If Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (which is practically a mini kdrama in itself) is any indication, Hallyu isn’t about to slow down any time soon, despite what I would describe as a rather lackluster past couple drama seasons. (Where are our cracktastic City Hunters and SKKSs? The heady frolic of Scent of a Woman and the cult love inducing madness of Me Too Flower? Maybe I’m just fickle.) Gangnam Style was covered by Nelly Furtado at one of her concerts, while Josh Groban, Robbie Williams, Simon Pegg, and T-Pain have all tweeted about it. It was even a feature on my local 7 o’clock news program! But we’re here to talk about G-Dragon’s “One of a Kind,” his latest music video and the first single off of his upcoming solo album, his second since 2009’s Heartbreaker. With a pounding beat that reminds me of Snoop Dogg’s (Snoop Lion’s?) “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” a rapid delivery, and the use of bits of English to keep us foreigners from being too lost that popular Korean Hip-Hop is so good at, it’s a pretty catchy song.
Now, a disclaimer: I am not a music aficionado–that would be Malta. I’m a casual music listener at best, and I know even less about hip-hop and rap. My introduction to Kpop began after my love of kdramas, and Big Bang was the first group I became familiar with. Malta showed me their La La La video, we giggled over the dancing (they lift their shirts to show us their adolescent tummies) and baggy clothes (their shirts have sparkly “Big Bang” logos on them while Daesung doesn’t seem to know how even to wear one) and bright colors, reminisced about our fervent love for N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys, and I immediately began squealing over GD. (For Malta it was Taeyang, which should tell you everything you need to know about us.) So I admit that my interest in GD is almost purely aesthetic. As in I think he’s really cute. I’m not an IVIP (international member of the Big Bang fanclub) or a Blackjack (the 2NE1 fan club), GD’s songs aren’t in my Most Played playlist on my ipod, and considering how hard he works, I think his smoking weed is something required, not something to apologize for. I think he’s best when he’s rapping, I appreciate his fashion choices, (I appreciate his hair styles a little less), and I’m fascinated by watching videos that emulate (imitate?) African American/black American musical practices that come from a country that I’m pretty sure has some issues with racism.
My response to “One of a Kind” was prefaced by my reaction to 2NE1’s “I Love You.” I usually avoid watching music videos because they ruin the image of the song I’ve created for myself and I find most of them to be unthinking and boring, but the ones with dancing are different because I love watching the moves. “I Love You” doesn’t have much dancing, but it was coherent enough to elicit a passionate response from a person I follow on tumblr. Her general analysis of the video is that it’s challenging misogyny and heteronormativity by having four women at it’s narrative center who look to each other as opposed to men for support and have arguably queer relationships.
The video begins with CL narrating, saying “When you feel like there’s no way out, love is the only way.” CL and Minzy are lying in bed with CL hugging herself. We see CL in a closed trenchcoat (which could be read as mirroring the typical image of a woman in a trenchcoat with only underwear or nothing underneath) walking down a hall. Then all four girls sitting in moving vehicles; they are separate and alone and we don’t know where they are going. Then we see Dara walking amidst a sea of faceless, black-suited men, all with black umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain, while she, with her bright clothes and asymmetrical hair, has no umbrella. She’s clearly looking for something or someone, and she looks a bit lost. To the side stands Minzy, also dressed in bright colors, has an umbrella, but Dara doesn’t spot her. Then we see each of them alone again: CL in a closed phone booth; Bom on a bed in a room (wearing an oversized shirt, which mirrors typical post coital scenes); all of them again sitting in separate vehicles. So far we have the women alone and separate, usually passive, and if not, then lost. But what comes next is the turning point in the video: we see CL in a totally different room: it’s dark and looks like a the typical masculine home office. There’s this huge leather chair in the room, and when CL begins dancing in front of it, we expect that she’s dancing in front of someone–in front of a man. But the camera pans forward and we see that there’s no one in the chair. She isn’t dancing in front of anyone. The empty chair can be two things: wither the male gaze, which is always there, especially for a girl group, a way fro us, the audience, to take notice of our own expectations (of heterosexuality, of CL dancing for an audience). After this we see CL at a lighthouse, which is used to warn or guide ships at sea. This is another classic cinematic scene in a video full of them. It’s been raining throughout the entire video, and the lighthouse gives off the idea of torrential rain on a dark, malevolent sea. The final piece of the video, though, is a contrast to all this, with an image of a pond with floating lights coming on in it. Note that when CL, the leader of the group, first stepped out of the room into a hall way a light turned on. Now all the women are together. They’re not sitting or laying, they’re dancing. They are no longer in enclosed spaces. They’ve found one another. The last image we get is of CL choosing not to go into that darkened room, and instead choosing to walk away. Even if you don’t agree with the analysis, there’s no denying that the video is explicitly aware with the male gaze, or the viewer’s scopophilic gaze in general, and it doesn’t address it playfully, the way some girl group videos do.
So “I Love You” was the first time I ever even considered analyzing a kpop video any further than, “Ooo, pretty colors!” and when “One of a Kind” dropped two days ago I was all prepped to see all kinds of symbolism and meaning in it. There isn’t a clear cut narrative in the video, and so I’ve found the best way to approach it is bullet form:
- Cult of Personality:It’s mostly a pillar for the same kind of cult of personality that Jay-Z touts, a bolstering of his own fame and exceptionalism, hence the lyric “I’m one of a kind.” Is it intentionally ironic that the phrase is emblazoned across sweatshirts and t-shirts of GD’s back up dancers, most of whom are familiar YG Entertainment faces? A dozen plus people are wearing tops that say “One of a Kind,” all in the same place, dancing in unison, and it’s weirdly funny. It’s only compounded by the inevitability of GD’s fans all wanting their very own “One of a Kind” merchandise, which perpetuates his cult of personality and him as a brand. which of course reminds me of the irony of a band that started out imitating/emulating US American pop music was named Big Bang, the thing that originated the development of the universe.
- Mirroring Popular US American Rap & Hip-Hop Videos:Watching the video I was reminded of a lot of American hip-hop artists. Part of it was the cornrows, but another part was the mugshots. Many American rap videos reference prison gang culture, which is understandable, considering the United States’s prison industrial complex and the ludicrous rate at which black men are incarcerated, thanks in part to the War on Drugs. The problem is that they usually end up glorifying, even fetishizing it. GD does some of that here, and I think there might even be a reference to cocaine use, when one man covers up his nostrils and takes a deep sniff. It had GD’s particular spin on it, though, a characteristic playfulness and irreverence that I enjoy in his videos. The bars in the mugshot were musical notes, and there were children there being their goofy selves. Also, his mugshot said he’s 5’8”.
- Gender-Bending: GD is known for gender-bending and just generally being androgynous, and his fans (I’m guessing mostly female international ones) constantly ship him with TOP, a ship that can probably only be rivaled by Wincest. In the video he wears a jacket from Chanel’s Pre Fall 2012 Collection, which was worn by a woman on the catwalk. Interestingly, he’s less androgynous in this video, with noticeably bigger biceps.
- Race: Now this is a tricky topic to navigate because we’re dealing with an enormously popular form of music from a minority group in the United States, a music whose history (especially the radical and political parts) is one that isn’t very well known, considering its popularity, and is in constant danger of being erased or glossed over through the processes of appropriation and sharing, and it’s being created and performed by a man of color in Korea. I mean, hip-hop as an art form is something that is still contested. Things become more complicated when the music is made by South Korean artists, in a country that has an entirely different music industry (are there underground rap and hip-hop artists in South Korea). Either way, we have two cute black (or mixed?) kids in the video, which is saying a lot, considering Yoon Mi Rae’s journey to Korean hip-hop fame. Also, kpop videos are kind of notorious for not having any black people in them.
- Speaking of race, a lot of the time on the Youtube responses of Korean hip-hop videos you’ll find people spewing rhetoric about how much better Korean hip-hop artists are to American ones, and it an sometimes get really awful, Koreans being better at hip-hop than specifically black artists. You’ll see it on Eminem and Beastie Boys videos, too. I see hip-hop as the artistic production of a people who were severed from their traditions and practices yet still managed to create this and they can’t even own that. Hip-hop is kind of a testament to the strength and resilience of the African diaspora. I don’t think hip-hop should be separated from it’s (racially) political roots. I don’t think it can.
- A Feminist Perspective?: What immediately caught my attention upon first viewing the video was the huge doll that GD kisses on the cheek. At first I thought it was the whole objectification of women, as in a woman was actually an object in the video. But then I thought of Lydia Paek, the dancer to the right of the screen at the beginning of the video, and the fact that the doll “slaps” him after he kisses it. It made me wonder if the video wasn’t actually a little subversive. Especially since that it has black/mixed children in it, and then shows us a plastic doll that is a white woman, who is usually objectified and used in music videos as “the ultimate conquest” as can be seen in GD&TOP’s Knockout.
- Totally Random: That black hat and the camera pan at 1:39 remind me for some reason of Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity.
I told Malta about some of my ideas, and she reminded me about the nature of kpop, or, more accurately, the nature of the kpop that I consume. Most of what I listen to is mindless, supposedly apolitical, fun pop fluff, and at best it can be appreciated superficially. For example, do GD and his team understand the references to prison gang culture he’s making? How would he answer if he posed a question about it? Do they understand the socio-political background from which hip-hop and rap arose, and the different ways it continues to exist in the US today? Does he care about how his music interacts to past hip-hop artists and future ones?
And I can’t help but feel that Malta is right. When an artist–or an act–changes his style as quickly as most of us change our underwear, when that style is borrowed–or appropriated–from another culture whose contributions have yet to be fully appreciated or canonized, and when the persona presented in a music video is so far removed from the persona presented in an interview and the video persona is not specifically labeled as an alter ego, ala Sasha Fierce or Slim Shady, it’s hard to try to cultivate an appreciation that goes beyond the surface to a deeper understanding. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from analyzing things, or keep me from believing that’s it’s important to engage critically with pop culture. And speaking of analyzing (k)pop culture, here’s a bit of critical engagement with “Gangnam Style” from The Atlantic:
“Korea has not had a long history of nuanced satire,” Adrian Hong, a Korean-American consultant whose wide travels make him an oft-quoted observer of Korean issues, said of South Korea’s pop culture. “In fact, when you asked me about the satire element, I was super skeptical. I don’t expect much from K-Pop to begin with, so the first 50 times I heard this, I was just like, ‘Allright, whatever.’ I sat down to look at it and thought, ‘Actually, there’s some nuance here.’”
One of the first things Hong pointed to in explaining the video’s subtext was, believe it or not, South Korea’s sky-high credit card debt rate. In 2010, the average household carried credit card debt worth a staggering 155 percent of their disposable income (for comparison, the U.S. average just before the sub-prime crisis was 138 percent). There are nearly five credit cards for every adult. South Koreans have been living on credit since the mid-1990s, first because their country’s amazing growth made borrowing seem safe, and then in the late 1990s when the government encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian financial crisis. The emphasis on heavy spending, coupled with the country’s truly astounding, two-generation growth from agrarian poverty to economic powerhouse, have engendered the country with an emphasis on hard work and on aspirationalism, as well as the materialism that can sometimes follow.
Gangnam, Hong said, is a symbol of that aspect of South Korean culture. The neighborhood is the home of some of South Korea’s biggest brands, as well as $84 billion of its wealth, as of 2010. That’s seven percent of the entire country’s GDP in an area of just 15 square miles. A place of the most conspicuous consumption, you might call it the embodiment of South Korea’s one percent. “The neighborhood in Gangnam is not just a nice town or nice neighborhood. The kids that he’s talking about are not Silicon Valley self-made millionaires. They’re overwhelmingly trust-fund babies and princelings,” he explained.
*Edit: You can check out Judith’s response to the above quote and my reply to get some better perspective on it.*
Some more on Afro-Korean Connections:
The Asian Afro, Braids, and More from An Afroetic Narrative
The Asian Afro Perm from An Afroetic Narrative
On the “Americanization” of Pop Music from The Sociological Ear