Published on February 6th, 2015 | by Scott Interrante0
Not Easy Girls: Why ‘sexy’ concepts are not all they seem
After School/Orange Caramel’s Lizzy recently made her solo debut with ‘Not An Easy Girl.’ The trot-influenced song is a loose adaptation of the classic pansori ‘Chunhyangga,’ with the song’s music video editing Lizzy into footage of the 1961 film adaptation of the story, Seong Chunhyang. The video focuses on the part of the story where Chunhyang is arrested and sentenced to be executed after refusing to have sex with the new lord of her village, played here by comedian and MC Jeong Hyeong Don. Lizzy emphasizes the feminist nature of the story and adds modern lyrics to keep its themes relevant (‘Don’t try to win me over/With those designer bags/Do I look easy to you?/Love is not a supermarket’). This sincerity sets ‘Not An Easy Girl’ apart from Lizzy’s work with Orange Caramel, which has similarly mixed trot with retro disco-kitsch, but always with tongue-in-cheek irony. Here, Lizzy is silly but sincere in her delivery and commitment to the concept.
On the surface, it would seem that ‘Not An Easy Girl,’ with its explicit themes of female-autonomy and sexual control, kitschy music, and conservative, hanbok outfits, is in direct opposition to so much of female K-pop these days, where the ‘sexy’ concept has become ubiquitous. But a closer look at some recent sexy k-pop concepts shows a more complex relationship to autonomy and gaze that reveals more similarities than differences with Lizzy’s ‘Not An Easy Girl’.
Last year, Hello Venus lost two members (then leader Yoo Ara and Shin Yoon Jo), one of their agencies, and their cute image. Making their comeback with ‘Sticky Sticky,’ the group shied away from the cute pastel look of their early singles and embraced a mature sexy concept. They were certainly not the only girl group to go ‘sexy’ in 2014. In fact, it often felt that no one was doing anything but a sexy concept, whether it was more subdued like Girl’s Day’s ‘Something,’ playful like AoA’s ‘Like a Cat,’ or explicit like whatever Stellar was doing all year. But in the few short months since the release of ‘Sticky Sticky,’ Hello Venus has become the new face—or a body part a bit lower down—of the sexy girl group. More than ‘Sticky Sticky,’ it was a video Hello Venus uploaded of them dancing to the butt-centric Jason Derulo song ‘Wiggle’ that caught people’s attention.
The short clip shows Hello Venus performing tightly choreographed moves to Derulo’s song with the video’s angles focused on the girls’ particular assets. The band was likely trying to match the viral success of the now-infamous EXiD fancam video of Hani during a performance of ‘Up & Down.’ And while the ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ dance video didn’t reach the same level of virality as the EXiD fancam, it focused the conversation of Hello Venus in a way that ‘Sticky Sticky’ couldn’t manage to do.
Smartly, the group capitalized on the momentum by quickly teasing their new single ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ (because if we all liked one Wiggle, two was sure to be even better!). Ahead of the release of the video or the comeback stage, Hello Venus posted multiple versions of full dance practices to the song, all capitalizing on their new sexy image. But even the official music video retains a similar aesthetic. It’s intentionally cheap looking. The camera allows us to see the edge of the stage, the cracks in the floor, the lighting rigs behind the girls. It looks like an over-edited live performance, the cheap quality signaling their self-awareness. The effect forces the audience to recognize its inauthenticity. Showing the seams is a reminder that ‘Wiggle Wiggle’—and all other pop music—is highly constructed entertainment. Of course this is no new revelation, but everything about ‘Wiggle Wiggle,’ from its concept and conception, to the way it was released, to the way the video is shot (low cameras angled up like spectators looking at girls on a stage) seems to be designed to highlight this inauthenticity. It seems to say, ‘Oh, you want a sexy concept? We know you want a sexy concept!’
The lyrics make this clear too. Rather than directing their words at the ogling male gaze of the camera, Hello Venus mostly sings to other females or expresses their own excitement. The verses instruct other girls how to wiggle wiggle, urging them to do so ‘carefully.’ Alice sings about the rush of excitement performing, as she prepares to ‘give you a great present’ In Lime’s rap, she addresses the gaze directly, saying ‘I know you looking at my apple hip/Your intense gaze is like a laser beam’ before making fun of the audience for drooling over her. A final post-chorus section finds the girls explicitly saying ‘I like it like it’ to being gazed at, keeping them in control.
Throughout the track, male voices interject from the background, matching the gaze of the video with heckling that sounds like a crowd at a rowdy strip club. But the joke is always on the audience. The Hello Venus girls are aware of the gaze and force you to become aware of it as well. ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ playfully subverts the norm by reclaiming the girls’ agency in their pseudo striptease.
More subtly, SISTAR’s Hyorin plays with similar ideas on her new song with San E, ‘Coach Me.’ Hyorin plays the typical female role, singing the hook around San E and featured rapper Joo Heon. But more than her position in the structure of the song, she consciously plays on typical female tropes. Hyorin excels at making her voice breathy and sexy, and she utilizes this here to give her demure and innocent lyrics a knowing wink of irony. She sings to the boys, ‘Coach me, teach me, love me, I’ll be a good girl.’ She claims to be inexperienced and not know what she’s doing, but the subtext is clear. She’s playing into their fantasies, and they buy it. Both San E and JooHeon rap explicitly towards her, trying to dominate and control her, but it only proves her point more. San E practically freaks out when he sees that she’s waxed for the occasion, screaming ‘oh my god!’ in the middle of his line. She’s the power-bottom here, getting what she wants by playing into prescribed models of femininity.
Like ‘Wiggle Wiggle,’ the music video for ‘Coach Me’ is set on a stage, this time in an empty night club. It looks more like a normal music video set than the low budget ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ stage, but the visual still adds a performative layer of meaning to the song. The three idols rarely look at each other, addressing most of their material out to the hypothetical audience. This removes some of the intimacy that the racy lyrics imply. Instead, Hyorin is able to get the last laugh. As she sings the final words of the song, ‘I’ll be your good girl,’ she smiles at the camera, successfully seducing not just San E and JooHeon but the audience as well.
If ‘Not An Easy Girl’ finds Lizzy refusing to be sexualised on someone else’s terms, ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ and ‘Coach Me’ make a joke of those who do the sexualising. Of course this is complicated by the inherent problems that arise when Hello Venus and Hyorin are still being sexually objectified in their videos, even if it’s for intentionally subversive purposes. In the relatively conservative South Korean culture, it would be difficult to have a purely feminist piece of pop music (though GaIn‘s ‘Bloom,’ with its focus on female pleasure and the female sexual experience comes pretty close). Still, to write off Hello Venus, Hyorin, and any other female idol utilizing a sexy concept as ‘easy girls’ in contrast to Lizzy’s direct conservatism would be doing a disservice to the sophistication of both ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ and ‘Coach Me’ in their approach to female agency. Hopefully we will continue to see not only K-pop idol groups releasing songs like these that engage in a dialogue with issues in the industry, but also more thoughtful analysis of these songs from fans and critics.