When the K-pop girl group Oh My Girl perform at Stereo Live on January 22, three types will be in the audience. Miracles, as committed Oh My Girl fans are known, will be in attendance; many will have traveled hours to support their idols on their first U.S. tour. Local K-pop fans, hungry for any musical sustenance from Seoul, will also show up. Explorers will make up the other third of the Richmond Ave. venue’s crowd; their curiosity piqued by the success of BTS and Korea’s growing pop culture salience, they’ll be ready to step through the portal into the world of K-pop girl groups.
Oh My Girl might be the ideal first encounter in that world, as the seven member group manages to both exemplify and escape K-pop girl group conventions. Ever since the 2009 success of the bubblegum single “Gee” set Girls’ Generation on the path to commercial success and semi-official anointment as “the Nation’s Singers”, the entertainment agencies that train and manage K-pop performers have launched girl group after girl group based on “Gee’s” not at all secret ingredient: the cute.
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WM Entertainment, Oh My Girl’s agency, kept to this formula when the group debuted in 2015 with “Cupid.” The debut single’s catchy hooks complemented the blush and crush visuals to provide a near perfect example of K-pop cuteness. Yet, beyond the pastels and teddy bears, attentive audiences could discover something more. The marching band snare drum and half shouted, half chanted conclusion to “Cupid’s” chorus pointed to one direction beyond the cute, the quirky rambunctiousness of the 2016 “Liar Liar” and the 2017 “Coloring Book.”
The vocal harmonies in “Cupid” also revealed the group’s potential as singers, a potential that would be realized and combined with an elaborate choreography in 2015 to produce one of K-pop’s masterpieces, “Closer.” Here, as in so much K-pop, the song structure of American pop provided the framework on which a more distinctively K-pop arrangement of vocals could grow. Oh My Girl’s ethereal harmonies lead us into a world of dream, fairytale, and celestial encounter, climaxing in Mimi’s rap, which concludes with a line full of that enigmatic lyricism gifted to nonnative speakers of English – “Milky Way is on!”
The rap of “Closer,” like the raps commonly heard from not just Oh My Girl but virtually every K-pop group, might puzzle the western listener. How did this musical form, born of the African diaspora, nurtured in the USA’s urban grittiness, and even now, with all its bling and swagger, inseparable from a race conscious critique of American inequality – how could it migrate to become a fixture in the sugar and fairies world of K-pop girl groups?
A partial, and simple answer, would be that K-pop girl group concepts go beyond cuteness and innocence; back in 2010 Girl’s Generation went in a darker, more mature direction with “Run Devil Run,” while today the girl crush concept of top selling girl group BlackPink is, as their most recent single shows, inseparable from hip-hop swagger, or what passes as such in Seoul. An answer at once deeper and more complete would point out that not just rapping but virtually every aspect of K-pop can be traced to African American musical culture. One might think of this as cultural appropriation, but a more helpful approach would be to understand this growth in terms of transformation and re-imagination.
Just as the spaghetti western reworked the Hollywood western, so K-pop makes anew rap, R and B, and the music video legacy of Michael Jackson. The raps of Oh My Girl recast the rhymes and wordplay of what was once known as the Black CNN into a form at once verbally unintelligible to non-Koreans but musically appropriate to their pop themes, whether they be the teen love of “Cupid” or the myth and longing of “Closer.” Watch the choreography of “Closer” and listen to the harmonies, and recognize that one line in this work’s genealogy leads back to Motown.
If the ghost of Berry Gordy stalks the studios of Seoul, he might recognize more than the sounds and the style; the business organization of K-pop draws on the Motown model. Just as Gordy looked to his past in the motor industry to find a model for the industrial production of Black popular music, so the K-pop agencies have looked back to Motown. These agencies recruit young aspirant performers and, as in the Detroit of times past, train them to sing and dance in a house style, then have them perform works assembled by production and songwriting groups.
The K-pop industry makes no secret of the “manufactured” character of its musical production; we in the West might pause to wonder whether the all too frequently expressed contempt for “manufactured” Korean pop draws on a charmless naiveté about the production of Western pop, a thoughtless elevation of the “authentic” – whatever that might mean — as an aesthetic virtue, or Trumpian America’s bottomless reservoir of resentment when Asia exports to the United States. With this caveat in mind though, one might still ask if the K-pop reworking of the Motown model has been entirely benign.
Has Seoul gone beyond Motown paternalism to outright repression in its treatment of performers? The members of Oh My Girl, like the majority of K-pop “idols”, as performers are known, don’t just pop into their agency studio to record; instead they follow the agency’s rigorous schedule of song and dance practice, interspersed with frequent variety show appearances and the copious social media activity that strengthens the idol-fan bonds so important in the world of K-pop. In their downtime, the members live and sleep in an agency dorm.
Earlier this year, Hyojung, Mimi, YooA, Seunghee, Jiho, Binnie, and Arin — average age 22 — thanked WM Entertainment for granting them the use of cellphones. Although Americans’ first reaction might be to recoil at such a culture of control, the more thoughtful response might be to examine the norms of our own entertainment culture. Are we quite sure of the superiority of the contingent, even throwaway, nature of entertainment industry relationships here? In an assertion of militant individualism, might we not lose sight of the possibility that the group orientation of K-pop can still accommodate a degree of individuality in both performance and personality?
A readiness to reconsider our own entertainment industry norms should not, of course, blind us to the real abuses that take place in the K-pop industry. The allegations of the recently disbanded girl group Stellar provide a case in point. Press reports claim that Stellar’s agency ordered the group to adopt a “sexy concept” or face dismissal. Although the “sexy concept” seems tame by the standards of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj America, the women of Stellar are supposed to have felt sufficiently violated by suggestive music videos and split skirt and thong publicity photos to make SOS signals at the conclusion of a TV music show. Whatever the facts of the matter in the Stellar case, we ought to condemn such exploitation; we ought also to remember that the sexual exploitation of women is rife in the Western entertainment industry too.
Nobody has any reason to think that the members of Oh My Girl have been subjected to sexual exploitation. Yet we might worry that Oh My Girl both personify and promulgate gender norms that can only be described as retrograde. Even if none of the members appear to have undergone the plastic surgery commonly used in the industry, the pressure of Korean beauty standards is difficult to ignore when one learns that Oh My Girl was an eight member group until JinE left, battling with anorexia. These beauty standards cast their shadow over the choreographic charms of this spring’s “Love O’Clock.” YooA’s doll like features and fluency in dance might be the product of a naturally wiry physique, but they could also be distracting us from the dangers of dieting. Similarly, we can ask if a minuscule waist is nature’s gift to Binnie or Binnie’s sacrifice to a socially conservative Korea.
Even if these worries are groundless and WM have put a Seoul pizza delivery service on the cellphones’ speed dial, some will see the apolitical femininity of Oh My Girl, whether expressed in dreamy harmonies or quirky hooks, as at odds with progressive values. This criticism touches on something important – nobody should go to Stereo Live in search of protest – but it also obscures the attraction of Oh My Girl. This group explores love, the central preoccupation of pop, by masterly performances in song and dance of materials where the musical quirks and turns reflect the complexity of our own emotional lives.
In “Windy Day” the spring into a Middle Eastern modality helps us not just understand but feel the gusts of passion, while the unusual song structure of this September’s “Remember Me” lets us experience the surprise of romantic memories. That most of us don’t understand Korean actually helps the music undercut our rational defenses, with occasional English phrases becoming voices heard in a pop dreamscape. This place is where we can explore what Oh My Girl’s January release called “Secret Garden" – a place of hopes, reflections, and passions beyond the reach of culture warriors of left and right. Oh My Girl offers neither social betterment nor virtuous role modelling, because their music, like love itself, won’t adapt to that American urge to police, politicize, and moralize.
“Yeah yeah – but are they going to make money here?” That voice speaks in the universal language of the pop language of pop culture, the ROI Esperanto of the music business. It’s a question about girl groups that both Koreans and Americans have been asking with ever greater frequency since the U.S. success of BTS. The precedents provide little grounds for optimism.
The Wonder Girls, whose homage to Motown verged on pastiche, entered the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009 but then sank from view. Spica’s powerful vocals in 2014’s “I Did It” didn’t do it in the American charts, and even the superstars of Girls’ Generation fizzled out in their 2011 attempt to break into the U.S. market. BlackPink, the most Western friendly of big name K-pop girl groups at the moment, will probably try in the coming year but could well be as doomed as their female predecessors.
Gender provides part of the explanation. The young women who make up the overwhelming majority of boyband fans will commit in the long term to their idols, with physical purchases, endless streaming, round the clock social media activity, and a readiness to splash out on merch and concert tickets. Girl group fans – or at least most of the straight male contingent – just seem less inclined to hand over money, and notoriously, will stick around just up to the moment that another group of pretty faces appear.
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WM’s ambitions for Oh My Girl on this tour of the Americas seem sensibly modest. The group is playing smallish venues, and the commercial strategy is probably to make whatever is possible from Oh My Girl’s moderately sized but devoted followings in the United States and Brazil while planning larger scale activities in that key money maker for K-pop, Japan.
Never mind WM’s money — should Houston Press readers pay out to go through the portal at Stereo Live and explore the world of Oh My Girl? Watching the music videos linked in this article might help you decide, as could fans’ assurance of the warmth and charm of Oh My Girl live. This charm will be complemented by the more adult allure that the young women have been exercising in music videos and television shows this year. The acid test, though, has to be performance itself. Luckily, YouTube can give us a foretaste with a WM curated clip of a live performance of “Twilight.”
Even better though, is to plunge into the ways of K-pop fandom and watch a fancam — a video made by a fan – of the same performance. Through the handheld camera and crowd noise comes the visceral excitement of Oh My Girl performing a banger, three and a half minutes of pop magic that hooks you while communicating all the mysterious thrill of falling in love. In the words of “Twilight” itself, “Oh My Gosh!”
Oh My Girl will be performing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday January 22 at Stereo Live Houston, 6400 Richmond Avenue. For information, call 832-251-9600 or visit event brite. $70 plus fees.