What does a K-pop band with no Koreans say about cultural appropriation?
A South Korean university student in New York hopes to examine cultural appropriation via a K-pop band made up of foreigners
It was in the excruciating moment when EXP member Frankie Daponte Jnr was asked to objectify his bandmates that he recognised the surreal aspect of his professional life. "I was asked to line them up in order of hotness," he recalls of the workshop task. "When I first joined EXP I saw it as a challenge and an amazing experience, but then at the root of everything, I realised we were touching on some really big topics."
Daponte could well be speaking for the masses of today's pop stars whose image and lifestyles are controlled by an aggressive music industry. Much more than simply a reflection of contemporary music, the bright lights and manipulated images of these stars often point to darker undercurrents of sociopolitical propaganda and the issues of "representation" that each culture faces.
For example, in the US, child stars are subject to overt sexualisation, while in South Korea, the militant routines and discipline of K-pop bands speak of a cultural tapestry wrought with image control. The latter, along with how the genre is viewed in the West, were things that Bora Kim explored at Columbia University in her final thesis in 2014, a multimedia project titled I'm Making a Boy Band.
Kim's primary interest is in dissecting how a culture is appropriated, through the construction of an "inappropriation". To do so, she's created an entirely new K-pop band formed of foreigners.
This is where Daponte and bandmates Tarion Taylor-Anderson, Koki Tomlinson, Hunter Kohl, Šime Košta and David Wallace - all raised in the US, none with Korean background - came in. Kim, along with colleagues Samantha Shao and Karin Kuroda, recruited these professional dancers and in April, they were officially "launched" in New York as K-pop heartthrobs EXP.
Immediately, critical backlash and confusion ensued, with music fans expressing outrage at the whitewashing of the genre and slamming the boys for their Korean language skills.
"My friends would say, 'Oh, you're still in that fake boy band'," says Tomlinson with a laugh. He, like the others, is learning Korean from scratch. "I'd be like 'No!' but then, 'Yes, kind of'."
But it is exactly this kind of critical dialogue that Kim, Shao and Kuroda (respectively from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan) welcome. "We are creating this in this context of different Asian perspectives. That's an important thing to say, in terms of appropriation," says Kim.
Shao adds: "Besides the appropriation part, what we're trying to discuss is the process of how the K-boys started. Usually pop culture is so easy to dismiss, but at the same time it is so influential. It's really important for us to think a little deeper about what we are buying and seeing as consumers."
Although autonomy is handed back to the boys in the production and writing of music - that has to be an organic process, Kim stresses - all other EXP activities are orchestrated by the creative team. Everything, from the all-in-white band photoshoot, to their hairstyles and Instagram accounts, is controlled to adhere to the artistic concept. This mirrors the non-existent artistic freedom that K-pop stars experience, as well as the nature of subliminal brainwashing and cultural borrowing. The project wants to ask the question: just who is profiting from these manipulations?
"Power is always an issue when it comes to cultural appropriation," says Kim. "For example, in China, the government has limited the airing times of Korean dramas because it's becoming too much of a culturally dominant entity. And then if you look at the history of K-pop, you'll see it appropriates from the West - in the '90s, the hip-hop genre came through Japan which had digested it from the West. And in many ways today, K-pop is also literally propaganda that the government supports and uses as a PR tool. That's why I wanted to use pop culture for this project, which is such a fluid and loaded thing that needs decoding."
Tomlinson's earlier statement on objectifying his EXP bandmates reveals his unease about the "gaze". He and Daponte mention the all-white photoshoot as another highly uncomfortable experience, as they were "rolling around in a way that could be seen as homoerotic in the West" - though similar shoots are common in the K-pop world. That is why Kim specifically chose boys over girls, because South Korea's definition of masculinity is complicated, raising the questions: what do these K-boys offer? Who do they represent?
"I had my own idea of what perfection in K-pop was when I came in - clean dance moves, with everyone very polished and aesthetically appealing," says Daponte. "But as the project continued to unfold, the definition of perfect became different."
Tomlinson, who is half-Japanese and was born in Hong Kong before being raised in Texas, explains the East-West disparities. "In the West it's all about sex appeal, you're meant to be masculine and muscular - the East, it's about being cute and approachable and it took us a while to understand that."
The line between fiction and reality often blurs, often deliberately so by Kim and her team. When EXP perform live, they are professionally manicured to the hilt, and synchronised to resemble the perfect boy band. Even if you know they're "faking" it, the experience of interaction, of watching a performance, is real.
And of course, like a "real" boy band, the members of EXP also have ambitions. For now, they are working on an album while the creative team documents the process, all funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Speaking and singing in fluent Korean is also a priority for the boys, though, ironically, none of them have been to Korea yet.
This will likely provide an entirely different wealth of material for I'm Making a Boy Band to work with and digest in their ongoing narration of cultural mapping.
For more information on I'm Making a Boy Band, visit immakingaboyband.com