June 2019

Arts & Letters

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

By Anwen Crawford

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop

Try to think for more than 45 seconds about Blackpink’s 2018 song “DDU-DU DDU-DU” but end up watching a video on Vogue’s YouTube channel about Kim Kardashian getting ready for this year’s Met Gala. Her severely corseted, silicone dress, the colour of a Riviera tan, was made by French designer Thierry Mugler and inspired by Sophia Loren emerging from the sea, splendidly bosomy and with shirt dripping wet, in the 1957 drama Boy on a Dolphin. Look up the lyrics to “DDU-DU DDU-DU” and find there’s a line in the second verse that apparently translates from Korean as “Whatever you do, it’s like cutting water with a knife”. Consider the vividness of this simile and think about the ways in which it also serves to illustrate the futility of trying to remain ignorant to the triumphs of Kim Kardashian. “We all held hands, we did a little circle prayer,” she says, of preparations. She can’t pee while wearing her Mugler dress, so she and her team have been thinking up contingency plans, in case her will fails.

Click on a video in which Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashians, tells her daughter Kendall (the world’s highest-paid model, Kim’s half-sister) about her invitation to appear in the video for Ariana Grande’s 2018 song “thank u, next”. Kendall is sitting in a stylist’s chair and relays to Kris that while in Vegas on business she ate 10 Wingstop chicken wings, an In-N-Out burger, and then a plate of pasta on the outbound plane. “Can’t eat it anymore ’cause now I have to diet,” remarks Kris, in memory of pasta. “I want to be in an Ariana Grande music video,” says Kendall, the scantest moue on her face. Re-watch the video for “thank u, next”, which was inspired by Mean Girls, the 2004 high-school comedy that starred Lindsay Lohan before Hollywood devoured her exuberance and the gossip blogs spat out what was left. Baulk at googling “Lindsay Lohan”. Wonder how much training the four young women of Blackpink have had in suppressing the impulse to cry no matter how nasty people get on the internet or how many hours go by between meals or peeing.

Recall that Ariana Grande’s ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, died of a drug overdose in September last year, aged 26. Two months later Grande released “thank u, next”, a song about moving on from break-ups, which named Miller, among others, in the lyrics. Marvel again at how the song is light as a broth; check the reviews. Pitchfork called it an “eloquent display of inner strength”. Rolling Stone said it was “surprisingly gracious”. Jezebel commented approvingly that the song was not “the anthem of a spurned lover, looking to destroy everything in her path”. Everyone agrees how empowering it was that Ariana Grande, aged 25, did not show any grief or rage.

Stream Blackpink’s 2018 song “See U Later”. “I do not like you anyway,” sing-raps Jisoo, in Korean. “I already deleted your phone number,” sings Lisa, also in Korean. “See you later, boy,” sings Jennie, in English, and “See you later, maybe never,” adds Rosé, with one of those distorting filters on her voice that makes it sound like she’s chanting through a megaphone. Briefly consider the ways in which break-up songs can function as public declarations of resilience (“I Will Survive”) or public testimonies of damage (“Nothing Compares 2 U”). Revisit the video for Rihanna’s “Stay”, this decade’s exemplary damage song, and notice as if for the first time how the camera dwells on Rihanna in her bathtub, like it might see beneath her skin. Note also that the song’s male vocalist, Mikky Ekko, remains dressed. Decide, tentatively, that it’s better that Blackpink sound the way they sound, like megaphone-Rihanna, like man-­slaying-android-Rihanna, all sub-bass and sneery vocal tone, but wish that women pop stars had choices other than displaying strength or performing pain. Check to see if Blackpink have any songs about spaceships or the banking system. Wonder why it is that more pop stars don’t sing about the banking system.

Watch a video of Blackpink being interviewed in the United States following their appearance at this year’s Coachella music festival – the first time that a K-pop girl group featured at the California event. “I’m still not over it,” sighs Jennie. “It’s so life-changing,” says Rosé. View some live footage of Blackpink performing “DDU-DU DDU-DU” at Coachella and imagine how great it would feel, really great, to stand on stage in front of thousands of people and perform a song that sounds (and looks, given the giant screens and light show) like a cross between a military parade and the victorious mass landing of UFOs. Grant that Blackpink do indeed have a song about spaceships. Think further how especially cool it must feel to pull this off as a group of young women whom people might otherwise assume to be just cute.

Reflect on Euny Hong’s observation in her 2014 book The Birth of Korean Cool that some Korean singers in the ’50s and early ’60s got their start playing shows at US army bases in South Korea; deduce from this that Blackpink are but the latest in a long series of exchanges between Korea and the US of pop culture and militarism, soft and hard power. Count the members of Blackpink again: one, two, three, four; just like The Marvelettes. Consider if this means that they make sense in the US, where the successful pop production line of Motown coincided with an industrial boom and the nation’s military dominance, which together – pop, Cold War and products – were then exported elsewhere. Other K-pop groups have bigger line-ups – the girl group Twice, for instance, has nine members – but there’s always something countercultural about large groups. (Ponder the question of whether Sly and the Family Stone would have been as big as The Supremes if there’d been only three of them; put aside the counterfactual.) Still, says Rosé, joining the others in Blackpink (she was the last recruit) was like gaining “instant sisters”.

Read an article describing how aspiring Korean pop idols spend up to seven years in training programs that resemble boarding schools crossed with elite athletic camps crossed with Survivor: a trainee can be ditched at any time. Berry Gordy, eat your heart out. Learn that Jisoo is the only member of Blackpink to be raised entirely in South Korea. Rosé was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and entered K-pop training at age 16. Jennie was sent to boarding school aged 10 in New Zealand and returned to South Korea at 15 to commence her training. Lisa auditioned for K-pop training in her native Thailand, and moved countries without knowing how to speak Korean. Contemplate the ways in which the line-up of Blackpink perfectly reflects migration patterns and diaspora in the Asia-Pacific region. Consider claiming them as Australian by the same thin logic with which the nation claimed Split Enz. Watch all nine episodes of Blackpink’s recent video tour diaries. The tour begins in Bangkok, and in their downtime Lisa takes Jennie to a 7-Eleven. Between Lisa’s nostalgia for things she ate at school and Jennie’s curiosity, the two of them bond over junk food. “I’ll get everything you recommend,” says Jennie, to Lisa, as they browse a fridge full of juices. Think how nice it must be to find sisters.

Recollect, while watching Blackpink tour diaries, that in spite of its generally rousing spirit, the opening chords of “See U Later” bring to mind Cyndi Lauper’s wistful 1983 ballad “Time after Time”. Watch a video of a teenage girl audition for the British franchise of The Voice by singing “Time after Time” and feel slightly disappointed that she doesn’t cry, even though it takes the entire length of the song for just one judge to turn their chair around. Fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of Voice and X Factor audition clips. Recognise that no matter the song or how well or badly it is sung, the drama stays the same: Release me – signals the singer – from my ordinary life. Admit how logical this desire is, given the state of things; decline to estimate its scope among the populace.

Listen again to the delicious piano-led bop of “Girls Like Us” by Twice, a group that formed, as many K-pop groups do, via a competitive reality-TV show. Ask why it is that singers who enter the public consciousness via TV talent shows rarely remain there after the show ends, at least in places like Australia. Suggest that it has to do with a disavowal of the effort it takes to make a star into a star, which the K-pop system doesn’t try to conceal, and add that this disavowal stems from a deeply embedded romanticism regarding the notion of individual genius. Western pop music, Hong writes in her book, was intermittently banned in South Korea under the regime of president Park Chung-hee, who governed the country from 1963 until 1979. Teenage leisure was also strongly discouraged. “If a Korean pop industry was to form,” she writes, “it didn’t have time to wait for the Korean John, Paul, George and Ringo to magically find each other.” Recall Kim Kardashian’s team: the fitters, hairstylists, makeup artists and Mugler’s assistant. Acknowledge that Kim’s genius is to have made the work of being a woman the thing that pays, the thing she is famous for. It’s diabolical that not even relations between sisters are spared the competitive logic of the market, but the Kardashians are not to blame for this.

Review the YouTube footage of Blackpink at Coachella. Onstage, Jisoo is wearing the sort of lace gloves-and-safety-pins outfit that a young Madonna once favoured. Revisit the video for Madonna’s “Lucky Star” and realise suddenly that just as Madonna once brought elements of electro-funk and early hip-hop into the realm of chart pop, so Blackpink are transplanting the signature sounds of contemporary rap into K-pop. “DDU-DU DDU-DU” has Lisa executing the kind of triplet flow that would make any reigning North American rapper proud, like Cardi B spitting “My pussy glitter as gold”. (Note here for any confused readers that the triplet flow is a syllable count: duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, duh.) Be staggered all over again at the way in which Cardi B’s songs are nightmares of luxury, as extravagant and cruel as a dictator’s palaces. Wonder if or when K-pop might enter its gothic phase, and how closely this might be tied, as it has been in the US, to economic decline; extrapolate from this that all pop songs, in their way, are commentaries upon the banking system.

Look up tickets to Blackpink’s arena tour here in June. Discover that the shows have sold out. Guess, based on prior experience, how expensive the tickets might have been, and divide this hypothetical cost by one’s hourly wage. Remember at the last minute that Blackpink fans are known as Blinks and note how this excellent coinage captures the speed of cultural consumption on the internet. You must hear. You must watch. Click click. Thank u, next. Observe how the hook of Grande’s song turns her and the listener into customer service agents. Wonder how long it’s been since there was a difference between selling and being a self. Cast around for a dolphin and realise that no rescue is coming, no deus ex machina. Anticipate—

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Blackpink at Coachella. © Rich Fury / Getty Images for Coachella

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