Some thoughts on BoA

Before I begin, a necessary rant.

There’s really no better way to bring out the K-pop hipsters/elitsts than by talking about BoA. For the longest time, the general attitude that K-pop fandom has taken towards BoA was almost one of blind deference. It was as if the mere mention of BoA’s name commanded immediate, indisputable respect, even if you’ve never heard any of her music or watched her perform. Even by those who didn’t know anything about her, BoA was elevated to a god-like status solely because of her reputation as a perfect, flawless performance machine. She was the symbol, the embodiment of all the good things about K-pop, and people took to these assumptions as if they were indisputable fact. It’s not to say that these assumptions are false, but that most everyone treated BoA with an almost fearsome respect and deference solely because the Unwritten Rules of K-pop have dictated that it shalt be so. Not a lot of people actually cared about BoA, but she had “fans” virtually everywhere.

But then she comes out with “Only One,” lipsyncs a few performances, and all of a sudden everyone’s a critic and a BoA expert. Since when did K-pop fans become so opinionated — or rather, since when did K-pop fans become so bad at being opinionated? Like, let’s ignore the fact that “Only One” is a ridiculous song with ridiculous choreography and let’s ignore the fact that BoA’s carrying this whole song by herself. Instead, let’s just harp on the fact that she lipsynced a few performances. Is complaining about lipsync the cool new thing to do now, just like complaining about autotune was the cool thing to do in 2009?

And furthermore, where did all these critics come from? Because I could’ve sworn that just three months ago, there weren’t this many people who gave two shits about what BoA did. I mean, it’s annoying that people liked and respected BoA because everyone liked and respected BoA, but it’s even more annoying now that people are shitting on BoA because everyone’s shitting on BoA. The criticisms against BoA thus far are pretty unfair and unfounded, and while I’m all for providing criticism where criticism is due, there’s nothing that pisses me off more than elitist fans who insist on tearing down every artist that comes their way for the sake of bolstering their elitism. For starters, let’s try reserving our criticism for artists that we actually care about, yeah?

Phew. I think I have a lot more repressed K-pop-related anger than I thought, ha.

Truth be told, I was almost waiting to be disappointed with this comeback, in the same way I was disappointed with BoA’s comeback in 2010. Up until fairly recently, SM’s built a reputation as a one trick pony — and the trick is usually pretty good, but after the fourteenth matrix shot and sixteenth box-like set, the trick gets old. And, obviously, the trick doesn’t always work for everyone. SM’s current strategies are engineered to fit idol groups with fans who are expecting a certain package with every promotion.¬†This ‘idol-friendly’ package is one that relies heavily on several assumptions:

  • Fans are nothing more than human-shaped lumps of hormones
  • It doesn’t matter how bad the song is or how poorly the idols perform the song; as long as they’re pretty, everyone gets an A for effort
  • Hook songs are always the answer
  • If the song doesn’t punch the audience in the face with trendiness, pick a different song

SM tried giving BoA this same package when she did Hurricane Venus two years ago, and to put it plainly — it sucked. It didn’t utilize any of BoA’s abilities to their fullest potential, and nor did it attract BoA’s fans in the same way that any other idol group’s fans would react to their idol being packaged in a similar manner.¬†With SM, it’s easy to assume that their creative staff is practically nonexistent, and the reason why they’re a one-trick pony is because no one at SM has any imagination.

But let’s be real — it’s practically impossible that an arts and entertainment company that’s as large as SM is completely void of any minds that are passionate about artistic creativity. But like any other business, there are rules that exist to ensure that things work, and these rules have to be followed. With SM being as big as it is, it’s completely understandable that their stuff is so formulaic, because it helps them establish and maintain a sense of control.

With BoA, however, it’s clear that the rules don’t always work. That’s where things get interesting. With both “Only One” (choreography) and “The Shadow” (music video), SM bends the rules a lot and allows for some (comparatively) unique artistry to really shine. Especially with an MV like “The Shadow” — while it’s kind of choppy and tries a little too hard to be esoteric at times, the effort is clear. Obviously, I’d love to see the same kind of creativity in DBSK’s or Super Junior’s material. But there’s a different formula for idol groups like DBSK and Super Junior whose marketability extends beyond the reach of their music. And that formula works.

There’s another big difference between “Only One” and “Hurricane Venus” promotions, and it has to do with BoA’s newfound sense of authority in the industry. Obviously, the “uninformed idolatry” surrounding BoA has been around for forever, but during “Hurricane Venus,” she seemed like just another idol in ridiculous clothes with a semi-catchy song. With “Only One,” however, BoA looked and presented herself more like a “sunbae” than ever before.

There’s no denying that BoA’s participation as a judge in K-pop Star had a big hand in pushing her back to relevance in mainstream K-pop, but it had a bigger hand in granting her a position of authority in K-pop. BoA spent the entirety of K-pop Star essentially teaching young singers how to sing, and so watching her promote “Only One” is like watching the teacher executing her craft, showing the students how it should be done. That’s the image I’ve been waiting to see from BoA, which is why I’m so satisfied with this comeback. (Now if only DBSK could pull off something similar…)

Sometimes I wonder if BoA ever takes pride in her work. There’s so much pressure for her to be perfect, but the pressure is only placed on her because audiences expect it from her and because they “know she can do it.” I don’t think BoA’s one to pander for sympathy — although considering her lifestyle, she deserves it like hell.

People praise her all the time because she deserves it, but after hearing the same praises for years, I’d imagine that the repeate compliments bring about more pressure than encouragement. I think that learning to pat yourself on the back is a big step for any high-achiever. You have to relieve yourself of any self-imposed demands and pressures in order to tell yourself with full confidence that you’ve done well. I hope that BoA believes that she deserves at least that.

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  • lae

    I vividly remember seeing a clip of BoA telling someone on Kpop star that she hated the phrase ‘because it’s BoA (implied: she’ll be alright/perfect/amazing etc.)’ This assured-ness she will be fine, she will be 100% as ever actually breeds a sort of apathy, I think. People aren’t as emotionally invested or, perhaps, even as actively encouraging towards individuals like BoA who they subconsciously expect will succeed.

    I quite liked BoA’s Only One (haven’t listened to the Shadow yet). The song is unusual because of its ballad-like qualities, the dance was dynamic and interesting, and the MV was…well, baby steps from the SM Box (TM) and its associated fashion gimmicks. It was simple, clean and used some comparatively interesting camera techniques.

    I really like your teacher comment. Once you’ve built up all the flashy stages and costumes from youth, I think it’s a mark of really being comfortable with your craft when you can revert back to simplicity. It’s a good direction for BoA (:

    Truly hoping HoMin will be able to produce something similar but I feel like SM’s making them regress in terms of how ‘senior’ they appear. Probably trying to squeeze a few more years of ‘youth’ from them… we’ll have to wait for their Korean comeback…