I guess the newest pop culture craze in Korea is the Wonder Girls and their song “Tell Me,” a story I broke back in October. It’s hard to escape the song, but since their story’s been covered to death on blogs and messageboards I won’t really say too much more on them, other than to mention that my fortysomething coworker recently added the song as her ringtone.
Aged 15 to 19.
What I find a little bizarre, and kind of sad, is the reaction the Wonder Girls have gotten among foreigners in Korea. The moral indignation with which a lot of bloggers and posters have reacted to this apparent offense to their refined sensibilities is laughable, and is about as awkward as . . . well, about as awkward as old people talking about young people usually is.
Some people are pissed because of the similarities they see between the “Tell Me” song and the Stacy Q song “Two of Hearts.” Korean entertainers (and corporations, for that matter) are notorious for ripping off intellectual property, and nobody really seems to mind. Last year’s big hit “Maria,” actually a cover of this Blondie song, comes to mind, as does the Britney Spears v. Lee Hyori lawsuit, the Starbucks v. Starpreya suit, and the big page Occidentalism did a few years ago . . . and those are the things I could come up with without having to do any real work.
Others seem pissed because the girls are far too young to be parading around shaking what they would have were they not far too young or far too Asian. The Metropolitician goes into it a little bit, and makes the connection between the girls and the popularity of prostitution and wonjo kyojae (원조교재, or prostitution by students).
I can't seem to separate WG from many of the actual hard and heavy lusting for teen girls that goes on in this culture. Yeah, perhaps there was some of that in Britney Spears, but in that case, there wasn't a parallel industry built around young, underaged girls actually selling their bodies to men. And "wonjokyojae" (Japanese "enjokyosai") isn't just in Japan, nor are "gravure" nudie pics. And to me, the fact that such overt sexual behavior is encouraged and defended amongst a large number of young girls is testament to just how mainstreamed the coveting of their sexuality has become.Certainly the group wasn’t formed in a vacuum, and their conception and popularity owe to trends in society as a whole. From a Chosun Ilbo piece, “Pop Life is Tough Work,” from mid-October,
The girls looked tired in their short skirts. "We sing seven or eight times after finishing school every day," says one of the Wonder Girls, somehow managing a bright smile. The five Wonder Girls -- Sun-mi, Sun-ye, Ye-eun, Yoo-bin and So-hee -- were wearing heavy makeup and their individually unique, funky outfits. "We really feel our popularity when 30-year-old guys ask us for autographs. It's amazing. It seems like people have been waiting for easy songs like ours."I do wonder how appropriate it is to make a connection between dancers and hookers. There are different standards of behavior, to be sure. At school festivals it's common to see girls wearing tube tops and gyrating around. In Jinju there was a photo shoot during the Lantern Festival with prepubescent girls in very revealing clothing (holding swords, so that hits a few different fetishes). And on a few occassions I've heard teachers telling their (elementary and middle school) students "sexy pose" while taking pictures.
Others are just pissed because they think the song is stupid, and people who listen to stupid songs are stupid. I find this the most ridiculous complaint of all, and, really nobody under the age of 60 ought to be making it. Every few years there is a new pop act deemed a harbinger of the apocalypse, and folks begin pining for whichever one-hit wonder represents the pinnacle of civilization for their generation. According to another Metropolitician incarnation, Feet Man Seoul:
So, I'm just gonna say it: the Wonder Girls have no talent. None. Oh, come on. Don't get mad. Just think about it objectively for a minute. They can't sing AT ALL and they can't dance to SAVE THEIR LIVES.
I don’t have much of an opinion on the Wonder Girls, and I haven’t whipped myself into a frenzy (not a euphamism) over what a segment of a foreign country’s population chooses to dance to. The little frustration I do feel toward the song is that it made a very common request, “tell me,” into a gag, so I can’t go into class and say “tell me the answer” without all the students going apeshit. It’s irritating, and I wish my students had better English-language role models, but I guess when one of the largest corporate entitiees in the country decides that “Bravo Your Life” is the way to go, then you’re screwed.
I'm sure smarter blogs than mine can tackle the issue of 원조교재 better than I, can look at the ways the sex trade influences Korean adolescents, and can offer their opinions on the relationship between the Wonder Girls and the practice of teenage prostitution. You can, for instance, get a nice run-down of 원조교재 and prostitution in Korea from Gusts of Popular Feeling here. I'm not even going to get into how whorish the Wonder Girls are. I haven't watched any of the videos, and aside from doing an image search for this post, haven't seen any of their pictures.
I did get to thinking, though, about how harmful the Wonder Girls really are. More specifically, how do they compare to some of the bullshit going on the US pop cultural landscape. I did mention earlier that I don't really keep up with the trends back home. Once in a while I do come across an article linked from another blog, and a short while ago I read a post called "The 9 Worst Trends of 2007." I was largely indifferent to most of the finalists---I didn't even know "that's a good look for you" was trendy, and can't imagine a black person ever saying it---but the one that did stick out was "Retard Rap." It seems a little redundant, and I am really surprised that garbage like crunk has survived as long as it has.
17 years old.
The guy in the picture, I found out, is "Soulja Boy," and his big hit is "Crank That," which is evidentally as big a hit as "Tell Me." "Crank That" has a little different a vibe, with lyrics like:
Soulja Boy Off In This Hoe / Watch Me Crank It / Watch Me Roll / Watch Me Crank Dat Soulja Boy / Then Super Man Dat Hoe / Now Watch Me Do
And then he repeats stuff a bunch of times. If you want to superman a ho, by the way, you have to ejaculate on her back and put a towel on her that will stick when she stands up, a la Superman. Now watch me do. Anyway, I could only take about 40 seconds of the song, and 20 seconds of another example of retard rap from 2007, "Laffy Taffy." (You'll have to find it yourself, I'm not going to sully this blog with a link to it.) I'm not sure what makes this year's products more "retarded" than other hip-hop of the last decade, but I guess things must've hit rock bottom when you have 50 Cent---"We say you a wanksta, and you need to stop frontin'"---talkin shit on you and calling you a dumb fuck.
Interestingly, a few days ago on Deadspin (sports blog) I saw links to a couple videos of people doing the Soulja Boy Dance. Cheerleaders, football players, basketball teams, little kids, white people, cartoons, instructional videos, etc. That's what jogged my memory about the worst trends article, and it doesn't say much about a song that, after seeing an unrelated video, a viewer can say "Wait, that's retarded!"
As I mentioned up there, more able bloggers can get into how detrimental a trend like the "Tell Me" craze can be to a society. Or, they can use a lot of hyperbole and conjecture as an excuse to post racy pictures and link to their friends. I personally am far more troubled by the ghetto fabulous aesthetic in the US and the culture of uneducated, misguided marble-mouths it both typifies and perpetuates.
Back when I was a kid, and probably long before, people were complaining about rap, about its language, about its fashion, and about the values it promoted. A lot of us turned out all right, and a lot of the fears were unfounded (the gyrating, potty-mouthed Vanilla Ice did not ruin a generation). You do have entire demographics, though, measuring out their lives in porch steps, content with emulating their rock-slinging, ho-supermaning idles/idols in the neighborhood.
At least the Wondergirls go to school; Soulja Boy is a drop out. You can slam them all you want (not a euphamism), but their fans are still among the highest educated in the world. Soulja Boy's fans live in a country rife with teenage pregnancy, gun violence, and low test scores. The Wonder Girls have bastardized another bit of English---like "have a good time"---though Soulja Boy thought it prudent to glorify the mispronunciation of "soldier," especially when his country is at war. Personally, I'd rather have my students incessantly singing "tell me tell me tellmetellmetellmetellme" than have them going on about fucking, smoking, shooting, and spending.