Posts tagged ‘LGBT’

Poetic Flow and Gender Fluidity in K Pop

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I am a secret K pop fan. Actually I’m secret K pop addict. Get me talking, or read on and you’ll find I know way more than I should. I know that a SHAWOL (linguistic mashup) is a fan (usually teenage, American, female) who spends too much time on the internet appreciating heartthrob K pop band ShinEE. I know that 2MIN is the slang mash-up for the constant fan speculation over whether Taemin and Minho from ShinEE are gay bromance partners. I know that the Girls Generation members might have surgical enhancements – or so says word on the street. I know that the internet is full of fan made homage to K pop stars, sometimes in the form of wishful written or pictorial pornography embroidering both gay and straight fantasy scenarios between K pop personalities.

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Why is K pop culture so seductive?

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Cursory research reveals the K pop machine to be exactly that – a comprehensive in-house assembly line of picture perfect 20 somethings with athletes bodies and models faces, made even more slick by makeup and in some cases, plastic surgery. The music, lyrics and dance moves, which are shamelessly derivative of US R ‘n’B are created in studio by cadres of session musicians and composers employed by Seoul Media – the centralised empire of K pop product. Seoul Media is its own world, with an olympic sized stadium at which acts ‘debut’, then regularly present shows or ‘stages’ – during which fans chant and wave glo-sticks in ecstatic unison. K pop is often written in English, translated back in to Korean, then peppered with English phrases spoken in American accents, finished off with devilishly slick production and dance routines which inspire mass devotion and group participation. K pop stars may enjoy the celebrity spotlight but they work for their money. Already virtuoso singers, dancers, actors and athletes, they perform and record relentlessly, with an obligatory round of product endorsements, game show appearances, solo projects, soap opera roles and promotional stunts – some of which are deliberately compromising, challenging and embarrassing. Like being made to kiss seedy game show hosts or being hypnotised on national TV. Shows like ‘We Got Married’, (self-explanatory) ‘Hello Baby’ (pop stars get to baby sit a toddler for a month) and ‘Running Man’ (silly sport stunts) really take this to hilarious extremes. Every now and again, boy groups will do their own version of the girl group songs, a few keys down, with the same dance moves. The air hostess glamour of Girls Generation song ‘Genie’ translates into high camp when the boys do it dressed as pink ribboned sailors. It’s hard to say which version is better. (You decide – watch the girls HERE and the boys HERE.)

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It could be said that K pop is uniquely Korean – a national character of steadfast service, obedience to tradition and goodwill, a must try harder and better, (whilst having fun) work ethic – which at the end of K pop concerts erupts into orgies of repressed emotion. Watch any of ShinEEs big concerts – by the penultimate song, lead singer Jonghyun will start crying and can barely sing, to the point where I have wondered whether it’s a stunt.  It’s not, it’s real. Footage of their French tour has them all in hysterics with the entire crowd chanting in French, ‘Don’t Cry.’ (which they must have heard in every language by now)

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But, K pop is also an incredibly skilful mimicry of Western, American pop and soul, with acutely observed and replicated physical and vocal motifs that owe everything to Michael and Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Prince. K pop singers can also rap like African-American rappers and dress accordingly too – almost past the point of good taste/political sensitivity, with nuances that might well be lost on the performers themselves. K pop is a performance art that has done the West better that  it could do itself – then exported the product back across the water. South Korea as a nation has in the last 20 years seen a meteoric rise, especially in the realm of technology and business and the ‘soft power’ of the creative and entertainment industries. Always in the shadow of the unpredictable North, a war survivor and a ‘catch up’ nation good at copying, not innovation, South Korea has now emerged into an undisputed global contender, with brand names, catch phrases, fast foods and household names that economists foresee will become ubiquitous in the West. K pop is an energy exchange, manipulated, arguably, by the older generation for the young, but in the hands of the young, has a life of its own. Go on YouTube and you will find that US high school girls are learning Korean just so they can understand their favourite K pop lyrics. They are also crushing heavily on the androgynous beauty of Korean men as a welcome contrast to American standards of  hyper masculinity. From the other side, delve behind the Korean fashion industry and you will see beauty products, accessories, makeup tutorials and whole streets of plastic surgery clinics devoted to making Korean eyes look more European. (also prevalent in China)

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Is this East/West love affair unbelievably messed up or – is something potentially more interesting going on?

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OK, so pop culture is mass manipulation – which has suckered me along with everyone else – but let me now focus on the positive. I first saw the the video to ShinEE’S ‘Hello’ playing at my favourite Korean restaurant where I sometimes stop before going to my teaching job. I was utterly taken. My first thought was how like Michael Jackson they were, in sound and choreography. Then, what genuinely good singing. But mainly they seemed to have a pink haired drag queen/LadyBoy singing with them – how progressive, unusual and refreshing. How gay! Was this a gay act? Of course it was K pop phenomenon Lee Taemin, youngest member and ‘maknae’ (trainee) of the group, (joined at 14 now 22) whom SHAWOL fag hags all over the world passionately hope is fellow member Choi Minhos gay lover.

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I began to follow ShinEE, to the point of even tracking down imports from now defunct HMV. Their whole act fascinated me. Not just their music, (they are great singers, each very distinctive) but also hilarious fan-made mashups, parodies and mistranslations that gently satirise group members quirks and also manage to reference the down low yet obvious gay undertones of the group. Here’s what was refreshing to me, since I am a gay act with virtually no role models.  I don’t like all their releases or – fashion phases, (blue contact lenses – no!) but at best, their energy is a perfect storm of male and female energy that makes more sense to me than anything I am seeing in the western music world, male or female, gay or straight. As a lesbian person, songwriter and performer – I am craving some sort of reflection back to myself of something that feels like me – a kind of third path. Femininity that’s tough, baggy trousered, streetwise, desirous of female company and not afraid to grab it’s crotch. Masculinity that’s camp, glam, kind, silly, funny, gentle and homo-erotic. They really are my honorary lesbians…

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And what about Amber (pictured above) – female rapper and dancer with K pop group FX? This super fit and bendy dancer was born and raised in the US, and can be under no illusions as to what her style suggests to a generation used to ‘The L Word’, ‘Orange Is The New Black’ and Ruby Rose. Amber is a pure delight, whether body popping on daytime TV, promoting her cosmetic line, ‘Talent’, filming her army reality TV experience (which positions her as a straight tomboy falling for the male officer – but we don’t believe her) or hanging out with the ShinEE boys singing, (google it) the Llama song. She radiates affability, humour and ease. She’s especially cute hanging out on the Eat Your Kimchi show – eating Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour beans – which may be a a fictional confection from the Harry Potter books – but also exist as a real product that’s big in South East Asia. She too, has attracted speculation as to whether she was involved with ShinEE members. They all grew up around each other in a celebrity environment so, who knows?

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At the end of the day, K pop kids, your gay fans don’t care that much if you are gay or not – we love that you might be. You make a product that is inspiring and ever so slightly challenging enough that it might just soften up the world we live in. We hope you didn’t have to sleep with unsavoury people to get to the top, that you are not too tired, dieting and working out constantly, and that you are not contractually forced into plastic surgery and that you are not mind controlled robots and that you get to see and spend some of those earnings. In the West we have a LGBT movement with lots of visibility and social acceptance. I understand that in South Korea – for all that Seoul has Gay Pride and a gay district – that things are much more on the ‘down low’ and less accepted in the conservative mainstream, especially with the older generation. Still, like in Thailand there seems to be a very unaffected natural same sex erotic flow that is actually more laid back than in UK media and society. No-one shouts ‘gay’ as a insult if men hold hands in the street (do they?) whereas in the UK, they will. Amber can look like a dyke in broad daylight on national TV and is safe to do so. Maybe visible K pop Bromance is a way for hidden but ‘genuine gays’ to hide in plain sight. Maybe it’s just affection and us ‘real gays’ in the west are guilty of sexualising everything. It’s hard to believe the love between this lot is not real. It comes across onstage as more than an act. And the widely available fan cam, candid and casual footage of these stars just hanging out, is filled with chemistry, attraction and affection. Who knows for sure?  Can these worlds meet? The wonderful combination of not having to call it what it is, but having the human right to do so, and yet one day not even having to. AND YET, being proud. Because love is love. Even as a distant dream – this is a world worth imagining.  So come out when you’re ready, guys and gals.

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 ShinEE fighting! 화이팅 ! Amber too! Gay Icons (or not) forever! 

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Resources:

Eat Your Kimchi  Hugely enjoyable quirky travel and culture show by straight, but gay friendly Canadian couple Simon and Martina.

What the Pineapple  Ambers recently launched entertainment channel.

Sweet and Tasty TV  Language lessons, travel, food, culture and ‘KWOW’ (Korean word of the week) from sweet and tasty, age-defying, gender-bending Professor Oh.


 

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What is a Lesbian Icon?

 

My recent feature in the GaydarGirls blog and my conversation with the folk there about future content, has made me think about the commodification and market appeal of gay lifestyle….

In a retrospective mood, here is a ‘celebrity cribs’ style feature in DIVA magazine, from 2008. (Photo by Emma Innocenti)

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Are we getting to the point where it’s not only ok to be a lesbian woman, but something marketable, loveable, motivational, aspirational…for the average citizen, male or female? Can lesbian arts, culture, lifestyle and social commentary ever become a major lifestyle export. Is there a uniquely lesbian perspective, i.e what do lesbians have that the non-lesbian doesn’t? Is it a special mixture of genders…a two-spirited approach that blurs the boundary of gender expectations, conventions or limitations? Is it a love and appreciation of women that champions, in a political sense, the achievements, dreams, stories and concerns of women? Is it a precious liberation from male approval? (many non-lesbian women have that – or do they?) Is it having the sensibility of a woman and the brass nuts of a man – or the other way round (do non-lesbians also have that?)

What is an ‘icon’, in the contemporary sense of the word? We all have our heroines and heroes, who may be sports personalities, musicians, spiritual leaders, authors, historical figures. Why do they symbolise so much for us? At what point do they just become an ‘icon’ through repeated exposure on the fabric of popular culture? You know something or someone has become a brand name once they are quoted or referenced as themselves (not as fiction) – in a fictional setting. How about lesbian icons that aren’t gay, (or even female) yet resonate, with their style or energy, for real life lesbians? How far does the media manipulate our tendency to consume and idolise such figures by just inserting someone in the public eye and telling us what they represent?

I always resisted the idea of fame for it’s own sake…but becoming more well known (at a pace that’s realistic) is a goal for anyone who has something to say or share. Especially in these days of direct artist/audience communication. Nowadays, the road to fame can be a gradual, self-governed curve, rather than an industrial process that catapults musicians into the spotlight, usually way too young, chews them to pieces and spits them out. I was brought up to believe that ‘fame’ was something that would ultimately limit, not enhance freedom. However much I may have envied the child stars of the 70’s and 80’s – Tatum O’Neal, Jodie Foster, ‘Kids from Fame’ and the Jackson family – I was sensible enough to know that I wouldn’t want that exposure or pressure. Yet.

These days, I’m very much enjoying the steady rise…I quite like the thought of being a lesbian Icon. I wouldn’t mind at all kids looking at me and thinking, ‘hey it’s obviously cool to be gay’. It is cool. Even on a bad day, it’s cool. And on a good day – well I’m not surprised it’s still illegal in so many places. It’s that good. It’s that powerful. One day, lesbian sexuality won’t be seen as something shameful, weird, laughable, unnatural, dangerous, threatening, unlawful, punishable by death or excommunication, or even remotely remarkable. And that too, will be cool with me.


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