Monday, 18 December 2017

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (ALL Spoilers)

May as well put this all in one place on a blog post, because I hate digging through social media to find what I've said.

I will include spoiler warnings in the text, but generally, if you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, maybe put this post off for later.

Even though it's crappy writing, let's put this in Question and Answer format:

Did you like it, Rob?

Yes.

Come on. Get in the weeds a bit.

OK. The Star Wars Films in order:

1. The Empire Strikes Back
2. A New Hope (the original)
3. Return of the Jedi
4. The Force Awakens (could have been 3 if it hadn't mostly been a remake of A New Hope)
5-6. Rogue One and The Last Jedi (could have been 3 if it were 30 minutes shorter and lacked an extended commercial for the new Christmas toy)
7. The Last Half of Revenge of the Sith
8-9. The other prequels make me feel dirty.

On Facebook, I'd put The Last Jedi above Rogue One, but thinking back, Rogue One had a much leaner story, a clearer objective that better defined and guided all the action in the film. I like action films that move in a straight line, most of the time.

That's a little low, for The Last Jedi, isn't it?

For perspective... my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming) ... I don't think I liked any of them more than #5 on this list. My favorite Superhero films ever, The Dark Knight or Spider-man 2 (Doc Ock) might be between 4 and 3. I really like Star Wars. It's magic.

Rogue One?
Well... if Rogue One had been less meandering in the first half, it would definitely have been 5. The final sequence of Rogue One, from the tower invasion on, was one of the most exciting sequences in a star wars film. On the other hand, if The Last Jedi had slimmed down the subplots, character bloat and toy ads, they could have taken that spot easily, as their main cast has a clear advantage over Rogue One's. But neither of those things happened, so I'm not making a call right now. I'll watch each of them one or two more times before deciding for sure.


SPOILERS FROM HERE ON

So what were the little things you liked?

Luke's crowning moment of awesome was truly awesome (and much needed after how low he'd been brought through the rest of the film.)

The best scene in the film was Snoke's throne room, and Kylo and Rey vs. Snoke's guard was everything we've been waiting for, while the twists and turns of who is offering what and who is willing to throw down with whom is fantastic.

Kylo Ren is a great villain, as I said last time I talked about Star Wars. That he is conflicted makes him more interesting and less predictable. The way he will derail an entire battle plan to chew on one of his obsessions like a dog on a toy makes him interesting... but he (like Luke Skywalker) understands the power of a symbolic moment. (which is why he was able to be baited). That he is trying to PROVE to himself how evil he is gives him a higher ceiling of evilness than Hux. Hux is smart enough to create a successful battle plan and accomplish more evil overall by taking over the galaxy for his evil purposes, which is scarier from five thousand yards. But Hux wouldn't derail a battle plan for the sake of being especially mean to this person over here, just because fuck them! He's too calculating. When they're in a room with you, Kylo is more likely to do something cruel or horrifying than Hux, just because, so for the purpose of an interesting scene in a film, Kylo Ren is more interesting than red-haired Hitler.

Rose Tico was pretty cool, and it's about time we saw an Asian face with speaking parts in the Star Wars universe, she had one of the best lines in the film about saving what we love rather than fighting what we hate, but her and her plotline slowed the story down... and was a waste of a perfectly good Benicio Del Toro.

Rey was pretty great. After TFA she was in a dead heat with Poe and Finn and Kylo, but now she and Kylo have separated themselves from the pack, and she gave me chills a couple of times. Finn's subplot felt shoehorned in at times, and Poe was reckless: as likable as he was, he was dangerous and wrong and deserved worse than he got as a penalty for his mutiny.

I like that they batted away the fan theories about Rey's parents. And the conversation where they addressed that was devastating. I was ready to go to the dark side for Kylo at that point.

Best line in the film:

Rey: "If you see Finn before I do..."
Chewbacca: "GGGrrrrRRRRAAAWWWWwwwWWW"
Rey: "Perfect. Tell him that."

The fact they replayed the twists and turns of the Return of the Jedi throne room in Episode 8 means that we're in uncharted territory for episode 9. Who knows what will happen now that Kylo Ren is without his big bad. I predict the rivalry between him and Hux playing into a few crucial moments, as Ren and his urge to be dramatic continues to get in the way of Hux's sound military strategies. In fact, I'm gonna go on record saying that The First Order's undoing is going to be Hux stabbing Kylo Ren in the back, or vice versa, as they decide they can't stand each other and can't work together. Mark it down.

What is great about Star Wars? Are there problems built into the basic premises of the Star Wars Universe?

Yes, there are.

First, what's great: Good star wars movies have always made you care about the characters -- the heroes and the villains, or at least understand what they want. That makes THIS space opera different from the others. Star Wars stories live and die with likable characters, so the casting is really important, and the two good trilogies (Original and VII and on) have really nailed the casting with leads that are fun to watch and easy to care about. The Star Wars juggernaut will start to falter when they start flubbing the casting. This is why people say Star Wars has "heart." Because they make us care about the characters.

The original Star Wars used a couple of brilliant storytelling devices as well... but two of them also have the seeds of problems the audience will have as we see more and more Star Wars.

The droids as storytelling devices 1

R2D2, and droids that bip and squeak, as well as Wookies, are great foils for exposition. You get to talk about what's going on and what you have to do without it seeming cloying, and then you get to respond to their reactions even though the audience doesn't understand them. It is a way of downloading information to the audience without getting tiresome, because the audience is still filling in gaps even during bald exposition. R2D2 and Chewbacca stood in for the audience so that we got the information we needed, in a way that wasn't annoying.

Meanwhile, the droids and wookies were all very technically accomplished, meaning that instead of dropping a load of technobabble (see: star trek) on the audience, we could have a growl, or R2D2 could shove a plug into a panel, beep, whistle, and the alarms would stop ringing. Basically... authorial intrusion in the form of robots and wookies that could do anything the plot required to bloop over in order to get to the next action scene. The conversation between Finn and Rose about how to stop the First Order's tracking device on The Last Jedi is the first time I can remember a technobabble conversation in Star Wars.

Chewbacca and the droids were seriously underused in this film, which means we had things explained with technobabble instead of blipped over. More of that and Star Wars will have the same problem as other Space Adventure Shows.


The droids as storytelling devices 2

C3P0, on the other hand, basically operated like a little golden Greek Chorus, (a group that underlines the scenes' importance and explains the action to the audience, but doesn't take part in the plot) reminding us of what's at risk, how dangerous the thing is they're about to do ("Never tell me the odds") and adding little commentaries that, while annoying, let us see the story through his eyes... in which the events appeared bold, thrilling, and terrifying. The Greek Chorus doesn't factor into the plot, neither did C3PO. He was just there commenting on stuff.

The fact he didn't operate this way is why K2S0 was a character in Rogue One, and fit into the story differently than C3PO does.

So far it's worked, but C3PO barely figured into The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. Are audience stand-ins and Greek choruses absolutely needed in Star Wars? I'm not sure. But that might have contributed more than we thought to the way the old Star Wars had that epic, massive, sweeping feel to it. Visiting new planets doesn't necessarily accomplish that same feeling (or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets would have had a different reception), though there are other ways to do it that don't necessarily have to use droids. "Freaking out at everything Finn" did that in The Force Awakens, for example.

Lightsabers are awesome, but... the problem of melee weapons in space sagas:

The four awesomest types of action scenes are (in no particular order):

1. Aerial dogfights
2. Chase scenes (especially car chase scenes)
3. Swordfights
4. Martial arts style hand combat

The rarest of these is sword fights, because they can only plausibly appear in swords and sandals and martial arts films. George Lucas' idea of space wizards with lightsabers is genius because it lets us put sword fighting into the same universe as aerial dogfights -- not just aerial dogfights, but SPACE dogfights! A universe where all four awesome kinds of action scenes can plausibly appear in the same film is pure genius!

The fact is audiences like to see battles come down to hand combat scenes, two heroes going at each other with melee weapons. Seeing armies swoop across a field from an eagle view just isn't as gut-exciting as seeing two warriors punch it out, even though most real battles or wars aren't decided by Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler getting into a knife fight. Even great battle scenes that are mostly about maneuvers on a battlefield feel more satisfying when they end up close and personal. This is better when it ends with this (Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards).

The problem is, in a space epic where everyone's flying around in space ships, it's hard to get people together in a room to swing lightsabers and vibrating bludgeons at each other. There are only so many plot devices that accomplish that, and we're close to having seen them all now. I worry that it'll start to be like the James Bond movies where Bond has (yet again) been captured and the villain explains himself (yet again), puts Bond in (another) slow-acting, easily-escapable death device, and (predictably) walks away: it worked, and then it didn't, and then suddenly it was self-parody. There are only so many times we believe a hero would turn themselves in to the head villain before we start smacking our foreheads and updating the evil overlord list. Why on EARTH (why IN THE GALAXY) would Snoke allow Rey in a room with him and lightsabers, knowing what happened to Palpatine?

Getting Finn in a room with Phasma took a 40 minute subplot that turned out unnecessary. Their fight was too short anyway. Getting Rey in a room with Kylo Ren was a little too easy, but involved inventing a new Force Ability (Force Skype) that we haven't seen before. Neither was a satisfying way of moving the characters from place to place, in my opinion.

What didn't you like about this film?

NO DISNEY! BAD! You get ONE toy craze per trilogy (cf Ewoks-bad enough in their own right), and that was BB8. Don't be greedy.

Snoke's throne room was ridiculous. A red scrim cloth? It looked great burning, though.

Snoke was ridiculous, too. Vamping in a Hugh Hefner robe was NOT what I expected from the buildup he got in The Force Awakens. Yes, I get that you have to make him different from decrepit, creepy, creaky Palpatine, but Snoke was not doing it for me.

Snoke was underused and a letdown after the buildup he got in TFA. So, basically, everything about Snoke was bad. Except when Rey tried to call her lightsaber and Snoke made it hit her in the head. That was awesome. If he'd had a sense of humor like that all through I'd have been down with mischievous, petty evil Snoke. That wasn't what we got though.

Finn didn't have enough to do and wasn't nearly as fun as last time, and the thing he did get to do turned out to be mostly plot wheel-spinning, little but a pretense to get him on the bad guy spaceship.

Poe was an idiot. Likable, but an idiot in this one.

It was the longest Star Wars film, but one whole subplot was mostly unnecessary and a waste of Benicio Del Toro, who is a limited natural resource.



The Big Thing: Pacing

It felt like they were cramming as many "ooh!" scenes as possible in. The final act had enough of them for any two films. I counted three storylines going on at once for most of the last half of the film. Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi gave us jump-cuts between multiple storylines, but this was the most crowded finale yet.

With such hectic pacing, and so many subplots, all the story had time for were the characters' big motivations and desperate needs. We never got to just hang out with them. The situation was a good one to see the characters strain under the pressure, too. Cornered, running out of fuel... that could have shown us (better than it did) what they were each made of. Instead we got a tour to a casino planet, as if this were a James Bond film!

This film lacked little, personal moments like Han offering Rey a job, or Maz giving Rey advice in The Force Awakens. Those moments let us see what Rey wanted, what kind of a person she was, and start liking her. The little jacket bit between Finn and Poe was a touch of color that humanized both men (not to mention the lip bite that launched a thousand 'ships). The reunion between Leia and Han didn't advance the plot, but it let us see who they had become, with so much unsaid between the lines they said. Our old friends were back!

This film never gave the characters time to stretch their legs, and that stuff matters. Star Wars "A New Hope" played like a slow burn, with lots of slow spots where we got to know the characters - little "Let the wookie win" moments don't make the highlight reel, but that's where the quotes come from, that's where we feel like the world they live in is real, and they are real people.  I am starting to like the characters less when all we see of them are their desperate needs, and not How They Normally Are. Show me Finn and Poe playing cards together. Show me Rey and Chewbacca learning to work together piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Most of all: let us spend some time with Chewbacca, Luke and Leia as they grieved Han Solo! He deserved at least that.

That said... being beaten over the head with different characters' desperate needs is better than getting static cutouts bouncing off against each other the way we're getting now with the established characters in the MCU, so...

All in all, I'll take Star Wars over any other franchise going, but the distance between Star Wars and Marvel, the second best extended universe still going, is getting smaller.

Force Skype and New Force Abilities

The scenes where Rey and Kylo could talk to each other from far away were cool in this film. They were. But we're now nine films into the Star Wars universe, plus a TV series or two. How far in do we get before The Force's powers are pretty much set?

I mean,  storytellers have always nerfed or buffed existing powers to serve a story (Superman gets weaker or stronger from storyline to storyline, but he always has super strength), but storytellers aren't inventing NEW powers for Superman anymore, and for Batman or Iron Man to invent a new gadget the story has to build up to it. If you're pulling "Bat-Shark-Repellent" out of your ass, your storytelling is shit.

So how long before we say "No. It helps the story, but inventing more force powers is now bullshit" -- because looking back, Force Skype would have been really handy during the execution of Order 66. Yoda was super strong in the force: if Snoke and Luke could both do it in this film, SURELY he could have used it to save some Jedis from Order 66. Freezing Blaster bolts, as Kylo Ren did in TFA would have been an incredible move for young Anakin or Darth Vader when they needed to intimidate an enemy, and his way of raiding someone's memory would have been much more effective than Palpatine's "I feel your anger" kind of stuff.

In storytelling terms, it made sense for Harry Potter to be learning new spells because he was a student. It also made sense for Luke to be... and we were learning about the force too. But we've seen enough force users now that it strains credibility to think that Yoda couldn't have done Force Skype, or frozen a blaster bolt, if he'd wanted to, and if he could, why didn't he? It would have been handy in a few tight spots where we saw him NOT use those abilities. Why have we never seen a Force Ghost do something other than appear, shimmer, and talk before - then suddenly Yoda called down lightning onto the Jedi Temple as a Force Ghost?

What is the nature of force powers anyway? Are force abilities like X-men powers -- different users have a different "suite" of force powers? This would explain why Rey picked up a few of the skills so easily, and why Kylo Ren is the only Force user we've seen freeze a blaster bolt in the air, even though Yoda and Palpatine were (presumably) both powerful enough to do it. This accounts for the way Force Lightning and Force Choking are dark side powers, and why nobody on the Jedi Council in the prequels could simply look into little Anakin's mind, which would have been handy, and the kind of skill the Jedi Council would probably have recruited for.

Or are force abilities like spells in Harry Potter -- anybody can learn them, but learning them takes work, and there's nothing to say a clever enough force user couldn't develop a new power if s/he worked at it, just like Hermione or Dumbledore could invent a new spell?

Or are force abilities like a Green Lantern ring, where anybody who puts one on (has the sensitivity) gets access to the same set of powers, (accounting for training and natural ability)?

But mostly: how far into the Star Wars universe do we get before we say "Storytellers should no longer make up new Force Abilities that aren't plausible combinations of other abilities we've already seen"? I'm reaching that point now, myself, as cool as the Force Skype scenes were, I don't want The Force to be the site of a bunch of storytelling ass-pulls and deus ex machinas.


Final Word on Super Franchises

Film Franchises, in order of "Knowing What They Are And Delivering What They Promise"

1. John Wick
2. The Fast and the Furious
3. Star Wars
4. Mad Max
5. Marvel Cinematic Universe
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
7. Transformers

Every other movie that ever got a sequel

162. Justice League/DC Extended Universe

Of these, Star Wars is in the toughest spot because new Star Wars movies are competing against two generations of fans' nostalgia of seeing the other films as kids, so expectations are ridiculously high, storytelling is most important, and how do you add more "heart" in postproduction? Justice League has the hardest spot because they've decided they want to compete with Marvel, choosing to play a near-insurmountable game of catch-up, while starting from the back foot because of bad creative choices at the outset. Marvel has done an amazing job of threading the needle between story continuity, fresh looks at superhero films, rotating in new heroes, while warding off superhero film fatigue, showing respect for the heroes and their storylines, and giving the films mass appeal also for non-comic reading fans. The question is how long they can keep all those plates spinning. Every new film where they continue this streak increases the difficulty rating.


Transformers is in the easiest position because they can just throw money at digital effects artists, cast a few stars from foreign markets, and make half a billion in China, and Pirates is in the second easiest position because Johnny Depp likes big paychecks and Jack Sparrow is good at selling pirate zombies, and again, global audiences seem to eat it up. Fast And The Furious looks like it's in a good spot, but more than you think depends on audiences believing in the vision of family that Dominic Toretto talks about, and the cast being believable as a cohesive unit built on loyalty and love. John Wick films could keep being good for as long as Keanu Reeves' body holds up and the fight choreographers have a free hand. But I have a feeling after three or four they'll walk away and leave John Wick as a perfect series of films preserved in amber. I really hope they don't beat it into the ground like Taken did.

But Star Wars is great. Laser swords, space adventure without technobabble, and oh mercy, that music always gets my blood going! They've had more "punch the air awesome" moments per film than any other series, by a far sight, and as long as they keep nailing the casting, people will buy tickets to see laser sword fights. They just will.

Comment moderation is on but I'll let everything pass through except spam; I'm always up to chat, but be patient please: it's grading period.

See you all at Episode 9!

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

K-Pop Can Be a Genre If You Want, and some Other Stuff Too: Equivocations on Ask A Korean!

UPDATED: Now with headings and more links!


At long last, something has prompted me once again to set finger to keyboard (doesn't have the ring of set pen to paper, does it?) and, naturally, it is the wonderful old blog friend Ask A Korean! with whom I have disagreed before. Let's party like it's 2009!

This week on his blog, The Korean! (whose series on the recent Korean presidential election are excellent guides) is back talking about K-pop, one of my favorite topics for pontification. He is well-versed in the field: his series of "The Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" is well-researched, interesting, and frankly up there with culturalism as one of the best things he has written on his blog.

But The Korean has, in my opinion, bitten off a little more than he can chew in attempting a be-all and end-all definition of K-pop. We'll get to why in a minute, but first, let's summarize his original argument, as found in his blog post. We'll try to be concise, and if you prefer the real McCoy, go read the original here and its follow-up here, instead of my distillation.


Summary of AAK!

The Korean appears to take issue with those who define K-pop specifically as what others would call "Idol K-pop" -- the image that comes to many peoples' minds (especially if you're on Tumblr or Instagram) of leggy young women and be-sixpack'd young men making cute faces and dancing in sync to highly produced music tracks in elaborately crafted, probably colorful videos. The Korean's definition is clearly in contrast with this, and some of the evidence he uses is solid on first pass:

He uses the examples of three artists who have almost nothing in common musically, but who are all grouped under "K-pop" to broaden the definition from that narrow "Idol Kpop" definition. IU (video here), BTS (video here - recent winners of a social media award at the Billboard Music Awards) and FT Island (video here - whose youtube channel, FTISLAND makes me want to read 'FISTland' which sounds more Chuck Tingle than JYP) are all called "K-pop"; he also points out the lineups of the "K-pop Stage" at the SXSW music festival, where groups ranging from idol pop to indie punk to hip-hop all appear on the same concert stage, under the K-pop banner. Most damning of all for "small wagon" K-pop definers, when Psy's "Gangnam Style" became a smash hit, those who were talking about K-pop in 2012 were, for the most part, perfectly happy to hitch their wagon to his comet, rather than making a stronger effort to clarify that Psy does not fit the mold of "Idol K-pop" in a number of ways.


Genres need boundaries but we're bad at describing them

When glimpsed through a closing elevator door whilst pelvis-thrusting, the Korean language lyrics, colorful video, electric, synth-heavy arrangement and rap sections were similar enough to what we'd seen on the latest Hyun-a single (not to mention her appearance in the video) that anybody anxious to boast that K-pop was taking over the world would gladly paper over the differences between Psy and those handsome, be-sixpack'd boy bands that fit the K-pop mold more accurately. More about Psy later. This is definitely the strongest part of The Korean's argument: that little or no effort has been made to draw boundaries for what is K-pop and what isn't, and genres need boundaries, even fuzzy ones.

Think about other music and this is intuitively true: there are songs that straddle the line between soul and R'n'B, or soul and hip-hop, or folk and twee pop, or grunge and punk, but there are also songs that are definitely one or the other, even if the genres are not clearly defined and people couldn't explain why they think one is and one isn't part of their genre. People argue about whether this song or that song is this genre or that, and when Taylor Swift stopped being country and whether Justin Bieber qualifies as R&B, but don't dispute that genres exist, and are different from each other. However, The Korean does his argument a disservice in his rejoinder post when he puts up pictures of white cats and brown dogs: music genres do not delineate as starkly as cats and dogs, which cannot mate and create viable offspring. Music genres are constantly mating and creating viable offspring in shocking combinations. The Korean is a smart guy and knows what false equivalence is, and he is guilty of it here. Sandwiches are a much better comparison because different people will pitch their "This is NOT a sandwich" flag on different squares of the chart, and be able to defend their choice.

This chart is culturally biased.

Words get more than one meaning all the time

The Korean's argument derails when he starts insisting that words -- the term K-pop in particular -- be defined and used more narrowly than what is actually done in practice. While it's one of the best-written paragraphs in the original article, it is also where his argument is weakest:
In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say. "K-pop" plainly means "pop music of Korea," because "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." Q.E.D. And in fact, that is exactly how the term was used when it first entered the English language. Most English speakers--i.e., non-Koreans--encountered pop music from Korea for the first time in the early 2000s, and called such music "K-pop." The term was essentially the equivalent of gayo [가요], the word Koreans use to denote popular music generally, without reference to any genre, style or era.
Besides the fact he never defines what "pop music" is, which is a baffling and difficult conversation of its own beyond the scope of this response (given that AAK did not address it either), The Korean slips here and gives up the fatal flaw in his discussion, mentioning that it was in the early 2000s that most English speakers first encountered pop music from Korea, and described it as K-pop.

Because the problem with using the term K-pop to describe "pop music of Korea" is simply that Koreans generally don't use it to describe Korean music, and certainly didn't before the early 2000s. I teach at a Korean university and sometimes ask my students what music they like, and they name genres like "ballad" or "dance" or "hip-hop" and even if they name a group known as "K-pop" to the world, they might describe it as K-pop, or they might describe it as girl-group or boy-band. The Korean cops to the fact the term K-pop is used differently in Korea than outside of Korea in his rejoinder post, written after reading some comments disagreeing with his original post.
...when one observes the actual usage of the term "K-pop" by non-Koreans, it is abundantly clear that the term is not the same thing as "idol pop." When the international fans encountered Korean popular music that was clearly not idol pop--such as Gangnam Style--there was no effort to enforce the conceptual boundaries of "K-pop" to exclude Korean popular music that was not idol pop. When the international fans recount the history of "K-pop," there is no effort to trace the development of idol pop as a distinct strand of style that exists within the broader universe of Korean popular music.
The term K-pop is used differently by Koreans than by non-Koreans. We can drill down into even more detail if we want. When we poke around the term K-pop, and learn about its origins, and look at how it's used in different places, the inescapable truth is this: the term is used differently by different people, for perfectly good reasons that are easy enough to grok. The only confusion comes when people start cross-talking, failing to pause and take seven seconds to clarify "Hey, random stranger on the internet, do you mean K-pop as in popular music in Korea, or K-pop as in manufactured Idol Pop from Korea?"

The Korean wants to insist that every word or term have one meaning, and one meaning only, across all contexts, regardless of who is saying it, but language doesn't work that way. The word "set" has different meanings, depending on whether you are a performer getting ready for a concert (a set list), lining up to begin a footrace (ready, set, go), a sailor (set sail), a tennis player (won in straight sets), making jello (put it in the fridge to set), programming your digital alarm clock (can you set my alarm for me?), collecting pokemon cards (two cards short of the whole set), work for a theater company (set design is fun but hard), or preparing for a corner kick (our team is good at set plays). Some of those meanings resemble each other, and so do the different meanings of K-pop, but the context and the speaker changes the meaning.

"Set" is not the best example because it's such a simple, flexible word that it's easily co-opted into new contexts, but there are other words we know have hugely different meanings in different contexts. Buffer means different things if you're talking about financial planning, diplomacy, car care, or Youtube videos. Suite means something different if you're a composer or a hotel manager or MS Office user. Pitch can be a baseball move, a tar-like substance, an attempt to sell something, a degree of darkness, a musical note, or the ability to sing the correct musical note. Words like insulate, program, developing, overture, advance, target, and on and on. Even within art circles, indie can mean a distribution model or musical aesthetic, dubstep refers to a completely different musical sound if you are from America or the UK. Meanwhile, wherever someone draws a line between genres, artists specifically flock to that boundary to defile it, just for the sake of argument, or out of sheer playfulness, or because they don't give a shit who says what is which genre: they're just making art they like. Ask Banksy or Marcel Duchamp, or Prince, or John Cage, or Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Avicii's country techno song.

How are people using the term?

K-pop also has different meanings depending on who's using it, and where. That's normal. The meanings are conceptually coherent within those contexts, to those using it, so... what's the problem?

Website developers want it to have as broad a meaning as possible, in order to use it for search engine optimization. If the tag "K-pop" gets more hits for their band EXP edition, then EXP edition is K-pop by gum! (Warning: this article might make you angry)! But lots of people say a group of North American boys making (mostly) polished pop and goofing off in a video like the "Orange Mocha Frappuccinos!" boys in Zoolander (spot Eric from True Blood) while singing Korean they are reciting phonetically isn't K-pop, even if they sing in Korean.

If you are trying to promote Korean cultural products, then anything that you think will generate interest (and then tourist dollars or cultural export dollars) for Korea gets a K- in front of its name. Anything popular (or profitable) is K-pop, and anything that garners international success or accolades becomes retroactively tagged "Korea's Representative X" (this explains Psy suddenly becoming the flag carrier for K-pop when, by the strict definition of Idol K-pop, Psy doesn't fit the mold).

If you are stocking shelves at an American record store in 2003, or making music more searchable in the iTunes library by categorizing Asian popular music by country, and you want to differentiate music from Korea and music from Japan (and this is my guess as to the reason it is specifically called K-pop rather than some other name), or you need a shorthand tag to let people know where all the Korea-originating acts will be performing at your music festival, then K-pop means any music from Korea other than traditional stuff... or from the other end, if you have so much Korean music in stock now that the "World Music" shelf is overflowing and Korean music needs its own shelf, K-pop is a nice catch-all for anything that comes from Korea.

If you are a PR or an economics lover looking at the infrastructure of music content distribution or promotion in Asia, K-pop is a business model, a content development model and/or a distribution model.

On the other hand, if you like looking at GIFs of sexy Korean boys with sixpacks, or leggy Korean women making aegyo poses, and you have a Tumblr account and use the word "oppa" a lot but don't know any other Korean, then K-pop means a specific type of look, a specific type of music, and a specific type of sexy people.

If you are looking for other people to join you in celebrating a set of shows, bands and whatnot you like, or that has a connection with something in your heritage, K-pop is a good term to use to find other people who want to celebrate it with you.


On Orwell's on language and retroactive naming of things

It is not Orwellian that different people have found different definitions of K-pop serviceable labels, in the different contexts where they use it: though Korea promotions has been involved, it has not been a sinister top-down attempt to manipulate or control people, or to make Korean culture or art into something it is not, just a bit of fuzzy-minded opportunism on the part of K-pop power players and Korean promotions folk hoping for a windfall. This has happened before: on his Hot Fives and Sevens albums, Louis Armstrong had a bunch of tracks with "Blues" in the title (14 by my count in the 4 disk set), even though he was making one of the foundational jazz recordings, because blues was selling at the time. Look at the number of songs with "Soul" in the title in the 70s, be they soul or not. K-pop's popularity abroad would have continued at, or nearly at pace without the Korean government's intervention, and K-pop would still exist if it weren't being marketed abroad, though it would look different and act a bit less grandiose. Not all meaning-slippage is Orwellian manipulation of meanings and reality, aimed at creating confused passivity in a populace. Sometimes they're just trying to sell units, or people are grabbing onto the nearest searchable tag to increase their platform's reach, or looking for others who also like their favorite genre, in order to celebrate it together, and engaged fans will figure out where they stand soon enough.



If you define K-pop as "popular music of Korea" like The Korean, then Shin Joong-hyun and Kim Wan-seon are K-pop, because their music was popular, and it was Korean. But here is the catch: Koreans never called those artists' music K-pop, and probably won't start. Sometimes retroactive naming can work -- for example, when the terms "Mansplaining" "Slacktivism" and "Vaguebooking" were invented, something clicked and people could relate the new term to things they'd been observing/practicing for years, but had no name for it until those terms were coined. How handy to have a word for it now!

In most cases, though, retroactive naming that goes back too far makes me uncomfortable, because it can bulldoze more nuanced stuff that was going on at a time in the past. The term K-pop appeared around 2001-2003, and going back a few years to call SES or Seo TaeJi K-pop isn't too much of a stretch, because early K-pop groups were intentionally, specifically trying to duplicate their success. But going back decades gets more and more spurious, because Koreans did have names for the music genres that The Korean is retroactively erasing under the K-pop banner.

Mansplaining, vaguebooking and slacktivism were terms that brought more clarity and understanding (though they are now also suffering meaning creep); calling everything K-pop does not. I would be interested to hear The Korean explain to me why HIS act of lumping groups that aren't K-pop like Jo-yong Pil or Kim Chuja under that banner are OK, but Korea Inc.'s effort and/or lazy-minded non-Koreans' lumping of disparate groups like IU or FT Island under that banner are Orwellian, other than that Ask A Korean is not a government ministry. I would be happier still if he removed overdramatic claims of Orwellian manipulation from his discussion of meaning slippage in music genres as descriptors. (UPDATE: Beyond Hallyu discusses this much more concisely than I do.)


The foreign gaze in Kpop, and definitions that do too much

There is one other important thing The Korean seems to miss in his discussion: the term K-pop was invented to differentiate Korean music from other types of Asian pop music: a differentiation that only needed to be made once Korean music started gaining, or targeting, audiences outside Korea. It became popular at the time of (not necessarily because of) efforts to promote Korean culture abroad. From its very origin, the foreign gaze is baked into the term K-pop. This is why such disparate groups get lumped together. That is how Psy can be the most important K-pop artist, even though he doesn't fit the K-pop mold (foreign gaze don't care), yet also not rate a place on The Korean's "Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" (he hasn't changed Korean music much; he's just made more people outside Korea aware of it, which doesn't affect the music scene in Korea very much at all). Psy's position relative to K-pop changes completely depending on whether you're looking at Korean music from inside Korean culture or outside, and any definition of K-pop that doesn't/can't account for this is suspect. The Korean gets quite close to realizing the importance of the foreign gaze in defining K-pop while addressing Jon Dunbar's objection in his rejoinder post, but stops a couple steps short of it clicking.

I would argue that The Korean's definition of K-pop is unhelpful, because it does too little (it ignores the crucial part the foreign gaze plays in lumping all modern popular Korean music together) and too much (identifies things as K-pop that are not and never have been called K-pop by people in Korea -- the ones who consume and care most about Korean popular music) at the same time. I would have no issue with this if he just said "Here is my working definition of K-pop. Got it? Got it!" But instead, he asserts that his definition of K-pop is the definitive one and others are incorrect. That is why I am writing to re-muddy the waters.

K-pop is a great tag for search-engine optimization and helping readers find his excellent countdown, but by naming it the "Most Influential K-Pop Artists" series, and even worse, insisting his definition is the correct one and others are wrong, he is flattening out the huge diversity of sounds and styles of Korean music that exists, and confusingly hinting at a foreign gaze upon a series in which he has worked very hard to take Korean music on its own terms. I would find it much more accurate if he titled it "The 50 Most Influential Korean Musicians" or "The 50 Most Influential Korean Popular Music Artists" because the term K-pop and the aesthetic Jaden Smith will shoot for when he plans to drop a K-pop single wouldn't exist yet for 30 years when some of The Korean's top-ranked artists made their music.

Let's have more language, not less (speaking of Orwell)

In the end, while I enjoy the discussion of what K-pop is, and really appreciate The Korean's engaging in the discussion, and especially sharing some great music in the video clips, I would advocate spreading and popularizing more names for the different types of Korean music, rather than butting his head against a wall, trying to change the common usages of a term that is already out there, being used by different people in different, understandable ways, for good reasons of their own. Instead of saying all popular music of Korea is K-pop, let's get K-punk, K-indie, K-folk, K-hip-hop, K-dance, hell, K-Britpop and K-Eurotechno out into the ether as well, so that people have more tools to describe the music they like, instead of torturing the one single term we've been working with into froot-loops of twisted and confusing definitions.

Let's get away from too much lumping-together-of-things: clearer, more accurate language is better, the term K-pop has its uses, and it's not that hard to clarify and avoid confusion. It is not necessary to insist words must all have only one, context-free definition when they don't, and trying to do so bulldozes all the other terms that are being used to talk about Korean music. Actual, engaged K-pop fans would happily learn that variety of terms, use and discuss them, while non-engaged observers would never bother to learn any of them no matter how much online huffing and puffing there is for them to ignore, but who cares what they think anyway?

This image is sexist, but you know which one of these people will have more helpful conversations about colors?

Music genres do this. They just do. And outsiders don't care. Deal with it.

Let's play a game...

UPDATE:
You may notice that I have not offered a definition of K-pop of my own in this whole discussion. Is K-pop a genre? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ sure! I don't really have a horse in this race: on an upcoming episode of the podcast I do with my buddy Eugene, I'll offer something of my own definition, but the point here is, K-pop works better as a term if we don't ask it to work too hard, or do too much. Beyond Hallyu's piece explains this admirably. If your definition of K-pop works for you, and either connects you with like-minded people, helps you find music you like, or gives you a framework for your top 50 Korean musicians countdown, go with it! But don't be too pushy insisting on your definition: language and culture tend to resist becoming overly tidy, and when it doesn't, that is when to bring Orwell back into the discussion.

There will always be big wagon and small wagon K-pop believers: people who think K-pop should be defined as broadly as possible, and those who think it should be more narrow. In that spirit, here's a fun game: let's make a rubric. Run your favorite group through this, and count up their score. Set the bar as high (small wagon K-pop) or as low (catch it all) as you want. Decide for yourself how many points a group needs to earn before they count as K-pop, and we can decide if Psy is or isn't K-pop, whether it's still K-pop when the Wonder Girls start playing their own instruments and singing in English, whether EXPedition is, or No Brain, or Diana Ross and The Supremes for that matter. Here is the checklist, with my own point values. Change the point values to fine-tune your own definition, and then check who clears it and who doesn't.


Group 1: Necessary? Sufficient?

__ Marketed toward Koreans in Korea (50 points)
__ Sung in Korean (50 points)
__ Marketed toward Korean diaspora (15)
__ Group is signed with either: A Korea-based, Korean-owned label (15) One of the "big three" Kpop labels (YG, SM, JYP) (30)
__ Group promotes itself on Korean shows like Music Bank, Inkigayo and Music Core (40)
__ Group is NOT signed with a Korea-based, Korean-owned label (-20)
__ Group/singer was active before the 1990s (DISQUALIFIED)
__ Group/singer was active since 2007 (3 points)
__ They play their own instruments at live shows (-80: they're not K-pop anymore. They're K-something else.)

Group 2: Makeup and Formation

__ Add 5 points for every member the group has after the first five (so, a six-person group gets 5 points; seven-person = 10 points; a 12-person group = 35 points)
__ Subtract 3 points for every member of the group who was not born and raised in Korea
__ Subtract (__) more points for every member of the group who could not pass for Korean in physical appearance (ethnicity/race is important to some people, who will want to put a point value here. I don't really care as long as the next requirement is satisfied).
__ Subtract 8 points for every member of the group who is not fluent enough in Korean to make appearances on Korean television
__ Group was chosen and trained by the label (15 points)
__ Group members are on restrictive, probably unfair long-term contracts (7 points)
__ Group members are all gorgeous by conventional standards of attractiveness. (12)

Group 3: Aesthetics

__ Creative choices for songs, videos and dances are made by the studio, not the performers (8)
__ Music videos all have a "concept" (5)
__ 3 points for each group member with a designated role ("the visual" "the bad girl" "the vocal")
__ Music is driven by synthesizers and sounds like a mash-up of other popular music genres (4)
__ Features rap solos that add nothing to the songs, or dance breaks that sound like the trendiest EDM styles of the day. (4)
__ Cute poses and extreme close-ups feature prominently in videos (3)

Group 4: Promotion

__ Subtract 4 points for every single released only in a language other than Korean (lose too many points, and you're not K-pop anymore: you're Asian pop, J-pop or something else)
__ Subtract 2 points for every single released with a Korean version and a version in another language
__ Subtract 5 points if the group has a "sub-group" targeting markets outside Korea
__ The Korean government has actively promoted their music (12)
__ Add 2 points for every advertising campaign they appear in in Korea.
__ Add 1 point for every advertising campaign they appear in in the rest of Asia.
__ Has an online fan club (10 points) with a quirky nickname (3 more points) run or closely managed by the label (8 more) pumping fans for more money through special offers and deals (5 more) whose fans will fucking dox you SWAT you and cut you if you diss their group (12 more)

Group 5: Other

__ White men over thirty living in Asia who don't listen to it sneer at it contemptuously and talk about it as if they were experts on it (7 points)
__ James Turnbull has written 3000 words about them (3 points)
__ One or more performers were discovered on a Korean audition reality TV show (__) add value here: I don't care about this but some might.
__ Nobody has suggested a different hyphenated K-genre for their music (For example, "She isn't K-pop: she's K-indie!") 5 points


Add your own criteria in the comments, or change the point value in the comments if you want!

Thank you for reading, dear friends.



UPDATE!

Here are some suggested additions to the checklist from Facebook. Thank you, Jon Dunbar!

__ Band is mixed-gender (-20)
__ Band name could be mistaken for a chemical corporation (good one: wish I'd thought of it) (5)
__ Band wears a uniform or uniforms (5)
__ Minus one point for each year above 25 of the band members' ages

(Rob riffing on those:)
__ Band does a video in thinly veiled fetish gear (3)
__ Plus 3 points for each year below 19 of the band members' ages

Any further additions are gladly welcome!


MORE UPDATES:
Stephen Epstein has written a brilliant comment under AAK's rejoinder post.
Go read it!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Monday, 8 August 2016

(UPDATED) Sexism Covering Female Athletes: Help Me Make the Bingo Card!

Edit (August 9) well... here is some nice vindication. As well as some leads for my bingo card! Ironic that it's published by The Korea Times (see below).



Literally one after the other on my Facebook feed this morning, were these two articles:


1. Government Website Under Fire For Sexist Content
Screenshot taken August 8
Yes. Those clueless, ignorant, sexist, bad government website people sure don't know what sexism is! The article describes an internet backlash against a page on a government health portal, about "healthy breasts" which includes a detailed description of the shape and proportions perfect breasts should have. With helpful drawings! (Of COURSE KT included the drawings.)

And then... just to make sure we know The Korea Times doesn't actually understand what the problem was... this article published by them came right after:

"Boyfriend a tall order for 192cm South Korean volleyball star"

The write-up includes digging all the way back to 2010 to find a comment from the player about the height of men she'd consider dating. A comment I'm 100% sure she made in response to a sexist question from a journalist who cared more about her relationship status than her volleyball game or ambitions.
screenshots taken August 8


The OlympicsTM are on. The quadrennial orgy of nationalism, people pretending to care about sports they don't care about for the sake of cheering for their country, increasing corporatization and censorious brand-protection. For once, female athletes (whose medals add to countries' medal counts just as much as men's! Score!) will be given as much attention as men's sports... leading to people who have no idea how to write about women asking dumb, sexist questions and making dumb, sexist comments and focus on their bodies, family situations and relationship statuses instead of the fact they're badass athletes who made it to the f***ing OlympicsTM.

Imagine if men got asked these same patronizing, brain-fart questions: (explanation)



So... tell us how Kim Yeon-koung trained. Tell us what she brings to the team. Tell us how she inspires little girls to excel in sports. Tell us the strategic benefits having a very tall player gives the women's volleyball team. At least friggin mention that she's an otherworldly talent who won the MVP of the 2012 London Women's Volleyball tournament. But this shit, which was the closing line of the article: "The average height of South Korean men is 174.9 centimeters. Regrettably, it would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country." Just fuck on off out of here with that.

Keep trying, Korea Times.


Readers!

You know the idea of the bingo card: here's the "Men's Rights Bingo Card" -- see if you can fill it out while discussing gender on the internet! Or, for a challenge, see if you can fill it out in less than an hour while discussing gender on the internet.

Image warning: Misogyny ahead.


Let's fill out the "Covering Female Sports Bingo Card" which I managed not to find online after a few google searches... so hey. Let's make one! Suggestions in the comments: we've got 5x5 to fill out.


UPDATE: Final Draft





Monday, 25 April 2016

Goodbye, Prince








  When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain
Before high piled books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain
  When I behold upon the night's starred face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance
  And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love--then on the shore
  Of this wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do think.

That is a poem by John Keats, the most poetic of English poets. Others were more important, more popular, or more often studied, but John Keats made English more beautiful than any writer has before or since. He gave us the Odes (to a Nightingale, to a Grecian Urn, and my own favorite, on Melancholy). His poetry is the most vivid, most sensuous, most alive poetry I've read, and to read it is to celebrate being alive.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

John Keats died before his 26th birthday. The poem above meditates on how fleeting his life might be, and his fear that his death might come before he had written out all the poetry churning in his brain, which is exactly what happened. To love John Keats is to be forever teased by the would have, the could have, of a poet whose poetry reached heights few other poets ever could, but who was robbed of the chance to write more, just as we are now robbed of the chance to read it.

I woke up on Friday morning to the horrible news that another perfect artist, another artist whose work transcends time and language and genre, whose art, at its best, skips blithely past our defenses and strikes something deep within us like a dart, has been taken from us too soon. Prince is dead. How can we go on? Prince is dead.

I did not grow up in Minnesota, like a few of my friends on Facebook, whose grief I cannot imagine. I did not know Prince personally, and I can't imagine what his loved ones are feeling right now. I did not even grow up on Prince's music: I was just a little too young to catch him at his apex. My musical taste's development caught the end of his prime as an absolute world-straddling hitmaker, and I have "7" on the mix-tapes I made by listening to the radio with my fingers hovering over the "record" button, but I was too young for Purple Rain, Sign O'The Times, and Kiss, all the more for 1999 and Little Red Corvette. I was around for a few of the "Prince or Michael Jackson" conversations, and for the Love Symbol replacing his name. Prince didn't belong to me: his activism, name-checking Black Lives Matter, naming the first song on his last album "Baltimore" and singing that if there is no justice, there is no peace: the struggles he sings about are ones I care about, but they are not my story. I admit it is impossible for Prince to mean as much to me as he means to other people.

There is no reason I should be quite as distraught as I am about Prince's passing: Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and David Bowie didn't make me feel this way. Pressed to it, I can't think of a single artist whose death would make me feel the same way Prince's has, and so I sit a step removed, and watch myself grieve, startled at how hard this hit me.

Which other celebrity could have the lights shone on public monuments turned purple, and for everyone to know exactly what it meant, and who it was for? What artist was talented enough to claim an entire color for himself (and not even an obscure one like puce or chartreuse, but one of the big, "in-every-crayola-box" ones), and for everybody to go "Yeah. OK. You can have purple from now on," like they did for Prince? What artist was big enough that you said "Prince" and nobody said "Prince who?" (even my royalist sister-in-law)? Nobody.

I play every version of Purple Rain I can find again and again, I plumb my friends' Facebook feeds for articles, tracklists, videoclips and bootlegs, I watch interviews and tributes, I read distraught articles by people who loved Prince like an uncle. In the absence of a friend who can come over, maybe this is how I can feel connected to the mourning: by sharing in the videos and articles that all the other mourners are also watching and reading. Thank you Michael, Regina and Jane. The links you've been sharing on your Facebook pages have helped me feel like I'm sharing with someone. And that poem by John Keats runs through my head when Purple Rain does not.

Prince was the most talented musician I will probably ever encounter in my life. He wrote every song, played every instrument, sang every vocal, and produced and mixed every song for Sign O'The Times: every single step of recording one of the best albums in my collection was completely and solely done by him. His songs all hit the mark -- whatever he's trying for, he does it. And then live, you can't take your eyes off him, and his guitar solos are all perfect combinations of wild unpredictability and technical perfection. All I can do is wonder, and reel in awe.

I am listening to what nobody knew would be Prince's final concert, on Soundcloud.



To impress upon my wife how important Prince is, I explained that for much of the 80s, "Who's better: Michael Jackson or Prince?" was a legitimate question. It seems Purple Rain didn't make as big an impact here in South Korea as Thriller did, but that seemed to be a good frame. But what that comparison doesn't cover is that Michael Jackson hadn't been relevant as an artist for a decade by the time he passed on. Until the end, Prince was recording music, performing, mentoring other artists, writing songs, producing, creating, and supporting communities and activists. That longevity (as well as staying out of tabloids) is why I don't think we can argue anymore that it's a contest between Prince and Michael Jackson. Jackson probably had a higher peak in terms of popularity, but Prince's footprints are deeper and wider spread.

And then I think that, like John Keats, I am sure that Prince had more music in his head, that we will not get to hear. I realize that this is a selfish thought, and also that Prince has done so much that it is right to celebrate him, and not to cheaply wish we could have yet more. But the world is poorer. Music is poorer for his passing. He had more young artists to mentor. He had more albums to make of his own, and more collaborations, and more stages to crash and songs to raise to a new level with a perfect guitar solo. His talent and his ability to perform stayed with him right until 2016.

I did not like Prince right away. In fact, for much of my 20s, I had an out and out prejudice against music from the 80s. My music taste developed in the early 90s (they say the music you liked around age 13-14 is the kind of music you will like for all your life), and at that age, grunge music was backlashing against the synth pop sounds of the 80s, so my distaste for keyboards and that "Hungry Like A Wolf" sound kept me away from 80s music entirely for years.

Prince is the one who brought me back. The song Purple Rain, specifically, was the song that went right past my guards and defenses, and convinced me to give the 80s another listen. It is the ultimate confessional song. It is the very sound of a person pouring their heart out in music, it is an absolute show-stopper, yet so moving and personal at the same time. How a man could create that song, which holds so much meaning for so many people, hits them so deeply, amazes me. It is one of the greatest songs I know, from beginning to end. It is a song that owns its greatness, wears its ambition on its sleeve, and actually achieves its moon-shot. Starting with the undeniable Purple Rain, Prince's music slowly, irresistibly  grew on me, and he steadily climbed in my esteem, until now, when he is one of my top two artists, and every song I can ever hope for from him is already in the bag, or the vault.

Prince is gone. I am sad, and I want to be around other people who loved him. But I also celebrate him. I celebrate his humanitarian work. I celebrate his genius. All those perfect solos and all the different personas he sang with. The way he could be passionate and confessional, fun, goofy, sexy, dirty, silly, whimsical, experimental or as "pop" as pop can be, without ever ceasing to be Prince: that he could contain so much inside him, still inspires and awes. Prince is the John Keats of music: a pure genius, unsullied even when he sings about ugly things. A perfect conduit of joy, grief, love, of all the emotions we have, making us all more alive, helping us experience the world more vividly and sensuously and abundantly, then taken from us too soon. So, thank you Prince, for the gift you shared with us for your time on the planet. Thank you for giving 80s music back to me, for moving your fans in so many different ways, for making my kindergarten students and my son dance, and for connecting everybody who is now sharing purple-themed grief on their websites and facebook walls. Music brings people together, and now, even in our grief, we are not alone, because we love you, and we will miss you.