Note: This is a collaborative piece by both Amanda and Stephanie
Even though they are on hiatus, K-Pop’s ultimate boy band BIGBANG has had a wild 2017 with more ups and downs than a K-Drama.
Their lowest moment came when rapper T.O.P. was found unconscious from an overdose of anti-anxiety medication while on mandatory military service. Though he recovered without any sign of brain damage, his troubles weren’t over. In July, he pled guilty on all charges of using marijuana, a more severe crime in South Korea than in the states, and received a suspended prison sentence.
The same week of T.O.P.’s overdose, BIGBANG’s leader G-Dragon smashed records with his solo mini-album (EP) and tour. The album’s title is his birthname, Kwon Ji Yong, and in just five songs, he explored the duality of his identity: G-Dragon, the stylish, wealthy superstar and Kwon Ji Yong, the lonely 30-year-old entering a difficult crossroad in his life. His tour, called Act III: M.O.T.T.E., further explores this duality with video footage of interviews with family, peers and himself; bizarre medical imagery; a Truman Show reference; and some of the most fabulous red outfits anybody has ever worn. Though his darkest work, the mini-album and concert are by no means all gloom and doom. His beats are so infectious that even us fans who understand none of his Korean lyrics find ourselves dancing. Even the notoriously stoic Stephanie found herself grooving (with a little help from some adult libations). And his existential crisis isn’t without a playful sense of humor. “Bullshit” and “Middle Fingers Up” show an angrier side than we typically see from the musician, but the songs also feature dog barks and instructions for raising your middle fingers in the air. But be warned, G-Dragon doesn’t offer the most efficient instructions for flicking someone off. Like, why involve all the other digits, man?
Thumb, index finger, ring finger, pinky
Fold them and lift your middle finger up
(“Middle Fingers Up,” Translation Source)
Still, it’s hard to hear G-Dragon rap about the pressures of stardom and his loneliness while pills multiply and spin around on the screen as he performs without thinking of T.O.P. and the tremendous toll of fame and the uncertainty that comes with aging in the entertainment business. It is not often that us commoners feel sympathy for a star who talks about how hard it is to be a star, but G-Dragon uses his latest release and tour to provide a thoughtful take on how fame and performance complicate and transform identity. Having seen his concert in Chicago, we will dig deeper into the imagery of his show.
G-Dragon injects his signature swag into the old debate over essentialism vs. social constructionism. This mini-album and tour seem to be a search for his most essential self, something biological from birth that forms the core of his identity. He released his mini-album as a USB drive on which his birth name, birthday and blood type are written in his mother’s handwriting, making the USB similar to a baby’s birth tag. Furthermore, this information is written with red ink that intentionally comes off, as though the USB is a piece of Kwon Ji Yong’s bleeding flesh. The concert continues with biological imagery, from a clip of G-Dragon getting an MRI to double-helixes spinning behind him. Additionally, his red costumes are in keeping with the blood imagery. M.O.T.T.E., which stands for “Moment of truth the end,” also means mother’s womb.
However, as with most of the imagery in the concert, there’s another layer of potential meaning to consider with the USB drive. The album and tour often seem to be running counter to the musical industrial complex that is K-Pop. The USB drive feels like an unprocessed way of delivering the album to fans. It reflects the more personal nature of the work; it is how you might give something to a friend. The name isn’t screened on it because most people don’t generally have access to that kind of equipment. We don’t know about you but we’ve delivered plenty of mix CDs to friends written in Sharpie that eventually rubs away or smears. And it would probably be remiss not to mention the subterfuge-ness of the USB. Who is constantly seen delivering or stealing sensitive information, using such hardware? Spies. When was the last time a spy movie didn’t involve someone looking for sensitive information that is stored on some USB or similar piece of technology?
Kwon Ji Yong contains sensitive information. It cannot be delivered to fans the usual way, so G-Dragon is sneaking it out.
In the search for the truth of G-Dragon/Kwon Ji Yong’s identity, we seem to find that whatever that essential part of Kwon Ji Yong that was there at birth is gone or lost or transformed. Any attempt to find his “true” self is performative. The “blood” from the USB drive: just red ink; the double helixes: computer animation; the MRI: just a film. To buy the USB that potentially contains his true self, you go to the YG Entertainment website. It’s still very much a part of the system even as it seemingly works at breaking from it. G-Dragon admits during his monologue and a filmed interview shown at the concert that he doesn’t even know who he is, that he has become so busy as G-Dragon that he has lost touch with Kwon Ji Yong.
The filmed monologue especially feels like a futile gesture at finding some sort of truth. It wants to be a genuine moment between G-Dragon and his fans; he is confessing the weight of his persona in a real, almost raw way and promising to show who Kwon Ji Yong really is. He literally says, “At least in front of you guys – no, at least in this very moment, I wanted to be more honest.” Awww, nice. But Stephanie pointed out during the concert that it is a recording. Amanda responded with a look of disbelief and a patronizing “yes, it is,” because she thought Stephanie had just realized it wasn’t a live feed from backstage.
Luckily, Stephanie’s graduate degree allows her to recognize when she’s watching a recording 87% of the time. She was pointing out that by nature of being a recording it was both a less personal interaction and no longer connected to a single moment. It is a performance of intimacy that is projected to thousands of people in 29 cities; this “moment” happens over thirty times on the tour. G-Dragon seems to be well aware of this, however. The video is titled “Monologue (Act III, Scene 1: Superstar).” We are told it is a performance from the beginning. It also raises questions of what exactly is the “moment of truth” that the title of the tour refers to. Is it this confession, disconnected from both a moment and truth? A monologue that just seems to reinforce that there is something futile or impossible about finding truth amid performance?
Additionally, biological imagery serves more than to indicate G-Dragon’s attempts to find Kwon Ji Yong; it indicates the sacrificial nature of celebrity. When we listen to Kwon Ji Yong, we consume part of his identity, tear away at the flesh of Kwon Ji Yong and build up the fame and fortune of G-Dragon. When G-Dragon performs, he bleeds for his fans, sacrificing Kwon Ji Yong for G-Dragon’s performance. His recent work symbolizes how fans and the media dissect his every move (like we are right now)—publicity which proves the success of G-Dragon’s career but threatens to damage the existence of Kwon Ji Yong.
But again, all of this is performance. In one of the more playful moments of the concert, G-Dragon/Kwon Ji Yong (I really don’t know what to call him anymore) prompts the audience to wonder if he is really sacrificing anything. Is Kwon Ji Yong really a piece of himself, or just another persona? This moment occurs during his filmed monologue. He wears the swankiest of red, glittery robes while telling the audience about his existential crisis: he doesn’t really know who he is, he doesn’t know if he is G-Dragon or Kwon Ji Yong, blah blah blah, we’ve covered that. During this awkward confessional, he teases the audience, musing if he should “bear it all” while playing with his robe. And of course, the audience whoops and hollers, as you do when a celebrity acts like he/she is about to strip. Instead, he remains robed throughout the interview (I mean, why would anyone take off that robe?). When he returns to the stage, the robe is oddly draped on his head, but he is fully clothed. In fact, he is fully clothed throughout the show, not even revealing an ankle.
And this particular outfit includes a jacket with the words “Send Nudes” on the front. Here, he subtly flips the script. The audience, who demands the performer to reveal it all, is instead asked by the performer to reveal everything.
The “Send Nudes” patch, however, also throws up some warning flags about the darker side of celebrity. It is difficult, at least as an American who is online most of the time, not to think about what seems to be a recent surge in performers asking their young fans for explicit messages or pictures. Austin Jones is a recent example, but sexting scandals are everywhere.
There is a power imbalance between fans and celebrities. And when that balance involves sex, it is really, really gross. When reflecting on the nature of his own celebrity, it seems G-Dragon may be thinking about that too. His BIGBANG bandmate, Seungri, has had his own sex scandals, including recent rumors that he’s dating a fan. These scandals certainly aren’t on the level of someone like Austin Jones; Seungri hasn’t done anything illegal. Still it points out that there is a general lewdness related to celebrity.
The entire jacket essentially does. The back says “lurid” in huge, yellow letters. There’s a patch below “Send Nudes” that reads “Pulp Fiction.”
It’s all a little bit gross and hyper-sexual. And this is the jacket worn after G-Dragon promises fans to reveal the true Kwon Ji Yong. Blech, so much for the moment of truth being something nice and intimate with his fans. But the jacket never was about truth. It is all sensationalism. “Lurid” most generally refers to a description or account that is given in shocking, sensational detail but not necessarily the truth. Trashy tabloids are lurid. And while distracted by thoughts of Tarantino and the Gimp, you may have failed to realize that the second word in “Pulp Fiction” is in fact fiction. It is just more artifice. Instead of stripping off G-Dragon and being truly Kwon Ji Yong, he is explicitly wearing part of the artifice of celebrity.
The reason for his subversive disrobing is made clear when he performs the show’s final song, “Untitled, 2014.” The ballad is considered the most vulnerable song on the mini-album, and he provides a stripped-down performance in which he enters the crowd and just sings. But again, as the audience demands an interaction with the performer, flooding to the front of the arena to catch a closer look at him, reaching out to grab him, the performer withholds. Bodyguards surround G-Dragon to keep hands off him. This performance reveals the reality of stardom. For the sake of maintaining something of a private life or even safety, G-Dragon has to maintain his distance. Kwon Ji Yong needs to be surrounded by bodyguards, clothed in fabulous fashion and hidden behind the name G-Dragon in order to maintain or rediscover whatever remains of his “true” self.
The pressures of fame are explained even more in his allusion to The Truman Show. The Truman Show is the ‘90s classic about a man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who unknowingly stars in a reality show about his life. Before he was even born, Truman was adopted by a corporation. A producer known as Christof (Ed Harris) creates the reality show universe in which Truman grows up in, populating it with actors and thousands of cameras. Though the corporation never tells Truman what to do, they influence his decisions, introducing new actresses in the world to become Truman’s new love interests and even has his father pretend to drown in order to make Truman afraid of leaving his town in a boat. In Kwon Ji Yong’s outro, “Divina Comedia,” G-Dragon raps that he feels he is in The Truman Show, and in the performance of that song, he recreates the final scene of the movie, in which Truman exits the reality show world.
Of course, The Truman Show symbolizes that everybody grows up in some version of a reality show, our choices and identities determined at least to some extent by the situations we happen to be in. But in some ways, the movie resembles the notoriously harsh K-Pop machine. At the age of 8, Kwon Ji Yong joined SM Entertainment and became a trainee as a teenager at YG Entertainment, where he remains along with the rest of BIGBANG. In a sense, he was adopted by a big corporation at a young age, similar to Truman. Furthermore, YG is notorious for having cameras everywhere. G-Dragon has recounted times when his boss called him during training because he noticed BIGBANG members taking a break. Some of BIGBANG’s training was even documented on a reality show. K-Pop companies are rumored to be very controlling of their artists, telling them who to date, what to say, how to look and what personalities they should have. At least to some extent, G-Dragon is Truman and YG is Christof. The intense surveillance and control of K-Pop corporations further blurs the lines between reality/fantasy and identity/persona.
But this wouldn’t be us talking about imagery and meaning in a G-Dragon concert if there weren’t another layer to complicate interpretations. The Truman Show ends with the titular character not looking back. He ignores the pleading of Christof to stay and goes his own way while his fans cheer him on. G-Dragon, however, returns to the stage to perform “Crooked” and “Untitled, 2014,” his biggest hit and the biggest single off Kwon Ji Yong respectively.
His fans chant for his return, effectively taking the place of Christof. We are all Ed Harris! We are equally as responsible for shaping and controlling his celebrity identity as YG. Instead of letting him disappear into the wild blue yonder to discover his truth, we demand he return and perform what we love (preferably with a rocking horse). To complicate matters further, it is not G-Dragon that fans chant for but Kwon Ji Yong. We have co-opted this other facet of his identity and made it a part of his performance. If G-Dragon has been trying to share some truth with us or find his true identity, we have made it just another aspect of artifice. We’re kinda the worst, guys.
With G-Dragon about to enter mandatory military service like T.O.P. before him, the future is a little uncertain. Some people are looking at this album and world tour as a farewell of sorts, the end of an era. But after ten years as the leader of Asia’s most successful boyband and a huge solo career, G-Dragon can do anything. He can leave the K-Pop world and never look back as Truman does, or he can further revolutionize the industry. An era may be ending but there’s another one on the horizon. Kwon Ji Yong and the M.O.T.T.E. tour certainly show G-Dragon going a different direction, one that is more solemn and introspective but still quirky and experimental. We think it’s safe to expect exciting music in the future that challenges our expectations of K-Pop. But until then, we have ten years of music to enjoy and some brilliant fashion choices to appreciate.
Since we talked so much about the imagery and costuming of this show, here are the shitty pictures we took at the concert. Enjoy not being able to see anything clearly.