After illness scuttled her 2020 comeback plans, Hyuna is finally rested and ready to go with her first mini album under Psy’s P Nation. While the originally slated single “Good Girl” is still included in the album (with its already-filmed MV purported to be released soon), Hyuna’s new lead single has less of the bubbly charm of “Flower Shower” and more of the bombast of her earlier releases under Cube Entertainment. And while I love nothing more than some noise of the Hyuna variety, that excitement has been somewhat diminished by the orientalism that has also plagued other recent K-pop releases.
There is a lot to love about “I’m Not Cool”, Hyuna’s personal anthem for acknowledging her self-consciousness and having a blast with it. The use of the Spanish word “rabiosa” in the lyrics–credited to Hyuna, Psy and labelmate/boyfriend Dawn–is an apt descriptor for the rabid intensity seen. The eclectic styling by Doo Ho is arguably the highlight of the MV, and the trippy purple/pink/yellow colour scheme is violently vibrant.
The snake motif is the most aggressive aspect, an admirable feat when there is barely any snakeskin to be seen. Instead, lace and fishnet stockings, hot pink-patterned wallpaper, narrow sets, and a scaly throne recall the “salmosa” (pit viper) of the pre-chorus. The holiest of hole-y bodysuits possible points to Hyuna shedding her inhibitions the way a snake sheds its skin.
All this snake business, however, has unfortunately led to some orientalism slithering into the MV. The instrumental hook sounds to be based on the pungi, a wind instrument used in snake charming. The choreography appears to mimic the playing of the pungi, which fits in with the snake theme and may not be necessarily considered orientalist on its own. Except, we also have the dancers performing while wearing matha pattis (nethichuttis in Tamil). That they are male dancers and thus breaking gender stereotypes is not an excuse. It’s not a stereotype for Koreans to break.
Another issue was thankfully resolved before the MV dropped. In her frenzy of spoilerific promo, Hyuna posted a few outtakes, including one from the breakdown, when the tablas kick in. Hyuna is seen engaging in some queerbaiting with two female dancers, in some appropriation of a snake dance. The bindi on her forehead is unmissable and led to fans petitioning P Nation to remove the bindi, if not the clip entirely.
No acknowledgement has been made by P Nation, Hyuna, or anyone else, beyond the bindi now being missing from the final cut and the original Instagram post seemingly deleted from Hyuna’s feed. When stars like Sunmi have personally apologised for similar issues, both P Nation’s silence (as the company responsible for this visual) and Hyuna’s (when you consider her own unfortunate history with South Asia-related cultural insensitivity) especially is still frustrating. We don’t have to act grateful when people do the bare minimum.
The overall mixing of Middle Eastern and South Asian influences alongside Ancient Egyptian is a hallmark of orientalism. Yes, we all find things about other cultures unfamiliar and interesting, but the purposeful juxtapositioning of cultures in an insensitive way — the nonsensical mishmash in the pursuit of a particular “alternative” aesthetic — strips people of the meaning, pride and humanity of their cultures to render it as mere window dressing.
While not the most egregious transgression in the last 12 months (looking right at you, “Make A Wish”), “I’m Not Cool” still contributes to the ongoing cultural insensitivity and orientalist exoticism that has had an especially strong run recently thanks to Black Pink, NCT U, (G)I-dle and more.
The saddest thing is that “I’m Not Cool” didn’t need to resort to any of this. It was already a striking MV with a fun vibe, helmed by one of the most charismatic stars K-pop has ever produced.
I still love Hyuna, but “I’m Not Cool” could have given me life; instead, it’s giving me trauma flashbacks to the pure atrocity that is Lee Hyori’s “White Snake” and the shitty feeling that, as a South Asian person, I’m still being viewed as less than — I am sometimes genuinely terrified of how a K-pop star may react if I were ever to meet one. And that is definitely not cool.