Monthly Archives: February 2014

Block B is coming to the USA!

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Assuming Jazzy Group doesn’t screw anything up.

Aaaaaaand cue the bitching and moaning from people upset that Block B isn’t, like, coming to their backyard. Yeah, you might have to travel, but guess what? Even a cross country trip is a fraction of what it costs to fly to Korea…..

(And some kid’s mom told them, “You have to get all As to see Block B.” I love you, lady.)

ETA: Is this too grouchy? You know I feel like this:

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The K-Pop language barrier

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The other day I had a conversation with my sister that went like this.

ME: Block B was supposed to have a comeback in February, but they’ve delayed it.

HER: A what?

ME: A comeback? Oh, I’m sorry, that’s K-Pop speak for a new album.

HER: Oh, OK. I was like, Where did they go?

K-Pop is filled with jargon like “comeback.” There are English words borrowed by Korean speakers, and Korean words borrowed by English speakers. And the meaning of these words is always slightly different than you expect.

For example, the term bias is used to mean favorite, as in “Who’s your bias in [K-Pop group]?”–but not exactly. While an American might have a favorite member of a group, the fact that we don’t really encourage people to view musicians as romantic objects means that having a favorite is much less significant than having a bias. Back before the invention of fire when I wanted to marry Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, I knew damned well that that wasn’t likely to happen, so I felt free to admire John Taylor or Nick Rhoades or Roger Taylor. (Sorry, Andy.) They were all cute, it was never going to happen anyway, so why not? I certainly didn’t feel guilty about it or like I was being unfaithful. (I guess I should note that, in real life, I take being faithful very seriously.) And of course, I’ve loved many music groups–even back when I was a teenager–without even knowing who the members of the group were.

In K-Pop though, it really seems like young women are encouraged to think of their bias as kind of a rough draft of an actual boyfriend. I’ve seen people get really upset and guilt-ridden because they like a particular group, but they can’t pick a bias. They get genuinely worried about what this says about them–are they huge sluts? will they be unable to settle down later in life? It’s the flip side of the expectation that your bias won’t date–he’s being “faithful” to you, so you need to be “faithful” to him. And of course in order to do that, you need to figure out which guy you want to be “faithful” to in the first place!

The idol system is definitely its own little culture.

I recently saw this clip (via the very funny Kpopalypse), which features a British journalist REALLY failing to understand the culture and vocabulary of K-pop.

At the 11:14 mark, she starts to interview the K-Pop group Infinite. At the 13:06 mark, the interview is abruptly terminated, and the boys look like they know they’re in trouble.

After the interview is terminated, the journalist says

It seemed curious that the very mention of girls was enough to end the interview.

Sure it seems curious–because that’s not what happened.

She brings up girls in the interview when she asks:

Do any of you have lucky girlfriends?

And one replies:

In spirit.

Except that’s not what he’s saying. That’s what the subtitle says, and he’s speaking English, so if you don’t know much about K-Pop, “in spirit” seems like a reasonable, if somewhat metaphysical, reply.

What the journalist doesn’t understand is that K-Pop groups give their fans names–Block B fans are called BBCs, for example. Infinte fans are called Inspirits.

So, what is that member of Infinite saying? That their lucky girlfriends are Inspirits–in other words, their lucky girlfriends are their fans. This is par for the course in K-Pop–the guys are not supposed to have girlfriends, because all their love is reserved for their fans. (Barf, but anyway.)

She then asks,

Are you looking for girlfriends?

And they say:

Every day.

Yup, every day they are looking for Inspirits!

They continue on with the fan service, saying that they like girls who are cute and traditional. If you’re a teenage Inspirit, cute and traditional are probably pretty doable, so Infinite is still OK here.

Things go off the rails a little, though, when the journalist asks them if they like sexy girls, and they reply that they HELLA DO!

She then asks,

Who gets the most girls?

And they nominate two of their group members.

That might seem like they’ve really gone off script, but the thing to keep in mind is that “getting the most girls” doesn’t necessarily mean “getting the most pussy.” In this context, it’s still plausible to maintain (if you wish to maintain it, which Infinite’s label certainly would) that they’re talking about their “lucky girlfriends,” the Inspirits–basically, that they’re interpreting the question as “Who is the most popular?” Remember, Infinite is a K-Pop boy band, so it’s not like they have male fans–they’re always going to get girls. The Infinite boys are definitely getting hormonal here, but the important thing from their label’s perspective that they’re still being “faithful” to their fans.

I suppose I should note for the record that I’m not claiming that the boys of Infinite don’t get tons of sex, nor in all honesty do I care whether/how much/what kind of sex they are getting (as long as it’s all consensual and whatnot). I’m simply pointing out what I’ve noticed in K-Pop. For example, at the 2:45 mark of this video:

Block B is asked which member gets the most romantic interest. This is first interpreted to mean romantic interest from female celebrities (which is something Zico has bragged about in the past), and then to mean popularity. It’s not interpreted to mean, “Who hooks up the most?” which is probably the way the answer would go in the United States.

Back to Infinite. Things, I would say, truly go off the rails at the 12:53 mark, when the boys start hitting on the reporter. That’s gonna be a problem–she’s a cougar, and she’s not Asian. In other words, unlike cute and traditional girls, the reporter represents a beauty ideal that is completely inaccessible to the average Inspirit. When the boys of Infinite start telling the reporter that she’s “Hot! Hot! Hot!” and openly wondering what she thinks of them–

INTERVIEW OVER

Why do Americans think Asians are trying to look white?

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You might think that the hardest part about attempting to communicate across languages and cultures is when something completely baffles people. But the really treacherous bit is when people think that they know exactly what the other person means, and exactly where they are coming from.

I was thinking about that because I read a couple of angry posts triggered by the assumption by many Americans that Asians living in Asia get their skin bleached and their eyes enlarged because they are trying to look like white people. One things that people (understandably) find extremely frustrating is that, if you tell an American that Asians are not doing this because they want to look like white people, more often than not the American simply will not believe you.

Now, I think if you actually take the time to look at, say, over-surgeried Koreans, you won’t think that they’re trying to look like white people.

For example, the eyes may be bigger, but they look “Asian” in much the same way they look “human.”

Plastic-surgery eyes in the U.S. tend to look like this:

O O

Note: This representation is actually far more nuanced and subtle than most eye-lifts.

Plastic-surgery eyes in Asia tend to look like this:

<O> <O>

See? There’s a little triangle hacked out of each corner so that you still look Asian! Lo, the artistry! What miracle workers these plastic surgeons are!

So why do Americans make the assumption that Asians in Asian countries who get their eyes chopped up and their skin bleached out are trying to look white? And why don’t they believe anyone who tells them otherwise? Are they big fat racist imperialist assholes?

Maybe. They’re certainly not doing their homework. But they most likely think that because that’s what it means here.

Do you think that when Julie Chen was told, “You’ll never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese,” and got surgery to enlarge her eyes, she was hoping to appeal to Ohio’s large population of anime fans?

When Connie Chung wore her eye makeup like this:

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Do you think it was because there was this really popular singer who wore a shit-ton of dark eye makeup three-quarters of the way up to her brow, and Connie Chung wanted to hitch her wagon to that star?

I remember when I was a kid and would occasionally see Asian women wearing a thin line of eyeliner in about the same place Connie Chung’s makeup stops in those pictures. They might have had a natural crease like Connie Chung does, or maybe they didn’t–it didn’t matter, that wasn’t the point. The crease “needed” to be really high, because that’s how (some) Caucasian eyes look. (I think the majority of Caucasians don’t actually have a crease that high up the lid, but what does that matter? This is all about pandering to the stereotypes about how people are supposed to look.)

I haven’t seen the eyeliner thing in decades, but Julie Chen had her surgery 20 years ago, which is a solid 10-15 years after I would have thought that that sort of thing would have stopped happening.

Skin bleaching has a loooooong history in the United States.

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Read that advertising copy: Of course it’s not about being ashamed of who you are! It’s about love! and looking your best! and bettering yourself socially! and being all that you can be!

Buuuut…why exactly do you need lighter skin for all that?

This kind of shit has always been dressed up in pretty little of-course-this-doesn’t-foster-racism-you-just-want-to-look-better package. It has always been sold that way in this country–don’t worry, you’re not an Uncle Tom for doing this, you just want to be pretty! As a result, if you tell the average American, “Asians who get their skin bleached aren’t ashamed to be Asian! They’re just trying to be fashionable!” that American will NOT believe you. Not even a little bit.

It’s not because they can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be white–that’s not actually some huge source of identity or pride for most white Americans.

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White Pride activists are not too popular for some reason.

It’s because this is something that has constantly been spun and lied about in this country. (The skin’s not even being bleached! It’s being “cleared!”)

If you really want to convince an American that you are incredibly racist, tell them that Asian people bleach their skin to look “high class.” (The American will be thinking, “And not ‘ghetto,’ right?”) It’s been a very long time since tanned skin was associated with manual labor in this country, but refusing to hire people of color because they aren’t “high class” or “fashionable” enough is, unfortunately, something that still happens. So when you talk about light skin vs. dark skin, the average American will interpret that to mean white people vs. people of color. Trying to look fancy by getting lighter? Americans think they know exactly what that means, and it’s not “I’m proud to be Asian!”

I think the other thing that triggers American assumptions is that fact that, at least in K-Pop, there is extensive cosmetic surgery happening to people who are very young. Of course there’s cosmetic surgery going on in Hollywood (whenever I go through LAX I am astonished at the sheer quantity of conspicuously fake-looking boobies), but you don’t usually see extreme surgery until a star gets older and starts to lose their looks. Then they panic and become the ready prey of Dr. This Will Change Your Life (Please Pay Me In Advance).

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In K-Pop, however, you’ll see stuff like this:

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And the person is in their 20s or maybe even their teens. That much work that early in life suggests to Americans self-loathing on a Michael Jackson scale.

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What Americans don’t necessarily realize is that K-Pop idols often don’t choose to have cosmetic surgery. The choice is made by somebody else–somebody who is not going to have to undergo the risks and trauma of medically-unecessary surgery. Making somebody else get the cosmetic surgery is like spending somebody else’s money–it’s always so much easier. But if Americans don’t know much about the industry, the only reason they can think of why a person would get that much work done is that they must really hate themselves.

But I think all this focus on whether or not wanting to have white skin means that Asians want to be like white people distracts from the much larger problem that comes with the lighter-is-better mentality: If you despise dark skin, you’re not going to treat people who have it very well.

That’s the real issue. And the anger at the assumption that Asians must want to be white can be a real baffler for Americans, because it often comes hand-in-hand with the acknowledgement that being dark is often associated in much of Asia with being a lesser person. It comes across as: Of course Asians don’t want to be white! What a horrible and offensive assumption! What a racist you must be! Asians don’t love white people–they just hate black people!

That’s really not going to convince Americans that these beauty standards aren’t profoundly racist and wrong. Especially when they lead to things like a maker of skin bleach in Thailand appearing to section off seats for people with white skin. Those ads were pulled after an uproar, but you know, I don’t think it’s really such a false analogy to liken that kind of “shadism” (a form of discrimination that just so happens to exclude certain racial groups) from straightforward racism.

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Company spokesman Bull Connor discusses the issue with protestors.

What yardstick are you using?

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(I’ve been posting a lot here lately, huh? That’s because the alternative is doing my taxes.)

The other day I stumbled across the first “MR removed” video that I had ever seen.

The idea is that they remove the recorded vocals that are invariably played during live musical performances on Korean television so that you can tell what the vocalists really sound like.

My first response was to wonder, “How do you remove the recorded vocals without removing the live vocals? Unless you managed to sneak into the TV studio and record the audio feeds from the microphones, it doesn’t seem like you could make an accurate recording. You might even wind up totally removing the voice of the person who sings the closest to the recorded version, making the best singer of the group look like the biggest hack! But what do I know? I really don’t know anything about the technical side of music.”

Well, it turns out that other people do, and sometime your first response is totally correct!

My second response was to wonder, “Why do this in the first place?”

The thing is, if you’re trying to figure out if a particular K-Pop group can really sing, why the fuck would you reference a Korean television performance? To all appearances, they set these things up specifically so that the artists don’t have to sing.

And please don’t tell me that you are honestly shocked, shocked!!! to discover that in this performance

they aren’t always singing. What clued you in? The way Zico “shouts” when his microphone is nowhere near his mouth and his lips aren’t moving?

I think this is a case of people taking American (semi-hysterical) expectations of live musical performances and imposing those on the “live” musical performances typical of Korean television. The first Korean group I found that I really liked was FT Island, and their main singer is amazing. But if you try (and I did) to watch FT Island live by watching their Korean TV performances, you are going to be extremely disappointed.

Think about it: At the average Korean TV appearance, the singer has a huge vocal track blaring away behind them, so no matter how well they sing, they’re going to sound like shit. These vocal tracks are provided so that the singer doesn’t overexert themselves, lose their voice on stage, and collapse the way FT Island’s lead singer actually did once.

Why the hell would a singer bring their A game to that kind of environment? Seriously, why?

If you want to hear FT Island’s lead singer live, you should watch something like this:

If you want to hear Block B sing without music, try these:

In other words, if you feel a need to investigate whether or not a K-Pop group can actually sing, try listening to them in a situation where they know that they don’t have the cover/interference of vocal tracks, back-up music, and screaming fans. Watching musical performances on Korean television is like watching an exhibition game–no one’s going to try that hard with the vocals, because it doesn’t really matter. They’re not lazy; they’re smart–why risk injury for a performance that doesn’t really count for anything?

You’ll also notice that in the Shimshimtapa performances all the members of Block B have functioning microphones (not always a given), and they’re standing still. “Very Good” as Block B performs it live is an aerobic workout–after they do it, they mop off sweat and hyperventilate (and everyone looks a little askance at Zico because he’s asthmatic and has a congenital heart defect and therefore might die).

(ETA: This video just popped up, and it’s a good example of what I’m talking about–start at the 5:12 mark. Don’t die, Zico!)

Personally I think dancing is very entertaining (and some K-Pop groups do seriously crazy acrobatics), but those kinds of performances certainly don’t pretend to be all about the music, and it’s kind of silly to act like they do.

Fun with consonants

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Block B recently did a little Korean lesson.

3:50 is what happens when your Korean teacher is a dancer

In the spirit of allowing my worlds to collide, I thought I would use Block B to discuss how consonants work in Korean, which is quite different from the way they work in English.

In English, consonants tend to be pretty stable–a t is pronounced tuh pretty much all the time. (Unless it’s followed by
-ion, in which case it’s pronounced completely differently! Oh, English, you always have such funny and unpredictable exceptions! No wonder I could never learn how to spell you!)

Korean consonants have a lot more wiggle room. When a consonant appears at the end of a syllable, a whole different group of rules apply–in addition to guh becoming kuhand ch suddenly become tuh. But even at the beginning of a syllable, the soft can be guh or kuh, the soft p can be buh or puh, the soft t can be duh or tuh. Likewise, the “hard” consonants (called double consonants) can also vary in pronunciation–you can call your older brother o-ppa or o-bba, and as long as you really come down on that second syllable, he’ll understand you. (Assuming he speaks Korean. Hey, mine spoke Mandarin.)

And a soft consonant can become hard if the person is upset.

Here, P.O is telling Zico, “Go!” a word that is usually pronounced ga (or, if you’re being polite, gayo or gaseyo). But he’s pretending to be upset, so ga becomes ka. Doesn’t change the meaning of the word, though.

While English consonants are relatively stable (you know, for English), English vowels are all over the place–the letter can be pronounced many different ways. That contrasts with Korean, where the vowels are very stable. (I’m guessing they have to be, since the consonants are so flakey–someone has to be the responsible letter in this marriage.)

Because English vowels are so unstable, when Korean is romanized, extra consonants are thrown in to force English speakers to pronounce the vowels correctly. In addition, there’s just no way in hell to convey in English that a consonant could be pronounced guh or kuh, depending on the circumstances, so one consonant is chosen that may or may not be the most common pronunciation. (That’s especially true when you’re talking about stage names, where a letter might get chosen because it looks or sounds cool. Zico could have been romanized Jico or Jiko, or even Jeeco or Jeeko, but then he couldn’t say, “It’s the Z,” could he?)

Here are:

THE STANDARD ROMANIZATION OF THE NAMES OF BLOCK B’S MEMBERS

Lee Tae Il

Lee Min Hyuk

Ahn Jae Hyo

Kim Yu Kwon

Park Kyung

Woo Ji Ho

Pyo Ji Hoon

HOW THEY COULD BE ROMANIZED IF ENGLISH SPEAKERS PRONOUNCED KOREAN VOWELS CORRECTLY, AND IF WE USED THE MOST-COMMON PRONUNCIATION OF THE CONSONANTS

Ee Tae Il

Ee Min Hyuk

An Jae Hyo

Gim Yu Gwon

Bak Gyung

Oo Ji Ho

Pyo Ji Hoon

The compromises that have to be made when romanizing can cause confusion when you’re watching Korean videos, because a name like “Park Kyung” will pop up in the subtitles, and the person will be saying no such thing, even though they’re using the name. (And they’re not always, especially not in dramas where everybody knows each other. Then they’re really likely to be using what we might term titles, although they’re really more like a form of pronoun–calling someone “older brother,” “older sister,” and the like.) And imagine what happens when honorifics and endings get attached to a name! (“Hyu-ga!“) Good luck sorting that one out, English speaker!

This is so upsetting

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So, another one for the grievance file….

Zico recently did an interview about being an idol who also composes. There are two slightly different English translations floating around (Korean original here; plug it into Google Translate if you dare).

Translation #1, by Youngism:

Zico wanted to be “high technician” as a rapper. He didn’t even dream of being a composer. However, because his past company didn’t have a producer available, he decided that he would have to take charge.

“Back then I couldn’t handle MIDI programs and I got tracks from other people. I went to classes with my own money and learned programs like Logic and Cubase. I realized that I had to learn it in order to talk to composers who were making the tracks for me. And then I got greedy and then make the track for Block B’s first album, “Nilriri Mambo”.

Translation #2, by SimpletonJun of Block B International:

Zico: As a rapper, I wanted to become a high technician. I didn’t even dream of being a composer. But the company didn’t have a deserving producer, so I decided to do it myself. At that time, I didn’t even have the MIDI programme and I was using tracks made by others. I attended a hagwon* (*academy/cram school/ educational institute) with my own money and with the help of LOGIC and CUBASE, I learnt how to use the arranging programmes. I found out I knew the direction of music beforehand when giving the composers a track to work on. But I became greedy and starting with BLOCK B’s first album Nillili Mambo, I started to make the title tracks too.

(ETA: There’s a third translation here.)

Stardumb didn’t have a producer for Blockbuster!?! Need I point out to you that the only group that label had that was making any money at that point was Block B? Do you think that any album has made it the money Blockbuster has?

Just, wow.

I mean, stuff like this infuriated me already.

That’s Zico before the lawsuit talking about how, although he worked himself to exhaustion producing Blockbuster, it’s OK, because he really loves making music. He doesn’t quite say, “I’d do it for free!” as the word SUCKER materializes on his forehead, but it’s pretty close.

That was bad enough, but now–oh, he paid out of his own pocket to learn music production. So, yeah, he did it for less than free.

Ugh.

Moving up the difficulty ladder

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We’re getting past the stage in Korean class where you spend a lot of time talking about your pencil.

(If you don’t get that reference, sorry. Sadly, I can’t even say “My pencil is big and yellow” in Korean. I can ask you if something is a pencil, I can tell you that something is a pencil or even my pencil, and I can tell you that, no, it’s a pen, but I cannot tell you that it is big and yellow or even that it is not a pencil. Maybe next term.)

Anyway, by now we’re past the point where you say really simple things (“Hello.” “Good-bye.” “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “Eat a lot!”) and you memorize the words for Korean food (I had a real leg up on that one). Instead, we’re getting into actually making different kinds of sentences.

Which means that the teacher can now spring something on you that you’re not expecting. You’re happily discussing how many pencils you have vs. how many pencils your classmate has, and she suddenly pops out with, “Where’s John?” or “What’s in a library?” and you want to say, “I don’t know!” but you’ve forgotten how.

The thing that makes it even more complicated is the use of endings in Korean. I studied Anglo-Saxon in college, and Korean is a lot like Anglo-Saxon (and Latin, apparently, but I know next to nothing about that) in that word order isn’t that important. Instead, you make a word the subject or the object or indicate that it is a location by adding an ending.

That doesn’t sound that hard, right? For example, the Korean word for book is pronounced chaek and the subject ending is pronounced ee, so if you have a sentence about a book, it would be pronounced chaek-ee, right?

WRONG!

Let’s go back to a happier time, when I was learning Hangul. I wrote:

What’s a soft k? Pronounce the letter k–it makes a sound like kuh. Then relax your throat as much as you can, and say it some more–it starts to sound like guh. The soft in Korean occupies a place betwixt and between an English and k, with its exact pronunciation depending upon a bunch of rules that I still don’t know.

Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

Chaek ends with a soft k. It is also a one syllable word. When a syllable ends with a soft k, it is pronounced kuh. 

Chaek + ee is a two-syllable word. And in Korean, when the second (or third, or whatever) syllable in a word begins with a vowel sound, and the syllable before it ends in a consonant sound, the second syllable “borrows” the consonant sound from the first syllable.

So, instead of pronouncing the word chaek-ee, you pronounce it chae-kee, right?

WRONG!

No, it’s a soft k. When it gets moved to the front of the second syllable, it is pronounced guh.

So, good old familiar chaek, when it is the subject of a sentence, suddenly becomes chae-gee.

Words cannot describe how much this throws me. I memorize chaek, I learn how to spell chaek, and all of a sudden the instructor asks me where my chae-gee is, and I am lost, lost, lost. And this kind of change in pronunciation happens all the time in Korean.

I’m basically discovering that the way my brain works when it comes to language comprehension is not helpful with Korean. I’m very much in the habit of listening for the beginning and ending consonant sounds of a word. When the end consonant changes, I just have no idea what the word is. I feel like I need to adjust how I tune into a word’s sound–to pay more attention to the first part of the word, maybe.

Anyway, I’ll sort it out–I remember reaching this stage with French, too, where I realized just how different it was from English and how hard it was going to be to truly learn.

(I’ll add that this is why it’s important to actually learn Hangul and not rely on Romanization if you want to learn Korean. If you read chaek and chaegee it probably wouldn’t even occur to you that they were the same word. Plus, Hangul is easy to learn, and believe me, you will need the confidence.)