untold.” To have the success and put the money back into giving us good product is what separates the Good idol groups from the… less good ones.

I can honestly say that the weekend of shows in Hamilton is one of the best concerts I have ever attended and, as I said earlier, I’ve been to a lot of concerts. I’d put this right up there with the second night of A.B.C-Z’s 5th anniversary bash in Yokohama Arena and the 1999 Belle and Sebastian set at the Bowlie Weekender in Camber Sands. And for those who know me, know that that is just about as high as my praise can go. I am still on cloud nine almost a week later, plotting on how to get my fix.

I want to thank BTS for putting on such a wonderful show in Hamilton, Ontario. You truly made a lot of people very, very happy and not just those of us who were at the venue. I’ve seen comments from moms who dropped their young daughters off at the show, so thankful that their girls were taken care of and had a good time. I talked to the staff at the Jackson Square mall, most of them absolutely delighted with the festivities taking place, promising to look up BTS. From the violinist outside the venue, jamming to “Airplane Pt. 2” to the security guard behind the barrier at the front stage who was smiling along just as big as the rest of us… I don’t think any of us will ever forget this weekend.

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

 
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