The New Blackpink Documentary Proves It's Time for a Cultural Reset
The eagerly anticipated Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, dropped on Wednesday, and one thing is clear: K-pop is a force to be reckoned with.
The documentary is a brief dive into the four megastars, Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa, who make up the uber-famous quartet. Directed by Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat, The 4%: Film's Gender Problem), it’s both a celebration of the meteoric rise of Blackpink and a crash course in K-pop, from trainee life to jet-setting around the world on tour. Coinciding with the release of the group's new project, the already much-lauded The Album, the doc succeeds most when it is humanizing the members and showing the mind-blowing enormity of their popularity.
In fact, Light Up the Sky serves as a call to arms against K-pop stereotypes in general. The doc is a candy-coated switchblade that upends several long-standing misguided Western views with the ease of blowing a kiss.
K-pop Isn’t Manufactured, It’s Perfected
K-pop has been criticized in the past for being "manufactured" thanks to the grueling schedule of training young artists for years before they appear on stage in public. And it's true. They do train hard. It is grueling. And those efforts shouldn’t be dismissed as a mass-produced endeavor driven solely for commercial appeal. Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa trained like Olympians. And, like Olympians, to chalk their efforts, talents, sacrifices, and exhaustive hard work up to some sort of artificially assembled byproduct is reductionist.
The four spent a combined 20 years as trainees, leaving their homes and families in their early teens to prepare and perfect their artistry.
Jennie says in the doc, "They need you to be at their standard in every single subject." That includes vocal lessons, dance lessons, creating their own choreography and songs, and learning how to endure demanding, exhausting schedules.
"We'd get a day off every fortnight and then practice again for another 13 days," explains Rosé.
"Fourteen hours a day just training," says Jennie. The numbers are mind-boggling, but worth it according to them. When they debuted in 2016 with Square One, a single album containing the tracks "Boombayah" and "Whistle," they charted at number one and two on the Billboard World Digital Song Sales chart.
"It never gets easy," Jennie confesses, while stretching painfully on a pilates reformer, "[It] gets harder, actually, because you age."
Even in the most casual moments, Blackpink can’t shake their pursuit of perfection. They sit in an empty theater rewatching their Coachella footage like Cam Newton watching game tapes Monday morning. "I missed my note," Jennie says with a sigh watching herself sing on stage.
"See." Jisoo jumps in, "This is why we can't watch our old footage! We're like, 'You missed your note at the 'eh,' and 'I should've gone slower at this part of the choreography." There's no room for nostalgia here. Only a white-knuckled devotion to excellence.
K-Pop Isn’t a Gimmick
There are plenty of embarrassing YouTube compilations of American media being disrespectful to K-pop artists (a peak cringe: Howie Mandel telling a Girls Generation member, “Your English is very good” and her politely replying, “I was born in America”). Western media has a tendency to treat the recent influx of Korean stars and their popularity as a gimmick. But that’s simplifying and minimizing their talents, efforts, and art. And when you pull out to look beyond just an American view of the world, that reductionism is downright mortifying.
Take, for example, the impact of BTS. It’s hard to talk about K-pop without talking about the kings. BTS, the chart-topping, record-smashing, stadium-selling-out septet from Seoul, have been creating and performing together for seven years. As I type this, they are dominating the Billboard Hot 100’s chart with the #1 and #2 spots. It’s an almost unheard of achievement in music, happening only five times previously. According to a 2019 Forbes article, the band is responsible for adding a jaw-dropping $4.65 billion to South Korea's GDP (yup, that’s billion with a “b”). For context, that puts them in the same economic league as Samsung and Hyundai.
In spite of all that, Western media still hasn’t completely caught up. They’re still sometimes treated as a gimmick. There are still headlines referring to BTS as “the biggest band you’ve never heard of.” Members are still sloppily misidentified in photos and videos (bringing down the swift, terrifying, and just wrath of their legion of fans, the BTS ARMY).
In Light Up the Sky, Blackpink’s fans (that’s “BLINKs” for the newbies) profess their love for their idols in Korean, English, Dutch, and Spanish. They pack arenas in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, LA, Chicago, Seoul, and more through the 9-month long world tour. Scene after scene of beaming fans packed behind barriers in the doc is the visual equivalent of taking a rhinestone encrusted hammer to the notion that K-pop is a flash-in-the-pan moment in music. This is global domination. Catch up, America.
K-Pop Isn't Simplistic Music
Another often-heard criticism of K-pop is that it's musically “easy”. It's dumbed down, paint-by-numbers songs written to appeal to masses and be played behind soda pop commercials. Light Up the Sky shatters that misconception and gives us a rare look into Blackpink's studio process. The hours are long and the emotions are high. Rosé in particular struggles to conquer her intimidation of the recording booth and all the vulnerability that it entails. "She [Rosé] stays here until, like, six o'clock a.m. just in the studio," producer Teddy Park says. Outside of the dusk 'til dawn studio sessions, she also skips sleep to strum her guitar and write music on the bare wooden floor of a darkened dance studio. "I would always sing songs of other artists. That's more like borrowing their emotions and making it mine," Rosé explains. "Whereas this is totally just speaking from my point of view."
There's an old saying in American country music, "three chords and the truth." It means that good songs don't need to be complex, they just need to be honest and emotional. Why, then, is K-pop held to a different standard? When Rosé finally finds the right piano chords and steps into the booth to sing, her voice rising and falling in melodic waves, the marriage is so sonically lovely and lonely that you can feel it deep in your marrow. It’s beautiful.
K-Pop Maybe Shouldn’t Even Be Called “K-Pop” Anymore
Blackpink's longtime producer and songwriter, Teddy Park, features prominently in the doc and questions the need for the label "K-pop" at all. "We're just Korean people trying to do music, so if Korean people make music, it's K-pop?" He says, "I don't even get it. Like... It's Korean pop. The only thing is language. Why don't they do that for every country?"
He's right. When Demi Lovato drops a new song, it's not A-pop. When Harry Styles dropped "Watermelon Sugar," no one referred to it as E-pop.
Labeling the music specifically "K-pop" when it's clearly serving a global audience feels...odd. Pointed, even. In 2020, an angry, tough year when racism against Asians is on the rise at a disturbing level, still referring to music as "K-pop" at this point feels like putting a label of otherness on something not-American for no good reason.
If you’re just now discovering Blackpink, I invite you to catch up. Light Up the Sky is your front row ticket (and backstage pass) out of your cozy bubble.