Xia (Junsu), “Tarantallegra”. For his solo career, JYJ’s Junsu may go by the stage name he used as a member of TVXQ/DBSK (before the whole thing went pear-shaped), but it’s clear that he’s in charge: he had a hand in a majority of the songs on his new full-length album including this one, and there’s a sense of artistic freedom about this song and video, perhaps due to the fact that JYJ is banned from performing on South Korea’s three major networks, more or less ensuring that this video will not be aired.
“Tarantallegra” definitely feels auteur-driven, albeit in the narrowest, most casual sense of what we associate with “auteur-driven”: offbeat, indulgent, individual, and compelling, if sometimes in danger of confusing being strange with being smart. The main star is Junsu’s boomy production, which throws clattering synths and rapper Flowsik’s guttural mouth sounds over stormy timpani rolls and distant lower brass notes. There’s almost no mid range to speak of, resulting in an odd mix of clutter and empty space. The Autotune seems incidental, like it just happened to land on his voice (which sounds as good as it ever did). There’s no part of it that drags; it’s constantly changing, adding new textures.
And then there’s the video. Its style looks similar to every big-ticket JYJ/DBSK video we’ve seen in the past (“Ayyy Girl”, even DBSK’s post-Junsu “왜 (Keep Your Head Down)”), but whereas those videos emphasized the masculinity and masculine power of their stars, in “Tarantallegra” there’s a fluidity around sexuality and gender presentation. I’m curious as to how much input Junsu had into the video, but its various scenes feel guided by a unified vision in the way that Lady Gaga’s videos do.
To make a less lazy comparison than the Gaga one, I would contrast this video with DBSK’s “Mirotic”, which also deals with sexuality (and dark, vaguely fantastical sets) but in a completely different way. In “Mirotic”, the DBSK members are presented as the objects of the camera’s gaze, but reluctantly, with the faceless woman as the “evil” force that has (sometimes literally) restrained them in this position. The video ends with the members chasing down and defeating this objectifying force, becoming active instead of passive. In “Tarantallegra”, meanwhile, Junsu is a cooperative participant in his own objectification, active and passive. At 1:35, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of what appears to be Junsu pointing a camera at himself, and the resulting view through the camera is shown immediately afterward; the viewer both is him and is looking at him.
His presentation emphasizes this fluidity of sexuality. The outfits in “Mirotic” are more revealing, but they emphasize the members’ arms, shoulders, and chests, and are dark and plain, undecorated, and based on suits. By contrast, Junsu’s “Tarantallegra” outfits look slim and highly decorative, with glitter and buckles. They recall womenswear more than menswear: the long jackets with flared bottoms look almost like dresses, especially that floor-length white one. And then there’s the point where he is actually dressed as a woman (1:54), in a long wig and with casual makeup, rather than the heavy, stagey eye makeup he wears in other scenes. As well, there’s parts where he seems to be identified with the female backup dancers, like at 1:50, where the dancer seems to be lip-synching. In the scenes during the rap break where the dancers are all over him (at 2:36), the shape of his black sweater and necklace echoes their leotards (and we don’t see him from the waist down, so the illusion is perpetuated); again, he is simultaneously the object of the women’s attention and a willing participant in his objectification (as he appears to be one of them).
I’m curious as to how this vision will translate in future projects from Junsu. I’m hoping it’s not just a one-off, as there’s something genuinely interesting going on here; but at the same time, I’m not sure how much further he can go in this direction than this.
Above: Girl groups doing boy groups’ dances for SBS’s 2009 Gayo Daejun (an end-of-year music festival).
Below: Boy groups doing the girl groups’ songs as part of the same special.
The top comment on the first video: “Is Better when man’s act like woman D:”
What we learn from this stage:
Masculinity is coded as serious and femininity is coded as frivolous, so girls acting as guys have to be tough and/or slinky and guys acting as girls have to be cutesy and/or silly.
Male idols in feminine dress are automatically seen as goofy, though “Sign” (the first song in the second video) is done with the same seriousness as “Heartbeat” (the last song in the first video).
To this I would add something about how kkab dancers (over-the-top comedic versions of idol dances - e.g. Min of Miss A doing “Shy Boy”) mostly do girl group dances, not boy groups’ (with maybe one exception). And then there’s drag itself: men in feminine drag is always played for laughs (it’s sometimes the humiliation round at the end of a variety show), though sometimes the laughs are of the “heterosexual men feel uncomfortable” kind. Women in male drag is usually also played for laughs, but it’s rarely seen unaccompanied by men in female drag.
Some female North American K-pop fans idealize South Korean culture because “it’s okay for men to act feminine”, using conservative North American conceptions of masculinity and femininity as the benchmark. (Often they just mean that it’s okay for two male friends to hug each other/be affectionate with each other in public, which I myself see as pretty macho behaviour, along the lines of “rational” love being with another man vs. “irrational” love being with a woman. “I love you, man.”) But male idols who are known for frequently dressing in drag are just as frequently asked to defend (or maintain) their heterosexuality in interviews.
(Somewhere in all of this, also: Amber Liu of f(x), who has been styled as butch/tomboy since her debut and whose female fans call themselves “noonies”, a portmanteau of “noona”, which a boy calls his older sister, and “unnie”, which a girl calls her older sister, that positions Amber as the gender-ambiguous one.)
I’m not sure that any of this is stuff we didn’t know already - basically, Is Better when man’s act like woman - but seeing girl groups doing boy groups’ songs is pretty rare, and so this special stage is a rare chance to compare how women in male drag is treated vs. men in female drag.
FIRST OFF: Fandom isn’t some grand club where we agree on everything. It would be cool if that were true, but it’s not. Especially in k-fandom I find that there’s a large disparity between people who don’t sexualize idols (characters would be a replacement term here if we were talking about most other fandoms) at all VS. people who sexualize idols with all their might.
I can’t reblog asks but I think this sheds a bit of light on international K-pop fandom (diverse as it is) from an insider perspective, especially the sexualization part (and how much that takes priority over the music, which is seen as a negative thing when it happens - even from the answerer’s perspective). Fandom in general is something I’ve been thinking about lately - I encounter the vocabulary of fandom (“so many feels”, etc.) all across the internet, and it (both specific fandoms and the fandom culture in general) seems to be both a community that draws people in and a bizarre group that alienates outsiders. I do wonder how much fandom has to do with the concept of the “guilty pleasure” - wanting to distance yourself from people who enjoy things “unironically” because you don’t want to be associated with those traits, whatever you think those traits are.
I also feel weird about the sexualization/fetishization of race and culture in international K-pop fandom, but I’m not sure how to articulate it beyond a basic “STOP TALKING ABOUT ‘KOREAN MEN’ LIKE THAT”. I’m not sure there is much to articulate beyond that.
In which rather than just leaving a rhetorical question hanging out to dry like certain lazy bloggers, this writer actually does her research and comes up with some insight:
I’m guessing then that “Caucasians Are Sexy” was the casting concept for this video: Caucasian women are sexy, therefore if you have a ton of white women in your video, you must be the shit, or you must be in America/Europe, which makes you even cooler (Is it a coincidence that the invites to the party / video shoot were passports and plane tickets?). Not only does this reduce the white woman to a prop or a trophy simply put there to elevate the Asian man’s status (especially when they’re all dressed in identical outfits…) but it also pushes her towards the “bad girl” category, which few Korean women would willingly associate with, and few Korean men would look upon favorably…
In sum, white women are hardly ever seen as a positive love interest in Korean music videos. So it’s not like Asian women have been replaced with a better alternative – it’s more like they’ve been replaced with a less valuable, but possibly more visually appealing substitute.
At least as far as I know, in North America the treatment and portrayal of white females and white female beauty in Asian cultures is commonly (and perhaps Caucasian-centrically) thought of as based on reverence and racial shame - Indian cosmetics ads push skin-lightening creams as the key to beauty; Korean women get eyelid surgery to turn their epicanthic folds into the prized “double eyelid” - so it’s interesting to get a different perspective. The Othering and hypersexualization of Caucasian females by many status-quo Koreans seems very similar to what happens for East Asian females among many status-quo white Americans.
I’ve been stewing over a post about 2NE1 for a bit but I wanted to think about this while it was still kind of relevant.
So, Rainbow’s shirt-lifting choreography for their comeback single “A”, the so-called “abs dance”, got banned from being performed on broadcasts (not that surprisingly) because it’s suggestive. Which, okay. I don’t know a lot about Korean cultural attitudes toward public female sexuality (to the point where I was surprised by a Korean Cosmo cover advertising “The Naughiest Sex Survey Ever”), but this makes sense to me. They are playing at taking their shirts off. There is no doubt about that.
And there was some ensuing stink over the fact that male idols are allowed and even encouraged to rip off their shirts on stage, while female idols are not. On the surface this seems like clear-cut sexism and association of male bodies/sexuality with power and virility and female bodies/sexuality with promiscuity and shame. But it’s not like female skin isn’t everywhere to be seen in K-pop (far from it, if the pictures produced by the Mormon porn technique are any indication). So I’m not sure if this interpretation of the double standard is necessarily that simple.
I remember a commenter on a fashion forum who, when discussing the high number of fashion photographs containing female full-frontal nudity compared to those containing male full-frontal nudity, said, “Female bodies are public and male bodies are private.” I don’t think that this is just simply an inversion of that (fairly spot-on) equation, though. I think the word shame has to come back into it - female sexuality (on stage) is shameful and male sexuality (on stage) is not. Lifting your shirt and showing your toned body in public is empowering for men, but totally crude for women.
However, what complicates this easy vilification of the ban as sexist is the overall lack of agency accorded the performers. Who is Rainbow’s suggestive display meant for? Is it self-expression or is it meant to please audiences? Who thought of it and who told them to do it? (Hint: it wasn’t any of the women who are doing the dance.) And who told them to lose weight in order to perform it? Personally I find this just as distasteful as banning female midriff-flashing from national television. (And for the record, it’s not like the guys have it any better.)
So when the broadcasters ban the members of Rainbow from lifting their shirts, they’re not necessarily - or exclusively - reacting to the members’ conscious display of their pride in their bodies, but rather to a choreographed dance move that they don’t like. The “abs ban” is a political move, to be sure, but the often murky motivations behind the abs-flashing in the first place should be taken into consideration. Basically, it’s sexist to tell women that only men are allowed to show their bodies on TV, but it’s no more sexist than some men telling women to show their bodies on TV in the first place.