This is by no means an indictment of 2NE1 or other K-Pop groups I discuss. I like 2NE1, I like SNSD (Girls Generation), this is not an attempt to vindicate one over the other. This post is about 2NE1’s star construction, how it functions, how it is perceived and discussed by the general public, and specifically how being women affects this. Onwards.
2NE1 has a new album out, their first proper LP after their debut album (a massive hit) was released three- almost four years ago. In the intervening years they’ve gone on tour, released a few singles to varying success, were apparently on the verge of releasing an English language album produced by Will.I.Am, but mostly it seems, according to venerable people on the internet who seem to believe themselves experts, were slowly but surely becoming more irrelevant by the hour. In the fast paced world of K-Pop, where “comebacks” as they’re referred to, come out like clockwork, it’s an understandable sentiment, but beneath the disgruntlement at 2NE1’s lack of activity (and therefore the increasingly critical eye that was turned to their sparse output), was a weird misogynistic undercurrent that highlights K-Pop’s uneasy relationship with women.
Despite their (relative) inactivity, 2NE1 still have a ton of clout and cultural relevance, plenty to generate excitement at their comeback, but for every expression of excitement at their return, there was cynical commentary that this was their last chance, this album had to be good or they were done. Fair enough, but the overwhelming subtext of this sentiment seemed to be that for every second that 2NE1 was not grinding their assets in your face, they were quietly sitting on a shelf, shrivelling up into unmarketable hags.
Take this piece from Seoulbeats, in which one person suggests that Dara and Bom’s relative old age is prohibitive to their roles as pop idols, and in fact their careers might stop them from having real lives. I am restraining myself from making incredibly sarcastic jokes about this statement only because this person seemed very sincere, but it is undoubtedly one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. Observe:
“There is just no way 2NE1 can be at the forefront of idol-dom at Dara and Bom’s age, no matter how young and hip they look. In fact, it might be selfish of us to hope they put their lives on the back burner just so we can have our entertainment.”
Am I supposed to salute their selflessness? They go on to attempt to qualify this statement, essentially suggesting being 30 and a K-Pop star is fine, as long as they act their age. No one wants mutton dressed as lamb, people, come on!!
I’m sure this person did not mean to be offensive, but the slip is at best embarrassing, and at worst casually misogynistic. It is however, depressingly revealing. The piece as a whole is not a fan or anti-fan rant, it is supposed to provide commentary by- I assume, smart people who are attempting intelligent, objective(ish) discussion about 2NE1’s (then upcoming) album, and yet amongst those good intentions came out that amazing brain fart. It is not a surprise of course, K-Pop girl groups are packaged to sell young, nubile, nymphettes, their very purpose is to suggest sex on legs- although of course the expression is varied; cute, virginal, sexy, repressed, take your pick. At close to 30, any female star, not just K-Pop idols, have to reconsider what image they’re selling, what version of femininity will keep them relevant (i.e. fuckable) for the future. If not fuckable, then apparently they must demonstrate they are not sour spinsters who have failed at life by showing interest in marriage and babies (thanks Seoulbeats!). Yes, those are the options ladies.
This however, is also the crux of 2NE1’s problematic star construction. As a group with varying ages and personalities, they don’t suggest different flavours as say SNSD does, but an inconsistent female commodity, a package that not only can’t quite be categorised, but causes a rupture in what it means to be a marketable female personality.
2NE1 are cute, they’re attractive, they’re sexy, but they do not represent any of those things, they cannot own any of those labels as their own, not like SNSD who has the market cornered with their ‘virgin in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom’ schtick. 2NE1, as beautiful and attractive as they are, are not known for their “visuals”- the suggestion has always been that their success is about their talent, that they are more than merely pretty dolls. This image is also why “Ugly” works so well for them, because no matter how attractive you find the members of 2NE1, you believe there have been times when they’ve looked in the mirror, and found themselves wanting, and this is part of their appeal. Being able to sell music on the idea of talent is ideal, but it is just as fraught and unstable a concept as selling music on your appearance. Especially in K-Pop, and especially as a female in K-Pop.
When 2NE1 debuted, they were fresh, they were young, they were something new in the K-pop landscape, and that freshness translated to their music, which captured an exuberance, a cartoon cuteness with an edge that would come to define them. In the absence of any other predominant female identity, the one that was consequently assigned to them was “fierceness”, a kind of rah rah grrrrrrl power in a K-Pop package that was immensely appealing. However as time wore on, and other K-Pop acts debuted in their image, they started to appear stale, old. With few music releases, and no new “concepts” there was little opportunity to show either a fresh image or reinforce their talent in the eyes of the public. The few singles they have released, successful or not, did very little to add to their cachet, not because they were bad- in reality the quality is irrelevant, it’s the perception that matters- but because they were released in a vacuum. With no strong, consistent message of who they were, what they represented, what they were selling, no matter how good their end product was, people didn’t know how to react. Without a strong commodity, you leave people to make up their own minds and the end result is a collective ambivalence, which is far worse than a decisive negative reaction.
Further, unlike many of their peers, 2NE1 does not have a strong variety presence, or much of an identity at all outside of the music industry. With the exception of small detours like “2NE1 TV” or “Double Park” (mainly for fans), they have had few side projects, no major acting gigs, no regular variety appearances. In an environment like Korean entertainment where stars and hosts regularly go meta and discuss their own “character”, i.e. the role they play when they’re being themselves on screen (one day, I will discuss the amazing next level meta-ness of Korean and Japanese variety, in which they break the fourth wall, only to create two more… one day), being without a “character” is a dangerous invitation for the public to assign one for you.
Which is I’d argue, what has happened to 2NE1’s leader, CL. In the few variety outings with CL I’ve seen, she does not seem completely comfortable, she is not gregarious, effusive or cute, she seems at times nervous, wary and self-contained, a sure fire recipe for a woman to be considered “cold”. Unsurprisingly the narrative around CL has increasingly been an unapproachable aloofness- although there has been very little evidence either way- CL was suddenly considered “arrogant”, “rude”, “a diva”, determined to take the spotlight away from her band members. There’s a subset of people that refer to 2NE1 as ‘CL and her sidekicks’ (or variation thereof), which is again perception more than reality. A mathematical breakdown of who gets more lines and screen time would likely not support the assertion, but it cannot be denied that in many ways CL has always epitomised what 2NE1 represented, and as such she became the face of the band; the identity of CL and 2NE1 became intrinsically conflated.
When the Seoulbeats article I linked to suggested CL’s failed solo outing “The Baddest Female” was a turning point, they are correct, it was. Not because it marked a downturn in quality (I repeat, quality is irrelevant, it’s the message that matters) but because it marked the point at which 2NE1’s star construction properly began to crumble. CL and 2NE1 had been living and surviving on their “fierce” identity for their entire career, which is why “The Baddest Female” seemed to be the right strategic move, but instead it highlighted the weaknesses of CL’s star narrative, and destabilised her and therefore 2NE1’s entire image.
“The Baddest Female” fails on several levels, none of them musically. The song in quality, execution and marketing was not that different from any number of more successful packages that had come out of YG in the last few years, it leaned more “hip hop”, it was bold, brash and cocksure, and had the same kind of nasal grinding quality that had been selling just fine. However, the song and the music video made everyone wince. The damage wasn’t that the song didn’t become a hit, the damage was that CL had engaged in the perfectly mundane tradition of musical hubris (“I am the Best”, see also Kanye West, G-Dragon etc.) and came out the loser. “The Baddest Female” highlighted all the narratives that had until that point, only been tugging at the edges of her star, and put them centre stage. 1) She was a demanding diva who wanted to overshadow her bandmates- tick, 2) That she too desperately wanted to be “bad” or “fierce” -tick, tick, tick, 3) That maybe she wasn’t that talented, 4) That YG were starting to privilege style over substance etc. Essentially the song was its own dialectic loop, its very existence was a question about CL’s talent- in short no matter how good or bad the song was, it was doomed to fail. Where YG Entertainment needed to be shoring up CL’s star foundation- 2NE1, instead what it had done was fire a rocket at the very base that should have been rock solid.
Between “The Baddest Female” and their second LP “Crush” (released 27/2/14), 2NE1 released three singles, “Falling in Love”, “Do you Love Me” and “Missing You”, all of them perfectly fine songs and successful enough not to be considered flops- but with CL’s “failed” solo outing and such sporadic musical output, these were not successes that added to 2NE1’s power, as much as they appeared to be stop gaps to keep them from irrelevance. For many they were the first signs of an expiration date. Increasingly there were comparisons between SNSD and 2NE1, the other major K-Pop girl group institution, citing that SNSD were prettier, more talented, had more complicated choreography, had grown more, while 2NE1 was sitting in a corner stagnating and losing their sex appeal. 2NE1 were no longer “fun”, but instead tired and old. In truth, none of these things had to be true for people to believe them. 2NE1’s main sin was being female, getting older, and not having sufficient answer for what kind of female commodity they had become when their old one “fresh young ingenues with fierce personas” had expired beneath them. In many ways, if 2NE1 had traded on their beauty, it would have been easier- relevance would then only depend on how long the public found them attractive. But by asking the public to judge them on something other than being specifically women (which is not to say they haven’t traded on sex appeal), in K-Pop for god’s sake, they complicated the public’s relationship with their star narrative.
In this way, discussion about 2NE1 as women and stars can be far more insidious and gross (see Seoulbeats article) than when people discuss SNSD. SNSD is not without talent (of course), but talent is secondary to their main message, which is- pick a body part: legs, hair, lips, boobs, whatever floats your boat. In discussing SNSD, objectification and misogyny is obvious but also less terrible because at least the mechanism is transparent [Which reminds me, I came across a completely kick-ass blog on K-Pop, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. But, be warned he seems quite obsessed with breasts, if that offends you stay away]. With all this doom and gloom, I should probably mention that 2NE1’s new album “Crush” seem to be killing it on the charts. I have bought, I have listened, I have re-played. I am however, a 2NE1 fan. Whether this has done enough to refocus their star image into something more stable, we’ll have to wait and see.