Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reading too much into the Wonder Girls


Popseoul reported a week ago that a new trailer from the film 'Hellcats' (or 'I like it hot') showed Wonder Girl member An So-hee and co-star Kim Bum kissing, which then led to So-hee's fans inundating Kim's Cyworld homepage with akpeul, or "evil replies". He eventually shut his homepage down. On another note, this seems to be a clip from the auctioned off dinner date described below. Also, the Chosun Ilbo tells us that
Other experts say Wonder Girls and Girl Generation have brought middle-aged men to TV and the Internet.
Of course (in its English edition) it doesn't bother to try to explain why this might be...

[Original post]

The Wonder Girls. It seems everyone is talking about them these days, either castigating their dancing and singing skills, telling foreigners who don't like them to go home, or telling everyone criticizing them for their lack of talent to chill the hell out and get some perspective (a brilliant manouvre which guarantees that that Wonder Girls fans will not think you're anti and start leaving akpeul all over your minihompy). As for my opinion of "Tell Me", I haven't had the misfortune of having to hear it several times daily (until working on this post, at any rate), so I don't mind it that much - it's an innocuous enough, catchy bit of electro-pop.

I'm a little confused by the claims that Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts" and "Tell Me" are so similar - one person even said "Tell Me" borrowed the song structure of "Two of Hearts". A quick comparison, then, of "Two of Hearts" and "Tell Me":

ToH: verse chorus verse bridge chorus break verse bridge chorus
TM: verse chorus verse chorus break rap chorus

Feel free to Tell Me if you see something missing in the latter song - or let Robert Plant ask the appropriate question by skipping to 3:00 here. Seriously though, the only real similarity I see is the stuttered sample of "I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I need you" at the beginning of "Two of Hearts" (and if playing with vocal samples are all that's needed for a comparison, why not compare it to Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Rocket F1-11"?), so we're not talking about a blatant copy like Wax's "Oppa" (of Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop"). That said, that small similarity is an important one, and the link between the song from 1986 and the song from 2007 was pointed out by the Metropolitician, who linked to this page, which is quite interesting, as you can hear a 1988 cover of "Two of Hearts" by the Korean girl group Setorae called "Haengbokhae". I also found this page, which has several pictures of Setorae from 1988, such as this one:

It's probably worth noting that the girls above are what 80's stars wore, and not the strange outfits worn by the Wonder Girls here. A page with videos turned this Setorae performance from 1988 up (beware of the ad at the end):

I like the Tron-ish stage and the off-beat clapping by the audience. Their dancing seems pretty innocuous stuff by today's standards. It would be hard to imagine them doing anything particularly provocative.

Moving along, I wondered if, among the late 1990s groups like Sechs Kies, Baby Vox, Fin.K.L., S.E.S., Shinhwa, and H.O.T., there were any groups that featured girls (or boys) as young as those in the Wonder Girls, and if so, what kind of dancing was involved. Yun Eun-hye would have been 15 when she joined Baby Vox, but as the other members were older, I thought the best comparison might be S.E.S., whose members were 16 or 17 when they started. At that age, however, they weren't dancing or dressing very provocatively.

It's funny how things change; back in 1998 their second album sold 650,000 copies, as compared to the measly 18,000 albums the Wonder Girls have sold in this era of internet downloading. As bubblegum pop goes, I rather like their song "Dreams Come True", but then it's actually a cover of Nylon Beat's song "Like a Fool", with a bridge (hey, there it is!) and rap added. I think the main reason I like it is because it (well, "Like a Fool", actually) was used in a memorable scene in Resurrection of the Little Match Girl.

Another group called Circle was brought to my attention in the comments section (thanks helikoppter). They first appeared in 1998, when most of the members where 14 or 15, though one was 12 (photo from here).

While it was said her age may have been controversial (in Korea) their image seems to have been based on being cute more than anything else; there's not much Wonder Girls-style gyrating to be seen in this video (or this one either):

Interesting that there seems to be Japanese-Korean members (they seem to have more of a J-pop sound to me, but seeing as I know next to nothing about J-pop, I don't know why I think that). I would be curious to see how this (perhaps international?) group came to be, but there's very little information about them that I could find. Needless to say, there's nothing in that video that would suggest this picture of Korean society painted in July, 1996:
All seem to be crazy to sell sex. TV entertainment programs, night shows, dramas and movies have already exceeded the limit. Under the noble name of arts, lewd dramas are making big profits for their producers on Taehangno Street and TV stations are desperate to raise their viewing rates by making more and more suggestive programs. Adults marketing products are all-out to attract young customers by stimulating their curiosity about sex. It is not going too far to say that our children today are nakedly exposed to obscene culture without restriction, and few appear to be trying to put the brake on this trend.
I wonder what he would have thought of the Wondergirls?

There's certainly a "girl power" aspect to both of their videos. In "Irony", above, they spy on one of there boyfriends and catch him with another girl, and then proceed to use a voodoo doll to torture him (torture in a funny way, I mean).

Then they go down to the club and confront him and get their revenge.

In "Tell Me", (here are the lyrics) bad things happen and So-hee turns into Wonder Girl to save the day, whether it's saving a baby in a carriage from being hit by a bus, fighting off a "burberry man" who's flashing the girls in their changing room...

Hopefully this dinner doesn't turn out this way

...or appearing to punish a bunch of bullies in her class.

While this all may appear "empowering", I think the way in which they're being clothed and marketed runs in another direction. At any rate, I think it's the dancing, and not the story told in the video that has made the song popular. As the Chosun Ilbo tells us about the 'Tell Me' video,
The Wonder Girls say they were stunned by the outfits and choreography for "Tell Me" when they first saw them. "We didn't like wearing the outfits. But once we shot the music video in them, it was fun," says So-hee, 15. The music at the time was still new to them and it wasn't easy to get the choreography right. "The choreography looks simple but it's actually quite complex. Small repetitive motions with the hips, chin and shoulders -- it makes a strong image," said the Wonder Girls.
The love of doing things in groups in Korea may also explain some of the popularity of the song, or more especially, the dance, which has many followers who have uploaded clips of their dancing, as we see here:

I thought of the group aspect being popular in regards to people doing this group dance together, but hadn't thought of it from the standpoint of participation in a larger collective, or "imagined community" as the Metropolitician put it here. The "Tell Me" collective may yet assimilate us all. Speaking of the dance, for those interested in it, you may want to look at this video, which shows the girls practicing for the 'Tell Me' video when Hyun-ah was still a part of the group. The choreography and video changed quite a bit in the final video, and you get an idea of how "quite complex" and difficult it was to learn the dance.

As you can see, Hyun-ah's presence there changed things quite a bit, as she was at the center for much of the video, including the solo dance during the break (which looks terrible there), as well as being dressed as Wonder Girl. Her departure from the band (she quit at the end of July, citing exhaustion) apparently led to So-hee being the centerpiece of the video. Earlier photos of the band reinforce the centrality of Hyun-ah, but I can't help but raise a question: Why are the three youngest girls (likely still 14 when this was taken) the only ones wearing miniskirts? And why are the older ones hidden at the back?

And again, in the Irony video, it's Hyun-ah and So-hee who are front and center gyrating as if they're riding a horse and slapping their asses.

It's been said that the young people who perform or watch these dances really don't know what they signify to older people, and that it's all quite innocent. Fair enough; I didn't really know what Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" was about when I was 15, so maybe I'm making too much of "innocent little dances" like this one (scroll to 5:20). But it is worth remembering that many of the 'normal' people doing the dance in the video above are not teenagers (the supposed market for this music). Sure, dressing them in quasi-school uniforms could have been to reinforce that they were "just like" their target audience, but it reinforces their youth not only for their peers, but for anyone else who's watching, including perhaps, just to throw in a statistic, the 800 men referred to in this article. Also worth thinking about is this question about "Tell Me": Just who is a retro-style '80s song supposed to appeal most to? As the girls said in that Chosun Ilbo article, "We really feel our popularity when 30-year-old guys ask us for autographs." While auctioning off dinners with stars for charity may be common thing for celebrities to do in Korea, isn't selling a dinner with two 15 year-old girls to these 30-year-old (or older) guys - five of whom collectively paid 20 million won for the privilege - a little... creepy?

And I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but why is the youngest (now 15), So-hee (who's considered to be the 'cutest'), the only one wearing a tight shirt in both videos? And after raising these questions, how does this ad (featuring 'So-hee') look?

So-hee has other projects on the go as well, including this film, the English title of which is Hellcats.

It will be released next January, and tells the story of three women in their 40s, 20s and teens. A trailer is here, and more photos are here. Seeing who her co-stars are here explains why she appeared with them in Vogue in October. The film was shot before 'Tell Me' came out, so I imagine Cinema Service is pretty happy with her popularity right now. All I can say is that I hope she acts better than she sings. Hold on - what was on that movie poster again?

Nah, a 15 year-old holding a shirtless man couldn't possibly be construed as having any other meaning, now could it? Come on. Who is this being aimed at?

As far as I can tell, Wonder Girls are the first teenaged female group to be marketed this way in Korea (if I'm wrong, do tell me, no pun intended), in regards to (especially) their age, the way they're dressed, the retro style marketing which appeals to adults, and the emphasis on the youngest members.

I don't foresee that this will lead to death, destruction, and the end of Korea here ([In a movie trailer voice] "Next summer....what began 5000 years ago with Tangun will end... with the Wonder Girls"), and it should be noted that things are much, much more creepy in Japan, with it's gravure idol books and dvds (which provide the masses with buxom 11 year-olds and barely-covered 14 year-olds, to pick two examples from hundreds). It's not like provocative ads with 15 year-olds haven't caused a fuss in the U.S. in the past as well.

But when you think about some of the information I posted here from the 1990s, where 25% of middle and high school girls said they'd been sexually harrassed by their teachers and a writer railed against "adults who seek "younger" girls" and it was announced that bars that hired underaged girls were seeing a boom in business - all of this before a massive increase in runaways that likely fueled the growth of wonjo gyojae - one might think that men's perception of teenage girls in Korea is already problematic enough without the media working 24/7 to keep gyrating 15 year-olds in school uniforms who auction off dates with men in their thirties in the public eye.


James Turnbull said...


I'm turning over a new leaf and am going to try and actually read this post today, instead of just favoriting it in my "things I really ought to read" folder instead. I'll try to give it the attention it deserves and comment properly later today.

In the meantime, I can't let you be so harsh on my favorite Korean singer Wax! Sure, Oppa is a complete copy of She-Bop, but unlike most Korean singers, she ACKNOWLEDGES it in her CD cover and pays Cyndi Lauper royalties, and if you like Lauper then you'll probably like Wax too (although her 5th and 6th albums were just toooo mellow).

"Oppa" is also an essential part of the Korean Experience that no expat can be without, so I've provided a guide to learning it on my blog here:

Sorry to be off-topic a little...well, quite a bit really...but Wax is one of the things I LIKE about Korea.

Look forward to reading the rest of the post later today.


James Turnbull said...

I'm glad you brought up comparisons to the way teenage and even prepubescent girls are sexualised in Japan. I haven't read EVERY post on the Wonder Girls in the Korean blogosphere out there, there's rather a lot of them at the moment, but that obvious comparison seems surprisingly absent so far. I've always found sexuality to be one of the biggest differences between the two countries, so similar in other regards, and so you'd think that the beginnings of potentially such a huge shift would get more attention. Not that I'm equating Korea=good and Japan=bad here, although I AM when it comes to the acceptability of teenagers engaging in virtual soft porn.

I complete agree with you on the signifiance of things like the youngest dancers having more active roles and/or wearing miniskirts while older memmbers would wear pants, and find people who see it as mere coincidence as somewhat naive at best. It reminds me of back in 2003 when I personally got a big wake-up call about the dance party industry for example, when I read the article in the link I give below that explained the economics of the industry, and how the atmospheres geneterated there were quite deliberate and manipulative creations of, amongst others, the tobacco industry. After knowing that, I just couldn't get into it the whole vibe anymore, the escapist element had completely evaporated.

In that vein, like you say, what on Earth else could things like shots of So-hee holding a half-naked man mean? This may be saying too much, but I'd be one of the 90% of normal healthy human males that instinctively respond to provocative dances and poses by attractive human women of reproductive age (although the Wonder Girls just barely qualify)...and that's all it is, companies trying to turn me on to get me interested in the product. Nobody would claim anything different for Lee Hyori advertising soju, for instance, like I and a lot of other bloggers have recently blogged about, so what is it about these girls that make people so vociferously claim otherwise? Their culpability in using underage girls to sexually sell things, in this case a band? Male fans' refusal to acknowledge this element at all, for that would draw unwelcome wider attention to teenage sexuality as a whole, and ultimately the problem of teenage prostitution here?

Brian said...

Very interesting post. I'm still digesting it all. I knew there would be somebody better able to explore the darker side of the phenomenon. Although I still do find it a little silly to have grown men protesting "they suck" or "they can't sing," as if Mandy Moore were any better.

helikoppter said...

In the late 1990s there was a group called Circle (써클) that caused some controversy as at least one member was just 12 years old. Never seen or heard them before myself (after all, this was when most people were still on dial-up) but I found one of their videos on YouTube just now:
Seems like song, dance and clothes were all pretty typical of that time.

flaminko said...

great posts! i was perusing your site because it came up in a search i did about obviously know the country and culture very well...i'm planning on going over there in a few months to seem like a pretty reliable source and i was wondering if i could ask you a few questions about some cities...write me back on my site if you'd be willing to...thanks!


Anonymous said...

Wow, you are on a posting tear these days. I skip reading for a short spell, and you have a whole bunch of new articles up.

Anyhow, TELL ME comes from TWO OF HEARTS. Just the sample, not the whole song. I heard that directly from JYP Entertainment. Apparently JYP and a few of the guys were sitting around talking, when the conversation turned to '80s pop. Someone mentioned the Stacey Q song, which JYP remembered fondly, and inspired him to use the hook from it as the basis of tell me.

And I do believe JYP pays royalties on the sample.

Anonymous said...

Collection of Most recent wondergirls videos - Go

Anonymous said...

I was browsing around the internets, saw this post. I've read some blogs in Korean about the subject (Wonder Girls underage sexuality etc) But I don't see too many well-written ones in English. Good job!

Now, some months later with the release of "So Hot", I guess it's more obvious where they're getting at. It's probably more convenient for the industry to use teenage girls, since they receive extra attention and hype just for being underage, whether it's in a positive or negative light. But let a few years go by, and they can be advertised as legitimate sex products without being a burden on anybody's (legal) conscience. If you get people (I guess I'm talking about men here) excited enough WHILE they're still fresh jailbait, just imagine how much more popular and successful they'll be when they can be freely sexy... So yeah, I don't think you're reading into it too much. I always thought that they picked Sohee into the group for her great "come hither" face :P (I'd rather not comment on her talent or whatever)

It's great that you also mentioned Circle. I used to listen to them when I was a kid in Korea. It's nice to go back to that kind of music every once in a while, hahaha.

You have a great blog :) I will continue to read it.

Anonymous said...

perhaps you're reading into the whole wondergirls thing a little too much. the youngest being 15 and dancing like that is nothing compared to what teens in the u.s. are exposed to in pop culture. and at least they wear more clothing than the artists you see on trl or vh1.