ETA: This post was written before the release of the “Sting” music video, but having viewed the video, my impressions here remain largely unchanged.
Few K-pop groups—particularly rookie groups—have received as polarized of a fandom reaction as Stellar. The group has courted scandal since “Marionette,” which featured “click to reveal more” teasers and a music video with a sexy concept exaggerated almost to the point of farce. Many ifans saw it as a company’s desperate bid for attention for their sinking group, and if it was, it worked. The video gained 2 million views in a week, and the group received more media coverage than they ever had. Their company, Entertainment Pascal, tried riding the wave of controversy by framing Stellar’s next comeback, the comparatively tame “Fool,” as a clapback to the slut-shaming they endured from fans over “Marionette.” “Fool” tanked, and with “Vibrato” and now “Sting” (previously reported as “Stabbed”; make of that what you will) it seems the company is back to their old tricks.
I’ve been vocal about my opinions of slut-shaming of girl groups (read: it’s bad). This includes the frequent fan complaints of “male gaze,” which express essentially the same sentiment couched in more politically correct language. Like most girl groups performing sexy concepts, Stellar was roundly criticized for their male-gazeyness though some fans, having assumed correctly that none of this was the members’ idea, expressed sympathy. But popular opinion on Stellar turned with whiplash-inducing speed as soon as the members started telling anyone who will listen how uncomfortable they are with their concepts but it’s worth it for the attention. Now, I’m not doubting the members’ honesty—if anything, I find it refreshing—but I also know that nothing that comes out of an idol’s mouth would be released to the media if their company didn’t intend it to be. I suspect Entertainment Pascal’s strategy was to milk fandom sympathy for all it was worth and if so, it worked brilliantly.
Some fans praise the meta nature of Stellar’s concepts, and while I agree with that they are very meta, I disagree that it’s accomplishing much but manipulating fans into thinking there’s anything deeper going on than selling sex, just as any other K-pop group does. People aren’t focusing on this supposed deconstruction of the K-pop industry, they’re focusing on the T&A being splashed all over the screen, and they don’t particularly care if their fap fodder has any method to its madness so long as it’s fappable. To believe that Stellar’s videos aren’t being exploitative because it’s “meta” or that the exploitation is OK because it’s supposedly meant to be thought-provoking (because K-pop fans really look for thought-provoking content in their music videos, I guess) is either extremely naive or disingenuous. Irony doesn’t accomplish anything if the result is exactly the same as it would be if concept were played completely straight. It’s kind of like Glee thinking it’s being subversive by evoking exaggerated high school stereotypes and doing absolutely nothing interesting with them, or Lily Allen attempting to satirize Miley Cyrus and her ilk’s obsession with twerking but ending up being equally as offensive. To paraphrase one of Lily Allen’s critics, Black in Asia, “‘Ironic’ exploitation is STILL (ding ding) EXPLOITATION.”
Perhaps the greatest irony is not in the content of Stellar’s teasers and videos, but in the fact that their company was able to manipulate fans into believing the group is doing anything substantively different from other girl groups. The only factors separating any of Stellar’s sexy concepts from the ones they’re supposedly critiquing is the anvil-to-the-face levels of obvious imagery and the fact that the members always look miserable while performing (unless it’s part of the concept, e.g. Girl’s Day’s “Something,” though you could also argue that looking miserable is part of Stellar’s “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Exploitation!” concept). The visuals remain largely the same, and the impression made on fans is definitely the same.
However, if you look at fan comments for sexy videos by groups like AoA, Girl’s Day, Sistar, Hello Venus, etc., the sentiments expressed are pretty much the same as they were for “Marionette” before fans figured out that Stellar were being meta and Entertainment Pascal started laying on the sympathy porn. Perhaps AoA should’ve played lacrosse with watermelons instead, or Sistar should’ve looked less peppy while pretending to be butt-shaking ijins.
The implication here is that girl groups doing sexy concepts only receive fan support if it’s obvious they’re unwilling participants but endure it as a means to claw their way out of nugu obscurity. As soon as the group achieves relevance, they won’t need to resort to such awful degrading concepts anymore and can now devote their careers to
eschewing all that horny fanboy and ahjussi cash to make straight fangirls feel more comfortable and less threatened by all the sexy being more feminist. However, if a group does achieve moderate success and still keeps doing sexy concepts, then all bets are off, which seems kind of odd since it’s highly doubtful even moderately successful groups have all that much say in their own concepts. Essentially, bold and confident female sexuality (or at least, the appearance of it) coupled with hyperfemininity (heels, miniskirts, provocative choreo, etc.) is pretty much the worst thing a girl group can do, as far as online fandom is concerned.
Given the oft-contradictory and selective manner with which most fans apply their Tumblr Feminism 101, I’m inclined toward cynicism when it comes to popular opinion of female idols. The brouhaha surrounding Stellar is more proof of that, and given Entertainment Pascal’s marketing strategies so far, they seem to have fandom’s number. I’m supporting Stellar because I like them as a group and I like their songs, same as I would any other group. I’m not going to front like my support for them or any other girl group is motivated by some kind of keyboard activism (“Fight the power! Support girl groups as long as they’re not being a bunch of evil cum-burping gutter sluts, or if they are, look really unhappy doing it!”). You know what they say—sexy is as sexy does, and sometimes a watermelon is just a watermelon.