BTS, War of Hormone and the new aggressive hip hop idol masculinity
Last week the K-pop fandom blew up with excitement in a way it hadn’t for a while with the surprise release of BTS’s music video, War of Hormone.
As someone with a vague interest but no particular passion for BTS, the first thing that drew me into watching the video was its name. It’s rare to see something as biological as hormones being referenced in any kind of pop music. This is especially true for K-pop given the way we tend to link hormones to sexuality and the panicked reaction that any K-pop song or video that explicitly addresses sexuality is met with.
Initially I was pretty impressed. The video has a very strong visual identity and the camerawork and editing works really nicely. But as it went on, it started to raise some red flags for me. Talking about women as ‘presents’ and ‘equations that men do’ is quite literally objectifying – it reduces women to objects that exist purely for men in one way or another.
If, however, objectification was the standard by which to judge K-pop (or any pop) music videos, it would be highly unfair to single out BTS for blame. It’s par for the course for a huge number of K-pop videos and, rightly or, mostly, wrongly, it is something the viewer pretty much has to accept in order to enjoy these videos.
But something intrigued and unsettled me about this particular video and made me want to dive back into their back-catalogue. The cocky yet vulnerable lyrics, the way the group moves like a pack of hunting dogs, the humour used to disguise the fact that their bodies are being put on display – there was definitely something new here.
Considering how young an academic field of study Hallyu studies is, there has been a relatively large amount of writing published about Korean masculinity in Korean pop culture. Sun Jung has written a whole book about it and a number of other authors have also contributed their theories and ideas.
But none of them quite fit BTS. Or Block B and BAP. Or even EXO. Or perhaps even Infinite.
Sun Jung has previously written about nationality-less Pan-Asian masculinity embodied by the performances of DBSK circa 2008-09 but this feminised pretty boy image and performance with a heavy Japanese influence definitely does not fit the group. The beast-idol masculinity of 2PM she also describes which is used to sexually objectify the male body while still presenting a soft and approachable masculinity off stage is not quite right either.
Crystal Anderson’s ideas which build on Jung’s that K-pop idols have complex overlapping masculinities which adopt elements of African American in order to create hybrid masculinities and disrupt stereotypes of Asian men are definitely relevant but it still doesn’t quite fit.
There is an increasingly threatening edge to the lyrics and performances of some newer boy bands which is not explained by any of these theories. BTS is a perfect example.
In Danger they tell their girlfriend not to confuse them because she will put herself in danger. Yeah sure, she’s a cutie and she’s done nothing wrong. It’s his fault, he’s pathetic. But she’s testing him and he’s hurt and he’s dangerous and, dear lord, there is a lot of violent imagery in this video.
In Boy in Luv (which is a very different title to the Korean one which is a slang term translating to something along the lines of ‘man’s man’ or ‘tough guy’), the lyrics effectively threaten sexual violence telling the object of their affections to grab hold of BTS as her boyfriend before they pounce on her. In the video, they manhandle the female protagonist, shake her and drag her by the wrist but it’s all in the name of that all-important love confession so I guess that’s okay.
In comparison to these previous efforts, War of Hormone is not actually that bad. But when this video of a woman being catcalled as she walks around the streets of New York went viral a couple of days ago I couldn’t help but be reminded of this music video once again.
There by no means the only one but BTS seem to embody a new more aggressive, threatening and domineering masculinity in their performances which hasn’t really been seen in K-pop before. BTS are definitely not about to release a single telling their noona how pretty she is but they do want to be your oppa.
This new more traditionally masculine form of K-pop masculinity is definitely a reaction to something. There’s quite a lot of bravado there but there is also a lot of anxiety. In their performance, BTS need you to know that they are men and straight men at that. They put their bodies on display for their audience to consume with fairly provocative dance performances but they use humour and aggression to distract from it.
This all comes at a time when K-pop is becoming more and more established internationally and the cultural and sexual currency of Korean men is going up in the world. At the same time, there seems to be less and less space for male idols in the mainstream of Korean popular culture.
Meanwhile Korean hip hop is getting continuously more popular. Quite a few of the Korean people in their twenties that I’ve spoken to in the past few months have mentioned how popular rappers like Beenzino are with university students and if you look at the Gaon singles chart it’s full of acts like Epik High and Dynamic Duo’s Gaeko. The few male idols that do still chart highly tend to be established acts like BEAST.
Given this, it’s not surprising idol groups are trying to appeal to the general public’s desire for hip hop. The only problem is that hip hop does tend to require a type of authenticity that doesn’t easily sit with the idol production model. This might be why groups like Block B and BTS are partly made up of former underground rappers who often write for their groups. Their own artistic integrity helps to increase that of the whole group.
But the hip hop underground seems to have some real issues with idol hip hop and particularly with idol performances of hip hop masculinity. When the incident with B-Free and BTS blew up last year, a lot of the criticism aimed at BTS was not really about their music but a direct attack on their masculinity: they dressed like girls; they wore make up like girls; they looked gay. As idols, BTS did not perform hegemonic hip hop masculinity in a way that is acceptable to more ‘authentically masculine’ rappers like B-Free.
So perhaps this more aggressive masculinity is a reaction to not being taken seriously as artists because of the perception of what an acceptable rapper looks like. After all, BTS’s albums really do resemble hip hop albums in form with intros, outros, skits and cyphers and many of the members can rap and write pretty good rhymes. At the very least, the song Hip Hop Lover shows that whoever wrote it listens to a lot of hip hop.
Aside from this, the shrinking space for idols in the mainstream has led to a more international focus for K-pop marketing strategies and, from this perspective, this new aggressive masculinity might actually be a sign of growing confidence in the roles Korean men can play on an international stage. Idol groups no longer have to rely on a Japanese-influenced nationality-less feminised masculinity to be recognised outside of Korea. Instead they can be ‘manly’ men who perform a bravado-filled, dominant style of masculinity.
Interestingly, BTS are one of the very few idol groups that assert their Korean identity in their music on a regular basis. The group has multiple songs which contain raps written in different Korean dialects (particularly Gyeongsangdo dialects which tend to be associated with strong masculinity in Korea) and they discuss different stereotypes and expectations of people from different regions of Korea. Simply translating these lyrics does not convey the entirety of the meaning of the song as it requires quite a nuanced understanding of Korean language and historical regional differences. BTS’s masculinity is not just masculine, it is also Korean and it is difficult to separate the two.
Reading BTS’s new hip hop idol masculinity purely from a feminist perspective, they are quite problematic. The aggression and bravado in their songs in videos often escalates to the point of implied sexual and domestic violence which is really not a good example for a young female audience. However, taking a more international perspective, their aggressive performance style is quite subversive. No longer do male idol groups feel like they have to perform a feminised pretty boy masculinity, conforming to stereotypes of East Asian men, in order to be successful internationally. Now they can be hyper-masculine, proudly Korean hip hop idols and still hold their own.
The new hip hop idol masculinity of BTS, Block B and other groups like them represents a turning point for K-pop. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.