The all-girl group NewJeans, the latest teenage addition to South Korea’s K-pop scene, has triggered an outpouring of indignation over lyrics that that are heavy with sexual innuendo.
The five-member group launched their debut album "NewJeans" on August 1.
The reaction was immediate and largely positive, with the music video for another single, "Attention," topping music streaming services and being watched more than 18 million times before the end of the month.
Attention soon turned to the suggestive lyrics of "Cookie," which are written in a mix of Korean and English. It include the lines: "Looking at my cookie. The scent is different. Taste it. One bite will not be enough."
The album's producers insist the words are being "maliciously interpreted."
Controversy in conservative South Korea
While the words might be tame in comparison with the lyrics sung by Western pop stars, the girls' ages and South Korea's broadly more conservative outlook have heightened the controversy.
The oldest member of the five-strong group, Minji, is 18 while the youngest, Hyein, is 14.
An article in The Korea Herald said, "A suggestive metaphor involving cookies and love may not seem peculiar, but being delivered by underage girls changes the whole context, according to voices that have been slamming the song for being age-inappropriate."
Comments beneath the video for the song on YouTube share that concern, with one post reading: "They're extremely talented … they should have waited a few years to give them a song with these lyrics, though."
Another comment reads: "This song's actual meaning is way too mature for their age. The label knows exactly what [it's] doing."
The band's agency ADOR has defended the song, claiming in a statement on its website that the song has been created for fans "with the same sincerity that goes into baking a cookie."
An alternative explanation suggested by ADOR is that baking cookies is similar to burning a CD.
"Numerous professors of English literature, interpreters and native speakers told us that 'cookie' is not widely used as sexual slang," the agency added.
"So the term itself cannot be a problem although interpretations can differ depending on people’s subjective experiences."
The lengthy statement added that there is little ADOR or the band can do if listeners are applying “malicious interpretations” of the words.
Just a 'misinterpretation'?
Jungmin Kwon, an associate professor at Portland State University in the US, who specializes in East Asian popular culture, said it is true that the use of English terms in the lyrics to Korean songs may serve to obscure connotations, but she dismisses ADOR’s claim that "cookie" is entirely innocent.
"To be honest, this argument is not very valid because each word is interpreted differently depending on how the word is used in a sentence, paragraph or the entire piece," she said. "The flow and context of the English lyrics of 'Cookie' and the use of certain other words, like 'sprinkle,' can be consumed in an unintended way."
"I agree with those who are concerned about the lyrics sung by minors," she told DW.
"Even though ADOR never intended it, they may need to listen to their consumers when such a large number of audiences express the same concern," she added. "In particular, if they would like to expand their territory beyond their local market, they should be more aware of and sensitive to other cultures."
Lyrics and imagery with sexual undertones have long been a part of Korean music culture, just as they are in other cultures, she said, so teenagers singing suggestive songs can't be considered a trend.
In addition, she said, it would be wrong to blame the girls who are giving voice to songs that have been written and produced by adults.
"If it were the singers themselves who wrote such lyrics and promoted such imagery, meaning they possess agency and autonomy over the creation, I wouldn't consider the lyrics and imagery inappropriate at all," Kwon said. "Because minors are aware of their sexuality, they have the right to express their desires."
"But in most cases, it is the commercial and heteropatriarchal professionals who make the singers sing a song with age-inappropriate lyrics and put on revealing costumes."
Young K-pop singers as 'commodities'
David Tizzard, an assistant professor of education at Seoul Women's University and a columnist for a Korean daily focusing on social affairs. said it is problematic when minors are required to sing the lyrics written by adults at their management agency.
"If these were words written by a singer of 14, then many people would applaud that and say she is being creative and expressing herself," he told DW.
"The problem is not with the content, but more how this sheds light on how K-pop uses singers to sell products with these sorts of imagery. It’s not the song; it’s how the industry uses them as commodities."
Given the uproar that has surrounded NewJeans, Tizzard anticipates that the band are likely to keep a relatively low profile until the controversy blows over, but the incident demonstrates the growing power that K-pop fans have over the objects of their adoration.
"We have seen this before, with fans effectively rising up when they are unhappy with a band’s behavior,” he said.
"K-pop fans feel increasingly able to dictate what bands produce and now they are saying what is not acceptable for NewJeans to sing about. That’s a big difference to how things are in the West, where bands are not beholden to the response of the market."
Edited by Wesley Rahn