In December 2010, 4-year-old Kim Ye Eun, a.k.a Wonderbaby, made her debut on the Korean channel SBS, alongside megastar idols the Wondergirls. Making her entrance via a spinning platform with a shimmering red background, she strutted onstage in tiny leopard-print overalls, a red t-shirt and a big Minnie Mouse bow. Within 15 seconds, she had her back to the audience, swinging her hips provocatively from side to side. By just over two minutes in, she was bent over, her hands on her knees, booty popping to Wondergirls’ “I’m So Hot” while flanked by the band, who were largely clad in short shorts and high heels. No one in the audience seemed disturbed—in fact, they were all laughing gleefully.
Cut to April of this year, when a video of Korean dance team Waveya doing a very sexy dance—turning around and bending over in itty bitty shorts, slapping and grabbing themselves on the crotch—made a splash on Buzzfeed. Why? They performed this dance at an all-boy middle/high school assembly.
This is why Korea needs people like Velvet Geena and the RockTigers.
The RockTigers are special for a number of reasons. For starters, they’re Korea’s only rockabilly band—they call their music, jokingly, “kimchibilly.” A five-piece that has been churning away in the country’s small indie scene for a dozen years, they’ve more or less become the face of it. Their frontwoman, Velvet Geena, offers an exciting alternative to Korea’s “idol” industry, in which girls are scooped up as teens and bred to dance sexily, blink innocently and appear in advertisements as part of groups like Wondergirls. It’s groups like this that contribute to the culture that spawned Wonderbaby, Waveya and one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery in South Korea.
The ubiquity of such idols in Korean culture leaves young women there with precious few alternative role models. That’s what makes The RockTigers’ presence, persistence and positive regard so heartening.
“There are hardly [any] female rockers in Korea,” says Geena. “But some young Korean women have a right to be female rocker someday or to enjoy female rocker’s voice also. Maybe they need a role model. Maybe they want diversity on their iPod. So they need someone like me in spotlight.”
Geena’s raw sexual energy—which she accomplishes without resorting to idols’ on-the-nose provocation—and palpable love for rockabilly have made her an enduring favorite, especially among Western ex-pats. But The RockTigers didn’t start as a rockabilly band. In 2001, Geena was working as a music writer for cable television and playing in the punk band. She found the original RockTigers line-up in a shared practice space, and they spent the first three years of their career playing “rough and tough rock ‘n’ roll.” It wasn’t until 2004, when the band sojourned to Tokyo for Big Rumble Festival, that they got turned on to rockabilly and psychobilly music. Since then, Geena and her bandmates Tiger, Roy, Eddie Tarantula and Jeff, have embraced the genre completely.
By American standards, there isn’t anything particularly racy about Rock Tigers. Their style of music hasn’t raised parental hackles since the 1950s, and the enthusiasm with which they embrace the greaser look—pompadours, leather jackets and a rather silly standing bass embossed with cartoon flames—reads as costume-y to our slick Western sensibilities. But RockTigers’ ability to book big festivals like Jisan World Rock Festival, where they shared a bill with Weezer, and draw a few hundred people out to each show is a sign that Korea’s culture is opening up and becoming more inclusive, not only of women who present alternatives to pop idols, but in a broader sense as well.
“We’re not mainstream band, and even my neighbors I’ve never talked to might not know the RockTigers,” says Geena. “But I think people who know the RockTigers and who knows about Korean indie music scene in the world might appreciate our worth [as] the most representative of Korean indie band.”
James Turnbull, a New Zealander who has lived in Korea since 2000 and who writes the excellent blog The Grand Narrative on feminism, sexuality and popular culture, appreciates Velvet Geena for a different reason; along with more mainstream contemporaries like Ga-in, Geena is an artist who may be laying the groundwork for real change in both gender norms and musical variety.
“It’s very important for role models to be there,” he says, noting the difficulty of breaking the hierarchy of the male-dominated idol system and the male pleasure-centric sexual culture it supports. “I think it will create a cascade or a snowball effect. The more role models out there showing how this can be done will be extraordinarily helpful.”
Geena doesn’t concern herself much with questions like these, and she’s certainly not trying to raise a closed, punk feminist fist in the face of the media establishment.
“I’m totally different of course,” is all she says when asked how she compares to other women in Korean media. “They are entertainers to lie down rumors and scandals, but I’m just a musician with freedom.”
But therein lies the rub. By simply exercising that freedom, Geena has become something more than just a musician. She’s become one of the role models that young Korean women need. Her band has become a touchstone for those who want an alternative to corporate musical output. And her popularity with foreigners, coupled with her love of a certain corner of Americana, makes her a cultural ambassador between Korea and Westerners hoping to understand that country better.
Switch on SBS. Wonderbaby has grown into a teenager and returned to the set where she once shook her tiny tushie. Maybe her hair is bright yellow now. Maybe she’s shredding on a guitar. Maybe she’s pioneering Korean punk rock. Heck, maybe she’s dropping it like it’s hot. Only this time, she knows why she’s doing it—because she likes to, not because she’s been taught from toddlerdom that it would garner her approval. Chances are, Korea’s not quite ready to embrace this particular program. But, thanks to Velvet Geena’s RockTigers and the myriad of other people helping to change Korea’s gender and cultural landscape, that day may not be far away.