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.)

Music Station Super Live is the annual end-of-the-year Japanese music extravaganza put on by TV Asahi’s weekly live music show Music Station and features performances from a mixture of veteran artists, up-and-comers with a breakout hit, novelty acts, and so on. (And if I’m looking at these numbers correctly had something like double the viewership of the American Music Awards.) The Japanese entertainment industry is generally very reluctant to promote Korean products so for BTS to be invited on to the super-duper end of the year show meant that they had something really special going on. And… spoiler alert: They really did. I thought they were delightful.

When I went to find out more about this Korean idol group I was really surprised to find out that Music Station Super Live had come in the middle of this United States media push. Against my better judgement I clicked play on every suggested video from silly variety show games with James Corden to Jimmy Kimmel pranking fangirls. The best interviews--like this People magazine “Confess Sesh”--played to BTS’s strengths by letting Rap Monster act as translator and asking questions that allow for playful riffing like, “What’s your favorite American fast food?”. The worst--like this Ellen interview--were derailed by the American hosts unfamiliarity with using a professional translator during television interviews and asking questions from inside a American cultural context that are just impossible for BTS to answer. The lack of respect it shows an idol group to grill them on whether they have “hooked up” with a fan is just breathtaking. Why not just ask them all if they’re gay with each other too?!

But that’s because the story in the American media isn’t the talented young men in BTS, it’s the crazy fangirls.

I should have expected it but it was shocking to see how differently the musical performances were filmed between the America and on the Asian programs. Rather than close-ups of the group members or focusing on details of the choreography, the American videos focus on the audience reactions--the chanting fans, the bobbing penlights, the crying and/or squeeing girls.

Compare BTS on Korean television to the same song performed on Jimmy Kimmel’s show:

As far as American media is concerned, BTS aren’t idols, they aren’t even human, just dancing dolls for girls to scream at. And the girls do scream… a not insignificant part of the American BTS fandom seems happy to play into the stereotype of the crazed fan. But turning the cameras on the audience warps the dynamics of an idol group and encouraging idol fans to act up for this negative feedback loop of attention for their group is just gross. There is nothing that girls hold sacred that won’t get shit on and warped into something disgusting by the mainstream American media. Nothing.

But at the end of the day--and believe me I’m very sorry to have to say it, BTS fans--but at the end of the day, BTS is as much of a novelty act for the American mainstream as PSY was except the novelty isn’t a tubby Asian guy dancing for our amusement but us in the audience with our penlights and signs.

The DNA single, judging by the bright costuming, the lighter sound, and how much it appealed to me, a super fan of Japanese pop music, was intended to hit with the Japanese market--which it did, becoming the #13 best selling single of all of 2017 in Japan despite only being released in December. In fact, with BIGBANG going on hiatus as the majority of members leave for their mandatory military service, BTS seem well primed to take their place as the most beloved K-Pop group in Japan. And that’s no small matter considering Japan makes up something like 40-50% (depending on the measurement) of the market for Korean pop with China and Southeast Asia and, of course, the domestic market making up the bulk of the rest of the sales. Japan knows idols; Japan understands idols. (Japan is also racist towards Korean people but that’s another topic.)

There is no way in hell that BTS can generate enough interest and revenue here to top that. Even with the media blitz BTS didn’t even crack the yearly Billboard Top 100 for 2017 nor the album charts. They were #10 on the yearly Top Artist chart which takes social media presence and tour sales into consideration but what does social media interest really mean beyond the fact that people were talking about how much people were talking about BTS?

The language and culture gap is just too big for a “boy band” that sings in Korean to have any sort of real market penetration in the US. I can almost guarantee that what most of America thinks when it looks at BTS is a) GAY b) FOREIGN c) LOL AT THE CRAZY FANGIRLS d) NEED A REACTION VIDEO TO THIS SHIT.

Americans think foreign stuff is weird and should be laughed at. Americans think Asian men are all effeminate or gay. We have no context for idol music outside of the “boy band” label and Americans shit all over “boy bands” because anything associated with teen girls is gross.

Americans also don’t really buy music nor do we buy concert DVDs, which is why the Billboard charts now measure things like plays on Spotify and YouTube. That may be a fine measure of transitory popularity but makes almost no money for the artists themselves. By way of comparison, the 500,000-600,000 ish numbers BTS sold in Japan last year would be enough to land them in the United States annual sales charts.

It’s a fool’s game for any Asian artist to try and “make it” here in America and the rewards for the artist aren’t worth the humiliation and effort trying to break through our racist and provincial attitudes. I am selfish enough that I really do hope that BTS try and mount some sort of big American tour this year so that I can see them live but I’d be very skeptical about their current niche success with fandom people like me scaling up into anything meaningful.

Which is fine place to circle back to 2) the utter lack of context from some international fans. What I see is a mixture of American exceptionalism--treating the American market as a special prize--and just plain ignorance on the Asian music scene and Korea, with an extra dash of creepy fetishization and exoticism from certain corners.

As I wrote in my last post we have to remember that idols are people, not plastic playthings. And while Korea has put a lot of effort into pushing their cultural products by subtitling things in English and so on, knowing what somebody is saying is not the same thing as understanding what he is saying or why he’s saying it.

It’s arrogant to view Asian pop idols through the lens of Western values of “authenticity” and individualism and equally arrogant to think that we can own them here. We can’t. No matter how many talk shows BTS goes on here, no matter how much English they learn, they will always remain an Asian idol group with their obligations to their domestic market and fans coming first.

What will we do with the group members if we did run and catch them at the airport? Tear at their clothes? Consume them whole and shit them out again?

We can never really meet our idols. The closer we get, the more frustratingly out of reach they appear. Idols are a mirage; they’re a mirror.

One of the most surprising songs from BTS’s new EP was “Pied Piper”. The English lyrics say it all:

Follow the sound of the pipe, follow this song
It’s a bit dangerous but I’m so sweet
I’m here to save you, I’m here to ruin you
You called me, see? I’m so sweet
Follow the sound of the pipe

The fantasy of idol groups is intoxicating. I know because I feel the pull. I’m a grown-ass woman and just a few months ago I sobbed my eyes out in the audience of A.B.C-Z’s 5th anniversary concert and just about floated to heaven on a smile and high-five from my favorite member. I will follow the sound of that pipe to the end of the Earth and up to heaven but follow as we may, we can never own them. Not really. And certainly not here in America.


Tiffany Jones said...

This is also why every fan letter I write (To ebi, to yeti, to anyone) is “I love you. I 応援する you. You are doing so well. You make me smile. Thank you. Keep fighting.”

Filmi Girl said...

YES!!!! We can't own idols; we give them love and they give us love back but we HAVE to respect the boundaries. If we don't respect the boundaries we risk turning the idols against us and making them fear and hate us....

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