Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fat Chick Rock: Piggy Dolls

A new girl group has surfaced during my absence from Korea. This, in itself, is not newsworthy. New musical groups pop up like mushrooms over there, at a breakneck speed that mirrors the bewildering frenzy that is life in South Korea.

This one is newsworthy because they're fat. Or they're fat by Korean standards. And this is the number one gimmick their label is pushing. What label it is, I'm not sure, as it's not one of the big K-pop powerhouse labels (YG, SM, and probably the granddaddy of them all, JYP); it's merely being described as "independent." One website lists their manager as "위닝인사이트".

There is so much ground to cover, I don't know where to begin. So, let's start at the beginning.

piggy dolls

(Left to right: Park Ji-eun, Kim Min-sun, Lee Ji-yeon)

Yes, their name is Piggy Dolls. And yes, the name of their debut "mini-album" (only five tracks long) is Piggy Style. (Reference to Will Smith's Big Willie Style? "Doggy style"? Pussycat Dolls? None of the above? Who knows. I don't!)

The whole premise is: "Look at these fat girls sing!" One line that keeps getting bandied about everywhere is that their combined weight is over 200 kg. That's about 441 pounds. For three people, that's an average weight of 147 pounds / 66.7 kilos. I would like to say, first and foremost, how cracked it is to reduce three talented women to, and sell them on the basis of, numbers. I cannot stress that enough. Who cares how much they weigh? Why doesn't anyone give a flying fart about SNSD's combined weight? Oh, right, because they're all skinny. It's only fat people that need to be conceptualized strictly in terms of numbers.

But even then, look at those numbers. 147 pounds is enough to merit the nickname "Piggy"?! If that sounds messed up, that's because it is. Korean society is perhaps more enamored with a slim physique than the US, given that their expectations of celebrities and pop idols are generally much stricter and narrower. Most female pop stars are underweight to one degree or another, surviving on a strict 1500 kcal / day regimen. A 20-year-old, 5'5" and 147 pound girl has a basal metabolic rate of 1498 kcal / day. Now, if this girl is also a K-pop sensation, then she's going to have loads of intense dance routines to practice and perform—like daily, hours-long aerobics classes on a fairly regular basis. On a schedule like that, you either lose your weight or your mind.

When you take into consideration that Kim Min-sun also clearly weighs more than the two other girls, that becomes even more bizarro-land. The maths suggest that Park and Lee weigh less than 147 pounds. It's great to see pop stars with figures like (albeit young) adults instead of 12 year old boys—singers who look like real people—but on the other hand, I cringe at associating "realness" and normality of figure with being a "piggy doll." It's not the name "Piggy Dolls" in and of itself that bothers me (unlike Mixtapes and Liner Notes, who rejects it—and with good reason—categorically). I'm excellent at being a self-deprecating fat chick and I'd be stoked to be in a band called "Piggy Dolls." What bothers me is that two of the three "Piggy Dolls" aren't even.

Part of this "weight marketing"/"it's a FAT group" gimmick might simply be that due to the fact that Kim Min-sun is the designated "leader" of the group, in addition to being the largest. In the promotional materials, she's the clear centerpiece:

piggy dolls

piggy dolls

And like the back-up singers to the lead, Lee and Park can't out-do their larger leader Kim—including in size. The whole phenomenon of pop groups also being a cohesive social unit and having actual leaders (maybe with implied hierarchy?) is another mainstay of K-pop; I don't think that's ever been as much of a marketing ploy for bands in the West. I'm sure there's a whole lot of sociological digging and commentary to be done on that but that's a post for another day!

Most of the conversations I've been reading online have been dealing with a few repeat issues: the band name, the whole "gimmick" of a chubby girls' group, and their debut single "Trend." There is so much more I could say that I haven't already, so instead I'm going to focus on something I found very striking while watching the music video for "Trend," that I have yet to see anyone mention. The video that everyone keeps posting has been taken down, so here's one that should be available, at least for the moment:

This is the shortened version of the song; the official music video released opened with a rather deplorable introduction of the girls lazing around eating pizza. Inspired by a series of interviews with overweight girls (overweight by Korean standards only, pretty much) tearfully discussing their weight-related angst, the girls get on their feet and proceed to rock out. Not only that, they rock out about being fat chicks, with lines like, "My body? So what? My face is unique" and "I'm sexy, I'm looking good, check it out in the stage. I'm looking good, we are trend."

I don't have much to say about the song itself: it's catchy, you can actually hear some talent under the autotune, what lyrics I've found translated are empowering and body-positive and awesome. Rather, let's compare this video to 2NE1's "Fire (Street Version)" video, since both bands seemed designed to target the "grrrl power" market.

(First of all, it would do goddamn wonders for Piggy Dolls if they would fire whoever the hell is in charge of their wardrobe. Some of their outfits tread way too closely to ajumma land. And stop dressing Kim in muu-muus!)

The most interesting thing in these videos for me is how "they" (as in the editing and directing eyes assembling the video) treat the clearly designated, well-advertised leaders. Kim doesn't get the kind of show-stopping front-and-center treatment that CL does. The vast majority of "Trend," the choreography is done within in a triangle, with Kim being at the point in the very back until a full three minutes in; in "Fire," CL commands the front and visual focus for most of the song, except parts where she very visually "hands off" to one of the other members. And the closing shot of the video? Kim strikes a pose behind her girls. CL? Right up front. It seems like Piggy Dolls is still hoping to sell on sex appeal in addition to gimmick by featuring Lee and Park much, much more than Kim. I will grant that it's possible Kim simply isn't a good dancer—on their live MNET appearance, Kim rocks it out even less than in the video. But if that's the case, you can clever edit around that. Even just have shots of her singing. But no—guess Korea isn't ready for a fat "leader" yet.

People are also comparing them to Big Mama, a group I know nothing about because their downbeat, soulful numbers aren't the kind of thing to appeal to 12 year olds, and because I'm a teacher, I only ever confront Korean pop culture through the lens of a 12 year old. Truth be told, I honestly prefer the style of the stupid dance-y K-pop for my daily music needs—I listen to music to keep me perky, mostly. Nonetheless, it is so refreshing to hear strong vocal chops stand on their own. Their version of Lean On Me is right up there with any American gospel rendition.

(The second soloist does go flat, but that's easily a nerves issue from singing in English.)

Normally I don't bother expounding on Korean pop music to such a degree, but body image and being a chubster fat chick is a really big part of my life. (No pun intended.) It might be tough to be a fat chick in the West, but it's even tougher in Korea. That's why Piggy Dolls is so shocking and making so many headlines. At the very least, maybe Piggy Dolls will be able to broaden the spectrum of typical K-pop fare, if not in style (because even if they've got pipes, you can only do so many variations on a synthesizer) then in image.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post! I miss talking about shit like this with you in person. GET BACK HERE FASTER, 주세요