Some of us are using this unprecedented time to work on projects that have gotten away from us. My latest project, KPOPCULTURE, a never ending quest to create a history of K-pop, is one such project!
From KPOPIANA to the Kpop Collaboration Project, I have been working on projects that seek to document and describe K-pop’s development, structure and how we think about it. Such research is the essence of a mission impossible research project, one that relies on ever-shifting sources on K-pop on the Internet and constant development of the music in general. But most importantly, it’s a challenge doing this work for 10 years, especially in the early years when K-pop was not even recognized as a legitimate object of study. But research is not dependent on what’s popular and trendy; it’s driven by curiosity.
Working with undergraduate students, my colleague Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and I trained students (and pretty anyone else, really) back in 2011 to use digital tools to find and evaluate key information about K-pop and its culture using our KPK: KPopKollective site housed on good old WordPress. Our Kpop Essentials defined common terms used by K-pop fans, while Solo Artists and Groups provided basic information (like explanation of fandom names!), discographies and videographies. We moved this project over to KPOPIANA, and used its more robust tools to document more extensive information.
At the core of such projects has always been curation and documentation. As my historian friends will tell you, it’s not just about information; it’s about crafting a narrative based on observing patterns, influence and relationships. This means not only going through a lot information, but putting that information in a form that explains and seeks to answer not just what but also why.
Which brings me back to KPOPCULTURE, my most adventurous project to date to capture a comprehensive history of K-pop. Housed in Omeka, a web-based content management system, KPOPCULTURE allows me to document and explain K-pop’s music, choreography, creative personnel and media. The project balances providing information to the public with more in-depth context-building to understand K-pop artists, the industry and the media.
For example, Omeka allows me to create items with more discrete information, like capsule profiles on artists like TVXQ, a group that recently had been deemed under-appreciated and little-known by current K-pop fans. Basics Items includes information about the K-pop artist as well as a selection of music videos that covers the breadth of a career. Omeka also allows me to use Items in Music Exhibits, such as SHINee: Like a Fire, a music exhibit that chronicles the group’s music through a curated playlist, music reviews and fan playlists. I have also created Special Exhibits, such as a retrospective of concepts used by Girls’ Generation (SNSD) in the exhibit, Girls’ Generation: Flower Power.
The quest continues! Let’s hope I can get more Items and Exhibits done.
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.
As you know, iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom is a study seeking to understand the attitudes of global fans of K-pop’s most successful groups. You can now view the results of the analysis of the survey data and an email interview with a fan of SNSD! Click here to view the What Fans Think section of the digital exhibit. Sad that you aren’t included? You can always take the email survey online here! C’mon, SONES, you are one of the biggest K-pop fandoms out there! Click the link and represent!
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.