2PM, a six-member male group from JYP Entertainment, may be the model for K-pop’s beast-like masculinity, which primarily depends on appearance, but they also participate in the black male soul tradition, which uses vocal ability to inform a different kind of masculinity.
One Thing That All Humanities Scholars Can Do To Integrate The Digital Into Their Humanities
I recently gave a presentation at the Council on Undergraduate Research 2016 Biennial Conference on undergraduate research and digital humanities. The session was well-attended. Some the individuals who attended were not only interested in undergraduate research as a co-curricular activity, but also the unicorn that is digital humanities. I know many scholars in the humanities do not feel that they can participate in digital humanities. However, I think there is at least one thing that all humanities scholars can do to digital into their humanities.
Whether it’s excited yelling by fans or crying by K-pop artists, emotions run deep in K-pop. While some focus on obsessive emotional attachments and behaviors by fans, research shows that fans themselves describe a range of emotional responses to K-pop. 100 responses by 18- to 30-year-olds show that fans find K-pop to be a source of happiness, hope and motivation. These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at KPK: Kpop Kollective.
Some writers tend to characterize fan activities and emotional expressions in negative terms. Patricia of Seoulbeats describes emotional expressions of appreciation for K-pop as bordering on obsessive: “I think there’s something to be said about my stance on the emotional toll that idol fandom takes on its devotees. That’s why I become so alarmed when I see these SHINee fans writing these intense emotional outpourings about how SHINee has changed their lives, or how much SHINee means to them. It breaks my heart to hear fans say that they turn to K-pop as a distraction for real life because their friends and family can’t offer them the same comfort that K-pop idols do.”
Adeline Chia writes that such emotions translate into obsessive behaviors: “Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry. . . . K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate. Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals.”
To view entire “Can’t Stop Loving You” infographic, click here.
However, fans talk about the emotional appeal of K-pop in more positive terms. Some talk about overall emotions that go beyond the lyrics. One notes, “Kpop has the power to touch people even for those like me who don’t understand the lyrics. I think [it] is the r[h]ythm, the emotion in the voices, the dances. Kpop is like a best friend, it is here for you whenever you are happy or sad. Powerful stuff.” Another said: “The music is more touching and you can feel the emotions of the singers when they sing regardless of what genre.” Others link emotions to performances: “They sing and perform with passion and emotions, so even if you can’t really understand the lyrics you will get to know what it’s about by just listening. Kpop is not just another type of music it’s much more, that I can’t describe it with words” (Anderson).
These responses echo what scholars have discovered about emotional responses to music that transcend cultural differences. In a study with Western listeners listening to Hindustani ragas, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson find that it is possible for music to travel cross-culturally: “According to our model, this indicates that the psychophysical cues for joy, sadness, and anger were salient enough to enable listeners to overcome their unfamiliarity with culture-specific cues and to make an accurate assessment of the intended emotion. . . . That naive listeners demonstrated such a high level of agreement with expert listeners, who were deeply familiar with the culture-specific cues embedded in the music samples, is remarkable” (58). In other words, listeners from other cultures can identify emotionally with music of a different culture, and this may shed light on why global fans identify with K-pop emotionally.
This emotional response runs the gamut. Many respondents describe how they find K-pop to be fun and happy. One notes, “Cause the music is always so free and fun to dance to. It simply makes me happy.” Another adds, “The songs are really refreshing, and listening to it puts me in a happy mood because of their lyrics and beats.” Other respondents link the happiness they feel from K-pop to their lives in general: “It always puts me in a good mood and makes me feel energized. Kpop sometimes can make you feel like your part of something bigger. It’s hard to explain but the feeling it gives you is great” (Anderson).
Others related K-pop to more somber emotions. One respondent says, “Because it’s very different and the music touches something in me, I mean this is not superficial, there are feelings in every song, this could be happiness or some sad feelings.” Another notes, “When I listen to sad songs I find that it have feelings in it and it will touched me too.” One says, “There’s an upbeat to the music that sometimes make you want to dance other times depending on where you heard it from makes you sad” (Anderson).
Some fans talk about how K-pop helps them through hard times. One respondent notes, “It was introduced to me at a hard time in my life and it has been the only music I listened to help me get through it.” Another says, “Kpop appeared in my life all of a sudden. I was really depressed back then and it helped me get out of my miserable state, pulled me out of the worst” (Anderson). Music can have the therapeutic effect these respondents describe. Annemiek Vink explains therapy methods, such as Guided Imagery in Music, which is “based on the assumption that the most appropriate music can be selected for healing purposes.” She further finds that the choice of music impacts the therapeutic results of GIM: “In all aspects, carefully selected music based on the person’s preference and personal background was far more effective than standard relaxation music” (153, 154).
This range of fairly positive emotions challenges negative characterizations of their emotional expression. These responses come from adults rather than young teenagers, so it is less convincing to describe them as obsessive along the lines of Chia. She refers to incidents involving K-pop celebrities, but respondents speak about their emotions mostly in relation to the music. When they do comment on the artists, it is often in terms of the positive relationship they have with fans. One notes, “The singers are so dedicated to their music and their fans. They put their real emotion into every word” (Anderson).
This emotional connection that some K-pop fans feel also translates into a discourse of protection, the desire to protect their group or artist from mischaracterizations. The Triple S Pledge encourages fans of SS501 “To support and shield them through hard times…To ignore rumors.” The same sentiments can be seen in the “Prom15e to Bel13ve and 10ve” philosophy held by some fans of Super Junior, which acknowledges every member regardless of current status or sub-group membership.
These findings suggest that emotion plays a role in the attitudes and opinions of adult global K-pop fans, often in a positive way.
While some academics may be skeptical about the intellectual value of using a blog as part of their research, I have found that it has numerous benefits.
Some academics look down on blogging for research because it is goes against the conventional wisdom that the only things that matter in scholarship are peer-reviewed production: journal article, book chapters in edited collections, monographs. Scholars are concerned because we all know the weight such publications carry in annual evaluations, promotion and tenure and our overall reputations in our fields. We may reason, “If I’m going to spend my time writing, it needs to be on something that counts.”
Yes, these kinds of publications count, but they do not begin to capture the breadth of our scholarship. The process by which we engage ideas as we arrive at our brilliant conclusions is also scholarship, and blogging about our research can capture this. Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes, “When a scholar with a blog writes a bit about some ideas-in-process, receives some feedback in response, returns with further ideas, reiterates, and so on, we can glimpse once again the seriality that has always been at the heart of scholarly production.”
Blogging also documents that process. Rather than thoughts being lost in our own heads, blog posts capture our epiphanies as they occur. We rarely recognize how much intellectual labor we utilize. I find blogging to be a concrete way to capture that intellectual labor and map my own thought process. Nothing I write comes out fully polished and ready to go and that’s ok. In a piece last year for The Chronicle on Higher Education, Bruce Henderson noted what happens behind-the-scenes of scholarship production:
They do not see us reading, talking with—and listening to—colleagues, or translating new information into class notes or research ideas. They do not see us struggling to find out what is important in the overwhelming amount of new information in every discipline. Yet such consumatory scholarship is fundamental to up-to-date teaching, to the initial stages of research projects, and to institutional and community service based on expertise rather than just good intentions.
Blogging is one way to capture that consumatory scholarship. We all know you cannot write responsibly about something unless you know what’s already been written. I use blogging on my research site as a way to do that publicly. It’s helpful for me because I can see the product of my in-process thinking.
But there are other, less-discussed reasons for research blogging. Blog posts validate smaller sized articulations of our thinking. Being driven to write only journal articles or book chapters can contribute to the kind of unproductive mindset that Kerry Ann Rockquemore talks about in her essay on academic perfectionism. She asks: “Do you hold onto your drafts until you think they are perfect and only share manuscripts with others when they are in their most advanced stage?” “Do you have an intense fear of failure because it might reveal to others that you are not perfect (or have as much potential as others thought you had)?” ” Are you so fixated on the end goal of publishing your paper, receiving a grant, and/or getting stellar teaching evaluations that if you don’t meet the goal, it doesn’t even matter what happened in the process?” Positive answers to these questions may indicate a mode of perfectionism that produce “self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that are aimed at reaching an unrealistic goal (perfection).”
I have found that blogging helps me to avoid these extreme views about my writing. It allows me to set smaller goals, and I write more. By writing shorter pieces, my writing improves in my peer-reviewed work as well.
Finally, blogging gave me a sense of control over my own work that we can lose working exclusively toward peer-reviewed publications. In exchange for the opportunity to be published, we give up the rights over our own work. This may contribute to the way academia operates an uncertain venture for some. Rockquemore notes that the academic environment is one “where there are no objective and transparent criteria for tenure and promotion, but instead a moving target of ever-escalating expectations” and “where success is largely under the control of others and rejection rates are astronomically high.”
Isn’t the ultimate goal of research to contribute to a body of knowledge that people can access? So, I decided that I would I write and publish small pieces of my research on my blog to share directly with the public: no paywalls, no passwords, no undecipherable jargon. Just the attribution will make me happy. I get to decide how others can use it through a Creative Commons license. If somebody asks me to translate a post in French, I can say yes because I exercise a measure of control over my own writing that I don’t always do in peer-reviewed publications.
It is also important to me that some of the writing I do should be the kind my family and friends can read. It was especially important for this work on Korean popular culture, because so much of my source material is in the public square and relies on the public production of others (i.e. fans) and their perceptions.
This writing has paid off I ways I could not anticipate. I have extended my academic circle and have been offered more traditional academic opportunities as a result of my blog writing. I engage with people who aren’t academics but have deep insights in my subjects. I talk to people.
Blogging our research may seem counterintuitive, but I know my traditional academic writing has benefitted as a result.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Blogs as Serialized Scholarship.” Planned Obsolescence. 12 Jul 2012. Web. 3 Mar 2013.
K-pop girl groups tend to be described as sexy, fierce or cute. Some suggest that images of fierceness encourage girls to be empowered, while images of cuteness take away their agency. However, responses by fans of f(x), a K-pop female group, suggest that fans prefer unique and diverse images of women.
Male groups outnumber female groups in K-pop, but girl groups attract large numbers of mostly female fans. Commentators and fans describe these girl groups as cute, sexy or fierce. On the blog Miss Unconditionally Moilicious, Miss Mila describes the difference between 2NE1 and SNSD, two of most popular girl groups, this way:
First of all, 2NE1 and SNSD are completely different. 2NE1 is westernized in every way and makes music with “the independent woman” theme. SNSD is much more oriented towards the Asian audience and makes cuter and less intense music.
Fans tend to think of the independent image of 2NE1 as more empowering and the cute image of SNSD as less empowering. One respondent wrote: “I’m not interested in girl groups that go over the top with the cuteness and the aegyo because I just find that plain annoying. So to see a group that focuses on how strong women can be and how sexy women can be without the overuse of ‘cute’ is something that drew me in immediately.” (Anderson, “2ne1 Data Set”).
Lizzie at Beyond Hallyu echoes the critique of the cutesy image for women when talking about SNSD’s “I Got a Boy”: “However, I was still shocked by how blatantly this song flaunts it’s reductionist, and frankly insulting, view of women. By using a more complex song structure to tell more stories and show more points of view, this song manages to create an even worse image of young women than songs like ‘Oh!’ by the sheer number of negative portrayals. Both the video and the song consistently portray women in numerous different examples as vain, petty, manipulative and incompetent.”
These opinions suggest that fans of K-pop’s girl groups only see images in terms of cute/fierce. However, fans of f(x) say they like the group for reasons that go beyond the cute/fierce binary.
Like most K-pop fans, fans of f(x) like the group because of the music, which fans find to be unique. One respondent wrote: “Just like the meaning of their name, their music does not stick to a single or fixed genre, which i believe is a very good point in terms of music flexibility. they can go from dance to bubblegum pop then to ballads, showing their strength in adapting different genres of music” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”).
This range can be seen in the ballad “Beautiful Goodbye” and the dance single “NU ABO”:
Respondents also embrace the variety of concepts of f(x). They say that the members have different personalities and different talents. One respondent wrote: “Their music is amazing and their personalities are even better!” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”). Several respondents also made reference to their appearance, calling members cute and beautiful. At the same time, respondents identified Amber‘s “tomboy” concept as something they liked. One respondent wrote: “But most importantly I like the fact that they have Amber in the group, because she is a tomboy, and not any other group in Kpop or even in the mainstream really have an “amber” in the group!” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set).
This range of images can be seen in f(x)’s photo shoot for Marie Claire Korea and a photo from a Thailand trip:
Other respondents see the images of f(x) as falling in between those reflected by SNSD and 2NE1. One wrote: “I don’t always follow F(x) but they’re another unique image among girl groups! They also don’t go with traditional cutesy and sexy like 2ne1.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”) Another wrote: “They are often over shadowed by their SNSD seniors which is what provokes me to pay attention to them even more.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”)
Other respondents also identified the diversity of the members themselves in terms of ethnicity. One respondent wrote: “Two Chinese members and two English speaking members which makes for me being able to understand them more. Support Victoria because she’s mainland Chinese like myself ” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”). Another wrote: “I also like how the group is half Korean and mixes members from different places.” (Anderson, “f(x) Data Set”)
Instead of limiting the members of f(x) to one image of women, fans demonstrate that they like a range of images for women. Respondents shows that they include cuteness as just one of a range of images that women can take on. When commentators use the cute/sexy binary to describe girl groups, they are using an Anglo-American feminist lens that not only eliminates other modes of being a woman, but it also overlooks the role that race and ethnicity plays in expressions of feminism. Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal write:
Many feminists who identify themselves as marxist view all women as belonging to a unified class with a homogeneous class consciousness. The Eurocentric and class-bound nature of this analysis is reflected in the theorization of the family as the primary site of oppression. Third world feminists and feminists of color have objected to a hegemonic approach that demonizes non-Western families as more oppressive than their first world counterparts. (351)
In other words, commentators measure the feminism of K-pop girl groups by Western definitions of empowerment. These definitions do not take into consideration how different women may value different kinds of femininity. Specifically, commentators define feminism in K-pop by rejecting cuteness. However, fans of f(x) show that they embrace a range of concepts of women, including cuteness. In this way, they are like other fans of K-pop girl groups. Sun Jung and Yukie Hirata explain that Japanese fans like K-pop girl groups for a variety of reasons:
K-pop girl groups present variedly constructed images including strong female images less visible in the Japanese aidoru pop scene, and many young Japanese female fans see them as role models. As widely reported, these fans find K-pop girl groups are kakkoii (“cool”) and sexy, whereas J-pop girl groups are mainly kawaii (“cute”) (Y. S. Jeon 2011; H. S. Kim 2010).
Fans of f(x) also value the variety in both concepts as well as the members of the group. Specifically, they recognize the different ethnicities of the members of the group, something that also challenges an Anglo-American form of feminism. The responses of fans of f(x) demonstrate that there are multiple forms of feminism at play in K-pop girl groups.
Many know that K-pop fans play an active role in K-pop, but few may know just how complex K-pop fandoms are.
What is a Fandom?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines fandom as “the world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist.” Fandom refers to a collection of fans of the general pursuit or to a collection of fans of a specific practitioner of the pursuit.
So, K-pop fandom can refer to fans who identify as fans of K-pop, the amusement. Of 790 respondents who answered a question about why they were K-pop fans between April 29, 2011 and April 15, 2012 as part of an iFans survey, many described themselves as fans of K-pop in general, not of a particular group or artist. One respondent noted: “95% of the songs in my Ipod belong to the Kpop genre. Also, I constantly update myself with Kpop news from various internet websites” (Anderson). Another noted “spending lots of time watching Kpop news, videos and listening to Kpop songs” (Anderson). Several respondents also noted that they were members of online K-pop media outlets and cover dance groups.
K-pop fandom can also refer to fans who identify as fans of an individual K-pop group or solo artist. While media frequently suggests that K-pop groups are alike, the fandoms of specific groups and artists are very different. Some of the more defined fandoms have developed their own culture and languages.
K-pop’s Fan Communities
Individual K-pop fandoms are made even more complicated by their global nature, as they involve fans inside and outside of Korea.
On one hand, there are official fan clubs sanctioned by the artist such as those described by Paul Théberge: “Since the mid-1990s, it has become common for stars to have their own professionally run websites. . . . These sites are run variously by artists, their management, their record companies, or more recently, by specialized third-party interests” (493). Often after a K-pop group or artist debuts, management and the artist will name their fans, create an official fan club and designate an official fan club color. For example, Starship Entertainment debuted the male group Boyfriend in May 2011, and announced the name of the fanclub in August 2011: “Despite many feeling ‘Girlfriend’ would fit the group’s fanclub name perfectly, Boyfriend felt the name would have not been appropriate for their male fans, so instead Boyfriend fans will now be called ‘Best Friends’” (“Boyfriend Reveals Fan Club Name). Decisions about fanclub names are often made with fans in mind. Those who obtain membership in these official fan clubs receive perks, including advanced notice of activities, access to merchandise and preference in concert seating.
However, most of these official fanclubs are not open to fans outside of Korea. Blogger BOYMILK reports: “Fan club applicants to any fan club for SM Entertainment artists generally must have a Korean Social Security number (chumin tŭngnok pŏnho, 주민 등록 번호) in order to apply. This makes it effectively impossible for international K-pop fans to join official fan clubs for some of K-pop’s most famous idol groups.” Nevertheless, fans outside of Korea have established hundreds of unofficial fan communities on blogs and websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Tumblrs. The following graphic shows how fandoms are represented on Twitter. It includes fandoms from various countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Chile, Spain, Indonesia, Japan, France and Italy. It also includes a range of groups, from the “idol groups” like f(x) and SHINee, to bands like F.T. Island, to hip-hop artists like Drunken Tiger and Epik High.
While these fan communities are not subject to corporate control and do not receive the perks of the official fanclubs, they do play a significant role in K-pop. For example, Soshifiedis website for a global community in support of the female group, Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD). Reporting more than 10 million page views per month, the site has organized meet-ups with fans in the United States and raised money for charitable causes including Japan relief and YMCA’s Youth Center in Seoul. The organization also spearheaded a 2011 “field trip” organized in partnership with the Korean Tourism Organization, which “included the attending of Girls’ Generation 2nd Tour Concert and MBC studio recordings. The field trip was heavily covered by the Korean media and Soshified members were featured in several Korean entertainment news broadcasts and newspapers” (Soshified, About Us).
The Landscape of K-pop Fandom
Given the number of K-pop groups and artists and the number of years since the beginning of Hallyu-era K-pop, there are hundreds of fan communities that make up K-pop’s individual fandoms. To further complicate the landscape, some individual fandoms will combine with other fandoms. The following graphic represents Twitter accounts of such combo fandoms, such as fans of both Shinhwa and SS501 (TripleChangjo), Infinite and SHINee (InspiritShawolGirl), and Super Junior and Girls’ Generation (Super Generation).
Whether talking about the general K-pop fandom or individual K-pop fandoms, the first thing to know is that the landscape of K-pop fans is complicated.
Some people think that male K-pop groups are all the same. However, research suggests that fans differ in their attitudes towards individual male K-pop groups. Responses collected from fans of Super Junior and BigBang reveal that they also hold different opinions on their music and group dynamic. Such responses suggest that while some do not distinguish between male K-pop groups, fans do.
Media Representations of Male K-pop Groups
Because many male K-pop groups are idol groups, they tend to be painted with the same broad, generalized brush. Sometimes, they are described as being too similar to each other. An editorial in The Korea Times, suggests that people “seem fed up with similar ‘idol’ dance groups cropping up like mushroom[s].”
Other times, they are seen as promoting the same musical style or image. Part of this is attributed to the training program Korean agencies use for idols. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “constant monitoring of the tastes and preferences of the consumers and factoring the successful elements back into the products. . . [make] successful products increasingly predictable and. . . homogenizes the entire domestic music scene.” Nabeela at seoulbeats echoes the concern about groups being the same by speculating about “how much of the content in K-entertainment is standardized and recycled.”
However, a comparison of the responses from fans of Super Junior and BigBang reveals that fans like the groups for different reasons. This data represents a convenience sample collected via an online survey between December 8, 2012 and May 1, 2013. Respondents were asked to explain why they considered themselves a fan of the respective groups. 80 respondents identified themselves as fans of Super Junior, and 119 respondents identified themselves as fans of BigBang. Of these 199 respondents, 95.7% were women and 4.3% were men. Participants were: Asian (42.3%), White (41.2%), Latino (8.4%) and Black (7.9%). They largely hail from the United States, Hungary, United Kingdom, Philippines and Australia. Respondents range in age: 32.6% were 16-18, 31.6% were 18-21, 12.8% were 22-25, 14.4% were 25-30 and 8.6% were 30 and over. This data was analyzed using phenomenological methods.
Both fandoms cite music as a major factor in the appeal of the groups, but Super Junior fans liked the upbeat nature of the music, while BigBang fans valued the edgy and unique nature of the group’s music.
Super Junior fans like the cheerful nature of the music. One respondent noted: “I can listen to their songs any time even if I sad or depressed” (Anderson). Another stated: “Their music always makes me smile no matter how depressed I am” (Anderson). Super Junior fans also cited the pop-oriented style that the group reflects, as well as a range of styles. One respondent wrote: “Their music has gone from happy, bubbly pop to funky dance tracks” (Anderson).
Reviews of Super Junior albums reveal that the group is generally known for pop-oriented fare that also ranges across genres. Jung Bae describes their 2012 release, Mr. Simple, as “cleanly divided into club/dance and pop ballad(s),” where singles like “Opera” are “a standout, paced by an intoxicating stutter beat and a sublime sense of kinetic energy throughout.” Emily Wu references the “Super Junior Funky Style” in her review of the album: “It contains a catchy and addicting tune and melody that is sure to grab your attention from the get-go.”
BigBang fans focused more on the unique nature of the music. Some cited the specific genre of hip-hop as a major reason for the appeal of the group. One respondent noted: “Their style of music is what I enjoy most in American music, even if I don’t listen to American music as much anymore. Hip hop and R&B were genres that I grew up on but then it started changing too much for me. But Big Bang has a style to them that makes me love the genre all over again” (Anderson). Such opinions dovetail into another theme that emerged from the responses, namely, the unique nature of the group in respect to BigBang’s music. One respondent noted: “Their music caught me when I first listened to it and it is nice to listen to whenever I want to something different then the usual Kpop” (Anderson). Another noted: “Their music is distinguishable and stands out amist all of Kpop” (Anderson). BigBang has a reputation for being more adventurous in terms of their music.
Ashleigh Gregory describes the 2011 album Alive as partaking in a range of genres: “This album combines a variety of safe, pop style songs and pairs them up with slightly more experimental electro sounding tracks that create a great mix and leaves you wanting to replay the album as soon as it’s done.” Such eclecticism makes its way into their live shows as well. Jon Caramanica writes: “The band wove an interpolation of the signature guitar crunch of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a song. Multiple members of the group beatbox, a technique that’s hardly, if ever, used in mainstream American hip-hop, its birthplace, but is a routine part of the K-pop star arsenal.”
Both fandoms cite group dynamic as another major factor in the appeal of the groups, but Super Junior fans describe that dynamic in terms of cooperation and a close-knit bond, while BigBang fans focus on the individual members’ contribution to the group.
Despite the large number of members, Super Junior fans described the group as close-knit. Some respondents focused on how they act as one or a team. One respondent noted: “They have their own personality but still can be one” (Anderson). Another wrote: “Not typical boyband material. They have a strong bond despite being a huge group” (Anderson). Other respondents focused on the close bond between members and several used the metaphor of family. One wrote: “Watching their bond as a group really influenced me. Seeing how they trust each other. I can feel and see their brotherly love, how they care about each other” (Anderson). Another wrote: “Super Junior are a big group because they have lots of members but despite that they all get along like a family” (Anderson). Another responded: “What I really like from them is their close relationship with each other. They are truly like a family, they’re like brothers” (Anderson).
This may be related to fans watching Super Junior’s participation in extra-musical activities in the form of television and radio appearances. Members of Super Junior hosted and/or starred in the Korean variety show Strong Heart from 2009-2012 and the radio show Kiss the Radio from 2006 to the present. In these spaces, fans develop opinions about the dynamic between the members. One respondent wrote: “I understand and love that they’re an entertainment group with members doing radio shows, acting, variety shows and hosting! This has given me the chance to get to know them through many mediums and it’s reassuring to know that at least a few members are still active during their non-promotional period!” (Anderson). In addition to scripted shows, Super Junior also appears on variety shows, which are often based on improvisation and require more participation. One respondent noted: “I didn’t actually like Super Junior much at first, but I kept watching them on variety shows that I liked and the SJ members were always making me laugh so much” (Anderson).
While fans of BigBang cite group dynamic as part of the appeal of the group, they focus on the individual members within the group. Most respondents focused on the unique nature of the individual members. One wrote: “I also like how distinct the members are from each other” (Anderson). Another said: “Each member has their own talents and strengths when it comes to vocally and lyric writing and Big Bang along with YG utilizes that talent extremely well” (Anderson). Still another wrote: “Each of the members have very different but equally interesting styles from their style of singing to the dancing” (Anderson). Others cited individual members as part of their reason for liking the group. Of these responses, the largest number cited G-Dragon as their reason for liking the group. One respondent noted: “G-Dragon has also been very successful on his own drawing me into the group as a whole” (Anderson). Another noted: “G-Dragon is probably one of the reasons why I like Big Bang so much. I like the music he produces and I appreciate that a lot since not all groups produce their own music. The fact that someone from the group produces their own music is pretty awesome” (Anderson).
What Does It Mean?
Fans of Super Junior like the group because they are traditional idol group. They like the pop nature of their music. They value the camaraderie they see within the group as a result of television and radio appearances. In contrast, fans of BigBang like the group because they challenge this notion of a traditional idol group. Despite being the product of the same kind of training system that produced Super Junior, they see the group as more innovative and creative in their music. They perceive the group as a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive unit. Because of the fewer number of television appearances, their fans may not develop the same kind of sense of camaraderie among the group.
Fans of Super Junior and BigBang represent just two individual K-pop fandoms, but this comparison suggests that fans do not view male K-pop groups in the same way.
The 1960s girl group concept makes regular appearances in K-pop. While some think that this kind of image represents a lack of ethnic identity in a quest for mainstream acceptance, I suggest that the 1960s girl group image promoted by women of color represents an ethnic glamour aesthetic.
Contemporary K-pop is driven by image as well as music. Part of this has to do with its emergence along with rising technologies like the music video and the Internet, which “generate[d] a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders,” and resulted in photogenic performers as part of appealing images (Lie, 353, 356). This is similar to rhythm and blues-inflected pop music of the 1960s. Gerald Early notes that technology contributed to this music becoming an “artifact,” in part because television distributed the music as well as an image (60, 62).
K-pop agencies, like SM Entertainment, carefully craft the images of K-pop artists for concepts. This is part of the training process, which also includes language instruction, choreography and hosting practice. This also contributes to criticisms that such preening in the quest for audience acceptance diminishes the presence of ethnic culture. John Lie argues that contemporary K-pop lacks Korean culture: “As a matter of traditional culture, there is almost nothing ‘Korean’ about K-pop” (360). Motown acts under Berry Gordy also received similar kinds of training and, were subject to similar criticisms. Nelson George defines Gordy’s project as assimilationist in nature, where “white values were held up as primary role models” and as a result, “blacks lost contact with the uniqueness of their people, and with their own heritage” (xii). For George and Lie, mainstream appeal translates into a loss of ethnic culture.
When K-pop adopts the 1960s retro look for female artists through chic hairstyles and dresses with eye-catching prints or dazzling sequins and fur reminiscent of The Supremes, I suggest that it partakes of a model of ethnic glamour established by black girl groups. Brian Ward characterizes Gordy’s quest for mainstream success as one predicated on challenging prevailing notions about American blacks: “Gordy felt [the training] might make them more acceptable to white America and an expanding black middle class for whom mainstream notions of respectability remained important” (266). The aspiration was felt by blacks, even those not in the middle class: “The spangled pursuit of success carried no stigma among black fans who had routinely been denied equal opportunity to compete for the financial rewards of the mainstream” (Ward, 267). This is key, because it shows the importance of how viewers read such images. Cynthia Cyrus argues that even though the images of girl groups of the 1960s were well-managed and carefully crafted, they nevertheless resonated positively with fans: “The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . The role of the viewer is central to creating meaning, and the girl group fan engaged actively in dialogue with the images placed before here” (190-1).
Just as black fans interpreted those images of black women as positive, Korean women like the Kim Sisters, styled in the same way, represent a glamourous ethnic, in this case, Korean, experience to aspire to. Ian Kim writes: “For a Korean American like me, who grew up in parts of the US where I was the only Asian kid in school, it’s pretty astonishing to discover Korean performers who were successful in the US such an early time. Even more impressive is that they sang in English.” The Kim Sisters’ images and participation in the entertainment world in the United States functioned as an alternative to the realities of the aftereffects of the Korean War and American military presence. San Byun-Ho remembers: “After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died” (Forsyth). Just like images of 1960s black girl groups, such images of the Kim Sisters represent an image of ethnic aspiration.
Contemporary fans may see retro images in K-pop, like those by Lee Hyori and the Wonder Girls, as drawing from a visual discourse of ethnic glamour. The measure of the impact of the image should also be measured by those who make meaning out of it. These images matter precisely because they show Koreans in a glamorous context that also acknowledges their ethnicity. As the Vintage Black Glamour Tumblr and forthcoming book suggest, images of ethnic glamour still resonate today. Nichelle Gainer says that any image she chooses has to have “a certain style to it, a certain beauty” and that she includes information about the photo because “I want people to know you’re not looking at some anonymous random person” (Brown). Given the frequency that the 1960s concept recurs in K-pop, ethnic glamour still matters.
As the number of female groups increase in number in K-pop, commentators and scholars continue to focus on the meaning of the representations produced by these groups. While some argue that such representations are geared towards men, this ignores the way the majority female fanbases of these groups construct meaning of these representations.
Because female groups, like many male groups in K-pop, are put together by Korean agencies (rather than forming on their own, as is the norm in countries like the United States in the West), some argue that appeal to men plays a role in this process. A guest contributor for seoulbeats asserted: “Like many other K-pop girl groups, SNSD [Girls’ Generation] was created to be ‘ogled’ over by their target audience–male fans.” This sentiment was repeated by other online writers such as James Turnbull and Jessica Doyle.
Scholars not only argue that groups like SNSD were created for men, they also argue that images, music videos and performances by girl groups like SNSD are targeted to male, middle-aged audiences. Through an examination of music videos and lyrics, Stephen Epstein with James Turnbull conclude that they all geared towards men rather than female empowerment, whether it is the “viewer. . . [who] is regularly constructed as male,” a mode of femininity “that renders males helpless,” “a self-objectifying preoccupation with an external gaze” or the definition of “women in relation to men” (333). In doing so, they challenge the notion that empowerment represented by girl groups “brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world” and conclude “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus on their gaze on underage performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333).
However, several scholars have noted that the K-pop training model originally sought to ascertain the preferences of teenage girls. In separate articles, Doobo Shim and Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim reference Lee Soo Man‘s survey of teenage girls to discover what they wanted in their first-generation idols at SM Entertainment. Since then, agencies continue to target audiences beyond middle-aged men. With the development of second-generation idols like SNSD, cross-generational appeal became the goal which includes audiences in addition to middle-aged men. Kim Chang Nam observes that “fandom has expanded to include people in their twenties and thirties, and even into older generations. Newly coined terms, including ‘uncle fans,’ ‘aunt fan,’ and ‘older sister fan,’ have appeared” (111). As a result, middle-aged men are one of a number of types of audiences for a group like SNSD.
Moreover, an interpretation of videos and lyrics overlooks how the majority female audience for girl groups like SNSD construct meaning about the images and performances they see. S. Craig Watkins and Rana Emerson draw on theories of media reception, which posit “that receivers of media are actively involved in the construction of meaning” (156). In doing so, they reveal not only “the strategic ways girls and women use the media in their everyday lives” but also “the ways in which women appropriate the media as a site of meaning construction, actively engaging in and, occasionally, contesting images and themes of gender domination” (157). As a result, they are not passive audiences, but actively create meaning for themselves based on what they see. Just because men may read such images in a way that does not empower women does not mean that female audiences read them in the same way.
This is not the first iteration of the girl group. Even when such images are created by men, as Cynthia Cyrus notes for images of 1960s girl groups, women can still craft meaning independent of the intention of such images:
Still, to understand these images primarily as symbols of male desire is to miss the point. The teen standing in front of the record bin would not have primarily engaged with the picture through some displaced sexual desire. Rather, she would have evaluated these images as what they were, invitations to consumer participation. The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . Ethnographic evidence suggests that viewers did, in fact, identify with the girl group image (190-191).
Rather than one way of rendering meaning from girl groups, even female fans do not make the same kinds of meaning out of girl groups. The representations of femininity and female behavior are more complex than reducing them down to objects for men to look at. Such an approach silences the voices of the majority female fanbases who circulate, consume and make meaning of performances by girl groups.
Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.
Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.
Guest, “Is SNSD Being Sexually Harassed?” seoulbeats. 2 Mar 2010. Web. 3 May 2014.
Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym, 2012.
Shim, Doobo. “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Media, Culture & Society 28.1 (2006): 25-44.
Shin, Solee I and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia(2013): DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
Watkins, S. Craig and Rana A. Emerson. “Feminist Media Criticism and Feminist Media Practices.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 571 (2000): 151-166.
Visuals are an important part of K-pop, and understanding them is crucial to understanding the meaning of K-pop and its spread globally.
In addition to music videos, images that accompany promotions for music releases, photo shoots featured in magazines and endorsements for an array of products are seen, collected and exchanged by fans. Not just important fan activity, such archiving in the lay sense is important to the preservation and memory-keeping of the visual narrative of K-pop.
In addition to the promotional function they perform, K-pop images also perform cultural work, constructing multifaceted representations of Korean identity. Anne Anlin Cheng, professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University, sees “celebrity as a politics of recognition and glamour as a politics of personhood” (1023). This has special resonance for raced bodies:
Glamour’s imperviousness thus draws on a crisis of personhood that is inherently political and maybe even strangely liberating for a woman and a minority–liberating not in the simple sense of acquiring a compensatory or impenetrable beauty. . . but in the sense of temporary relief from the burdens of personhood and visibility. It may seem counterintuitive or even dangerous to talk about the raced and sexualized body’s longing to be thinglike or to disappear into things, but it is the overcorporealized body that may find the most freedom in fantasies of corporeal dematerialization or, alternatively, of material self-extension (1032).
In other words, the highly stylized images that pepper K-pop represent a visual construction of Korean identities, visuals of how Koreans project themselves globally. For ethnic people who have been constructed by others, such images are important because they do cultural work, deconstructing or altering images of Koreans and the ideas that accompany them.
I have started a new section in my digital humanities project, Hallyu Harmony, to document and curate images of K-pop groups and artists. In doing so, I hope to be able to make meaningful statements about the kinds of representations of Korean men and women that permeate K-pop, detecting patterns that become apparent when such images are collected together.
In the Visuals section of Hallyu Harmony, image galleries are organized into three broad categories:
Casual, images designed to appeal to everyone
Chic, images designed to represent more sophisticated styling attainable by most
Couture, images designed to capture more fantastic styling not designed for normal wear
Within these categories, images are further organized by concepts, magazine shoots and other promotional images. Concepts for music releases are placed in rough chronological order, allowing users to see how an artist or group’s image evolves over time.
The image gallery for Girls’ Generation, shows a greater variety of images than their reputation may suggest. A review of their concepts show that they are equally likely to promote a casual, chic or couture image. However, they are less likely to reflect a couture image in photo shoots for magazines. On the other hand, early observations of 2NE1’s image gallery (in progress) suggest that even though the group is known for its fierce reputation and image that many fans can relate to, the group reflect a chic image for many concepts.
2NE1, Falling in Love Concept, 2013
SNSD, Ceci Magazine, 2009
Documenting such images presents challenges. Many images gathered from the Internet are divorced from their original context as they are shared by fans and K-pop media. As a result, tracing an image’s origins is not always possible. In some cases, the availability of images within their context is related to the commitment of Korean agencies to preserve the context of images. For example, the H.O.T image gallery (in progress) features many images, but few that can be placed in their original context. SM Entertainment‘s sites do not provide information for images on its H.O.T site. On the other hand, many of the concept images in S.E.S.’s image gallery can be associated with their original context due to the continued access to the group’s SM site. Other sites, like DSP Media (formerly DSP Entertainment) only includes current artists on its website, so locating images for Fin.K.L‘s image gallery (in progress) will be challenging. Images will have to be obtained from other sources. Moreover, it is easier to document 2nd and 3rd generation K-pop groups and artists like SNSD, while first generation groups like H.O.T and S.E.S prove more challenging because the groups are not active.
However, their fanbases are. Fan sites provide the bulk of the images documented, thus acting as valuable informal archives. As more image galleries are completed, I hope to write about the patterns that emerge from images from individuals and groups and compare them with other K-pop artists.