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2NE1 and Ugly

To steal a feature from the Grand Narrative, the go-to blog for gender and society issues in Korea, I would like to discuss a music video. I know I can’t hope to do it nearly as well as the above blog, but I find this song very interesting so here goes.

I would hardly consider myself an avid Kpop fan, but during my time living here it has become music I primarily listen to for perhaps no other reason than it’s what’s around. In the mornings, I have Mnet music videos on TV while I’m getting ready and the wife and I will watch the live music countdown shows for a lack of anything better on. For the most part, I give much thought to the songs or the artists, one of the primary appeals of Kpop being that is doesn’t require much thinking at all. One exception to this, and one of the few groups I can honestly say I specifically enjoy listening to, has been 2NE1. From the start their image has struck different chords than other girl groups and while the competition varies their look and feel wildly between cute, sexy, good girl, bad girl and everything in-between 2NE1 seems to be sticking to their niche. While they very well could be just as fabricated as the rest of the genre, the consistency at least feels more honest. This combined with their talent and the quality of their productions puts them heads and shoulders above the rest and, outside of Park Baum’s yo-yo dieting and penchant for plastic surgery (probably not by choice), makes them strong role models and representatives of Korean music.

Another important point about 2NE1 is that I feel their music has gotten better with each new release, with this newest mini-album Ugly being the best yet.  This kicked off a comeback to Korea after spending time working overseas and the promotion lead with the strong 내가 제일 잘 나가 (I am the Best) which the Narrative already did a great breakdown of here.

The latest MV release this past week is the title track Ugly and provides a great counter to the picture of the girls presented in Best. The repetitive all-English chorus pretty much tells the story of the song:

I think I’m ugly
And nobody wants to love me
Just like her I wanna be pretty I wanna be pretty
Don’t lie to my face tellin’ me I’m pretty

I think I’m ugly
And nobody wants to love me
Just like her I wanna be pretty I wanna be pretty
Don’t lie to my face cuz I know I’m ugly

Looking at the ladies, it’s quite obvious that there must be some subtext to what their singing. This isn’t Piggy Dolls singing about being fat and it’s okay (and then promptly power dieting and losing about 50lbs. each), but rather looking past the outer image and going to a deeper subject than most Kpop tends to tread. As member Dara put it:

“There are moments where people think that they’re ugly or lacking something, but people need to realize that there’s a unique beauty within all of us that other people don’t have. I hope that a lot of people listen to our song, ‘Ugly’, and find strength.”

A quick scan of entertainment in Korea will tell you that there’s something wrong with body image here and while it does extend to most genders, the typically male-dominated society also puts a lot of pressure on women’s self mental image as well. While I doubt 2NE1 played much a part in writing the song themselves, I have no doubt that they have experienced these feelings because everyone has. While it’s a common theme in Western music though, this is the first mainstream Kpop song I have heard in my time here to really go into such ideas. Simple lyrics displaying not so simple themes also seems fairly rare to me within the genre. Outside of the lyrics, we have the music which while familiar, doesn’t quite sound like anyone else. The beat is good with a nice blend of guitar and electronic with a great hook. As usual Bom‘s vocals are the stand-outs, but the ladies also each have their time and share the stage well.

While I am sure that sometime in the future I will be disappointed with a 2NE1 release, it hasn’t happened quite yet and I hope they can keep their hit streak as long as possible. I believe they, and on the boy’s side their label-mates Big Bang, really raise the bar for the music and can only make the music better.

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