Guest writer Ki-eun Peck analyzes Primary's Mannequin lyrics and music video. She also poses the difficult question: Are Primary, Beenzino, and Suran preaching what they don't practice, or are they displaying self-awareness and irony?
Words Ki-eun Peck, Edits Sam Cello, Special Thanks Deserae McGlothen, Elizabeth Royal, Chatoyya Sewell
Primary’s comeback collaboration "Mannequin", features singer Suran and rapper Beenzino. The track has the makings of a hit: Primary’s trademark polished jazz production is in good company with Suran’s mellow vocals and Beenzino’s easy, leisurely flow. Thought-provoking lyrics, along with a confident, detailed, and assertive music video by Digipedi, elevates "Mannequin" away from mere vapid summer single status.
A critique of Korean consumerism and beauty standards paints a darker streak on the deceptively bright “Mannequin.” The video introduces a lone girl busking for money. She wears a mask with a painted face and exaggerated features that are too uncanny to be beautiful: eyes too large, lips too red. Before the lyrics are even heard, viewers with an eye for detail are able to catch scattered clues reflecting the track’s true message. For example, a copy of The Korea Herald is displayed in at the corner of multiple shots boasting the headline “Government to Frontload Spending to Boost Economy." This is, in fact, an actual article. Simply put, the Korean government promotes and encourages consumption. Estimates from 2014 value luxury spending at 9.35 billion US dollars in Korea, which makes it the third largest spending economy in Asia. This is further reiterated in the video, with the continuous shots of the Primary Boutique. Pink and pristine, the boutique’s windows feature glossy mannequins in the window advertising high-end brands, all of which are exclusively Korean.
Had this video been produced as little as half a decade ago, the elusive brands could easily have been all Western brands. But now, in a nation that has undergone an astonishing economic evolution from one of the poorest to one of the richest countries in the world, it appears the constant need for change and innovation has hit the country’s fashion industry as well. Classic luxury brands like Louis Vuitton have become far too common, appearing with astonishing abundance in the streets of Seoul. Despite their price tag, their value as an elusive status symbol has dropped. Young consumers are looking for distinctive designs that help them stand out from the crowd. Korean designers like Steve J & Yoni P are rising in popularity, thanks to their ability to hit key targets of innovation, exclusivity, and affordability.
According to the lyrics, Primary Boutique is located in Garosu-gil. While other Seoul fashion destinations like Hongdae and Myeongdong have been overrun by tourists (the fruits of ambitious Hallyu campaigns), Garosu-gil remains a relatively fresh alternative. The tree lined streets host an accessible mix of independent and chain businesses. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and boutiques are also set against the backdrop of a quaint European- style architecture. Garosu-gil exists in the mainstream consciousness as a refined place that hosts evidence of South Korea’s economic security.
The real Garosu-gil is a stark contrast from the graffiti-stained walls and trash decorating the masked girl’s busking location. When the chorus kicks in, viewers realize exactly why the masked girl is busking in such poor conditions – beyond all else, she covets the Mannequin, singing, “I’ll follow everything about you, I want you.” These mannequins in the store window are actually played by living, breathing human models. There’s a definite sense of irony that the girl wearing the obvious mask is not the mannequin in the situation; rather, the distinctly human models are mannequins. And here, the heart of the song can be realized not simply as an attack on consumerism, but also the meaningless and painfully unoriginal repercussions of mindless consumerism. Even the narrator begins to realize this, as she questions why the beautiful mannequin is a “flower without a scent.” Though the streets of Garosu-gil are filled with fashionable mannequins, they follow rather than set the trends: “Wearing the same hot lipstick … here and there, many on the street, these mannequins look so much like each other.” There is a distinct mark of artificiality, a distinct lack of substance.
As the video plays on, viewers realize just how unattainable the Primary Boutique, acting as a stand-in for a high-consuming, luxury brand lifestyle, truly is. Suran, singing from the perspective of the masked girl, is contrasted with Beenzino, who appears to be from the world of the Primary Boutique. Beenzino’s feature is what makes the wordplay between mannequin and money queen even more apparent. He laments about a (presumed) girlfriend who is “like a mannequin,” spending “2000 dollars in 2 minutes” and subsequently emptying Beenzino’s wallet, making Beenzino go broke. The entire feature talks of the troubles Beenzino faces due to the mannequin, yet he ends by asserting it’s worth all the trouble because he’s “satisfied by [the mannequin’s] body and face."
Beenzino’s feature is highly appropriate for this song for multiple reasons. First off, Primary and Beenzino have already collaborated before, resulting in the track “Apart.” Second, Beenzino is publicly dating German model Stefanie Michova. Third, Beenzino, after all, is a fashion icon himself. However, it’s entirely possible that Beenzino possesses polarizing thoughts on consumerism. He revealed during his guest appearance on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook that his first hip-hop lyrics, at the ripe young age of 14, had lines such as: “The gap between the rich and poor / You with money kick me out the door." Though he has the image of a brand-loving wealthy elite, one begins to wonder how much of that is simply that - an image, just an image. This, in turn, makes him an even more appropriate feature for "Mannequin."
Though some may be swayed by the jazzy production and Suran’s cabaret vocals, “Mannequin” has a strong hip-hop presence. This is made evident not only by Beenzino’s co-feature, but the fact that the track’s mastermind is known hip-hop producer Primary. It’s interesting to see this undoubtedly hip-hop track critiquing wealthy consumerism, considering the practice is subscribed not only by the general public but also specifically by hip-hop as a genre. Multiple dichotomies are found in the song and video of "Mannequin." Viewers and listeners find the masked girl and human mannequins, Beenzino’s conflicting history; even, in a way, the track itself which both partakes in and criticizes its own genre. One final dichotomy is hypocrisy and self-awareness. Are Primary, Beenzino, and Suran hypocritically preaching what they do not practice, or are they displaying precise senses of irony and self-awareness? What “Mannequin” does prove is that both ends of a dichotomy can exist in a single space. Perhaps that is the case here.