AKA, this Op-Ed should’ve been written about a month ago, but someone brought it up in last week’s MuBank recap and I don’t have an album to review this week. *shrug*
On last week’s Music Bank recap, Seoulbeats readers Zero and tank commented on Piggy Dolls‘ absence from the weekly lineup. In fact, Piggy Dolls did perform last week, but the performance cut wasn’t available on Youtube until yesterday. My apologies for not updating the post. But as to why they didn’t perform in the weeks preceding Friday’s episode, I have no idea. Check out last week’s performance HERE. Phenom, as always. Look, Minsun’s actually dancing!
When Piggy Dolls debuted in January, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the group regarding their image as a “plus-sized” group with powerful vocals to boot. Many compared them to Big Mama, which was mostly active in the mid-2000s. Like Piggy Dolls, Big Mama was known for not conforming to typical K-pop beauty standards. Instead, they chose to purely monopolize their vocal talent. And it worked – the Big Mama ladies could sang (and I mean saaaang) and everyone knew it.
While I certainly don’t think Piggy Dolls is at the same level as Big Mama (and for good reason; the members of Piggy Dolls are still rookies and in their teens), I dare anyone claim that the members of Piggy Dolls aren’t talented. A solid, full-sounding female R&B voice is a rare find in mainstream K-pop these days, so when three voices like those of Minsun, Jiyeon, and Jieun show up to the scene, you don’t let them fall to the wayside. You give them center stage and let them set a new standard for female K-pop vocalists.
Piggy Dolls certainly did take center stage for their vocal prowess, yes – but as they promoted their debut song “Trend,” I couldn’t help but think that the group was also promoting their title as “The-Girl-Group-That-Collectively-Weighs-Over-200-kilograms.” One look at their promotion materials and you’ll pick up on the point preeeetty quickly:
Most K-pop fans have voiced their support for Piggy Dolls and their efforts to stretch K-pop beauty standards beyond the boundaries of pole-thin waists and toothpick legs. Others, however, are concerned that Piggy Dolls advocates a message that says that being overweight is okay despite the accompanying health risks. While the debate hasn’t exactly caused a schism within the K-pop community, the same question still arises whenever Piggy Dolls becomes a topic for discussion: do groups like Piggy Dolls serve as good or bad role models for the viewing public?
To which Patricia says: If we’re even having this conversation in the first place, then that means Piggy Dolls isn’t sending out the right message as a role model or as a public figure.
Let me explain.
In November of 2010, a little song called “Like A G6” hit the number 1 spot on the Billboard charts and stayed there for two weeks running. It was the song for a good month or so – and was promptly forgotten a few months later, but I guess that’s how American pop works: being “the” song for a month or two is probably the best indicator of finally ‘making it big,’ what with America’s horribly oversaturated pop music market these days. But that’s another Op-Ed for another time.
The masterminds behind “Like A G6” were the members of this hip-hop group named Far East Movement – but most listeners didn’t really know that until they went to go buy the song on iTunes…and even then, many still didn’t pick up on the fact that the members of FM were all Asian-American, despite the fact that the group is called…y’know, Far East Movement. And even when they did figure it out, it’s not like anyone actually cared. The APA community (myself included) went nuts over “Like A G6”, and said that it was heralding the era for Asian entertainers to finally enter the American pop music market for good…but to the rest of the world, it was just another Top 40 hit that was their “jam” for two months, and not much more. Just like every other Top 40 hit on the radio these days. That’s just pop music for ya.
But despite the APA community’s over-enthusiasm about the song (and everyone else’s lack thereof), Far East Movement and “Like A G6” nonetheless proved that America was ready to look past ethnic labels and listen to good music for the sake of good music. To this effect, I believe FM had a big hand in contributing to the colorblindness of their music and promoting it sans agenda. Had they marched into the pop scene and presented themselves as an Asian-American band with an overwhelmingly strong Asian-American message, then chances are “Like A G6” wouldn’t have been known as that club song talking about sober girls actin’ like they drunk. It would’ve been known as that song by that Asian group and it might’ve been accepted into mainstream pop all the same – but the division between “pop music” and “pop music made by Asians” would have remained. By promoting their music for music’s sake, Far East Movement was able to make a hit, but they also subliminally promoted the fact that it should be normal for Asian-Americans to be producing Top 40 songs and hip-hop club jams. FM didn’t make their Asian-ness a primary selling point in their music, but they nonetheless made a giant leap for the APA community in doing what many minority ethnic groups in America have coveted: turning ‘Asian-Americans’ into just plain ‘Americans’ sans fanfare. Far East Movement presented themselves not as minorities but as a part of the mainstream – and they were treated like part of the mainstream.
Now back to Piggy Dolls. To be honest, I was slightly put off by their music video for “Trend” because right off the bat, the video doesn’t even hesitate and just pimp-slaps you with the group’s message: “We’re standing up for all those girls who aren’t skinnier than pipes and we’re telling them that they’re beautiful just the way they are!”
Which is nice and all, but by kicking off the video – and the group’s debut – with an agenda-filled message instead of, you know, actual music – it completely skews how the public is now going to view this group. A minute or so into the video, you’re pimp-slapped again with the stunning vocals of these three girls – but it just doesn’t seem to have that same effect as that initial image of the girl with the pixelated face who’s sobbing because everyone makes fun of her for being chubby.
One look at the group’s name and you can tell that this group places its market value not in the members’ talents, but in their image as a group with ‘unconventional proportions.’ According to how Piggy Dolls has been marketed and promoted, it sure looks like the only thing that sets Piggy Dolls apart from every other girl group is their weight.
And that’s not fair.
The voices in Piggy Dolls don’t sound like that of any other K-pop girl group. As singers, that should be what sets Piggy Dolls apart from the rest. Not their weight. Not their agendas as “body-image-acceptance” advocates. The members of Piggy Dolls have repeatedly said that they wish for women of all shapes to be regarded for their abilities, not their size. The trio once said that they “wanted to help people realize their dreams without being burdened by the views of others.” But by constantly drawing attention to their physical image rather than their vocal talents, it seems Piggy Dolls is widening the rift between “singers” and “fat singers.” In placing so much emphasis on their weight and their image as “plus-sized idols,” Piggy Dolls has in fact deepened the division between the mainstream and the minority. They may aim to promote acceptance of all body types in the K-pop industry, but by defining themselves as “plus-sized idols” instead of just plain “idols,” Piggy Dolls only further alienates the plus-sized community from the entertainment world, rather than bringing it together.
Like Far East Movement did with “Like A G6”, it would have been so much more effective had Piggy Dolls just bust out with an awesome song that showcased their awesome vocals and left the whole ‘body image’ agenda behind. As singers, their voices are all they should need. Obviously, their physical size may become the elephant in the room – or worse, it may become the topic of mockery and hatred from narrow-minded netizens. But the way to combat this isn’t to stamp “Body Image Pride” all over your image and music. Rather, you shrug it off and say, “Why does the shape of my body matter as long as I’m making good music?” If the celebrity doesn’t make a big deal out of it, then neither will anyone else.
And that’s how you integrate something into the mainstream: not by shoving an agenda into people’s faces, but by introducing it as part of the norm. It shouldn’t be strange for Asian-Americans to make chart-busting hip-hop tracks. It shouldn’t be strange for plus-sized girls to bring down the house with their voices. But if Piggy Dolls (and their management) insist on promoting themselves as Three Fat Girls Who Can Kinda Sing, then the public is going to treat them like Three Fat Girls Who Can Kinda Sing, rather than the Three Amazing Singers With Unconventional Bodily Proportions that they actually are. The result? Plus-sized singers will still be viewed as an anomaly in K-pop, and Piggy Dolls will have wasted their potential as a group that could have possibly made a real difference in the K-pop industry.
But as I’m writing this Op-Ed, I can’t help but think that maybe Korea is different from America in this regard. The more I look at K-pop from a socio-cultural angle, the more I realize that there are some nuances about Korean culture that I, as an outsider, will never fully understand. One thing that sticks out is that Korean culture seems to strictly dictate certain social and cultural nuances that most other cultures would consider to be intuitive. Just look at the idea of “concepts” in K-pop: every promotional effort has a theme, and that theme is strictly defined through the music, the artistic styling, even the way the the artists’ act and speak in public. In America, how would you define Lady Gaga or Katy Perry’s “concepts”? These things are never really defined in most other cultures, but in Korea, anything that’s not openly addressed and defined just becomes the elephant in the room. How many times do variety show hosts make jokes about an idol’s awkwardness on talk segments? Why do idols always apologize if jokes fall flat? Heck, why do you have to conjugate Korean verbs in different ways depending on how close you are with the person you’re talking to? Granted, there are a lot of things about Korean culture that seem very indirect and roundabout (once again, Op-Ed for another time), but speaking holistically, it seems as if Koreans are more inclined to openly define boundaries, groups, and rules that would otherwise largely remain ambiguous in most cultures.
So to apply that statute to Piggy Dolls, it would make sense that Piggy Dolls would place so much emphasis on their weight because if they didn’t address it outright, it would become that glaringly obvious elephant in the room. Korean culture places a huge emphasis on conformity, but if you’ve got something that is so glaringly different, then maybe it’s become a 21st century trend to play up those differences to the extreme. For Piggy Dolls (and even their predecessors Big Mama and the Bubble Girls), that difference was in their weight.
There’s a Korean expression that says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” but in today’s culture, it looks as if the nail gets yanked out of the plank completely instead. And when you’ve got all these minority groups that are just beginning to speak up, the path to acceptance by the masses isn’t by alienating oneself through one’s differences, but to find reconciliation within the mainstream. The nail isn’t hammered down, nor is it yanked out. Rather, it encourages all the other nails in the plank to ease themselves out of their holes and form a community where nails of all different lengths can get along.
(That was a terrible analogy, but you get my point.)
So where does Piggy Dolls go from here? Well firstly, I really hope that this isn’t the last we’re seeing of them, because I do like them a lot and I think they’re incredibly talented. But even if they decide to change their agenda down the road, I don’t think they’ll be breaking (or even making) any trends, contrary to what their debut song may declare. The members themselves have said that they would like to see a “second or third version of Piggy Dolls” that would finally break the stereotype for good. I agree. The mere presence of Piggy Dolls in the K-pop world is one step forward in encouraging acceptance of unconventionality in a highly conventionalized environment – but it’s not a leap. We’ll only be seeing a leap once a group has the courage to present itself for its worth as a musician – not as a stereotyped image.
***I know I’m usually the album review chick, and I’ll return to my good ol’ album reviewing ways for next week. But I wanna hear from y’all: What album do you want me to review next? Leave your requests and suggestions in the comments below…and I’ll see you next week.