The Ninety One Series |||

Part 2: The Art of Adorkable

How Ninety One continues idol pop’s decades-long, multinational history of goofing off for fun and profit.

Picture of Ninety One smiling at the end of the “Su Asty” video

So in the previous essay I introduced you to idol pop and promised to discuss how it works, how it’s gained traction over time and across oceans, and how it drives people (and governments) to all sorts of seemingly irrational behaviors. I also introduced you to Ninety One, the Kazakhstani idol-pop group that has become a favorite of mine. The affection comes partly from enjoying their music—but only partly, because in idol pop music is never more than part of the equation.

I can illustrate this by comparing Ninety One’s musical and nonmusical output. In the former category, we have one full album (Qarangy Zharyq, 2017), four EPs (Aiyptama, 2015; Dopamine, 2018; Men Emes, 2019; and 91, released this past September), one mixtape (from rapper AZ, in early 2020), and one solo album (from rapper ZaQ, in late 2020), plus a couple scattered singles. The group has also performed multiple concert tours of Kazakhstan and put on a few online performances, including one hosted by Kazakh Telecom in the midst of COVID-induced lockdown.

In the nonmusical category, however, we have: one short documentary filmed by Juz Entertainment, the group’s managing company; one full-length movie released to Kazakhstani theaters; one high-school-set soap opera; three seasons of 91 Space, a reality series posted to Juz Entertainment’s YouTube channel; an entirely separate reality series aired on a private Kazakhstani TV channel; half a dozen videos where the members break down a song in detail; one collection of behind-the-scenes tour videos; and an uncountable number of TikTok clips and Instagram stories. That’s not counting live footage, or appearances on talk shows, or Pictionary games.

You’re probably exhausted just having read that paragraph. Let’s back up and start more simply: with the group’s debut single, Aiyptama,” released in September 2015.

Aiyptama” is not a terribly ambitious song; Ninety One would experiment more over time, with gurgle-raps and strategically placed screeches and songs that switch gears two-thirds of the way through. But it is a catchy little bop. The instrumental is a transition out of the big vocal chorus, rather than a replacement for it (which, in mid-2010s idol-pop music, is not something that should be taken for granted). AZs and ZaQ’s raps are both distinctive enough to add variety against the three smoother singers, and Bala somehow manages to pack about forty percent more consonants into his verse than any listener had any right to expect.

But it’s the music video for Aiyptama,” as much as the song, that establishes Ninety One as idol pop: by presenting them as attractive men who will sing and dance for our entertainment, and also, awkward doofuses. So in addition to singing, dancing, and looking soulfully or winking at the camera, the members of Ninety One also engage in uncoordinated headbanging, throw around random stuffed animals, stare at light fixtures, accidentally tip over couches, and kick at air.

The full-length movie I mentioned earlier, titled 91, is not a comedy (nor is it all that enjoyable, and we’ll get to why later on). But it does have one very funny sequence where the guys convene after having filmed the Aiyptama” video, and ZaQ complains about his hair and Alem laments that he got fussed at for appearing so awkward on camera. It’s funny because they’re both right, and both in the moment unconscious of how this flawed presentation is going to play to their advantage. Take out ZaQ’s astonishingly unflattering bangs and Alem’s complete inability to convincingly play a jerk—and AZs gleefully playing with the baseball bat, Bala’s attempt to seduce his own elbow, and Ace’s seeming fear that if he headbangs too hard he’ll lose the red beanie—and you’re left with a much less interesting video.

I don’t think the awkwardness was intentional. It’s a risky strategy, after all: sincere awkwardness can be hard to distinguish from sincere incompetence, and insincere awkwardness is hard to pull off.1 After all, the awkwardness is supposed to signal authenticity and vulnerability; it suggests that these performers, while professionals who care about their work, still need us, the audience, to excuse their flaws. Awkwardness invites the audience to do some of the work, protectively elevating or defending the performance (as I’m doing here). But the performance has to be compelling enough to win the audience’s goodwill in the first place. The balance between professionalism and vulnerability is hard to get right.

Get it right, though, and the group can win love and loyalty from fans—and money. Which is why it makes sense to look at how the presentation of its performers as adorkable” has defined idol pop for half a century now.

To explain this with maximal efficiency, let me invoke the current most successful idol group worldwide. BTS2 was a relatively unhyped group from a new, small Korean idol-pop company when it debuted in 2013, and is now estimated to be responsible for hundreds of millions’ of dollars worth of activity to the Korean economy.3 The staggering amount of money BTS has made—from concerts, albums, sponsorships, merchandise bearing the performers’ own faces, even merchandise featuring the performers’ cartoon avatars—was possible largely because of videos like this one, ostensibly a dance practice for their 2014 single War of Hormone”:

Dance-practice videos are a long staple of Korean idol pop especially; but this particular behind-the-scenes tidbit is only slightly an actual dance-practice video and really a sustained shot of goofy camaraderie. The members of BTS are still working as they film; they still have to show how well they can perform the choreography before they start blowing it off.4 Yet in the midst of work they’re jumping around and shrieking and kicking each other and improvising with each other and yelling SARANGHAMDAAAAAAAAA5 and making all kinds of faces. It’s like a small happy party, and of course you’re invited.

BTSs management started broadcasting the group’s adorkability early, and had the further good idea to distribute it in packages large and small. Bangtan Bombs” run under ten minutes, while the in-house-produced Run! BTS has more than 100 episodes, and there have also been four feature-length films and two docuseries. You can enjoy BTSs broadcast company for just a couple minutes at a time, or nonstop for weeks on end, or vary between the two extremes however you want.

Idol pop attracts its initial audiences with catchy songs performed by good-looking people, but it keeps them by presenting the group as permanent hosts of a warm and lovely place. Not every idol-pop video has to be ridiculous or upbeat, but the content does have to be consistently welcoming. The fantasy is not just of attractive people, but attractive people who work hard, and work hard for your benefit; attractive people who enjoy each other’s company and would enjoy yours too.

In giving their audiences this fantasy, Ninety One and BTS and all their idol-pop peers are following a tradition more than a half-century old. Its start was A Hard Day’s Night, but the true proof of its ability to win fans came with the Monkees.

The video for Daydream Believer” is a performance video, just like the War of Hormone” dance-practice video; the Monkees are working, just as BTS was. And just as with BTS, there are lots of suggestions that this video shows us what the Monkees are really” like when not in their matching sitcom outfits. They’re dressed in recognizable, fashionable mod clothes, like you would expect four wealthy and hip actors to dress in 1968. The video opens with Micky speaking to the others while glancing at the camera, but we can’t hear what he’s saying: the disconnect between the recorded song and the onscreen conversation is clear. Several camera angles show how the brightly colored soundstage is surrounded by dull, dark studio. At the end the Monkees abandon any pretence of playing their instruments, which qualifies as an in-joke. Then there’s the friendly intimacy: they’re all squeezed into a tight frame, practically on top of each other, but relaxed. Peter keeps smiling when Davy joins him at the piano. At one point Mike looks up from his guitar and Micky appears to laugh in response. Like the BTS members, the Monkees seem to be fully at ease in each other’s company.

(You may have noticed that I referred above to the Monkees by their first names, as if I somehow knew them. Suffice to say that in the mid-1980s Nickelodeon ran episodes of The Monkees every night at 6:30, and I watched those episodes, over and over; and I had the greatest-hits compilation album released as a tie-in with the Nickelodeon airings; and Peter Tork was my first-ever crush; and I even scanned the limited amount of behind-the-scenes footage carefully to see if there was more I could learn. Apparently my vulnerability to idol pop started early.)

But if the Monkees’s success demonstrates how powerful idol pop could be, their subsequent path may have led to the rejection of idol pop as a workable strategy by Western music-management companies. By the time Daydream Believer” topped the Billboard singles chart in mid-1967, the group’s fights for greater artistic control had already escalated to Mike Nesmith’s famously putting his fist through his producer’s wall. By June 1968 The Monkees was canceled, and the Monkees were busy making self-consciously counter-cultural movies with Dennis Hopper and quarreling with each other; by 1969 Peter Tork had left the group. Over the next few decades the members would be able to pursue solo careers and off-and-on group reunions, but none of it happened on the terms, or to the satisfaction, of The Monkees’s original assemblers.

So would-be teenpop producers who wanted to emulate the Monkees’ success had to avoid the potential assertions of independence that might follow it. The groups that followed the Monkees were considerably more tightly controlled. As Bob Stanley wrote his in history of pop, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,6 Most of the teenybop artists of the seventies weren’t old enough to buy a pint… Boys in their early to mid-teens didn’t have the wherewithal to say No sir, I will not.” The Jackson 5, whose first #1 hit came in 1969, could be said to exemplify this more tightly controlled, well-behaved group. They were extremely well-mannered,” an attorney for Motown told the Detroit Free Press in 2009. The Jackson 5’s original Motown contract ran for seven years.7 As they were announcing their intention to leave the label in 1975, Jamaica Kinkaid, writing for the New Yorker, poked gentle fun at the vapid coverage the group received:

I read everything I can get my hands on about Michael Jackson, so I know a lot of things about him…. I know things like Michael Jackson is a Virgo; he had his first date on a TV show called The Dating Game; his favorite drink is Kool-Aid; he likes cameras and likes to take pictures of people when they are not looking; he keeps white mice for pets; Tito and Jackie call him Big Nose as a pet name; some of his favorite entertainers are Jim Nabors, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Diana Ross; he believes you gotta give love to get love;” he likes being treated like the guy next door; his eyes are brown; he likes paintings and likes to paint in oils. I get most of this information from Right On!, a fan publication for black teen-agers. It’s just the greatest.

Arguably the funnier, more freewheeling presentation of idol pop wasn’t available to the Jackson 5, and in fact has never really been available to African-American groups working in the United States; there was always too much potential, when dealing with a carelessly racist music industry (and press), for the performers to not receive the benefit of the doubt. (Note that Kincaid specified that the magazine that fawned over Michael Jackson was for black teenagers.)8 But white acts were subject to the same restrictions: the Osmonds, known for embodying clean-cut Mormon politeness; or the Bay City Rollers, the Scottish teenpop smash of the mid-1970s, whose manager insisted to all and sundry that they drank only milk.

Or take New Kids on the Block, the biggest teenpop group of 1989–1991. They were firmly in the tradition of boy bands as information sinkholes, with only the vaguest nods to actual personality—Donnie was the bad boy, Joe the cute one, and so on—onto which fans could project anything they needed. Contrast this to the New Kids on the Block now, in which they have managed to attract and retain a healthy body of fans by opening up the content faucet. There are New Kids reality shows. There are New Kids reality shows about New Kids cruises, in which the New Kids swear and struggle into their stage outfits and say things like It’s tough being a 48-year-old boy-band nerd. There are New Kids Instagram feeds, as the writer Rebecca Schuman discovered: Whereas 28 years ago I spent ungodly amounts of time poring through unsourced Big Bopper features, now I am privy to each Kid’s every meal, golf game, and idle thought.” There is even New Kid honesty about New Kid sexuality (Jon has a husband). The New Kids can afford a bigger social-media presence: their fanbase is older, wiser, and harder to upset. (And wealthier, which means the New Kids don’t need to spread their marketing strategies so thinly.)

But the less goofy, more careful version of teenpop predominated through the 1990s. (If you want an illustration of how conservative 1990s teenpop was: Take That had Robbie Williams, of all people, and in their biggest Stateside hit, Back for Good,” all he gets to do is twirl a bit in a large coat.)9 We can debate when English-language acts started rediscovering the idol-pop approach. The Osbournes, which turned the life of a rock star into reality comedy, may have helped. British readers may suggest that it had something to do with S Club 7, which had its Monkees-like aspects (i.e. a TV sitcom where the members played dumbed-down versions of themselves), or Girls Aloud10 being able to give less-than-perfectly-coached interviews offstage while managing to keep the icy-sharp high-cheekboned look onstage. Certainly by the time One Direction started making their staircase videos,” social media use, and its attendant expectations of celebrities being more real” or authentic” on their own curated channels, was widespread.

By then the idol-pop action had not been in London or Los Angeles for a long time. None of the manager-impresarios of the English-language teenpop acts were as innovative (or, arguably, as exploitative) as one Johnny” Kitagawa Hiromu. Maybe the American and British managers weren’t capable of using idol-pop goofiness without risking excess independence on the part of their performers, but that didn’t mean no one else could.

The term aidoru may have originated in the 1960s, but Japanese idol pop didn’t really get going until the early 1970s. The TV show Sutā Tanjō, whose title translates as Birth of a Star!, began broadcasting in 1971. Go on YouTube and you can find these early idol groups, such as Candies, Saori Minami and Pink Lady11, who alone had nine straight number-one singles. By the 1980s Japan was in the midst of a golden age of idols,” with several dozen new singers being debuted every year.

Whether or not those singers could actually sing was not the point. In the introductory chapter to their 2012 edited book Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Patrick Galbraith and Jason Karlin define idols as a type of tarento (talent) and then immediately point out that Tarento are mostly an interchangeable group of largely untalented celebrities.” Idols and other tarento made their names by appearing on an increasing crop of variety” shows, in which they did everything from comment on the day’s news to perform wacky or gross stunts—think Battle of the Network Stars multiplied by a couple hundred. In such an environment, singing talent could actually work against an idol. Idols were supposed to be humble and relatable, appearing with an aw-shucks smile and a willingness to laugh at themselves; actual talent would mean they might try to take themselves seriously, and taking themselves seriously risked increasing the distance between themselves and the audience.

Actual talent would also increase of the risk of idols supposing they might be actually worth something by themselves. But in the Japanese idol-pop system, there was no value in any one idol; the value lay in the ability to produce idols. That was the role of the jimusho, the catch-all management companies who took responsibility for everything from scouting talent to booking television appearances to controlling the copyright on the songs themselves.12 Idols who failed to connect with the viewing public or who misbehaved in some way (and misbehaved” could be something as simple as being caught dating) could be swiftly removed and replaced by someone more eager. The managers of the jimusho, meanwhile, remained off camera, privately (in more ways than one: most jimusho aren’t listed as publicly trading companies) collecting money.

Johnny Kitagawa spent decades as the most successful, and most notorious, jimusho head. He debuted his first group in 1962, and by 1967 was striking it big with a group called Four Leaves. (Watching a Four Leaves performance, if you’re used to current idol pop, is almost eerie: four guys in carefully coordinated outfits dancing in sync through a song, complete with mid-song costume change and zoom-in shots featuring each member in turn.) Eventually Johnny & Associates, Kitagawa’s jimusho, would control more than two dozen different groups, solo artists, and actors.

Part of Kitagawa’s strategy was to adopt a trainee” system, in which he signed would-be idols to contracts years before their actual debut. In the meantime, the trainees trained—on every possible aspect of idol performance: how to sing and dance, obviously, but also how to pose for cameras, behave in interviews, act, even walk.13 It was the same kind of control Western managers were looking for, with years’ worth of extra investment. Johnny & Associates was able to put its top-down approach at the service of the tarento industry: its stars were able to go on camera and act human and carefree because they’d rehearsed enough at it.

The system worked. Four Leaves’s success was small potatoes compared to what Johnny & Associates was able to make happen in the 1990s—this after Japan’s economy had crashed and taken the golden age of idols” with it. In 1991 a group of teenaged trainees hand-picked by Kitagawa made their debut as SMAP. (Their musical debut, that is; they’d already starred in multiple variety shows and television dramas.) SMAP—it stands for Sports Music Assemble People,” awkward English acronyms being a frequent feature of Japanese and Korean idol pop—is arguably one of the most successful idol-pop groups of all time. They had two dozen top-10 albums, the biggest-selling single in Japanese history, and the most-watched television show in Japanese history. The members racked up hundreds of commercial deals. In 2003 the cultural-studies scholar T. J. M. Holden wrote, It wouldn’t be far-fetched to venture that SMAP is a cultural institution, a cottage industry, and a magical commodity that works tirelessly to beget more commodities.” And he couldn’t have known at the time that SMAP was still thirteen years away from disbandment.

How, pray tell, was SMAP able to dominate Japanese popular media so thoroughly? With cooking competitions, obviously.14

Image of Kitaro Shingo and Kimura Takuya holding frying pans on a working stove on the SMAPxSMAP set

Image of four of the five members of SMAP as chefs, wearing white coats and chef toques

There were, admittedly, loads of guest stars: you can find footage of everyone from Michael Jackson to Robert de Niro to Lady Gaga stopping by SMAPxSMAP. There were also the cooking competitions every week, and plenty of comedy skits, and interludes such as Kimura Takuya doing para para dances with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Resist the temptation to classify this as Weird Japan. The very point of SMAPxSMAP was that it was not weird; goofy, certainly, but unthreatening and consistently welcoming. Meanwhile SMAP kept releasing new songs, since with every concert, they could attract new fans who liked to watch attractive men performing while keeping existing fans, who showed up at said concerts and beamed as you might for old friends who have worked very hard.

The success of SMAP, and fellow Johnny & Associates groups such as Arashi and Hey! Say! JUMP, left Kitagawa very rich and powerful—rich and powerful enough to basically dictate what Japanese media could write about his stars, or himself. (TV networks didn’t want to lose access to SMAP, after all.) This came in handy when in 1999 the magazine Bunshun published reports that he had sexually assaulted his trainees—who, remember, generally entered employment at age 12 or younger. Kitagawa sued, and the rest of Japanese media left the story very much alone. A high court eventually ruled in Bunshuns favor, essentially saying that the magazine had too much evidence of the truth of their claims for the story to count as defamation of character. That court ruling was in 2003. When Kitagawa died in 2019, a memorial service was held in the Tokyo Dome, with a condolence telegram from prime minister Shinzo Abe.15

So how did the idol-pop model get to Korea? After all, at the time Kitagawa was establishing Johnny & Associates, it was illegal to import Japanese songs into Korea. From 1965 to 1987, the Korean government held an outright ban on not only music that originated in Japan but Korean music that sounded too Japanese.16 Manga couldn’t be imported into Korea until 1998; Japanese singers couldn’t sell there until 2000, and then were only allowed non-Japanese lyrics; songs by Korean groups using Japanese lyrics have been banned from public broadcast as late as 2014. So you might think that it would be difficult to adopt a Japanese approach to idol pop for the Korean market.

Actually, the ban made adaptation incredibly easy. So easy, as Eun-young Jung notes in her 2007 dissertation on Korean consumption of Japanese pop culture, that in the 1980s and 1990s there were Korean dramas, films, songs, and even cartoons that were essentially wholesale copies of Japanese ones.17 If you wanted to duplicate SMAPs success, why not just duplicate SMAP? And thus the Korean idol-pop industry was born: the coordinated outfits and synchronized dancing, but also the years-long trainee system. The first big Korean idol group, H.O.T. (High-Five of Teenagers; I warned you), premiered in 1996. Of course the debut song, Candy,” features five attractive young men dancing energetically in color-coordinated outfits. And of course Lee Soo-man, their manager—that’s Soo-man as in SM Entertainment, now a behemoth of Korean idol-pop companies, with a healthy business footprint in Japan to boot—organized a cute Q & A session, with himself as emcee, and got it on television as quickly as possible.

And thus Korean idol pop adopted not only the onstage customs, training practices, and convoluted business structures of their Japanese predecessors, but also the placing of idols on an increasing number of substance-free shows, often hosted by professional comedians. Nowadays idols regularly show up on the likes of Idol Room or Knowing Brothers, in hopes that one or more of them will shine enough as a variety star to get invited to be a guest on something like the popular wacky-race show Running Man. Or the company can put together a series independently via their own video channels, as Big Hit does for BTS. Or, for additional exposure, the group can jump onto an online channel such as Dingo Music, which maintains a playlist that consists solely of groups singing their most recent singles while somewhat drunk (it’s called Tipsy Live”), or Piki Pictures, which maintains After Mom Goes to Sleep,”, in which idols have to cook dinner or do other mundane tasks, but if they get too loud they pay a penalty… of wearing a silly hat.

If anything, the Korean idol pop has sharpened and simplified the Japanese model—the dancing is more impressive, the singing more in line with what Western-trained ears expect, and the fun packaged in smaller segments and distributed more widely than SMAPxSMAP was. That isn’t the sole reason why Korean idol pop has been able to cross borders as well as it has, as we’ll see in the next essay, but it helps explain why BTS has a greater profile outside their home country than SMAP ever did.

Having said that: idol-pop adorkability maintains some of its cultural specificity as it goes. It would be hard for an American or British idol-pop group to embrace the kind of deliberately shallow variety-show antics wholeheartedly.18 This may reflect some condescension from Western fans; what seems cute from somewhere else becomes embarrassing without the veneer of cultural differences. But some of it is genuine cultural differences. Aegyo19—it translates to cutesy gestures,” roughly—is so firmly embedded in Korean idol pop as to make it hard to tell whether Koreans who don’t sing and dance for a living actually tolerate aegyo in real life; but it absolutely does not appear so regularly in even the fluffiest media of English-speaking countries. Or in the fluffiest media of Kazakhstan, for that matter.

There’s a very early Ninety One video, by the way, filmed just after the release of Aiyptama,” where the brand-new group is answering questions from its brand-new fans, and one of those fans asks the guys to do aegyo. By that time Korean idol pop had been popular in Kazakhstan for a while: back in 2011 SM Entertainment had held auditions in Almaty. At least one person passed the audition and subsequently moved to Korea to be an SM Entertainment trainee for several years, before eventually returning to Kazakhstan. That person would be Ace, the last member to join Ninety One. This was not a secret: in the first episode of 91 Space he’s briefly seen translating a song into Korean, and later, when Ninety One goes to Korea as a full group, he’ll be acting in part as cultural interpreter for everyone else. But in this video, as AZ stumbles over the word aegyo and finally gives up—“Sorry, we don’t know what that word means”—Ace laughs and looks away mischievously.20

So that’s a favorite moment of mine. I could tell you about others; I’ve got plenty. There’s the early Space episode which features Alem and Bala befriending a baby in midflight, and the later Space episode which features extended footage of both Ninety One playing with dogs and Ace trying to freestyle. There’s also any time Bala pretends to be an on-the-scene news reporter, and that one show that made them stick their hands in a box and guess what was inside, which led to Ace and AZ shrieking a lot and ZaQ calling his grandfather for advice.21 But in all frankness I’m a sucker for even the most ridiculously mundane moments packaged for entertainment, such as Ninety One Goes to the Osteopath or Ninety One Fills Out Needed Administrative Paperwork. How is Ninety One’s life off stage?” goes the description of that last video. Don’t miss another opportunity to get close to your favorite band.”

Exactly: such opportunities are so rewarding; how could you possibly miss them? Adorkability turns out to be a fiendishly effective way of attracting and retaining affection. Spend enough time tracking an idol group and the illusion that you know these people, even if they’re on the other side of the world, becomes hard to shake. You’ve seen their bedrooms, heard their laughs, sympathized when they might be embarrassed. You may even have seen footage that seems to have been recorded with no particular aim in mind, that doesn’t seem to be trying so hard to sell you on a particular image of the idols—a description that could cover most of 91 Space. And not only do you feel like you know them, you feel like you care about them. And then you care about them. There you go.

The formal term for this affection-via-screen is parasocial.” It is not quite the same thing as stan culture,” where fan-armies wage campaigns on social media, but stan culture wouldn’t exist without some form of parasocial affection prompting people to declare themselves fans. Separate out the excesses of stan culture—the online, Billboard-obsessed equivalents of climbing on top of strangers’ cars after your team wins the championship—and parasocial affection by itself looks fairly benign. Is it really that troublesome, or that powerful, to think benevolently about people who otherwise would be strangers?

Full of affection myself, I want to say: hang in there, reader, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Idol-pop-inspired affection is a tool, and it’s a tool that can be used for all sorts of ends, not all of them benevolent. But before we can start teasing out the consequences of this affection, we have to spend a little more time on how it gets spread to international audiences. How can you enjoy someone’s company if you don’t speak their language? Or languages, in Ninety One’s case.

Back to Part 1: Introduction

On to Part 3: Idol Pop and the Languages of Love

  1. Especially if you don’t have much in the way of acting training, and the guys really hadn’t at the time shooting began.↩︎

  2. It stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan (방탄 소년단), which is usually translated as Bulletproof Boy Scouts.”↩︎

  3. In December 2019 a Korea University research team published a report estimating that the group’s three concerts the previous October, attended by a total of 130,000, generated 330.7 billion won ($276 million) in direct economic activity. The report also claimed that two-thirds of visits to Korea from foreign travelers during the 2018 Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, were BTS-related.↩︎

  4. For an illustration of this, see 2:46, where Jin—he of the fluffy hair, bootleg Paramount Pictures T-shirt, and worldwide reputation for not having been cast for his dancing skills—scoots backwards into position while doing footwork.↩︎

  5. Korean for I love you,” if you hadn’t guessed already.↩︎

  6. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014 (first American edition). By the way, Stanley is also one-third of the group Saint Etienne, whose collaboration with Étienne Daho, He’s on the Phone,” is one of my favorite songs of all time.↩︎

  7. Coincidentally, that’s the standard length of contracts Korean idol groups sign upon debut.↩︎

  8. You can see hints of idol-pop goofiness in the very charming video for Boyz II Men’s 1991 debut single, Motownphilly”—the matching outfits! The trumpeter strolling through the set! Wayna Morris grinning in front of Geno’s Steaks!—but they cultivated a more dignified air during their most famous years.↩︎

  9. You know who had the self-deprecating, goofy aspects of idol pop so down pat they were arguably more than a decade ahead of their time? O-Zone.↩︎

  10. For more on the contrast between Girls Aloud’s stage and interview presentations, and Girls Aloud in general, or just because you want to read some very good writing, see the One Week One Band on the group, written by New York–based artist Torey Akers.↩︎

  11. Yes, the same Pink Lady as in the disastrous Pink Lady and Jeff American variety show.↩︎

  12. My description of the jimusho system here is mostly based on W. David Marx’s valuable chapter, The Jimusho System: Understanding the Production Logic of the Japanese Entertainment Industry,” in Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture.↩︎

  13. See David McNeill, The Great Survivor,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Volume 17, Issue 14, No. 2 (2019).↩︎

  14. The cooking segment was called SMAPxSMAP Bistro, and it usually pitted Inagaki Gorō, Kimura, Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, and Katori Shingo against each other as two two-person chef teams, while Nakai Masahiro greeted the guest and took the order. How much cooking any of the SMAP members actually had to do is hard to estimate from the few clips I’ve seen, but they committed to the bit: SMAPxSMAP ran from 1996 to 2016, and the cooking competition was part of the show from the very beginning. I’d link to a clip, but SMAPxSMAP excerpts on YouTube fall victim to copyright claims regularly. The screenshots presented here are from an episode that originally aired November 8, 2010, but I can’t guarantee that particular episode will stay available. You should be able to at least get a flavor for SMAPxSMAP by searching for clips.↩︎

  15. McNeill has a summary of the Bunshun lawsuit, as does (fellow Singles Jukebox contributor) Patrick St. Michel in his obituary of Kitagawa for the Japan Times.↩︎

  16. For this history I am largely relying on Eun-Young Jung, Transnational Cultural Traffic in Northeast Asia: The Presence’ of Japan in Korea’s Popular Music Culture.” For more on Japanese artists being allowed to perform in Korea, see Elisa Kim, Korea Loosens Ban on Japanese Pop Culture,” Billboard, 22 July 2000. For an example of a Korean group being penalized for including Japanese words in its lyrics, see Brian Ashcraft, Korean TV Network Bans Pop Song for Using Japanese,” Kotaku, 3 April 2014. (The song in question being Crayon Pop’s Uh-ee.”)↩︎

  17. Here’s an example Jung brings up, first cited by deejay Shin Yong-hyun: compare Namie Amuro’s 1994 single, Try Me,” with Korean group NRGs 1997 debut, I Can Do It.”↩︎

  18. Self-described all-American boy band” Brockhampton has produced its own YouTube series, but it was more satire and a chance to float snippets of unreleased music than full-on adorkable slice-of-life.↩︎

  19. A sample aegyo compilation, for those of you so fortunate as to be unfamiliar with it. See also this representative aegyo game from the well-known show Weekly Idol.↩︎

  20. Credit for the translation to the channel EaglZ International.↩︎

  21. This, from something called Xaxa Show, eventually fell afoul of YouTube copyright claims, but the fan group Ninety One Brasil has done us all the favor of storing a private copy, complete with Portuguese subtitles. You do not actually need to be literate in Portuguese to enjoy the show—it’s too enjoyably dumb for that—but do be warned that it includes snakes, large insects, and a bird flapping around a very tight space.↩︎

Up next Part 1: Introduction Part 3: Idol Pop and the Languages of Love
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