Dal★Shabet: Have, Not Have
One of the interesting characteristics of K-Pop is the speed with which groups adopt new styles. This is part of the K-Pop formula, a set of moves that groups stick to with a few variations. With the release of every EP (or "mini album" in the parlance of K-Pop), a group will change their whole presentation. Every song really is a comeback; a reinvention along predictable lines. Sometimes the same songs are reissued in different versions, allowing groups to change their position in the market without releasing much in the way of new material. In most cases, these shifts do not change the positions of individual members within the group (the "leader" is likely to remain the "leader"), but rather the position of groups relative to each other. As an example, consider the case of Dal★Shabet, a fairly typical girl group.
In November of 2012, Dal★Shabet released their fifth mini-album entitled Have, Not Have. This album is interesting as marks the first Dal★Shabet album produced without the direct involvement of E-Tribe. E-Tribe are well known producers, who have created hits for a variety of artists (most notably Gee for Girls' Generation), and have always provided the impetus for Dal★Shabet's sound. For Dal★Shabet, E-Tribe crafted pop music that made interesting use of rhythms and especially textures. This allowed Dal★Shabet songs like Shakalaka, Pink Rocket and more recently Hit U to stand out from other K-Pop acts. However, for Have, Not Have, production duties have been taken over by a varied group of producers tasked with applying the K-Pop formula.
For this iteration, the goal appears to have been to position Dal★Shabet somewhere between T-ARA and Orange Caramel. This strategy is reflected in the decision to adopt a more explicitly "retro" aesthetic for Have, Not Have. The strategy has been noticed by fans (and anti-fans), many of whom have criticised the group for cribbing so blatantly from T-ARA's play-book. Indeed, while the aesthetic of Have, Not Have are reminiscent of T-ARA (particularly Roly-Poly), the choreography is also very similar to Bo Peep Bo Peep, T-ARA's biggest international hit.
There are two interesting things here. First, the decision to use a retro aesthetic itself. Retro aesthetics are not T-ARA's exclusively provenance, Dal★Shabet's earlier Bling Bling exhorted us to "Just Disco," after all. In fact within K-Pop retro is the Wonder Girls bread and butter if it's anyone's. Rather, retro aesthetics form part of the raw materials from which K-Pop is fashioned. It could be thought of as a kind of occidentalist retro in that it looks to the West, but isn't terribly concerned with the details. (The founding myth of modern K-Pop is this: Seo Taiji and Boys performed a rap song on Korean Television. That's the whole myth.) Koreans used to copy westerners, now they copy each other. If, as Baudrillard (1994) has argued simulation is about claiming to have what one doesn't have, what K-Pop simulates is history and any search leads you down an infinite chain: Dal★Shabet, T-ARA, Wonder Girls, and so on.
Pushing Baudrillard a bit further, we arrive at the second interesting point which involves the K-Pop formula itself. Consider this oft quoted passage:
> Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. ((http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001G4RVXI)) In Baudrillard's terms, if the K-Pop formula is a model for iterative simulations of having / not-having (as it appears to be), then K-Pop is a hyperreal.
If we think about the actors with respect to the K-Pop formula, we can additionally characterise this hyperreal: it is masochistic. Why? Gilles Deleuze tells us in Coldness and Cruelty (1991) that masochism involves submitting to a law to the point where is evidently absurd. Isn't this what K-Pop does? By submitting with increasing speed and perfection to their own formulas, there is a sense in which K-Pop producers reveal the absurdity of all pop culture.
The challenge of producers like E-Tribe is to continually do the same thing, but even better than before. Because of this, the decision to hand Have, Not Have over to other producers is a wise one, as the new producers seem less prone to E-Tribe's experimentation and more focused on applying the formula precisely. This result is that Dal★Shabet may have become less interesting musically, while at the same time becoming better K-Pop.