Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Necessity of Reinvention of the Popstar

The Necessary Reinvention of the Popstar in a Postmodern World

Reinvention is the only way for a popstar to stay relevant because we live in a postmodern world where everyone has ADHD (according to a friend on twitter). We don't have the attention span required to put up with a person remaining the same ol' person all their lives. You need to continually come up with new concepts to keep millennials entertained.

Artists who have figured this out:
Nicki Minaj
Lady Gaga
I will focus on EXO and Rihanna because they are the two most exciting musical acts right now, in the East and West, respectively.. 

EXO - they might seem like a rookie group, having debuted only last year, but in that time they have managed to re-invent themselves THREE times, and that is why in two years time, I predict they will overtake One Direction and become the biggest boyband in the world. Yes, I said it. A bold statement from the amateur pop culture blogger, but hear me out.

The problem with One Direction is that its members are adamant that they are "still the same" and will never change. The problem with this is pop stars need to change to stay relevant. The "Take Me Home" album was good, and showcased the boys' voices better than (the over-produced) Up All Night, but it was too similar to the first album with the ultra-cheesy hooks and bubblegum pop feel. Quite frankly, One Direction may have reached its peak and will certainly plateau, unless it drastically changes its sound and image by the next album (they've already started recording for it a while ago. Hopefully while recording it, they realized the need for evolution and the product will indeed be very different).

Now lets talk about EXO and why I think they will overtake One Direction. When EXO first debuted, the CEO and largest share holder L.S.M of Korean talent company SM Entertainment had the weird but intriguing idea that this new boyband's concept should be - wait for it - aliens from a distant exoplanetary, system who come to earth to help the human race. Now this bewildered the K pop community, but you gotta hand it to LSM, he knows how to grab your attention. Aided by the lunar and solar eclipses in all of EXO's teasers in the What is Love video, by the time the boy band debuted, everyone was intrigued as to how this whole space theme would play out. Many wondered how long they could keep up this alien charade. Turns out, not very long. After their first videos History (in which there seems to be a volcano on aother planet in the background) and their second video MAMA (in which the boys were space monks with super-powers) I think SM realized they had done all they could with this alien concept. I would argue that they took it a little too far.

Time for another plan. By the time they rolled out the first full-length album, they had a new idea in place: the boys would be wolves. Yup, you heard me, wolves. Again, another cheesy, outlandish concept fans at first decried when they first got wind of it. It was a rough time for the fandom when the audio of Wolf leaked. What is this nonsense? EXO fans (EXOtics [...yeah we're still in the process of finalizing a fandom name...]) wondered on forums and tumblr. 

But like I've said in the previous post, LSM knows the heart of the fangirl, and he knew that even though she thought it was bullshit, she'd still be intrigued by such a bizarre concept. And anyway, if she followed the boys through their alien phase, she was probably willing to support them through the lycan era. At least they were creatures of the earth this time. And so the album XOXO was released, as Wolf as its title track. And just in case you didn't get the point that they were Wolves, a song with the title "Let Out the Beast" was included on the tracklist. Because I don't think SM Entertainment knows what subtlety is.

By the time SME was ready to release a repackaged edition a month later, they had obviously allowed that the wolf concept was a little dated. I mean, the Twilight movie series finished a year ago. I know SME was banking on the whole girl-falls-for-werewolf concept but Bella chose the vampire in the end for a reason. Wolves can get pretty boring after a while.

So their was need for a new concept for the repackaged edition.SME along with their brilliant artistic director Min Heejin knew it was time to go for a different approach. Now despite the title track and video for Wolf, the rest of the XOXO album actually had typical boyband songs about young love with titles like "Peter Pan" and "Baby". They were the kind of pop songs you'd sing about your first crush at school. So the cover of the album featured the boys in secondary school uniforms, to represent the whole young, teenage-love concept. Min Heejin followed through with that concept for the next EXO video of the re-packaged edition, which was the Growl video.

Now Growl is a great smooth, R&B hit. It also has jazz, hip hop and funk written all over it. It does not call for wolves, it requires cool, urban, young guys. The boys remained in their uniforms, but became considerably disheveled: the hems of their shirts were frayed, they wore snapbacks backward and their schoolshirt sleeves were hacked off to look edgier. Now they looked like cool, hip, bad boys who sit at the back of the class, have rap competitions in the hallways and sometimes skive off to do crunk dance battles on the bleachers. Okay, thats still not urban-cool, but they are sheltered Chinese/Korean popstars, and thats probably as badass as they are ever gonna get. And the fans loved it. It was another successful re-representation. The constant metamorphosis idea was working. Growl repackaged album has sold even more copies than XOXO. And even non-EXOtics allowed that it was a great hit and the boys looked cool.

So they've managed to fit in three different representations in a single year: extra-terrestial beings, wolves, and naughty schoolboys. They are slowly coming toward the end goal: normal, human beings. And that would be uncharted territory for a k-pop/c-pop band. They seem to have a flair for the unrealistic over there.

Now the question is, having run through so many characters, won't they run out of them soon? How many more times can they reinvent themselves? Well they need to look at the queens of re-invention for that one, people like Madonna, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. Because of time and Rihanna's obvious postmodern appeal, lets focus on her and get back to the others another time.

No one knows who Rihanna really is. She started out as the innocent exotic but adorable Bajan girl in Music of the Sun album, became a bit cheekier in A Girl Like Me, started morphing into an edgy girl in Good Girl Gone Bad, and by the time Rated R came around, no one knew who she was anymore. In Loud we saw a remarkably happy and playful Rihanna, which was a nice change from the dark and moody Rihanna in the previous album, Rated R. After Being so "Loud" she became "Unapologetic" with more contemplative but defiant videos than I've ever seen from her (Diamonds, Stay). 

And this is why Rihanna will go down as one of the best popstars in history: She never remains the same. She has mastered the art of reinvention. Rihanna cleverly uses the mystery of coming from an island no one has ever really paid any attention to in order hide who she is. This gives her a clean slate to draw as many characters as she wants on top of it. You never really know if she is being authentic or not because no one knows what an authentic Bajan is. There is nothing to compare her to. And we Bajans are pretty mum about it all. Partly out of loyalty and support, but also because most Bajans don't know themselves what a typical Bajan is. Its pretty hard to use "typical" in an archipelago that is so heterogeneous and so influenced by so different cultures. Are we English? No. Are we African? No. Are we Amerindian? No. 

We're just West Indian. And no one really knows what that is either. Even the word West Indies is a misnomer. Columbus thought he had reached the East Indies, when he had in fact reached the Americas, so we are called West Indians, when no one there was Indian at the time. Fast forward to the 21st century after centuries of colonialism, slavery, and a period of indentureship of South Asians, and migrations of  all sorts of other peoples and you have a region which for some reason still has four institutions called the University of the West Indies and which proudly plays cricket with a regional team called the West Indies cricket team. There have been claims by academics to call our selves Caribbean instead of West Indian, but Caribbean is another misnomer. The natives the Europeans encountered didn't call themselves Caribs, they called themselves Kalinago. And Taino. And anyway they are all almost extinct now (thanks Western Europe). The word Carib is incorrect, and its derivative, Caribbean, is a misnaming. The whole region is a fragmented, postmodernist fantasy. Rihanna is representative of that storm in that no one knows who she is, and this allows her to fool you with new versions of herself.

Okay, I know you are wondering about what that rant about the Caribbean has to do with a k-pop band, but it was to set up a very valid point about EXO.

LSM has taken the exotic Rihanna scheme to a whole other level: Space. This is a whole new level of hyperreality.  The 12 EXO lads aren't from an island no one gets, they are from a whole other planet in another universe. (Okay, fans know the boys are from South and China, but us EXOtics are willing to put aside reality in order to run along with LSM's little vision). This alien fantasy allows SM to force present new images of the band to us fans while maintaining an air of believability. To explain, the initial idea of aliens was so far out that we are basically able to believe anything after that. For more information on the the illusion of the reality principle, please read Baudrillard's explanation of why the fantasy of Disneyland makes the rest of Los Angeles seem more realistic.

So what do the12 EXO aliens do when they fall to earth? Well apparently they metamorphose into lycanthropes and try to win the heart of a human girl (no seriously, thats what the narrative of the lyrics of Wolf relay). Then in the Drama MV and Growl, the aliens metamorphose again to attend school like regular boys (because as Edward Cullen clearly showed us, there is nothing else for non-humans to do except try to blend in with the human world by attending high school. Over. And over. And over again.)

Now it remains for us to see what characters EXO are going to become next time. 

The facade of difference to real humans is so well structured that SM even gave the boys new names to separate their real lives from their new identities. Just like Rihanna makes a clear distinction between Rihanna the entertainer, and Robyn Fenty the person, EXO is distinct from the real people beneath the characters they play onstage with fake names. That strategy works for many reasons:
1. I assume it keeps stars from having mental breakdowns, because its easier to separate the public self from the private self if you give them different labels.
2. It keeps them from getting too big-headed (the fans are cheering for the representation created by a whole team of staff, not the real person) 
3. In a perfect world it would help fans learn that what you want a public figure to not who they are in real life. The representation might accord to your fantasy, but the real person is distinct from that. The real person is not your fantasy. They are real people beneath their roles. But we don't live in an ideal world, and the sasaengs will continue to stalk EXO in their down time because they're crazy.
4. The concept of multiple selves works because when you get tired of one representation you can just make up a new one. Easy peasy.
5. Lastly, and most importantly, it keeps millennials interested. This is the new generation these popstars have to appeal to. We get bored easily. Everything from the internet to fast food moves at lightning speed for us. Popstars need to keep up with that pace and keep us entertained.

So yeah, this is what I've been thinking about recently. SM is on the right track because artists like Rihanna have provided the blueprint. So what will the EXO boys be next? Are they gonna steadily get darker and edgier like Rihanna did in Rated R"? Are they gonna get brighter, more playful and naughtier like Rihanna became for Loud? Are they gonna get sad and contemplative like Rihanna has been in Unapologetic's music videos? What's LSM and SM gonna do? Only time will tell.

On the fans' side, I don't think we EXOtics are asking for much this time around. We like the multiple representations, but I think we just want the boys to stay human this time. Yes the aliens and wolves got our interest piqued, but it was also fatiguing, for us and for the band members. Growl has become everyone's favourite video so quickly for a reason. Now that EXO has a large fanbase established, hopefully they can just explore the magnitude of different representations possible within the human species, like Rihanna has done to great success.
Just a thought, LSM. Just a thought. I understand the strategy but no more aliens please. Please.
(Here's a gratuitous gif of EXO because their dance routine in Growl was sick af)
Disclaimer: acquired from here

1 comment:

  1. i dont know who EXO is. im losing my touch!!! off to google!


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