The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: One Direction (page 1 of 1)

Bulletproof Boys & Snuggle Huddles

Mark Simpson on America’s manly embrace of BTS & Korean metrosexuality

‘K-Pop’ boyband BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, have been getting a lot of love in the US this week with their week-long ‘virtual’ residency on The Tonight Show. Their new single ‘Dynamite’, their first song performed fully in English, also took the No.1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 – the first all-South Korean group to do so.

BTS (방탄소년단) 'Dynamite' Official MV

Pretty boys. Catchy tune. Sweet singing. Colourful clothes – and hair. Cool moves. Seductive smiles. What’s not to love? They look good enough to eat – like all-singing, all-dancing macarons.

And no beards. In fact, they are so smooth that just watching them probably makes your beard fall out. So of course I’m very much in favour of them.

But the beauty of the world’s biggest boy band isn’t skin deep. WWE superstar-turned-actor and all-American beefy pocket battleship, 43-year-old John Cena – who is himself suspiciously clean-shaven – is a fan of the South Korean boyish androgynes and their sensitive message of ‘self-love’, coming out this week on network TV as a proud member of the BTS Army. 

“I got interested in the music then I got interested in what the music stood for… “They advocate self-love, they advocate ‘don’t be afraid of failure’, they advocate that you are enough. They are trying to shatter all the stereotypical difficulties and uncomfortable situations that we go through and they’re catering to an audience that is living that – young people.”

This is quite the endorsement, given Cena’s formative, muscular role in shaping the psyche of millions of American men who grew up with posters of the tough wrestler flexing for battle on their bedroom walls.

The Evolution of John Cena: photos | WWE

Cena isn’t alone in his manly adoration. Doing the rounds on social media is this YouTube video, in which mostly hetero young American men, express – or perform – their fascination with and love for perhaps (it’s a close-run competition) the prettiest BTS member, 24 year-old Jimin and his ‘innocent flirtiness’. 

Jimin snatching men left and right

The way US men seem to have taken BTS and Jimin to their bosoms is quite something, especially given the way the US, almost uniquely in the world, had a chest-beating backlash against metrosexuality a decade or so ago. Then again, BTS are not American. They’re ‘exotic’.

Nevertheless, one of the salient about BTS is that unlike most other boybands, they seem to exist not simply for the titillation and wooing of female fans (though they do lots of that: see below), but are also a boyband for boys/men. 

‘BTS’ stands for Bantang Sonyeondan, Korean for ‘Bulltproof Boy Scouts’. According to band member J-Hope, the name signifies the band’s desire to ‘block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that target adolescents like bullets.’ 

A feature in Metro UK a couple of years ago reported how BTS and K-pop are attracting fanboys – who claim that K-pop has ‘helped them understand themselves, and the concept of masculinity, far better’.

The well-kept, flagrant-fragrant metrosexuality of K-pop in general and BTS in particular has been documented by others:

The overall visual of K-pop is very appealing – a man, taking care of himself: having clean skin, being dressed well, using actual cosmetic products… that Metrosexual vibe… I know it’s very primal and many people say that a guy should be having a hairy chest and all of those things that make him look tough. Taking care of yourself is a great effort and a compliment for those around you.

The Korea Herald last year wrote about the ‘metrosexual image’ of K-pop, explaining it in terms of contemporary ‘genderless’ fashion brand strategy:

“With the genderless trend hitting the fashion industry, brands are rolling out lines of apparel that are not limited to a specific gender,” a fashion industry source told Kpop Herald on condition of anonymity. “Against this nonbinary trend, K-pop male idols’ aesthetic, metrosexual image matches well with what luxury brands are aiming for. They can easily pull off clothes that are sometimes too bold or colorful, or outfits largely considered womenswear with ease, while exuding edginess.”

For what it’s worth, metrodaddy agrees that BTS and K-pop are East Asian expressions of metrosexuality – using consumerism and aesthetics to widen the meaning of masculinity and nick gender styles, pleasures and feelings previously associated with femininity and/or stigmatised homosexuality.

It should be pointed out here however that for all it’s cutting-edge consumer goods success – TV and smartphone giant Samsung is based there – South Korea is mostly conservative and religious and was under military rule until the 1990s. Military service is still compulsory for males – where homosexuality is illegal.

And although homosexuality is no longer illegal for civilians, attitudes tend to be mostly negative. There are few out performers in South Korea – despite the way that male K-pop idols regularly play-act homoerotic romance on stage. (BTS are particularly known for their snuggling.)

Or perhaps because they regularly play-act homoerotic romance. K-pop’s heavy flirtation with same-sex romance is almost predicated on the official disavowal that they couldn’t actually be gay or bisexual. The homoflirtation is anyway mostly for the female fans – who in Korea, as in many other parts of the world including of course the UK, enjoy creating homoerotic fantasies about their male idols.

K-pop actively encourages and panders to ‘shipping’ narratives – far more than the UK’s One Direction did. But again, those fantasies are typically based on two otherwise heterosexual young men falling in love with one another. If they were actually, openly gay then that would be about their sexuality, their needs – not their fans’. Likewise, K-pop idols are not supposed to get married and face a bitter backlash if they do. The homoflirtation of K-pop is a way of staying faithful to the fans.

But the cultural effect of K-pop is nevertheless to widen the meanings of masculinity – and to provide more breathing space (and cover) for those who feel oppressed by traditional expectations, as well as succour to sensitive wrestlers like John Cena. Perhaps even representing a kind of masculine liberation – albeity paradoxically, given the almost feudal relationship of K-pop idols to their powerful labels. And of course that of their fans and the rest of us to consumerism.

Perhaps that’s the significance of the David Bowie posters (behind and on the left) in the attic bedroom of the milk-drinking chap at the start of video for ‘Dynamite’. Though I wonder whether they shouldn’t have been posters of the non-singing, High Street David Bowie, David Beckham – who in his metrosexy prime had a big impact in Asia, becoming the most recognised sportsman there.

BTS are mostly, and quite intensely it seems to me, about what I have always insisted was at the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality and the sensual revolution it represents. Not ‘being in touch with your feminine side’, or having facials or using product, or even ‘loving yourself’ – but rather, the male desire to be desired.

Every member of BTS radiates it, but it’s there most powerfully of course in the beatific Jimin – and the thousand seductive ways he looks and smiles into the camera. Commanding your longing.

And BTW, in case you think K-pop slightly coy about sex, it also has its oiled-up spornosexual exponents, such as 2PM:

Special thanks to Carl Rohde for nagging me to write about K-pop

Further reading:

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.

Larry Stylinson

They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.

Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that imLarry 2mortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:

“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I AM shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate…. It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”

Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.

A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. The response from commissioning editors was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

louis&harry | what i feel is something real