I'll just say from the beginning that I'm not mad at Rain. I know he's gotten a lot of flak since the release of his most recent video, but I don't think it's really Rain himself that's the problem. I don't find his most recent video especially problematic in and of itself, actually.
The real problem lies in the fact that the video is emblematic of the way that what I call “fictive foreign spaces” are used in Korean media, especially astounded music videos and commercials, which are designed to communicate a message in a very short period of time and therefore rely a great deal on facile signs and symbology to communicate quickly and efficiently. basically, it's one way in which foreigners and representations of foreigners, as well as foreignness and representations of foreignness are used to bolster Korean imaginings of the self, especially as it has to do with selling an idea or product.
I first started noticing this in Korean television commercials. In certain Korean television commercials, the backdrop for representations of a an idealized and perfect mode of middle-class comfort and domesticity is the archetypical American-style house, complete with white picket fence and windowsill upon which to place Mom's freshly baked apple pie to cool. Since Koreans are also consumers of American media and the American dream, they are familiar with the signs and symbology of that image. Unfortunately, because of the specific social, historical, and real landscapes of South Korea, such houses and specific places simply don't exist. Unfortunately, I can't recall the specific television commercials that I'm thinking of here, so it's called to offer an example here on YouTube. But I can offer such a context in terms of the first Korean music video that I recall invoking such fictive foreign spaces against which to place the music and the artist into an authentic context. those of you who are true, diehard Korean pop fans will recognize the video below, which isn't structurally very different from what's happening in Rain's video above.
In this, the seminal musical stylings of Seo Taiji and the Boys, which hip-hop fans will quickly notice owes quite a bit to the legendary American hip-hop group Cypress Hill, the 1st verse starts out with images of Seo Taiji leading a Western style house that was symbolic of what could only be a middle-class fantasy to most Koreans, especially at that time in 1995. That multi-story middle-class house with a fence just simply doesn't exist in South Korea, but it's quite familiar as a symbolic tool since Korean media viewers have always been heavily steeped in American signs and symbols, and even in the pre-Internet South Korea, was a metonymic symbol for "home." and this, despite the fact that the actual homes in which South Koreans lived at the time or even now don't at all resemble that kind of American-style, independent, multi-story, Walnut Creek California "home." but Koreans perfectly understand the comfortable, domestic, middle-class fictive space that he is leaving. What I find even more interesting is how Seo Taiji representative the cold, unfeeling world outside in the bear industrial spaces in which he did his dancing in snowboarding year, a fictive cold “outer space” landscape that was punctuated with Korean style high-rise apartment buildings. to me, that was a much smarter and subversive music video. Of course, being a subversive wasn't the point of Rain's song, but it certainly was for Seo Taiji. in fact, I think today that one of the reasons they got into so much trouble with the censors and the terrestrial broadcasting networks at the time was because the viewer can pick up on this subversiveness in a general sense, but it is difficult to place the locus of its expression. in addition to the fact that my host family didn't have cable television at the time, I think that uncomfortableness with this video back then is one reason I never got to really see it very often, despite it becoming one of the most popular songs in the country and one you would hear at least 20 times a day upon walking out your door.
But back to Rain. Beyond the specific symbology of pneumatically enlarged butts and breasts, which others have obviously picked up on, what I find more insidious and possibly more problematic is the ways in which the faces and spaces symbolically linked to people of color in the United States have become the backdrop for Raines musical stylings and wildings. It's about cultural appropriation, peopl, and I think people are feeling a bit bothered because now, the Koreans have gotten good at it. People forget about Psy, who is Korea's most famous "rapper," but he didn't get get into trouble because as a rapperwho is truly KOREAN in his concerns, he doesn't funcyion in the American form of the genre, which is dominated by a certain aesthetc, from Eminem to Ice Cube. Psy doesn't function in that space, but in a specifically Korean one, where he is talkinh -- as he always has -- about class and gender relations. Gangnam Style, hello?
And let's remember—this is not the 1st time that foreigners and even foreignness itself have been used by Korean musicians to define a fictive outerspace in which to step out of the confines of Korea and Koreanness itself. the perfect example here is obviously going to be “Itaewon Freedom.”
For those familiar with South Korea's domestic music scene, and the physical terrain of South Korea and Seoul itself, you will know that Itaewon, as the de facto “foreigners district” in South central Seoul, right next to the American military base there, has long been associated with threatening foreign people, things, and ideas. As it came up in the song bearing that neighborhood's name, Itaewon was obviously styled by those in the apparent know as the place where one can truly relax and let down one's hair, free from the constrictive social rules and roles of Confucian Korean society. It was basically defining a fictive foreign space within Korean society, but interestingly, one that wasn't so fictive. Itaewon Has actually long been a place where the more open-minded and freethinking partiers insole would go to escape the midnight curfew limitations of other party places in the city, and with the fact of all night partying that came with the legacy of a neighborhood that was generally left only to be patrolled by American military police and generally outside of the eyes of official Korean-dom, the neighborhood had actually, place where in-the-know Koreans knew there was a certain kind of social freedom. Considering that until the gentrification of the neighborhood just several years ago, Itaewon was the actual and symbolic locus of Korean racial and xenophobic fears, the image of the neighborhood has come quite a long way.
But let's be real: the employment of extras of color as the authenticity decorations in Itaewon Freedom's imagined foreign landscape was far more offensive than anything in Rain's music video. I mean, JYP was skirting blackface and telegraphing pretty offensive ideas of black people with the wigs and nut-grabbing. The only difference is that this video was made for domestic consumption while Rain is aiming at the international market. And in his use and construction of what I'll now call “fictive ethnic spaces", Rain and his people have become adept at playing the oldest game in town: the complete , disingenuous appropriation of not only ethnic musical styles but actual ethnic people into the commercial efforts of an outside artist who hails from a culturt that is completely hostile to those very peoples. Let me remind you of what that means and why Rain is really guilty of the Korean music industry finally getting up to speed on true cultural appropriation skills that finally allow for the incopration of members of the group in question. This is something that k-pop was really not capable of before, when the genre was about simply apaing and reproducing styles that came from African-American culture, with the only way of highlighting that connection being that of pointing it out with inappropriate forms of racial comedy that utilized heavily charged (racist) racial symbology borrowed from the host cultures.
Exhibit A: The Bubble Sisters
Hence, one could make (or hide behind) the argument that they were ignorant of what the signs represented, despite having done enough homework to dig them out of relatively obscure racist histories of another culture. The problem here is that certain producers were trying to pull the fast one of American blackface being something one could just accidentally stumble across as simply darkening the skin to emulate a darker skin tone. The problem with that is that something like that, were it true, would be easily forgivable and understandable. That's why no one really gets on the case of the so-called "ganguro" girls from 1990s Tokyo subculture who darkened their skin in an attempt to invoke exoticness or even the look of another ethnicity. The reason this is true is that this just involves starting the skin. The smoking gun for the Bubble Bisters was defined by the level of detail in reproducing the look itself. The pickaninny hair and other infantilizing symbols such as the pajamas and other baby accessories come from a very specific look in a racist genre of music and comedy in American history. So the very look of the Bubble Sisters was impossible without having done some very specific research. And the main problem with that group and its performance styles of blackface was that itis pretty much impossible to reproduce American blackface to the level of detail they did without picking up any information about the cultural context they came from and its very loaded meaning at the time.
So Rain's new music video has ruffled feathers mainly because Korean pop music has come such a long way since nobody really cared about it at all just a decade ago. It takes place within a much more global context and in front of a true global audience, as opposed to the imagined one that South Koreans were always hoping was there but never really was. That being said, the watchful eye of the world wasn't there as it is today, digitally and and enabled by YouTube. so Rain, with his music video that demonstrates just how far Korean artists have become adept in the game of cultural appropriation vis-à-vis African American pop culture, demonstrates the extent to which the world is indeed now watching, as well as the fact that the Korean music industry, in being regarded as a world-class producer and reproduce or of songs that could be considered R&B, rap, or just about any other kind of “black music,” is now being held to similar higher, international standards that any other songs in the genres would be anywhere else in the world.
To put it simply, this is a sign that what's going on in Korean pop music now matters to other folks in the world, and yes, there actually watching now. So those in the industry should take the buzz and even criticism related to the racial symbology in Rain's recent video as evidence of the fact that Korean pop music has indeed, come a long way, baby, and from now on, it's time to be a bit more careful, considerably more thoughtful, and a lot smarter about the way Koreans represent not only themselves but also the people from other places and races who walk amongst them.