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When It’s Good To Be Bad In K-Pop

Well, it seems that the indefatigable Korean Pop scene has met its nemesis – bona fide, honest-to-whomever, female sexuality. Last month marked the debut of a girl group years in the making, Rania, with a racy song, black leather costuming, and not even remotely subtle choreography. Not surprisingly, Rania is the creation of an American producer, Teddy Riley, with ambitions of creating international juggernaut of hot Asian girls. Based on the first single, he’s off to alright start.

Personally, I didn’t think much of their debut song “Dr Feel Good,” and not just because of the blatant pandering to pervs like myself, but because the song just isn’t that great. There’s nothing new about the sound, and the hook, unlike everything about this group, is exceptionally modest. I wanted to like them. Rania’s members, who hail from all over the Asian world, are clearly very talented, and there was plenty of effort put into their packaging (a little too much, probably). Plus, I love sexy girls. Musically though, there is better stuff out there.

What I do like about Rania is their conviction. As I’ve talked about previously in this blog, K-Pop is rampant with an infantalized, doubethink kind of sex appeal, where if a girl group is going to dance in a suggestive way or in tiny shorts, they have to do it with the hapless expression of a 12-year-old. Its refreshing to see a group that simply is what it is – grown-ass women who are good at being sexy. As an American, to me Rania’s single and video were not shocking in the slightest, but in the context of K-Pop its a bit like a bowling ball to the forehead. Even the raciest of Korea’s girl groups, while they might have some suggestive lyrics, never actually sing about wanting to get some, not in a single anyway. Rania, clearly, has no interest in beating around the bush. This mentality, this unwillingness to compromise, is reflected in the finished product. Each note, dance move and toss of the hair speaks of utter commitment, performers that know where they stand. Whereas the rest of the K-Pop scene, even the boy groups, are forced to compromise and fuss around with an image that only makes their producers and prepubescent girls happy, resulting in routines that appear tired and disingenuous. While by image alone Rania resembles subtle-as-a-sledgehammer groups like 4Minute and T-ara, their solid presence is more like that of f(x) or 2ne1, two groups that are exceptional for not using sex to sell their records.

Luckily for Rania, when you’re trying to sell sex to a highly conservative market like this one, having a decent single is probably the least of concerns. The concept of “Dr Feel Good” has had its desired effect. K-Pop’s battery of weekly musical showcase – Music bank, M! Countdown, Inkigayo etc – have been in a tizzy trying to figure what to do about this entirely different kind of performance style. Since their debut, Rania has been plagued with efforts from Korean TV networks to censor and alter their performances and looks, while fans snub their noses at the girls’ unapologetic appeal. Rania acquiesced with an altering of their wardrobe for their live performances (even though they’re actually pretty well covered with their original outfits), and a new video with some of the more controversial lyrics taken out. Their second performance on Music Bank was heavily altered, and interestingly I felt that number had an added degree of gusto. Never underestimate the power of women in high heeled boots who have been told they can’t do something.

Then there’s the fans. While Rania is definitely gaining a following, there seems to be just as many haters who find the “Dr Feel Good” video and promotions to be in poor taste and, worse yet, unnecessary. Probably the most insulting aspect of the fandom’s reaction  is the suggestion that because the girls are so talented and attractive that they shouldn’t need to act “like sluts.” As if the only reason a woman would want to express her sexuality openly is to get attention or fame. And that phrase keeps on popping up  -“dresses like a slut,” “acts like a slut.” What does that even mean? That the outfits a group of girls are paid to wear onstage is somehow indicative of their sexual history? Grow the fuck up. The only purpose of the phrase is to shame women from expressing themselves freely.

There’s been similar verbage thrown around in regards to 4Minute’s comeback, “Mirror Mirror,” which also includes a “spread leg” move in their choreography, and generally Hyuna getting back to her old antics. For a brief time, Cube Entertainment seemed to be trying to dampen Hyuna’s appeal by sticking her in the background, and only showing her off from her backside, which as far as I’m concerned only made matters worse. Now they seem content again with putting her in front, which has led to a lot of drooling and eye rolling. 4Minute has also had to stoop to altering their choreography, in some instances removing their more scandalous moves, but in others instead of letting Hyuna take all the heat for slithering around on the floor, they all do it. It becomes are little bit harder to point fingers, when the offense is coming from multiple directions.

What can also be annoying to hear from fans – though not nearly as much – is the misconception that “Dr Feel Good” is an example of female empowerment. It’s not. It’s at best another unimaginative use of female sexuality for the purpose of selling sub-par records. However, that’s not what this about. Its about what exactly Korean media is trying to do when they censor these performances, and what the fandom is doing to themselves by going along with it.

I’m wondering exactly where shows like Music Bank get off on telling Rania they have to edit their performances, even though when 4Minute debuted “Mirror Mirror,” the number opened with the camera zoomed in on Hyuna’s rear end. This issue has never been about protecting Korea’s youth from wriggling female body parts. It’s about control. The media is only interested in seeing female sexuality if its on their terms, and that’s something that’s true for both America, Korea and probably many other markets. They want to be able to exploit these women as they see fit, and they won’t accept displays of sexual aggression or desire on the woman’s part.

As for all of you who keep calling Hyuna, and other risque performers, sluts – stop it. You’re not helping. You’re buying into a system that wants to tell you what is sexually appropriate and what isn’t. A woman’s sexual history, future, or how she wants to portray herself in the public eye is none of your business, even if she’s performing on stage for millions of people. If you don’t like the music, don’t listen. If you don’t like the image, don’t watch. But don’t think that gives you the right to make judgements on who these people are, because every time you do it gives someone else the opportunity to do it to you.

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