Against the Queenification of Blackpink

16 October 2020 ☼ K-popCommentaryArtist: Blackpink

First of all let me define queenification.” I mean a certain style of writing in entertainment journalism or commentary specifically in which the subject is vaunted as having succeeded over and beyond expectations, and is all the more admirable for her success. You can get a flavor of it from perusing articles about Lizzo: Lizzo is the queen of self love anthems and endless bops,” Lizzo is the Queen of TikTok,” Lizzo: The Queen of Body Positivity.” Generally referring to the subject as the queen” of whatever field or subject she works in is a signal that the piece is going to be almost uniformly positive. Elisabeth Moss Is the Queen of Peak TV,” for example, is more than 5,000 words long, and only one of those words is Scientologist.”

Blackpink has been getting queenified treatment in entertainment media this year—“It is always a good time to get walked all over by the ladies of Blackpink,” declared Vulture when How You Like That” was released—and I’ve been less than impressed with all of it. But I didn’t write anything, since I can’t swear that this isn’t just all sour grapes on my part. I don’t like Blackpink’s music; that’s not a secret. (Except Whistle. I still think Whistle” is a very good song.) And I’ve been following Korean idol pop long enough to have loved, and written about, hard-working and talented female groups that have dissolved without having received even a fraction of Blackpink’s favorable coverage. So it could be that I’m flattering myself for taking my unfounded biases and calling them thoughtful against-the-tide criticism.

But yesterday I read Kate Halliwell’s Ringer essay on Light Up the Sky, the new Netflix documentary on Blackpink, and finally managed to start putting into words what’s bothering me beyond But Blackpink doesn’t deserve it.” Queenifying writing is silly, but in this particular case it also risks rewarding the Korean idol pop industry for keeping its most unsavory and unfair aspects under wraps.

Now, I need to be crystal clear as to my complaints about Halliwell’s essay. One, I like Halliwell’s work; that’s why I scrolled down the Ringers page to click on her byline in the first place. She’s clearly knowledgeable about Korean idol pop, and her BTS Hair Matrix,” for example, is like well-written comfort food. Two, while Halliwell has done interviews, this particular piece is not journalism, in the sense of shoe-leather reporting, here’s-Fact-A-and-here’s-Fact-B-Which-Maybe-Complicates-A. Halliwell is clearly writing as a fan-commentator, not as a reporter. So if she emphasizes some facts about Blackpink and doesn’t mention others, she’s not lying or being deceitful; she’s making an argument, and emphasizing some facts and obscuring others is what making an argument is. She’s professional and reasoned. That’s not the problem.

The underlying argument Halliwell brings to her discussion of the Blackpink documentary is that Western media coverage of Korean idol pop has been frequently sexist, reductive, and pruriently gloomy, and this documentary, by keeping the focus on Jennie, Rosé, Lisa, and Jisoo as individuals with distinct personalities, works as a corrective to that. This is absolutely a fair criticism, and it’s a good development that groups such as Blackpink and BTS (and ATEEZ and Monsta X and Twice) are beginning to get the same kind of profiles and general entertainment reporting as their Western counterparts have always received. By the same token, Halliwell dislikes it when Western media focuses too closely on the dark side” of K-pop, because it then frames the idols themselves as interchangeable victims or dupes. That is also a fair criticism. She doesn’t bring up last year’s Bloomberg feature, to take one example, but she could have; it didn’t do a good job with its subject.

The problem is, if you’re going to push back against such a narrative, you need to be able to claim an alternative narrative where the idols do have some agency. And of all the current major Korean female groups, Blackpink may be the absolute worst one to use for the counterargument.

Look: queens, as a rule, hold power. If you’re going to queenify a celebrity it implies that the power lies with her and not her handlers. When Jada Yuan asks Elisabeth Moss questions about what roles she chooses and how she plays them, this makes sense, since we have no reason to believe that Elisabeth Moss has anyone making these decisions for her. Similarly, the driving creative force behind Lizzo is Lizzo. You can’t say that about Blackpink. Unless I’m grossly mistaken, all the decisions that make Blackpink Blackpink”—the less-is-more release strategy, the songs themselves, the styling, the avoidance of matching outfits and other standard Korean girl-group signifiers—are made over the members’ heads. They control how they perform, and so if you believe that no one sells a rap like Lisa, or a different Korean female idol group wouldn’t have done as well at Coachella (which might well be true, though I’d like to at least see Dreamcatcher or (G)I-DLE take a crack at it), then you can make a case that all the backstage maneuvering in the world wouldn’t create the juggernaut that Blackpink has become. (I will say: one of the nice after-effects of the positive Blackpink coverage is it seems to have killed the Jennie-is-lazy slander.) But I’ve yet to hear the case, beyond Jennie and Jisoo getting a couple song credits, that Blackpink gets to control anything other than how they perform. They’re very good worker bees.

But, Jessica,” you say, you’re falling into the same trap, of assuming Korean idols have no agency.” No, because I can point to a dozen examples off the top of my head of female Korean idol performers for whom there is more evidence of agency than for the Blackpink members, and that’s even with setting aside IU and Lee Hyori as veteran exceptions. There are group veterans who have gone on to pursue different musical avenues in solo careers, such as Sunmi and Tiffany and Jenyer, previously Jiyoon of 4Minute (also Hyoyeon, whose DJ HYO work has strayed pretty far from SNSDs original lane). There’s Kim Boa, who spent years pursuing side careers as a songwriter and backing vocalist while a member of SPICA and is now independently working with former groupmate Bohyung. There’s Ashley, who’s at this point probably better known for her radio and podcast work than she is for her idol career, even though her group was responsible for one of the greatest Korean idol-pop songs of all time. There’s CLCs Sorn, who was one of the first idols to make a strong impression with a trilingual YouTube channel and who has gone to Cube with Powerpoint presentations about concepts. There’s also the increasing number of idols with personal YouTube channels, and while we can argue how much support (or pressure) someone like Sorn or APink’s Bomi or Oh My Girl’s Mimi receives from their respective agencies, there’s still enough variety in presentation to suggest that the idols do have some individual control. (I can believe WM Entertainment had to approve the video that starts with an un-made-up Mimi talking through toothpaste foam, but I find it much harder to believe that WM suggested it.) And finally, there are examples of idols who have been successful working within the Korean idol-pop system but still manage to venture nonstandard opinions, such as Irene’s publicly reading feminist books and Suzy’s sticking up for sexual-harassment victims or Solar’s talking about female genital mutilation.

Lisa has her own YouTube channel, mostly of dance performances, and between that and her Youth With You work she seems to have had the most leeway to establish herself outside of Blackpink’s activities. But that’s still not a whole lot of leeway even within the usual business practices of Korean idol pop. Halliwell exposes this—inadvertently, I think—when she tries to argue for the four members’ individual role in Blackpink’s success:

Blackpink isn’t an unprecedented success because of the tried-and-true YG Entertainment system—they’re an unprecedented success because they grew beyond it, and are now forcing the industry to grow with them. They’re a success because of Rosé’s deep affection for music, and because of Jisoo’s dry wit and unwavering care for her younger members. They’re a success because Lisa was born to do this,” no matter where in the world she was born, and because Jennie preserved her individual artistry and optimistic spirit through six years of being told she wasn’t good enough.

This is not convincing in the slightest, and I’ll prove it, by modifying the paragraph only slightly, like so…

Red Velvet isn’t an unprecedented success because of the tried-and-true SM Entertainment system—they’re an unprecedented success because they grew beyond it, and are now forcing the industry to grow with them. They’re a success because of Wendy’s deep affection for music, and because of Irene’s dry wit and unwavering care for her younger members. They’re a success because Seulgi was born to do this,” no matter where in the world she was born, and because Yeri preserved her individual artistry and optimistic spirit through six years of being told she wasn’t good enough.

…and the biggest problem with that version is that it does Joy dirty.

I’m being an ass to make a point. You can argue that one Korean female group is more popular than another because of a difference in concept, or attractiveness, or quality of musical output, or luck. But you can’t argue that the difference lies in the members being hard-working, charming, unique individuals, because every group, regardless of its place in the idol-pop pecking order, features hard-working, charming, unique individuals. Give me three hours to binge-watch Weki Meki Mohae and I’ll come back to you with a bunch of supported statements about Doyeon’s constant professionalism and networking skills, Elly’s gift for sly comedy, and Suyeon’s mother-hen dependability. If the best a dedicated Blink can do to show agency is point to evidence of the Blackpink members’ personalities, that’s tantamount to saying there’s no evidence at all.

And here’s the other reason why Blackpink is a bad group to elide over weak arguments with: their status as a YG group. Now, there is basically no Korean entertainment agency for whom a case can be made that it treats its employees with consistent respect. If Twice had been the group to break through, there would be good reason for media scrutiny of how JYP talks to its members about their weight and whether his business practices contributed to Mina’s mental-health problems. But there’s standard-issue evidence of disrespectful practice, and then there’s Yang Hyun-suk. Remember him? The guy who allegedly took his profits in cash from clubs where sex trafficking was going on? And was reportedly paying out bribes all over the place to protect Seungri as the Burning Sun allegations were emerging? Even if you argue that that shouldn’t come up in current coverage of Blackpink, as there’s been not a shred of evidence that any of its members engaged in any shady or exploitative actions, YG is also the guy who told a Korean talk show that he withheld support from his future wife’s group in part for fearing that if it took off she’d dump him, and the guy who essentially let CLs career wither into the dust, and then said, comparing Blackpink to 2NE1, But this time I wanted the girls to look pretty too, with skills. Yes, he’s since left day-to-day involvement at YG Entertainment, and again, there’s no evidence whatsoever that he directly mistreated any member of Blackpink. But if you aspire to be an independent, confident female singer with a clear-cut empowerment message,” to quote Elles description of Blackpink, this is not a man you want signing your checks.

Halliwell knows this: the clue is in her writing, …it’s never fun to watch Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa dance like their lives depend on it for a line of unsmiling men who appear to hold the girls’ careers in their hands.” And I suspect that, if she were more confident that her piece would be read only by fellow supportive Blinks who can distinguish between wanting the best for Blackpink-as-YG-subsidiary and wanting the best for Jennie, Jisoo, Rosé, and Lisa, she’d be willing to go into more detail. But without that confidence, she might well be worried that invoking YGs long history of failing to give his female employees much agency would rebound not on YG but on Blackpink, feeding into the stereotype of Korean idols as robot puppets. And if that’s Halliwell’s worry, it’s an understandable worry.

But there’s a risk in overcorrecting. Back in 2014 the Jukebox reviewed Stellar’s Marionette”, complete with its famously racy video. Afterwards Jacques Arcadey, who had already been writing about Korean idol pop for a while at that point, came to our comments section to argue that the song was knowing commentary on the dehumanization on the industry. I objected on the grounds that the members themselves might not be in on the criticism, and Arcadey said, The girls still had to agree to do it at the end of the day.” Given what Gayoung has since said about Stellar’s sexy concepts” and the Marionette” video in particular, I don’t think Arcadey’s assumptions about the members’ willing participation were right. Painting Stellar as knowing performers able to perform racy concepts in order to critique them obscured how the members were actually being treated.

I get why Halliwell wants to defend Blackpink from both the faceless men” and the uncaring onlookers who would assume they’re pawns of the faceless men. Nobody should be treating Blackpink as one-dimensional victims. But the risk of pushing back too hard is that it gives the faceless men cover. If we keep insisting too loudly, with insufficient evidence, that they’re queens, we might end up playing into the hands of those who benefit from their being pawns.