K-POP X VOGUE: REAL REALNESS
"A Guys" - N.O.M
In the September of 2013, two groups debuted. Both called NOM, one punctuated N.O.M, one simply NOM, they are very different groups with very different concepts, yet are frequently mistaken for each other. NOM are a simple, cute boyband, yet to have much success, who promoted a track called ‘Pretty Noona’ - something many have said was a rather low-budget rework of SHINee’s May 2008 debut ‘Replay’ or ‘Noona Is So Pretty’. N.O.M, however, are the first k-pop group in history to have every member come out as gay. N.O.M is an acronym for ‘Nature Of Man’ - a sure illusion to being born that way. They are a four piece, called JK, Nio, Kom and Q, and as of right now, have only one song. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t got very far. Even in the world’s most liberal nations, leather bar harnesses, leggings, military caps and mockeries of the sexual confusion and ambiguity of the nation’s pop culture isn’t the man on the street’s idea of a summer anthem.
'A Guys' confused most people upon first listen. I remember supposing it only really relevant as a piece of surreal sexual art, as they are clearly and openly gay, yet are singing about women - they must mention women nearly a hundred times? Yet, I swore I heard sexy boys mentioned, too? I didn't understand. Then, after a little bit of research, and stumbling across a rather good explanatory article, I got it. In the South Korean music industry, there are next to no openly LGBT stars. However, this really doesn't mean that there aren't any LGBT stars. The art produced by some male k-pop artists is incohesive - most romantic art will be about straight love, with a few, often very passionate, same-sex performances throughout their career. Artists may say or do things that indicate that they are gay, bisexual, lesbian or gender flexible, yet, due to South Korea's conservative political climate, are rarely interviewed about it and are often forced to or choose to remain elusive about their orientation.
N.O.M’s ‘A Guys’ is complex, yet simple. Musically, it is simple. It has a fairly standard electronic beat but is nicely layered and is always a pleasing listen. At three minutes and twenty-four seconds, I tend to feel that, for such an enjoyable composition, it is over too quickly. Repetitive, the lyrics, mostly in English, drill into the mind: ‘Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls’. The lyrics are where the complexity lies. N.O.M sing about girls in every line, but it isn’t as simple as that. How many pop songs now, particularly Western, but Korean too, are exploitative of women? How many bombard the mind with a silly, over the top, aggressive masculinity? Perhaps ‘A Guys’ means ‘Alpha males’? Or, perhaps it refers to ‘A’ blood type men within South Korean blood type personality philosophy?
The lyrics of ‘A Guys’ mention women. A lot. We’ve covered that already. However, they are not particularly romantic. They are more a musing, a consideration, an obsession. The main chorus uses that classic k-pop trick: accent play. T-ARA’s ‘Bo Peep Bo Peep’ is the most notable example of this: ‘bo peep, bo peep’ sounds like ‘fuck me, fuck me’ when spoken with a Korean accent. AlphaBAT’s ‘AB City’ is another example. ‘A B C D’ sounds like ‘AB City’ when spoken with a Korean accent. In ‘A Guys’, ‘sexy voice’ becomes ‘sexy boys’ when spoken with an accent and ‘nice legs’ becomes ‘nice regs/rack’ - something hazy and confused. N.O.M tell a woman that they ‘want her sexy voice/boys, see her body figure, like her nice legs’. They tell her that she’s ‘like a shining star’ and that they’ve ‘adjusted themselves to her style’. The most pivotal lyrics are these: ‘Look around, I’m the nicest guy. All of the monsters that surround you. Look at me and my wrap skirt. A thriller under the vague light. Feel it. All of my physical.’ It sounds like a poor translation, but look a little deeper. Is the implication that the cross dressing man or gay man is more sensitive compared to typical, hyper-masculine ‘monsters’? Does the ‘vague light’ reference both the hazy lights in clubs and gender play? Do they love the woman or are they jealous of her? Do they want her or want to become her?
Fashion-wise, N.O.M didn’t mess around. Many male k-pop units have worn militaristic clothing, many have worn leather harnesses, many have worn eye jewels, many have worn leggings. However, Nature Of Man are the first group to wear them all together, with very little else. The outfits are reminiscent of something you may see on a dancer or go-go boy in an Itaewon gay bar. The video girl wears skeleton make-up that was also used in Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ video as she caresses an emotionless looking member of N.O.M. Red lipstick, black feathers, army medallions, white patent boots - it is all very glamorous, yet very defiant. It is glamorous in the way that it presents gay identity and symbolism, not in any sort of fairytale or airbrushed manner of glamour.
In the January of this year, SM Entertainment composer Hwang Sang Hoon came out as bisexual to ‘Sports Seoul’. He wanted to help South Korea’s LGBT community and improve how bisexuals are perceived. From 2002 to 2007, he was in SM Entertainment male group Black Beat. He said some rather moving and notable things, when asked: ‘We are under the impression that there are many people in a sexual minority group in the entertainment and arts fields?’ Hwang’s response was: ‘I don’t know if it’s because they are people full of talent. I guess it seems that there are more of them compared to other fields, but I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know how you’d establish detailed statistics based on just what people say, when there are also those who hide. However, outing someone is sheer murder. Exaggerating a few rumours that you heard by accident is criminal. You should come out on your own terms and when the people around you give you enough strength to do it. There are many people who commit suicide because they are outed. It is a serious issue.’ Gay activist, actor, restaurateur, politician and socialite Hong Seok Chun said this when asked a similar question: ‘There are people around me who thought of coming out but there were always problems with family or work. The problem is not just coming out to your friends or family, but to all of Korean society. I have talked to the very famous couple that people keep talking about.’ When asked their names, he said he wouldn’t reveal them as ‘he is someone who keeps secrets.’ Being LGBT in South Korea isn’t easy and being a closeted celebrity in any nation in the world sounds like an incredibly hard life, full of sadness, distrust and hiding. N.O.M had the confidence to show the public that they were gay, to make art that directly involved their identity and to add four more LGBT South Korean celebrities to the roster, supporting the nation’s community. They faced homophobic internet comments and unpleasant ‘reaction videos’ full of laughter, from many people from all over the world, but they must have expected that. How brave.
The dance is made up of classic, simple Voguing moves - it is sensual and beautiful but simple. However, they perform in heels, which is naturally impressive. The realness in ‘A Guys’ comes from the dancing - fierce, challenging, unique, bold, fun. It comes from the music, too - memorable, danceable, professional, clever. It comes from the styling - striking, thought-provoking, avant garde and a special symbol of a really special sub-culture. But what makes ‘A Guys’ so real is that it is real. N.O.M had the confidence to come out as they debuted. They could have repackaged themselves, found success and been a part of the next generation of male k-pop artists. But they didn’t. Their commitment to the LGBT community in a country where it is often overlooked in its purest form is not only admirable but inspirational. And it has paid off. Whilst the NOM behind ‘Pretty Noona’ have had limited success - their video has gathered a smaller number of views on YouTube than N.O.M’s, N.O.M have had a different kind of success. Naturally, ‘A Guys’ isn’t fit for music television programs, so they are performing mainly at nightclubs. The nightclubs include Club Octagon - a huge Seoul nightclub, that is gay friendly but by no means a gay club. Jaejoong, G-Dragon, SHINee, Girls Generation’s Sunny, Jay Park and the Wonder Girls have all either DJed, performed at or attended events there. Club Octagon has been called the best nightclub in South Korea. They have also performed at other large nightclubs and modelled in a magazine shoot. It isn’t the world. But it is real.