24 Hours I Think of You: JYP, Sunmi, 2PM and Desire in K-pop
When 2PM’s ‘ADTOY’ (All Day I Think Of You) came out in May, it made me think about the highly gendered nature of portrayals of desire in K-pop. Given that it was released just three days after Nine Muses’ controversial 19+ rated ‘Wild’ video to absolutely no controversy whatsoever and only a 15+ rating, the release highlighted the different standards that male and female idol groups are held to. It made me wonder if a song which expressed sexual desire in a direct yet commercial and slightly sanitised way, as ‘’ADTOY’’ did, would ever be released, how it would be handled and whether it would be received well.
Obviously songs about desire have been performed by female artists before, most notably by Brown Eyed Girls, Gain and Nine Muses, but always by artists that have defined an image which is intentionally different, provocative or adult compared to most idols. What I was really interested in was seeing if there would be a release that spoke about desire because it made mainstream commercial sense rather than as an attempt to shock or cut out a niche in the market (even if some of these have been very successful).
Then Sunmi’s ’’24 Hours’’ came along. Lyrically, this song is almost a carbon copy of ‘ADTOY’ (albeit reworked to fit within the very strict gender framework inherent in mainstream K-pop). They both talk about a constant fixation (’24 hours are not enough / When I’m with you / when I lock eyes with you’, ‘All day I think of you alone’), insanity (‘I’m getting addicted to it / Going crazy, going crazy’, ‘I am going crazy / I want you’) and physical desire (‘When I’m touching you and when you’re touching me’, ‘When you touch me / I feel your scent through my closed eyes’). Most importantly, both seem to be talking about all of this in terms of a long-term relationship but not explicitly about love (‘I want to stay like this forever’, ‘Should we run away together? / Even if I had to abandon my career / I would still be happy’). On top of this both artists are from JYP Entertainment and both songs are written by J.Y.Park and produced by Hong Jisang.
The visual similarities are also striking. Both feature intimate encounters between the idols and people of the opposite sex in domestic situations (including beds) and in both videos they have slightly unkempt hair (as if, I don’t know, someone has been running their hands through it?). Sunmi is also dressed for much of the time in a man’s white shirt, the same outfit as one of the female performers in ‘ADTOY’.
Comparisons have also been drawn between ’24 Hours’ and Gain’s previous solo work. Melissa Johnson describes the similarities between the two but also highlights the major difference.
‘Besides aping the more visual elements of Gain’s releases like the similar album covers and barefoot tango-inspired performances the strongest point of “’24 Hours'” is its reference to the other parts of the whole. The lyrics inform the dance which inform the style of the song which inform the music video, and so on providing the necessary context. It stops just short of going all the way, with promotional images that do not actually fit with the single, meaning Sunmi’s release never actually reaches the same level of Gain’s.’
In many ways Sunmi’s single is a watered down version of Gain’s releases, paying lip service to the themes while shying away from the most artistic and controversial aspects. But is this a bad thing?
It might be bad for Gain and LOEN or for the segment of the audience who want to see more of the bold, risk-taking releases that Bloom epitomises but is it bad for K-pop in general? This mainstreaming of female desire and lack of originality of the releases which deal with it, while not necessarily being a good thing for the quality of K-pop musically (not that that’s ever been the industry’s primary concern), is a good sign that K-pop might be moving in a direction in which female idols, at least appear to, have more agency in their highly sexualised depictions.
’24 Hours’ is not the only release to have encroached on this topic this year either. Girl’s Day’s ‘Female President’ and Dal Shabet’s ‘Be Ambitious’ also made some kind of attempt (although both heavily misguided ones). It seems that after Gain’s precedent last year, other idols have been trying to emulate ‘Bloom’ in part while removing the most controversial elements.
However some of the reaction towards Sunmi have been predictably negative (although she has been performing well in the charts) whereas, to go back to the ‘ADTOY’ comparison, 2PM received almost no criticism for the sexual nature of their single. In fact in one particularly amusing caption on an episode of Hello Counsellor the words ‘This is art…!’ were superimposed over female host Lee Yeongja’s enthusiastic reaction to 2PM’s dancing.
But the industry seems to be steaming ahead regardless of all this. Given that Sunmi is the first of a string of a new acts JYP intends to debut over the next year, including, crucially, a girl group, is this a sign of things to come for the company? As a company who having been actively exploring male sexual desire for years through the releases of 2PM and Park Jin Young, is it now finally time the females get a real chance?
If it is, does it matter if it appears that these idols may be unhappy in this new image given the stigma that surrounds it? Interviews with Sunmi indicate that she may have been uncomfortable with the subject of the song saying ‘I still don’t really know what love is… I still don’t think I’m an adult’.
As time goes by will attitudes change further and become more accepting of female idol images that depict active sexual agency rather than just the ubiquitous ‘sexiness’? Only time will tell.
JYP are at a crucial make or break moment in their history as they try to overcome their lack of success over the past couple of years with a slew of new acts. Perhaps this more complex equal opportunities (in terms of gender) image of sexuality could be the key to new found success.