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Chloé Bruère-Dawson
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August 30, 2023
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The Paradox Of Queerness In K-Pop

With flawless performances, bold makeup, and boundaries-pushing fashion, you’ve most certainly seen a K-pop music video before and been left in awe by their catchy melodies and intricate aesthetics. At least I certainly was!

Short for Korean pop music, K-pop is an umbrella term covering a wide range of artists and subgenres. Taking from a variety of inspirations, each new K-pop band or artist has its own musical and aesthetic universe, making the genre ever-evolving. Despite its diversity and uniqueness, K-pop music is marked by its importance of aesthetics and its highly choreographed music videos (MVs) and performances. If K-pop started decades ago, it took the form we currently know in the late 90s and spread across the world in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It’s now an international phenomenon, within which everyone can find their perfect match. If South Korea is still conservative towards LGBTIQ+ rights and K-pop is not queer in itself, its fan base definitely is, and queerness finds itself in multiple aspects of the industry.

K-pop stands out by a mostly young fan base, highly active on social media. The stan culture surrounding K-pop led many fans to extend their favorite band or artist’s universe through fanfiction. Those fanfictions are mostly about imagined romantic relationships between bandmates or stars, called “shipping”. These practices help to establish bands and artists, creating content and sparking interest in them. Since many K-pop fans are queer, they thus build their own LGBTIQ+ representations through those writings, by staging gay and lesbian relationships between their favorite artists, for instance. Labels in charge of those artists have noticed it, and play with that. To appeal to this public and feed these practices, there have been a couple of MVs with heavy queer subtext, like Red Velvet’s MV for “Monster”. In the MV, bandmates Irene and Seulgi, popular idols amongst lesbians and sapphics, are picturing almost kissing. If sapphic subtext in music videos of such huge bands can be received as a step towards more queer representation in K-pop, it sparks conversations on queerbaiting, especially when put side to side with the treatment of openly LGBTIQ+ artists in the industry.

Indeed, K-pop idols are often forced to keep this part of themselves private and are put aside if they decide otherwise. Maman, known as Magoply, bore the cost of it when she came out on television after her debut in 2007 and was kicked out of her label as a result. More recently, when artist Kim Tae Seub debuted under the stage name HOLLAND and tried to tackle LGBTIQ+ topics, he was rejected by labels and had to crowdfund the money to produce music on his own. The MV for his song “Neverland”, released five years ago, has been rated as 19+ in South Korea for its depiction of a gay kiss. The K-pop industry thus has a long way to go when it comes to its treatment and representations of queerness.

While the portrayal of queerness in K-pop is mostly depoliticized, devoided of actual queer love, and is not accompanied by a fair treatment for queer artists in the industry, we can still argue that it encourages the normalization of queer imagery and gives many young people easily accessible representation, even if imperfect. Queerbaiting paves the way for the appearance of MVs portraying positive and genuine queer relationships, like in the “Shutdown”’s MV of the artist Moonbyul. Furthermore, K-pop aesthetics, especially regarding fluidity in gender expression, has created an important ground for queer freedom.

By pushing fashion boundaries, K-pop has instilled loosely gendered aesthetics and created a positive environment towards cross-dressing practices. A step further than that, recent MVs have been including drag queens, like Brown Eyed’s Girls’s Wonder Woman. Researchers Chuyun Oh and David Oh, in their study on the topic, argue that “K-pop cross-dressing reveals how performance onstage can expose oneself to the liminal status of ambiguity as a way of playing, unmasking, and being queers to liberate oneself.”, which created a ground for  “asianizing queer aesthetics”.

All in all, if South Korean society is still very conservative on LGBTIQ+ issues and queer rights haven’t improved in the last years, K-pop is nevertheless an outlet for queer expression that isn’t westernized while being super accessible even to young audiences, paving the way for more acceptance and better representations to come.

Images from Red Velvet's MV "Monster"

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