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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