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.)

BTS’s American Hustle life was filmed over the course of two or so weeks in the summer of 2014, just about a year after BTS debuted. Their ages at the time ranged from 16 (Jungkook, the youngest) to 21 (Jin, the oldest), with all the lack of maturity and life experience that those years bring with them. In their debut BTS had positioned themselves as a “hip hop” idol group but how hip hop is experienced in Korea (and, indeed, globally) is quite different from the American experience of the genre and for better or worse Korean pop as a whole has adopted (and adapted) the musical and visual signifiers of the genre without necessarily understanding what those signifiers mean. Sometimes this leads to a lot of secondhand embarrassment for American consumers of K-pop--Yes, I’m talking about Zico’s dreadlocks--or even anger at what appear to be racially insensitive remarks insulting Black people. Cultural clashes at the fraying edges of globalization.

What it comes down to is this: you cannot expect a 19 or 20 year old Korean kid who has never left Korea to understand the complexities of the American conversation around race. Hell, there are millions of white Americans who don’t understand all the complexities of the American conversation around race, many of whom I’m sure love hip hop music. If you’re going to consume cultural exports from another country you have to keep things in perspective. Don’t forget that Americans are extremely myopic when it comes to these types of racial sensitivity issues outside the borders of our own country. Remember the casting controversies of Memoirs of a Geisha with Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas? Although Americans treats race as a hard-coded, black and white issue--pardon the pun--race is culturally specific as are racial taboos.

To an outsider viewing the country purely through our media exports, African American Vernacular English is very obviously a different dialect of the standard “white” English one hears from newscasters and so on. Are they supposed to magically know it’s considered rude to express that in public? Can we blame Korean kids for absorbing without question all of the twisted American racial pathology we’ve exported in Hollywood entertainment and pop music?

Well… yes and no. We cannot and should not expect Korean performers to have an innate working knowledge of the American experience of race nor should we judge them by the same standards that would apply to, say, a white, wealthy wannabe rapper from the racially diverse city of Los Angeles who should absolutely be dragged to Busan and back for saying the “N” word. One is an outsider acting as a mirror for the cultural pathologies America exports and the other is a spoiled white American kid whose very existence with his grotesque wealth and privileged social status is as much of an insult to Black Americans as him saying the “N” word is. If the former makes us uncomfortable as Americans the blame is solely on us for exporting that garbage.

But that said if a Korean act wants to reach an audience in America beyond the diaspora then they need a crash course in the racial fault lines of American culture. (Step one: You’re “Asian” now. Certainly not from Yeongnam--맞나!--or even South Korea. You’re “Asian.” And that label comes with some truly disgusting stereotypes in America.) Enter American Hustle Life, in which the BTS members explore both American hip hop culture and test their own strengths as performers. Working alongside two very talented African American tutors as well as a whole slew of famous hip hop artists, BTS are pushed over and over again into uncomfortable situations and forced to open their hearts and minds to new people and experiences. Whether or not they succeed in the reality show challenges is almost beside the point, the personal growth they demonstrate in just a couple of weeks is extremely touching, especially as an American.

I first watched the series a few weeks ago before I knew anything about BTS other than the fact that I enjoyed their performance on Japan’s Music Station Super Live. I then watched it again over the last couple of days after spending those few weeks in between binging on BTS-related material and had a better idea of their personalities. It holds up very well as both an introduction to the group and as piece of entertainment. There were a couple of places where my impression of what happened changed based on my greater familiarity with the members but not really enough to really make a difference. (I won’t link to the episodes but just google the title with english subtitles if you’d like to watch along at home.) The first episode of American Hustle Life gives us an idea of just how little the group as a whole knows about hip hop--Is it about swag?--and America. Jungkook, the baby of the group, had apparently spent some time in LA before they debuted but all he could say about it was that “the air is different.”

After landing in LA, the boys are loaded into a white van for sightseeing. They’re treated to a baseball game so they can see their countryman Hyun-jin Ryu pitch for the Dodgers and then do some touristing. But as it gets dark, their manager makes an excuse to pull off into a parking lot and leave the car. All of a sudden some scary looking, extremely stereotypical, right from the movies black men--real American thugs!--bust into the van, kidnapping BTS!

And BTS are terrified.
The thugs drive them to what looks like an abandoned warehouse and force them inside. Telling them to handover their phones and take off their shoes and hats. And then… they play a message. BTS: Welcome to your American Hustle Life bootcamp!
Jet lagged, disoriented, and facing a massive cultural and language barrier, will BTS make it through 8 episodes of this?! (Yes, with flying colors.)

The next morning we’re all introduced to the hip hop tutors: Tony Jones, Nate Walka, and Dante Evans. Three black men who are going to teach BTS about what it really means to work that American hustle. We’ll get to know them quite well over the next 8 episodes but first--BTS get a lesson with the legendary Coolio!

(L-R: Dante, Nate, Tony.)

Yes, “Gangster’s Paradise” Coolio. And Coolio does not fuck around. This is where American Hustle Life really won me over. Knowing how shallowly the hip hop aesthetic has been imported to Korea, it would have been very easy for the production crew to edit Coolio for laughs or for Coolio himself to have phoned the appearance in. But that’s not what happened.

BTS, still uneasy and disoriented, is flustered by Coolio’s harsh questioning. What did they know about hip hop history? V, the group’s oddball, misreading the room, tries to puncture the serious mood with a joking, “Turn it up!” and is immediately punished with 25 push-ups. “Quit playing with me,” snaps Coolio. “If it wasn’t for hip hop, I’d be dead or in jail.” Episode two picks up with the tense introductory scene. “So, basically, y’all don’t know shit about hip hop,” says Coolio. And he’s not wrong. Aside from the group’s two main rappers, quick witted Rap Monster, the leader, who taught himself English watching television, and sleepy-eyed Suga (pronounced Shu-ga, like sweet, sweet candy), the rest of the group really doesn’t know much about hip hop. So, Coolio-Hyungnim gives them two assignments: 1) Figure out the answer to an important hip hop history question. 2) Perform a song for their neighbors in the working class neighborhood they’re staying in. He divides them into three teams: Rap Monster and V (“Brain, you’re with clown.”); the older pair, Suga and Jin; and then the youngsters, J-Hope, Jimin, and Jungkook.

After some rehearsals with their tutors, the three teams head out into the neighborhood to greet their neighbors with rice cakes and a performance. We’re treated to very entertaining scenes of BTS wandering around and awkwardly knocking on doors trying to explain what it is they’re doing. Unsure of themselves in this unfamiliar country, they cluster in twos and threes on the sidewalk, sending their fearless leader Rap Monster up to do the talking.

(The always be-buckethatted J-Hope getting his point across with a handful of phrases.)
And as a side note, I found it particularly interesting to watch Rap Monster struggle with his English. I identified a lot with his struggles in trying to speak to regular neighborhood Americans--one little old lady thought he was delivering takeout--because of my own struggles in learning Japanese via television. There’s comes a point when you know enough to be aware of your deficiencies in communicating and you become self-conscious and find it more difficult to get the words out. The other members of BTS, with far less language fluency, sometimes had an easier time getting their point across. RapMon, I feel you, bro. I’ve been there. In the end, it’s an unfair contest. Coolio, whether he had intended to or not, placed the three best performers in the same group. J-Hope, Jimin, and Jungkook are not only the best dancers in BTS but J-Hope and Jungkook in particular are the most naturally charismatic performers and the three do a charming dance to that timeless classic, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. It’s impossible not to start dancing yourself when you hear it and the light, breezy dance--led by J-Hope--needed no words to convey the sense of fun.
Suga and Jin, on the other hand, do a tepid, self-conscious version of “Fight the Power” that sounds more like they will be rolling over and giving into power and the Brain Trust team does a tentative, out-of-sync “Coolin’” that’s more lukewarm than anything else. Coolio has his work cut out for him. To teach a group of Korean boys about the context of American hip hop that exists underneath the blingy version that’s exported--it’s not easy. And it takes willingness to see beyond stereotype on both sides. After all 3 teams get their questions right, he declares “Boys 2 Men”--the J-Hope, Jungkook, Jimin team--the winners of the contest and treats them to a dinner out.

Their next assignment is cooking. Coolio tells them that cooking is close to performing and he wants the teams to prepare a meal for him. It’s something that felt very trite and “reality-show” to me at first but as I watched the teams get ready for the challenge, I realized Coolio was onto something.

Rap Monster and V are hopeless in the kitchen and show no interest in the food aspect of the challenge. Working with Nate, the Brain Trust group decides to do a “History of Rap” skit where they lip sync to a series of famous songs and, to that end, happily spend the morning shopping for costumes. V, in particular, is a charmer and sweet talks all the aunties and grandmas at the market in his limited English. (“This is my personal number,” says one, slipping him a piece of paper.) Boys 2 Men decide to do a Korean fusion dish. J-Hope is the consummate performer and is focused on what would please Coolio-Hyungnim. The three (and Tony) come up with a skit that involves Jimin and Tony dressing in traditional Korean clothes as a married couple while the others make kimchi fried rice. A simple dish but one that tastes good.

The Suga and Jin unit go shopping with Dante and immediately have trouble communicating. It’s partially the language barrier but it’s also a cultural barrier. While waiting for hot dogs at a food stand, Dante tries to show off by asking Jin--who is (in)famously the worst dancer in BTS--to perform for a small kid. Jin gamely does an awkward step or two but Dante keeps pushing to have him dance like he’s seen in the videos. If it had been J-Hope, Jimin, or Jungkook, they might have been able to do something but poor Jin can’t do it. What Dante sees is that he won’t do it and goes off to sulk, embarrassed. Suga and Jin attempt to smooth things over but the miscommunications continue, with Dante increasingly unwilling to try and understand what it is they’re asking and to play along with their idea for the skit--chicken gangsters tearing up another fusion dish, Korean chicken and American waffles. Dante refuses to wear an apron as part of the team and Suga gets so mad he just walks away.

The performances go just about as well as the first round with Boys 2 Men easily walking away with the grand prize but what really surprised me--in a good way--about Coolio is how he was able to turn a silly cooking contest into a lesson on knowing your audience. Rap Monster and V not only annoyed Coolio with their lip syncing but they went for comedy food rather than just a comedy skit and “cooked” a giant Dagwood style sandwich that both looked and tasted disgusting. It was utterly cringe-inducing on all levels. (“How am I supposed to eat this?” says Coolio.)

Jin and Suga have half a meal. The Korean chicken is delicious. The waffles, not so much. We never see Dante again. The Boys 2 Men team not only thought about the food but tried to engage their audience--Coolio--in the performance. Coolio says the lesson is that “If it looks good, if it smells good, if it tastes good, then it is good.” But I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s more like: you can’t just serve up crap while just goofing around and expect people to like it. It’s a wise lesson, indeed.

In episode three they dance. Their teacher is Jenny Kita, a well known backing dancer and a former Gwen Stefani “Harajuku Girl.” She assesses their dance abilities and sticks them into fairly well balanced groups that they’ll keep for the rest of the series. J-Hope, the best dancer, gets put with Jin, the worst.

Jimin and Rap Monster, the second best and second worst dancers.

And Jungkook, the third best, is joined by Suga and V.

Jenny also has a challenge for the teams: Work up and perform some choreography using a handful of moves that she assigns them. (She gives the “twerk” to Rap Monster and Jimin, much to all of our amusement.)

But first they must battle some real dancers in a dance battle! And it is hilarious. Poor Jungkook wipes out attempting a flip, which one of other older dancers on the dance team had been doing, and is gently scolded by the older man who says, “Never do anything you don’t have in a battle.” The real star is J-Hope, who puts on a fantastic show for everybody, really getting into the music. He seems almost wistful afterwards, reminiscing about when he used to do stuff like this in his pre-idol days. He doesn’t often get a chance to really cut loose and show off everything he’s got as a dancer. Most of their group choreography has to take into account the limitations of the weakest members, not the high ceilings of the best.

(Suga with his two large sons made me laugh so much.)
The actual challenges are also a lot of fun. It’s up to Suga, as the older and wiser member, to keep Jungkook and V on task and he’s not overly invested in doing so. The three craft some half-assed moves on the beach and then spend the rest of the time goofing off and eating pasta at what appears to be a Carmine’s. But they look so happy shoveling carbs into their faces and drinking giant sodas it’s hard to be mad at them for punting on this one. “In Korea we can’t walk around free like this,” says V.
Jimin and Rap Monster have a harder time getting into a groove. Jimin is talented but he still very young. He doesn’t yet have the communication skills to really tell Rap Monster, his elder and somebody he respects, how to execute the vision that’s in his head and Rap Monster doesn’t have the knowledge or command over his own body that a good dancer does and has trouble following Jimin’s examples. Not only does the pair look awkward--Rap Monster has a good foot in height over Jimin--but they also feel awkward dancing together. Finally, Jin and J-Hope really step up to the challenge. J-Hope creates choreography within Jin’s skill level and Jin, to his extreme credit, rehearses his ass off… in between playing around at the Fourth of July fireworks show.

Jenny gives it to Jin and J-Hope, a much deserved victory.

Episode four starts with chores. Jimin and Rap Monster have been left to clean the dorm the guys are staying in and it’s great television. Jimin is so indignant at having to clean the toilet. “Cleaning somebody else’s poop. This is life.”

Meanwhile the Trouble team--V, Jungkook, and Suga--head to the laundromat where they are both baffled and amused by everything. V talks to everybody and almost gets run over chasing a ball into the street. Jungkook is embarrassed about washing his underwear. Suga can’t stop winning at the claw machine games and treats his two large sons to ice cream.

Jin and J-Hope go grocery shopping and come back to cook for everybody. Jimin is once again so indignant at the mess that’s made of his clean counters while J-Hope crafts some sort of disgusting appetizer involving mushed white bread and cheese.

The lesson of episode four: It’s hard being Jimin.

Their next teacher is the one and only Warren G. He rolls up in a giant hummer stretch limo to give them a tour of Long Beach, where he grew up.

BTS was all dressed very cool except V, who is wearing a boater hat and looks like he stepped out of the J. Crew Catalog. I could not stop laughing every time the camera caught him in his pristine outfit, chilling on Long Beach in a boater hat like it was no big thing. Warren G, tall and soft spoken, warmed up to BTS immediately. He seemed very charmed by the gaggle of Korean boys who followed him around and attentively listened to everything he had to say as a respected elder. He bought them all Long Beach hats, which they all promptly put on except V because look, it didn’t go with the outfit, okay?!

Rap Monster, in particular, seemed impressed by how the neighborhood folks responded to Warren G and how kind he was to them in return. Everywhere they went in the old neighborhood, people came out to see Warren G and shake his hand and get a picture. And I think it made BTS take him a little more seriously. This isn’t just some guy, this is Warren G and even Warren G takes the time to press the flesh and give back to the fans that put him where he is.

Their assignment from Mr. G is to create their own lyrics to “Regulate” talking about their own lives. It’s an extremely American assignment and how each of the teams handles it is fascinating.

Rap Monster and Jimin, the out-of-sync pair, open up a little about being too self conscious and concerned with others’ opinions. Jimin says he’s tired of trying hard to fit in all the time. Rap Monster keeps coming back to seeing a big fat American guy confidently walking around without a shirt on. The idea that he could be confident like that too--that they both could--is liberating for them. J-Hope and Jin bond over their struggles in joining BTS. The struggle to fit into the group, to learn rapping, the desire to perform, to be themselves, even over the objections of their parents.

Suga gets his first chance to shine in this challenge. As one of the two members who knows something about rapping and hip hop, he takes charge of Team Trouble’s creative process. Listening to the worries youngsters Jungkook and V face about finding their place in life and adding his own worries about being creatively satisfied, he crafts some really sharp verses--Jungkook’s inelegant feeling like a “frog in a trash can” becomes a verse about feeling trapped in youth like Peter Pan.

Warren G praises all the groups but he has to pick a winner and it just has to be Suga’s team! One point for Team Trouble!

Episode five starts off with a backyard barbeque with Warren G and I cannot stress enough how warm and empathetic and wonderful Warren G is towards BTS. The man is legendary. It’s not easy to communicate over a language and culture barrier but if one barrier falls, so do others. It can be easier to talk about some things in a foreign environment to a stranger. The group shares a very moving conversation about family. I’ve never heard idols speak so frankly about missing their families. Jimin nearly broke my heart when he says that he wishes his parents could also see the amazing places he’s been to. They really are just kids.

Warren G is going to shoot a real American music video with BTS but first they need to collect the one thing American hip hop music videos have that BTS’s music videos do not have. Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about the ladies.

Once again, it is utterly fascinating to see the way this cross cultural communication takes place. Hot chicks have no place in male idol girl videos for the most part because the lack of heterosexual context is part of the point for female fans of male idol groups. But making a “real” hip hop video means taking the guys out of their idol personas. And it is hilarious.

BTS is sent out on the streets of LA with their limited English skills to try and hook a handful of hot girls to come and be in their video--three of whom show up the next day dressed up like real hot girls in American hip hop music videos. Tall, slender, and dressed sexily, these three “noonas” (lit. “big sister,” which is how younger Korean men refer to their older female friends) whip BTS into a frenzy. Half the group hovers around the three pretty ladies and the other half is terrified into shy silence. Poor Suga, in particular, says he feels short. And that he’s lived with Rap Monster for four years and has never seen him so happy--as the camera pans to the gaggle of BTS members attempting to flirt via gesture and broken English.

(Rap Mon thrilled to be chilling with some beautiful ladies.)

Of the three groups, J-Hope and Jin have the best chemistry with the “noonas.” J-Hope is the consummate performer and all awkwardness is forgotten once the camera turns on. Jin, the oldest and most empathetic of the group, says later that it even though he felt shy, it would have been unforgivably rude of him to not interact with the ladies properly after inviting them to appear in the video. Rap Monster and Jimin are once again extremely out of sync and fighting for camera time. Rap Monster is so focused on looking cool and showing off that he forgets the basics of putting on a good performance and Jimin lets anger and frustration at his partner’s lack of awareness get the better of him.

Team Trouble completely falls apart. Teenage Jungkook and V are clearly terrified of these tall, beautiful women and Suga loses himself in his own insecurities and cannot help them out.

It is all a gloriously entertainly mess and another win for Team J-J.

Episode six sends the three teams to meet three very different teachers. J-Hope and Jin are paired up with beatboxing master Faahz and they practice diligently through a fog of fatigue while working on songs in the recording studio. Rap Monster and Jimin are worked to the bone in the name of bboy dance by the Quest Crew’s Jolee with Jimin whining the entire time even as he does all the pull-ups and laps requested of him. (Look, it’s hard being Jimin, okay?) And, in the highlight of the entire series, Team Trouble is sent to singing lessons with the legendary Iris Stevenson.

(And a note if you watch through the end of this episode clip but I lost it at J-Hope’s “legalize it” T-shirt. Either he doesn’t know what it means and is inadvertently trolling or he does know what it means and is deliberately trolling. I can’t decide which is funnier.)

It’s clear that Iris-sungsannim is an incredibly talented teacher. She takes to V and his unexpectedly husky voice immediately, “Soulful, I like that.” Iris understands his insecurities and knows what he needs to hear. And she has Jungkook using his falsetto with more confidence after a single demonstration of breathing technique. But what shines through the most is how her infectious enthusiasm for music--for singing--as a spiritual practice is communicated to Team Trouble without her having to say one word about it. She puts her whole heart into her song and by example encourages V, Jungkook, and even Suga to do the same.

And everybody gets a big hug.

I like to think that her lessons live on for Team Trouble.

Episode seven may be my favorite one. It starts with a pick-up basketball game between Team Nate and Team Tony followed by ice cream from the corner store. And then BTS has to go to work--real work. Unfulfilling, grinding, hard work. A taste of the real American Hustle. Rap Monster and Suga are sent to a hotel to work housekeeping, diligently changing sheets and wiping down bathrooms to the head housekeeper’s demanding standard.

J-Hope, Jin, and V are sent as day labor to clean some wealthy douchebag’s yacht.

And poor Jimin and Jungkook are sent off to a private airfield to do odd jobs.

Maybe I appreciated this episode the most because working a shitty job under a shitty boss is something that most of America has in common. You know, the America that doesn’t have parents to pay our rent while we do unpaid internships or sit around waiting for a job offer that will allow us to “be creative in a group setting.” Out of all the missions they complete, episode seven is the one that brings them closest to what it’s like to be American for most of America: getting yelled at about bullshit by power tripping asshole bosses.

Of the three teams, Rap Monster and Suga have it the easiest. The hotel appears to be well run and after approval from the head of housekeeping Rap Monster is trusted to change sheets on his own while Suga goes and runs errands in the kitchen. At one point Suga says he just wants to be left in peace to wash the dishes and I knew exactly how he felt, that small pleasure of being able to zone out and listen to music as a way to get through a day of tedious labor. They also have the added bonus of feeling like part of a bigger team working to get something practical done. It’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to empty soup bowls knowing you’re helping out a co-worker than it is to well… clean some rich tech bro’s yacht so he can go take it sailing with some equally odious rich people.

J-Hope, Jin, and V try to make the best of their shitty assignment by keeping up playful banter but the job sucks and they have absolutely no reason to do any more than the bare minimum to get paid, so they don’t. Truly this team has learned the American work ethic. I have never been more proud.

The last team, Jimin and Jungkook, snag the absolute worst assignment. They are teenage boys and thrilled to be both at an airfield and on television and act accordingly, posing gleefully with the airplanes and wondering what “the Americans” in the terminal must think looking out at them in their cool work clothes. Unfortunately, they land that most American of American bosses--the insecure douchebag who uses micromanagement and yelling as a crutch for his lack of confidence and real authority. He makes their lives hell while they are at that airfield. Jungkook is able to tune him out to an extent but I really felt for Jimin, who wears his heart on his sleeve and his heart was indignant at their treatment. Jimin, buddy, believe me, I feel you.

After working their butts off, the three teams combine their funds for a special surprise. BTS had assumed they were earning money to use for their LA concert but Nate and Tony have different ideas. They’re going to give back to the community and use the money to deliver food to the homeless on Skid Row.

BTS is taken aback at first, anxious about how they’ll be received by the homeless they will be greeting and unsure about why they need to do this in first place. But as Nate and Tony walk them around to pass out food and listen to the homeless men, you can see that the BTS members really take the lessons to heart. Rap Monster, in particular, seems to understand and is touched by not only the respect that that Nate and Tony show to the homeless but also to BTS themselves by trusting them to be able to get serious carry out this charity work without fucking it up.

“Be who you are,” says one of the men. Well, by God, Rap Mon is going to do his best.

(And as a side note, I’d love to see the American BTS fan “ARMY” take up this mission. Let’s make feeding the homeless part of the BTS fandom. Who is with me?!)

It’s incredibly heartwarming to see how far BTS has come in their American journey with Nate and Tony have become their honorary American big brothers, smashing the language and culture divide in the name of global hip hop. From seeing hip hop as “swag” and bling as a costume to be put on to look cool they learn about hip hop as a tool for self expression and as a way of escaping the grind of poverty. Maybe not everything translates to the Korean context but I think the lessons they learned have traveled with them since then. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the material that came out post-American Hustle Life was more socially aware and thoughtful than what came before.

Episode eight ends the series with the preparation for the group’s Los Angeles concert and footage from that concert and I’m sorry to say that what struck me most of all was the culture gap between BTS and the crowd of fangirls there to see them. BTS had just spent two weeks immersed in learning about hip hop culture and were finally performing in America... but the audience didn’t understand. They didn’t know Warren G or “Regulate” and--as you can see in the performance linked above--the song just kind of sails over everybody’s heads. It’s a sad, unintentional repeat of the lesson they learned from Coolio--you have to make sure the audience is going to enjoy eating what you’re serving.

Two things--well, okay three--things stood out in the final interviews. Rap Monster had been understandably concerned about potential prejudice they would face as Koreans learning about an African American art form, Jimin had been anxious about being too shy to interact with anybody, and V… well, V was going to miss his new brothers Nate and Tony a lot.

I was really proud of all them for making it through in one piece.

American Hustle Life is such a wonderful piece of reality television and I think sheds a lot of insight into BTS, the Korean entertainment industry, and on the Korean views of hip hop and America. It was really touching watching these guys pull together and work hard for each other and for their craft. It made me a fan and I hope it makes you one, too.

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