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KOTW: Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra”

This kick is coming to you a li’l late in the week, I’ll admit, but you know how these U.S. national holidays can send your temporality, diets, and drinking/smoking moratoriums into a tailspin what with the all-too-early dwindling news of oil spills and an endless array of fourth of July debt relief ads streaming through  KDAY  [FML].

But, to turn our attention to other news, the World Cup nears the end of its one-month colonization of my and many of your sleep schedules, writing and work regimens, and social connections with those friends and family members who could give two fucks about all the shirt-swapping, hair-flipping, body-flopping, homo-hugging, and tear-wiping histrionics of what the rest of the world calls football.   With South Korea being one among a number of my favorite teams knocked out of the running– the tournament will now most definitely conclude in an all European final– I decided to dedicate this week’s KoTW to a Korean girl group who has occupied a special place in my heart for the last half year.

The connection between S. Korean World Cup soccer and a S. Korean pop girl group might seem thin (save for those who would myopically find their shared national origins an exceptional detail).   But, the morning that Korea played their final game in the tournament, my heart was moved by a group of young-ish girls who got on stage before the 7:30AM PST kick-off to perform the dance routine from Brown Eyed Girls’ (BEG) scintillating music video for their 2009 single “Abracadabra.”

Just to put this into context: For every World Cup game in which South Korea played, literally thousands of Korean Americans would congregate on the front lawn of the Radio Korea building on the corner of Wilshire and Western to watch the Red Devils battle other teams on a giant screen.   For HOURS leading up to the start of each match, often in the last moments of pitch black before the sun rose, b-boys, drummers, cheerleaders, hip-hop dance groups, etc. would get on stage and pump up the throngs with synchronized backflips, pop-and-lock isolations, fist pumps, and fascistic flag-waving that would threaten most anyone’s critical sensibilities.

So this group of girls’ dance performance was not immediately extraordinary.   But once they began to uniformly gyrate their lower halves in the  “saucy” hip dance  formation made famous by BEG in front of many yet-to-be (or already secretly) corrupted children, church-going elderly agashi’s and ajumonis, and secular soju-drinking bad kids (like yours truly), something shifted.   The nationalistic fervor that always draws me in and terrifies me suddenly felt deliciously homo.   As if I didn’t already know, Brown Eyed Girls are soooo naughty:

If you turn on the Closed Captioning, you’ll get a very rough translation of the lyrics.
Initially, the video caused an uproar in Korea because of its hyper-sexual content and because of its ALMOST. LESBIAN. KISS at the end.   To be expected.   However, the contagion of the swervy hip swing became an even greater sensation as fans and other kpop stars began to imitate it on the dance floor, in live performances, and even at home (video courtesy of PLee):

The director of the video has explained in interviews that the pendular dance move is supposed to animate the thematic tension between reason and passion at play — maybe even a kind of mania that’s supposed to be overtaking their bodies — within the music videos’ barely intelligible narrative (that’s not a dis at all– music videos are supposed to be more evocative than story-driven).   But, I think you and I both know that it also suggests a sexual motion: you need only refer to  Sommore’s bit from Queens of Comedy  about how the swirling motion made while hoola-hooping unwittingly trained young girls on how to top their men right (and one could certainly imagine any other gender configuration making sense here).   If anything, the hip sway symbolizes BEG’s move away from good girls to bad: the group began their careers with a more modest persona, but then re-introduced themselves in this video with asymmetrical haircuts, studded leather jackets, aggressive lyrics, and swinging dance moves (if you’re wondering about their vague aesthetic resemblance to Lady Gaga, I think they certainly imagine themselves aligned with her stylistically; see them perform  “Telephone”).

This kind of good-girl-gone-bad re-branding tactic is a familiar marketing strategy in many star systems, and BEG certainly falls within the production assembly line of a male-exec dominated music industry that has churned out a number of other highly lucrative all-girl sexy-cute super-groups (The Wonder Girls, above left, and Girls Generation, below left, being among the most famous examples).   Nor is the girl group a new sensation to the Korean music industry; even my momma remembers  The Kim Sisters  act from the 1960s (big thanks to CBB for first pointing me to these amazing ladies).

But, the music video of “Abracadabra” also carries the mark of its female director  Hwang Soo-ah.   Hwang, who studied film at NYU and began her career by making music videos and commercials, made her cinematic debut in 2008 with 우리집에 왜왔니, or Why Did You Come to My House, which belongs to a body of Korean “female character” films that center on a righteous and often violent female lead, an archetype that stands stridently apart in an often highly masculinist national cinema.   I can’t help but read these narrative tropes into BEG’s whip-wielding, studded leather-donning, BDSM-ish vibes, as they move to an industrial beat featuring grungy organs a-la-Front 242 or Stabbing Westward.

It’s Hwang’s role in the production that makes me naïvely and narcissistically believe that this video was made to include me, to speak to my dirty thoughts and anyone else who shares them, and not just to the dudes existing in the most profitable demographic pockets.   In this video, not only do these girls presumably band together to sexually re-program the male protagonist, but then in the final shot, two girls from the group move toward one another for a kiss before an abrupt cut away (it was already a big deal that their kiss was even insinuated).   Manufactured, yes, but these girls also strike this whole other register of desire for me– I don’t want them because they’re “cute” and/or “pretty,” but because they’ll fuck you up and then make-out afterward.   They overpower my “should-know-better-than-to-admit-this-shit-in-a-public-forum” U.S.-bred feminism, because they give us cosmo Korean femininity sullied, damaged, and much more perverse than what is otherwise nationally or transnationally imagined about Korean, and even Korean American, women.

Undoubtedly, the success of this single/video will produce a million other girl groups that will play with these kinds of images, seductive poses, and maybe even girl-on-girl eros.   Moreover, their label will always find ways to “tidy” their image through publicity photos and other media appearances, especially when associated with nationalistic representations.   See this montage of BEG and other famous Korean celebs pumping up the crowds with the sounds of a familiar Red Devils cheer.   Yes, you’ll hear the melody of The Village People’s “Go West,” though I’m convinced the choice in song for the chant has more to do with the power wielded by the Pet Shop Boys in Korea in the 1980s and 1990s.

Clean alter ego aside: when that young group of girls performed BEG’s “saucy hip move” on stage at the nationalist spectacle on Wilshire and Western (though no one was really watching), the pleasurable discomfort it caused within me–and I’m sure among a few other attentive onlookers–felt productively perverse.   Not radical, just perverse.   It’s true that a hip swerve ain’t gonna change a whole lot, but it certainly can grind a few traditions down.   (PJA)