Sunday, January 21, 2018

The BBC's "K-Pop: Korea's Secret Weapon?" is GARBAGE.

Starting with my Bollywood obsession, I’ve been kicking around the Asian pop culture scene for at least 15 or so years now and in those 15 years I’ve learned one very important lesson: Western coverage of Eastern pop culture is always GARBAGE. So, I wasn’t really expecting much more than a superficial “Wow, have you heard of THIS” type video when I heard that BBC Radio One was going to be putting out a documentary on K-Pop and BTS. It was even worse than I expected.

If you thought that the Slumdog Millionaire media frenzy was bad, welcome to Western press coverage of K-Pop and BTS.

Here’s the thing, I recognize that in this era of #content farm journalism, everybody is racing to grab those clicks and putting up hastily written, poorly researched articles and videos on the topic-du-jour is just the way journalism is done now. I can accept that to an extent but when the outlet in question is one that confers authority like the New York Times--which has appallingly poor Bollywood reviews--or the BBC I get mad. How dare they publish this culturally myopic and intellectually lazy garbage as fact! It’s unforgivable. It’s been a while since I wrote up a good FG rant so please enjoy me yelling at the BBC about their shitty, shitty documentary!

Point 1) I knew I was in trouble when the editing of the introduction turned J-Hope’s pulse point choreography from the sweet love song “DNA” into a gun blast that led into the title: K-Pop: Korea’s Secret Weapon?.

What is the point of using this militarized and violent imagery? Music as a “secret weapon”? Is it the paranoia of the former imperial power terrified of its cultural capital dwindling or an attempt to tie K-Pop into the situation with North Korea? Or both? Host Adele Roberts does visit the border with North Korea where the South Korean military is shown blasting K-Pop songs at their northern neighbor but she also visits the official state office that promotes K-Pop globally.

The North Korean angle is a cynical attempt to make the subject appear more serious and shouldn’t have been included. It does nothing but reinforce harmful stereotypes of North Koreans as robotic and militaristic and strange.

The export angle is fair game, although I think the violent imagery is uncalled for. It’s no secret that tiny South Korea has made a conscious effort to expand its cultural capital by exporting cultural products like music, movies, and television dramas. (You can read about it in The Birth of Korean Cool. The book has some real blind spots but it lays out a pretty good foundation of how “K-Pop” started.) Korean culture exports have slowly began taking over in places like Southeast Asia, South America, East India, Eastern Europe and so on. Places where they used to consume Japanese or Hindi-language etc exports are now riding the Hallyu wave.

Which brings me to point 2) Hey, BBC, Korean culture had already gone global. You’re like at least 6 years late to the party. I remember reading about K-Pop group BIGBANG on Gawker waaaaayyyy back in 2011 or 2012 around when “Fantastic Baby” came out. Just because you didn’t hear about “Fantastic Baby” doesn’t mean it wasn’t a huge hit globally. BIGBANG are extremely popular in Japan, which is a much, much, much more important market than the US or UK because they buy physical albums which are more profitable than digital sales and are extremely loyal fans. Fandom is a way of life and involves fanclub memberships, merchandise, and so on, which are far more valuable to music companies than streams on Spotify.

Japan is so important that even in BTS’s “Mic Drop” video--clips of which are shown liberally through the documentary--the members of BTS are all wearing Japanese brand Mastermind!!!!! A song aimed at the American market featuring a brand you can’t buy in America. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about how little the BBC Radio 1 team understands their subject then perhaps this will.

BIGBANG are massive worldwide and set an important precedent for BTS. To not even mention them in a documentary on global K-Pop… well, maybe we shouldn’t be taking this documentary as fact.

Because point 3) When host Adele Roberts goes to meet a couple of men in the fashion industry (Hong Sukwoo and Eugene) to talk about the link between K-Pop and fashion, one name that comes up is the inimitable G-Dragon. THE G-Dragon of BIGBANG who is a huge global celebrity and gets tagged in English language fashion press all the time. HE IS EXTREMELY RECOGNIZABLE.

The BBC 1 editing team uses this opportunity to show footage of G-Dragon’s BIGBANG bandmate TOP from the “Fxxk It” video.

(NOTE: This is not G-Dragon.)

And it was at this point--about 6 or 7 minutes in--that the documentary completely lost me. If you can’t tell G-Dragon and TOP apart, two of the MOST FAMOUS MEN IN THE WORLD, maybe you shouldn’t be making a documentary on K-Pop.

It gets worse.

We move into point 4) hey, BBC, shut the fuck up about idols because you don’t get it. Adele Roberts asks a bunch of leading questions to her interview subjects intended to push the narrative that the idol system is inhumane, feeds the erotic delusions of fans, and led to SHINee’s Jonghyun’s death.

Maybe I do need to write that book on idols after all.


If you don’t get that, you should not be speaking from authority on (especially male) idols. The idea that all idol fans want to marry their idols is utter bullshit and even the most cursory review of idol fandom should quickly reveal that (especially female) idol fans are far more invested in the friendships between the members then they are in fucking the members themselves. The burdens placed on women in heterosexual romantic relationships are huge and the roles women are expected to play are very restrictive. You can’t be taller than your man, or smarter, or more successful. Who wouldn’t find it relaxing to imagine yourself part of a group like BTS where you can be surrounded by handsome and talented guys who support each other without any of that garbage?

This is not about sexual availability to fans. That reading of idol-fan relationships is extremely male-gazey and condescending. Not to mention wrong. Are there idol fans with huge crushes on their favorites? Yes, of course. But are there many, many, many more of us for whom that is not the case. There are many lesbian fans of male idol groups, for example.

But it gets worse when the documentary concern trolls us with Jonghyun’s recent death. I wrote about this a few weeks ago and I know many idol fans (and K-Pop fans) are still very broken up about it. The documentary puts the blame for Jonghyun’s suicide on the restrictive “rules” that need to be followed such as… living in company housing.

Just fuck off, BBC. This is utterly disrespectful to Jonghyun’s memory and you should be ashamed. Jonghyun had some serious problems with depression. This has nothing to do with company housing, a perk provided by a lot of different types of companies all over Asia and isn’t just some weird idol thing like is implied here.

Are there problems with how idol mental health is handled in Korea? Absolutely. Is a 8 minute chunk of a BBC radio 1 documentary an appropriate or respectful venue to discuss these? No. This was a cheap and dehumanizing move and clearly showed that BBC 1 sees Korean idols and K-Pop as nothing more than weird, exotic dolls to be milked for drama and clicks.

I’m embarrassed for anybody tied to Jonghyun to have to see this garbage.

To top it all off, sprinkled throughout the documentary were those classic Western exocitizing shots of random people going about their everyday life presented as “Oooo foreign and exotic.” The whole thing disgusted me.

Adele Roberts says at the end, “[The Internet] made it easier for people to be exposed to new sounds and new cultures...” and it’s true. It has. But whether or not people get anything out of that exposure than “Look, ha ha, how weird” is up for debate.

Monday, January 15, 2018

BTS in AMERICAN HUSTLE LIFE and why you should watch it.

“If it looks good--
If it smells good--
If it tastes good--
Then it
is good.
Coolio, to BTS, on the link between performing and cooking.

(Mr. Worldwide Handsome on what he wants to do in America.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A few more hundred words on idols, American delusions, and my newfound love of BTS.

One of the topics I’ve written the most about is on the complicated morality of being an American and appreciating pop culture from other cultures and countries. Even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of words on the topic, I feel the need to dip back into the well after my binge of BTS and Korean pop-related #content this week. Almost ten years ago now I wrote this in a blog post (linked here):

As a white person, I need to be aware of how I am consuming popular cultures from other parts of the world. Exoticism and cultural appropriation--such as Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls"--are traps too easy to fall into. But there is a big difference between hitting up the local Indian theatre to go to a film and wearing a sari to a formal event; a difference between getting your hands henna'ed at a street fair and Natalie Portman as a "Bollywood princess" in a music video. As the Internet flattens out the plane of popular culture, I don't think there is anything wrong with non-desi people watching Bollywood films just as people around the world watch Hollywood. America and the west don't have a monopoly on the global popular culture. People should be free to like Tom Cruise, Shahrukh Khan, Bae Yong Joon, or Kimura Takuya no matter WHERE they are from.

And, not to brag, but I think most of what I wrote holds up today when it comes to American appreciating Korean pop cultural exports. As people may or may not be aware, BTS spent the last couple of months on an American press blitz. Reading through the articles from mainstream American publications on BTS, watching their talk show appearances, as well as listening to podcasts and reading articles and comments from American K-pop fans, what comes through loud and clear to me are two things. 1) The story of BTS in the American press is not the group itself or their music or even K-Pop but in gawking at the hysterical fans. 2) A large number of international K-Pop fans are consuming the cultural products being exported with little or no context for what it is exactly that they’re consuming.

Let me tackle the first one first. I freely admit to being outside the American pop culture bubble. I don’t find much of what we produce here (nor how we talk about it) spiritually or artistically satisfying.

(Look at the conversation around mediocre films like the new Star Wars movie. It’s all about rushing to identify tropes, overly cleverpants discussion of Star Wars as a piece of corporate property, incredibly obnoxious Neil Degrasse Tyson-style “well actually” about plotholes, dullards crafting elaborate metaphors about contemporary politics, and so on. Very little about how it made people feel or the artistry (and lack thereof) in the film itself, which is what I care about.)

So, long story short, BTS came to my attention as something other than a group with some catchy tunes when I watched them on the 2017 Music Station Super Live a few weeks ago.

(I absolutely just bought a knock-off version of J-Hope's (far right) Gucci sweater. Do not underestimate my fangirl skills.)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A few thoughts on idols, SHINee's Kim Jong-Hyun, A.B.C-Z, and BTS

It’s been just over two weeks since SHINee’s Kim Jong-Hyun (Jonghyun) passed away. He was only 27 years old. According to news reports, he appears to have committed suicide by carbon dioxide poisoning. Police found burned charcoal briquettes in his room. SHINee may not be worldwide household names but news sites know Korean pop generates clicks and Jonghyun’s death was grist for every #content mill for a few days as all the usual suspects--BBC, CNN, New York Times, Yahoo! News, etc.--had explainers on Korean pop or pieces on Korea’s high suicide rate and crazy fans and then the news cycle moved on.

But I didn’t move on.
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