chapter  6
14 Pages

K-pop female idols in the West: racial imaginations and erotic fantasies


The recent worldwide explosion of Korean pop music is a cultural phenomenon as unexpected in Korea itself as in the numerous countries throughout most of the world that now have rapidly growing fan bases for K-pop. This cultural and commercial explosion is celebrated in the Korean mass media and nurtured with pride by the Korean government. This chapter offers a critical look at some of the complexities in the K-pop global phenomenon and focuses on K-pop’s problematic relations with the Western market, the U.S. in particular. Psy’s record-setting Gangnam Style music video, which reached more than a billion YouTube views within six months after its posting (in July 2012), is the latest and undeniably most spectacular instance of the extraordinary international spread of contemporary Korean pop music. Psy would seem to have penetrated even into the U.S. mainstream pop market like a speeding comet, although it is still too early to know to what extent his sudden stardom can last past this one video alone. Recent attempts by some of the biggest Korean pop stars to break into the U.S. pop market have resulted in momentary flashes of wide publicity, but have largely been disappointments, attesting to the complex challenges presented by the U.S. mainstream pop market – challenges that may continue to make it difficult for lasting development of a place for Korean pop music in the U.S. As a part of the Korean Wave (Hallyu) phenomenon since the late 1990s,

the sector of Korean pop music known as K-pop, referring to especially

manufactured idol pop by young boys’ and girls’ bands (and a few solo singers), has become increasingly popular in Asia and has begun to gain adoring young fans worldwide, including in the U.S., in recent years thanks largely to its availability via the ubiquitous Internet and social media. Yet overseas responses to K-pop idols’ musical and visual styles have not always been positive. Their failure, especially in the U.S., despite their individual efforts and aggressive promotion and investment by their ambitious management companies, severely damaged their pop star image and in some cases literally ended their singing careers upon their return to Korea. The three solo idol singers BoA, Rain and Se7en and the two girl bands Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation attempted to break into the U.S. pop market between 2008 and 2012, but flopped, despite their enormous success in Korea and throughout Asia. Not only were they attempting to penetrate a market with no prior interest in Korean or other Asian pop music, but their visible identities as Asian inevitably placed them within the entanglements of race and sexuality in America’s popular imagination. Ironically, such entanglements may have partially helped Psy to be successful in the U.S., as visual images of Psy and others in the music video, including the two male comedians dancing wildly, fit with the familiar stereotype of Asian males as sexually unthreatening and comical. The focus of this chapter, though, is on Korean female idols, whose image challenges have run headlong into American stereotypes of Asian women as exotic sexual objects. Popular music, whose appeal relies somewhat less on language than do films

or television shows, should traverse national boundaries somewhat more easily, it would seem. Indeed, listeners worldwide often enjoy listening to music whose lyrics are in a language they do not know or understand well, as we have witnessed from the case of Psy’s Gangnam Style, which is mostly in Korean with the exception of a few English words (e.g. “sexy lady,” “baby”). Yet, it is also clear that the transnational flows of popular music have limits, and these limits have less to do with language or musical style than they do with, for lack of a better term, “image.” Particularly since the dawn of music television in the early 1980s and the heavy reliance on visual materials (“the video”) to promote and market popular music, the physical appearance of the musicians and the reactions to their appearance by the audience of potential customers have been very important commercially and aesthetically. In other words, for contemporary international marketing of popular music – videos, concert tours, DVDs, photo albums, downloads and social media interactions – (physical, visual) image matters. K-pop idol manufacturers seem well aware of the power of image as they focus heavily not only on perfecting their idols’ physical features but also on actively exploiting the idols’ images, racy (and racial) and sexual, in their music videos. Although the lyrics used by K-pop idols in their songs aimed at the U.S. market make no explicit reference to race, the visual contents are usually linked to the entanglements of race and sexuality in the popular imagination – each video playing on the American

audience’s racialized notions of sexuality and sexualized notions of racial identity. This chapter focuses on two K-pop female acts – Wonder Girls and Girls’

Generation – who attempted to garner their biggest success, between 2009 and 2012, not by offering new musical styles but by negotiating and repackaging their Asian female sexuality in attempts to play to the realities – and fantasies – of the U.S. pop market. A similar approach had been attempted in 2008 by Korea’s sensational female idol singer BoA (see Jung 2010). While it should be noted that the attempts by the two male solo singers, Rain and Se7en, in the late 2000s also deserve in-depth analyses as each case bears on distinctive aspects and dynamics of the U.S. pop market environments and America’s racial and sexual imaginings, this chapter specifically focuses on the female idols, who have been far more aggressively promoted overseas than the male idols by their management companies, especially with regard to the U.S. market. Female singers in many cultures around the world have long relied on their

abilities to tease and arouse the sexual desires of the male audience, not only in the commodified popular music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but in previous eras as well. In Asia, traditions of the female entertainer as musician/dancer offering sexual favors, or promoting fantasies thereof, include the geisha of Japan, the gisaeng of Korea and the taledhek/tandak of Java, among others. The female entertainer, though of lower social status and physically weaker than men, was routinely able to exert power over men by emphasizing the erotic, even when her “act” was merely an act, playing to fantasies that might not be realized. As peoples of different racial identities entered each other’s imaginaries

through the centuries of Western colonial expansion and race-based domination, racial “Otherness” in the realm of sexuality came both to titillate and to repel. Sexual attraction between members of different racial groups has been deemed illicit, dangerous, even unnatural; and resulting sexual union and marriage have sometimes been officially forbidden. At the same time, race itself has been eroticized. More particularly, non-white races have been, and still are, essentialized erotically by whites (who may imagine themselves to be more complex and exempt from essentialized, racialized sexual stereotyping, the images of the virile white male adventurer/conqueror and the virtuous and pure white female notwithstanding): the hyper-masculine black male, the tough and strong black female, the hyper-feminine Asian female (submissive or dominating), the emasculated Asian male (physically weak and comical), the slick gigolo Latino, the hyper-sexual Latina, and so forth. These sexualized racial stereotypes are reinforced incessantly in the entertainment media (Wu 2002; Prasso 2005), although they did not arise there – one only need think of Cho-cho-san in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the realm of performing arts (Head 2003). Not only is this Asian female erotically appealing, but her submissive nature draws her irresistibly to the white male, who is stronger and

more desirable than Asian alternatives. The fantasy, then, identifies not only the sexuality of the Asian female, but that Asian female’s desire for the Western male. Writ large, a weak, submissive Asia is seduced and falls for the strong West; the West retains power and may (as in Madame Butterfly) choose to abandon Asia. In his classic Orientalism, Edward Said notes the West’s association of the “Orient” with “the freedom of licentious sex,” imagining it as “a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe” (1978: 190).1