Sad but Sexy: The Problem With Girl Group Concepts
Any pop culture is, by nature, heavily influenced by trends but few are more so than K-pop. K-pop trends are obvious, fast-moving and often oddly specific. One such trend which has become particularly prevalent recently is the ‘sad but sexy’ concept being adopted by many girl groups.
Arguably, it began to take off with SISTAR’s ‘Alone’ last year, then continued with SECRET’s Talk That and SISTAR19’s ‘Gone, Not Around Any Longer’ and reached its crux last week with the release of SISTAR’s ‘Give It To Me’ and After School’s ‘First Love’. And these are just the songs with sad sounding music. If we were to look at releases with sad lyrics but upbeat melodies, another half a dozen could easily be added in including Girl’s Day’s Expect Me and After School’s Flashback.
But what exactly is it about this that has suddenly made it so popular and is it a problem?
Anyone who knows anything about K-pop should recognise the odd dichotomy all girl group concepts are placed in with cute on one side and sexy on the other. This is a gross simplification of all the possible directions a girl group could go in but the reality is that this is how the media, the entertainment companies and a lot of K-pop fans view and promote girl groups. The concept is cute or it is sexy. That’s it. No room for discussion. Occasionally, there is a third kind of ‘rebellious’ concept but even then it tends to be framed within one of these two wider themes.
The major problem with this is the general perception of these two supposedly opposing ideas. Cuteness is socially acceptable, sexiness less so. Even though they are just as constructed, usually for the male gaze, as other sexy concepts (and arguably have just as much potential to ‘damage young minds’ if this is your concern, MOGEF), cute concepts are usually portrayed as more proper or appropriate by the media. Idols are rarely judged for showing too much aegyo the way they are for showing too much skin.
But cute, aegyo concepts have a very narrow definition and to fulfil this criteria, a group is not left with many options, artistically speaking. At the centre of the concept of aegyo is the act of being cute, requiring performers to emphasise their innocence and naivety. Creatively, this poses a challenge for those who want to explore a range of different themes in their songs. They have to fall within one of these two categories but one, by definition, excludes the possibility of any kind of meaningful exploration of the human experience because at its centre is the celebration of a lack of experience.
Therefore in order to explore any kind of serious emotion and fall within the expectations of the industry, girl groups have to adopt a sexy concept and face the general media and public reaction that entails.
Sad but sexy concepts could also be a way overcome the constant presence of censors, ready to ban or limit anything they view to be inappropriate. Recent releases (such as Hyuna’s Ice Cream) show that performances can be extremely sexualised visually and receive just a 12+ or 15+ rating but songs which express actual sexual desire will get banned. A recent example of this is Nine Muses’ ‘Wild’ which contains themes of desire in the lyrics as well as alluding to BDSM throughout the video. Whether this expresses the members’ actual desires is questionable and, particularly having seen the full length version of the ‘9 Muses of Star Empire’ documentary, it seems unlikely. Nonetheless the song addresses female sexual desire and received a 19+ rating (effectively a broadcast ban on many channels).
‘I’m intoxicated with your alluring scent tonight
I’m excited at thoughts of you, tonight
I look pretty good today, I’m excited for something special to happen’ – ‘Wild’, Nine Muses
However songs that employ similarly sexualised performances but melancholic lyrical themes receive much lower ratings. Interestingly, many of these songs have lyrics, framed as longing for a former love interest, which sound unmistakably like sexual desire when viewed in isolation.
‘I want your love/ that’s all I need / Oh baby give it to me’ – ‘Give It To Me’, SISTAR
‘But your smile, your lips, your voice / make me tremble’ – ‘Expect Me’, Girl’s Day
‘Come back here / Only one night oh’ – ‘Flashback’, After School
Even when they aren’t as expressive about their longing, there is a kind of obsession presented in these lyrics which can be used as a vehicle to add more intensity to the performance. An obsession with a lost love takes the place of overt sexual desire, replacing one kind of longing with another in order to appease the censors.
Does this have any implications? There is a danger when only ‘sexy’ girl groups promote sad singles that this creates the impression that only sexy girls are sad. That may be an oversimplification, but given the way girl groups like SISTAR and After School are often treated online and in the media for the way they perform and degraded for their outfits, performances which reinforce the idea that women who have experience of life, love and even, gasp, sex(!) are significantly less happy than their cutesy counterparts send out a very negative message indeed. Furthermore, if it is more acceptable for female performers to perform their sexuality on stage if they seem really sad about it, this also reinforces the idea that it is bad for women to take ownership of their sexuality.
At the very heart of the problem is how defined the lines are drawn when it comes to girl group concepts. Placing all groups into one of two categories implies that young women can only be one of two things, especially negative when one category is seen as more socially acceptable. Aside from anything else, it’s also really boring. It’s understandable that entertainment companies want to use themes that are recognisable for the audience – it’s an integral part of all mainstream media and the end goal of K-pop is to make catchy music and sell lots of albums and merchandise, not to change the world. However it is possible to do this and still create releases that are unique and a diverse representation of the human experience.
Sunny Hill came out with a new single this week which is a perfect representation of this. With lyrics from the ever-fantastic Kim Eana, the song and video encapsulate exactly what I mean. The video employs all the tropes of a stereotypical cute music video while addressing the idea that maybe being single isn’t actually the worst thing in the world. It’s not particularly subversive or groundbreaking, it’s just a bit different and that’s nice.
If the K-pop industry could begin to employ a little more of this kind of subtle diversity, it could potentially make music which is more interesting, more inclusive and a better representation of the complexity of life and of the performers. Ultimately, it could also give the industry more potential for long-term success, something every company wants.
This is part of a series of posts looking at gender in K-pop and Korean culture.