Mark Simpson on America’s manly embrace of BTS & Korean metrosexuality
‘K-Pop’ boyband BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, have been getting a lot of love in the US this week with their week-long ‘virtual’ residency on The Tonight Show. Their new single ‘Dynamite’, their first song performed fully in English, also took the No.1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 – the first all-South Korean group to do so.
Pretty boys. Catchy tune. Sweet singing. Colourful clothes – and hair. Cool moves. Seductive smiles. What’s not to love? They look good enough to eat – like all-singing, all-dancing macarons.
And no beards. In fact, they are so smooth that just watching them probably makes your beard fall out. So of course I’m very much in favour of them.
But the beauty of the world’s biggest boy band isn’t skin deep. WWE superstar-turned-actor and all-American beefy pocket battleship, 43-year-old John Cena – who is himself suspiciously clean-shaven – is a fan of the South Korean boyish androgynes and their sensitive message of ‘self-love’, coming out this week on network TV as a proud member of the BTS Army.
“I got interested in the music then I got interested in what the music stood for… “They advocate self-love, they advocate ‘don’t be afraid of failure’, they advocate that you are enough. They are trying to shatter all the stereotypical difficulties and uncomfortable situations that we go through and they’re catering to an audience that is living that – young people.”
This is quite the endorsement, given Cena’s formative, muscular role in shaping the psyche of millions of American men who grew up with posters of the tough wrestler flexing for battle on their bedroom walls.
Cena isn’t alone in his manly adoration. Doing the rounds on social media is this YouTube video, in which mostly hetero young American men, express – or perform – their fascination with and love for perhaps (it’s a close-run competition) the prettiest BTS member, 24 year-old Jimin and his ‘innocent flirtiness’.
The way US men seem to have taken BTS and Jimin to their bosoms is quite something, especially given the way the US, almost uniquely in the world, had a chest-beating backlash against metrosexuality a decade or so ago. Then again, BTS are not American. They’re ‘exotic’.
Nevertheless, one of the salient things about BTS is that unlike most other boybands, they seem to exist not simply for the titillation and wooing of female fans (though they do lots of that: see below), but are also a boyband for boys/men.
‘BTS’ stands for Bantang Sonyeondan, Korean for ‘Bulltproof Boy Scouts’. According to band member J-Hope, the name signifies the band’s desire to ‘block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that target adolescents like bullets.’
A feature in Metro UK a couple of years ago reported how BTS and K-pop are attracting fanboys – who claim that K-pop has ‘helped them understand themselves, and the concept of masculinity, far better’.
The well-kept, flagrant-fragrant metrosexuality of K-pop in general and BTS in particular has been documented by others:
The overall visual of K-pop is very appealing – a man, taking care of himself: having clean skin, being dressed well, using actual cosmetic products… that Metrosexual vibe… I know it’s very primal and many people say that a guy should be having a hairy chest and all of those things that make him look tough. Taking care of yourself is a great effort and a compliment for those around you.
The Korea Herald last year wrote about the ‘metrosexual image’ of K-pop, explaining it in terms of contemporary ‘genderless’ fashion brand strategy:
“With the genderless trend hitting the fashion industry, brands are rolling out lines of apparel that are not limited to a specific gender,” a fashion industry source told Kpop Herald on condition of anonymity. “Against this nonbinary trend, K-pop male idols’ aesthetic, metrosexual image matches well with what luxury brands are aiming for. They can easily pull off clothes that are sometimes too bold or colorful, or outfits largely considered womenswear with ease, while exuding edginess.”
For what it’s worth, metrodaddy agrees that BTS and K-pop are East Asian expressions of metrosexuality – using consumerism and aesthetics to widen the meaning of masculinity and nick gender styles, pleasures and feelings previously associated with femininity and/or stigmatised homosexuality.
It should be pointed out here however that for all it’s cutting-edge consumer goods success – TV and smartphone giant Samsung is based there – South Korea is mostly conservative and religious, and was under military rule until the 1990s. Military service is still compulsory for males – where homosexuality is illegal.
And although homosexuality is no longer illegal for civilians, attitudes tend to be mostly negative. There are few out performers in South Korea – despite the way that male K-pop idols regularly play-act homoerotic romance on stage. (BTS are particularly known for their snuggling.)
Or perhaps because they regularly play-act homoerotic romance. K-pop’s heavy flirtation with same-sex romance is almost predicated on the official disavowal that they couldn’t actually be gay or bisexual. The homoflirtation is anyway mostly for the female fans – who in Korea, as in many other parts of the world including of course the UK, enjoy creating homoerotic fantasies about their male idols.
K-pop actively encourages and panders to ‘shipping’ narratives – far more than the UK’s One Direction did. But again, those fantasies are typically based on two otherwise heterosexual young men falling in love with one another. If they were actually, openly gay then that would be about their sexuality, their needs – not their fans’. Likewise, K-pop idols are not supposed to get married and face a bitter backlash if they do. The homoflirtation of K-pop is a way of staying faithful to the mostly female fans.
But the cultural effect of K-pop is nevertheless to widen the meanings of masculinity – and to provide more breathing space (and cover) for those who feel oppressed by traditional expectations, as well as succour to sensitive wrestlers like John Cena. Perhaps even representing a kind of masculine liberation – albeity paradoxically, given the almost feudal relationship of K-pop idols to their powerful labels. And of course that of their fans and the rest of us to consumerism.
Perhaps that’s the significance of the David Bowie posters (behind and on the left) in the attic bedroom of the milk-drinking chap at the start of video for ‘Dynamite’. Though I wonder whether they shouldn’t have been posters of the non-singing, High Street David Bowie, David Beckham – who in his metrosexy prime had a big impact in Asia, becoming the most recognised sportsman there.
BTS are mostly, and quite intensely it seems to me, about what I have always insisted was at the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality and the sensual revolution it represents. Not ‘being in touch with your feminine side’, or having facials or using product, or even ‘loving yourself’ – but rather, the male desire to be desired.
Every member of BTS radiates it, but it’s there most powerfully of course in the beatific Jimin – and the thousand seductive ways he looks and smiles into the camera. Commanding your longing.
And BTW, in case you think K-pop slightly coy about sex, it also has its oiled-up spornosexual exponents, such as 2PM:
Special thanks to Carl Rohde for nagging me to write about K-pop