Words: Daniel Mattes // Above picture by Wei Hsinyen // Other pictures courtesy of IMMABB
EXP: The meta-making of a K-Pop boyband
The K-Pop world is up in arms about EXP, the EXO 'copycats'. But there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the internet-savvy new band.
It’s 1:30 in the morning, and I’m deep in a K-Hole.
Not a Ketamine-inflicted depth of despair, but a similar lack of self-control brought about instead by K-Pop. With the gateway drug of Orange Caramel’s “Catallena”, a catchy YouTube hit depicting the girl trio as various life-sized forms of sushi, I was addicted, and it took me six months to even allow new sounds into my playlists. So what caused me to relapse and return to the K-hole from whence I had only recently emerged?
A Columbia University student’s dissertation.
Bora Kim is a Korean artist pursuing her Master of Fine Arts. Her project critically examines norms of gender, sexuality, and race through the innovative lens that only a former fangirl could come up with: she’s making a K-Pop boy band. The project, IMMABB (“I’m Making a Boy Band”), has cast and trained six New York City male actors and singers to emulate figures like Taeyang in a band called EXP. The project entails documentation of the entire process, including my own interview with the band-makers.
Bora and her teammates, Karin Kuroda and Samantha Shao, emphasize their experience as three Asian women directing the six men of EXP. Karin describes how their project aims to critically address gender normativity, yet the eventual documentary film will display her catering to the boys’ needs in the recording studio: "It materializes as a scene where a female serves tea because a male asks for it. But, I'm serving it to serve the project rather than the male's request for tea. So many layers don't get seen.”
This layering is fundamental to the project: in developing a boy band, the directors have layered the blank slates of these Western males not only with choreography and singing, but also with the acts of “cuteness” that define Korean masculinity. Bora and her team have built contemporary Korea’s dominant culture into the group, in an effort to peel apart the layers of that culture and break down the very norms they placed on the boys. As Bora explains, boy bands are “sexualized objects in Korea and America, but how they manifest really differs.” The project uses those cultural differences as entry points.
In studying how norms manifest within a Western group performing Korean music, IMMABB dissolves binaries of masculinity/femininity, Western/Non-Western, and dominant/submissive. Rather, the directors understand characterizations of these norms as a spectrum. Consider the project: female Asian artists oversee Western men as they develop foreign notions of masculinity even though their own Americanized characterizations categorize such behavior as effeminate. The one thing that is clear is that nothing is clear anymore. The project has raised lengthy, late-night debates between the directors and boys over racial prejudices, heteronormativity, and prescribed gender roles. IMMABB suggests that, as K-Pop spreads around the world, from the United States to Cambodia, it can develop these discourses.
Although she critically addresses the norms intrinsic to both Korean and American Pop Culture, Bora recognizes the artistic endeavor holds commercial potential as well. EXP will perform its first single – “LUV//WRONG” – on April 26th. Follow the project on Instagram and Twitter at @EXP_theband and @BK_IMMABB, and prepare for them to become your gateway drug too.