Honestly, at this point, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know what K-pop is. K-pop is a genre of music from South Korea, just as complicated and diverse as the Western pop genre.

Boy Group EXO from the “Obsession” Music Video. Photo and Credit: SM Entertainment

I believe there are several key factors that differentiate the K-pop aesthetic from music in other countries and that also draw in an LGBT+ audience. The biggest thing that sets K-pop apart from Western artists is that each “idol,” as K-pop members are called in the industry, is expected to know how to dance. Like, really really well. They must be capable of memorizing tons of choreographies and performing them in perfect synchronization with the other members of the group. The LGBT+ community loves a good, camp-y performance.

We also eat up gender-fluid or unconventional perceptions of fashion. There’s a reason Lady Gaga has such a huge queer fanbase. K-pop, more often than not, has men dressed in skirts, fishnets, and crop tops. Women groups bring out suits every now and again. And each new album is a fight to outdo the last zany outfit. There’s always the push to try something new. Artists are always seeking to push a new narrative. Compared to what sometimes seems like a more rigid Western music industry, it’s rather fresh.

Oftentimes Westerners look at the styling of K-pop artists and, based on looks, assume that the industry is completely comprised of LGBT+ people. This is because there is not as much differentiation between how male and female idols are styled: both are allowed brightly colored locks, visible makeup, and fashion-forward outfits. Male idols often show up to major events with extreme smokey eyes, glitter, the whole shebang. In the Western world, male artists that dress like this are usually out and queer or assumed to be queer. The concept of masculinity is different in Korea. This seems incredibly progressive from a Western point of view, where a man could get quite the backlash for any noticeable makeup at all.

What is queerbaiting?

Queerbaiting is defined as “the practice of using hints of sexual ambiguity to tease an audience.” It’s a concept that was born out of Tumblr fandom culture in the early 2010’s, when the shows Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock were all mega-popular. This was in part because people enjoyed the shows and part because each one had a questionable intimate same-sex friendship. These “ships”– a fandom term for a relationship that fans want to see together– are used to string along queer fans without ever delivering.

Gay for pay

It didn’t take long before South Korea’s record labels realized there was major money to be made if they began to sell the idea that their idols were secretly gay for each other. While Western boy groups like One Direction were denying fan theories of homosexuality between members, K-pop labels fully embraced “shipping” culture. This “fan-service” directly feeds the fetish a lot of straight teenage women have regarding an often sexualized relationship between attractive same-sex relationships, particularly between men.

“Skinship” became encouraged, which could take form in hugging, holding hands, or even kissing between members. Thus, the creation of variety show games like the “Paper Kiss Game.” This game involves passing a piece of paper between mouths. If it falls, the result is an accidental smooch on the lips.

I must say that this is a critique of the industry and entertainment companies rather than individual artists. I don’t aim to “call out” particular artists. Many K-pop artists don’t have much freedom to determine the concept of their albums. Their companies craft a controlled image very carefully.

Additionally, this is a problem with both male and female groups. I’m going to focus on lesbianism and female groups when it comes to examples.

The Only “Out” K-Pop artist

Don’t get it twisted. South Korean society doesn’t actually support same-sex relationships in real life. Homosexuality is only acceptable with the understanding it’s performative and not real. The conservative country has no anti-discriminatory laws to protect LGBT+ South Koreans. Gay marriage is not a thing.

The K-pop record labels are happy to push the fantasy of queerness, but the alleged allyship ends there. In the same breath, labels will just as happily silence real queer folks. Record labels hope to appeal just enough to queer fans to capitalize on them, while still cultivating a space for homophobes so they don’t feel alienated.

That’s why there’s only one gay idol as of right now. His stage name is Holland.

He wanted to write songs about his real experiences as a gay man. and was rejected by many labels. To produce his debut album, Holland had to crowdfund the money and release is under his own label.

His first song, “Neverland,” depicted a same-sex kiss. On Youtube it’s flagged as 19+ and “inappropriate for younger groups.” Music shows also banned a live performance of the song. It’s impossible this wasn’t rooted in homophobia when taking into account the amount of heterosexual kissing scenes in other music videos.

Good representation

The art form of drag has a very large presence in Seoul, South Korea. This is partly thanks to the international impact of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Recently, there have been several notable incorporations of drag in pop culture. This includes a Korean rendition of the musical “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” which is a story based on a high-school student who dreams of becoming a drag queen. The musical has announced a lineup that includes several known idols. Music videos like “Hip” by Mamamoo and “Wonder Woman” by Brown-Eyed Girls also include drag queens.

I think it’s important to know this was Chuu’s debut– her first ever music video appearance. Usually artists try something as risky only once they have a more established career. It was a gutsy move on her part. Although maybe the video’s success was evident, since LOONA has a predominantly queer and female fanbase.

I like this video because suffering is oftentimes a subplot to LGBT+ relationships but this is nothing but wholesome. It feels very innocent in a middle-school crush type of way. The caption and lyrics even clearly state the “girl crush” theme instead of leaving it up to interpretation.

This music video does not tiptoe around depicting the secret romantic relationship between two adult women. It clearly establishes an intimacy more than just a friendship and maintains that through the storyline. The problem is a homophobic boyfriend and their environment, not the relationship. After killing the abusive boyfriend, they grasp hands and walk away from the burning car his body is in.

I’m not condoning murder, but I welcome this LGBT+ vengeance thriller. Putting out a video like this requires courage. There were a lot of comments under it saying the video gave people strength to come out to their own families.

Questionable Representation

Though I’m a fan of Red Velvet’s song “Monster,” I do have a bone to pick with some of the music video and packaging elements. I think it’s important to stay critical of art that you love. After talking to my queer friends and reading opinion posts from those who watched it, a good portion of us seemed to have similar thoughts on the matter. Opinions on the video remain a mixed bag, though I believe that’s just because people are quick to celebrate any type of queer representation in kpop.

Irene and Seulgi are both popular among the LGBT+ K-pop community. When lesbian and bisexual women in South Korea voted their favorite female idols, Seulgi places first and Irene second almost every year. Their entertainment company knows this, and I believe they used this as a marketing advantage.

In the video, there are clips of sensual touching and shots where the two girls get close enough to kiss before the camera cuts away. At some points, it just feels like high-budget lesbian porn and not in a tasteful way. As a girl, it feels like nothing but a fantasy shot by, for, and through the male gaze. Real LGBT+ points are not being made. Additionally, it’s concerning that a video titled “Monster” is highlighting lesbianism.

The music video and choreography is attention-grabbing on its own, so the lesbian bits don’t seem to be adding anything more than sex appeal between two attractive, straight (?) females. This just fuels the inherent sexualization of lesbian relationships and “girl-on-girl action.”

Why representation is important

It’s always a great moment when an artist you support supports you back. This can be as simple as normalizing the mention of same-sex love or as large-scale as using one’s platform to give a voice to LGBT+ individuals. Typically, K-pop artists refrain from making public statements indicating political stances. It holds the power to directly impact careers. This makes it a big deal when anybody vocally supports the LGBT+ community. Over the years I have noticed an increase in smaller statements, such as a pride patch on a backpack, and bigger ones, like artists vocally supporting same-sex love.

Representation can’t stop here, though. It’s critical that K-pop, a safe space for so many LGBT+ fans, progresses to a point where queerness can be more than a publicity stunt.

Read also:
LGBT-Free Zones: What Can We Do?
Sexism In Music Production: Why Do Looks Matter In Sound?
South Korean ‘Nth Room’ Chats Are Forcing Girls into Sexual Slavery