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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:

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?):

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