by Chris Randle
[This essay was first presented as a paper at last month's 2012 Pop Conference, which accounts for the Frankfurt School citations.]
During the summer of 2010, as one or two billion people learned to pronounce and sometimes dread the word “vuvuzela,” I was taking part in a parallel spectacle. The British music critic Tom Ewing had organized a competition called the Pop World Cup, little different from its gargantuan namesake, only played with singles instead of feet. I volunteered for the tournament, and my randomly determined team ended up being South Korea. Despite a fleeting teenage infatuation with J-pop, I’d never knowingly heard any Korean songs before. I conducted the usual recondite research – asking for Youtube links on Twitter – and my friend Maddie Lee recommended a bunch of tracks. This was one of them:
It’s the 2009 single “Gee,” by Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), and although that Korean squad would lose in the quarterfinals by a single reader vote, my fascination soon developed into committed fandom. At first I only paid attention to several familiar sources, such as Maddie’s critical K-pop blog, semi-ironically called My First Love Story. But over time my affection grew increasingly unrestrained, and I was searching for hangul-inflected Mediafire links or learning relevant slang like oppas and jimseungdol. My RSS feed now features dozens of posts a day from Omona They Didn’t!, East Asia’s rough equivalent of the gossipy Livejournal community Oh No They Didn’t! (“Omona” means “oh my gosh” in Korean.) Listening to the multilingual lyrics of these ultra-modern songs, I began to wonder how their cosmopolitanism intersected with their place of origin. The World Cup is a planetary celebration that happens to provide an arena for the most reflexive tribalism, enriching a corrupt organization in the process. Another irony: the international qualities of K-pop and its idols reflect Seoul as a city, yet that openness has often been coerced from outside.
In his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism, philosopher Kwame Appiah notes that said word dates back to the Cynics of the fourth century BCE, though it’s a distinctly un-cynical phrasing: “citizen of the universe.” They meant to sound paradoxical, as cosmopolitanism sometimes is. For its self-isolation and resistance to imperial entreaties, 19th century Westerners called dynastic Korea “the hermit kingdom,” but its eventual engagement with the world wasn’t exactly voluntary: after beginning to modernize in the 1890s, it was annexed by the Japanese Empire, which accelerated the process. Politically and culturally, Japanese rule was no less oppressive than that of a typical European power, but unlike, say, Belgians in the Congo, the colonizers encouraged Korean education and economic development, perhaps realizing that assimilated consumers would prove to be more lucrative subjects than illiterate peasants.
By 1930, of the 200-plus factories on the peninsula employing more than 50 workers, a fifth were Korean-owned. Seven years later, 52 000 Japanese bureaucrats were there, fifteen times the number of French colonial officials in Vietnam. Jonathan Krieckhaus’ book Dictating Development uses this and other data to argue that the Korean state is an international construction, doubly shaped by foreign rulers; while occupying the country after World War II, the United States actually wanted Japanese advisors to stay on and run its government, but settled for recommendations of “acceptable Korean replacements” following the local outrage. Well into the 1960s, majorities of high-ranking civil servants and police officers – including the dictator Park Chung Hee – were former Japanese collaborators. There’s a loaded Korean phrase about toadying to outside powers, sadaechuui, which dates back to the era of Chinese influence: “serving the great.”
Like Japan, the U.S. saw Korean economic success as an important part of its geopolitical strategy, and sent huge amounts of aid to its new southern ally after the peninsula’s division. The money was certainly needed. Conservative estimates suggest that half of Seoul’s buildings were destroyed during the Korean War, making modernity inescapable there. Today the city’s skyline is dominated by towering headquarters of the chaebol, family-controlled multinationals like Samsung and Hyundai – these corporations employ roughly 10 percent of the South Korean population, but their outsized influence and prestige make them loom over competitive university entrance exams. The three companies releasing most K-pop, which go by the confusingly generic names of SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, are relative upstarts. They were all founded in the mid-‘90s, after the fall of South Korea’s military junta, and none is a subsidiary of some larger conglomerate, unlike the remaining major labels that North Americans know. In a recent Omona They Didn’t! thread, “netizens” discussed the Seoul home bases of each record company, noting how ordinary they looked.
The K-pop production model parallels another city known for its cars. Marxist theorists characterized the labour-dividing ethos of Detroit’s assembly lines as “Fordism,” but one could equally call it Gordyism. Motown’s success was built on clear sonic templates, top-down control over a group’s name, image or lineup, and unyielding specialization: “Artists performed, writers wrote, producers produced,” as the Temptations’ Otis Williams put it in his autobiography. This rigidly efficient process frustrated the artistic ambitions of people like Marvin Gaye; it also churned out sublime pop songs by the hundreds. SM, YG and JYP have made the Gordyist model even more systematic and all-encompassing, on an international scale. In a Spin magazine article this year, David Bevan described the dormitory-like facilities for YG’s young trainees: “Walk down a few flights and you’re met with an assortment of plush recording studios, available to producers both in-house and imported. There’s a fully outfitted gym manned by a celebrity fitness guru. The cafeteria serves home-style Korean fare and boutique coffee until late into the night. And of course, there are those practice spaces…”
The relative diversity of these musical rosters probably exceeds that of Seoul proper, which is over 95% Korean. Where its factories were once obliged to labour for the benefit of imperial rulers, K-pop companies now court foreign listeners by choice, albeit an imperative one: unlike Japan or the U.S., their domestic market isn’t large enough to make much money from alone. So singles combine Korean verses with rapped breaks and slogan-scaled English choruses, even re-recording entire albums in Japanese or Chinese, while A&R reps search for potential idols throughout East Asia and beyond. In David Bevan’s Spin piece, a JYP PR manager describes one trainee as “post-Nichkhun,” referring to a member of the boy band 2PM. His family came from Thailand and China, he grew up in California, and he’s apparently changed the way millions of young Koreans see entire countries. Bevan quotes the American-born head of a Korean creative agency, who says that Thailand “has gone from mysterious to fabulous.”
The labels have begun taking cosmopolitanism to high-concept extremes: one new group sounds like some sort of fantastical superhero team. The 12-member EXO will apparently split into two separate boy bands, one ethnically Korean and one Chinese, and tour their respective countries before reuniting for climactic crossover shows. Extra-large configurations are common in K-pop – SNSD have nine members, and Super Junior once extended to 13 – and a canny elaboration on the Gordyist model, since they give fans more idols to potentially identify with while diluting the power of any individual star. A sudden lineup change isn’t the only questionable practice favoured by the major music companies: fans, journalists and courts alike have decried “slave contracts,” the agreements that lock a teenage trainee down for 10 or 12 years without offering any access to the huge profits they might later earn. Given this track record of exploitation, the labels’ recent forays into America feel less like sudden experiments and more like a foreseeable pursuit of similar corporations. Speaking of competitive ruthlessness, here’s the music video for “I Am the Best,” by 2NE1:
Punkishly attired in Jeremy Scott and committing enough gleeful property destruction to impress Ke$ha, they don’t seem to be working under the influence of American pop so much as they’re determined to outdo it. I especially like how the intonation of “best” sounds just enough like “bitch” to slip past any censors. Covering 2NE1’s New York City debut several months ago for the Village Voice, Brad Nelson wrote: “the crowd roared at this sudden, television-sized affirmation of their identity, inextricably tied up in this Korean group, obscure to others but approaching visibility.” The overtures haven’t always been received with such intense sympathy. SNSD embarked on their own media rounds this year after headlining a K-pop show at Madison Square Garden last fall, making this glorious photo possible. When they performed on Live! With Kelly, Howie Mandel (who I unfortunately share a passport with) elected to display some serious ignorance. In his book about cosmopolitanism, Kwame Appiah wryly demonstrates the many ways a “cultural dialogue” can fail to end in happy consensus, arguing against “those who imagine that prejudice derives only from ignorance, that intimacy must breed amity.”
Misunderstandings wreak ruptures in multiple directions, too. Last month, a young black woman with the handle IFUASKEDMETO published an Oh No They Didn’t! post called “K-pop or KKK-pop?”, compiling several recent instances of Korean stars using blackface or other racist caricatures. Without a history of white supremacy, these offenses appear less calculatedly malicious than they would in a Western context, but their tangle of perverse cultural affection and cruel mockery bears an ashen resemblance to traditional American minstrelsy. Though still a miniscule proportion of the city as a whole, Seoul has one of the largest black populations in East Asia (after the major Chinese port Guangzhou), including many U.S. soldiers stationed at Yongsan Garrison. Unlike other such installations around the region, the military base – first built as a headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Army – is located at the capital’s heart, a symbol of foreign occupation that countless thousands walk past every day. If it seems inexplicable that K-pop groups would incorporate rap with such enthusiasm while blithely reiterating imported racial stereotypes, that only reflects the tortured ambiguity of their own urbanity, both entrepôt and fortress.
It should be noted that, at least on Omona They Didn’t!, most K-pop fans are reacting to these blackface routines with conspicuous side-eyes and angry disappointment. And not all stars have used diversity as a punchline – or been portrayed as a fetishistic representation of it, as with Chocolat, the rookie quintet whose publicity focused on their three biracial members. There’s a South Korean reality show called Hello Baby that gives idol groups an adorable toddler to take care of for a while, albeit while facing totally unrealistic scripted challenges. My friend Maddie recently watched the latest season, which entrusted boy band MBLAQ with three pancake-devouring children, all of mixed heritage: one’s dad French, another’s mother Vietnamese. On her blog, she wrote: “Being Korean/Chinese-Canadian myself, I felt a Lacanian sense of fascination and kinship at the presence of a Vietnamese/Korean child, in the same way that I’m fascinated by Canadians in K-pop. I’m not mixed-race, but I’m mixed-culture, and I’ve never thought that was something others could relate to, nor did I know anyone who was in a similar situation of having two (equally diluted) ethno-cultural influences in her life. Though I’m not pleased that Canadian = white as far as this show goes, I am pleased that the approach is a multicultural one.”
In another post, about the common practice of drag in K-pop, Maddie noted: “Some female North American K-pop fans idealize South Korean culture because “it’s okay for men to act feminine”, using conservative North American conceptions of masculinity and femininity as the benchmark…But male idols who are known for frequently dressing in drag are just as frequently asked to defend (or maintain) their heterosexuality in interviews.” This hints at an important theme in Appiah’s book: universalist ideas, such as the conservative Protestantism that an influential minority of South Koreans adheres to, aren’t necessarily cosmopolitan or pluralist. They can be downright reactionary when it comes to the most fundamental differences. Over the past few years, 2000-plus songs have been banned in some form by South Korean censors, including Hyuna’s brilliant 2011 single “Bubble Pop.”
The censors weren’t concerned about the sonic radicalism of Hyuna’s onomatopoeic beats. They went after that music video because its sexualized choreography might be “hazardous.” Women now earn half of South Korea’s master’s degrees; they wield ever-increasing economic power. As manifested in song, traditional roles and female abandon sometimes collide at absurd speed. The bridge at 2:30 or so is what happens when you try to recapitulate gender norms in a moving vehicle. Such tensions existed before the music I’m discussing did; in the early ‘90s, after a media panic, governments cracked down on the sensual nightlife of Seoul’s Kangnam district. But the idea of “the club” has become increasingly central to American and Korean pop alike, and yet, looking at sites like undergroundseoul.tumblr.com, Seoul’s real discotheques only seem more hedonistic than a typical music video set there. Still, the prudish edicts haven’t gone unopposed: at http://feministkpopbloggerdirectory.tumblr.com/, the list of writers keeps growing. Feminist organizers are taking to the streets, too: there was a Slutwalk in Korea last summer.
Looking at the contradictions and complications of K-pop, some observers suggest rejecting it entirely. In 2005, Cho Han Hye-Jeong of Yonsei University argued: “South Korean popular cultural products are nothing but a South Korean version of American popular culture, and the Hallyu ['Korean wave'] phenomenon is nothing but South Korea’s export-oriented industrial system extended into the popular cultural sector.” It’s true that certain officials and executives discuss Hallyu in a dubiously nationalistic tone; after the North Korean torpedo attack two years ago, Southern military brass installed loudspeakers at 11 locations along the DMZ, blasting K-pop across the border as sonic propaganda. But it’s also true that Hallyu itself is a Chinese term. Even a fraught, compromised expression of cosmopolitanism, exported from an occupied city by an exploitative industry, can dissolve old enmities and bear radical ideas.
To resume those sports analogies: organized by a corrupt entity, the World Cup siphons billions of dollars in public money for the benefit of corporate sponsors and TV networks, and encourages the most lizard-brained forms of nationalism. That doesn’t make the quadrennial encounters of so many fans from so many countries less meaningful. A famous aphorism in Adorno’s Minima Moralia states: “Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar.” Less famously, he went on to argue that “the strongest argument of the apologists for film is the crudest, its massive consumption.” One needn’t rise to defend an entire medium, but they’re both right, in a sense. I don’t think I would have fallen this hard for K-pop if it wasn’t brash mass culture, able to sing of the universal while illuminating parochial differences. Unwittingly echoing those Korean censors and their “hazardous cultural materials,” Kwame Appiah praises “contamination,” idiosyncratic reworkings of common global touchstones. And why not embrace it, striving only to maintain an identity amidst impurity? To breathe is to be contaminated.