FANTASTIC BABY: K-Pop Music Videos & Discussion Panel (w/ Transcription)

REDEFINE magazine and Holocene host FANTASTIC BABY: The Opulent Kingdom of Contemporary K-Pop, a K-Pop music videos gallery and discussion panel on the following topics:
– Repeated motifs and common techniques in filming contemporary K-pop videos: a technical analysis
– The rise of colossally sized K-pop idol groups with 10+ members
– Eroding social conservatism and subverting gender norms in Korean culture through pop music and imagery.

Transcription of Fantastic Baby Discussion Panel (Cont’d): Gender Roles

Allen Huang: That’s me and Ingmar together; we’re going to talk about — basically, how we think this wave of K-Pop has kind of really weathered at the social conservatism of Korea. Korea is pretty much a really conservative — socially conservative — country. I think that, at least, K-Pop has brought a lot of these issues kind of suddenly — kind of not so suddenly — into the limelight… like gender roles and homosexuality, and we’re going to present some examples of why we think that.

Ingmar Carlson: So, we’re going to be showing more of a montage, similar to what Jordan did — so it’s going to have sort of a DJ mix under it, made by Allen, and clips from a variety of videos and artists that’re going to highlight some of the imagery that we’re going to be talking about, like androgyny and queer themes and just racy sexuality, in general.

Allen Huang: So, the first part of the montage is going to be [about] classic female sexuality and male sexuality, and the second half is going to be more about androgyny and queer themes.

(Editor’s Note: Please note that the videos embedded below are not completely accurate to the actual panel, as the panel featured a mash-up and this features a small selection of clips.)

Vivian Hua: First, can you give some idea of what Korean society is like? It’s obviously not that.

Ingmar Carlson: Well, first of all, you’re talking about a first world country, fully modernized. Yeah. It is still very socially conservative. [Random static noise]. Where is that?…

Allen Huang: Jordan’s computer has something to say.

Ingmar Carlson: I think a lot of that conservatism is rooted initially in, or mostly in, Korea’s age-old embrace of Confucianism. While it’s changed a great deal, I’d say a lot of that is still very much there. It’s more than just a residue of that conservatism, stressing observance of social norms and sort of this socio-cultural consistency over any self-defining creative pursuits or anything like that. But a lot is certainly changing. As you can see in Korean pop culture — whether that’s on TV, but I think especially in music — you’re having a lot of imagery, and to some extent lyrical content, that’s very, very indicative of some themes that I would say are quite subversive; very subversive, actually, as far as traditional norms are concerned. What do you have to say about that, Allen?

GLAM – “PARTY (XXO)” LYRICS (Translated)Nanana nananana Lalala lalalala
B-b-b beating away (x2)Can I kiss ya baby girl?
You know that? Look at your charm, it’s so great
Even if you fall down, beautiful smile
Are you a boy? Girl? I don’t care – passion is the key, a hot heart is your ID
If you’re alone, come here – put everything in your hot heart
Girl I like ya really really like ya, now just jump up and leave the rest to meMy training shirt is drenched with sweat, G.L.A.M. from the Mars
1 2 3 4 ready to start
(Girl I like ya really really like ya)
B-b-beating hearts, you and I, we are the same girls
Maybe there’s no need to win
(Come on! I’m heartbeat away)A Kiss XXO, anyone can be a Romeo
A touch of your lips XXO, if the heart starts to race, you’re Juliet JulietLet’s get the Party Party started
Next to you, heartbeat away, B-b-b Heartbeat away (x2)Nanana nananana Lalala lalalala B-b-b beating away
(Come on! I’m heartbeat away)
Nanana nananana Lalala lalalala B-b-b beating awayBecause we break the rules, we dodge the rules
Got the right to break the wall – everyone move
Opposition for opposition won’t work – take off the blindfold that covers your eyes
(Be confident) We’re a minority (Fling it off) We’re ET that came to earth
You make my heart heart heartbeat! Everybody lets pa pa party

A Peace XXO, just hug everyone. Only Love
A touch of the heaven XXO, just shout out, o-e-oh o-e-oh

Let’s get the Party Party started
Next to you, heartbeat away, B-b-b Heartbeat away (x2)

G.L.A.M. My heart calls you, jump up, roll your feet
G.L.A.M. Your heart calls me, Let’s start the party for love

Party is heartbeat away
(Wo-oh-o-oh-o Wow-wo-o-oh-o)

Yeh, don’ t stop the beat now, now is the time, you shine more than anyone else
Start the final countdown, touchdown above the blue sky
Let’s burn this earth, let’s burn it all, let’s burn it all

Party is heartbeat away
(Wo-oh-o-oh-o Wow-wo-o-oh-o)

Allen Huang: As far as lyrical themes go: that last song, and part of the video, is by a group called Glam, “Party (XXO)”. If you take the lyrics — you can go online, find the lyrics — it’s very specifically about genderless love. And this is a song that actually went to number five, number four on the charts. This wasn’t something going on in the underground; this was straight to the top of the charts, produced by a major label, and they’re talking about how it’s okay to be a girl and love a girl, or a guy and love a guy; it doesn’t matter. And even in the Western hemisphere of pop music, that’s kind of forward. You have stuff like “I Kissed A Girl”, I guess, but that’s more of sexual tantalization than anything. This one is super straight-forward as far as, breaking down the rules of society and loving each other, no matter what gender. And things like that are happening, in concurrence with the strong female archetypes you’re seeing in 2NE1 and CL, and even recently, there was a song that came out by Lee HyoRi [originally of Fin’KL] — and her new album is just basically taking on that bad girl persona, and running with it. She was in the first clip of the girls prancing around in the ’90s, and she was one of the tenants of the first wave of K-Pop, so it’s extremely interesting to see her go from cutesy girl group to grown woman who’s writing her own lyrics about, you know, being an independent woman, not being married, and doing what you want to do. I think that’s kind of the difference that I think that K-Pop — not only in content, but in bringing attention to Korea, from the rest of the world… and I think it’s kind of forcing a change. And I think the young generation’s totally for it; it’s literally the old generation that’s still kind of stuck in its ways.

Vivian Hua: I think to a lot of Western viewers, the males in particular probably seem really flamboyish and girlish. But I would argue that this is actually indicative of just how Korean society is with the young generation. Would you agree?

Ingmar Carlson: Yeah, you could say that. You’re seeing a level of androgyny, especially with some of these boy groups, that you’re really not seeing in Western pop music at all, whether it’s coming out of the States or wherever. I mean, okay, so Bieber is wearing some mascara every once in a while, but you know, is he really makeup-caked? Behind me is a picture of… that’s a guy, by the way — his name is Ren, and he’s a member of the boy band called NU’EST. I don’t know; it looks like he’s probably putting on some kind of skin-whitening toner cream there. Bieber’s taking a lot of selfies of himself every few hours, sure, but you’re not going to catch him doing this, necessarily. As far as whether or not that’s really just what it’s like among the younger generation, I’d say it is, to an extent. Having been around Korea a number of times now, you do see some of that, but this level of extremity isn’t ubiquitous. But I would say that one of the big things, as far as the aesthetics of fashion in Korean society is concerned, is that males are not exempt from standards of beauty in the way guys are here. For guys here, it’s not a big deal if you just run around in your sweatpants and look everyday like you just got out of bed and never shave… that’s not a big deal over here, but over there it just ain’t happening. Guys are trying to beautify themselves and be pretty, just as girls are, and spending as much time in front of the mirror. But this sort of thing should not necessarily be mistaken for a gender-bending kind of statement, I’d say.

Gina Altamura: And I feel like there’s a debate to be had over whether this music has a transformative potential among even the younger society that’s listening to it, or whether it’s just considered entertainment; it’s just purely kooky and wild for its own sake. I’d be curious to have you guys shed some light on that.

Allen Huang: I’d argue that it doesn’t even matter if it’s Korean or American or whatever pop culture — as long as the images are present… pop culture is fed to people. It’s broadcast; it’s advertised. It’s playing in the theatres. It’s playing in the restaurants. And so, the content of it — if it is progressive, or relatively progressive compared to what you’re going through on a normal basis — it’s a gradual transformation. I mean, there are definitely people who are doing more real work, I would say, than K-Pop is about gay rights and about female rights — and those people are definitely the ones to look towards as far as activism goes. But even along with that, even in America, we just had — how many States did we have that passed gay marriage in the past three or four years? And before that, there was not much, I guess, in the ’70s and in the ’80s. The growth of queer themes in pop culture in America has grow, and it has come to this point where we’ve gotten — it’s considered almost ridiculous not to acknowledge queer people as equals, which is, if you talked to someone in the 1960s, unheard of. And it’s because of the seeping into pop culture that you’ve gotten it. And I think we’re seeing the same thing in K-Pop, and that’s interesting. Because they have had success with pop music; it’s just that now, they’re using pop music to kind of address these worldwide themes. And part of that is their desire for internationality, and part of that is just catching up with the times.

Vivian Hua: I’ve seen some examples lately of just Korean entertainment addressing the issue of queer rights directly. I know you’ve posted some; could you talk a little bit about what you’ve seen lately, with regards to that?

Allen Huang: I forget his name. There was a television personality; he’s very famous. He was on all the variety shows.

Ingmar Carlson: Kind of an older guy, too, right?

Allen Huang: An older guy. And he was basically banned from television because he came out. And this was in the 2000s; this was the early 2000s. He’s a friend to everybody in the industry; everybody knew him. He was kicked off his television show; he wasn’t adopted to a new television show — so he basically kind of went away. But he’s always been on the tip of everybody’s tongue as far as people talking about queer themes and such. He runs a successful chain of restaurants, and you’ll constantly see young K-Pop stars and agency heads eating at his restaurants and saying hello to him and appearing in pictures with him, obviously giving support to who he is and what he’s done.

Ingmar Carlson: As a statement. He’s very vocal about it.

Allen Huang: And basically, he’s coming back as a figurehead into Korean pop culture, and it’s very interesting to see how these people who once denounced him and kind of ran him out have been pretty much silenced by the warm support that everybody else was giving him. It’s not saying that oh, “K-Pop is why” — but it’s just that the culture is changing, and K-Pop is reflecting — and also amplifying — that change.

Ingmar Carlson: It’s just also another example of the extent to which pop culture can actually be a force for change as well, in that sense, especially given netizen culture and the extreme extent to which young Koreans are constantly keeping up-to-date with even the most mundane movements of their favorite stars — what they’re up to, what they’re doing, what they’re saying, what they support and what they don’t, etc. So, for big stars to visit a guy like this in his restaurant and take photos with him for the press, it’s a big deal – of course people are going to think and talk about that, for sure. Just to clarify: in my experience both knowing Koreans and spending some time there, I would say that as far as this sort of thing is concerned, it’s still very, very, very far off from the day when, in South Korea, you’ll see something like gay marriage legalized. Even among young people there’s still, I think, a great deal of homophobia, to the extent that some wouldn’t be comfortable even admitting that homosexuality actually occurs in their country, which is pretty extreme. And meanwhile, we’re seeing all this imagery and overt lyrical content [in K-Pop] that is very pro-gay. It’s also kinda neat because the way the arts tackle challenging issues and content like this in the West is usually from the bottom up, so to speak – it starts on the fringes, or with the avant-garde, and works its way up. It’s kind of the opposite in Korea right now, where really all that you ever hear anywhere, whether on the radio or in the street (most shops have speakers blasting music into the street so when you hear your favorite song you’ll want to go into that store, as a sort of a psychological pull) is mostly mainstream K-Pop — although there are indie bands and other things going on. So it’s the opposite there: the kind of themes and content that beget change are coming from the top down. It’s all at the very top. Somebody up there has the idea to put out a song like “Party (XXO)” and soon everybody everywhere is witness to that, listening to it, watching it, and perhaps being influenced by it. It’s fascinating.

Vivian Hua: Just one more question. What do you make of the ubiquitousness of the way people look. Do you consider that a kind of conservatism?

Ingmar Carlson: The ubiquitousness [of]…

Vivian Hua: Okay, so, they’re crazy-looking and all that, but they’re all kind of crazy-looking in kind of the same way? It’s like a cookie cutter model for crazy.

Allen Huang: I don’t know how familiar you guys are with how the system works. There agencies, and then groups, right? And many groups can be under one agency. So you have an agency that has a pretty successful formula for one group, [so] they’ll probably apply the same formula to other groups. So that means applying the same designers, the same visualists, the same conceptualists, the same songwriters, the same producers; they’ll go to multiple groups. So you’ll have a lot of groups with very similar looks and feels and sounds, because they’re using literally the same stable of producers to make their music, and the same stable of stylists to make their clothes. And, of course, in any industry — any commercial industry — if you have a successful product, if you have a successful group, you’re going to have people who are just going to try and copy that, so you have a lot of copycats. So there are definitely groups like 2NE1 that are huge — they’ve played America; not many K-Pop groups have done that, so people want to copy them. Like Reese said, Girls’ Generation basically provided a template for the large girl group, so you have a lot of large girl groups coming out — not so much anymore, because they’re expensive, but… people will try to emulate that. And it’s just interesting to me, even if there is some sort of homogeny about what is proven financially to be successful… 2NE1 becoming popular, basically says, to me, and a lot of people, that young Korean women are looking for strong female role models. And so — the Hyunas and the Secrets are really popular too, because they’re beautiful and sexy and do the dance great — but then you have this whole section of people who really, really want strong female archetypes in their visuals and in their pop consumption. And they’re getting it, because… the industry doesn’t care about that social line; they only care about what makes money. And if progressivism makes money, they will continue to be progressive. And that is totally cool with me. You can cash out on progressivism. That’s totally awesome.

Vivian Hua: 2NE1’s those ladies with the big machineguns.

Ingmar Carlson: That’s the other aspect of the androgyny. On the one hand, you have these very pretty boy groups, like, you know, I think SHINee is a really good example, because it’s not just the way that they dress and keep their faces and the makeup; it’s also in the music. It’s the whole aesthetic, that’s very cutesy, to Western eyes and ears anyway. Rather more effeminate, perhaps, than what we’re used to. But on the other hand, you have these very, very tough girl groups, basically. Like 2NE1…

Allen Huang: D-Unit, Glam… GI just came out.

Ingmar Carlson: GI! GI’s the one that I’m thinking of, sorry. GI specifically, their whole aesthetic is based on this tomboy vibe. I’m not sure about over there, but we’d probably interpret it as an overtly-lesbian aesthetic here. So, yeah…

Gina Altamura: Well, thanks so much, you guys! We’d like to open it up to audience questions, if anybody has any questions about any of the topics we’ve discussed so far.

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Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Written by Vee Hua 華婷婷
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