Lee Jung Hyun’s “Vogue Girl” and Western beauty

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

While the rest of the world was watching Kanye West make an ass out of himself last night, I was busy catching up on some albums and watching the Old Hollywood promotional blitz for Lee Jung Hyun’s comeback mini-album Avaholic. I listened to the album back in May when it was released and was sincerely disappointed. A long time fan of Lee’s eccentric techno, I’ve come to love the beautiful mess of her shrill voice and high-pitched attempts at rap. I loved the tribal influence on I Love Natural and the traditional Spanish instrumentation on Passion. But for all its purported hip-hop influence, Fantastic Girl had all the toughness of a mewling kitten and the street sense of a Hall & Oates single. After three years, my expectations were pretty high and the failure to deliver on even five full-length tracks was a rude wake-up call; Lee Jung Hyun: No longer awesome.

But when I stumbled upon a couple of performance videos for “Vogue Girl” (or “Vogue It Girl” as the television shows call them), I was forced to reassess my initial response. OK, so Avaholic, as a whole, is still sub-par pop, but “Vogue Girl” is extremely fun and fits right into the mold of current electro-inspired Korean hip-pop. It’s got a great beat and sassy attitude and if the satire is intentional, it’s kind of genius.

Some of the performances have Lee spoofing Classic Hollywood cinema, namely as Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch, although the opening clip they used was from Some Like it Hot – a totally different, declining-health Monroe). But even after watching something like ten of these performances, the song began to seem a bit hokey and even the Hollywood schtick seemed slightly bizarre. Lee Jung Hyun is a beautiful Asian woman, so why the exultation of  a platinum blonde stereotype? My hope is that the whole concept pokes fun at these pedestaled institutions of fashion and beauty, although the lyrics of the song are so vague it’s hard to debate. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and operate under those terms, that she’s not just having fun playing dress up but that she really does have something to say. Take for example the lines “Making, making / an image that I don’t even know” and the playful, mocking call of “Baby, don’t you wanna wanna be a di li di di di, it girl?” as if she’s some sort of sleazy publicist. But she’s not; she’s dressed as the product of misogynistic Hollywood studios, going through the motions of the winks and the ultra-feminine poses, while playing the preening starlet who’s aware of and very satisfied with the use she can get out of her sexuality; in promotional photo shoots, it goes further back historically as she dons the heavily tiered powdered wigs of a Marie Antoinette inspired get-up. The implications are brilliant in a way I’ve seen rarely expressed by a pop star, particularly an Asian one who has more to lose with the world’s obsession with Western women’s beauty standards.

But though those are the central concerns, it’s more than that: using Classic Hollywood figures attacks one of the biggest industries to fuel the obsession with a woman’s appearance. And while many might just see Marilyn Monroe as the classic embodiment of femme fatal or condemn her role as a willing play-thing of big-wigs and casting directors, there’s really something very vulnerable and sad about her entire existence that demands a sympathetic eye-opener to the strings that manipulated her every move, abandoned her during her weakest moment, and allowed her life to end so tragically and alone.

But if Lee is attempting to make a big statement, she’s not very good at following up on it: the rest of her performances of “Vogue Girl” drop the Hollywood act and feature her seemingly just as flawless and airbrushed as her fickle public demands and generally embodying whatever stereotype I thought she was making fun of up until that point. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to ruminate on the possible satire in the those few moments of promotional brilliance, or maybe it’s just another culture she’s almost fetishizing in the likes of her past fascinations with Native American and Spanish cultures, but I’d like to think it’s one more positive, albeit brief, message that managed to slip through the cracks.

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