Off their slick red plastic tops and short, slitted skirts gleamed the bright lights of the dim performance hall. Stiffly poised while sitting on their heels, clad in matching red platforms, their heads bowed to one side, the six slender young ladies displayed a cool confidence as they mentally rehearsed their routine yet again. As they waited for the music to start, one of the ladies shifted uncomfortably, her sheer black thigh-high stockings offering no protection against the hard wood stage. Her dark brown hair, lightened by repeated colorings, hung perfectly across one half of her face as if her director had positioned it just so. As their backdrop, a jutting overhang of massive digital screens flashed red and black letters, shouting the group’s title and the song’s name, both deep in the bowels of the production machine. As they slowed their breathing, still rapid from the previous take of the same three-minute entertainment show, their short skirts shimmered under stacked hands, pressed gently on top of their sex.
At the characteristic siren cue, the ladies lifted their gaze toward the empty seats at the back of the hall. Adorning their characters, they painted seductive half smiles across their heavily made-up faces. With the first beat of the song, they thrust their hips in unison, exaggerating the movement with levitating hands. Thrusting once; thrusting twice, and on the third, their right hands came to up next to their faces with one slender finger extended. As the background track murmured, “Jo-ker, Jo-ker” with punctuated consonants, the fingers drew a J while pointing instructively to open lascivious red-painted lips.
The sweet seductive trance in which I had found myself lost broke disappointingly with the monotone – nay, toneless – shout of a young fan boy in front of me: “JOKER! JOKER!” His enthusiasm echoed from the rest of the male-dominated crowd as they read from the scripts that had been provided before the recording session. The group was called Dal Shabet (a Konglish translation for “sweet sherbert”), and the new song, as you may have guessed, was named “Joker.” We in the pen – the entertainment company staff had literally penned the one hundred of us in the middle of all the cameras on the floor in front of the stage – were there to act as extras for the promotion video that was being made on the fly. Indeed, after the second performance, when the managers were satisfied with the camera angles, the instantly-produced video played on screens on the sides of the hall. This was not a music show. This was the inner workings of an entertainment production. Instead of art on display on a stage, there were only the requisite variables being plugged into a prewritten function, designed to sell records and expand the consumer base of this particular entertainment company.
I am not an expert on this subject. In fact, I can’t say I really understand the K-pop phenomenon at all, but from my limited experience, there is one thing that is painfully clear: this industry operates on a tried and true design. Reminiscent of the “bubble-gum” pop of the early 2000s in the U.S., these girl groups exploit the uncontrollable desire of young people across the world when they see the subtle and not-so-subtle sexual imagery overlaid on the sweet innocence of the baby-doll faces plastered on music and merchandise disseminated to any market that will accept it.
I enjoyed the time I spent with these self-titled “fanboys,” but I now understand at least enough to know why I will never buy into the pop scene. Among the few guys I was able to interview, the consensus was clear: cute girls in short skirts jumping around on stage while singing catchy songs created such an emotion that drew them thousands of miles from home in order to meet these idols in person. With no hope of any deeper relationship, these young men are chasing that feeling they get when they get their thirty seconds and photographic evidence with the particular group of girls they are “going for” that day. With rivalries between the groups more like high school cliques than even the pointless bravado of sports team loyalties, there is a certain shallowness that pervades the community that appears to be all too delicate a facade. Not even a pretense of intellectual depth exists in the music or the events. These companies are selling that teenage hormonal emotion that makes your heart flutter. It’s that chemical chain reaction that floods the brain with pleasure that is on the menu. I won’t try to pretend that I’ve grown out of that phase of my life, but that feeling doesn’t have such control over me. Maybe I’m just sick of romance, but I don’t feel that rush.