Sometimes I just want to listen to pop music. A lot of things fall under the umbrella of pop, but I’m not talking about clever indie bands and shufflin’ to the Shins (which I definitely do). I mean girly, dance-able pop. When the sugar cravings hit, I can turn to our good friend Katy Perry or Britney. But Korea is the goldmine of pop. They are killing it over there! K-Pop is utterly fascinating. So I did a highly scientific study using YouTube videos and comments.
While most K-Pop hits don’t take themselves too seriously, the fans do. Everyone seems to have a favorite group, and they will defend it viciously. Music videos are nitpicked ruthlessly, from a star’s singing abilities to her facial features. I tried to figure out who the most popular group was, and it seems to be the 9 member superpower known as Girls’ Generation, or SNSD. Why them? Well, there are some very old and very interesting ideas about sexuality and femininity running underneath the fan craziness and carefully crafted image of the major K-Pop girl groups.
Girls’ Generation is the biggest group number wise, but they also have the greatest star quality. Their music videos are shiny, expensive productions and each member is impossibly beautiful. In fact the group’s youngest member, Seohyun, is one of the most popular beauties in Korea. The whole ensemble is just so polished. Just watch their mega hit “Oh!” to see the epitome of SNSD’s image. SNSD’s most popular songs are pretty innocent. They are the queens of pining for delicate boys. From their videos to public appearances, the group’s handlers seem to be emphasizing wholesomeness. The group definitely has some darker/sexier videos, but that isn’t what made them famous. The sexiest video, “Run, Devil, Run,” is a very catchy pop song, but it’s a bit off. Where are the Candyland colors? The winning smiles? “Oh!” has an innocent sexuality to it, but it’s all coyness…it’s safe.
The other two groups that stood out were T-Ara and Kara. T-Ara reminds me of Britney Spears at her best in that they toe the line between the dance and pop genres very well. The girls have more attitude than SNSD, but it’s more fun sass and hipstery edge than sexually aggressive. They still sing very much about getting the guy. One of Kara’s hits, “Pretty Girl,” is pure sugar. They even have a song called “Honey.”
I love this music, but it drips with some age old fear of female sexuality. Fans of SNSD, T-Ara, and Kara love cuteness, smiles, and demand that their beloved stars always be well-mannered and pretty. I thought it was telling that many comments on T-Ara videos criticize member Jiyeon for being an “ice princess.” Women must be demure and friendly, not aloof. Other K-Pop groups, like Rainbow, have a much more mature image. They have plenty of fans, but nothing near the insanity of the SNSD fandom. If you want to play in the K-Pop big leagues, you have to be beautiful, and playfully sexy, but never aggressive.
The one big exception to this rule is 2NE1. In the YouTube fan wars, sometimes it boils down to Girls’ Generation vs. 2NE1, and they are very, very different. 2NE1’s CL and Minzy are only 20 and 17, respectively (the other two members, Dara and Bom, are in their late 20s), but they seem worlds older than the sunnier girls of Kara or SNSD. They are sexy and tough. Their message is about independence and empowerment, not sighing over the guy. If their hearts are broken, they aren’t crying, but hiding behind a steely demeanor. “Can’t Nobody” and “I Don’t Care” are good places to start if you want to get a feel for the group’s message and outlook. 2NE1, like the other major girl groups, make great music. However, the fan dichotomy is indicative, a bit, of that darned virgin-whore problem (those are strong words, but roll with the figurative language). A girl group can either be sweet and coy or all-out sexy, but not both.
Of course, this issue is everywhere. It’s in art history! It’s in the way men talk about women and way women judge other women. And it’s very much in American pop music. Britney, Christina, and Lady Gaga are mature and sexy. Disney starlets and Taylor Swift are innocent girls. Just look at the way those starlets are flamed when they try to break the bubblegum mold!
Can we reach a point where we enjoy female entertainers while also letting them be complex, dynamic beings?