Roboseyo posted about Girls' Generation's debut on Letterman, the first network appearance of a K-Pop group. The Korean media will lap it up and add to the PR meme machine producing the false impression that "the Korean Wave is conquering the US" or that there is even a "Korean Wave" to begin with, without properly contextualizing what that appearance actually means and what kind of image it will really project -- versus what kind of image KOREANS want to project. And in that difference, dear readers, has always lain the rub.
And detractors, be fair. One might say that this is due to some "haterism," or ring of the accusation that I "hate Korea," but I've been writing about these culture codes for years, specifically in regards to the Wonder Girls and other girl groups, about the appropriateness of Girls' Generation shaking their asses at a historical event with the president in attendance, and all kinds of culture-crunching -- since like 2007, people. It's not a hastily-made glass of Haterade™, nor my overgrown sense of schadenfreude at seeing K-Pop flop (OK, maybe just a little, but only because I think they're doing it the wrong way, and all the time, and I really wish they'd stop), but again -- I wish someone would just think about ANY of the things I always mention.
Sorry -- just playing objective, as if I were Joe Schmoe in Ohio watching them, with no knowledge or predisposition to liking K-Pop.
With the likes of Destiny's Child, Madonna, and all the other great acts that have graced network TV in general and Letterman specifically -- come on, now. I saw Green Day premiere on SNL and was blown away in 1994. I've seen a veritable nobody like Sharon Jones go from YouTube hit to nationwide sensation with her Letterman debut, let's not even get to Justin Bieber.
THAT'S the bar. I know fans are pulling for GG, K-pop people are cutting them slack. But that's the level we're talking and whether or not it's their fault, Joe Schmoe in Ohio is going to be thinking "Why are there so many ppl packed up on that stage?" and/or "Man, those are some babes! They can't really sing, but man, can they shake their asses!" because -- and let's get 100% real here -- they might be "good for a Korean group" but their choreography would have been embarrassing had they been a high school cheerleading squad of blonde chicks from central Ohio. Sure, I think the small stage and its irregular size probably confused things -- but it doesn't matter. That's how they came off.
And the last problem I see is that the culture code doesn't match. There's the question of why so many girls, and the only thing the average American has to compare such a spectacle of a not-so-spectacular singing, not-so-well-dancing gaggle of girls is to what we would call a "revue" of girls, with neon bulb lights on the 42nd Street of old. Or maybe some girls in the strip club.
Seriously -- I'm not trying to be mean -- that's the impression I would have of them were I not a K-Pop fan wanting to cut them slack. And the reaction of Bill and Regis was basically polite confusion, kinda like WTF? I've seen musical groups knock it out the box, and when the greetings come, it's cheerful, genuine, and very friendly -- especially if it's a gaggle of barely-not-teenager girls in hot pants and hooker boots. Don't you think it would have been easier to appear more excited after their performance? Especially for a bunch of hot cuties? But that's not what we saw.
And my last thing is on the culture code of Korean "sexy-but-I'm still-demure" versus American "sexy." That's why the Wonder Girls could never work -- especially when they were younger -- because it's just...umm...weird to see Sohee trussed up like Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver. It's why that Russian underage porno-music duo back in the early 2000's was so controversial, and is the only source of their brief notoriety -- that very controversy. We all knew they sucked (I mean, much worse than GG), and why they were even on stage. Britney Spears -- the message wasn't confused -- even in the first video, "Hit Me Baby One More Time" it was playing on the Lolita image, but it was overtly sexy -- and when she was cute, as in other videos on that same album, she was simply CUTE. And STILL, there was controversy because of her age. But when she came out as sexy, as in "Oops," and she was in that red spacesuit outfit, she was straight up SEXY. Not a coy, "Oh, I'm a sexy girl (but no I'm not, oppa)" or "I'm a little girl (and LOOK like one), but I'm a little sexy for you (ajussi)" -- EWW.
That was the Wonder Girls. GG on stage doing the stripper pole wiggle, then covering up in a coy gesture of shyness -- it comes off as more of a weird tease, and lest we forget -- in terms of the culture code, America is essentially a conservative country. People still bristle at the existence of Hooters, which would be about the tamest way to objectify girls there IS in Korea, and when Britney came out with say, that Rolling Stone cover of her, it was a cultural hand grenade. And she didn't even cross the line that much, meaning that her message wasn't that confused. She was either/or. Not both. Yet, she still caught flak for her age and the Lolita reference.
GG are the highest evolution of singing/dancing 도우미. That figure exists in South Korea at a much higher level than the "gamer babes" at a large convention, or mere "racing girls" across the world. Korea has singing girls to open up bakeries and sell toothpaste in the gorcery stores. The management of GG in specific has admitted that their target market is 40-something males, and their commercial activity shows that. Lee Hyori shakes her ass and sells soju, while GG shakes their ass and sells many other things, from bank accounts to ramen. But mix them codes and you get...
Britney Spears shaking her ass and actually talking about how to shake the beer can to get that foam head going? That'd be just about the end of an American pop icon's career, or at least seen to be the sign OF it. But that's my point. And I've blogged about this a long time before.
The codes for selling shit, drinking ads (Britney might get away with Coke, but not Coor's) -- it's different. Normally, one can say that selling Cass on Korean TV and being a star and hawking Pepsi can't be compared, and you'd be right.
But now, GG is showing up on Letterman. And they're going to be judged by American culture codes, inevitably, not the few sympathetic folks who can actually tell them apart, know their names, and understand the genre in the foreign land they come from. All of whom will probably be Korean or living in Korea. Or an American teenager into Asian music.
Otherwise, both churchgoing Mary Jane Smith in Arkansas or Missy Cool in NYC are going to furrow their brow while watching Letterman and go, "What the hell is this gaggle of Asian chicks in hot pants doing on Letterman?" Or, as the men will tend to react, "Man, did you see that gang of hot Korean chicks shaking their asses on Letterman?" But, alas, that's one of the draws of GG -- unfortunately, there won't be much impression beyond that for most men -- at least, not based on the originality of their act, how well they sing or dance, or anything that will actually generate an interest in Korean music.
Sorry. It's the way Korean producers and cultural content handlers try to package and export culture, and how they don't understand the code. You know what would work better? Let's do a thought experiment.
Suppose, instead of copying and repackaging popular American pop sounds and creating generic bands the size of some smaller countries' armies, the Korean pop music system had 1) variety in its most popular offerings, as well as 2) virtuosity, as in -- yes, displaying actual singers with real talent, who DO exist here, but never make it through the it-must-appeal-to-teenagers-and-be-overtly-saucy-on-television test.
Suppose a fucking SUPER-diva such as Pak Mi Kyoung could actually be 1) a woman, 2) talented, 3) above the age of 30, and 4) allowed to be famous -- suppose her talent and experience and stage presence didn't have a shelf life and were allowed to grow, with her doing pop hits in the 90's and beyond.
Suppose a star like that, with a voice like that, could have been allowed to evolve past the late 90's. Perhaps the Korean market actually allowed for the diversity and virtuosity that briefly produced so many interesting Korean films from the late 90's, when government censorship ended and before Korean cinema was identified, packaged, and constricted into what has been called a "Wave" -- suppose all that had happened.
Eventually, someone, some group from Korea, would end up on Letterman and actually bring something 1) uniquely Korean, yet familiar to connect with, and it was 2) actually good, on the level that Americans will inevitably compare it to, since we're talking abou the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Mos Def, Justin Bieber, and the like.
Let's just suppose we can imagine a world in which the first Korean musical act to perform on Letterman weren't a bunch of barely-distinguishable doumi dancers who lack the very variety and virtuosity that get acts recognized on Letterman, that helps make impressions, that gets people on the map and keeps them there.
Sharon Jones brought a new song in a genre we had thought had naturally died. She and the Dap Kings killed. And they launched onto every late show there was and launched a successful career in the little genre they helped revive.
When we see someone come on Letterman, we want the variety to give us something new, we want the virtuosity that makes us sit up and take notice. The only way Girls' Generation passes the variety test is by virtue of being a group of femme bot-like hot Asian chicks doing a group lap dance on stage -- which is not much of a virtue, to say the least. And in terms of virtuosity, well. Come on. Really?