Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why 2NE1 Matters

Even though I've been able to mildly appreciate the various idol pop songs that are produced by the mainstream Korean pop industry, it's only been in the last couple months that I've been particularly drawn to any particular idol group and its music. This group is YG Family's 2NE1, a girl idol pop quartet, which debuted in 2009.

Interestingly enough, I first encountered 2NE1 via an introductory post regarding the discussion about cultural appropriation on Racialicious and before anything else, I was struck with the group's eye-popping wardrobe and surprisingly found myself appreciating the production and songwriting of "Fire", but soon after, my awareness of the group faded until Anna/helikoppter at IndiefulROK pointed towards a cover of 2NE1's "I Don't Care" by folk songstress obsession of mine, Osoyoung.

Again, in its stripped down arrangement by Osoyoung, I was struck by the smart songwriting and even lyric writing of the song and ended up searching out the original and promptly got addicted, searching out the videos that were made for their original debut and onto their first album. And while I have to credit former 1YTM member Teddy Park's excellent production and songwriting talents for drawing me into the group, as he is 2NE1's principal producer/songwriter, I have to say that I was also impressed by the image projected by this group, which might have started off a touch cute, but the quartet quickly developed a very defined image of feminine strength and independence.

Part of the reason why I think 2NE1 captures my attention in a sea of idol groups is precisely because of this projected attitude. There is no end to the number of girl groups who capture both the images of being innocent and cute and super sexy, but one of the off-putting elements to these images (along with song lyrics and performance) is that it often seems to be designed within the culture of male patriarchy. Specifically, the images projected seem to be designed to appeal to men, or to appeal to women to appeal to men. The virgin/whore paradigm is arguably locked into the image of many of these girl groups and even when many of the girl groups inevitably go for their "tough/sexy" image, even the dance choreography is often designed to be overtly submissively sexual (in particular, appealing to men).

Now, perhaps it's because the quartet is rooted in a hip-hop ethos, common to most of YG's performers, but the women of 2NE1 project a strong air of self-expression (even if manufactured). You can see this in their rather crazy hybrid of high and street fashion in their wardrobe, which can certainly be sexy, but even in its sexiness, with its high hemlines and bare midriffs, also manages to capture a kind of owned toughness, often accented with armor, spikes, chains, studs, and/or wild patterns and urban graphics. Likewise, the dance choreography of the group is heavily grounded in street styles, lending the group assertiveness, but does not ignore their own conception of strong femininity, which, like other girl groups, can project an air of sexuality, but you'll notice that their dance moves, even when sexually hinting, are often aggressive and self-possessed (like the locomotion thrust move in "I Am the Best"), being more outward displays than come-hither invitations.

And yet, for all the strength on display, 2NE1 also doesn't ignore the fact that even strong women can desire companionship. However, the group's "love" songs are usually songs of regret ("It Hurts"), loneliness ("Lonely"), or moving on ("I Don't Care", "Go Away"). In some sense, this might speak a lot to strong women out there, who often find their strength in conflict with the competitive men that they might come to have affection for. And when you combine this multi-faceted approach to strong femininity with smart, ear-catching productions, songs and lyrics, often courtesy of the surprisingly thoughtful Teddy Park, you have what's possibly the most inspiring girl group out there for young women (and men) to enjoy. In some ways, this quartet is a kind of spiritual inheritor to the Spice Girls in terms of projecting an image of being a strong, willful, female pop group that is self-possessed, all captured on some ear-and-eye-grabbing songs, videos and performances.

And for both catching the attention of my ears while still providing a small measure of strong femininity in a sea of Korean girl groups catering either directly or indirectly to men, I've developed quite a fondness for these girls and their producer. I see them as providing hope and strength to all the young women who absorb their music, salving and shoring them up against the avalanche of patriarchy that they inevitably face throughout their lives. And sure, they might be a Korean group with limited international exposure outside of Asia, but if there's any Korean idol group that I'd want to be an international success, my pick would easily be 2NE1.

I don't know if that means that you could call me a Blackjack (the 2NE1 fan club), but I'm pretty certain that you could call me a fan. Thanks, 2NE1, for holding it down for young women out there, everywhere.