In the previous essay I described how Ninety One is in part a project of using idol pop to promote Kazakhstan. But Ninety One is still a pop group first, obligated to release songs on conventional pop topics. Such as: advocating sex, specifically sex with them, as a pleasurable activity. Hence today we’re going to start with Ninety One’s least complicated sex jam, the 2017 single “Bayau”:
As with “Yeski Taspa Bii’,” the translation of “Bayau” from Kazakh (to Russian) to English is possibly machine-assisted, and definitely on the awkward side. But in this case it matters less: you can get the gist from Bala’s part alone: I like it when you move so slowly / And look directly at me, exactly like that. (“Bayau”—баяу—is Kazakh for “slow” or “slowly.”) There are plenty of English-speaking Eaglez who adore “Bayau,” but it’s never been one of my favorites; I still find the whole thing a touch too derivative of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and AZ’s part in particular sonically overcooked. It’s not entirely unambitious; the musical team (Ace, Alem, and Bala, in this case) are clearly trying to mix things up with all those wub-wubs and clicks and jumping from ZaQ muttering to Alem reaching the top of his range. But the musical flexibility is still in service of a sex jam.
The video is similarly straightforward in its message: namely, that these are the sexy guys you want singing sex jams to you more than any other sex-jam-singing sexy guys. But how it makes that statement, is what I want to bring to your attention. Namely:
In other words, the makeup and drippy jewelry are a calculation, AZ’s answer to the question of what would say “sex jam” to Ninety One’s audience. It was presumably endorsed by his boss: Yerbolat Bedelkhan directed the MV (and therefore deserves credit, or blame, for draping Bala across chairs and Ace on the floor). “Bayau” gives us some idea of what Ninety One thinks its audience—presumably mostly, but not necessarily exclusively, girls and women—wants.
By current pop standards “Bayau” is not shocking. To some degree it can be regarded as Ninety One’s keeping up with the earringed, eyelinered global competition. But they weren’t broadcasting just to a global audience; they never have been. If Ninety One is saying Look at us, we’re here and we’re skilled and sexy and compelling performers and Kazakhstani to the wider world, they’re also saying it to the rest of Kazakhstan—and the rest of Kazakhstan didn’t necessarily like what it was seeing.
According to Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, the idea of the sexy man made sexier by heavy doses of traditionally feminine embellishment came to pop a half-century ago more or less by accident:
Once in a while a bit-part player comes along and changes the course of pop. Someone still largely unknown to the public, like Chelita Secunda. One day in early 1971 Chelita, the wife of Marc Bolan’s manager Tony Secunda, decided that Marc… was very pretty and was wasting his looks like nettle-dyed vests and flared jeans. They went into town and hit her favorite boutiques, picking up feather boas, Zandra Rhodes tops, and beautifully embroidered jackets that hung exquisitely on his tiny frame. And when they came home with their booty, she threw glitter on his cheeks… and glam took off from there.
Chelita Secunda may not deserve all of the credit; early 1971, after all, was a year after David Bowie appeared in a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World and less than a year before the debut of the New York Dolls. Looking back at the history of glam is like watching multiple (glittery, determined) lines converge on a white-hot point. Glam as a dominant musical subgenre had a short heyday, but pop has never really been glam-less since.
But how did glam get to idol pop? As Caroline Sullivan, the Guardian’s music critic, has pointed out, Bowie was a teen idol long before he was a revered artist: teenagers warmed to his gender-playful self-reinvention first. And there were certainly a number of male performers, especially in British pop, who were able to convert eyeliner and/or sexual ambiguity to mainstream success (Adam Ant, George Michael, Boy George, Robert Smith of the Cure). But idol pop in the West in the 1980s and 1990s eschewed the glam trappings. Menudo in 1985 and New Kids on the Block in 1990 were jumping around with excess energy, but the energy was all safely directed at a very clearly female onscreen love interest. They were boys, not men, but boys, unambiguously.
In this Western-hemisphere idol pop followed the pattern set by Hollywood, as celebrity-studies specialist Anne Helen Petersen discussed in a 2016 essay on Zac Efron. Petersen describes the teen idol as “a very particular type of cute”:
When a girl is first confronting her attraction to the other sex, it’s terrifying. The thought of the sexual act itself, all that physical action and mess, is terrifying. What you do want to think about is romance—a guy who thinks you’re special, who wants to do nice things for you, who wants to hold your hand. Teenage boys who already look like men are threatening, but teenage boys who look not that dissimilar from your best girl friends—only they want to be your boyfriend… that’s comforting. Thus: Robert Pattinson, Justin Bieber, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Davy Jones, ad infinitum.
Petersen goes on to suggest that 1950s and ’60s Hollywood even produced versions of the male-but-unthreatening teen idol for older audiences, exemplified by Rock Hudson, who “had a farmer’s body and a pretty boy’s face, with that slight hint of vapidity that makes it easy to believe he’d be loyal to you always.” That Hudson turned out to be gay, taught how to perform heterosexuality by a gay agent, was part of what made the performance work: “two men with the objectivity, the very lack of stake in the game, to understand just how to cater to what women wanted.”
Which brings up a second line of argument: that the Western idol-pop formula of the pretty boy was promoted by gay men, not so much focused on what women wanted as on what they themselves wanted. In a 2007 Popular Music article, “Maketing Androgyny: The Evolution of the Backstreet Boys,” Daryl Jamieson argued that the Backstreet Boys were in part strategically sold to gay male audiences (such audiences having acquired enough political and economic visibility to emerge as a market worth pursuing by the mid- to late-1990s), with Nick Carter making an appearance on the cover of the magazine xy. Jamieson quotes Simon Napier-Bell, former manager of the Yardbirds: “managers’ sexual tastes determined rock ‘n’ roll talent–most of the managers were men and most of them liked boys.”1 But this argument fails to explain why the image of the pretty boy attracts such interest outside of an audience of gay men. It especially fails to explain why the such an image attracts such interest in multiple countries.
And so the final element we need to consider about present-day idol pop is that it has been nurtured in two countries with separate traditions of the desirable, even admirable, pretty boy or man–traditions that long precede 1950s Hollywood. “Although tastes vary,” writes John Lie, “a longstanding ideal among Japanese women is androgynous and even effeminate.”2 To be an attractive man in 11th-century aristocratic Heian Japan, the time and place of The Tale of Genji and Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, is not to be honorable and skilled with a sword—samurais came later—but an excellent writer (and quoter) of poetry, possessed of exquisite handwriting, and constantly so full of emotion as to weep into the sleeves of one’s kimono.3 If you’ll permit me to fast-forward a few centuries4, by the mid-1970s there arose a new market of comics aimed specifically at teenage girls and young women, usually starring big-eyed, sensitive male characters (and the occasional openly gay, obviously glam-influenced comedy-action anti-hero). By the time the Korean drama Winter Sonata began airing in 2003, starring Bae Yong-joon—“handsome, but also beautiful,” in Lie’s description—the subsequent craze among Japanese housewives for “Yong-sama” seems almost predictable. Bae’s rise in popularity came soon after the apex of SMAP’s, and no one would have confused Kimura Takuya with, say, fellow actor Sugawara Bunta.
In Japan the likes of Bae and Kimura are known as ikemen, said to be a combination of iketeru, “cool” or “exciting,” and either the English word “men” or men, the Japanese word for “face”5. In China the term is xiǎo xiān ròu (小鲜肉), which translates roughly to “little fresh meat.” But in Korean the term is kkotminam (꽃미남), “flower boys.”6 And in hanja, which is that part of the Korean language derived from Chinese characters7, “flower boy” is hwarang. And the hwarang were, reportedly, a group of religiously trained knights who served the kingdom of Silla, which occupied the middle of the Korean peninsula from about 57 BC until 935 AD. According to the 1145 history Samguk Sagi, the hwarang, “arrayed in cosmetics and fine clothes,” would undergo military and religious training together. They also “entertained one another with song and music.” At least one seventh-century renowned general, Kim Yu-shin, was a hwarang in his youth.
I may be overstating the significance of the hwarang to Korean history. Apparently knowledge of the hwarang fell away by the medieval period and was not rediscovered until the late twentieth century. (And the authenticity of the Hwarang segi, a series of manuscripts with details about the hwarang that was first made public in 1989, has been called into question.) But clearly, both Japanese and Korean history contain instances of beautiful young men, reliant on personal adornment, who in retrospect are associated with sources of national pride—literary, artistic, and genealogical pride in Japan, and military, religious, and political pride in Korea. The divides between adornment, masculine (and heterosexual) self-definition, and national service didn’t have to be as thick in those places as they were in twentieth-century America and Britain.
So first in Japan and then in Korea, male idol pop could grow beyond the Western trope of the cute, dumb, energetic, essentially vapid boy and start veering in a stylistic direction closer to the glam of the early 1970s. In 2012 John Seabrook, researching what would eventually become his book The Song Factory, saw a series of SM Entertainment artists perform in Los Angeles. “The boys were fun to watch,” he reported, “heavily made-up and moussed male androgynes doing strenuous rhythmic dances. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is no way that a K-pop boy group will make it big in the States. The degree of artistic styling is much more Lady Gaga than Justin Bieber…. there’s a yawning cultural divide between One Direction, say, and SHINee.”8 This is not to say that Korea and Japan don’t have their fair share of pressures for each gender to conform to a certain set of collective rules. More to say that in both places, the sets of rules were different from Western traditions enough to give idol groups more room to experiment stylistically.
So what happened when Ninety One imported this newly expanded idea of male idol pop into Kazakhstan? Violence, for one thing.
The Ninety One movie, simply called 919, was released to theaters in late August 2017; nonetheless it was the fifth-highest grossing movie in Kazakhstan for that year.10 It is not a documentary, although it follows the group for roughly the first year and a half of its existence, from the recording of “Aiyptama” until the end of 2016; it was filmed in early 2017, with the members re-enacting scenes. But it’s not entirely fictional, either. Ninety percent true, they said in post-release interviews.
It is also, as I mentioned back in Part 2, not a lot of fun. A large portion of the movie consists of one of the members or Yerbolat Bedelkhan staring glumly at a laptop screen, watching footage of various people denouncing Ninety One as dangerous, corrupting of the youth, even Satanic. Another large portion consists of anonymous grim-faced male extras deciding to go together to beat up Ninety One, followed by a scene of said grim-faced male extras and Ninety One in fistfights. At one point AZ buys a gun for self-defense. When the group goes on their first nationwide tour in the fall of 2016, a year after debut, their concerts are either mysteriously canceled by local bureaucrats or not-so-mysteriously canceled by groups of menacing thugs, in a pattern so blatant even Radio Liberty thought it worth reporting. In the movie’s final scenes, Ninety One is invited to perform at a prestigious televised end-of-the-year concert—but only if they leave off the flashy costumes, the earrings, and the dancing. Which they do, resulting in a deliberately uncomfortable performance.
In its grimness, the movie may not be giving Ninety One credit for resilience. (Amusingly, asked which portion of the film was the fictional ten percent, the guys pointed to the multiple scenes of them looking bruised and defeated after the fistfights. We can defend ourselves better than that, they said.) Soon after their debut in late 2015, the group appeared on Kazakhstani music-and-entertainment channel Gakku TV in a skit called Follow Wars, which is essentially celebrities reading hate comments. In Ninety One’s case, this included reading out a lot of homophobia, which they deflected with sunny humor:
Bala: [reading comments] “How many boys and how many girls are in this band?”
Bala: There are five boys in the band, no girls. Maybe in the future Shakira will join us.
Alem: [reading comments] “Guys are ok but what Bala put on him… that’s too much, he has such earrings, I wouldn’t even wear something like this. But the video is ok.”
Alem: Ooh, there’s someone who likes the video!
Alem and ZaQ: Thank you!
Ace: [reading comments] “Their producer is that faggot from Orda Band. He did this. Seems like he’s promoting his ‘theme.’”
Ace: Just be happy!11
But as the movie shows, the problem wasn’t confined to online nastiness, or even to sneak attacks from anonymous thugs. You can still find footage of a 2016 talk show in which the guys sit uncomfortably as Rinat Zaitov, a well-known composer, denounces them. (Zaitov, for what it’s worth, sounds like a piece of work: back in February, after a murderous mob of Kazakhs in a village in southeastern Kazakhstan attacked a group of Dungans, an ethnic minority of Chinese origin that has been in Kazakhstan for over a century, Zaitov took to Facebook to condemn… the Dungans, for “swaggering about.”) Other celebrities, especially those who specialized in more traditional Kazakh pop music, got their digs in. A group describing themselves as “representatives of the creative intelligensia in Aqtobe” released a statement: “They shouldn’t come here. We are for national traditions, where a man is a man, and a woman is a woman.”
In interviews, Yerbolat Bedelkhan said he did his best to warn the members and their families (Bala’s in particular). Moreover, it would have been hard for five people working in the entertainment industry in Almaty, however straight themselves, to miss the evidence of looming homophobia. One story in Dark Shadows, Joanna Lillis’s survey of post-Soviet Kazakhstan12, can stand in for the general trend. An Almaty-based advertising agency did a tongue-in-cheek advertisement featuring men kissing for a local nightclub, called Studio 69; the agency was then pilloried by Kazakhstan’s minister of culture and sued so thoroughly that it went bankrupt; the director, understandably, fled to Ukraine. Same-sex relations are still technically legal in Kazakhstan, and a 2015 attempt to criminalize “propaganda” of nontraditional relationships stalled after passing the upper house of Parliament, but in general it seems that to be out in Kazakhstan, especially outside the major cities, is to have to deal with frequent harassment and constant fear.13
What seems to have happened since the release of 91 was that Ninety One got too successful to remain worth suppressing. The movie’s director, Askar Uzbayev, complained before its release that he had trouble getting locations for shooting: people would hear it was for Ninety One and immediately cancel, no explanation given. But by mid-2018 Ninety One was the opening act in a grand two-day festival in Astana, a plum they’d have been unlikely to get if government bureaucrats still thought they might be corrupting or Satanic. Their tour last summer to support the Men Emes EP included stops in a number of cities where the 2016 concerts had been disrupted or canceled: Shymkent, Kokshetau, Karaganda, Aqtobe.
But Ninety One, for all the eyeliner, was and always has been a group of publicly straight men. (Ditto with Yerbolat Bedelkhan, whose wife Assyl actually plays a large role in helping run Juz Entertainment.) So simply pointing to homophobia doesn’t quite explain the scale of the backlash they received in 2015–16. For all the homophobia of late-twentieth-century America and Britain, including the state-sanctioned kind—Margaret Thatcher was not exactly a fan of Bronski Beat—actual violence against performers was extremely rare. Neither Japan nor Korea is a bastion of queer safety: there are almost no out Korean idol-pop performers, and Holland, an exception to the rule, has been frank about the bullying he faced growing up. But both countries have carved out space for eyeliner-laced pop, and even, in Korea’s case, gone on to celebrate eyeliner-laced pop and flower boys for the potential economic and soft-power rewards they bring home. A society could be relatively intolerant of ordinary gay people and still happy to dance to the work of glam-infused entertainers.14 So why, in Kazakhstan, was the eyeliner the problem?
To answer that question, we need some help from a group called Alau and their 2016 single, “Welcome to Kazakhstan,” quite possibly the catchiest piece of national PR since “La Marseillaise”:
At first viewing Alau may not seem all that different from Ninety One. They sing, and dance, and smile charmingly, and have cheekbones for days, and wave around colored smoke as did performers in every third music video produced in 2016. But there’s not a speck of eyeliner or an earring in sight. When not singing and dancing, the members of Alau are gazing out over the steppe or marching in military formation, complete with full uniform. There are made-up, jeweled performers on display—the women, displaying dombras and generally having about as much to do as your average The Price Is Right presenter.15 The national pride on display in “Welcome to Kazakhstan” apparently comes with some insistence on separate and enforceable gender roles.
Without being able to guess how old these gender roles might actually be, I can at least tell you that Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime president and benevolent-helmsman-for-life, has been awfully keen on promoting them. He devoted government funds, via the Kazakh Association of National Sports, to reviving sports such as kokpar, which was a nomadic version of polo with a dead goat serving in place of the ball, and which is currently played by men only. The idea of the batyr, or heroic warrior, has become part of Kazakhstani national mythology, celebrated on such state-sanctioned holidays as Motherland Defenders’ Day; there is, as best I can tell, no such thing as a female batyr.16 Nazarbayev also likes to do things like celebrate International Women’s Day—which his Kazakhstan takes rather seriously, as reflected in 91 Space footage of the guys carrying around flowers for their moms and sending special messages to their sisters—by cracking jokes about how women are all about feelings and spending money. There was also that one time that his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, gave a speech that included the line, “One cannot help but notice that the world of men has become increasingly effeminate.”
My guess is that Kazakhstan—especially Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan—does not, unlike Japan and Korea, have any space for the flower boy as laudable example. The batyr cannot be pretty. The vehemence of the reaction to Ninety One may have gone beyond relatively high levels of socially acceptable homophobia; it may have been a reaction to Ninety One’s insisting that such a space exist.
This is a little easier to illustrate by going back to the option of the toi, the elaborate wedding banquets17 that provide a bit of a living for many Kazakhstani musicians. The problem is that performing at a toi isn’t the same as performing at a concert. With the probable exception of the most famous singers, performers at a toi run the risk of being drowned out by the increasingly boisterous guests. They’re the backdrop, part of the conspicuous consumption, and not guaranteed much respect to go with their check.
A common throughline in Ninety One’s interviews, including the TengriTV interview in which they were asked about being assaulted on the street, is their refusal to do toi performances. It comes up in the movie, too, early on: Alem is broke, and his friend disgustedly asks him why he won’t just give in and start taking toi jobs. Their reply is consistent: concerts are fine, but the contempt implied in the treatment of a toi performer is not. That this comes up over and over again in the group’s interactions with Kazakhstani media suggests that it’s something of a sore spot. As if, if Ninety One were willing to play toi—if they were willing to accept a more subservient, less respectable role than they are—the eyeliner and whatnot would be less disgusting.
“At the time,” ZaQ said in his Zhas Otan speech, referring to the 2015–16 cancellations and threats, “we faced a stereotype that the 21st century and the Kazakh mentality are incompatible. I completely disagree. Kazakhs shouldn’t be uncultured, but Kazakhs should be modern!”18
To date Ninety One has only released one video set on the steppe: “Why’m,” released on New Year’s Day 2019. It’s also their only song to date with a music credit shared by all five members, although AZ and ZaQ have sole lyrics credit as usual.
“Bayau” was straightforward; “Why’m” is not. The verses talk about sadness and worry while building up to a chorus that Ace delivers in a near-keen: “Love! Discover! Try and make mistakes! Do not worry!” The video is similarly uneasy, with all five of the members facing some kind of danger. AZ (wearing the outfit he wore for the “Aiyptama” video) crashes his car and is taken to the hospital; ZaQ leaves his home after an older figure disrupts his writing and attacks him, scattering his pages; Bala, seemingly paralyzed with depression, hides in a cabin whose walls are covered with children’s drawings, until he flees and the cabin is set afire; and Alem, surrounded by menacing hooded figures, falls into a seemingly bottomless pool. Finally, Ace is menaced in a grimy bathroom by a group of angry young men, and it may be my own biases at play but I have a hard time not reading that as a depiction of violent homophobia in action.
“Why’m” is one of those songs that sit oddly with the whole concept of idol pop. Idol pop can be sexy or playful or heartbroken or sarcastic or even angry, but it is pretty much never resigned. Idol pop is supposed to be aimed at teenagers, after all, and teenagers are supposed to be hormonal, rebellious, boundless in their ambitions. At its fluffiest, idol pop is supposed to distract you from whatever you’re trying to resign yourself to. “Often we know the answers to the questions in advance,” concludes the chorus, “but you come first!” (It scans better in the original.)19 So in one sense “Why’m” is a standard pop song in its championship of freedom and the individual: but you come first! But the first part of that line suggests that the whole rebellious individual effort is futile, and yet has to be done in spite of its futility. In the video, the members’ different storylines resolve ambiguously. Bala escapes the cabin, but the last shot is of him racked with sobs (“I cry, I cry, I cry,” goes AZ’s rap at one point); Ace is shown poised to fight the attackers but we don’t know if he’ll win; AZ is briefly shown free of the hospital. The closest we get to hope is Alem managing to get his head above water. It’s an altogether more ambivalent piece of work: we see Ninety One on the steppe, but they’re not posing, as Alau was, as Proud Men of the Steppe, surveying the land their ancestors depended on.
“Why’m” is one of my primary pieces of evidence that Ninety One is trying to get more done than most standard-issue idol pop. It reads as them thinking through what it means to insist on performing idol pop in present-day Kazakhstan, where they’ve already gone through one period of having to pay a heavy personal price and might have to go through another one at some point. And they can’t be sure that their work will result in Kazakhstan becoming more open and more modern. One of the more active Q-pop news and gossip sites I’ve found, Primer QPOP, has in its description, “МЫ НЕ ПРОПАГАНДИРУЕМ ЛГБТ”—in English, “WE DO NOT PROMOTE LGBT.”
Later in this series we’re going to get back to the question of what Ninety One wants to accomplish with idol pop, and what their efforts suggest about the power of idol pop. But before we do…
Here’s the problem. If I’ve done my job correctly with this series so far, you’re feeling a certain increased degree of affection for these particular idols, or at least an increased understanding of why someone else would have enough affection for them to watch their Instagram Lives and analyze their music videos and so on. The temptation (mine, but perhaps yours also) is to make them the heroes of this developing narrative.
And the case for their heroism may turn out to be pretty good; but these heroes are also human, and more specifically young men who have had audiences screaming at them since their late teens or early twenties.20 If they were to act extremely unheroically, they’d be far from the first pop performers to do so. So next we have to consider the possibility—purely hypothetical, in Ninety One’s case, but that’s far from true in other idol-pop industries—that fan affection and interest gives performers the power to do harm.
Jamieson found the quote in a 1985 column by longtime British music critic Simon Frith. The whole column, “Oh Boy!,” is in Frith’s collection Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop (Routledge, 1988), and is worth a read, partly for Frith’s linking British attitudes towards the sexuality of pop stars to class relations, partly as a point on the timeline of music criticism: no straight critic would write about queer acts as insouciantly today. “Teeny-bop idols like Wham! are sexual,” Frith went on, “but their sexuality is as yet inchoate, and thus they tender to their fans pop’s most appealing offer, the chance to shape someone else’s libido…. teenybop music has never been about sex as knowledge (or power), always about sex as make-up or pose.”↩︎
John Lie, “Obasan and Kanryū: Modalities of Convergence of Middle-Aged Japanese Women Around South Korean Popular Culture and Gender Divergence in Japan,” in Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin, eds., Media Convergence in Japan (Kinema Club, 2016; but this one was published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial-Share-Alike license, so you can get the whole thing for yourself, for free, pretty easily).↩︎
Most of what I know about Heian Japan I know from Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince (Kodansha USA, 1994). The book was originally published in 1964, and most likely some of its conclusions have been debunked since then; I haven’t read, for example, Charo B. D’Etcheverry’s Love After the Tale of Genji: Rewriting the World of the Shining Prince (Brill, 2020), but I’m guessing that D’Etcheverry parts ways with Morris on at least a few occasions. So take the Morris book with a grain of salt, but do take it: as a work of historical literary criticism that’s also a cracking good read it’s up there with Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.↩︎
If you’re annoyed with me for glossing over a whole lot of history of Japanese style and gender understandings, one book that might help fill in some gaps—I can’t claim to have read it, myself—is Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books, 2016) by W. David Marx, the same gentleman whose explanation of the jimusho system was so valuable to us back in Part 2. See also the group blog that Marx heads, Néojaponisme.↩︎
Hangul, the modern system of Korean writing, was developed in the 15th century but didn’t come into widespread use until much later. Hanja can still be found in older documents and is still used for Chinese words that have entered into Korean, or to distinguish between words that have different sounds in Chinese but are homophones in Korean. Moreover, many Korean personal names derive their meaning from the hanja, even if usually written in hangul. See oegukeen, “Do you need to learn hanja—Korean Chinese characters,” Loving Korean, April 20, 2016.↩︎
Judge for yourself: here’s a fancam of “Sherlock” from that concert. (Footnote to the footnote: Doesn’t Jonghyun look good? Sigh. His memory is a blessing but I still wish we could have kept the actual man longer than we did.)↩︎
An official copy is on YouTube, but with Russian subtitles only. The lovely Sara of the ninetyonekz Tumblr has uploaded an unofficial version with English subtitles.↩︎
The box-office fact is from Sagida Serikbayeva’s master’s thesis.↩︎
For more on LBGT+ rights and institutionalized homophobia in Kazakhstan, see Human Rights Watch, “‘That’s When I Realized I was Nobody’: A Climate of Fear for LGBT People in Kazakhstan,” 2015, and Amnesty International, “Less Equal: LGBTI Human Rights Defenders in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan,” in 2017. See also Outright International’s 2017 interview with Kazakhstani gay activist Sergey Troyeglazov and Kok.team, a crowdfunded LGBT online resource that publishes in Kazakh, Russian, and English.↩︎
Even Russia, whose anti-LGBT law in 2013 inspired Kazakhstan’s own version, has its set of sexually ambiguous and/or glam-influenced celebrated musicians. See Olga Khazan, “Why Homophobic Russia Loves Gender-Bending Pop Stars,” The Atlantic, August 20, 2013.↩︎
Okay, this is a diversion, but it’s my series, so: one of the aspects of following Ninety One that’s always fascinated me is how damn small the Almaty entertainment scene seems to be. This shouldn’t surprise you, given that Almaty itself is only about two million people, but it still bears repeating when you’re used to the scale of the entertainment industries of Los Angeles or Seoul. So, for example: I’m 98% certain that one of the actresses in the “Welcome to Kazakhstan” video is a woman named Akbota-Nur Seytmagambet. She also starred in the 2016 film Гламур Для Дур (Glamour For Dummies, I think), which uses Ninety One’s music in the background, and which was directed by Askar Uzbayev, who directed 91 the following year. Seytmagambet also stars in the video for “Yayimdama,” the (extremely catchy and highly recommended) 2017 single by Kazakhstani pop star Ali Okapov. Also in the video for “Yayimdama” is an extremely hot actor named Olzhas Togymbet (or, as I think of him, Gangster McCheekbones), who has a role in Kagaz Keme, that Ninety-One-in-school-uniforms soap opera I mentioned in Part 2. Also in said video, as one of Ali Okapov’s comrades-slash-backup-dancers, is Ace’s younger brother. Okapov, for his part, has a cameo in the video for the also-worth-your-time 2013 single, “Zhauap Ber,” by Orda, Yerbolat Bedelkhan’s group. In short, I’m pretty certain that everyone who makes movies or pop music in Almaty knows everyone else who makes movies or pop music in Almaty. See also the YouTube channel Qpop Generation TV’s compilations of other Q-pop idols and Kazakhstani celebrities talking about Ninety One.↩︎
For the links between masculinity, official promotion of Kazakhstani nationalism, and mixed martial-arts training, see Ulan Bigozhin, “‘Where Is Our Honour?’: Sports, Masculinity, and Authority in Kazakhstani Islamic Media,” Central Asian Affairs, Volume 6 (2019).↩︎
This translation is based on, but not identical to, a translation Merey Otan used in her master’s thesis. She translates the last sentence as, “Being uncultured is not suitable for a Kazakh, but being modern is.” Google Translate renders the Russian subtitles as, “Kazakhs don’t tend to be uncultured, but Kazakhs tend to be modern!” I’m triangulating. The actual Russian subtitle, if you want to take a shot at this yourself, is: Казаху не свойственно быть некультурным,но казаху свойственно быть современным!↩︎
By now you’re probably very well aware that Kazakh-to-Russian-to-English translation is tricky and errorful, but just to get the point across: the Russian subtitles for Often we know the answers to the questions in advance, but you come first! read as “Обычно мы наперед знаем ответы на свои же вопросы, просто надо верить!”, which Google Translate turns into Usually we know in advance the answers to our own questions, we just have to believe! What Ace is actually singing, in Kazakh, is “Жнi сұрақтардың жауабын бiз алдын-ала бiлемiз, алдын-ала сен!” and for that Google Translate, much more often flummoxed by Kazakh than by Russian, can’t do any better than And we know the answers to the questions in advance, you in advance! There’s some pretty clear wordplay in the repetition of “алдын-ала”—if you take away nothing else from this series, at least learn that AZ and ZaQ really do like their wordplay—that gets in the way of deciphering what’s meant by but you come first! My personal interpretation of the line is, “A lot of times we know that trying won’t change anything, but you should still honor your desire to try.”↩︎
At the time of Ninety One’s debut, with the release of “Aiyptama” in September 2015, Alem and Ace were both 22, AZ about to turn 22, ZaQ 19, Bala 17.↩︎