What’s Hot in Korea

Brown Eyed Girls

If you don’t believe me, watch this.

Brown Eyed Girls is a name of a pop band — a girls group numbering four, with plenty of back-up, as the video above attests.

And without knowing anything about K-Pop and even less about bubblegum tunes, I can still unequivocally say, with confidence, that . . . Brown Eyed Girls are definitely . . . hot.

I first saw them running on a treadmill this weekend in my hotel — that is, I was running and they were on TV — and I literally had to thrust both feet to the sideboards after two measures to avoid falling off.

Their song “Sign” is so well crafted, conceived, blended, presented — it is what all bubblegum should be. Tight, fluid, lyrical, catchy, infernally-embarrassingly foot-tappingly, finger-snappingly, head-bobbingly, “Wow. Okay. Alright!”

Which accounts for why my feet started losing traction on the treadmill.

Sign had my attention like M-Jack did with Billie Jean, like Britney did with (Hit Me Baby) One More Time, and even (gosh, is it safe to admit?) The Backstreet Boys did, “borrowing” Britney’s basic pattern with “The Call“.

You can disagree with the list (go ahead, down below, make your own), but the fact is that what these four young Korean women have got is something more than mere bubblegum on their hands . . . and they also have something beyond a groovy sound and a provocative look. They appear to have also tapped into a vein — and a pretty strong, surging one at that — rushing close to the societal surface. But that is not apparent by simply watching the video from remote, over YouTube. That requires a bit more leg work and deeper socio-cultural excavation.

Until this trip — my fourth cross the straight from Japan over the past few years — my impression of South Korea has been of a culture committed to innocence, sweetness, fluff, and non-controversial wholesome good cheer. And looking at the advertising and the talk shows and youth entertainment, there still appears to be a lot of that. I’ll share photos later of how women of all ages and descriptions walk arm and arm in the street unselfconsciously. In that way it is a sweet space, a happy, naive zone — at least on the surface. In TV ads, the big climax before fading to the product is often when men and women are about to kiss — and end up having the camera freeze before lips actually touch, or else a book is strategically placed in front of the actors to avoid a public display. This is precisely what Japanese ads presented viewers a decade ago and have since broken beyond.

And just like Japanese idols, Brown Eyed Girls apparently began as cuddly “girls next door” — and may still retain some semblance of that aura, as the behind the scenes, promo video for “Sign” demonstrates.

At the same time, catch a gander at the video shot for their recent release, Abracadabra.

Edgy. Very, very edgy.

In it one encounters intimations of rough sex, bondage, discipline, a dominatrix, cyborg lovers, lesbianism, bestiality, and riffs on the techno-future. Goodbye, girl next door.

As the group’s wikipedia page indicates, this is a transition time for the gang: from cute “Tiger Beat” pin-ups to sophisticated women of the world. Catch a load of the frozen near-kiss at the end of the promo video. Not quite like the near misses in ads for canned coffee, chocolate drops, and breath mints.

Well, we all grow up sometime, right? It’s written right here in the lines on my face.

The last thing I want to leave you with is on a different track. It begins with the original video shot to push Sign in comparison with the one you’ve already viewed, at the outset. In making that assessment I ended up transported to a different realm of discourse. For, what I found fascinating — at least from a communication standpoint — is that, despite an identical song — same tune, same lyrics, same voices — the action depicted between the twain is at such great odds. In making the comparison, yourself, the first thing you might note is that in the original video, the Brown Eyed Girls are conspicuously absent. So, instead of fan dances, what we get in the original is lots of boy-stuff: good versus evil, apprentices battling teachers, an indomitable one opposed by an oppressor’s army, the refusal to quit when there is a damsel in distress to be saved.

Viewed globally, when comparing the two videos though, what really stands out is that, despite identical aural content, the mood set — and, more importantly, the ideas conveyed, the meanings created — is entirely different.

Now, I don’t know about your reaction, but watching the last (which is to say the original) promo for Sign, my sense is that, had I only watched the initial effort — what with its violence and Hollywood action hero mock-up — and had I never been treated to the live performance video by the four singers on stage — I seriously doubt I would be claiming that Brown Eyed Girls are what is hot about Korea today.

On the other hand, that might not have anything to do with communication theory, it might have little connection to communication effects. It could simply be a mundane example of gender bias, I suppose.

Proof, perhaps, of what a difference a strategically-placed fan can make.