MUSIC

Lovesick Boys: Why I’m a Blackpink stan

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Impression still persists that straight masculine men don’t stan K-pop groups — at least not out loud — let alone girl groups like Blackpink. Photo from GLOBE

In 2019, my bubble was a whole lot different. Back then, to get away from the daily grind of software engineering and data analysis, my old reliables were the NBA, Major League Baseball, tennis tournaments, Bill Simmons and other culture podcasts on The Ringer. I read and wrote about comic books and conventions. My streaming algorithms were in the general vicinity of Formula 1, “Hamilton” and Michael Schur sitcoms.

I only ever heard of Blackpink from my wife Shai who’s been a fan of Korean culture since the early 2000s. My exposure was only secondary as she immersed in the dramas, the food, the cultural nuances she learned through Korean language lessons, and the music.

But like many other Filipinos throughout the world’s longest lockdown, I unexpectedly fell into the very deep rabbit hole that is hallyu. And as much as we didn’t see this pandemic coming, I never imagined getting sucked into this world.

It all started with a sampling of Netflix K-dramas, which led to watching music videos of the OSTs, which led to being shown more of the genre by the almighty algorithm. Among the artists I sampled, Blackpink stood out with their distinct sound, the same one that has made it easy for millions of people around the world to buy in. It’s the product of generations of trial and error: catchy K-pop hooks infused with western flavor that evoke a feeling of familiarity even if we barely understand the lyrics. It’s this unique style that makes you want to get to know them more, both as a band and as individual artists.

So you start with one song, you move on to a vlog, and before you know it, your room is adorned with black and pink merch.

These sports and culture books now share shelf space with a steadily growing Blackpink collection. Photo by ANTON HOLMES

This is all new territory for me. For most of my life, my interests and even academic pursuits have all been in areas traditionally seen as male-dominated. I practiced martial arts in grade school before taking up baseball and playing it through college. I studied industrial engineering and software development. Just a few years ago, the only things I knew about Korea were the food and KBO’s baseball stars. I got tickets to see The Killers, Maroon 5, The Script, WWE, Eraserheads. I lined up at Fully Booked for new releases of Neil Gaiman, Geoff Johns, and Scott Snyder, and marked my calendar for Free Comic Book Day. Did the same in the Barnes & Nobles and Midtown Comics around Manhattan while living in New York for a while. My supportive wife even made a two-hour train trek with me to a remote snowed-out little town on Long Island, just to get my comics and posters signed.

And now, my shelves of sports books and memorabilia, tech reads, graphic novels and PlayStation games are sharing their space with my growing Blackpink collection. After four straight years of Vampire Weekend occupying the top of my Spotify “Year in Review” list — a list whose previous mainstays were Roosevelt, Arcade Fire, and the “Hamilton” cast recording — they’ve been unseated by a band that I only knew from one song (the Dua Lipa collab “Kiss and Make Up”) just a year prior.

Before Blackpink, K-pop to me brings to mind images of candy-colored outfits and hair, of bands whose members aren’t easy to tell apart from each other, of generic bubblegum tunes and dance steps. More exposure to K-pop has corrected these reductive notions that I had, but back then, only Blackpink really stood out for me. Their brand identity was so obvious from the get-go, and I mean that in the best way possible: Black represents their unapologetically “savage” side, while Pink is their undeniably pretty side. The girls sing it themselves on their most-watched song “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” (“If it’s black, if it’s pink, we are pretty savage”) and in their most Blackpink song, “Pretty Savage” (“We some bitches you can’t manage”).

Here is a girl group that explored the edgier sides of pop, and offered a range of other musical influences, from hip-hop to EDM and even reggae. Their outfits, choreography, and sets often look like they’re straight off an action blockbuster, but in their “Blackpink House” vlogs, they’re in pastel pajamas and cutesy headbands, trying to cook with their parents, or saying goodbye to their pets before they leave for dance rehearsals.

This duality enables the group to be more multidimensional than the majority of their K-pop contemporaries, making them more similar in brand identity to their predecessors 2NE1, and perhaps this helps with their global success, too. Despite certain leaders desperately clinging on to misogyny, it’s a different world; a world in which more women are starting to feel like they don’t feel the need to be either one or the other — aggressive or hyper-feminine. Not all of K-pop has necessarily embraced this change (what with Korean culture in general being still predominantly patriarchal), but Blackpink certainly does.

The group size and diversity also helped. Some K-pop bands can have as many as seven, 13 or even 23 members. Four was just right, enough to distinguish themselves from one another, and with more chances for fans to familiarize with what each member brings to the table. In the Netflix film “Light Up The Sky,” Blackpink’s longtime producer Teddy Park describes it well:

“Jisoo, a straight-up Korean girl that grew up in Korea. She’s the unnie of the group, she’s the oldest. She does have that professional poker face… Rosie, a Korean girl that was raised in Australia. She stays here ‘til like six o’clock a.m. in the studio… Lisa from Thailand, she’s always got that cool, calm, ‘It’ll be okay, we’re all good’ smile. When it’s crunch time, she has this executioner, killer instinct… Jennie, born in Korea but moved to New Zealand. She’s super clear, her opinions, her emotions. She’s a perfectionist.”

This soon becomes apparent to any casual fan who gets started with their videos and performances, and so does their tightly knit friendship, formed during their five to six years of training. They’re not just a group of artists that practice and perform together. Though there are a total of five languages being spoken among the group, the girls help one another to express themselves and be understood. They even have their own lexicon, from new words (usually portmanteaus invented by Jisoo) to nicknames they gave each other. The first one I learned was Blink — what we Blackpink fans are called.

Their first full-length effort “The Album” was released in October 2020, four years after their debut. When you’ve got a band that’s very careful with the music they put out rather than churning hit after generic hit, the limited discography is both a boon and bane. On one hand, it makes Blackpink 101 an easy course (with just 21 songs excluding the Japanese versions). On the other, it can become quite repetitive, but then that’s what their social media is for. You’ve got enough dance rehearsals, music videos, TV appearances, and weekly vlogs to tide you over until the next release comes along. Their choreography remains precise and they never give the same performance twice.

Though BTS has a significantly wider fan base, Blackpink is arguably their female counterpart in terms of record-breaking achievements and success on the global stage, or at least through what is still typically defined by Hollywood standards such as live guestings and collaboration with western artists like Selena Gomez, Cardi B., and Lady Gaga. If you ask any pop culture fan to name male and female K-pop acts, chances are it would be these two. I know of the Bangtan Boys and their discography, but I only have enough bandwidth to stan one K-pop group, and I reserve all of it for Blackpink.

From what I’ve observed, K-pop girl groups have to shatter several glass ceilings to get a taste of success: the grueling training that can take up to eight years; the impossible beauty standards that compel them to undergo multiple cosmetic surgeries and life-threatening diets; the relatively shorter shelf life, less creative freedom; and problematic management practices they experience more often compared to boy groups.

RELATED: Escaping through K-pop

In “Light Up The Sky,” the girls were hinting at struggling with mental health issues (and potentially, experiences of abuse) while sharing about their lives as trainees. “It wasn’t a very happy vibe,” was all Rosé was allowed to say about it. There has also been much frustration in the Blink community because unlike BTS whose songwriting credits are on the record, the songs written by the girls are not credited to them. That means once they stop being Blackpink, their own hits won’t belong to them.

It’s an ongoing saga that fans hope can get resolved, along with allegations that the girls are not being marketed or promoted enough. While Jennie and Jisoo were given songwriting credits for “Lovesick Girls,” it is their lone song not registered under the Korea Music Copyright Association. A search from the KOMCA database shows 21 tracks by Blackpink, but it includes the remix to “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du.” Similarly, Jennie shared in “Light Up The Sky” that she wrote some lyrics of “Stay” during their trainee days but was not given this credit in the song’s copyright.

Songwriting credits for “Stay,” did not include Jennie as a writer, even though she shared in the docu “Light Up The Sky” that she wrote some lyrics of during their trainee days. Screencap from KOREA MUSIC COPYRIGHT ASSOCIATION

In other words, female idols have to go through these handicaps while trying to achieve the same level of success as their male counterparts — and no other K-pop girl group has come closer than Blackpink. If or when I have a daughter, I would want her to feel empowered to work after what she wants, to see that it’s possible to dream big, and Blackpink helps move the needle in that direction.

Growing in this fandom came as naturally to me as knowing team histories or the lore of comics multiverses. Acquiring my first pieces of merch was just like building my Green Lantern collection. I didn’t think anything of it, until I got some ribbing from people surprised that I was the hardcore Blink between my wife and I. It’s 2021, but the impression apparently persists that straight masculine men don’t stan K-pop groups — at least not out loud — let alone girl groups like Blackpink, whose fans are overwhelmingly female.

RELATED: The price of being a K-pop fan

Meanwhile, it’s perfectly normal for men to openly declare the same rabid admiration for popular players or teams. You’ve got your diehard Ka-Barangay (Ginebra fans), Lakers Nation (“lifelong” Laker fans) and bandwagoners. And then you’ve got grown men proclaiming themselves to be part of a leader’s acronymed fandom that prides itself on good-old machismo and misogyny. The more prominent members even tried to name their faction after BTS, the irony mocked by fans as the K-pop boy group is known for speaking out against oppression and injustice, and for redefining outdated stereotypes of hypermasculinity with their androgynous styles.

I guess it never occured to me that there was something unique about being a guy who’s a Blackpink fan, because I know people in the music industry who are outspoken about their love for the group.

DJ Mo Twister is known for his shows and podcasts, with the majority of topics catering to the straight male demographic. I met him while joining his fantasy sports leagues. We normally discuss a lot of NBA and MLB, and even caught a New York Yankees-Los Angeles Angels game.

Mo is also one of the first male Blinks I knew about — his Twitter bio’s location says “BlackPink In Your Area.” He also has classic tweets like these:

DJ Mo Twister in his Blackpink hoodie. Photo from @DJMOTWISTER/INSTAGRAM

Joey Santos, a DJ and music producer, started including Blackpink’s hit songs in his sets. His appreciation for their music has evolved into a deeper appreciation for each of the members. He even set up a viewing party with his girlfriend for their livestream concert, “The Show” — an entire month before the actual livestream.

DJ Joey Santos was ready with his setup a full month before “The Show.” Photo from @DJJOEYSANTOS/INSTAGRAM

Monty Macalino, vocalist of the rock band Mayonnaise, recently made headlines even in South Korea after releasing their new album with three songs sampling Rosé’s voice. One song in particular was titled "박채영" (Park Chae-young, her Korean name) dedicated to his bias.

Monty Macalino of Mayonnaise poses with copies of their new album, "Friends and Family" (which contains a song about Rosé) and his Blackpink merch. Photo from MONTYMACALINO/INSTAGRAM

He shares that it all began during a staff outing in Taiwan, when he saw Jennie’s “Solo” playing in the Korean BBQ place they were in. “As a musician, their sound was not the ‘traditional’ K-pop sound. It was quite similar to western artists I listened to,” he adds. This led him to the all-too-familiar routine of doing research, watching their YouTube videos and listening to their other songs. “That’s when I noticed Rosie’s vocals,” Monty says. “It was very unique, then I saw she also played the guitar. No brainer!”

Monty adds that he wrote the song in appreciation for how Blackpink’s music helped him cope with some health issues that were compounded by depression, but he didn’t expect the outpour of support from the Blink community. Especially not the fact it would reach Rosé, and that she would talk about it.

“The fact that it was just an idea, something I wanted to do, then it made its way to the source... Music is definitely amazing,” he says. “Music is the vaccine.”

For COVID-era Blinks who have yet to see a Blackpink concert, “The Show” is when the fandom experience comes full circle, and then some. In the eight months or so leading to Jan. 31, Jennie, Rosé, Jisoo, and Lisa rehearsed, wrote and rewrote lyrics, choreographed, and rehearsed some more, pouring much of their frustrations and apologies for their cancelled “The Album” world tour onto their livestream concert, and it showed. Members of their YouTube channel were given live access to soundcheck rehearsals the day before, with the girls in comfy sweats and sneakers hanging out on stage.

The setlist interspersed the old and the new. Having watched several live performances and concerts, it’s always something different — a stronger arrangement, an unexpected medley, new choreography.

The show itself had ten sets or stages, and will be re-broadcast a total of eight times (four more time slots on February 14, at 2 a.m., 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m. PHT) in addition to the livestream — true to Blackpink’s promise that they’ll do things they wouldn’t be able to pull off in an actual concert. According to their agency, YG Entertainment, the stage story was to reflect reality. It went through a flower bud in ruins, a prism-inspired stage to light the atmosphere, the passage through a cave tunnel, and ending it off against the backdrop of bright cities, embodying a hopeful message of overcoming the situation brought about by the pandemic.

They also reported that 280,000 member accounts accessed the event on Jan. 31. One in five of these were from the U.S., the world’s largest music market. That doesn’t account for how many other people were watching with them in those households. It was six in our den, decked out for the spectacle as one would for the Super Bowl or the Ateneo-La Salle UAAP Finals: giant screen, sound system, pizza, and all.

Blackpink's Jisoo, Lisa, Jennie, and, Rosé. Photos from @SOOYAAA__,@LALALALISA_M,@JENNIERUBYJANE, AND @ROSES_ARE_ROSIE/INSTAGRAM

My wife and I went back to her family’s house last year, when the lockdown began. They’ve been watching dramas since back when it was called “Koreanovelas,” and took me on my first trip to Seoul in 2017, where I instantly understood what all their fuss was about, and what I had been missing this whole time. Over the course of the lockdown, our busy schedules gave way to bonding over K-dramas, from “Crash Landing on You,” “Itaewon Class” to “Start-Up.” I’ve completed 20 and counting, so we were watch party veterans at this point. But “The Show” was a first for us, so I wanted to be sure we were prepared.

It was a full concert experience that was a fraction of the cost it would’ve been had we gone to an actual one. And in the comfort of our own home, we could dance more freely, sing along more loudly, and gush at our respective biases all we wanted.

For Shai, Jennie is the complete package with her vocals, songwriting, rapping, and dancing. She did not disappoint with that “Solo” performance, featuring freshly rewritten rap verse.

Her brother Vince, a member of the Company of Ateneo Dancers back in college, obviously gravitated towards the band’s main dancer, Lisa. Her cover and choreography of Doja Cat’s “Say So” got us wondering if there were other K-pop idols whose dancing were at par with Lisa’s. We all agreed there were none.

We also invited Vince’s girlfriend Em and her eight-year-old niece, Mia, a tiny huge Blink who knows all the dance steps to all the songs after watching their rehearsal videos on loop. (Mask wearing and physical distancing were musts, of course). Mia and my mother-in-law both love Jisoo for her striking beauty and her playful disposition (or what Jisoo herself calls her “4D personality”), and they’re the most excited about her drama debut later this year with “Snowdrop.”

And if I haven’t expressed it enough, Rosé is my ultimate bias. That’s why “The Show” was a two-for-one — it was Blackpink’s quarantine care package for fans, and also the world premiere of Rosie’s solo project, in time for her birthday this Feb. 11. She performed the subtitle (B-track) “Gone,” which gives a glimpse of what fans can expect from her album: a totally different sound from Blackpink that showcases her powerful vocals.

It seems Blackpink has mastered the art of making something new out of something so familiar — “Gone” sounds like fellow guitar-playing singer-songwriters Avril Lavigne, Paramore, and Taylor Swift (same goes for elements of the music video, so it seems). But stay invested long enough and all those initial impressions give way to their own identities.

It’s been a year of getting to know the K-pop world, and connecting with members of what has been a welcoming community so far. It’s quite the difference from the fierce fandoms I’ve grown accustomed to — intense rivalries on-and-off the court, throwing jabs on social media, feeling the need to defend your idol — and never would I have imagined being part of it too for K-pop. (Honestly, it is a lot less toxic once you disregard the bad apples that are present in every group anyway, and engage with those that mobilize resources and efforts to support their favorites as well as their advocacies.)

It’s made such a mark that I look forward to going back to Korea, armed with a lot more knowledge about their culture, appreciation of their products, and the ability to speak their language.

Taken in Seoul, pre-COVID. Upon learning I was neither a K-drama nor K-pop fan and have never been to South Korea when we met, my wife took immediate steps to rectify that. Photo from SHAI LAGARDE

The world may not go back to normal for the next seven years, according to experts. That sucks, obviously, but the current state of things has also shown us doors to discover things about ourselves and our relationships that we otherwise would’ve been too busy and tired to take time for — and it should be all right to acknowledge that. For a lot of us, K-pop has been one of those doors. And even when we finally get to venture back out there with masks and face shields off, this chapter of our lives will stay with us.

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Fans with membership access to Blackpink’s YouTube channel who want to rewatch The Show can do so on Feb. 14, at 2 a.m., 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m., Philippine time.