Among the international k-pop fandom, myself included, there is a tendency to applaud the, usually female, k-pop idols that take on the behemoth of the Japanese market with their original k-pop (read: mature or edgy) image intact. As for those who change their image, aligning themselves with something more in line with j-pop (read: innocent, cute, and sexy), they are usually met with begrudging acceptance. The guilty party behind this violation of idols’ “artistic integrity” is usually identified as the Japanese market which is pathologized as only having a taste for that which is cute and young, while entertainment agencies and the Japanese music labels they work with, are spared.
As with any narrative though that opts for the overly simplified good vs. evil plot model, things are not always this neat, a fact that especially holds true when dealing with something as complex as two different countries music industries. There will always be at least something or someone who muddles it. In this case, the one to do so comes not from among the veteran idols who possess influence, but from the rookies, the singer Juniel.
Overshadowed by other female rookie soloists like Ailee and Lee Hi, Juniel stands out less for her music and more for her dual market approach, debuting first in Japan in 2011, and the next year, in Korea in June 2012. This is not her gimmick though, meant to help differentiate her from these rookies. Her real selling point, which is cribbed from and IU of an earlier time, when she played guitar and sang covers of k-pop songs on variety shows, is playing guitar and singing. Or at least in Japan where she is marketed as a singer-songwriter, writing and composing all of her releases. In Korea, she is more singer than songwriter, with her singles composed for her, not by her, and self-composed songs relegated to album tracks, dooming them to be ignored by casual fans that only know her through music videos or performances.
Of course this is not how it is supposed to be in Japan. The songs k-pop idols usually release there are supposed to be rehashed versions of singles they released in Korea or original songs that are more akin to bonus tracks on a mini-album than singles. They often do not come with the names of well-known lyricists or producers attached to them, let alone the distinction of being an original song by an idol, which has been reserved mostly for their Korean songs. But Juniel has set a precedent, bucking a trend that treated the Japanese market as an afterthought, secondary to the Korean, and elevating it to a position where the two are equal, making it not a question of either/or, but a matter of both.
For Juniel to treat the Japanese market on par with the Korean market, it is necessary that she engage in a renegotiation of image and identity. While most idols are able to retain their idol identity in both Korea and Japan, simply rearranging their style, for Juniel it is a matter of complete separation. Her image in Korea may remain that of an idol singer, but as for Japan, she is more of an ‘indie singer.’ Arguably this may be her particular gimmick, an idol impersonating an indie singer, but that is a hard case to make when all of the traditional signifiers of an idol are absent. There is neither the typical idol pop sound or image nor a choreographed dance routine. Instead, there a more feminine, sweet image, with a more folk pop sound, heard in singles like “Forever” and PVs in which the main action is often Juniel with a guitar or a piano.
When she does assume the identity of an ‘idol,’ as is required within the k-pop market, her image is not pure ‘idol’; some of the characteristics expected of an idol are missing. She still does not dance, and as previously mentioned, prefers to stand on stage playing her guitar. Until her latest comeback, which pushed her into overly saccharine territory, for her first few releases, her image remained in the same vein of feminine and sweet. The characteristics of an idol she adopts are welcome additions, like story lines for her music videos and the move towards a more idol friendly, pop-rock sound, epitomized in “Pretty Boy.”
But while Juniel’s image may only loosely conform to the typical idol mold, her singles conform almost too closely, cycling through the depersonalized typical stock themes deemed appropriate for female idols. In her debut song, “Illa Illa,” she covers first loves, her follow-up, “Bad Man” deals with heartbreak and break-ups, and her latest, “Pretty Boy” has her searching for her perfect match, or at least perfect in the eyes of the lyricist. Juniel confessed in an interview after its release that she personally prefers “charming and classic gentleman” to pretty boys.
Contradictions like these are partly what make people uncomfortable, if not distrustful, k-pop and idol culture, as if it is hiding its true nature, while the reality is that most of it is on display. Juniel has never hidden her dual market approach, or the two separate identities that accompany it. Mention of her early beginnings in the Japanese market were included into press releases introducing her to the Korean market. A playlist of her Japanese PVs sits alongside her uploaded Korean music videos on her Official YouTube page. The fact that she only composes some of her album tracks, and none of her singles in Korea as she does in Japan, either has gone unnoticed or is considered a minor matter, since most k-pop idols do not compose any of their own music.
In this way, Juniel’s identity seems mirror the k-pop industry, which part of her identity has been modeled to fit. She is both authentic and inauthentic, an idol and indie singer, in essence a paradox.
Header Image: Korean Adore - [OFFICIAL] Juniel - 1 & 1
Among the films recently screened at the Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival held in South Korea, was the short-film, The Caterpillar, directed by Narsha of Brown Eyed Girls. She made it with help from director, Lee Ho Jae, who she teamed up with through the festival’s mentor program.
The film is about a girl from a poor background, who dreams of becoming a singer. According to several articles covering Narsha’s participation and film, it is “biographical” and “inspired” by her own experiences to becoming an idol, but it is not really clear how much of Narsha’s own life can and should be read into it. Narsha has been for the most part silent about her life pre-idol, and the best there is a few facts: her mother attended the premiere of her film, as did Jea and Gain; she tweeted a picture of a Barbie Dream House that Miryo had gifted her for her birthday, which would seem like an odd gift for a 33 year old, except Narsha revealed that she always wanted one was a child, but her mother could not afford one; she never auditioned at an entertainment agency to be a singer, but was picked by Jea when she was recruiting members for Brown Eyed Girls.
At best though, all that can be drawn from these are these are circumstantial inferences and does not really provide direction on how much of Narsha’s personal history should be read into this. Like when a song sung by Narsha is played. Is this merely a matter of limited resources, a wink to the audience, a reminder of the struggle Narsha came to get here or that dreams do come true?
And what of the title, “The Caterpillar,” which implies a symbol of transformation and growth? The most obvious interpretation is to read it into the film itself, but multiple readings can be made even beyond that. It could also be read as a metaphor for the idol industry, and perhaps even Narsha’s own path to idoldom, the daughter so desperately wants to join. Like caterpillars, aspiring singers go through a three step process, where they audition, train, and then eventually debut, transformed into a new self, an idol.
Despite all of these questions though, and with little idea of how much to read of Narsha’s real history into this, the film is still significant. Not only is it again, an idol branching out into a new field outside of their prescribed role as an idol, but also adds to growing, body of material about being an idol from idols that exists outside of the rose-colored world of idols.
Narsha’s film, The Caterpillar can be viewed on YouTube here: http://youtu.be/BOMz80gGbEQ