What subjects can stir up sentiments as strong as the issue of censorship in music? It is an issue you are either rabidly in favor of or doggedly oppose. The middle ground is lonely territory.
It is an issue that has raged in K-pop almost before K-pop came into being. Its latest victim: girl group Dal Shabet. After an absence of over a year from the K-pop scene, the girls were slapped with a broadcast ban from KBS, the largest broadcast media group in Korea for the comeback track “Joker.”
KBS objected to the lyrics: “Hey Mr. Joker, why are you shaking me?”, “I want it” and ‘I’m out of breath, baby good night.” Dal Shabet and its management agency, Happy Face Entertainment, stunned by the ruling, which would have stopped the group from performing the song on shows like “Music Bank,” decided to make KBS-specific changes.
“Hey Mr. Joker, why are you shaking me?” became “‘Hey Mr. Joker, you’re a nasty man.” “I want it” became “I love you,” and the part about being out of breath became, “Come near me baby tonight.”
You can still hear the original, unedited version here:
The track has also been performed unedited on music shows aired on Korea’s other big two broadcasting stations, MBC and SBS, as well as on a host of cable channels.
Now you can debate the appropriateness or otherwise of whether songs that feature lyrics like: “I want it” and ‘I’m out of breath, baby good night” should be banned until you are blue in the face; neither fans nor censors will ever come to a consensus on issues like this.
But KBS’ censors seem to have either missed or ignored the elephant in the room on this issue – namely that fact that the way the Dal Shabet girls sing the word “joker” sounds incredibly similar to a vulgar word in Korean referring to male private parts.
To announce that the song is now safe for broadcast now that three lines of quite ambiguous lyrics have been changed, despite the fact that the most outrageous-sounding part has been left intact, seems nonsensical for most listeners.
All major Korean broadcasters have censorship departments, where newly released music (both Korean- and English-language) is submitted for clearance before it can be aired. These run in addition to government-released blacklists issued by state-appointed censors. Stations are issued a warning, and can even face legal proceedings, if they air government-blacklisted songs, while TV and radio producers can face internal action if they play songs that have been OKed by the government but blacklisted by their network.
Having worked behind the scenes in the Korean broadcast media industry, I can say that I do not envy any producer who is called before the censorship department and asked to justify why they think a certain K-pop song is fit for broadcast at a time when minors may be watching/listening – because K-pop songs often contain racy lyrics that, if subjected to closer analysis, would often make even the most liberal-minded of fans blush.
However, the infuriating thing about K-pop censorship is the fact that it seems that little or nothing exists in the way of consistency. Long-term TVXQ fans will remember the outcry that surrounded the release of the group’s 2009 hit “Mirotic.”
Admittedly, the lyric “You want me, you give yourself to me” could be construed as suggestive to say the least, but fans were really puzzled when the Korean central government’s Youth Protection Committee announced that the line “I got you under my skin” was unsuitable.
At the time, fans were quick to point out the fact that if this were the case, Frank Sinatra’s old-time hit “I’ve Got You under My Skin,”an oft-played song on Korean oldies shows, should also be banned, which, of course, was not the case.
Another now-notorious case is that of Ajoo.
Ajoo was a solo singer whose 2009 track “Wealthy 2nd Generation” was also banned by KBS on grounds of “excessively materialistic” lyrics.
The Ajoo case is quite different from that of Dal Shabet and TVXQ, because the incriminating lyrics are not of a sexual nature. Is it the place of a broadcasting station to protect minors from songs with overly sexual lyrics? Arguably, yes, to some extent. But should that same network ban songs because they glamorize money and opulent lifestyles? If so, should the network not have also banned songs such as Wonder Girls’ “Like Money”
or M.I.B’s “G.D.M (Girls, Dreams, Money)”?
KBS regularly commissions and airs drama series that focus on the lives of the super-rich. If it chooses to ban certain songs on the basis of glamorizing opulence, a certain amount of consistency and transparency is essential so that fans can understand exactly why their favorite songs are being pulled off the air and artists can have a better idea of where the line is so they do not run the risk of overstepping it.
And this is the very heart of why lyric censorship, no matter how well-meaning, will never work. Ten years ago, “Joker” would have been banned instantly by all three major stations, and probably the government, too. If Ajoo had dropped “Wealthy 2nd Generation” yesterday, KBS would not have batted an eyelid. Far more risqué material than “Mirotic” now gets passed by censors on a weekly basis. The goalposts keep moving. When one act pushes the envelope and gets away with it, it green-lights everyone else to do likewise. With unclear, fluid and unwritten rules like this, how is any lyric writer supposed to understand when they are crossing the line?
Consistency and censorship are totally incompatible because unless an artist makes a clear violation of an understandable moral code (like saying an explicit word or mentioning a brand name), everything else is up to the interpretation of a small group of individuals – the censors.
It might shock you to hear Dal Shabet juxtapose a word that sounds like a reference to male private parts next to the phrase “I want it.” It might not. The fact that “might” is so important a notion in the above is the reason why almost any attempt to censor lyrics is doomed to absurdity right from the outset. KBS and other censors, if it’s not a swear word or a brand name, give up – you are playing a losing game.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.