My Favoritest Favorite. . . Songs By Bias K-pop Groups!

I like a lot of K-pop groups (a LOT…of K-pop groups), but I have four bias groups (SS501, Shinhwa, SHINee and Super Junior), my favoritest favorites. I looked at my iTunes to see which songs by my bias groups I played the most. I was surprised!

Continue reading “My Favoritest Favorite. . . Songs By Bias K-pop Groups!”

Caterpillars to Butterflies: The Progression of Veteran K-pop Artists

Despite the regular insistence that it is disposable and only for teenagers, K-pop has managed to have several groups and artists attain veteran status. Over time, these artists develop their image and sound in ways that also embrace their beginnings.

Continue reading “Caterpillars to Butterflies: The Progression of Veteran K-pop Artists”

Star Array: Dance and the Large K-pop Group

Super Junior
Super Junior

As we all know, dance is a central part of K-pop. I’ve written about choreography in K-pop in Dancing in the Street: Choreography in K-pop before. I’ve also created an exhibit in my K-pop history project, Hallyu Harmonyon choreography and the large K-pop group. Here’s a peek!

While the choreography is often a crucial part of the official music video, the dance versions and practice dance videos keep the focus on dance by stripping down, often eliminating distractions such as props and dynamic lighting. Super Junior’s “Devil” and APeace’s “Loverboy” are shot against stark, white backgrounds. . . .

To read more, go to Star Array: Dance and the Large K-pop Group!

Back In The Day: Nostalgia in K-pop

While K-pop remains a subculture in many places, it tends to attract a wide variety of fans.  One of the reasons for such appeal is that K-pop provides a sense of nostalgia on several levels, a feat not easily achieved in the pop music world.

Continue reading “Back In The Day: Nostalgia in K-pop”

K-pocalypse 2014?: Contract Disputes, Unanswered Questions and EXO

Fans of K-pop have dubbed 2014 the year of Kpocalypse in light of a spate of  lawsuits by members from EXO.  While it’s hard to separate fact from speculation as a global K-pop fan, these lawsuits do say something about the role of nationality and the motives of the members who bring lawsuits.

Continue reading “K-pocalypse 2014?: Contract Disputes, Unanswered Questions and EXO”

The Right Sound: K-drama OSTs

Boys Over Flowers OST Reissue
Boys Over Flowers OST Reissue

The tantalizing goodness of Korean dramas don’t just come from romantic angst, historical intrigue and heart-stopping action. The emotional highs and lows would not mean as much without an Original Sound Track, also known as the Official Sound Track, or OST.

OSTs can come from any genre, and often features artists performing in styles that differ from their usual ones. OSTs can feature collaborations as well as solo performances by individuals in groups. They may feature vocals or exist solely as instrumentals.Everyone has their favorites, but  here are a few examples to show how K-dramas make effective use of music in different ways.

Continue reading “The Right Sound: K-drama OSTs”

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love K-pop Girl Groups


Like many K-pop fans, many of my favorite groups are male (shout out to SS501, Shinhwa, Super Junior and SHINee!). Part of this may be because there are more male groups to choose from, but I have to admit that initially, the female groups like Girls’ Generation and Miss A didn’t do much for me. However, eventually I embraced the K-pop girl groups and here’s why.

Continue reading “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love K-pop Girl Groups”

Media, K-pop Fans and Scandal: Park Bom and Sulli

Park Bom
Park Bom

K-pop fans often engage in creative and productive fan activity, but sometimes they don’t and media is always there to capture it. Nothing stirs up the spectre of the “obsessed K-pop fan” like a “scandal.” As we know, K-pop fans are diverse, but the kind of recent “scandals” experienced by Park Bom (of 2NE1) and Sulli (of f(x)) shed some light on the role cultural context and media plays in global fans’ understanding of “scandal.”  Unlike global fans, Korean K-pop fans experience K-pop within the context of Korean culture and their responses are captured by Korean media. Because of their proximity to the K-pop scene, the displeasure of Korean fans can affect change beyond the control of the Korean agencies.

Continue reading “Media, K-pop Fans and Scandal: Park Bom and Sulli”

Editions of You: Remixes and Covers in K-pop

One of the most appealing things about K-pop is its variety. K-pop is not unique in producing different versions of the same song or having covers, but the differences in versions showcase the complexity of a music type often criticised for being cookie-cutter.

Seo Taiji, “로보트 (Robot)”

Seo Taiji

Seo Taiji is the godfather of K-pop, and so it should not be surprising that he takes the track “Robot” in two different directions.  “Robot” originally appears on Seo Taiji’s 7th Issue (2004) album. This version’s thinly orchestrated intro begins with an odd guitar chord countered by mid-tempo drums. The song then transitions to a more regular rhythm and tonally resonate guitars, which complement Seo Taiji’s recognizeable vocals, all of which give the song a heavy feel.  However, the guitars become less heavy in the first verse, complemented by a less vigorous rhythm section, where cymbals become more prominent.  The song alternates between these two distinct sounds, always overlaid with Seo Taiji’s vocals.

However, when Seo Taiji performs the song live on [&] Seo Taiji 15th Anniversary (2007) album (originally appearing on the Seo Taiji Live Tour Zero ’04 album (2005), it has a completely different feel.  Here, the intro features a softly strumming guitar barely audible over the hum of the crowd.  After 30 seconds, a sole electric guitar comes in, along with Seo Taiji’s vocals, but these are not the vocals of the original song.  Only after a full 40 seconds do guitars play the chords that signal the beginning of the original song. Even then, the song is significantly less heavy than the original.

Epik High, “Paris”

Epik High
Epik High

Veteran hip-hop group Epik High is known for its use of intrumentation in its music, and “Paris” is no exeception.  “Paris,” featuring Jisun of Loveholic, originally appears on the group’s 2005 album, Swan Songs.  The intro featuring female vocals and a single guitar hearkens back to the musical stylings of the 1960s, and then transitions into a light-hearted rap by the group. This rap is complemented by Jisun’s vocals throughout the song.

However, “Paris” on the Black Swan Songs (2006) repackage is radically different.  Jisun’s pop intro is replaced by the more forceful vocals of Epik High, against a more brooding instrumental backdrop.  This intro is followed by thinly orchestrated verses, featuring driving rhythms with prominent drums and bass, the solo rap vocals and strategically placed distortions. As the track continues, the piano from the vocal is introduced against Jisun’s vocals.  Overall, this version is more sonically powerful.

Brown Eyed Soul, “Love Ballad”

Brown Eyed Soul

This kind of musical variety can also occur in other K-pop genres.  Brown Eyed Soul‘s “Love Ballad” single hearkens back to vocally-driven American ’90s R&B with synthesized instruments along with a soft organ and finger snaps over which the group alternate parts of the verse.  At the chorus, they harmonize their voices in Boyz II Men style.

The piano version of “Love Ballad” invests even more heavily in the black male vocal group tradition.  The intro is thinly orchestrated, with only finger snaps that echo on the track, broken only with the introduction of the voices of the group singing in unison. This arrangement showcases the vocal abilities of the members, both in the intro and throughout the song. During the rest of the song, the vocals are accompanied only by the piano and fingersnaps.

Girls’ Generation/Lyn, “The Boys”

Shifts in musical style on a track does not only occur with remixes. Covers also allow an opportunity for alternative arrangements, some of which go far afield of the original.  For example, Girls’ Generation, known for their catchy songs, released “The Boys,” the title track from their 2011 album.  The song begins with the members’ vocals against synthesized sounds, and then explodes into its heavily produced glory, driven by heavy rhythms and synthesizers.

However, Lyn takes the song in an entirely different direction in her acoustic performance. Featuring her lead vocals and vocals from backup singers, Lyn’s version infuses a bluesy feel with the minimal instrumentation provided by piano, bongos and an acoustic guitar.

These alternative versions of songs show that music is central to K-pop.

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


“seo taiji-robot.”  YouTube. 27 June 2009. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Seotaiji – Zero Tour – 08. 로보트 [Live].”  YouTube. 5 Mar 2009. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Epik High – Paris ft. 지선 {Jisun}.” YouTube. 3 Sept 2012. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Epik High- Paris (정재일’s Black Swan Remix) [Black Swan Songs Repackage].” YouTube. 9 Jan 2009. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Brown Eyed Soul – Love Ballad.” YouTube. 1 Nov 2012. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Brown Eyed Soul Love Ballad (Piano ver.) [러브 발라드 피아노 버전].” YouTube. 11 Jun 2010. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“[MP3/DL] SNSD The Boys (Korean Version) + Lyrics.” YouTube. 18 Oct 2011. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

“Lyn – The Boys (SNSD) acoustic ver. Hamchoonho Yooheeyeol E132 Feb17.2012 1080p HD.” YouTube. 4 Mar 2012. Web. 15 Mar 2014.

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Editions of You: Remixes and Covers in K-pop by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

“Steady Shaking the Ground”: Lyrical Skill in Epik High’s Music

Epik High
Epik High

Epik High garners respect as a Korean hip-hop group in part because of their innovative use of lyrics.  Because many of their songs are in English, they provide an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of their rhymes and their skill manipulation of language.

While many critics focus on the social and political message of rap, Mtume ya Salaam reminds us that rap is an art, and when done well, “possesses at least one–and usually more than one–attribute such as sincerity, originality, honesty, or creativity” (303).  We should not focus on critique to the exclusion of the artistry found in hip hop.  Looking at the lyrics of a rap song is comparable to appreciating poetry. Both make use of  “simile, metaphor, and alliteration as well as creative expression, originality, and conveyance of emotion” (305).

With that in mind, Epik High songs frequently use creative metaphors and innovative verbal phrases to describe the skill of rapping or critique the industry in which the group participates.  Frequently, Epik High positions itself as cerebral rappers, targeting the minds as well as the feet of their audience.  That stance marks them as unique in the K-hip hop world.

Follow the Flow (ft. Myk, D-tox)

“Follow the Flow” comes from the 2005 Epik High album, Swan Songs.  The track reinforces the intellectual appeal of the track through references to the mental powers of the audience.  Lyrics such as “I just did flipped your lid and gave your brain a kiss” demonstrate that the group targets the way people think and suggests they want to leave the audience pondering their words.  Because of this kind of originality, they diverge from other groups:   “We travel on into unknown don’t follow the roadsign/We just try to form the rhymes that read yo’ mind.”

Epik High frequently also includes plays on words in their lyrics.   “Like an empty hospital/I’m out of patience” uses the word “patience” both in its literal meaning (lacking the capacity to remain calm when waiting) and its related meaning to patient (someone who needs medical treatment) within the context of a hospital.   “I’m a prohibition MC – I speakeasy” uses the context from the 1920 and 1930s to underscore lyrical skill.  In the United States, the prohibition era created speakeasys, or illegal clubs, so when the song references a “prohibition MC,” it taps into the rogue nature of the rhyme.

“Follow the Flow” also uses literary references to celebrate originality.  The song draws from Irish literature to establish his skill as an MC:

Yes I am…the rap game’s voice

Every cat’s main choice, the rap James Joyce

It’s a piece of cake, gimmie a break,

I kill MCs, then speak at they Finnegan’s Wake

I’m much mo’ than a cheap CD

Any student forced to read the Irish writer James Joyce would understand the resonance of the reference. Joyce represents one of the most challenging writers in the English language. His novels, such as Ulysses, are complicated and dense, but also innovative, thus contributing to his reputation as a classic writer. The song uses this literary giant to underscore his own lyrical prowess in the song. The MC is rap’s James Joyce, which suggests that his raps are equally deep and complicated.

Free Music (ft. Myk)

While “Follow the Flow” celebrates the skill of the MC, “Free Music,” from the 2009 album Map the Soul,  is a critique of an overall lack of originality in rap.  In the first verse, MYK contrasts the mental work he puts into his rhymes (“I jog my mind around the writer’s block/Till it’s out of breath and asthmatic”) with the preoccupation with fame he notices in the industry:

I’ve had it with the paper chase, need I mention?

The rap game is all show and lyrical dissension

Pretension, obsession for physical possession

MYK faults the commercialism and quest for money as the primary motivator for some rappers. This has a negative impact on the creativity and artistry of their production. It is all show and no substance.  Tablo’s verse focuses more on his skill:

Temporary relief so I’m makin’ it last

Takin’ it fast, lacin’ buds in raps, tracin’ raps with facts

Steppin’ up the game but not reppin’ for fame

Spittin’ truth up on the booth, then we settin’ it in flames

Here, Tablo focuses on his own skill. He is all business in the recording booth, seeking to be the best for his own sake, not to gain attention and make money. His rap is more substantial, filled with “facts” and “truth.”

In both of these tracks, Epik High seek to distinguish themselves thought their thought-provoking and creative lyrics.

Image: 1


“Epik High – Follow the Flow ft. MYK & D-Tox + Lyrics (HQ) (HD).” YouTube. 29 Jul 2011. Web. 1 Feb 2014.

“Epik High – Free Music (Tablo And MYK) (Ft. MYK).” YouTube. 29 Mar 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2014.

Salaam, Mtume ya.  “The Aesthetics of Rap.” African American Review 29.2 (1995): 303-315.

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“Steady Shaking the Ground”: Lyrical Skill in Epik High’s Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Is “Idol Music” Just Dance Music?

Super Junior
Super Junior

Super Junior‘s “Sorry Sorry” is, but “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is not. f(x)‘s “Nu Abo” is, but “Beautiful Goodbye” is not. TVXQ‘s “Mirotic” is, “Before U Go” is not, and who knows what’s going on with “Something.”  Some want to equate popular K-pop music with dance music, but they may be surprised by the variety in the music produced by idols.

Because idols make up so much of popular K-pop, many equate their music with dance music.   Park Si Soo refers to a National Assembly report that described 82% of the tracks on the Gaon Music Chart as “idol music.”  According to Park, critics seem to equate “idol music” with dance music because K-pop is “dominated by hook-heavy dance music or ‘idol music.'”

Academics believe the popularity of “idol music” contributes to the homogenization of K-pop, causing all the music to sound the same.   Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim examined the top 20 songs published by Melon Music, an online music service in Korea, from 1988 to 2012 and found “a sizeable presence of dance and hip-hop music in the early to mid-1990s.”

Both journalists and academics limit the kinds of music associated with K-pop idols and equate it with dance music.  Dance music is music designed to make people dance, and the beat is crucial.  Mark J. Butler argues that “rhythm. . . is the raison d’être of electronic dance music” (4).  But that does not mean that all dance music sounds the same:   “There is an astonishing array of rhythmic diversity beyond the beat. . . . fans, musicians and critics  [claim] that all of the myriad genres of dance music have the same meter (4/4) which they tend to link, through implicit or explicit comparisons, to perceived notions of simplicity” (5).

All dance music is not the same.  Super Junior’s “Bonamana” is not the same as House Rulez‘s “Reset,” even though both may be considered dance songs because they share the “four on the floor” rhythm.  “Bonamana” is the type of dance song that Super Junior is known for, but it contains standard elements of popular song, including lyrics, verses and a chorus.   “Reset” is quintessential electronic dance music (EDM):  “Most of [EDM’s] genres contain no consistent verbal components [or lyrics]” and are “created by synthesizers and drum machines rather than ‘real’ instruments” (11).

A comparison of songs by idols reveal differences. BigBang‘s “Fantastic Baby” sounds different from Infinite’s “Hands Up,” but both are dance songs.  This is the case even with songs by the same artist.  While Super Junior songs may reflect the trademark “Super Junior funky style,” “Bonamana” sounds different from “SPY.” “Bonamana”‘s rhythm stands out, while “SPY” features thick orchestration where horns are central.

In addition, music produced by idols goes beyond dance music:  “There are many critics who are reluctant to define idol music as a genre, citing a lack distinctive musical identity. They insist idol music is like a “spaghetti bowl” in which various music genres including dance, hip-hop, rap and R&B are all mixed up in one category” (Park).

While charts tell us about popularity based on sales, listening to the music on albums reveals far more variety. A consideration of SM Entertainment (SME) artists show a variety of musical styles. With the largest roster of idols, SME is often cited as a primary producer of “idol music”:  “‘SM style music’ was gradually defined as electronic-based, fast-beat, and strong with  memorable lyrics with repeating ‘hooks'” (Shin and Kim).

It’s clear that SM has its share of idols producing dance music. As the first paragraph shows, artists such as Super Junior, TVXQ, f(x) as well as SHINee and EXO have their share of dance tracks.  However, these groups release albums with songs that go beyond dance music.

Super Junior has had great success with dance tracks like  “Sorry Sorry,” “Bonamana,” “Mr. Simple,” and “SPY.” However, the group’s albums feature other kinds of songs.  “Good Friends (어느새 우린)” is not a dance track.  It feels more like a throwback track to the 1970s with its use of horns and organs.  “Memories” is a song with a slower tempo. “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is an old-school R&B ballad that focuses on vocals:

The same can be said of TVXQ.  We all know TVXQ for their dance tracks, such as “Mirotic” and “Humanoids.” But the group also has a reputation for more pop-inspired fare like “Hug,” rock-influenced songs like “Tri-Angle” and “Athena,” and slower songs like “I Swear” and “Honey Funny Bunny.”

If we take a look at deeper cuts on SHINee’s albums, we see there are different kinds of songs that go beyond the dance fare like “Lucifer” and “Dream Girl.”  SHINee fans always look forward to R&B-inspired songs such as “Excuse Me Miss” and “Symptoms.” But they often have surprises as well, like the acoustic track “Honesty.”

These songs are not only included on albums, they are also featured in set lists when groups tour, suggesting that they are just as important as promotional dance tracks.      The set-list for Super Junior’s Super Show 4 includes “Good Friends” and Super Junior’s Super Show 5‘s setlist features an acoustic medley that includes “Memories.”   TVXQ includes “Tri-angle” and “Honey Funny Bunny” in its setlist.  “Honesty” appears on the setlist for SHINee’s performances at SM Town Week.

Music made by idols runs the gamut. In fact, it is the reason why fans like it. Instead of making assumptions,  just listen to the music.


“Electrifying Super Show.” Seoul Rhythms. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Jan 2014.


“Super Junior(슈퍼주니어) _ SORRY, SORRY – ANSWER _ MusicVideo.” sment. YouTube. 10 Dec 2009. Web. 9 Jan 2014.

“SUPER JUNIOR 슈퍼주니어 _SPY_MUSIC VIDEO.” SMTOWN. YouTube. 12 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.

“TVXQ – I Swear.” Oumae24. YouTube. 23 Sept 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.

“07 늘 그 자리에 (Honesty) – SHINee (Sherlock).” AmberInJapan. YouTube. 18 Mar 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.

“하우스 룰즈 (House Rulez) – Reset (With 안지석).” 3cinquesette. YouTube. 3 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.


Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove: Rythym, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia November, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.

Real and Fake Racism in K-pop

Girls' Generation, Girls & Peace Concept
Girls’ Generation, Girls & Peace Concept

All charges of racism in K-pop are not equal. The reaction to the Girls’ Generation (SNSD) win at the YouTube Music Awards is pretty blatantly racist, while the reaction to the news of an American remake of Boys Over Flowers is not easily characterized as racism.

First, let’s get our terms straight. Just talking about race does not constitute racism. Ashley Doane writes that racial discourse is “the collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race,” where individuals can “reinforce or transform ideologies” (257). In other words, racial talk does not equal racism. Racism emerges when individuals express or infer racial superiority or inferiority, or reinforce negative stereotypes.

Reactions to K-pop supergroup SNSD’s win at the YouTube Music Awards are racist because these statements imply inferiority based on ethnicity. Popdust reports that “the losing fandoms didn’t take too kindly to seeing their faves being beaten by an Asian act, and took to Twitter to vent their frustrations with a string of disgusting racist tweets.”  Many Tweets express the kind of superiority inherent in racist statements.   For example, @lloydvatoo tweeted: “why is girls generation in america if they cant speak a word of English lolllooololl”  @TwerksOnJustin tweeted: “How did Justin lose over some Japenese (sic) chick no one knows.”  In addition to nationalistic sentiments, these tweets also imply that SNSD should not have won because they do not speak English or are Asian.  Other tweets posted on the Tumblr Sanctuary are also sexist because they reflect negativity based on gender.  @NotAndrewDavis referred to Tiffany as “This lil Asian girl.”  @babymermaids tweeted:  “How did those irrelevant Asian girls win?” @slothmantha and @smilingkidrauhl both brought out the B-word to express their displeasure at the SNSD win. These comments suggest that individuals are not happy with the SNSD win because they are Asian and female, and they view both as negative.

However, they also reflect an ignorance of the place of SNSD globally. The group is well-known in East Asia, so comments about not knowing about them only reflects one’s lack of engagement with the rest of the world.  Moreover, K-pop fans know about “the power of Nine.”  SONES, fans of SNSD, are one of the largest and most well-organized K-pop fandoms.  As Jeff Yang explains:  “Nominees for the YTMAs were selected solely by algorithm, based on likes, shares, views and other metrics of ‘fan engagement,’ and, according to YouTube, winners were chosen based on how many fresh shares the nominated videos got in the month-long runup to the actual event.” SONES did what they, and other fandoms, always do: mobilize the base. Because K-pop fans are also quite savvy in using the Internet, it should surprise no one that they put those skills to work.

On the other hand, the charge of racism thrown at individuals who did not want to see an American remake of Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) is misplaced.  In the face of a negative response,  producers of the venture described their critics as, among other things, racist.  According to a post on the producers’ Tumblr:  “The amount of racist comments, venom, and negativity aimed at our cast, crew and production staff has been harmful and hurtful for no reason and most of it has no basis that was grounded in fact.”  Without seeing the kinds of comments the producers received, it’s hard to determine their tone. However, the producers’ statement lumps all forms of critique together with racism and hateful comments. All critique is not racist.


Many fans objected to changing these fundamental elements of the story. All three television versions of the Japanese manga (Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean) take place within Asia, and the dynamics of the plot depend on Asian cultural values, including the dynamics within Asian families, the dynamics between classes in countries in Asia and the centrality of education and school in some Asian countries.

Moreover, the original Asian cast was changed.  American fans of Asian popular culture have seen many Asian productions “whitewashed” and stripped of their original Asian context.  Such changes replicate business-as-usual for American adaptations of Asian popular culture that erase the Asian context to cater to American sensibilities.  In relation to the remake of the anime classic AkiraAngry Asian Man notes, “Warner Brothers still seems hell-bent on making this live-action Akira adaptation thing happen, despite the fact that every fan of the original manga and movie seems to think it’s an awful idea. . . . [Juame] Collet-Serra was going full-steam ahead with his whitewashed adaptation of the beloved Japanese classic, before production was stalled in early 2012. This version was going to star a mostly-white cast and transplanted the story’s post-apocalyptic Japanese setting to “New Manhattan.” Angry Asian Man says similar things about the trailer for the remake of Oldboy:  “I’ve read interviews claiming that this draws more heavily from the manga source material than Park’s films, but based on this trailer, it looks like they’ve straight-up remade the movie minus the Asians.”

When fans critique the American remake of Boys Over Flowers, they do so with this tendency in mind and draw attention to the erroneous logic that Americans will only accept entertainment devoid of Asians and Asian culture.  In the comments section of “21 Questions About the American Boys Over Flowers Remake Answered,” love4hope4evar wrote:  “The K-drama is so beautiful that it makes people interested, then the asian CULTURE is what permanently hooks people into it.”  To favor the Asian original context over a watered-down remake is not racist because it does not imply racial superiority or reinforce negative stereotypes. If anything, calls to retain the original context of the drama opens up opportunities for more cultural exchange.

Let’s reserve racism for incidents where it truly appropriate. Because if everything is racist, then nothing is racist.

Images: Girls’ Generation (1), Boys Over Flowers (2)


Acton, Dan.  “American Boys Over Flowers Adaptation Changes Title and Responds to ‘Racist Comments.'” DramaFever. 1 Oct 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Angry Asian Man. “Dammit. The Whitewashed Akira Remake Is Back On.” Angry Asian Man. 5 Aug 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

—–.  “The New Oldboy Looks Like the Old Oldboy..With Fewer Asians.” Angry Asian Man. 10 July 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Doane, Ashley. “What Is Racism? Racial Discourse and Racial Politics.” Critical Sociology 32.2-3 (2006): 255-274.

Patterson, Jacques.”Girls’ Generation Wins Big At YouTube Music Awards, Racist Tweets From Losing Fandoms Follow.” PopDust. 3 Nov 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Yang, Jeff. “Why Girls’ Generation and K-pop Won Big at the YouTube Music Awards.” The Wall Street Journal. 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Who Can Speak For K-pop?

While K-pop appeals to a variety to people, often those who are called to speak about it in English are white. The absence of the diversity of voices that make up the fandom and commentators presents a distorted view of K-pop culture, and can limit the kinds of stories we hear about K-pop’s spread around the world.

Because fandom does not exist outside of societies and cultures, the dynamics of race and ethnicity often follow individuals into fan circles.  One need only look at the fan reaction to the way the film The Hunger Games dealt with the representation of characters.

This is pertinent for K-pop because as visual evidence and Internet activity shows,  K-pop draws many different kinds of people.  I have discussed the diversity of K-pop fandom, as has others.   In 2011, XXXtine explained why we should not be surprised at the diversity that K-pop attracts:  “International fans, regardless of ethnicity, tend to reason why they like it so much is because US mainstream music is boring, and that a certain kind of entertainment is missing. ” Ethel Navales made the same observation about attendees at KCON 2013:  “The stage was covered with Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, and various other non-Asian folk. Not only did East Asians show their presence, but Southeast Asians and South Asians did as well.”

However, media tends to gravitate towards fans that do not reflect this diversity.  Kyung Lah opens her piece for CNN with footage of Eli Alexander, whom she describes as “a white kid from Utah.”   In addition, she seems taken aback when she encounters a group of black K-pop fans at 2012’s KCON convention, stating that “you’re not really the demographic I think of when I think of K-pop.”

When Time ran a feature on K-pop fandom, Lily Rothman focused on one of the smallest demographics in K-pop fandom: the over-40 white male:  “Uncle fans—also called by the Korean word for “uncle,” commonly written in English as “ahjussi” or “ahjusshi”—are defined as male K-pop fans who are 30 or older. One of those fans is Stephen Knight, a 47-year-old Nashville lawyer who runs the website and was recently chosen to participate in a show about the wide array of K-pop fans out there.”

Of course there are white K-pop fans, but these two stories single out white fans, thereby downplaying other kinds of fans. In doing so, they perpetuate the notion that other people of color are not expected to be K-pop fans.  Not only are there plenty of K-pop fans of color, they are vocal.  Fans of many ethnicities are making reaction videos on YouTube. One thing that you get from non-white K-pop fans often is some attention to the intersection between ethnicity and K-pop. This video by saraseoul alludes to the implications of the non-Asian K-pop fan:

Paying attention to ethnicity also reveals the way K-pop fans experience K-pop culture, which is not always welcoming.  Sometimes fans of color feel K-pop culture sidesteps issues certain important issues related to ethnicity, gender, and Western cultural dominance.    For example, todiedreaming draws attention to the way Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi fame do not talk about the impact of ethnicity or nationality on what they do:

Simon and Martina always talk or “joke” about how people will point at them in the street and yell “foreigner” or how rude ajummas can be; and for two people who have lived in Korea for a considerable amount of time they don’t know Korean, and they always dismiss it because people adjust to them not knowing conversational Korean. So, I finally figured out what bothered me and seemed off to me about Simon and Martina: They are giving their account of living in a foreign country from a white, privileged stand-point, and tend to over-amplify and sometimes over-simplify a lot about life in South Korea.

Simon and Martina are K-pop celebrities in their own right. They are often invited to participate in K-pop events and are frequently interviewed for their insights on and knowledge about K-pop.  James Little of Groove Korea stated:  “Eat Your Kimchi is now the top source of information on K-pop in English.”  As purveyors and beneficiaries of Korean popular culture, todiedreaming points out that they do not address certain subjects.   Given their high profile, one could argue that such a failure may skew the perception of Korean popular culture.  It’s not that white commentators like Simon and Martina are inherently problematic.  However, they are frequently the voices most listened to and those voices obscure other perspectives in K-pop.

When you look to a variety of people to provide information or insight, you get a more comprehensive view of K-pop.   A cursory look at YouTube will reveal a large number of people of color from multiple countries offering responses to K-pop, ranging from humorous observations to critical commentary.  Moreover, there are K-pop media outlets that depend on a variety of perspectives. Green Tea Graffitti features staff from around the world who address many aspects of Asian popular culture, including K-pop. seoulbeats describes itself as “a collection of many authors with many different opinions, united by a love of taking apart and facilitating discussion on a deeper level of everything associated with K-pop.” It feature a diverse rosters of writers who provide a wide variety of commentary on K-pop.  This has a direct relationship to the kinds of commentary they feature.  Seoulbeats writers have tackled representations of femininity, the use of English in K-pop, and race.

Having a diversity of perspectives provides richer commentary and wider coverage of K-pop.  These rich sources need to be called upon more often to avoid the perception that the only people who can speak about K-pop are white.


“K-pop Goes Global.” CNNYouTube. 5 Feb 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

“My Opinion of Simon and Martina.” Malisma, coño. nd. Web. 25 Oct 2013.

Navales, Ethel.  “Proof that Kpop Is Not Just For Koreans.”  Audrey Magazine. 27 Aug 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

Rothman, Lily.  “K-pop’s Unlikeliest Fans: Middle-Age Males.” Time. 2 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

saraseoul. “For Those Weird Non-Korean Fans of K-pop.” YouTube. 4 Aug 2013. Web. 27 Oct 2013.

XXXtine, “Non-Asians Listen to K-pop (And This Is Not News).” 8Asians. 12 Apr 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

How Does It Feel To Be A Question?: That (Black) Girl and K-pop

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois posed the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” in his influential book, The Souls of Black Folk. I’m experiencing a 21st century version of this,  “How does it feel to be a question?”  As a black woman who writes about K-pop,  it’s one I’ve been getting more and more.  That question has different implications.

When people ask, “Why are you into K-pop?,” they want to know why I’m interested in music from halfway around the world made by people who don’t look like me.  These people genuinely want to know, in part because K-pop is a subculture outside of Korea and seems so different from what people are used to.   However, I find that this becomes less of a concern once people TALK to me about K-pop. By the time I finish telling you about my favorite groups (SS501 and Shinhwa, baby!), my favorite videos (OMO! did you see the camera work on Shinhwa’s “Brand New?”), my favorite choreography (I still can’t get over Yunho’s dancing in “Keep Your Head Down“), favorite songs (the Planet Shiver Mix of Brown Eyed Soul’s “Can’t Stop Loving You” is awesome!), and most interesting obscure K-pop tidbits (Big Mama and Solid both did versions of “Kkum”), it’s pretty clear that I have a genuine passion for K-pop.

But that passion is demonstrated by knowledge. People are more convinced by the fact that I took the time to know what I’m talking about. Knowledge is a often-used barometer of fan status, and as anyone who knows their K-pop knows, that knowledge is flung wide across the Internet. People respect the fact that I work to get that knowledge. This is something that anyone can do, regardless of ethnicity. This is why K-pop has such a diverse following despite the language barrier.  At the same time, I cannot escape the lens through which I see K-pop. Quiet as its kept, I’m not Korean or Asian, and as a result, some cultural nuances are lost on me.  But they are also lost on others who do not have first-hand knowledge of those cultures, including later-generation Asian Americans. What I can do is be aware of that lens, recognize the limits of my perceptions, respect the culture and always try to do better.

Because of this, I am welcomed into like-minded K-pop communities, both popular and academic.  The initial trepidation of the question disappears the minute I start talking about K-pop.  I am happy that a small but solid community of people who write and do work on K-pop provide such a diverse, entertaining and welcoming community.  We can all act the fool together! These people just accept that I’m a black girl into K-pop, an incredibly knowledgeable black girl into K-pop.  And it’s all good.

Then, there are people who ask:   “Why are you into K-pop?”  Sometimes they mean: “K-pop (and other forms of Asian popular culture) is only for Koreans (or Asians).”  Before we talk about why black people like K-pop, let’s talk about why Koreans like black music. It’s the reason why anybody likes black music: they like the music and it speaks to them. For people who say that Koreans can’t understand the struggle and pain that underlies black music, I suggest they investigate the state of Korea just after the Korean war, a war in their own country that killed a significant portion of the population, and tell them they don’t understand pain.  At the same time, black music is about much more than that, and K-pop shows that Koreans can understand that too. It would be helpful for interviewers to ask K-pop artists who they listen to rather than  who they are dating, because then more people would know what K-pop fans already know: the black music tradition resonates with Koreans. It’s not just about the now and the popular.  K-pop artists will tell you their favorite artists include Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder. They overcame a linguistic barrier because the music has a language all its own.

Other times, people mean: “Black people should stick with black stuff; stay in your lane.”  This is my lane!  My interest in Asian cultures is not new:   watching Saturday morning kung-fu theatre, running home to watch Star Blazers, taking four years of Japanese in college, being ecstatic that we finally got a Three Kingdoms movie in John Woo’s Red Cliff, and now, writing on K-pop.  K-pop has particular resonance for blacks because it’s a hybrid style of music, combining black music and Korean elements. I wonder why more black people aren’t into K-pop. Even my mama likes K-pop! I recognize black elements in K-pop, but also like Korean culture.

To suggest that black people should only engage in black culture runs counter to the history of cultural production of black people.   I follow a long line of African Americans who also pursued a passion for Asian cultures, including Du Bois, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, iona rozeal brown and the Wu-Tang Clan.  Black culture has ALWAYS been hybrid. Blackness has always been multidimensional. Black people have always been cosmopolitan. I feel that in making an argument for the legitimacy of black culture, some people have taken the extreme view that the “real” black experience is a narrow one, often associated with urban life, grounded in an unrelenting daily struggle against the forces of racism and discrimination. While these are aspects of the lived experience of my blacks, they are not the ONLY barometer of black experience. I think that we forget that there is black joy; that our music and art and film and literature is about a larger experience.  The tom-tom laughs AND cries, y’all.

So, I doubt I’ll stop getting asked this question, and I’m happy to explain as well as remind people that it is ridiculous to put artificial barriers on who can like what based on who they are.

K-pop and Hip Hop

While we can all agree that hip-hop has had an impact on K-pop, we don’t all agree on what that impact is.  Some writers tend to define hip-hop solely in terms of oppression and discrimination experienced by African Americans. This reduces the complexity of the experiences of African Americans, distorts the genre of hip-hop,  and potentially simplifies any analysis of K-pop and hip-hop.

Continue reading “K-pop and Hip Hop”