Monthly Archives: November 2013

Whither Korean hip-hop?

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Recently an underground rapper named B Free dressed down some members of BTS for being too idol-y. There’s a good post (which turned into a series of posts) about it here, and another commentator took the opportunity to express their annoyance at how what could be a robust debate in the Korean hip-hop community about how to commercialize this music is instead just a bunch of idiotic whining and name-calling, more often than not aimed at those evil, worthless female listeners.

I agree is that a discussion about the commercialization of hip-hop in Korea would be a nice one to have if only the people instigating it were a little less vapid. I mean, B Free’s criticism of BTS is–what? You’re not really hip-hop if you take off your shirt?

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Real hip-hop artists have no interest in appealing sexually to women or to men. They just have sensitive skin and get rashes easily! Note the tragic prevalence of jock itch!

I’ve been listening to American hip-hop for 30 years (shut up), and I feel that it has gotten less interesting as it’s gotten more commercial because the lyrics have become increasingly similar. In the early 2000s everyone not only started using the same slang terms (“boo,” “flossing”) but also started using the exact same phrases to describe things that could be described many different ways (“Now I can breathe again” to describe sexual release). Most annoying was the whole Ghetto Fabulous thing, which involved naming off a list of brands of items that the person owned. Everyone rather amazingly owned the exact same things–nobody had the creativity to pretend to own even a slightly different brand of fancy car (and forget about really radical ideas, like not rapping about your goddam boring car in the first place).

Ghetto Fabulosity is pretty much gone, but the habit of sticking with tried-and-true lyrics has unfortunately remained. There are many American hip-hop artists I can’t even listen to, because two seconds into one of their songs, I know exactly what they are going to say, and worse yet, exactly how they are going to say it. Commercialization in America = homogenization: A formula works once, so it gets reused and reused and reused until everybody wants to vomit. The quality of lyrics in American hip-hop is bad enough that there’s a woman in my Korean class who is afraid that, if she becomes proficient, she will no longer be able to enjoy Korean hip-hop because she will be able to understand what they’re saying, and in her mind, there’s no way this could possibly be a good thing.

But what I find potentially most troubling about the commercialization of Korean hip-hop is the way the mainstream commercial K-Pop industry operates: It’s a system that very much degenerates the performers, and it is a system in which the artists have little to no creative control.

Personally, I love what BTS is doing–O! R U L8 2? is a great album in my book. But my question is, how long will they be allowed to do it? How long before their corporate overlords decide that they must go the way of B.A.P.? How long before their label decides to dump half the group’s members? Are the BTS kids (who are for the most part teenagers) really in a position to stop these sorts of things from happening?

It also bothers me to see a hip-hop label at least appear to treat a group the way a K-Pop label would. Rhythm Power used to do stuff like this:

And now they’re doing stuff like this:

Now, I could definitely see toning down the whole fake-porn-movie thing, but “Bond Girl” is simply not a Rhythm Power song–Rhythm Power is singing backup to Zion T on a Primary song. I like both Primary and Zion T, and they go great together, but that doesn’t mean I want every single group coming out of Amoeba Culture to have the exact same sound.

I think it’s extremely likely Korean hip-hop will become more commercial, if only because more non-Korean hip-hop fans are discovering it thanks to YouTube and the like. And I love an awful lot of it, so it makes me happy to think that the people who make Korean hip-hop would actually be able to pay the bills that way.

But even though I hope that Korean hip-hop becomes more successful, the very last thing I want is for it to become a clone of the K-Pop industry. Superficial boneheads like B Free can fret about hip-hop artists doing idol-y things like wearing makeup and flashing abs; I worry about them having idol-y things done to them: Are they getting ripped off? Are they being worked to death? Can they do side projects? Can they pick the songs they perform? Are they forced to undergo cosmetic surgery? Do they have adequate protection against psycho fans? Are they afforded the basic liberties granted workers in democratic countries–are they free to live where they want and date who they want?

Or are they basically indentured servants, to be used and then disposed of as their masters see fit?

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What fans give, what fans get

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Block B recently did a concert in Japan, and it was interesting to me to really see the fan cam people in action. They took photos and video footage of Block B at the airport, and some went to the concert, where judging from the YouTube footage, cameras were for the most part prohibited.

As this article notes, fan cammers who stick to photographing and filming activities that are meant to be public are really quite valued by K-Pop groups.

[M]ost of the better photos come from fan sites . . . instead of official photographers of news outlets or broadcasting channels, which often feature awkward angles and unflattering expressions.

I’ll say! Compare a fan-taken airport photograph

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to a news outlet photograph.

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Flattery is definitely not on the news-outlet agenda, is it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone dimple ominously before….

My point is that fans can definitely add value to a property, and hopefully those who really add value get something in return. Firefly was good about this–the delightful and brilliant 11th Hour was a fan artist (as well as a professional artist) who made really beautiful work promoting what was at the time a completely obscure show that had been cancelled after half a season. When Serenity was made, 11th Hour was quite sensibly tapped as an artist, and her work wound up on various official goods.

Having a volunteer PR department takes some managing of course, and the value of marketing is basically impossible to measure, but it’s there. And it can involve considerable sacrifice on the part of the fans–the fan cammers not only cough up for expensive equipment, but in this case, some of them went to Japan with Block B in order to film them. That’s pretty hard-core dedication, and I only hope that those folks are able to get something back for it.

The other group that really amazes me are the translators. Holy crap. Here’s a look into the process: Note that ten minutes of a show like Match Up equals 16 pages to translate. Give that to professional translators who charge $75 a page, and that comes out to $1,200. TWELVE HUNDRED DOLLARS JUST TO TRANSLATE the Korean–you’d still have to subtitle the video.

Oh, and an episode of Match Up? About forty minutes long. That $4,800 to translate a single Match Up episode. And you still have to do the subtitles.

Seriously, whenever I see someone bitching about why this or that doesn’t have English subtitles yet, I want to slap them. Let’s put it this way: If you just can’t wait, feel free to pony up the $10,000 or so to hire professionals–be my guest. Otherwise STFU, because you are complaining about people who are donating thousands of dollars’ worth of their time. (ETA: And wow, B on the Block is just four people. Yeah, feel free to bitch and moan about how lazy they must be….)

Again, I HOPE these fans are getting something out of it–professional experience, resume building, something. That’s why it’s such a shitty thing to do stuff like remove watermarks or not credit fan translations–professionals are paid with money, but volunteers need some other currency, and credit at least could have some value in the work market.

It’s also why it really annoys me to see people try to claw up glory for themselves when they do something totally minor. Like, Zico will put this picture up on Twitter:

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And someone will do this to it:

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And they will watermark it. Or add a bunch of notes about how this is THEIR edit and DON’T edit this because three mouse clicks means THEY OWN IT!!!!

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I find this most amusing when people do this with stuff that comes from the sorts of corporate entities that are likely to really care about copyright infringement. People will (illegally) scan magazine pages or (illegally) upload a network video onto YouTube, and then they will demand credit for it. Why do I suspect that they are actually surprised when lawyers send them nasty letters? For Christ’s sake, even the people doing English subtitles get shut down from time to time–if all you’re doing is making a copy, at least have the sense not to make it easy for The Man to find you.

Attack of the Anime Clones

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So, the other day a fellow from the K-Pop group U-Kiss named Kiseop Tweeted a picture of himself and Jaehyo, writing that people think he looks like Jaehyo’s twin.

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Sure he does, assuming that Jaehyo’s twin:

1. Inhabits Madame Tussauds’ museum.

2. Is Galadriel, Queen of the Elves.

3. Was created by Dreamworks, Inc.

Korea is rather infamous for its plastic surgery. And just like in other place in the world where people get lots of plastic surgery–coughcoughLosAngelescoughcough–folks seem to forget what human beings actually look like.

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Kiseop used to look like one!

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Not anymore!

He was plenty handsome before, right? And that’s not just me saying that: Like Jaehyo, Kiseop was an ulzzang–basically a Korean beauty-pagent king–and was celebrated for his good looks. But I guess he decided he really needed to look the part if he was ever going to rescue Zelda.

It’s not like someone like Jaehyo doesn’t wear makeup and see a dermatologist and get a lot of cosmetic dentistry. I would not be shocked in the least to discover that he’s had more extensive work done–others in Block B clearly have. But despite B Bomb’s shrinking nose and Park Kyung’s wandering jaw, they’ve managed to come out looking, you know, like Homo sapiens. Whereas I can’t even look at some K-Pop idols because I find the level of fakeness so unnerving (especially the weird eye-surgery eyes that bulge out and don’t seem to close properly–OMFG, that’s creepy*).

Unless people are actually transitioning genders, this kind of thing just shouldn’t happen:

And if you look in the comments, people are saying stuff like, “Oh, Korean men are just more feminine!” BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!!!! GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR (FUCKING RACIST) ASS!! I grew up in California and currently live in Washington State–Koreans are not some novel, exotic ethnicity for me. I have NEVER had trouble looking at a Korean man, or a Korean boy, and identifying his gender. It takes a lot of work to take a man and make him look like a woman–or, you know, like a space alien.

Even when the look is more natural, you run into this sort of thing:

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Yeah, those are all different people! Kind of reminds you of Hollywood, doesn’t it?

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I have no idea who any of those women are, either, and therein lies the other problem. People may really love the Elfquest look, but if they can’t tell you apart from the other Wolfriders, your career is going to follow the same path as Jennifer Grey’s.

But mostly–Jesus Christ, don’t get so much work done. It’s not good. Think about what happened to Michael Jackson, OK?

* I’m just going to note here that the standard response of an American upon seeing that an Asian person has had surgery to make their eyes look bigger and give them a double-fold eyelid is to assume that the Asian person is ashamed of their own heritage and is trying to look Caucasian. This assumption isn’t accurate–I mean, hell, Kiseop certainly doesn’t look Caucasian, given that Caucasians are human and all–but I think that if you’re trying to market in the United States, you should be aware that it’s a country with a long history of violent, horrible racism that is now rather adamantly anti-racist, so there’s a lot of sensitivity over things like Uncle Tomism. And blackface. And using Malcolm X clips in a song about your girl dumping you.

ETA: And wow, Eat Your Kimchi just did a video for “aegyo” (= cuteness) video nominees. If you want to see a LOT of people that have been made to look EXACTLY the same (not shockingly, aegyo = safe in the extreme, so no funny-looking real people here!), have a look.

Fantasy, reality, and boundaries

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Recently Block B announced that it would no longer allow fans to write little notes to group members at signings, because too many of the notes were inappropriate. This seems to have been totally accepted by the international fans, who appear to realize that a person’s “harmless fantasy” gets a lot less harmless when they write it down on a Post-It and hand it to someone who really, really does not want to read it.

It was a stark contrast to the response of many international fans when Block B threatened legal action against an “adult theatrical actress” (that apparently means she does more than strip, but does not quite do donkey shows) located in Seoul who wrote on her Web site about how much she would like to fuck Jaehyo. Now Jaehyo is regarded as one of the more sensitive members of Block B, and it’s basically impossible to sue someone for that kind of thing in the United States because we have VERY liberal freedom of speech laws. So many of the responses seemed to run along the lines of, Hey, I write perverted things about Jaehyo on-line, and that’s OK–why can’t this lady? It’s just harmless fantasy!

I would argue that that is an extremely naive take on the situation. For starters, I am not really convinced that it’s OK to write erotica about actual, living people and then put it where they might read it. I understand that this sort of thing has always happened, but I used to be a reporter, and the idea that people don’t seek out and read what is written about them–hahahahahaha. Let’s just say that that has not been my experience. At all. In addition, people who have strong sexual fantasies about real people (or about groups of real people, like African Americans, redheads, or–I dunno–Korean musicians) often seem to lose sight of the fact that their fantasy is theirs alone, and is not necessarily shared by the objects of that fantasy.

But let’s put all that aside and focus on this specific situation. If the claim is that something is a harmless fantasy, I think it’s reasonable to doubt that claim if the person who writes it includes contact information. That, to me, makes it look a lot less like a fantasy and a lot more like an invitation (perhaps written on a Post-It note). At least in the United States, many groupies are not, in fact, obsessed fans: They are sex workers looking to maximize their revenues. Fucking a celebrity is what is known in the retail business as a loss leader–you do that for free, and you can charge your paying clients more.

So, a Seoul sex worker says that she’s just love to have no-strings-attached sex with Jaehyo–how could she possibly ever meet him, though? In totally unrelated news, here’s her schedule of appearances! And Jaehyo says, I think she is using my name to generate publicity.

I think his mother didn’t raise any stupid kids.

Frankly, I love the fact that Block B draws lines like this. Block B fans sometimes wonder why it is the group doesn’t have huge problems with stalkers–is it because we’re all so super-awesome!?!–but I would argue that a big part of the reason is that, when someone behaves inappropriately toward them, they have absolutely no compunction about calling those people out (fans or no!) and telling them to knock it off.

You can tell from their expressions that it’s not going to be something nice.

The fact that they do stuff like this (and you know, stuff like suing their label) makes me happy, because it means I can enjoy whatever the group does feeling relatively confident that they are doing what they want to be doing–or at least, that they are not being forced to do something that they really don’t want to do. I don’t always feel that way about K-Pop groups, or any form of entertainment that relies on teenagers (or actual children) to do the entertaining. We’ve all read the horror stories: It’s very hard for young people to distinguish between “I want to do this” and “Mommy and Daddy want me to do this,” and I’ve certainly seen kids on stage and screen who really, REALLY do not want to be there.

And it gets particularly creepy to me with K-Pop groups because of the comfort with fan service: When a 14-year-old boy is pulling his shirt up and his pants down, my initial reaction is not, “Nice abs!” it’s “Holy shit! I need to call Child Protective Services right away!” (Which, for the record, was my exact initial reaction to One Direction’s “Will You Marry Us?” signs–but those are a joke, right? Right? Please?) The whole nice-kids-are-obedient thing, which certainly gets emphasized in K-Pop, just makes it more disturbing–the only thing worse than a 14-year-old appearing to proposition you is a 14-year-old appearing to proposition you because his Daddy told him to.

ETA: And Eat Your Kimchi just did a great bit on the shitty work conditions in K-Pop.