In my country, the greatest expatriate community are South Koreans. Although that might not be true in other nations, it has been known that for long, South Korean seedlings have literally been spread all over the world. One of the positive outcomes of such movement in transmigration would be the country’s overall outlook on “design”. According to a lecturer of mine, someone’s capabilities in design is primarily affected by the surroundings where the designer was brought up, the things he or she has seen and experienced, or the cultures that have been exposed to said person. In the city I live in, there’s even a Korean owned Art School where they have intensive after-school art classes all year long to prep you and make sure that you get in to the best art schools in the United States (Parsons, Cal Arts, Pratt, RISD), and boy are there lots of Koreans there. Only a select few guys are cute. None of the girls come close to IU. Regardless of that previous intermezzo, the common goal of most of my Korean friends to get into an American Art School, exemplifies how important “making it in the US” is for Koreans, for most Asians probably. And we shan’t forget those daytime TV nunnas bragging to her friends about their studying-in-the-US children.
But when cultures are mixed, in particular, harmony can usually be achieved and things turn out stunningly beautiful. Without this weird fixation and ambition for Koreans and other Asians to drab themselves in Western culture, we might not have designers (artistic, visual, and auditory) with skill or a broadened perspective. Therefore, things like the Brown Eyed Girls‘ “Sixth Sense” music video or T-ARA‘s “Roly Poly” promotional images can see the light of day. But what pains me is how Koreans, with the recently impeccable track-record they’ve had with art, design and sound, can let something like Orange Caramel happen.
Pledis and After School got down to serious business when they unleashed “Because of You” with its Japanese-Shibuyan underground jazz movement influences. It was the penultimate video that made me fall in love with K-pop. The song and video were breathtaking. UEE‘s deliverance of the line “jajonsim jit balba nohgo” was full of conviction. And as she looked sadly off camera… it was a perfect K-pop moment, where, yes, ‘I die’. When she looked teasingly on and off camera as she swallowed candy (or chocolate?) and sang “I miss you, I need you. Shiganeul dwi deollyeo wanna kiss you again, my boy“… another ‘I die’ moment in K-pop. “Shampoo” was also great but it lacked the punches of “Because of You.” The video though was likable, especially that ending pose sequence when they are all in their tap dancing costumes and their stunning ‘yearbook’ photos hung in the background.
The costumes are tacky. The earlier songs are frivolous. Then came “Bangkok City” which was mildly listenable. But they sounded like chipmunks in “Shanghai Romance,” when it could have sounded magnificent, had they sang like humans (and if the tempo had been slower). And as a foreign K-Pop fan, I find “A~ing” and “Magic Girl” highly unappealing. I don’t know about South Koreans themselves but they just didn’t work for me. The only thing that I get though, with Orange Caramel, is their ‘One Asia Project.’ This will be something Orange Caramel will bring until their disbandment and I am surprised no other artist has ever tried this concept before. It is so versatile and will probably last in between 8-10 promotion cycles if done correctly. What they have been doing though, with “Bangkok City” and “Shanghai Romance” has not been correct.
There are two babes and a phenomenal singer in this group, yet Pledis makes them sound like a tacky parody of Chinese people. But the parody comes out as a failed product because there’s nothing credibly Chinese about it. The exploded turban in bows and sequins? I have never seen that, been gifted that as a souvenir, or ever want to wear one. Ever.
Although, I hope they commit to their ‘One Asia Project’, I just hope they do it better. Why doesn’t Pledis try and make Lizzy, Rania and Nana look like a set of sophisticated cosmopolitans who need to be at Bangkok for a photo shoot at 4 p.m. then jet to Shanghai for a dinner party or a premiere at 7 p.m.? Why doesn’t Pledis let them wear decent airport fashion in their videos instead of tacky costumes? Why do the three of them have to have the same kind of hairstyle in each promotion cycle? These things are beyond me. Yet K-pop idols are idols because there’s something about them that’s lacking in us normal human beings, be it their towering height, porcelain skin, natural or unnatural facial bone structures, and perhaps even their lifestyle. But what about the Orange Caramel girls do we crave? Nothing. Most people would rather be caught dead than wear that crabby headdress from “Shanghai Romance.” And are the other girls of After School possibly ‘jealous’ that Rania, Lizzy, and Nana have this Orange Caramel sub-unit, the way most people would be if you’re a member of 4Minute and you’re not the one who’s HyunA? I think not.
If they’re going to make the trio sound like chipmunks singing about Shanghai, why not pair it with a sleek high budget video where Lizzy’s giving looks to guys at The Bund which overlooks the huge Yangtze river, Nana walking down a street filled with neon lights (it doesn’t have to be a red light district) in a shimmery little black dress as she’s tousling her gorgeous long hair, and Rania’s screaming her lungs off in the middle of a a subway station with people and trains passing-by really fast. There’s just three of them to air freight, so if Pledis outsources a foreign production company, depending on the Asian city they’re highlighting, it wouldn’t be that expensive would it? In essence, there simply needs to be more effort when it comes to delivering their concept. And if they truly delivered, I believe more of the K-pop audience will find a deeper appreciation of Orange Caramel. Better yet, shorten the name. Make it just, The OC. It’s much more chic and sophisticated that way. If we revamp their image as jet-setting professionals they’d be great role models to young girls striving to be global citizens. Or Nana strutting down a foreign city’s red light district with teasing looks to the camera would be an ajusshi ‘pleaser’ with substance, rather than just making love to a mirror while wearing a swimsuit a la 4Minute.
And I think the possibilities are limitless since they’ve locked down the all-over-Asia concept (see the Shanghai Tang Chinese-Melayu inspired campaigns above, for example). I would love to see them do things about Singapore, Malaysia, Mumbai, Dubai, Taiwan, Tokyo, Osaka, Nepal, Bangladesh, only if they’d emulate a more cosmopolitan and travel-all-year-round image synonymous with businesswomen or hot-shot fashion editors. Nana, Lizzy and Rania would even look fabulous wearing airy white cotton shirt, khaki pants and backpacks, holding a map, like a sensible non-tacky backpacker. If not, they could look like sexy spies of on an espionage mission to retrieve a stolen Korean-government-owned USB filled with nuclear reactor information. The opportunities are so broad with Orange Caramel and their ‘One Asia Project’, that they make the other groups jumping back and forth from just ‘cute and colorful’ to ‘black and sexy’ to just ‘cute and colorful’ again look like nitwits.
There is so much untapped potential with Orange Caramel that this ‘essay’ or ‘rant’ has just covered the possibilities of their look and concepts. I haven’t even touched the sound. I’d love to see them working with foreign producers, testing traditional foreign instruments in their sound, tribal beats, friendship anthems for sporting events, ethnic club thumping songs, Bollywood soundtracks, even winning K-pop a wider global audience and even bringing peace to Asia. The possibilities are endless since the people at Pledis have already taken dibs on one of the most interestingly noble, surprisingly purposeful, and potentially profitable concept I have ever seen come out of the South Korean K-pop industry.