Pop Girls: J-Pop and K-Pop


Way back on New Years Eve, I was innocently sitting in my kitchen listening to the World Service when my interest was aroused by a short report on the K-Pop trend in Japan.

The report contrasted the women in J-Pop (Japanese pop) girl bands with those in K-Pop (Korean pop) bands, and what followed was a discussion revolving initially around image which also took in the wider socio-cultural context of the phenomenon.

A key point that was made was that while many J-Pop girl bands rely on a very girly, young, innocent image (which, it could be argued, has links to both lolita fashion trends and subcultures and also adult manga) the K-Pop girls were conveying a more assertive, stroppy and grown up image.

Whether you think the 2NE1 video above is any more empowering for young women to encounter than the C-UTE one is (I think the clue might be in the name there…)they do provide food for thought. Any defence of 2NE1 is liable to come close to what I like to think of as the Spice Girls defence, but I can’t help but find the contrast, and what it represents in a wider sense, intriguing.

Joanna Tocher, our music reviewer in Japan, has mentioned that there have been protests in Japan against the influence of Korean culture in the country. The report on the World Service on the other hand contrasted the assertive aspirational image portrayed by 2NE1 in their videos with the reality of life in Japan for Koreans.

But if Japanese girls really do want to look like Barbie, as a recent blog post on this site suggested, then surely anything that isn’t pink and depicting the participants as very, very young for a much older audience would be a good thing?

Not that the UK and US doesn’t have pop music videos that cause pause for thought for all the wrong reasons. and to fail to acknowledge that when assessing Japanese and Korean pop stars in any kind of feminist capacity would be very wrong indeed.

But I can’t help but think that to reduce the whole debate down to ‘Japanese girl culture infantilises girls in a very pink and sinister way’ vs ‘Korean girls are stroppy and empowered! go them!’ would be simplistic and patronising, not to mention disturbingly close to racism.

To take 2NE1 as the definitive Korean pop example, or C-UTE as the defininite Japanese one would be like comparing S Club 7 to the Sugababes: Really rather meaningless.

Comments on the look like Barbie post on The F-Word have pointed to the influence of lolita fashions in Japan, and also Ganguro both of which complicate the issues around not only C-UTE but also 2NE1 themselves.

This is ‘It Hurts’, a ballad by 2NE1 which references gothic lolita fashions, though the emphasis is on the gothic here rather than on the lolita.

And this is ‘Tokaikko Junjou’ by C-UTE, who are going for less of a pink feel this time.

I first encountered what was then known as the gothic lolita look via a report on the Japanese street fashion bible Fruits and its first book, also called Fruits I have to confess to having been rather puzzled at first because I was used to the old style goth uniform of wedding dresses and backcombed hair with lashings of eyeliner (I have some friends who have embarrassing pictures tucked away in places they hope friends, family and, especially, partners will never find them…)not excessively dainty looking girls who looked like they’d swallowed the complete works of Jane Austen.

As you can see from this picture, the gothic lolita look has spread beyond Japan.

Since then, the film Kamikaze Girls has been released, and its two heroines – Momoko and Ichigo – represent two very different examples of young Japanese womanhood. Momoko is the dainty lolita fashionista, obssessed with embroidery and all things rococco, and Ichigo is a biker girl who headbutts first and asks questions later. Theirs is an unlikely friendship and its interesting to see, as the film progresses, how their two personalities and sense of identity become challenged by the other. Something of a cult hit, the film and its soundtrack have sparked innumerable Youtube tributes, and this is one of the best. Please note though that no Rihanna songs form any part of the official Kamikaze Girls soundtrack.

To get away from discussing purely C-UTE and 2NE1 videos, I also found some other examples of Japanese and Korean girl pop to ponder.

The first clip is Japanese artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu performing ‘Pon Pon Pon’, the second is Korean girl band Girls Generation, and I would say that the director of their video is clearly familiar with the 1980s film Mannequin

There isn’t really much to choose between the Girls Generation video and the second of the C-UTE videos so far as girlish innocence is concerned, suggesting that 2NE1 might have the role of surly but well styled assertive girls with great jackets to themselves.

What I have noticed in my rather flimsy K-Pop and J-Pop survey is that the two Korean bands I looked at seem to be looking further afield in terms of chart success, whereas the Japanese bands/artists seemed to be largely aimed at the Japanese market. 2NE1 have started to sing in English increasingly, and this video clip below would seem to suggest a clear stab at the international pop market.

Will they go big beyond Japan? Who could say at this stage? But it would certainly seem to be premature to say ‘No’.

To sum up either Korean or Japanese music as being entirely about the type of music discussed above would be misguided and unrepresentative, and for anyone whose teeth are hurting from watching some of the videos above, I reccomend reading Joanna’s piece on Japanese band Puffyshoes as an antidote, if a quick blast of Shonen Knife doesn’t do the trick.

You could argue that a nation is judged by its pop music or, even worse, by its Euravision entry (but lets not go there…) just as you could argue that a nations pop music holds up a mirror to a nations culture, prejudices, and on the rare occasion, politics. So just as Rihanna has been judged in the context of UK and US debates about the sexualisation of young girls, so are we judging J-Pop and K-Pop in the context of lolita fashions and our own conveniant benchmarks: the Spice Girls, the Sugababes.

For a more left of centre taste of Japan, here is the more indie sounding Everlast and the clip below, is ‘Story of my life’ by Chii, a refreshingly innovative slice of Japanese trip hop.

Image of 2NE1 by aBbYhaLO, shared via a flickr creative commons licence