Any K-pop fan’s instinctive reaction to the idea of fetishization is that it is something that other fans do, or that other groups indulge in. But whatever group you are a fan of, you can bet there is a hater or an anti-fan somewhere who thinks your favorite group is morally corrupt fetishizers, while theirs is as pure as snow.
Fanwars will rage for as long as there is such a thing as K-pop, with mud being slung all over the place at all hours of the day. GOT7 fans trolling WINNER enthusiasts and vice versa, Super Junior-heads bashing EXO-holics — at times it seems the Internet is made up almost entirely of K-pop boy band fans and anti-fans, with all parties accusing one another’s biases of cheap, fetish-ridden marketing stunts.
I’ll put my cards on the table. I am a heterosexual male, a music fan, and a keen K-pop enthusiast. I try to remain as impartial as possible about K-pop, largely because my work often involves writing about it.
That said, I have preferences too. I am particularly fond of Rainbow and EXID, and although much of that is down to their musical output, I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that I find certain members of both groups extremely attractive.
In the case of Rainbow, I must confess that the mere presence of Jisook, Woori, and Hyunyoung in the group has helped me maintain an interest despite several mediocre music releases.
Rainbow have indulged in some pretty serious, controversy-stirring body fetishism in the past. The midriff-flashing “A” choreography even had to be banned back in the day, and the Rainbow Blaxx subunit also landed in hot water early last year.
And, as a fellow Soompi writer recently pointed out, many people are repulsed by perceived fetishism in EXID’s work. The “Up and Down” music video goes heavy on phallic imagery that I personally interpreted as a witty, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of classical Freudian psycho-theory. But clearly not everyone agrees.
However, the “Up and Down” promotions also made use of costumes and choreography that undeniably promote body fetishism, hence the existence of that fancam video.
There can be no question that Rainbow and EXID have both been (quite rightly) accused of releasing fetishized material.
These outfits/dance moves?
No, I won’t even try to justify that. But nor will I pretend that I didn’t enjoy it. More on that later.
Girl groups (or rather, their entertainment agencies, designers, and choreographers) fetishize their output like there is no tomorrow, sending out a pretty morally dubious message to their fans. Anyone with half a brain knows that. The point is — the boys are at it too.
I have not come to these pages to throw rocks at K-pop boy bands, nor their fans. I thoroughly enjoy the output of a whole host of Korean boy bands. For the most part, they dance well, they look good, they make good music. But they also release a lot of highly fetishized product, mostly targeted at female fans.
Korean talent agencies are in direct competition with each other — the line between massive financial success, like SM, and abject financial failure, like Good Entertainment, is very thin. The pressure is on to make Group A more attractive than Group B, and this is what leads agencies to fetishize their acts.
Nowadays good looks and polished dancing skills are simply not enough. Korean companies in all industries always talk about adding “+ alpha” to what they make, injecting some je ne sais quoi to make customers choose what they make over what their rivals are putting out.
In the case of many boy bands, that “+ alpha” is usually fetishized sexuality.
Let’s start with the expression “idol.” One of the fundamental notions of fetishism is the concept of worship, of idolizing, if you will. Idol stars are sometimes elevated to supernatural, non-human status by their fans, hence the irresistible urge some fans have to simply touch or grab at members of their favorite boy bands.
Not pointing the finger at EXO fans, this is just a famous example that springs to mind.
Some idol groups have names that reflect this concept — g.o.d, for example, Shinhwa (whose name means “myth” in Korean), and more recently, Legend.
The problem with elevating stars to superhuman level is that, well, it does dehumanize them. As much as you may love a K-pop star, it is important to remember that they are still just a person, made of flesh and blood like you or I. Sorry to break it to you but there are no deities working in the Korean pop industry.
Funnily enough, this works both ways. Back in the day, acts like 2PM caused a stir when they were marketed as “beast” groups — in other words, groups that are unashamed of their sexuality, who full-on embrace the idea of being sexy.
Then there is BEAST — the name pretty much says it all.
The notion of a “beast,” however, is also exceptionally fetishized when used in this way. It implies a person with a non-human aspect, a dehumanized creature that is a slave to its own irrepressible lust.
Ever since the 1960s, when male singers started hip-thrusting, female fans have been losing their minds, and “beasts” have started pervading in global pop. You might think this kind of thing absurd now, but women used to scream themselves to unconsciousness watching the likes of Jackie Wilson…
…and Elvis Presley perform.
Listen to the crowds in these videos – they sound almost indistinguishable from K-pop boy band fans now.
Elvis and Jackie Wilson transformed their music into a highly sexualized, saleable product. They blazed down trails that K-pop boy bands are still following. What they made sold like hotcakes, and pop music has not looked back since.
Think your favorite act is off the hook because it portrays its members as angelic beings instead? Think again.
Boyfriend originally went with a purer-than-pure image (which they later famously ditched — more on that here).
But you could argue that the “angelic” look is yet another dehumanizing fetishizing attempt to portray an act as being beyond the human pale. Whether from a realm below or above, boy bands are rarely allowed to be portrayed as just plain old humans.
Suggestive imagery can also be tricky. Perhaps most noticeably, there is the homoeroticism sometimes referred to as “fan service” or “bromance.” Dive into this can of worms, if you must, for evidence of that.
Whether you are gay or straight, there is nothing empowering about K-pop homoerotic titillation. When it is being performed for an audience, this is plain old fetishism.
This could be perceived as slightly unsettling:
And it is really just a few notches down from this kind of stunt:
You can read into the above what you will, but I feel both are quite gratuitous and fetishize homosexuality for the sake of a (largely) straight audience.
Horror, based on the human nightmare, is also a common theme for acts. But as the likes of analytical thinkers like Ernest Jones have established, nightmares are are linked to suppressed, subconscious sexual instincts, which is why their contents tend to be broadly fetishized in contemporary culture.
The vampire concept is a common one in K-pop, as it is in pop and movies from all over the world.
In fact but no horror character has been fetishized as much as the vampire. A nocturnal subhuman with an uncontrollable lust to prey on pretty young things by sucking blood out of their necks? You do not need to be a psychoanalyst to interpret that. Or this kind of thing:
Or, indeed, this.
And the link between sex and physical aggression is long-established in the world of science. Just how many times have you seen a K-pop boy band act portrayed as a testosterone-fueled baseball bat wielding street gang?
I love this song and I think B.A.P are one of the best boy bands out there, but this video is an orgy of fetishized, context-free violence.
As is this “Crows Zero”-inspired music video:
The ZE:A video brings us onto what I consider the most disturbing K-pop boy band fetishization of all – school uniform.
Wearing uniforms, or costumes based on school uniform designs is so common, it is hard to think of many groups that have not appeared on stage in schoolboy outfits at some point.
Portraying fully grown males as underage boys is ageplay — a full-blown, pretty-much undisguised sexual fetish. In the case of acts that are actually underage, the schoolboy concept is an even more gratuitous fetishization.
As I said at the start of this article, I am not here to fire shots. Fetishism is not just some kind of evil monster — thinking of it like this is just over-simplification.
Fetishistic desires can be harmless in many cases, as long as you keep them in check and don’t allow them to rule your thoughts and actions.
I, for one, won’t pretend that I have never enjoyed fetishized content produced by certain girl groups, especially EXID and Rainbow. And if you are a boy band fan, if you are honest with yourself, you might come to the same conclusion about your favorite acts.
However, when I really stop to think about it, there is something quite sinister behind my enjoyment of fetishized content. These groups of women did not suddenly wake up one morning and say to each other, “Hey, let’s wear figure-hugging outfits and do quasi-strip dances for our next song!”
Nor did the boy bands who become crotch-thrusting “beasts” one minute and sexless “angels” the next.
No, some talent agency executive in an office somewhere conceived this fetishistic notion and told them, “You’re wearing this. And you’ll dance like this.”
Even if the result looks sexy, the process that goes into making it is really pretty dark and exploitative in many ways. Entertainment companies now just scattergun sexual imagery out there, lacing it with non-contextual, fetishistic content, hoping that the public will engage with it.
Realistically there is zero chance that fetishization will ever be purged from K-pop. But it is worth recognizing that the people who conceive of K-pop fetishism are targeting some of your most basic (and mainly subconscious) instincts in some fairly sneaky ways.
The only way to escape it is to turn your back on K-pop completely – and in fact all pop music anywhere. Sorry, but I am not prepared to do that, and if you are reading this site, I doubt that you are either.
So in the meantime, let’s be more aware and a little more wary of fetishization. And let’s not wag disapproving fingers at the fetishism-laden performances of other groups when in fact the acts that you like are probably doing much the same thing in a slightly different form.
Remember what they say about people who live in glass houses.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.