Wonder Girls: Like Money

2012-7-3

K-pop group Wonder Girls have recently released a new music video for their song Like Money. The video makes use of science fiction imagery, and provides a useful point for contrasting the different fantasies of South and North Korea.

It has been argued by David Kang that that the official North Korean fantasy blends communism with a conservative claim to Korean authenticity:

The Communist Party everywhere has stood for an utter rejection of the past... Yet the North Korean regime, rather than attempting to erase the past, has grafted itself onto traditional Korean traits, and reached back to some of the most traditional iconography possible...

South Korea is obviously a very different kind of society from North Korea. It is a hyper-capitalist society, and as a result in place of a single official fantasy, it has a multiplicity of fantasies. We can try to access these fantasies through the mass media of which K-pop, and therefore the Wonder Girls, are a component.

It is often said, usually with derision, that K-pop artists are nothing but robots. Like Money plays on this idea by explicitly establishing the Wonder Girls as cyborgs bent on domination. There is already a great deal of work done on cyborgs, the most well known example is Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. In the Manifesto, Haraway sets up a link between fictional cyborgs and their real-world counterparts:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. (1991:149)

On this basis, it is important to consider both the really-existing Wonder Girls and the fictional Wonder Girls in Like Money simultaneously. To the extent that they fill the roles of the cyborg, they do so at both within the fictional world of the music video and in the real world.

Consider that according to Haraway, two of the cyborg's key features are its military origins and the ambiguous blend of biology and technology. The Wonder Girls fill both these roles in reality and in their fiction.

With regards to their military origins and applications, the fictional set-up is obvious and explicit. In their real configuration, the Wonder Girls like other K-pop acts constitute part of South Korea's soft power matrix. It is not by accident that groups like Norazo have albums entitled National Supremacy or Wonder Girls label mates Miss A claim to represent all Asia (obviously, the "A" stands for Asia). The decision to release Like Money, a song that is is both entirely in English and a collaboration with Akon, a popular Senegalese-American artist fits the contours of this soft-power strategy.

In the fiction of Like Money, the opening sequence also describes the creation of the Wonder Girls as a blend organic and artificial components. We see their bodies being constructed from an array of aesthetically perfect parts. In real life, the Wonder Girls have gone out of their way to declare that they haven't received cosmetic surgery, despite its widespread use in South Korea. Whether we believe the Girls on this account or not, it is safe to say that their voices have been enhanced by computers in the music production suite. The presence of Akon, well known for using Auto-Tune, on the track furthers the aural cyberization.

A cybernetic reading of Like Money needs to account for its politics and world-changing fictions. In this regard the most revealing element is the music video's environment. The Wonder Girls moon base is a stark, concrete construction. It can best be described as a fundamentally brutalist structure. Furthermore, with the exception of a car, the moon base is completely devoid of products and advertising. It is a strikingly socialist fiction.

In light of this, we need to reinterpret the meaning of the lyrics. The chorus of "Love me like money! Love me like cars!" should be taken to mean "Love me instead of money!". _Like Money _is both a pure, if demanding, love song, and a fairly classic deployment of cyborg mythology.

However, the Wonder Girls' fairly straightforward use of the cyborg myth is problematised by its Korean context. Consider the way in which Haraway frames the cyborg in terms of Western capitalism, borders, and identity:

The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of 'Western' science and politics--the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism;...the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other - the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination. (1991:150)

In Korea, any discussion of borders necessarily takes on a new meaning. With regards to the territories of production and imagination, in South Korea as in so much of Asia, there has been a capitulation to Western capitalism that is more or less complete. While many Asian countries now do capitalism better than the West, this success has come at the cost of giving up any claim to an alternative, Eastern epistemology. This is in contrast to North Korea, which clings tightly to traditional Confucian elements.

The next question to ask is the extent to which North and South Koreans view their cousins as a "reflected other." Kang believes that North Koreans officially view South Koreans as "Koreans who have forgotten who they are." In other words, the border takes a slightly different configuration to that theorized by Haraway.

In the territory of imagination we have two critiques of Western capitalism in contest with each other. In North Korea, we have a nationalist-communist critique and in the Wonder Girls we have a cyber-feminist critique. It is significant that in addition to the future being Korean, the imagined futures of both North and South Korea are socialist futures. Even if the precise contours of those futures are quite different, their possible historical transformations have been structured in a similar way.

For non-Korean observers, North Korea seems a completely opaque and bizarre place, particularly when compared with the now familiar manifestation of global capitalism found in South Korea. However, even though their presents are remarkably different, their aspirations are less distinct. North and South Korea may in fact be heading to a future that is closer together rather than further apart.


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