Exploring Queer Culture Within K-pop This Pride Month

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As Pride Month comes to an end this year, we take a look behind the shiny facade of the Korean music industry. Peeling back the layers to explore the queer culture that lies within the world of music that is taking over the Asian – and international – music scene.

Korea is a conservative country in many ways. In a country where abortion is illegal, and topics such as sexual education and pornography remain shrouded in secrecy, it is no surprise that LGBT and queer culture remains to a large extent unacknowledged and pushed aside to shady corners of the country. It is, however, interesting to note while Korean news networks address LGBT subject matters with the idea that “TV and internet turn people gay with their Western influence”, Korea’s flashiest export-pop- with its vibrant image and songs- remains one of the most visually homoerotic genres of music to exist.

K-pop idols with their androgynous fashion- by playing up their traditionally feminine features- have created a space for a queer aesthetic. While this may at first appear as examples of LGBT celebrities making their mark, it is, in fact, a paradigm created by K-pop label owners themselves. With the concepts of “shipping” and “fan service”, everything- from the way the idols dress to their interactions with each other- is planned and polished.

As the word suggests, fan service is about giving the fans what they want. It develops as a marketing technique where the idols are encouraged to play into the desires of their young audiences. “Shipping” which involves audiences becoming a fan of a real or imagined relationship between celebrities is an internet concept that further pushes the homoerotic subtext within their interactions.

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The encouragement of these interactions- be it kissing on stage or touching each other provocatively on stage to fuel erotic fantasies of audiences – is completely at odds with Korea’s actual stance on the LGBT community.

This is where “labeling theory” comes into play. This theory works around the concept that anything you give a name to inevitably ends up being that thing. Idol interactions can be homoerotic, the music vibrant, the fashion androgynous and the dance flamboyant, but as long they aren’t outrightly labeled “gay”, then the media can pretend that it doesn’t exist. Playing gay is fine, being gay is not.

Another thing that holds back Korea from changing their attitude is respectability politics. The idea of doing and believing in the “right” thing even if it isn’t what you personally believe in, continues to hold them back.

Photo: YouTube

However, not everything is as bad as it seems. Right from “I Won’t Love” by Baek Ji Young in 2006 to “Animal” by Jo Kwon in 2012 and many more, there have been idols who challenged and broke down stereotypes to deliver music that elevates the stance of the LGBT representation.

Photo: NewNowNext

The most recent step forward for representation in the Korean music scene came earlier this year with singer Holland’s “Neverland”.

Putting his sexuality in the forefront of his debut, Holland kicked off the year with an alt-R&B track and accompanying music video, both of which revelled in queer love. With this track, Holland became the first openly gay K-pop idol to debut and address the rarely address topic within the Korean entertainment industry.

Only a handful of celebrities, including the entertainer-entrepreneur Hong Seokcheon and the transgender singer Harisu, are publicly out. But Holland’s debut and the widespread support for “Neverland” – which racked up more than 700,000 views within 24 hours of its release and spurred worldwide trending hashtag #HollandDebutDay on Twitter – shows that there is more acceptance of the LGBT community among younger generations.

As Holland debuted and succeeded in his representation, it can be said that even though there remains a long road of improvement, things are slowly getting better for the LGBT community in Korea. Younger generations are more accepting and their consumer power remains strong as they can ignore harmful discourse and change the narrative to target more specific topics; such as queer culture and pro-LGBT stances.

Watch the music video to “Neverland”:

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