THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Unmasking Artistry

Inspecting the King of Mask Singer under the American Gaze

by Anabelle Johnston

Illustration by Sandra Moore

published March 3, 2020


 

I have spent many afternoons with my grandfather watching K-dramas I cannot understand, appreciating the joy he derives from listening to his own language from the comfort of his own couch. He loves to point to the scenic unidiscovered mountain ranges that young women in hanboks run through, wistfully stating, “I know that place. That is home.” While my mother values silver-screen representation and cheered at Parasite’s Oscar victories, my grandparents always appreciate the accessibility of Korean media designed specifically for a Korean audience, wherever in the world that audience may be. Although I can never fully understand this longing for a home located in both a different time and place, I enjoy South Korean TV shows that seemingly subvert Hollywood altogether by speaking directly to issues of Seoul outside of the confines of Western cinema and structure.

As a retired fan of The X Factor, my favorite show to watch with my grandparents is always The King of Mask Singer (미스터리 음악쇼 복면가왕). Though I lack the linguistic abilities to fully comprehend each song and the exclamations of the judges, I’m drawn to the saturated colors and premise of celebrating unidiscovered talent. The program first debuted in 2015 in Seoul on MBC channel and has run 242 episodes to date. Each competition lasts two episodes, as masked singers compete one-on-one for three elimination rounds, the outcome of each decided live by a panel of judges and studio audience members. When the loser’s identity is  revealed,  the winner goes on to challenge the reigning Mask King, a title applied to all victors regardless of gender identity.

My favorite episode from 2016 pits two characters against one another, a costumed Hodori, the official mascot of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and Vinicus, the official mascot of the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics. To counter the phenomenon of celebrity culture and idols in South Korean media, all contestants wear masks designed by artist Hwang Jae-geun and perform without revealing their faces. But before the cloaked artists set foot on stage, the host introduces a 12-person judging panel comprised of celebrity-idols, past-victors, and comedians. I’m overwhelmed listening to his hurried exclamations that mirror the frantic comedy of the overlaid graphics and sound effects. And yet, I can’t look away. The audience’s laughter at an embarrassed panelist is accompanied by a reverberating boing and a bright blue tear, the editing augmenting the action. The onomatopoeic animations explicitly outline what the show’s creators intend, utilizing hyperbolic humor to elicit nostalgia and develop a sense of community. From my grandparents’ couch, I feel the pull towards manufactured familiarity, as I laugh both with and at everyone on stage. As returning performers stand to greet their fans, the frame freezes in an anime-style sequence to display an image of their most distinct costumes from their time as contestants. The constant and sometimes contradictory stimulus—both sights and sounds—demands complete attention, calling back to past episodes while reversing roles and unsettling previously-established power dynamics. Even formerly disgraced contestants can sit on the opposite side of the stage as members of the panel and vote in the current competition, quickly moving beyond old failures.

A quick pan of the room reveals a young, attractive audience enthralled by the distorted voice of the current Mask King. She sits in a throne clad in a dark robe with gold embroidery and crown designed to resemble fire, responding to the host in an altered high-pitched frequency. The competition structure is not unlike that of an intense wrestling competition (or at least, my imagined version of WWE), beginning with the Round One: the duet song match. Text that mirrors the audience’s anxiety—누가 이길 것인가, 그들은 우리 에게 무엇을 보여줄 것인가 (who will win, what will they show us)—and repeats the judges statements—this is the most nerve wracking moment, 노래가 시작되기를 기 다리는 중 (waiting for the song to start)—flashes along the bottom of the screen in bright orange and yellow as the disguised contestants prepare to sing. Like in taekwondo matches, both artists bow to each other as the track for “Love Leaves Its Scent” by Tei begins to play. In the same direct present tense used to describe action in comic books and video games, a small red bubble appears next to a well-known judge reading: 그 는 귀를 기른다 (he perks up his ears). The viewer experience at home is contingent upon these edited interjections that serve to create an immersive experience I can’t possibly visit outside of my grandparents’ television set, as the saturated animations contribute to a sense of belonging in the world The King of Mask Singer operates within. I am not only invested in the outcome for each contestant but also the impact on a community that the audience is somehow implicated in. This style is not unique to this show, though it is distinctly not-Western; yet, instead of feeling foreign, I feel right at home.

With a simple spotlight and pastoral imagery projected on an LED screen behind the artists, the set design is similar to many slow-song productions in American singing competitions with a simple spotlight. The text and whispers of the panelists analyze the performance as it occurs, stating that “Hodori has a mature voice” and that “His understanding of frustration proves that he’s experienced.” Commentary from the judges revolve around talent and ability in their most unadulterated forms, distinct from the identity of the performer. Despite its flashy colors and cartoonish stylization, The King of Mask Singer stands powerfully against the performative nature of identity and allows for artistic expression unfiltered through biased scrutiny.

Because of the idiosyncratic editing style and premise of the show, I was shocked to find the American adaptation, The Masked Singer, on FOX. The tagline of this version, “Can you guess the celebrity behind the mask?” contradicts the foundational intent of the MBC original and speaks to the Western values of stripping down and unveiling. Through the lens of critic Craig Owens’ belief that “Visibility is always on the side of the male,” this often-nonsensical reality program operates, then, in an orientalized adaptation of an inherently feminized Other. The Masked Singer equates unmasking with truth, and this masculine act of interrogation undermines the use of the mask-as-protection in The King of Mask Singer.

The first episode I saw of FOX’s competition  features a singer in an elaborate butterfly costume performing an intricate number with background dancers before a panel of four celebrity judges: Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, Ken Jeong and  Nicole Scherzinger. The host, Nick Cannon, introduced this haphazard conglomeration as the lead team of “investigators,” immediately positioning members of this “elite” group as inquisitors and not participants in the action. Unlike its Korean counterpart, The Masked Singer performances are less about musical integrity and instead center on spectacle and reveal. Instead of superimposed digital stickers and bouncing exclamations, the adaptation relies on Jeong’s comic interjections, Cannon’s vivacity, and Thicke’s frequently inappropriate comments in order to sustain audience engagement. Although it is fun to see Korean media in Western contexts and revel in the influence of Seoul over Hollywood, I can’t help but ache for the integrity of the original and notice what is lost in translation.

 

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Long before The King of Mask Singer came to the United States, America came to Seoul. Despite being the 28th most populated nation, South Korea is the fourth largest movie market by box office revenue in the world. This mass viewership occurs in the wake of strict censorship during the 1980s, the terminations of which opened the country for importation of media at astounding rates. Perhaps because of this, so much of the art consumed and created as a reaction is often infringed upon by Western subjectivity, as monolithic institutions such as Disney and Marvel Studios continue to produce popular American content that is internalized by South Korean youth.

South Korea has developed its own brand in recent years, both in film through auteurs like Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, 2003) and Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite, 2019), and in music through K-Pop groups like BTS and EXO. In many ways, the long-standing popularity of The King of Mask Singer in South Korea reflects this distinctly un-American brand since it hinges upon un-American values of private identity and uninhibited expression. The use of masks stands staunchly against the pervasive fandom culture that has afflicted much of South Korea with the rise of national idols, as PR executives and the general public constantly examine young celebrities for signs of “improper conduct” such as unsanctioned dating and unmoderated diets. This close inspection of celebrity bodies and personas necessitates programs like The King of Mask Singer, positioning its existence entirely out of the Western paradigm.

However, when looking the show up in English, the first link always directs to a Ryan Reynolds cameo made in May 2018, singing “Tomorrow” from Annie while donning a unicorn mask and glittery silver cape. Reynolds epitomizes the condescending approach maintained by many white male actors that choose to appear on Asian game shows during overseas film promotion, as if the childish mask and pastel colors of the stage were something to be tried on, then taken off, before returning to statutes of masculinity. As a montage of clips taken from Deadpool (and Deadpool 2) played for screaming women and viewers at home, Reynolds stood sheepishly and allowed himself to be the subject of adoration. His subdued reactions juxtaposed with the animated responses of the audience and panel members reinforced a Western self-identification as serious in the face of hysteria.

Perhaps it is the success of the Reynolds cameo that helped propel the American launch of the show in January 2019. Creator Craig Plestis was originally mesmerized by the Thai version of the show after seeing it in a restaurant and quickly moved to acquire the rights for US adaptation. This process and the subsequent audience approval was abetted by Reynolds’s viral performance, a moment still referenced by critics and culture writers looking to analyze The Masked Singer today, myself included. Although many American singing competitions travel overseas—the structures of The Voice (its origins in The Voice of Holland) and American Idol (its origins in Pop Idol UK) were purchased from Europe—The Masked Singer is most notably rooted in something exotic.

The King of Mask Singer suffers from its own Western influences, as contestants sing a mix of contemporary Korean and American music. An episode featuring a golden pig (The Masked Singer’s own Ken Jeong) singing “Creep” by Radiohead has been heralded as one of the best performances of the whole show in a YouTube compilation made by MBC itself; a duel performance of contestants singing “Billie Jean” in Michael Jackson masks wearing different suits not only emulates Jackson’s voice but also body language. Unlike in the American version, contestants on The King of Mask Singer have mobility in their costumes, which more closely resemble clothing than elaborate dressings of The Masked Singer, allowing for the incorporation of intricate dance routines to more upbeat songs. This falls in line with involved K-Pop performances in which the artists are required to provide constant entertainment, and is a stylistic hybrid utilizing Korean structures and American raw materials.

In the third episode of the second season of The Masked Singer, a contestant dressed in an elaborate flower costume performed “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, limited in motion by the heavy dress and headpiece. Her only movement during the entire set was in the first ten seconds as she walked towards the center of the stage; she was subsequently accompanied by dancers in orange tracksuits and rotating industrial sheets of metal, providing no sense of place or setting. The singer resembled a character from Alice in Wonderland, and stood stoically amidst chaos, as if reveling in the insanity. After she sang (1 minute 46 seconds) worth of music), the four judges proceeded to bow down theatrically, Scherzinger loudly proclaiming “we’re not worthy.” The panel continued to guess the identity of the artist—later revealed as Patti Labelle—offering actresses like Taraji P. Hanson and artists like Mariah Carey. As they continued to audibly ponder, Ken Jeong stood proudly and pointed at the masked performer, shouting “YOU ARE BJÖRK” in the most nonsensical fashion. This comically accusatory nature underscores the layers of performance specific to this adaptation, and reinforces American viewership as an act of unveiling who the creator is rather than what they are creating.

 

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Much of the language utilized by critics and fans to discuss The Masked Singer and its Korean counterpart is rooted in the idea of an inherently absurd Other. In many cases, the childish use of weird to denote 'bad' instead of 'different' places the grotesque American adaptation on a pedestal while casting off its originator. This, coupled with the feminized costumes and the infantilization of the Korean premise, mirrors Edward Said’s discussion of orientalism, defined as the distinct philosophical separation of the “Orient” from the “Occident,” which is centered around Western values and superiority. Although this study primarily focuses on differences between the Arab-Islamic and European worlds, it has been co-opted by American academics with reference to the “Far East” of China, Japan, and Korea, as both forces rise in world relevance.

In his introduction, Said describes orientalism “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” This domination is a longstanding tradition in the West’s conception of itself, as it regards Asia as a stagnant force and culture to be co-opted by the West as they please, a place for cultural tourism without its own interiority. Oriental splendor, sensuality, and violence are simultaneously regarded as the acts of brutal masculine individuals and infantile feminized societies, a contradiction that ultimately regards the Other as inferior. This mentality is exemplified by many American critics of the show such as Kathryn VanArendonk for Vulture, who compares it to other televised talent competitions stating, “The Masked Singer is weirder, sillier, and stupider than those shows.” Her comparison stakes The Masked Singer as an American entity that can then be viewed through a western subjectivity, continuing to state that “somewhere buried in their cores, the idea of judging a singer on a reality show is often about a slew of powerful American myths.” VanArendonk calls the show “a reality TV fever dream,” situating it as the disgusting cousin to the otherwise valiant pursuit of truth undertaken by The Voice or American Idol. Faulting The Masked Singer for incompletely capturing the American version of Truth ignores the fact that The King of Mask Singer is after something else entirely.

Conventional approaches to orientalism place countries like South Korea in a distant past, utilizing pastoral imagery that, when juxtaposed with Western industrialization, serves to emphasize American modernity. However, the advent of hypermodern representation of Asia in films like Blade Runner and Alien place imagined cities in a video-game adjacent, techno-orientalist future state. Of The Masked Singer, Emily Todd VanDerWerf of Vox states, “The new reality show feels like something that would be on in the background of a dystopian movie.” The implication is not that Asia is a media pioneer, but that the seeds of America’s worst nightmare can be found in contemporary South Korea. This version of orientalism still relies on the same initial discomfort with the East and West existing in the same temporal reality. It presents both sides of the contradiction between the beauty and tranquility of a pure feminine past and the brutality and violence of a masculine hypermodern future that ultimately is resolved as simply Other.

The appearance of Ryan Reynolds on The King of Mask Singer and the audience’s over-animated response to his mediocre performance after uncovering his identity raises the question of self-imposed orientalism, and if that can be a means of reclaiming agency. For years, films created in South Korea rejected orientalist tropes, perhaps due to centuries of imperialism and domination by Japan. This inter-orient imperialism further degraded South Korea in the unjust hierarchy of states, contributing to the modern South Korean desire to create its own brand in the form of K-dramas, K-pop, and Hallyu (Korean wave)-wood. As this media rises in global popularity, self-orientalizing—casting oneself as an exotic commodifiable Other—can allow those who have been traditionally intellectually imperialized to resist that imposition and instead gain power and recognition by Western oversight. By partially conforming to the exaggerated American imaginations of Korean game shows, The King of Mask Singer became a global phenomenon increasing profit and popularity in the West. The United Kingdom also purchased the rights to the show and has run seven episodes beginning in January 2020.

If orientalism can be construed as intellectual imperialism, then The King of Mask Singer is both a victim and masterful manipulator of this blind superiority. As the Fox on The Masked Singer sang in season two, “Hey Look Ma, I made It” is not only an anthem for Panic! At the Disco fans but also for South Korean media that has become the epicenter of the Oscars and Wednesday television at 8/7C on FOX.

 

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My experience of watching The King of Mask Singer was not quite what its creators intended, as I had no prior knowledge of the idols nor did I care about the true identity of the hidden celebrities. The cultural context for the show can only be truly appreciated by those immersed in it who understand the turmoil of K-Pop PR and the lack of privacy stemming from the architectural compression of Seoul. These experiences are the necessary backstory to The King of Mask Singer and even as a Korean-American, I lack the pieces necessary to fully grasp the significance of this performance. By establishing my own roots in Western thought in a university setting, I am aware that even part of the sanctity of watching K-Dramas with my grandfather is compromised, as I inflict my theoretical jargon upon our shared sense of home. The resistance against the act of viewership is at the core of the Korean program and is missing from both the American adaptation and intention of the American audience member. Perhaps that is part of what makes The Masked Singer so flawed—the aim is not to protect the contestants from a standard of scrutiny but instead allow for a different type of in-person analysis and unveiling. Throughout the show, Robin Thicke continuously calls costumed women sexy, telling a lioness to “work your mane” after stating he was mesmerized by her hip movements. This objectification of the artist is the exact opposite of what The King of Mask Singer was designed for. It’s a figure for the cycle of Western male subjectivity (in a contained context) gazing upon the Eastern female landscape.

As I renounce the absurdity and revel in the weirdness of my favorite Korean game show, I am acutely aware of the role I play as a viewer and how I unwittingly impose my beliefs upon the object being viewed. Identity is inherently performative and yet we are all active audience members. I understand the impulse to cover up and wear a mask; the limited control we have over how we are viewed comes from what we choose not to share.

 

ANABELLE JOHNSTON B’23 does not like the idea of being perceived.