The K-Pop language barrier


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–



7 responses »

  1. LOLL at the Infinite interview. For me, it seems that I either have no bias because I’m a casual fan or that I just really respect them all and think they’re all extremely cool (*cough Block B cough*), but I do have a “bias” for groups that I consider more as idol groups… I really dislike the dating bans imposed onto idols–it doesn’t affect me either way. If they are dating, I can still find them attractive; my attraction towards them has no bearing on their relationship. If they aren’t, they aren’t, and they are just as attractive, and perhaps more if they ARE in a relationship–they know how to treat a lady (a bit more comment on this in another post I think).

  2. I’m completely cynical because I’ve done a lot of theater (always in a backstage role), and there are quite a lot of people who are very good at appearing interesting and attractive on stage who aren’t the least bit interesting or attractive once they get off it. I don’t care if they date, and I’m not the least bit envious of the people dating them, because I’ve seen what it’s like to date some of those people, and I want no part of it!

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