Is K-Pop Just More Progressive?

Korea’s first all-LGBTQ boy band released their debut single, Show Me Your Pride, two days ago. And it’s seriously good

Out and proud: that’s not something you associate with South Korea, and even less so with the world of K-Pop. It is ironic that when members of Korean boy bands can (and do) put on so much make-up and even sell just as much cosmetics, gay anything is generally frowned upon. Or barely talked about in popular culture. As CNN noted in a report last year, “in the camp world of K-pop, it’s hard for stars to be gay”. But things may soon change. A new boy band from South Korea, Lionesses (nope, we did not get the gender wrong), has just released their first single, Show Me Your Pride, and it is joyfully good and deserves to be played on loop. It does not, in fact, require repeat listening for the hit vibe to emanate. As with coffee, you’d know how good it is at the first whiff.

Lionesses is a quartet from Seoul. Not much is yet known about them. They described themselves as “openly LGBTQ+”. However, their openness presently goes only as far as revealing the face of the group’s leader Bae Dam-jun, who told the Korean media that the key message of Show Me Your Pride is “we are us”. How they are in terms of what they look like—key ingredient in the success of K-pop stars—is yet to be clear. The rest of the members wore a cat mask for the accompanying MV of the track. On naming themselves after wild felines, Mr Bae said, “It is easy to think the apex of the African ecosystem that we have seen through the mass media is a male lion with a rich mane, but in the end, the ruler of the plain is (not) actually a lion. It’s a group of lionesses who are in charge of hunting for the pride”.

As with many boy bands, Lionesses comprises different characters that might appeal to their target audience. There is the chubby diva Mr Bae; another who shares the same silhouette as the lead (could they be siblings?), but more willing to show his moves; a tough/fit-looking rapper; and a mysterious, seemingly andro-type who hits the high notes—really high. Visually, the boys have not made a distinctive mark, yet. They would not have Louis Vuitton come acalling tomorrow. Two of them are dressed positively Normcore, one of them as aspiring hip-hop star, completely with obligatory chunky chain-necklace, while the fourth, the sleekest, is probably the fashion plate of the four. Still, better than the bengness of so many the average K-pop boy band. What they have in common, if not in the style stakes, is their ability to sing, each bringing something of their own to the song. They are not smooth as butter—thank the hallyu gods for that!

To be sure, there are queer pop stars in South Korea. Holland (aka Go Tae-seob) is believed to be the first openly gay pop soloist, whose stage name was chosen as homage to Holland being the first country to legalise same-sex marriage. His first self-funded single Neverland received over 1 million views on YouTube in the first 20 hours when it was posted in 2018. The accompanying MV showed two boys kissing; it was rated in South Korea R or “Adults Only”. And there is Aquinas (aka Minsoo Kang), who came out on Instagram with the announcement: “I’m bisexual” in Korean and English, just three months ago, not long after he released his debut EP It Doesn’t Matter. There is also transgender star Harisu (aka Lee Kyung-eun), who has released five successful albums to date, but she and the others are not quite representative of a wider acceptance of the LGTBQ community in the K-pop industry. While there are individual members of groups who have been open about their homosexuality, such as real-life couple Seungho (Jang Seungho) and B.Nish (Yoo Bon) of D.I.P, a boy band comprising gay guys is unheard of, until now.

Show Me Your Pride is dance pop with flourishes of charming experimentation. It is cheerful as it is confident, with an anthemic quality—that love is love/show me your love chorus—that would not be out of place as love theme of a gay movie (not with the lead transcribing and playing classical music!) or the closing song of a pride parade. But, not the Pose-ready, neu-handbag house of RuPaul. As Show Me Your Pride plays, it could sound like K-pop you are already streaming daily, but, with headphones on, you’ll hear, apart from some eye-opening vocal harmonies, grooves so sleek that they could be, like kimchi, a delectable pickling of the funky smoothness of Skylar Spence (formerly Saint Pepsi, aka Ryan DeRobertis) and the infectious danceability of The Garland Cult, all wrapped with the palpable exultation of Sakanaction. It is such a handsomely packaged track, with such remix potential, that we suspect Towa Tei might be keen to take a dip. What is, perhaps, the most amazing is how the verse in which one of the boys, singing in falsetto, could really wake your goosebumps. Not quite Dimash Kudaibergen, but definitely groundbreaking for K-pop.

The track is written by the leader of the group Bae Dam-jun and compatriot Zantin, a now US-based producer, formerly of YG Entertainment, the company behind Blackpink and Big Bang. Show Me Your Pride addresses the still-real strife of the LGBTQ community. But it has a positivity about it too. “No matter how much you shoot at us with your tiny keyboard,” the rap goes, “we are bulletproof/we are bulletproof”. To the affected, it urges: “You don’t have to hide or try to avoid it/That bright sun is on our side/Just before dawn is the darkest time/And if you feel trapped in the darkness/Just call us ‘friends’/Then we’ll be the candles in your dark room”. There is a sweetness to that. Believable assurance too.

Screen shot: Lionesses/YouTube

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