NewJeans girl group (Photo from NewJeans Facebook account)
All-female group NewJeans, the latest addition of teenage girls to South Korea’s K-pop scene, sparked outrage over lyrics heavy with sexual innuendo.
The five-member group released their debut album NewJeans August 1st.
The reaction was immediate and largely positive, with the music video for another single, Attentiontopped music streaming services and watched over 18 million times by the end of the month.
Attention quickly turned to the suggestive lyrics of Biscuit, which are written in a mixture of Korean and English. It includes the lines: “Looking at my cookie. The scent is different. Taste it. One bite will not be enough.
The album’s producers insist the words are “maliciously interpreted”.
Although the words may be tame compared to the lyrics sung by Western pop stars, the age of the girls and South Korea’s vastly more conservative outlook heightened the controversy.
The oldest member of the five-person group, Minji, is 18 years old while the youngest, Hyein, is 14 years old.
An article in The Korean Herald said, “A suggestive metaphor involving cookies and love might not sound outlandish, but being delivered by underage girls changes the whole context, according to voices who criticized the song for being age-inappropriate.”
The comments under the song’s video on YouTube shared that concern, with one post saying, “They’re extremely talented…should have waited a few years to give them a song with those lyrics, though.”
Another comment read: “The real meaning of this song is way too mature for their age. The label knows exactly what [it’s] Do.”
The band’s agency, ADOR, defended the song, saying in a statement on its website that the song was created for fans “with the same sincerity that goes into making a cookie.”
An alternative explanation suggested by ADOR is that baking cookies is similar to burning a CD.
“We have been told by many English Literature professors, interpreters and native speakers that ‘cookie’ is not widely used as sexual slang,” the agency added.
“Thus, the term itself cannot be a problem, although interpretations may differ based on people’s subjective experiences.”
The lengthy statement adds that there is little ADOR or the group can do if listeners apply “malicious interpretations” of the words.
Just a “misinterpretation”?
Jungmin Kwon, an associate professor at Portland State University in the United States who specializes in East Asian popular culture, said it is true that the use of English terms in the lyrics of Korean songs may serve to obscure connotations, but she rejects ADOR’s assertion. this “cookie” is entirely innocent.
“To be honest, that argument isn’t very valid because every word is interpreted differently depending on how the word is used in a sentence, a paragraph, or the whole piece,” she said. “The flow and context of the English lyrics of ‘Cookie’ and the use of certain other words, like ‘sprinkle’, can be consumed unintentionally.”
“I agree with those who are concerned about the lyrics being sung by minors,” she told DW.
“Even though ADOR never meant to, they may need to listen to their consumers when so many audiences are expressing the same concern,” she added. “In particular, if they want to expand their territory beyond their local market, they should be more aware and sensitive to other cultures.”
Sexually charged lyrics and images have long been a part of Korean music culture, just as they are in other cultures, she said, so teenagers who sing suggestive songs cannot be considered a trend.
Also, she says, it would be wrong to blame girls for giving voice to songs written and produced by adults.
“If it is the singers themselves who have written such lyrics and promoted such images, which means that they have agency and autonomy over the creation, I would not consider the lyrics and images to be inappropriate at all. “, said Kwon. “Because minors are aware of their sexuality, they have the right to express their desires.”
“But in most cases, it’s the commercial, heteropatriarchal professionals who have singers sing a song with age-inappropriate lyrics and don revealing costumes.”
Young K-pop singers as “goods”
David Tizzard, assistant professor of education at Seoul Women’s University and columnist for a Korean social affairs daily. said it’s problematic when minors are required to sing the lyrics written by adults in their management agency.
“If these were words written by a 14-year-old singer, then a lot of people would be cheering and saying she’s creative and outspoken,” he told DW.
“The issue isn’t the content, but rather how it sheds light on how K-pop uses singers to sell products with this kind of imagery. It’s not the song, it’s the how industry uses them as commodities.”
Given the uproar that has surrounded NewJeans, Tizzard predicts the group will likely keep a relatively low profile until the controversy subsides, but the incident demonstrates the growing power K-pop fans have over the objects of their worship.
“We’ve seen this before, with fans effectively rising up when they’re unhappy with a band’s behavior,” he said.
“K-pop fans feel more and more able to dictate what bands produce and now they’re saying what’s not acceptable for NewJeans to sing. It’s a big difference from the way whose things are happening in the West, where groups are not beholden to market response.”