Korean Girl Groups as a Window to the Industrialization of Culture

EDIT (5 Sept 2001): I goofed on the dating of the video I used as historical evidence, as one commenter pointed out. What can I say? Duh! See the comments section for more. (But I don’t think it kills my argument… there’s other evidence for that.)

ORIGINAL POST: When I arrived in Korea, people were using the word “talent” in a way I really didn’t understand: it was synonymous with “performer”… even performers who quite obviously had no talent. And believe me, there were lots of those on TVs in those days.

I’m sure some people out there would say that the origins of the Korean girl-group must be found in Japanese pop music; it’s an argument I can understand, and indeed I imagined Japan as a probable origin of a lot of the pop culture that prevails in Korea — idols, boy-bands and girl-groups, and so on. And it may be the case, but if true, those origins lie much further back than one might think.

After all, look at this video from 1974, featuring (according to the person who posted it on Youtube) Seo Jio singing 그대없이는못살아 (“I Can’t Live Without You”):

Now watch it again, and imagine the singer gone from the stage. Just imagine the back dancers singing the song in bits and pieces, while doing that same dance.

Clearly, there is some kind of lineage here, between the group of female back dancers, and what we have today — it looks the same, except with the celebrity at center stage having been effaced, removed from the equation:

This serves all kinds of useful ends for the entertainment companies that did it, of course: whereas if you have a break with an individual “idol” (or, in older Korean lingo, “gasu”) performer, you lose the act, when you brand yourself a girl-group, individuals can come and go but the franchise, like some strange hybrid symbiont, can and does live on. Performers are interchangeable, the concept and branding and properties are the real act — and any girl with the right look and legs (and, one hopes, a modicum of singing and dancing ability, though I suspect that’s negotiable) can be slotted into a given act. Seen through the eyes of the entertainment corporation, the human female ought to possess only the following qualities:

  • good looks (of a specific, currently fashionable kind)
  • a generic uniformity, and interchangeability, with all other females in the industry
  • a modicum of “customizability” for playing prefab fantasy roles: 60s chiquita, cowgirl, space voyager, Bond babe, femme fatale, aegyo cutie, etc.
  • as an added bonus (but not truly necessary): ability to actually sing and dance. But not too good — we don’t want to make the other girls in the group look bad.

Smart business. Makes for quite crappy art, though. Unless you think the aesthetics of the following will last through the ages:

Frankly, I barely feel comfortable calling what those groups do on stage “dancing” — when you see someone do it alone, it becomes quite apparent how much of it involves standing still, and how much of it involves standing in place and wiggling body parts, or making faces and hand gestures. It’s hard to be bowled over by that when you’ve seen performers who actually sing and actually dance at the same time, do so for an hour or more straight.

(Angelique Kidjo, who I saw back in 2000, in Montreal, comes to mind: amazing, powerful voice, but also a really graceful dancer who never stood still during the show… no, really.)

Anyway, seeing Seo Jio’s video, it really hit me: the evil genius of pop music business was to remove (musical) talent from the equation, making it all about looks. There isn’t a surgery to make a bad singer into a good one, so you’re stuck dealing with a limited pool of talent. There is surgery to make average-looking people into good-looking ones, by whatever standards prevail; thus, music businesses expanded their pool of available talent far more than exponentially when they cut the “singer” from the stage show, and passed those duties on to the back-dancers. (Sort of the way, in a lot of smaller Western pop acts, the singer took on the dancing duties when budgets and logistics made back-dancers impossible. )

Of course, there are other points of origin for the Korean girl-group phenomenon. One clear one is the chorus line, and somehow, the allure of seeing a bunch of pretty females dance synchronously seems to have really caught on in Korea. I’ve long suspected that chorus-line dancing has been somehow linked not to industrialization itself, but rather to the internalization and aestheticization of industrial-age aesthetics, something that comes long after industrialization. (And seems to have happened for North Americans and Western Europeans around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In Korea, it is more recent, perhaps, but then, industrialization is more recent too.

Maybe synchronous dance is not so recent, mind you: if one watches the Ganggang Sullae (painful video here), one finds unison and synchronized movement emphasized — but then, dance is one of those things where unison and synchronized movement is a pretty constant thing… but Ganggang Sullae comes to mind mainly because it is a strictly gendered performance: women-only, at least in my experience, and supposedly in the Joseon era as well.

The thing that differentiates other synchronous dances, and even other synchronous all-female dances, from phenomena like the Korean girl-group and the Western chorus line, is that the unison is no longer simply an inherent part of the dance; rather, it the synchrony becomes a central feature of the performance — the dance becomes, in some sense, specifically about the unison and synchrony, as a feature of sexualized beauty. Such performances tend to feature younger women (especially in Korean girl groups lately, where “women” must have “and girls” appended to it) who are both attractive and who look, relatively, like one another — a movement towards uniformity that is, in fact, accentuated by the uniform dress codes, but also by plastic surgery, careful hair styling, and careful use of camera angles (as well as photoshop, in promotional materials at least).

In other words, the synchrony is mapped not just onto movement, but also onto appearance and that portion of sexuality that is brought into play in media entertainment. In a sense, I suspect it reflects (or caters to) some unsettling, unconscious desire new to consumerist culture for everything in the world — food, clothing, weather, scenery, sex partners, everything — to be subjected to the same process of standardization that so much of the stuff of our lives already has been. We can see examples of this elsewhere: the baffling (to me) desire to see bands play live, while expecting them to perform their songs exactly as recorded in the studio is one example. (I was shocked to discover this expected of me — indeed, encouraged by fellow musicians — when I played in a rock band.) The interest in foods that are consistent in a number of ways — hence the success of, and trust placed in, fast foods by travelers in distant lands. The experience of the international hotel, the boring coonsistency of the megabrew lager beer. All of these seem to be expectations possible only in a post-cultural, or rather consumer-cultural society.

(Which is to say that, once you have internalized the aesthetics and norms of a consumerist society, practices and aesthetics may continue to be linked to pre-consumerist culture, but in an important sense, the consumerist cultural revolution renders significant portions of pre-consumerist cultures impossible at worst, or at best marginal; meanwhile, at least the global consumerist system we have now, what floods in to replace preconsumer culture is the monocultural.)

There’s other observations to make, like about what Brian in Jeolla-namdo astutely dubbed the “Korean ‘sexy-dance'” (or sexydance); he was right to note the universal presence in Korean sexydance of a slight awkwardness — something I’d noticed before, and which most non-Koreans, or even Koreans who’ve been exposed to actual “sexy dancing,” recognize readily. Of course, sexuality is subjective — there are different things that turn different people on, and the shape of which kinks are popular and which not so much depends a lot on culture. Brian was right in noting that unsexy sexydances were a trend (and they still are) but I would add that the unsexiness is actually there on purpose: it’s part of the ostensible allure, and absolutely connected to the fact that young women are being used more and more for these entertainment franchises; the youth, the awkwardness of the sexydance… there’s an unsettling nexus of stuff going on there. (Not that most men who consume this stuff will admit it.)

But those and other observations are more culture-specific, and I’m more interested, in the moment, in questions regarding the universals involved in the generation of consumer culture.

One thing I can say that is hopeful, is that this sort of change goes in waves, and that resistance, or diversification, sometimes arises only as a reaction to the shift — and only once the consumerization has effectively steamrolled the old-fashioned competition. In the 1970s, there was no such thing as craft beer in most of the industrialized world: now, there’s even craft beer in Korea, marginal as it may be. In the basement clubs of Hongdae district in Seoul, other modes of pop cultural aesthetics are being messed with.

The interesting margins are interesting because they are often of better quality: artisanal cheese and beer and soap are better than their industrial, simplified, decharacterized counterparts. In a sense, what I’m talking about is the eradication of the artistic and cultural equivalents of those — “artisanal dance” and “artisanal art” and “artisanal music” and “artisanal aesthetics” sound silly, but you know what I mean–  the aesthetics held by people in a culture where it is normal to homebrew beer or liquor, make your own cheese (or get  it from someone who made it at home), where singing and dancing are participatory (rather than a spectacle to be consumed passively). The singing and dancing is more fun in that context, the cheese and the liquor almost always taste much better, and if one example doesn’t, you can find another that does.

But while I perceive it as a thing of poverty — cultural, artistic, and aesthetic poverty so extreme I don’t have words for it —  the industrialized mainstream culture is interesting to me for different reasons — especially when I try to understand how it functions. I think what I’ve stumbled on is the a surprising fact: while we may have looked at pop music as being fully industrialized in the past, that was an error. The machinery of industry had been applied to distribution, but even with bands or solo acts that were very popular at their zenith, the performers themselves to some degree were still engaged in a kind of cottage industry. (This is less true for pop groups than a lot of rock groups, but it remains relatively true in terms of the laborers; they may have ended up as serfs sometimes, but the system of production hadn’t quite been so thoroughly industrialized as it had in other industries until the girl-group and boy-band model was created. (Which, by the way, is not a solely Korean crime; I remember, back in 1994, when the Spice Girls was formed, being astounded that some company had simply put out a call for auditions, as they wanted to “create” a band to compete with the popular group (like Backstreet Boys and Take That) for a chunk of the pop music market. As a musician myself, I was blown away that it was the company creating the group, rather than simply some executive or headhunter coming across a group that had already existed and signing them, the standard pop-music-success-narrative I’d seen up until that point.)

All of this is quite icky to me, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when one is considering writing fiction about the subject, especially the kind of fiction I’m working my way towards. I’m reflecting on that a lot these days, as I ready myself for a marathon drafting spree during Chuseok. I think I have a novel idea I can probably put onto paper during that time… or, at least, get a lot of it written then. We’ll see.

And yes, this upcoming fiction project does involve the Korean entertainment industry… among other things. But I’ll say more once I’ve actually got some work done on it.

More positively, there’s always Patti Kim, doing something that makes me think of Ella Fitzgerald a little:

(Note: not the original video, which has been binned due to copyright claims. Because, you know, Patti Kim is selling so well these days. Sigh.)

… and Go Boksu (Ko Boksoo?):

8 thoughts on “Korean Girl Groups as a Window to the Industrialization of Culture

  1. Another singer who can also dance up a storm is Janelle Monae – her video for “tightrope” and her performance on letterman are awesome. Go youtube it.

    Meanwhile, thinking about the cookie cutter nature of kpop bands, a parallel came to mind — the similarities between a kpop band and those mass-produced formula young adult fiction series, like Animorphs and The Hardy Boys and Babysitters’ Clubs, where page 8=15 always introduces the characters, you always find out the bad guy on page 118 and somebody saves the hero’s life on page 132.

  2. Rob,

    Ah, yes, Janelle Monae is indeed an amazing dancer. I think I posted the “Tightrope” video around here someone, or maybe it was on a blog for a course last semester. Tightrope is an insane video, and indeed it makes me slightly dizzy just watching it (which readers can do here, since embedding is turned off for it).

    The Letterman video, though, is below:

    Monae is also interesting because her debut album was SF-flavored, conceived as a retelling of the narrative of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (among other things — I sense a touch of Blade Runner to the narrative also). She’s an extremely talented musician, and one of the things I think is coolest about her is that she has her own style… How many female singers do you know who resist the “look at my breasts! look at my ass! here, lemme wiggle my half-naked body for you!” approach. Monae wears a tux, because she has class and means business, goddammit. Now that’s hot.

    You must be a bit younger than me, if you read Animorphs. I never was big on the Hardy Boys, but yeah, I think some older YA (or juvenile fiction) was a bit cookie-cutter. I don’t really remember. I know things have changed since then, though: there’s some pretty amazing stuff being sold as YA these days… some pretty subversive stuff, and well-written, and so on.

    Someone else save’s the hero’s life on page 132? As in, the hero doesn’t save lives, but has to be saved? That’s odd…

    I also feel like I didn’t quite emphasize enough the fact that girl groups aren’t a Korean invention (and boy bands, which think came earlier… hell, there are roots for that in Motown), though I think it’s been carried farther in Korea than other places, and affected pop culture more profoundly here. Now it seems everything from private lending companies to water parks have advertisements featuring groups of attractive young women styled on the Girl Group model.

    As Miss Jiwaku says, “Girl groups have ruined everything here.”

  3. Why – when making otherwise relatively sound observations – does authors so often have to adapt a wilfully ignorant position to try and hammer their point in? Lie a little to make their argument more ‘true’, if you will.

    Because whenever I read these articles they’re all the same – they start with a bit of general media studies and sociology and then turn towards just slinging dirt at the performers and the business in a generalized way that helps no one, and certainly not the author.

    There are many questionable sides to k-pop and its fan culture, but really: Their talent, without quotation marks, is absolutely scrutinized. Indeed, what’s marked k-pop as different from other markets is the extensive training and ‘quality’ control that’s put into the dancing and singing, because fans are so ruthless, using digital tools to remove backing tracks from live performance recordings to see if the performer ACTUALLY sung well. And if not, they get an article in the tabloid with displeased comments from netizens.

    The fact that so many of the k-pop artists play instruments and contribute to the writing and composition of songs is also very easily ignored when making cheap points. But I wish that someday, someone who’s outside the fan communities would take the time to actually get to know what they’re talking about and not be so enamoured with their epiphany of allegory that they’ll spout any random nonsense.

    In k-pop, like any other scene, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. Easy generalization is always bad.

  4. Mat,

    It’s all a question of standards. I’m not being willfully ignorant, and I’m not lying. But I do have standards that may differ from yours. (For example, I’d say almost no “pop” music (to be specific about the genre I’m talking about) impresses me.

    By the way, I think “talent” belongs in scare quotes primarily because I think it’s in limited supply even among more traditional musical acts.

    You might be convinced that no enhancement has been done on those tracks that are analyzed by Kpop fans. I assume you haven’t spent time in a recording studio, so I will tell you as someone who has spent hours and hours in several, of different levels of quality — they have techniques and software to make tracks sound better than thee original performance. They can do pitch correction, but also they can punch in on tracks an incredible number of times. And they do, believe me. (Even classical music recordings, like symphony orchestra performances, have long been cobbled together from piecemeal. That’s something those fankids wouldn’t be able to hear, because pitch correction isn’t necessarily obvious to the ear even when the track is soloed, but also because punching in is something done phrase by phrase.

    (I can attest to that: one recording session I did was with a soprano saxophone, an instrument I hadn’t played on for years, and was in bad condition. It’s an instrument you have to play constantly to keep your chops up with, and it was a leaky horn. But after the surgery we did on the tracks I recorded with it, you almost couldn’t tell… and this was in a cheap studio out in the Korean boonies. Which is to say, the protracted track analysis sounds like a waste of time by people who don’t know better.)

    Live performances might be a better test case, assuming no lip synching, mind.

    As for the extensive “training” and “quality control” — those are interesting word choices — I suppose it depends on what one’s idea of quality is. As I said, the “dancing” that is part of K-pop performance always looks stilted and awkward to me… even childish. In discussion with a friend, it emerged that this is probably engineered into it, as it (a) makes it easier for schoolkids to imitate (which they often do, and quite comparably to the original performers) as well as (b) coding a sort of naive pubescent-sexuality into the performances to appeal to the older part of the market (middle-aged men). And as for the involvement of these kids in their musical content: well,, that’s narrative, a compelling one for fans… so compelling that it can lead to one missing the fact that this isn’t that different from the stuff kids come up with on their own routinely. If you’re arguing these kids are “talented” then I’d have to grant it only if we water down the meaning of “talent” to what we expect from any kid given the chance to create something.

    And as for “playing instruments” — er, they don’t do it onstage. I can claim to play three or four instruments myself, but only have performed with a couple. What does “play instruments” mean outside of fanboy narratives about beloved stars? Not a lot, to me.

    In any case, I am amused by your apparent rage. Chill out. It’s pop music, the be-all-and-end-all of which is making money. Which is part of the thing: if I were a good-looking Korean kid and could get a contract where I wouldn’t be screwed over, I’d probably do it too. I don’t blame the kids. I blame the industry.

    But hey, if you’re this angry, I’m sure I won’t convince you. The fact you’re this angry also suggests you’re likely misreading me in a few different ways, but I am too busy to explain those to you in detail.

    So I’ll just advise you chill out. It’s pop music. It’s supposed to be recycled, recyclable crap — that’s the nature of the beast. ie. It’s not necessarily worse than all kinds of pop music from other countries… but certainly no better, and with a slight added ick factor (to Westerners, at least) in terms of the marketing of (underaged) girls’ bodies.

    And by the way, I’m not the only person who feels that way. I know a number of of Koreans who despise this stuff, and resent the girlgroupization of absolutely everything here.

  5. I hate to point out something so obvious, but your “video from 1974” is no such thing. The song evidently dates back to then, but your clip is widescreen high definition (watchable on YouTube in 720p) and, while I don’t speak Korean, I can understand “2010.07.26”.

    Since this is a modern (as in last year) performance, the choreography could obviously be influenced by K-Pop dance routines rather than the other way round – and perhaps there wouldn’t have been any dancers at all back in 1974.

    P.S. The video title, as translated for me by Google, suggests that Seo Jio is covering a song originally sung by Patti Kim.

  6. Gag,

    Ha, shit! You’re right! It all looked so damned retro that I assumed the KBS1 tag in the corner meant it was rebroadcast more recently, captured from that, and uploaded (hence the date). But I checked and it is a more recent performance.

    In this case, it may be the back dancers are just another girlgroupized thing. (Or maybe not; I’ve seen back dancers in other performances from the old days, I’d swear… another reason I was certain this was an old one.)

    Some older videos that have back dancers that look girlgroupish include this one (“Hol Loy” sung by Jin Miryung):

    … and this one (the ever-popular, if (to me) ominously titled “Apartment” by Yoon Sooil, 1982, with some pretty trippy male back dancers):

    EDIT: and one more, with, weirdly, a band placed IN FRONT of the singers and dancers. (Huh?)

    And this could be video game music, but check out the (swimsuit + dinner jacketed) back dancers in ’87:

    Couldn’t find anything dating back to 1974, but I’m sure there were acts that had back dancers then too.

    (I’ve heard there was even a cabaret with a chorus line at one of the big hotels back in the 70s. A friend who did Peace Corps back then told me he was brought there as a goodbye present, much to his chagrin — he wished he’d learned of it earlier on!)

    (Note: if the videos don’t load, try reloading the page…. there’s a lot of Youtube here now, and I got blank spaces the last time I loaded the page.)

    A lot of older videos seem to not have back dancers — though they often have bands playing in the background — but there are enough that have them to suggest that the development I suggested is possible, and rooted in Korean pop music; of course, it could just as easily be a case of Korean entertainment companies following Western trends —
    Backstreet Boys and The Spice Girls were early put-together groups, and happened long ago enough to have been examples followed here.

    And after all, the trend overall seems to have been (a) eliminating people who actually play instruments of any kind from the stage, and then (b) moving from a higher number of solo performers, with or without back dancers, to more (utterly interchangeable) back dancers (even for groups) and more groups instead of more solo performers… I think.

    My list is not exhaustive, obviously: there are obviously other stages here: I recall mixed groups — male and female together — being a trend at some point in the 90s, for example… like Roora:

    (And yeah, I actually do get a kick out of that last one. They look like they’re having fun up there, and there’s NO doubt they’re actually singing and dancing at the same time. The off notes I can swallow, because they’re actually into it.)

    Anyway, I appreciate you pointing out my error. I was going to plead illness, but I mentioned the fact you pointed out to Miss Jiwaku, who first showed me the video, and she was surprised to hear it was recent too. But I do appreciate having it pointed out when I’m demonstrably wrong… and without all the misspent rage of Mat’s earlier comment.

  7. Mat, you got nothing. Maybe you’ve realized that by now, but you really don’t. K-pop performers play music instruments? Very few do, and not one that I’m aware of has displayed even a mediocre level of talent. And songwriting? Are you serious? Nearly all the songs are purchased from professional songwriters (most of whom are overseas). If we go back to the mid-nineties, that was a bit different, but since the manufacturing of H.O.T., the music industry in Korea went in a very depressing direction.

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