Wednesday, 31 May 2017

K-Pop Can Be a Genre If You Want, and some Other Stuff Too: Equivocations on Ask A Korean!

UPDATED: Now with headings and more links!

At long last, something has prompted me once again to set finger to keyboard (doesn't have the ring of set pen to paper, does it?) and, naturally, it is the wonderful old blog friend Ask A Korean! with whom I have disagreed before. Let's party like it's 2009!

This week on his blog, The Korean! (whose series on the recent Korean presidential election are excellent guides) is back talking about K-pop, one of my favorite topics for pontification. He is well-versed in the field: his series of "The Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" is well-researched, interesting, and frankly up there with culturalism as one of the best things he has written on his blog.

But The Korean has, in my opinion, bitten off a little more than he can chew in attempting a be-all and end-all definition of K-pop. We'll get to why in a minute, but first, let's summarize his original argument, as found in his blog post. We'll try to be concise, and if you prefer the real McCoy, go read the original here and its follow-up here, instead of my distillation.

Summary of AAK!

The Korean appears to take issue with those who define K-pop specifically as what others would call "Idol K-pop" -- the image that comes to many peoples' minds (especially if you're on Tumblr or Instagram) of leggy young women and be-sixpack'd young men making cute faces and dancing in sync to highly produced music tracks in elaborately crafted, probably colorful videos. The Korean's definition is clearly in contrast with this, and some of the evidence he uses is solid on first pass:

He uses the examples of three artists who have almost nothing in common musically, but who are all grouped under "K-pop" to broaden the definition from that narrow "Idol Kpop" definition. IU (video here), BTS (video here - recent winners of a social media award at the Billboard Music Awards) and FT Island (video here - whose youtube channel, FTISLAND makes me want to read 'FISTland' which sounds more Chuck Tingle than JYP) are all called "K-pop"; he also points out the lineups of the "K-pop Stage" at the SXSW music festival, where groups ranging from idol pop to indie punk to hip-hop all appear on the same concert stage, under the K-pop banner. Most damning of all for "small wagon" K-pop definers, when Psy's "Gangnam Style" became a smash hit, those who were talking about K-pop in 2012 were, for the most part, perfectly happy to hitch their wagon to his comet, rather than making a stronger effort to clarify that Psy does not fit the mold of "Idol K-pop" in a number of ways.

Genres need boundaries but we're bad at describing them

When glimpsed through a closing elevator door whilst pelvis-thrusting, the Korean language lyrics, colorful video, electric, synth-heavy arrangement and rap sections were similar enough to what we'd seen on the latest Hyun-a single (not to mention her appearance in the video) that anybody anxious to boast that K-pop was taking over the world would gladly paper over the differences between Psy and those handsome, be-sixpack'd boy bands that fit the K-pop mold more accurately. More about Psy later. This is definitely the strongest part of The Korean's argument: that little or no effort has been made to draw boundaries for what is K-pop and what isn't, and genres need boundaries, even fuzzy ones.

Think about other music and this is intuitively true: there are songs that straddle the line between soul and R'n'B, or soul and hip-hop, or folk and twee pop, or grunge and punk, but there are also songs that are definitely one or the other, even if the genres are not clearly defined and people couldn't explain why they think one is and one isn't part of their genre. People argue about whether this song or that song is this genre or that, and when Taylor Swift stopped being country and whether Justin Bieber qualifies as R&B, but don't dispute that genres exist, and are different from each other. However, The Korean does his argument a disservice in his rejoinder post when he puts up pictures of white cats and brown dogs: music genres do not delineate as starkly as cats and dogs, which cannot mate and create viable offspring. Music genres are constantly mating and creating viable offspring in shocking combinations. The Korean is a smart guy and knows what false equivalence is, and he is guilty of it here. Sandwiches are a much better comparison because different people will pitch their "This is NOT a sandwich" flag on different squares of the chart, and be able to defend their choice.

This chart is culturally biased.

Words get more than one meaning all the time

The Korean's argument derails when he starts insisting that words -- the term K-pop in particular -- be defined and used more narrowly than what is actually done in practice. While it's one of the best-written paragraphs in the original article, it is also where his argument is weakest:
In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say. "K-pop" plainly means "pop music of Korea," because "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." Q.E.D. And in fact, that is exactly how the term was used when it first entered the English language. Most English speakers--i.e., non-Koreans--encountered pop music from Korea for the first time in the early 2000s, and called such music "K-pop." The term was essentially the equivalent of gayo [가요], the word Koreans use to denote popular music generally, without reference to any genre, style or era.
Besides the fact he never defines what "pop music" is, which is a baffling and difficult conversation of its own beyond the scope of this response (given that AAK did not address it either), The Korean slips here and gives up the fatal flaw in his discussion, mentioning that it was in the early 2000s that most English speakers first encountered pop music from Korea, and described it as K-pop.

Because the problem with using the term K-pop to describe "pop music of Korea" is simply that Koreans generally don't use it to describe Korean music, and certainly didn't before the early 2000s. I teach at a Korean university and sometimes ask my students what music they like, and they name genres like "ballad" or "dance" or "hip-hop" and even if they name a group known as "K-pop" to the world, they might describe it as K-pop, or they might describe it as girl-group or boy-band. The Korean cops to the fact the term K-pop is used differently in Korea than outside of Korea in his rejoinder post, written after reading some comments disagreeing with his original post.
...when one observes the actual usage of the term "K-pop" by non-Koreans, it is abundantly clear that the term is not the same thing as "idol pop." When the international fans encountered Korean popular music that was clearly not idol pop--such as Gangnam Style--there was no effort to enforce the conceptual boundaries of "K-pop" to exclude Korean popular music that was not idol pop. When the international fans recount the history of "K-pop," there is no effort to trace the development of idol pop as a distinct strand of style that exists within the broader universe of Korean popular music.
The term K-pop is used differently by Koreans than by non-Koreans. We can drill down into even more detail if we want. When we poke around the term K-pop, and learn about its origins, and look at how it's used in different places, the inescapable truth is this: the term is used differently by different people, for perfectly good reasons that are easy enough to grok. The only confusion comes when people start cross-talking, failing to pause and take seven seconds to clarify "Hey, random stranger on the internet, do you mean K-pop as in popular music in Korea, or K-pop as in manufactured Idol Pop from Korea?"

The Korean wants to insist that every word or term have one meaning, and one meaning only, across all contexts, regardless of who is saying it, but language doesn't work that way. The word "set" has different meanings, depending on whether you are a performer getting ready for a concert (a set list), lining up to begin a footrace (ready, set, go), a sailor (set sail), a tennis player (won in straight sets), making jello (put it in the fridge to set), programming your digital alarm clock (can you set my alarm for me?), collecting pokemon cards (two cards short of the whole set), work for a theater company (set design is fun but hard), or preparing for a corner kick (our team is good at set plays). Some of those meanings resemble each other, and so do the different meanings of K-pop, but the context and the speaker changes the meaning.

"Set" is not the best example because it's such a simple, flexible word that it's easily co-opted into new contexts, but there are other words we know have hugely different meanings in different contexts. Buffer means different things if you're talking about financial planning, diplomacy, car care, or Youtube videos. Suite means something different if you're a composer or a hotel manager or MS Office user. Pitch can be a baseball move, a tar-like substance, an attempt to sell something, a degree of darkness, a musical note, or the ability to sing the correct musical note. Words like insulate, program, developing, overture, advance, target, and on and on. Even within art circles, indie can mean a distribution model or musical aesthetic, dubstep refers to a completely different musical sound if you are from America or the UK. Meanwhile, wherever someone draws a line between genres, artists specifically flock to that boundary to defile it, just for the sake of argument, or out of sheer playfulness, or because they don't give a shit who says what is which genre: they're just making art they like. Ask Banksy or Marcel Duchamp, or Prince, or John Cage, or Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Avicii's country techno song.

How are people using the term?

K-pop also has different meanings depending on who's using it, and where. That's normal. The meanings are conceptually coherent within those contexts, to those using it, so... what's the problem?

Website developers want it to have as broad a meaning as possible, in order to use it for search engine optimization. If the tag "K-pop" gets more hits for their band EXP edition, then EXP edition is K-pop by gum! (Warning: this article might make you angry)! But lots of people say a group of North American boys making (mostly) polished pop and goofing off in a video like the "Orange Mocha Frappuccinos!" boys in Zoolander (spot Eric from True Blood) while singing Korean they are reciting phonetically isn't K-pop, even if they sing in Korean.

If you are trying to promote Korean cultural products, then anything that you think will generate interest (and then tourist dollars or cultural export dollars) for Korea gets a K- in front of its name. Anything popular (or profitable) is K-pop, and anything that garners international success or accolades becomes retroactively tagged "Korea's Representative X" (this explains Psy suddenly becoming the flag carrier for K-pop when, by the strict definition of Idol K-pop, Psy doesn't fit the mold).

If you are stocking shelves at an American record store in 2003, or making music more searchable in the iTunes library by categorizing Asian popular music by country, and you want to differentiate music from Korea and music from Japan (and this is my guess as to the reason it is specifically called K-pop rather than some other name), or you need a shorthand tag to let people know where all the Korea-originating acts will be performing at your music festival, then K-pop means any music from Korea other than traditional stuff... or from the other end, if you have so much Korean music in stock now that the "World Music" shelf is overflowing and Korean music needs its own shelf, K-pop is a nice catch-all for anything that comes from Korea.

If you are a PR or an economics lover looking at the infrastructure of music content distribution or promotion in Asia, K-pop is a business model, a content development model and/or a distribution model.

On the other hand, if you like looking at GIFs of sexy Korean boys with sixpacks, or leggy Korean women making aegyo poses, and you have a Tumblr account and use the word "oppa" a lot but don't know any other Korean, then K-pop means a specific type of look, a specific type of music, and a specific type of sexy people.

If you are looking for other people to join you in celebrating a set of shows, bands and whatnot you like, or that has a connection with something in your heritage, K-pop is a good term to use to find other people who want to celebrate it with you.

On Orwell's on language and retroactive naming of things

It is not Orwellian that different people have found different definitions of K-pop serviceable labels, in the different contexts where they use it: though Korea promotions has been involved, it has not been a sinister top-down attempt to manipulate or control people, or to make Korean culture or art into something it is not, just a bit of fuzzy-minded opportunism on the part of K-pop power players and Korean promotions folk hoping for a windfall. This has happened before: on his Hot Fives and Sevens albums, Louis Armstrong had a bunch of tracks with "Blues" in the title (14 by my count in the 4 disk set), even though he was making one of the foundational jazz recordings, because blues was selling at the time. Look at the number of songs with "Soul" in the title in the 70s, be they soul or not. K-pop's popularity abroad would have continued at, or nearly at pace without the Korean government's intervention, and K-pop would still exist if it weren't being marketed abroad, though it would look different and act a bit less grandiose. Not all meaning-slippage is Orwellian manipulation of meanings and reality, aimed at creating confused passivity in a populace. Sometimes they're just trying to sell units, or people are grabbing onto the nearest searchable tag to increase their platform's reach, or looking for others who also like their favorite genre, in order to celebrate it together, and engaged fans will figure out where they stand soon enough.

If you define K-pop as "popular music of Korea" like The Korean, then Shin Joong-hyun and Kim Wan-seon are K-pop, because their music was popular, and it was Korean. But here is the catch: Koreans never called those artists' music K-pop, and probably won't start. Sometimes retroactive naming can work -- for example, when the terms "Mansplaining" "Slacktivism" and "Vaguebooking" were invented, something clicked and people could relate the new term to things they'd been observing/practicing for years, but had no name for it until those terms were coined. How handy to have a word for it now!

In most cases, though, retroactive naming that goes back too far makes me uncomfortable, because it can bulldoze more nuanced stuff that was going on at a time in the past. The term K-pop appeared around 2001-2003, and going back a few years to call SES or Seo TaeJi K-pop isn't too much of a stretch, because early K-pop groups were intentionally, specifically trying to duplicate their success. But going back decades gets more and more spurious, because Koreans did have names for the music genres that The Korean is retroactively erasing under the K-pop banner.

Mansplaining, vaguebooking and slacktivism were terms that brought more clarity and understanding (though they are now also suffering meaning creep); calling everything K-pop does not. I would be interested to hear The Korean explain to me why HIS act of lumping groups that aren't K-pop like Jo-yong Pil or Kim Chuja under that banner are OK, but Korea Inc.'s effort and/or lazy-minded non-Koreans' lumping of disparate groups like IU or FT Island under that banner are Orwellian, other than that Ask A Korean is not a government ministry. I would be happier still if he removed overdramatic claims of Orwellian manipulation from his discussion of meaning slippage in music genres as descriptors. (UPDATE: Beyond Hallyu discusses this much more concisely than I do.)

The foreign gaze in Kpop, and definitions that do too much

There is one other important thing The Korean seems to miss in his discussion: the term K-pop was invented to differentiate Korean music from other types of Asian pop music: a differentiation that only needed to be made once Korean music started gaining, or targeting, audiences outside Korea. It became popular at the time of (not necessarily because of) efforts to promote Korean culture abroad. From its very origin, the foreign gaze is baked into the term K-pop. This is why such disparate groups get lumped together. That is how Psy can be the most important K-pop artist, even though he doesn't fit the K-pop mold (foreign gaze don't care), yet also not rate a place on The Korean's "Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" (he hasn't changed Korean music much; he's just made more people outside Korea aware of it, which doesn't affect the music scene in Korea very much at all). Psy's position relative to K-pop changes completely depending on whether you're looking at Korean music from inside Korean culture or outside, and any definition of K-pop that doesn't/can't account for this is suspect. The Korean gets quite close to realizing the importance of the foreign gaze in defining K-pop while addressing Jon Dunbar's objection in his rejoinder post, but stops a couple steps short of it clicking.

I would argue that The Korean's definition of K-pop is unhelpful, because it does too little (it ignores the crucial part the foreign gaze plays in lumping all modern popular Korean music together) and too much (identifies things as K-pop that are not and never have been called K-pop by people in Korea -- the ones who consume and care most about Korean popular music) at the same time. I would have no issue with this if he just said "Here is my working definition of K-pop. Got it? Got it!" But instead, he asserts that his definition of K-pop is the definitive one and others are incorrect. That is why I am writing to re-muddy the waters.

K-pop is a great tag for search-engine optimization and helping readers find his excellent countdown, but by naming it the "Most Influential K-Pop Artists" series, and even worse, insisting his definition is the correct one and others are wrong, he is flattening out the huge diversity of sounds and styles of Korean music that exists, and confusingly hinting at a foreign gaze upon a series in which he has worked very hard to take Korean music on its own terms. I would find it much more accurate if he titled it "The 50 Most Influential Korean Musicians" or "The 50 Most Influential Korean Popular Music Artists" because the term K-pop and the aesthetic Jaden Smith will shoot for when he plans to drop a K-pop single wouldn't exist yet for 30 years when some of The Korean's top-ranked artists made their music.

Let's have more language, not less (speaking of Orwell)

In the end, while I enjoy the discussion of what K-pop is, and really appreciate The Korean's engaging in the discussion, and especially sharing some great music in the video clips, I would advocate spreading and popularizing more names for the different types of Korean music, rather than butting his head against a wall, trying to change the common usages of a term that is already out there, being used by different people in different, understandable ways, for good reasons of their own. Instead of saying all popular music of Korea is K-pop, let's get K-punk, K-indie, K-folk, K-hip-hop, K-dance, hell, K-Britpop and K-Eurotechno out into the ether as well, so that people have more tools to describe the music they like, instead of torturing the one single term we've been working with into froot-loops of twisted and confusing definitions.

Let's get away from too much lumping-together-of-things: clearer, more accurate language is better, the term K-pop has its uses, and it's not that hard to clarify and avoid confusion. It is not necessary to insist words must all have only one, context-free definition when they don't, and trying to do so bulldozes all the other terms that are being used to talk about Korean music. Actual, engaged K-pop fans would happily learn that variety of terms, use and discuss them, while non-engaged observers would never bother to learn any of them no matter how much online huffing and puffing there is for them to ignore, but who cares what they think anyway?

This image is sexist, but you know which one of these people will have more helpful conversations about colors?

Music genres do this. They just do. And outsiders don't care. Deal with it.

Let's play a game...

You may notice that I have not offered a definition of K-pop of my own in this whole discussion. Is K-pop a genre? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ sure! I don't really have a horse in this race: on an upcoming episode of the podcast I do with my buddy Eugene, I'll offer something of my own definition, but the point here is, K-pop works better as a term if we don't ask it to work too hard, or do too much. Beyond Hallyu's piece explains this admirably. If your definition of K-pop works for you, and either connects you with like-minded people, helps you find music you like, or gives you a framework for your top 50 Korean musicians countdown, go with it! But don't be too pushy insisting on your definition: language and culture tend to resist becoming overly tidy, and when it doesn't, that is when to bring Orwell back into the discussion.

There will always be big wagon and small wagon K-pop believers: people who think K-pop should be defined as broadly as possible, and those who think it should be more narrow. In that spirit, here's a fun game: let's make a rubric. Run your favorite group through this, and count up their score. Set the bar as high (small wagon K-pop) or as low (catch it all) as you want. Decide for yourself how many points a group needs to earn before they count as K-pop, and we can decide if Psy is or isn't K-pop, whether it's still K-pop when the Wonder Girls start playing their own instruments and singing in English, whether EXPedition is, or No Brain, or Diana Ross and The Supremes for that matter. Here is the checklist, with my own point values. Change the point values to fine-tune your own definition, and then check who clears it and who doesn't.

Group 1: Necessary? Sufficient?

__ Marketed toward Koreans in Korea (50 points)
__ Sung in Korean (50 points)
__ Marketed toward Korean diaspora (15)
__ Group is signed with either: A Korea-based, Korean-owned label (15) One of the "big three" Kpop labels (YG, SM, JYP) (30)
__ Group promotes itself on Korean shows like Music Bank, Inkigayo and Music Core (40)
__ Group is NOT signed with a Korea-based, Korean-owned label (-20)
__ Group/singer was active before the 1990s (DISQUALIFIED)
__ Group/singer was active since 2007 (3 points)
__ They play their own instruments at live shows (-80: they're not K-pop anymore. They're K-something else.)

Group 2: Makeup and Formation

__ Add 5 points for every member the group has after the first five (so, a six-person group gets 5 points; seven-person = 10 points; a 12-person group = 35 points)
__ Subtract 3 points for every member of the group who was not born and raised in Korea
__ Subtract (__) more points for every member of the group who could not pass for Korean in physical appearance (ethnicity/race is important to some people, who will want to put a point value here. I don't really care as long as the next requirement is satisfied).
__ Subtract 8 points for every member of the group who is not fluent enough in Korean to make appearances on Korean television
__ Group was chosen and trained by the label (15 points)
__ Group members are on restrictive, probably unfair long-term contracts (7 points)
__ Group members are all gorgeous by conventional standards of attractiveness. (12)

Group 3: Aesthetics

__ Creative choices for songs, videos and dances are made by the studio, not the performers (8)
__ Music videos all have a "concept" (5)
__ 3 points for each group member with a designated role ("the visual" "the bad girl" "the vocal")
__ Music is driven by synthesizers and sounds like a mash-up of other popular music genres (4)
__ Features rap solos that add nothing to the songs, or dance breaks that sound like the trendiest EDM styles of the day. (4)
__ Cute poses and extreme close-ups feature prominently in videos (3)

Group 4: Promotion

__ Subtract 4 points for every single released only in a language other than Korean (lose too many points, and you're not K-pop anymore: you're Asian pop, J-pop or something else)
__ Subtract 2 points for every single released with a Korean version and a version in another language
__ Subtract 5 points if the group has a "sub-group" targeting markets outside Korea
__ The Korean government has actively promoted their music (12)
__ Add 2 points for every advertising campaign they appear in in Korea.
__ Add 1 point for every advertising campaign they appear in in the rest of Asia.
__ Has an online fan club (10 points) with a quirky nickname (3 more points) run or closely managed by the label (8 more) pumping fans for more money through special offers and deals (5 more) whose fans will fucking dox you SWAT you and cut you if you diss their group (12 more)

Group 5: Other

__ White men over thirty living in Asia who don't listen to it sneer at it contemptuously and talk about it as if they were experts on it (7 points)
__ James Turnbull has written 3000 words about them (3 points)
__ One or more performers were discovered on a Korean audition reality TV show (__) add value here: I don't care about this but some might.
__ Nobody has suggested a different hyphenated K-genre for their music (For example, "She isn't K-pop: she's K-indie!") 5 points

Add your own criteria in the comments, or change the point value in the comments if you want!

Thank you for reading, dear friends.


Here are some suggested additions to the checklist from Facebook. Thank you, Jon Dunbar!

__ Band is mixed-gender (-20)
__ Band name could be mistaken for a chemical corporation (good one: wish I'd thought of it) (5)
__ Band wears a uniform or uniforms (5)
__ Minus one point for each year above 25 of the band members' ages

(Rob riffing on those:)
__ Band does a video in thinly veiled fetish gear (3)
__ Plus 3 points for each year below 19 of the band members' ages

Any further additions are gladly welcome!

Stephen Epstein has written a brilliant comment under AAK's rejoinder post.
Go read it!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Monday, 8 August 2016

(UPDATED) Sexism Covering Female Athletes: Help Me Make the Bingo Card!

Edit (August 9) well... here is some nice vindication. As well as some leads for my bingo card! Ironic that it's published by The Korea Times (see below).

Literally one after the other on my Facebook feed this morning, were these two articles:

1. Government Website Under Fire For Sexist Content
Screenshot taken August 8
Yes. Those clueless, ignorant, sexist, bad government website people sure don't know what sexism is! The article describes an internet backlash against a page on a government health portal, about "healthy breasts" which includes a detailed description of the shape and proportions perfect breasts should have. With helpful drawings! (Of COURSE KT included the drawings.)

And then... just to make sure we know The Korea Times doesn't actually understand what the problem was... this article published by them came right after:

"Boyfriend a tall order for 192cm South Korean volleyball star"

The write-up includes digging all the way back to 2010 to find a comment from the player about the height of men she'd consider dating. A comment I'm 100% sure she made in response to a sexist question from a journalist who cared more about her relationship status than her volleyball game or ambitions.
screenshots taken August 8

The OlympicsTM are on. The quadrennial orgy of nationalism, people pretending to care about sports they don't care about for the sake of cheering for their country, increasing corporatization and censorious brand-protection. For once, female athletes (whose medals add to countries' medal counts just as much as men's! Score!) will be given as much attention as men's sports... leading to people who have no idea how to write about women asking dumb, sexist questions and making dumb, sexist comments and focus on their bodies, family situations and relationship statuses instead of the fact they're badass athletes who made it to the f***ing OlympicsTM.

Imagine if men got asked these same patronizing, brain-fart questions: (explanation)

So... tell us how Kim Yeon-koung trained. Tell us what she brings to the team. Tell us how she inspires little girls to excel in sports. Tell us the strategic benefits having a very tall player gives the women's volleyball team. At least friggin mention that she's an otherworldly talent who won the MVP of the 2012 London Women's Volleyball tournament. But this shit, which was the closing line of the article: "The average height of South Korean men is 174.9 centimeters. Regrettably, it would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country." Just fuck on off out of here with that.

Keep trying, Korea Times.


You know the idea of the bingo card: here's the "Men's Rights Bingo Card" -- see if you can fill it out while discussing gender on the internet! Or, for a challenge, see if you can fill it out in less than an hour while discussing gender on the internet.

Image warning: Misogyny ahead.

Let's fill out the "Covering Female Sports Bingo Card" which I managed not to find online after a few google searches... so hey. Let's make one! Suggestions in the comments: we've got 5x5 to fill out.

UPDATE: Final Draft

Monday, 25 April 2016

Goodbye, Prince

  When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain
Before high piled books in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain
  When I behold upon the night's starred face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance
  And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love--then on the shore
  Of this wide world I stand alone and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do think.

That is a poem by John Keats, the most poetic of English poets. Others were more important, more popular, or more often studied, but John Keats made English more beautiful than any writer has before or since. He gave us the Odes (to a Nightingale, to a Grecian Urn, and my own favorite, on Melancholy). His poetry is the most vivid, most sensuous, most alive poetry I've read, and to read it is to celebrate being alive.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

John Keats died before his 26th birthday. The poem above meditates on how fleeting his life might be, and his fear that his death might come before he had written out all the poetry churning in his brain, which is exactly what happened. To love John Keats is to be forever teased by the would have, the could have, of a poet whose poetry reached heights few other poets ever could, but who was robbed of the chance to write more, just as we are now robbed of the chance to read it.

I woke up on Friday morning to the horrible news that another perfect artist, another artist whose work transcends time and language and genre, whose art, at its best, skips blithely past our defenses and strikes something deep within us like a dart, has been taken from us too soon. Prince is dead. How can we go on? Prince is dead.

I did not grow up in Minnesota, like a few of my friends on Facebook, whose grief I cannot imagine. I did not know Prince personally, and I can't imagine what his loved ones are feeling right now. I did not even grow up on Prince's music: I was just a little too young to catch him at his apex. My musical taste's development caught the end of his prime as an absolute world-straddling hitmaker, and I have "7" on the mix-tapes I made by listening to the radio with my fingers hovering over the "record" button, but I was too young for Purple Rain, Sign O'The Times, and Kiss, all the more for 1999 and Little Red Corvette. I was around for a few of the "Prince or Michael Jackson" conversations, and for the Love Symbol replacing his name. Prince didn't belong to me: his activism, name-checking Black Lives Matter, naming the first song on his last album "Baltimore" and singing that if there is no justice, there is no peace: the struggles he sings about are ones I care about, but they are not my story. I admit it is impossible for Prince to mean as much to me as he means to other people.

There is no reason I should be quite as distraught as I am about Prince's passing: Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and David Bowie didn't make me feel this way. Pressed to it, I can't think of a single artist whose death would make me feel the same way Prince's has, and so I sit a step removed, and watch myself grieve, startled at how hard this hit me.

Which other celebrity could have the lights shone on public monuments turned purple, and for everyone to know exactly what it meant, and who it was for? What artist was talented enough to claim an entire color for himself (and not even an obscure one like puce or chartreuse, but one of the big, "in-every-crayola-box" ones), and for everybody to go "Yeah. OK. You can have purple from now on," like they did for Prince? What artist was big enough that you said "Prince" and nobody said "Prince who?" (even my royalist sister-in-law)? Nobody.

I play every version of Purple Rain I can find again and again, I plumb my friends' Facebook feeds for articles, tracklists, videoclips and bootlegs, I watch interviews and tributes, I read distraught articles by people who loved Prince like an uncle. In the absence of a friend who can come over, maybe this is how I can feel connected to the mourning: by sharing in the videos and articles that all the other mourners are also watching and reading. Thank you Michael, Regina and Jane. The links you've been sharing on your Facebook pages have helped me feel like I'm sharing with someone. And that poem by John Keats runs through my head when Purple Rain does not.

Prince was the most talented musician I will probably ever encounter in my life. He wrote every song, played every instrument, sang every vocal, and produced and mixed every song for Sign O'The Times: every single step of recording one of the best albums in my collection was completely and solely done by him. His songs all hit the mark -- whatever he's trying for, he does it. And then live, you can't take your eyes off him, and his guitar solos are all perfect combinations of wild unpredictability and technical perfection. All I can do is wonder, and reel in awe.

I am listening to what nobody knew would be Prince's final concert, on Soundcloud.

To impress upon my wife how important Prince is, I explained that for much of the 80s, "Who's better: Michael Jackson or Prince?" was a legitimate question. It seems Purple Rain didn't make as big an impact here in South Korea as Thriller did, but that seemed to be a good frame. But what that comparison doesn't cover is that Michael Jackson hadn't been relevant as an artist for a decade by the time he passed on. Until the end, Prince was recording music, performing, mentoring other artists, writing songs, producing, creating, and supporting communities and activists. That longevity (as well as staying out of tabloids) is why I don't think we can argue anymore that it's a contest between Prince and Michael Jackson. Jackson probably had a higher peak in terms of popularity, but Prince's footprints are deeper and wider spread.

And then I think that, like John Keats, I am sure that Prince had more music in his head, that we will not get to hear. I realize that this is a selfish thought, and also that Prince has done so much that it is right to celebrate him, and not to cheaply wish we could have yet more. But the world is poorer. Music is poorer for his passing. He had more young artists to mentor. He had more albums to make of his own, and more collaborations, and more stages to crash and songs to raise to a new level with a perfect guitar solo. His talent and his ability to perform stayed with him right until 2016.

I did not like Prince right away. In fact, for much of my 20s, I had an out and out prejudice against music from the 80s. My music taste developed in the early 90s (they say the music you liked around age 13-14 is the kind of music you will like for all your life), and at that age, grunge music was backlashing against the synth pop sounds of the 80s, so my distaste for keyboards and that "Hungry Like A Wolf" sound kept me away from 80s music entirely for years.

Prince is the one who brought me back. The song Purple Rain, specifically, was the song that went right past my guards and defenses, and convinced me to give the 80s another listen. It is the ultimate confessional song. It is the very sound of a person pouring their heart out in music, it is an absolute show-stopper, yet so moving and personal at the same time. How a man could create that song, which holds so much meaning for so many people, hits them so deeply, amazes me. It is one of the greatest songs I know, from beginning to end. It is a song that owns its greatness, wears its ambition on its sleeve, and actually achieves its moon-shot. Starting with the undeniable Purple Rain, Prince's music slowly, irresistibly  grew on me, and he steadily climbed in my esteem, until now, when he is one of my top two artists, and every song I can ever hope for from him is already in the bag, or the vault.

Prince is gone. I am sad, and I want to be around other people who loved him. But I also celebrate him. I celebrate his humanitarian work. I celebrate his genius. All those perfect solos and all the different personas he sang with. The way he could be passionate and confessional, fun, goofy, sexy, dirty, silly, whimsical, experimental or as "pop" as pop can be, without ever ceasing to be Prince: that he could contain so much inside him, still inspires and awes. Prince is the John Keats of music: a pure genius, unsullied even when he sings about ugly things. A perfect conduit of joy, grief, love, of all the emotions we have, making us all more alive, helping us experience the world more vividly and sensuously and abundantly, then taken from us too soon. So, thank you Prince, for the gift you shared with us for your time on the planet. Thank you for giving 80s music back to me, for moving your fans in so many different ways, for making my kindergarten students and my son dance, and for connecting everybody who is now sharing purple-themed grief on their websites and facebook walls. Music brings people together, and now, even in our grief, we are not alone, because we love you, and we will miss you.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Part 1: Batman v Superman v Zack Snyder

Following up my Star Wars review in January, once again a movie has put a bee in my bonnet, and I'll write about it way after the point. Batman v Superman underwhelmed me, or rather overwhelmed me in the wrong way. Fridge logic was jumping at me way before I had a chance to find a fridge, and that's a problem.

It is weird when people call a film that made over 800 million worldwide a failure, but that 28% Fresh rate on the Tomatometer stings. The yardstick for cinematic universe launchpads, Avengers, outdid it in box office (780 mill to 1519 mill worldwide), and acclaim (28% to 92% Fresh on the Tomatometer - all figures at time of writing), and achieved that with a cast of characters not nearly as well-known and iconic as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. In fact, Marvel is eating DC's lunch even without access to many fan favorites like Wolverine, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Deadpool (and Spider-man, when Avengers came out), because other studios had those film rights. They beat Superman and Batman with their hands tied behind their backs. Soundly. Bottom line: Batman V Superman is a much weaker launchpad for fifteen years of related tentpoles than Avengers was.

However, before I am dismissed as a hater, and before I take a crap on Superman's lawn, I want to be clear about this:

I was primed to love this film. I wanted to love it. I maximized my chance of loving it: I saw it as early as I could, and avoided reading reviews, so my take would be unsullied by other opinions. I’ve always been a DC guy, and would have loved to be looking forward to all DCEU's phases, from now until the reboot. All my biases worked in this film’s favor. But then, I had to watch the actual movie.

From here, expect Spoilers. A lot of them. So if you plan to see it yet… move along.

Here is The Guardian's very funny "Everything Wrong with Batman v Superman."

There were things I liked about this film, in case three paragraphs ago isn't enough to show I'm not some kneejerk, butthurt nerd, or bandwagon pot-shot-taker.

  • Only Christian Bale is a better film Batman so far than Ben Affleck
  • Only Michael Keaton is a better film Bruce Wayne so far than Ben Affleck. 
  • Other than swinging Superman around like a wrecking ball, this Batman's combat scenes were the best we've seen in film. Batfleck is also closest to the Batman we saw in The Animated Series, the amazing 90s cartoon, which might be the definitive non-comic Batman treatment so far. Christian Bale's Batman was a ridiculously tough act to follow, and Chuckie Sullivan pulled it off. Zack Snyder gets what's cool about Batman... and let's be real: this is a Batman story.
  • Jeremy Irons' Alfred is also great, though he had too little screen time and it'll be hard to supplant Michael Caine as the best Alfred we've seen. 
  • Wonder Woman looks great so far 
  • Her music and her entrance were completely fist-punching-the-air awesome. Best twelve seconds of the film. 
  • If he had been written better, I would have said we have an extremely interesting, and definitely very original Lex Luthor, which is a very good thing in a villain. But I have reservations more to do with his writers and director than the performance itself. 
  • I even think Henry Cavill's Superman is still salvageable, but probably not while Zack Snyder is directing.

On to the problems, the biggest first:

1. Zack Snyder and His Writing Team Does Not Understand How to Make Superman Interesting, Who Likes Superman, What Kind Of Story Superman Stories Are, Why We Like That Kind of Story and just, basically, Superman.

I'm a Superman guy from way back. Watched every episode of Smallville, many with my Dad, who is also a Superman guy. I know Superman's dramatic limitations: he's just too powerful. Rooting for the guy who punches harder than anyone else is like rooting for gravity. The only way to make him interesting again is to put something on the line outside of the realm of raw power.

Really good Superman stories put the idea of Superman, his motivations and principles, into conflict. Christopher Nolan's first two Batman films were great examples of raising the personal stakes beyond mere punch-ups. The choices Batman made in dealing with Joker, Two-Face and Ra's Al Ghul tested the very ideas on which Bruce Wayne based his Batman. Those choices mattered. To make Superman interesting again the meaning of Superman has to be tested in the choices he makes -not just by things people say about him (of which there's a lot here). In two films so far, Superman made a surprisingly small number of choices: most of the time he just kind of watches, broods, and then reacts to events.

Here's an actual choice:

Other than that moment, for two whole films now, here are the times Superman takes initiative: 1. Saving the bus of kids even though his father told him not to show his powers. 2. Wanting to write a story about Batman for the Daily Planet. 3. Finding Batman and telling him to stop Batmanning! I think that's it. The only other choice he makes is "Should I keep being a hero, or not?" ...which is basically masturbation in a film that is a superhero movie. In fact, all that existential fuzz reminds me of a different hero than Superman.

The comic book movie Zack Snyder did before Man Of Steel was Watchmen, which features another all-powerful blue hero, Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan started out human, and got turned into a matter-manipulating demigod in a lab accident. Once he becomes capable of seeing protons, he slowly disengages from humanity, and eventually leaves Earth because he can't relate to us anymore, and likes atoms better than humans anyway.

"Should I Superman or not?" seems more like Dr. Manhattan than the Superman I know. So does the entire public discussion of/backlash against Superman (which also shows up in The Dark Knight Returns). However, the Superman I know does not lose his connection to humanity: he dives into it. A job, a secret identity, a girlfriend, visits to Smallville for Thanksgiving. His entire motivation to be a hero springs from his effort to connect with humanity, which is why the scenes where Martha Kent says, "You don't owe the world anything" ring wildly false. That's the exact opposite of Superman's entire heroic makeup. The best thing about Superman is how he embraces his adopted planet, and the best scenes in Man of Steel and this film were the ones where we see his connection with humanity: the scenes with his parents. The reaction when Zod threatens his mother in Man of Steel is one of the realest moments in the film. (It happens just before the famous The Smallville Esso/7-11 Product Placement Throwdown [brought to you by IHOP] - great scene!)

There's stuff you can change about a hero, and stuff you can't, or they won't be recognizable anymore. Take away the red underpants. Whatever. Bat-nipples... oookayyy. But Batman doesn't kill, and his parents were murdered. Spider-man's Uncle Ben dies. And Superman is good for the sake of being good because of his upbringing. That's the nature of the character. If you give Daredevil back his sight, or take him out of Hell's Kitchen, he's no longer the Daredevil we know. If Captain America starts cussing like Negan on The Walking Dead, he's not Captain America anymore. If Superman is a petty jerk who can be provoked by a mug of beer, who considers abandoning humanity because they graffiti'd his statue... then Lex Luthor is in the right, Superman is too alien to be trusted with all his power, and Batman should kill him. The innate decency is an inextricable part of Superman. It is the whole reason Batman should withhold his killing blow. Because Zack Snyder goes a different direction, he has to ass-pull the dumbest contrivance in comic movie history to justify why Batman didn't finish things off right there.

Source Dumb. dumb dumb dumb.
Without his moral compass shining bright, the reversal where Batman decides not to kill Superman falls from flat to ridiculous.

Now, who likes Superman? Kids like Superman. If you ask 100 five-year-olds to invent a superhero, 96 of them will invent a hero that is basically Superman and 4 will invent a Power Ranger, or a princess-robot-dinosaur-pony version of them. To grown-ups, Superman is kind of dorky and dramatically inert, because he's too powerful, and inevitability is no fun to watch, but to kids, that's awesome, because kids often feel powerless and wish they could fly, too. It makes absolutely no sense to make a Superman story that kids won't be able to enjoy, because that's his main demographic! A kid gets SO excited watching a Superman story, because the whole story is a build-up to the moment when The Super-Punch flattens that bad guy! Yay super-punch! Kids don't care if inevitability is less dramatic, because Super-Punch, daddy!

The other people who like Superman like him for childlike reasons: because sometimes it's fun to slip back into that innocence where good guys are good guys and bad guys get super-punches. We get tired of pyrrhic, morally ambiguous or bittersweet victories after a while. I didn't buy superhero film tickets to have difficult thoughts: I can get those anywhere! Ghost Pa Kent's story about how saving the farm drowned the Lang's horses violates the basic tenet of the moral universe in which Superman exists, and has always existed: one where good guys can win, because that's why we go see movies, gosh darn it! In a moral universe where every act of heroism might have a horrific consequence (like drowning horses), Superman's only responsible choice is to leave the planet. Goodbye, story. Sometimes I don't want a cynical Watchmen ending, where Dr. Manhattan looks at the Ozymandias and Nite Owl and says "Maybe we made the world a little less shitty at this horrific cost... but maybe not! Maybe this was just a bunch of really awful stuff that happened," and then abandons earth and humans to their own shittiness. Sometimes I want to escape, and see the bad guy get flattened with a super-punch, OK? Sue me. I know that the Christopher Reeve Superman cannot exist in a 2016 film, but there must be a way to make a Superman that is suitable for 2016, but is still recognizably Superman. Marvel has amply demonstrated it's possible to make a superhero film kids and adults can enjoy.

Different heroes are different types of stories. Iron Man is a story of redemption (from a wrecked personal life) through heroism. Captain America is a story about keeping moral clarity in a world full of grey areas. Daredevil explores the gap between law and justice. Batman is everyman reaching full human potential: we love stories like that: that's Rocky, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen. It's The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda and the Last Girl in every horror movie. But Superman is not the story of surpassing limitations: Superman has no limitations. Superman takes the limitless -- the demigod -- and brings him down to us, and the things that humanize Superman make him interesting. That is the kind of story Superman is, and it's why we like him more than Martian Manhunter. He grew up on a farm in Kansas. He gets reamed out by his editor and given crap assignments at The Daily Planet. "Haha. Even Superman has deadlines and a ball-busting boss," makes us feel better about our crap days. It's no wonder the scenes with Ma and Pa Kent were the best parts of Man of Steel: as I said above, they are his strongest tether to humanity. And nothing is more fun in a Superman story than the contrivances he must go through to maintain his secret identity: dealing with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, hiding his secret identity from them in the 1978 film were some of the best parts of the movie. That punching hard stuff? Superman's got that covered. But when Lois Lane is trying to trick Clark into taking his glasses off... that's where the fun of Superman is, because now the ultimate person-without-any-limitations, has to act within constraints.

Zack Snyder leaves all that potential for fun on the table. He scurries past it with eyes averted like the kid who snuck an extra dessert. Jimmy Olsen dies in the first scene of BvS, and Lois has always known he's Clark Kent. In the film's last scene, Clark Kent is declared dead in the newspaper (in the Superman's death saga, Kent was declared missing, not dead). Without Clark or Jimmy, and with Lois being in on it, Superman's entire fun side is wasted, and all that remains is the overpowered, inevitable super-punching bore.

TL:DR: Zack Snyder doesn't understand anything about Superman or why anybody likes him, and doesn't seem to care, either.

EDIT: Turns out his writer, David Goyer, is equally myopic on Superheroes who aren't anti-heroes. This article corroborates a lot of what I intuited here. Nice!

More in Part 2!