Pop Cult: Bad Girls in K-Pop

Allen Huang / May 31, 2013

Pop Cult: Who’s Bad?

Image from hollywoodtheater.org

CL – “The Baddest Female” : B

Lee Hyori – “Bad Girls” : B

B is for Bad bad BAD.

I’m participating in a panel next week at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, and the portion of the panel I’ll be participating in is about how K-Pop might be wearing at the long conservative status quo of Korea, specifically in the world of sexual orientation and gender roles. And a big focal point of this conversation will be the emergence of the independent, self-sufficient female.

Korea, as I’ve stated before, is only just beginning to shed some of the thick social conservatism that has them trailing far behind their Asian contemporaries. The patriarchy reigns supreme: men are leaders of the family and leaders of the workplace; females are CEOs of only 0.7% of the country’s companies, compared to the world average of 4%. The gender pay gap in Korea is one of the largest in the world. And while women are given the respect that filial piety provides, women are expected to help, not to lead.

Cue the emergence of Korean Pop Music. Powered by American inspiration, the first wave of K-Pop had agencies taking cues from groups like the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, translating them into countrywide successes like H.O.T., Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L. Like those early Western groups, this first wave of K-Pop did not have much going for it in the way of social commentary: the boy groups were meant to be heartthrobs, and the girl groups were meant to be cute and pure.

K-Pop’s second wave has been more interesting. The current models of K-Pop success have changed: mainstream pop’s breadth is wider. Ask a female K-Pop star what her Western influences are and they’re guaranteed to include at least one of the following: Lady GaGa, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Beyonce – all solo artists, all fiercely independent, all projecting strength. The ladies in these groups (or more accurately, the designers of the concepts of these groups) understand this, and have adopted these terms as their own. This has translated into unprecedented, worldwide success. From the direct tributes of Miss A to the futurist-feminist world of 2NE1, the idea of a woman who will take no shit from a man is the norm in K-Pop.

Lee Hyori and CL, on different ends of K-Pop’s chronological spectrum, find themselves unified on this theme of female rebellion. Hyori is the former leader of Fin.K.L, and, along with BoA, is the most recognizable star from the first wave of Hallyu. CL is the leader of 2NE1, the premier template for all things Bad Girl in this era. And though their songs are representative of their own styles (Hyori’s is a sass-pop rager while CL’s is a straight up YG-approved hip-hop tune), the baton is effectively being passed.

As in all pop biospheres, bravado is the name of the game here. Our heroines asserting that not only are they, as females, can do whatever the hell they want, but also that they are each respectively the baddest females around (which parallels Beyonce’s new “everywoman for herself” outlook on the game). This isn’t being divisive, it’s more like when battle rappers crap all over each other, done for the sake of raising the bar. This is friendly competition in an all-girls club.

So despite the suspect authenticity of the designers of this movement, the images of up-front, intelligent, self-supporting women are being pushed to the center of attention. This bodes well for the youth of Korea, which already have taken progressive stances on things like gay/trans/queer rights and censorship. It’s not hard to imagine that in less than a decade there will be a whole generation of women who, looking up to their pop star idols, wish to carve out a name for themselves in their own worlds. Bad Girls run the world.

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