The Token Non-Conformist: The Packaging of Korean Boy and Girl Bands
The Korean Wave has spawned new criteria for the “look” of pop idols. The large industries that are creating and promoting pop acts pay careful attention to the positioning of their stars, both on the competitive music scene that spans across Asia vis-à-vis competing acts, and within domestic group formations. The common changes their careful positioning has brought about are perhaps most visible among male stars: despite often having chiseled physiques, many of them have begun to use foundation and lip gloss, pluck their eyebrows, wear longish, wavy hairstyles, adorn their white clothing with brightly colored accessories, and generally present themselves both verbally and non-verbally in a soft and gracious, arguably vain fashion that, until recently, would not have been commonly seen nor socially accepted, at least in Korea. Commonly used on Korean discussion boards are the recently coined terms kkonminam, chimsŭng, and ŏltchang, which relate to the styling, the physical fitness, and the facial perfection of the male stars. Whereas the latter term may be the only one applied also to female stars, overall, women are scrutinized no less than their male counterparts. To maximize the commercial potential of pop acts, Korean industries have created a large number of boy and girl bands that offer soft candy for the eyes and ears, and cater to different individual tastes, much like similar acts in the West. Although critics sometimes deplore the increasing similarity of the stars’ looks and sound, the industry is well aware of the need to diversify and even include elements that associate resistance to the norm in an effort to give the bands some “street cred.” Even so, much like in the West, acts have long been tailored to fans of specific forms of music and associated fashion styles and they very rarely risk ostracizing their loyalty through a form of music, styling or performance that goes against the norm. This paper analyzes how boy and girl bands have been packaged in order to meet the various fans’ “individual” tastes. It deliberates on how bands manage to compete in the arguably very conformist environment paying particular attention to the styling and on-stage presentation of the bands. In doing so, it also explores in what ways Korean boy and girl bands compare to those in the West.