Hello (My Neoliberal Postfeminist) Bitches

By Karen Gwee

What does it take for an Asian to make it in America’s music industry? If South Korean artist CL’s developing career is any indication, the answer is conformity to neoliberal postfeminism. The lead member of K-pop group 2NE1 since 2009, CL has embarked on an America-facing solo career, finding some success in the last two years with the tracks “Doctor Pepper,” “Hello Bitches” and most recently “Lifted.” From the latter two songs one may discern the strategies CL and her US management imagine a South Korean female artist must use to succeed in this country: assimilation into a neoliberal postfeminist landscape that exoticizes Korean-ness and commodifies blackness.

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CL is attempting to make headway in a country whose white, male hegemonic culture receives K-pop with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. In the case of K-pop, the slobbering, fetishistic way white men consume East Asian female bodies is offset by Western disgust at a pop music industry that they consider robotic and inhuman. Westerners recoil from the careful, rigorous labor the K-pop industry demands, whether it is songwriters synthesizing various catchy, popular musical genres or aspiring artists’ training in bootcamps. This is a manifestation of what Sharon Heijin Lee has called “techno-orientalism,” which stems from “the West’s resentment of the East for its ability to appropriate and improve on Western technology” (Lee 11). The K-pop industry’s unashamed optimization of pop music production is a rude jolt to the Western world and its nebulous, glorified ideas of ineffable genius and magic artistry even when it comes to a cultural product as formulaic as pop music.

As a member of popular female four-piece 2NE1, CL is no doubt an object of this techno-orientalist gaze. As a solo act, she is less beholden to this Western mode of consumption, which anonymizes East Asian women particularly when they are part of a group. But this is also because the badass bitch image CL has forged for herself – and the image she markets herself to America with – buys into the American postfeminism that buttresses techno-orientalism. Postfeminism, according to Nhi T. Lieu, “works to commodify feminism via the figure of woman as empowered consumer” and “emphasizes choice (professional and educational opportunities) and individual freedom particularly through physical and sexual empowerment” (Lieu 28). Women in a postfeminist paradigm have freedom and choice unlike those poor women made to suffer in South Korea’s brutal pop music industry, goes techno-orientalist logic. CL’s decision to foreground her charismatic, badass persona/lity (which she has been known for since her 2NE1 days) in her solo career – which she kicked off with the track “The Baddest Female” – sets her firmly in the former camp rather than the latter. She is nothing if not empowered.

“Hello Bitches,” while not CL’s official American debut, is certainly her biggest solo statement to date. It is important to note that CL does not erase her Asian-ness in this America-facing, postfeminist point in her career. She raps in Korean and drops a Korean pop culture reference by alluding to the messaging app Kakao. She depicts herself as a connoisseur of finer pleasures, as a postfeminist woman would, but as a specifically East Asian-cosmopolitan consumer who flits between shopping sprees in Tokyo and gambling vacations in Macau, “sake to soju, Nagasaki to Seoul.” The group choreography telegraphs the slightest similarity to K-pop music video production norms. At the same time, the aggressive, in-your-face dance routines that incorporate arcade game guns and all-American red Solo cups as well as CL’s braggadocio – her “boys won’t hesitate to run up on your boys” – clearly depict her as a fierce, unfuckwithable figure. CL unquestionably reps for Asian girls – who are “singing every word like they was at the karaoke” – but her badass bitch positionality is familiar to and therefore welcomed in postfeminist America.

In the “Hello Bitches” video, CL shows off the diamonds in her grill – a signature piece of hip-hop jewellery – and surrounds herself with many black, presumably American dancers (and notably no East Asian dancers). CL’s official debut single in America, “Lifted,” borrows heavily from Wu Tang Clan’s “Method Man”; Method Man himself makes a cameo in the music video in which CL is the only non-black person. As a rapper, CL is already practising a black art form, and it is gratifying to see her work alongside black performers. But the documented trend of anti-blackness in K-pop (as outlined here) primes us to be skeptical of the way CL has leveraged blackness in the course of her career.

Despite the strong influences of hip-hop and rap on CL’s music, white men are prominent in CL’s professional circle, whether they are producers (Diplo on “Doctor Pepper” and Skrillex on “Dirty Vibe”) or management (Scooter Braun, who is responsible for shepherding her into the American market). This white male dominance is especially egregious when it comes to the song “Lifted”, which despite the blackness of its visual and musical presentation, was written by CL, her longtime South Korean collaborator Teddy… and white male rapper Asher Roth. The Wu Tang Clan are undoubtedly receiving royalties from “Lifted,” but otherwise black people only seem involved in this artistic production as visual boosters of CL’s American hip-hop credibility. Here, CL participates in the white neoliberal practice that is aesthetic commodification of blackness and black art, which unfortunately appears to align with her strategy to succeed in the United States.

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