K-Pop (no more Gangnam Style)

Written by: Regina Yi
Warning: Very long post.

Being a Korean American myself, I have been surrounded by the Korean music and entertainment scene ever since I was little. From the very first generation of K-Pop artists to today’s generation, I have been exposed to it all but I never followed it until the end of my junior year of high school because growing up, I hated being Asian and wanted nothing to do with it.

Officially, I have been a part of the K-Pop subculture since late 2008 and have seen it grow immensely into a worldwide phenomenon. Over the years, and through taking this class, I noticed that K-Pop challenges and identifies with Asian representations in a variety of ways; the biggest one regarding sexuality.

Asian men have been stereotypically represented as asexual, nerdy, unattractive, clumsy, and sometimes evil. K-Pop flips this around into a complete 180. The typical standard of beauty for men in America is the complete opposite of the standard of beauty for men in Asia. In Asia, a man is considered extremely attractive if he has softer features rather than masculine features. Tall, pale skin, toned but not too muscular frame, big eyes, and soft, blemish free skin are the defining features of an attractive man in Asia. Men with this description are called “flower boys” because they are considered pretty rather than rugged. People in America will often see them as being homosexual because they just have softer features; they’re not used to what is considered beautiful in Asia.

Korean entertainment companies pick people who they see fit to be the typical standard of beauty to debut in the music and entertainment scene because that is what sells the best. That is why almost every single group or artist you see in the Korean music industry or entertainment industry in general, are all extremely pretty looking. For example:

Kim Hyun Joong (actor and singer)

Jung Il Woo (actor & singer)

Luhan from EXO-M

The list goes on and on.

It reminded me of the section in our Ono & Pham book that talked about Bruce Lee. Although he was masculine, his masculinity was marginalized because he wasn’t accepted by U.S culture. Although the men in the K-Pop industry are indeed masculine, they aren’t seen that way to Westerners.

The stereotype of Asian men being asexual is greatly challenged everywhere in the Korean entertainment industry. The songs are about love, dramas are about love, a lot of music videos have girls in them in which the artists interact with, and special stages sometimes have extremely sexual dance performances.

DBSK’S Mirotic is one example that challenges this stereotype of Asian men. The video has English subtitles  so the lyrics can be read on the screen, but it’s basically saying to the girl that he knows she wants him and has her wrapped around his finger. It’s ironic because in the video, the girl is the one who controls them.

Another example is the collaboration of Hyuna (from the group 4Minute and the one who appeared in Gangnam Style), and Hyunseung (a member of the group BEAST); two people who are under the same record label. This actually created quite a buzz in Korea because of how sexual it was in terms of the dance and performance. The lyrics are basically about trying to attract the opposite sex. Hyunseung is also one who is considered a “flower boy” because of his pretty features. Again, Westerners might see him as gay because he doesn’t possess masculine facial features. He is however, surrounded by girls in the video and reacting to them in a positive way rather than a negative way.

When it comes to women in the K-Pop subculture, they are more sexualized than the men. They are almost always in short skirts and shorts, dancing in sexual ways, showing their stomachs, and have certain concepts that can produce sexual fantasies from men. For example, Girl’s Generation, or more commonly known as SNSD. They have had concepts from: sailor, military, cheerleader, pilot, royalty, taxi drivers, 70’s, nurse, dark concept, biker girls, and maids. Each of them can easily be popular Halloween costumes that girls would wear to be sexy. K-Pop girl groups don’t necessarily fit into the Lotus Blossom or Dragon Lady categories but rather, they realize their own sexuality and flaunt it. They’re not completely submissive and delicate, but do want love like their songs express. Overall, I think it shows a different side to Asian women than what most people are used to, but at the same time, puts them up for sexualization.

Another interesting thing in the K-Pop scene is the interaction between guys. What I mean by that is, in the Asian culture, it is completely normal for guys to be affectionate with each other. Guy friends hug each other, sometimes hold hands, lean on each other, etc. However, if this behavior was to be seen in America, people would automatically label them as homosexual. In K-Pop, a lot of the group mates are affectionate towards each other and do a lot of fan service because they know that fans find it cute but also because they’re just extremely close like brothers.

Korea is a very homophobic country; the topic of homosexuality is extremely taboo and while there are a lot of people who accept it now, there are still a lot of people who do not like it. While the men in K-Pop are straight, they’re confident enough in their sexuality to act affectionate to their friends and group mates. A lot of male K-Pop groups also put on hilarious shows where they cross dress as well and it’s not seen as gay, but rather for humor and fan service.

This video is an example of this:

Musically, K-Pop definitely helped to get Asians more recognition in a more positive way. In just a few years, K-Pop went global and even managed to each the U.S. The global movement started in 2010 and grew exponentially from there.  I talked to my friend about it a few days ago and he mentioned how when he went back to visit his home country of Peru, he saw K-Pop on the news which really surprised him because Latin culture is extremely exclusive and doesn’t let other cultures in. K-Pop completely took over Latin America, Europe, other parts of Asia, Australia, and the Middle East, and is now slowly trying to break into the U.S. market.

There have been previous attempts to bring K-Pop to America by the Wonder Girls, BoA, and SE7EN (under same label as Psy), but the only one that was semi successful were the Wonder Girls. BoA is basically known as the queen of Asia; she debuted at the age of 13, is fluent in English, Japanese, and Korean, dominated the Korean and Japanese markets, and released several singles in the U.S. Oddly enough, the only one to completely dominate the U.S market was Psy.

The K-Pop group  B.A.P is even going to embark on their first tour here in the U.S. after they managed to achieve extreme success in Korea after just a year after their debut. More and more people are demanding that K-Pop come to the U.S more often.

Another interesting thing about K-Pop is that a lot of K-Pop groups have people from other parts of Asia. There are a lot of Chinese members, some Japanese members, and a lot of members who are Korean but from America.

Chanyeol from EXO-K and Kris from EXO-M

Before a group debuts, they are taught English, Chinese, and Japanese so that they can use it when they promote overseas. Now, a lot of companies are pushing for more Korean Americans because it can be a key to coming to the U.S.

A lot of collaborations have happened between K-Pop groups and U.S artists as well. For example, 2NE1 and will.I.am, RaNia and Snoop Dogg, SNSD and Snoop Dogg, f(x) and Anna Kendrick, JYJ and Kanye West, and SE7EN and Lil Kim.

An important feature of K-Pop is the visual aspect. Each group has a certain image or concept and each time they have a comeback, they change it to something new or upgrade their existing concept. Each single that they promote also has its own choreography that people follow and upload covers to on YouTube. Doing K-Pop dance covers has also become a huge thing all over the world and is a complete subculture on its own. It is a subculture that I managed to become a part of 2 years ago when I first started uploading my own K-Pop covers onto YouTube all the way up until the present. The majority of people that to K-Pop dance covers are foreigners, most of them being from the U.S or Europe. K-Pop groups even purposely upload their dance practice videos onto YouTube so that fans can follow the dance and upload their own dance covers of it.

The stereotype connects Asians to school and studying only, but K-Pop shows that Asians can be talented musically and artistically as well. Because of K-Pop, a lot of people now have the dream to become a K-Pop star and this is especially strong in Korea. Korea has a ridiculous amount of talented people and audition shows dominate the television because people want to become singers and that dream is more appealing to them than a more “practical” job. A large number of foreigners also audition for companies and audition shows because they also want to try to make it in the K-Pop scene.

Another interesting fact: although it may seem like all K-Pop groups are baby teenagers, that is not true. Most of them are in fact in their early 20’s, mid 20’s, and some who range from 16-19 years old as well.

Despite K-Pop’s extraordinary success, I feel that it’s going to be something that people in the U.S. will still see as foreign because it’s not a language they understand and because it originated from Korea. However, K-Pop has definitely given Asians more recognition in a more positive way by stepping away from the typical stereotypes and representations. There is no model minority in K-Pop, there are no unattractive, asexual, clumsy characters, there are no evil characters, no submissive characters, just a bunch of attractive and talented people. The music in itself now helps to connect Asians to a more upbeat, modern, fun music style than the stereotypical Asian music that might be played as comic reliefs in movies or T.V shows. The only problematic issue is that of sexualizing the group members, both men and women. But even in the U.S market, artists are sexualized because sex is what tends to sell.

Overall, I do think that K-Pop challenges Asian stereotypes and representations and even in the U.S, a lot more people are slowly starting to become accepting of it. I’m curious to see how much more K-Pop will expand in the future.


One thought on “K-Pop (no more Gangnam Style)

  1. Wow! This was a compelling analysis of Kpop and how it challenges yellowface logics in a variety of ways. The more flexible view of masculinity definitely adds to the ambivalent portrayals of men in Kpop (it’s interesting that there is so much homophobia, yet no discomfort with affection between men). Excellent videos as examples–great discussion of how women are sexualized. I predict Kpop will take off in the U.S. soon, although perhaps in English rather than Korean first.

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