Jarryn Ha is a PhD student in Historical Musicology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His research has focused on constructions of gender and race in global popular music, as well as subjectivities and voices in nineteenth-century western art music. He holds a BA in Media, Society, and the Arts from Purchase College, State University of New York.
Critical Kpop: For female Kpop artists, how important is the role of sexuality in creating a successful image?
Jarryn Ha: Sexualized self-presentation has been important for many, though not for all. (And this is not a recent development at all.) Modes of presentation in K-pop have grown dramatically more straightforward and corporeal in recent years, and part of it certainly has to do with sexualization of both male and female artists. One of the key differences, however, is that it seems easier for men to present themselves as “artists” than it is for women.
CK: Lee Hyori has had a long and successful career in Korea as a cultural (and sexual) icon. How do you read her portrayal of gender dynamics in “Going Crazy” from her 2013 album Monochrome?
JH: Performing one’s self as a sex icon gets old after a while, I’m sure, and I think she (finally?) finds herself in a position where she can present this kind of message as herself given not only her age but also her experience and place in the industry. It seems to me she likely studied other (mostly western) female artists who, at a certain point in their careers, began to assert themselves as more-than-just-sexual-icons and in many cases even as ‘sexually disinterested’—if you will—artists, and modeled herself after them. But that certainly doesn’t detract the power she affords herself by writing and singing these lyrics. Her lyrics feel much more personal and sincere than in her previous albums, and she also performs a different version of herself—not unrelated to the kind of role she finds herself in as an (experienced!) artist and, in turn, reprised in a number of variety entertainment TV shows—as an “alpha female”, down-to-earth and sincere yet strong and assertive. I see this shift an act of self-assertion, no matter how heavily commercialized, sexualized, etc., she and her music have been in the past as much as it is now.
CK: A translation of the lyrics to “Going Crazy” suggest Hyori is trying to write a different kind of music. Where does this song fit into Kpop?
Typical story, typical song about a man leaving and a girl crying
I promised that I’d never sing about that
But why am I crying over a guy right now?
I’m such a pitiful loser, someone please stop me...
JH: Are we looking at her insertion of the self in her lyrics, as opposed to playing a role given to her by someone else?
CK: She describes a "typical" scenario, but also seems to want to break free of the usual stereotypes. Do her lyrics feel empowered? Stuck within a system?
JH: I think it is a bit of both. Let me elaborate: I think she finds herself at a place in her career where it is okay to be her vulnerable self, or at least to have a persona that comes across as more of her "genuine" self. It is perhaps not unrelated to the larger trend in Korean popular entertainment in which a huge emphasis is placed on "real" television featuring "real" people, "real" stories, etc. Hyori herself, of course, made a big persona makeover as a regular cast member of Family Outing a while back, from a flawless yet perhaps distant sex icon to a down-to-earth "big sister" or friend. I read her lyrics as a realization that she can "be herself" and be vulnerable, instead of hiding behind the version of her self that she used to perform. (I put "be herself" in quotes because, of course, what is shown of her to the public is at all times part of a system-- however "real" the vehicle may claim to be. And by this I do not mean to simply call it fake and evoke all the negative connotations attached to it. I think we all experience something similar on a daily basis, when we are "being ourselves" on Facebook and such; of course we are putting on a version of ourselves for others to see. It is personal and yet, at the same time and inseparably, performative. The double-sidedness of it is a lot more visible nowadays with "reality" everything being so prominent, as I mentioned earlier. I think her lyrics touch on that.)
CK: Do you think Hyori’s hyper-awareness of gender issues is a result of her experience in the business? Or are these issues highlighted because Hyori has had more artistic control over this album, writing and producing many of the songs herself? Or, is this just another gimmick to sell music?
JH: I think I touched upon this earlier, though briefly. I think it is all of the above, stemming from her willingness to step out of the person she’s been for years—and the timing certainly seems right. I don’t think we can write off something as a commercial gimmick and dismiss its meaningfulness, as everything we see and hear is a gimmick of some kind, and that’s a huge part of what’s appealing and attractive about popular culture—especially in Korean popular culture today, where “reality” and performance seem to collide and converge in various arenas and channels. (After all, everyone from Bach and Beethoven to the Beatles and the Stones capitalized and commercialized their music, yet we don’t dismiss their public personae as mere gimmicks.) I think what’s significant is her readiness and ability to assert herself as an autonomous, self-determining person and artist, however gimmicky it may be.
CK: What role do you see sexuality playing in Kpop in 5 years, 10 years? The same? Different?
JH: It will have a place, no doubt, as it always has. But I think, and I hope, there will be room for more variety—for more diverse sexualities to be performed and presented. And I’m excited to see where it will be headed.