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)”

seotaijiasiatoday

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”

BROWNEYEDSOUL_gokpop

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

Sources

“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

Sources

“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.

Image

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

Video

“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.

Sources

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)

Sources

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 kpopularity.com 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.

Sources

“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.

What I’m Listening To: “Paris (정재일’s Black Swan Remix) ft. Jisun of Loveholic,” Epik High

EPIKHIGH_mtviggy

Ever so often, I like to share what’s on heavy rotation on my iPod. It isn’t always the newest thing, or the most popular thing, but for some reason this is the stuff that I’m grooving to.  I make no distinction between idol and non-idol Kpop, popular and obscure, mainstream and indie. It’s just what I like, and some info about it. Maybe you might like it too.

What I’m Listening To

“Paris (정재일’s Black Swan Remix) ft. Jisun of Loveholic” by Epik High


Who Does It

Epik High is one of the most respected and eclectic K-pop groups. This song is from the 2006 Black Swan Song repackage. Fans familiar with K-pop learn to anticipate the repackage because you get a little something extra, and this repackage does not disappoint. Tablo, DJ Tukutz and Mithra Jin, the members of Epik High, join forces with Jisun, a member of the rock band Loveholic, for this track.

Why I Like It

The “Paris” remix dramatically starts with the chorus of the song instead of Jisun’s melodic intro from the original. It then erupts into the vocals backed by a driving drum beat and a solid bass line, to which they add piano to Jisun’s vocals.  I like the remix so much I hardly listen to the original anymore.

Image: 1

Video: YouTube

What I’m Listening To: “Maria,” Heo Young Saeng

HEOYOUNGSAENG_jpopasia

Ever so often, I like to share what’s on heavy rotation on my iPod. It isn’t always the newest thing, or the most popular thing, but for some reason this is the stuff that I’m grooving to.  I make no distinction between idol and non-idol Kpop, popular and obscure, mainstream and indie. It’s just what I like, and some info about it. Maybe you might like it too.

What I’m Listening To

Heo Young Saeng, of SS501 (because, as every Triple S knows, they are NOT disbanded), recently made his comeback with “The Art of Seduction,” from  Life, his new mini-album. That’s great, but his comeback reminds me of my favorite song, “Maria,” from his last mini-album, Solo.

Who Does It

Young Saeng is a major vocalist in SS501, best known for ballads that show off his range, both in SS501 songs as well as his solo work. He’s best known for slow songs, like “Rainy Heart,” although he did switch it up by releasing “Let It Go,” a dance track, as the first single from his first mini-album of the name. Anyone who is familiar with his work knows that dude loves love.

Why I Like It

So, most people know that Young Saeng is my bias in SS501 (go Bad Boy Otter Prince!), and I’m not even going to try to hide how much I liked this song from the get-go. I like “Maria” because it allows Young Saeng to break from expectation and belt out a rock ballad. As the video shows, he has a live band behind him at this performance, and his voice is a great complement to the guitars. Idol groups are so often pigeon-holed and it’s really great to see Young Saeng show his vocal range. It also tickles me that this song is the longest (over 5 minutes!) on the album.

Image: Heo Young Saeng

What I’m Listening To: “Kkum (Dream),” Big Mama

BIGMAMA_bigmamakr

Ever so often, I like to share what’s on heavy rotation on my iPod. It isn’t always the newest thing, or the most popular thing, but for some reason this is the stuff that I’m grooving to.  I make no distinction between idol and non-idol Kpop, popular and obscure, mainstream and indie. It’s just what I like, and some info about it. Maybe you might like it too.

What I’m Listening To

Recently, Big Mama released their final single, “Cleaning Drawers,” but I’ve been listening to their debut album, Like the Bible, and “Kkum (Dream)” in particular.

Who Does It

Big Mama consisted of Shin Yeon Ah, Lee Young Hyun, Lee Ji Young and Park Min Hye.  So named because they were curvier than other singers, Big Mama gained and maintained a reputation for being stellar and consistent R&B vocalists from 2003 to 2012.  Most people remember their hit, “Breakaway,” with the slick video that places critiques about appearance in the forefront.

The female group consistently delivered powerful performances on the album with “Breakaway” and their cover of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” but my favorite is “Kkum (Dream).”  All of the members of Big Mama are great singers in their own right, but they give you goosebumps when they join their voices together.  This song gets even better when they perform it live here:

Why I Like It

I think I like “Kkum” because it is a song that really showcases their strong vocals. This live performances is especially great when they break it down at the end.  It reminds me of old school R&B.  It’s no wonder.  Jangta reminds us:  “Instead of finding inspiration from American pop stars – such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – they’d rather pattern their music to Soul/R&B legends Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and Whitney Houston.”

BONUS: Did you know that Solid does an acapella version of the same song on their album Solid? Go listen!

Image: BigMamaKr

Sources:

Big Mama, “Dream.” Uploaded by cho3515. YouTube. 2 Jun 2007. Web. 1 Mar 2013.

Jangta. “Seoul Singers.” Green Tea Graffiti. 9 Feb 2010. Web. 1 Mar 2013.

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.

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Why Psy May Not Be Good for K-pop

psy

As we begin to close out the year, Psy‘s Gangnam Style appears on many top-ten lists and retrospectives. However, what has Psy’s popularity, or more specifically, media coverage of his viral hit, done for K-pop? While a global hit, Gangnam Style may not be good for K-pop.

This post does not ignore the measurable ways that Gangnam Style‘s popularity can be measured. It continues to garner views on YouTube.  Psy horsey-danced his way all the way to the White House in the United States. SPIN lists Gangnam Style as one of the top songs of the year: “”K-pop gets its first ‘U Can’t Touch This’-caliber wedding song; a billion unimaginative bros get an easy Halloween costume; YouTube gets its blessedly Bieber-free new pinnacle, our nation’s various comedians (be they sketching, improvising, monologuing) get a cheap laugh; horses get, y’know, publicity.”  Psy’s success provided the opportunity for  mainstream American music critics to engage K-pop, and in doing so, they describe a form a K-pop that may not be recognizable to the average K-pop fan.  At Billboard,  Jeff Benjamin and Jessica Oak listed the best K-pop Songs of 2012.  The story included Psy and tried to provide some context for Psy within K-pop.  At least they acknowledged that there is more to K-pop than Psy.

However, such assessments continue to misrepresent Psy because it does not take into account the perspective of the established global K-pop fandom. He’s not new to everybody. David Bevan points to how Psy differs from other K-pop groups: “But the premium placed on pretty faces during the ‘idol’ recruiting process and chiseled bodies in the highly streamlined, military-like training systems of most major entertainment companies hasn’t yet translated to mainstream success in the United States as many hoped and forecasted.”  He drives home his point by referring to the promotions of Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD), a group from rival SM Entertainment:  “Despite sold-out performances on both coasts, a Snoop Dogg cosign, and appearances on both Letterman and LIVE! with Kelly Ripa S.M. Entertainment’s marquee, high-gloss, nine-member girl group, Girls’ Generation, didn’t make any major commercial or cultural inroads.”

Not only is the distinction a misleading one (YG Entertainment, which represents Psy, also uses the training system to produce idols), defining success solely in terms of Psy’s impact on mainstream America overlooks what Psy means for community from which he rose: K-pop fandom. Many K-pop fans see Psy as a representative of YGE.  The omission of other YG artists in Psy’s narrative always struck me as odd. In the K-pop world, many fans gravitate toward artists as well as the agencies that represent them. Seoulbeats notes:  “Recently, major companies in Kpop have been following the footsteps of SM by launching their own family brand, nicknamed JYP Nation and United Cube.  This is the chance for these big names to trot out their entire stable of artists for show, showing a united front for fans and the media.”

However, the coverage of Psy in the United States focused squarely on Psy, even as his younger siblings BigBang and 2NE1 were touring in the United States.   In this way, artists also act as ambassadors for their labels.However, most people who were grooving to Gangnam Style did not know that Psy was “related” to Big Bang. Even Bevan acknowledges, “Both veteran boyband Bigbang (featuring G-Dragon, whose fabulous single “Crayon” never caught on here) and the will.i.am-assisted 2NE1 drew equally impressive crowds at arena shows in Southern California and the Tri-State area, but have yet to enter the mainstream vernacular in the same way as their doughier labelmate.”

In fact, many K-pop fans wearied quickly with Gangnam StylePromi Ferdousi writes: “For those who have followed the rise of K-pop, from when it began in the early Nineties to its peak commercial success now, ‘Gangnam Style’ seems boring by comparison. . . .We all know succeeding in America for Koreans is a mark of achievement, but because Psy is not a characteristically K-pop star, fans humour his accomplishment while preferring other, more authentic K-pop artists. ‘Gangnam Style’ was supposed to be joke and that is how majority of real K-pop fans (including me) view it.”

Others worry that Psy misrepresents the K-pop they know and love. In an allkpop forum, one person stated:  “I don’t bash him, but i am afraid all people will think that kpop is about talking about hot girls in (insert city here), and then doing ridiculous dances. People don’t like Gangnam style because they think it is a good song, they like it because it is funny/entertaining. I can also see people saying that kpop should start being like Gangnam style, and then kpop will get so much unnecessary hate.” In a different forum, another person said: “Personally, I’m indifferent toward him and his success. I’ve been a fan of K-pop nearly 5 years now and truthfully, I’ve never really recognized Psy or his music and even now, he doesn’t seem to make an impression on me.”

Another thing that may make K-pop fans cringe about Psy’s fame is the threat of English encroaching on contemporary K-pop.  K-pop fans like Korean in their K-pop songs, but Psy’s success brings up American mainstream pop’s resistance to foreign language.  Sam Lansky writes:  “Americans who have grown tired of singing along to PSY‘s “Gangnam Style” in gibberish imitation Korean are in luck: The K-pop crossover sensation says he plans to release his next single in English as early as November.”  If mainstreaming K-pop means groups singing in English all the time, K-pop fans may not be happy. When SNSD released The Boys in English, more than a few K-pop fans expressed disappointment, and some, like  Mithun Divakaran , end up listening to the Korean version:  “As for how it sounds in English — I’m indifferent. . . .  I didn’t understand some of the words at first listen but you can still get the gist of what they are saying. But even as I write this, I’m still listening to the Korean version more.”

If other niche music markets are any indication, K-pop fans have reason to worry.  Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, describes how niche fans react when their music goes mainstream:

After the initial thrill of attention, their original fan base tends to become disenchanted, and instead of engaging with the new music, they’re apt to spend their time celebrating and preserving older music — the stuff made before the corrupting influences of the music industry arrived. That disenchanted group — whom I call “traditionalists” in the book — invest a lot of significance in being and remaining a small group. They’re historians, and what prestige they have flows from the fact that they were “there,” back “then.” They position themselves as the true fans, the core fans, and the authentic fans. And to speak to one of your other questions, they join the chorus of voices criticizing the artistic qualities of popular music.

In the end, the brightness of Psy’s star in 2012 depends on where you are standing.

Image

“Anti-American Gangnam Style Star Also Rapped About Murdering US Soldiers and Their Families.” 7 Dec 2012. PJ Media. 22 Dec 2012.

Sources

Divakaran, Mithun. “SNSD – ‘The Boys’ album review… and about Girls Generation succeeding in America.” 20 Oct 2011. Mithun on the Net. 22 Dec 2012.

Bevan, David. “K-pop Fizz Fizz: Live After Psy.” 12 Dec 2012. SPIN. 22 Dec 2012.

Lansky, Sam.  “Psy Plans English-Language Single, Stresses About Topping ‘Gangnam Style.’” 8 Oct 2012. Idolator. 22 Dec 2012.

“SPIN’s 40 Best Songs of 2012 – #8 Psy – ‘Gangnam Style.’ 9 Dec 2012. SPIN. 22 Dec 2012.

Venkatesh, Sudhir. “Adventures in Ideas: How Music Gets Popular, Q&A with Jennifer Lena.” 17 Dec 2012. Freakonomics. 23 Dec 2012.

“Who Really Benefits from K-pop Family Concerts?” 1 Sept 2011. Seoulbeats. 22 Dec 2012.

“Why Does It Seem That Psy Is Getting Dissed More Than He Is Praised?” 12 Jul 2012. allkpop forums. 22 Dec 2012.

“Why Does Kpop Fans Are Bashing PSY?” 15 Dec 2011. allkpop forums. 22 Dec 2012.

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Psy and Hammer

Psy and MC Hammer, American Music Awards

So, what does Psy‘s appearance with MC Hammer and the 2012 American Music Awards mean?

On one hand, it signifies a different kind of engagement than we have seen between Psy and African Americans in the United States.  While cameras have captured Psy with any and everyone, including Madonna, Justin Beiber and Jon Bon Jovi, sites like Black Kpop Fans have chronicled his appearances with African Americans, such as Kanye West, Kevin Hart and will.i.am, providing somewhat of a gauge for  his engagement with black America.

This is to be expected, given the impact that African American R&B/soul and hip hop have on Hallyu (Korean wave).  Psy echoed this point in a recent interview about how the MC Hammer/Psy collaboration took place:  “Psy admits that he’s been a lifelong fan of Hammer so it wasn’t hard for him to go Hammer-time at the AMAs. He tells CNN, ‘Honestly, I practiced his move[s] 20 years ago, so I’ve done that for 20 years.’  So, his appearance with MC Hammer at the AMAs functioned as a moment where nostalgia meets the present, both for the audience and for Psy himself.

The joint appearance also strikes me as a profoundly mainstream American cultural moment.  Psy has been popping up all over the place, as has the dance for Gangnam Style. Some may take issue with MC Hammer’s assertions about the ultimate impact of Psy:   “He’s shifted the planet. He’s got the whole world dancing. And it’s a rarity in this world. Only four people made that happen in history — James Brown, Michael Jackson, yours truly and Psy.”  However, he has achieved a certain level of global recognition. Whether this paves the way for other K-pop acts remains to be seen.  My point, though, is that Psy is resonating with a mainstream sensibility.  This collaboration was something that many could identify with. Who doesn’t remember Hammer pants?

At the same time, however, some may be wondering where are Psy’s appearances in venues where he would engage less high-profile black celebrities and have more conversations about the impact of black culture on K-pop.  Maybe that’s asking too much, which is why I may have to be content with seeing Psy’s journey in America as the mainstream cultural moment that it is, as opposed to the cross-cultural moment it could be.

By now, your long-suffering K-pop fan in the United States may be fervently wishing for this moment to pass, but is grateful for the exposure of K-pop to a larger audience.  But with that exposure comes a different kind of response, one less positive and more revealing of the multiple cultural forces at play in Psy’s popularity.    While the audience reveled in this Afro-Asian moment at the AMAs, others were sending racist tweets, insisting that the American Music Awards had no place for a Korean pop star. None. Not at all. I can’t even quote them because they are so heinous, but you can see them at Public Shaming (scroll down).   What is interesting about the tweets is that they focus on Psy’s “foreigness,” even as he is performing with one of the most recognizable icons of American pop music.

As I suggested with my previous piece on Psy, his engagement with American culture is with ALL of American culture:  that part that has its arms wide open because it has a cosmopolitan sensibility, and that part that don’t want any part of anything it deems “foreign.”    As Psy continues his journey, I would like to see him step outside of the mainstream and talk to some other kinds of folk.  Seeing him with MC Hammer may give others the idea that Psy represents much more than the latest trend.

Image: Medley Mag

Sources

AMusicAwards. “Psy (With Special Guest MC Hammer) – Gangnam Style (Live 2012 American Music Awards), YouTube

Terri Schwartz, “Psy and M.C. Hammer: The Story Behind the Epic American Music Awards Mash-up,” Zap2it

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Donghae is Not My Oppa, And I Like Super Junior

Leeteuk,Super Junior

For Leeteuk, on the eve of his enlistment…..

I like Super Junior. A lot of people find it difficult to say that, for a variety of reasons. Some think that Super Junior doesn’t have any talent and represents everything that is “wrong” with K-pop.  Others are lukewarm about them, saying, “Oh, I kinda like them. They are ok.”

Others like to talk smack about E.L.Fs, fans of Super Junior.   They say Super Junior fans overreact when people talk about their “oppas.”

For example, E.L.Fs descended en masse in the comment section of Justin Hayes‘ “story” on Mokpo.  After calling Donghae a “chap,” he describes Super Junior this way:

The “band” was formed in 2005 by Korean impresario Lee Soo-man. Obviously not a man to do things by half he decided that if the traditional boyband comprises four or five pretty but ultimately talentless stooges then to guarantee massive success the best thing to do would be to double or even triple the number of talentless stooges on stage at one time.

Some commenters saw comments criticizing Hayes as a knee-jerk reaction by E.L.Fs.  Oh My wrote:  “I see you managed to upset the rabid K-Pop fans and are being inundated by their rebuffs about how amazing their Super Junior oppas are….my condolences.”   But if you look closely, E.L.Fs also corrected Hayes’ factual error.  Hayes writes that Super Junior has, at its peak 13 members, but that is not true (as any halfway decent research would have revealed).  So E.L.Fs point that out. Lots of E.L.Fs, from around the world, point that out. Go E.L.Fs!

Contrary to Oh My’s comment, I’m not a rabid K-pop fan because I disagree with Hayes.  Members of Super Junior are not my oppas.  And I like them anyway.  You know what happens when you make assumptions…….

I didn’t always like Super Junior, and before I listened to them, I didn’t understand what all the buzz was about. But I listened to their music, a lot of their music, and watched their videos.   I got over the fact there are lots of them and learned their names.  That’s right, I like Super Junior.  So what?  Just because I like Super Junior doesn’t mean you have to like Super Junior. But even I’m not going to let you talk smack about me because I like Super Junior.

Even though E.L.Fs sometimes get overexcited (I mean, Hayes is writing for Redbull.com; it’s not exactly a respected publication), I admire their passion for their group. And the truth is, fans of other K-pop groups have the same kind of passion.  And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you say about E.L.Fs and Super Junior: people who like Super Junior will still like Super Junior.

So, rock on, E.L.Fs!!!!

Image  allkpoplovers

Justin Hayes, Korean Grand Prix Six of the Best: Things You Never Knew About Mokpo, Redbull

In Defense of the Diverse K-pop Fan

Shane Yoon, With TVXQ fans

As K-pop becomes more popular around the world, its fans also receive more attention, both positive and negative. However, some of the negative characterizations repeated by writers who act as authorities and in professional capacities have racial and gendered ramifications.

In “Hallyu Tsunami: The Unstoppable (and Terrifying) Rise of K-pop Fandom,” Sam Lansky describes K-pop fans as “mostly the ken of geeky music journalists, Asian Americans, and gays weary of Lady Gaga’s art-pop pretensions but thirsty for a similar spectacle.”  After a “trolling high” that resulted in fans responding to his tweets about TVXQ, Lanksy proceeds to rile up fans about Jae Joong, former member of TVXQ and current member of JYJ. This prompts what Lansky describes as “a deluge of death threats from crazed fans who, whether they perceived me as an actual threat to the imagined romance between Yunho and Jae Joong or merely an annoyance who should to be silenced, gave me pause in an online game that had become addictively pleasurable.”   Lansky goes on to link K-pop fandom to  deadly behavior:  “The Mark David Chapmans of the American pop universe tend to be anomalous. With K-pop, stan behavior carries over into the real world with frequent, alarming consequences.”

Such generalizations come from those familiar with K-pop as well.   Simon (of Eat Your Kimchi fame) gave this comment as part of  this discussion on Al Jazeera‘s The Stream: K-pop Diplomacy in response to the ability of K-pop idols to relate to fans (@20:02): [Disclaimer: I was initially approached to do the show, and my video comment was chosen for inclusion during the show--Yay!]

One of the things I’m really interested in when it comes to the marketing of K-pop idols. . . I find the way that K-pop idols are described by fans..it’s a little bit disturbing to me. It’s really in terms of religious terms. These are K-pop idols. They’re described as gods and goddesses and kings and queens. I lot of people look up to these idols and they shake and they quiver and that element of K-pop idols trying to relate to fans it’s difficult for fans sometimes to understand because it’s like, “Oh my God, this is my hero, this is my god speaking to me.” So I find it very interesting.

Such characterizations gendered and racial implications.  K-pop is made up of a variety of individuals, including Black Kpop fansadult K-pop fans and Arabian K-pop fans. K-pop fans come from all over the world, as numerous Facebook pages and comments, websites and YouTube video subbed in various languages reveal.  Unlike other large scale fandoms like science fiction, whose fan communities that tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, K-pop fandom is made up of mostly women.  When men, sometimes white, characterize this fandom made up of females and people of color as hysterical, homicidal, dangerous, and cult-like, it plays into historic unfounded negative characterizations of ladies and people of color. It is using a broad brush to describe a few, and that broad brush erroneously paints people of color and women as disruptive to the social fabric.

There are plenty of people who consistently criticize K–pop fan behavior, but outlets like Anti Kpop Fangirl and Asian Junkie both note they are expressing their personal opinions.  Lansky and Simon express such opinions in a professional capacity and as a result, their negative and erroneous characterizations carry more weight.  Lansky has written for such auspicious outlets as The Atlantic, New York Magazine and Billboard.  As a result of  Eat Your Kimchi, Simon is regarded as an authority on K-pop. Groove Korea describes Eat Your Kimchi as “the top source of information on K-pop in English.”

Their tendency to generalize about the diverse fandom that is K-pop also does some damage to the credibility of both Lansky and Simon.   Lansky glosses over the fact that he instigates the “terrifying” behavior that he then points to it as “normal.”  This is akin to having a Packers fan walk into the Bears locker room and start talking smack about the team’s quarterback (thanks Heidi!). While violence is never the right response, it is natural that Bears fans would respond because they had been provoked.  Lansky sought to get the very reaction he received, then proceeded to write about it to show how “crazy” K-pop fans are.  Stan behavior is sensational, and gets people to read your story.

Even more egregious is the way Lansky equates K-pop stan behavior to Mark David Chapman, the man responsible for the murder of John Lennon.  No K-pop fan has ever killed anyone, and to suggest such is at best poor writing, and at worst, deception.  That’s a sketchy and manipulative thing to do as a writer. It adds insult to injury to be a professional male writer and characterize a largely female and young adult fandom in this way. It smacks of paternalism.

Simon fails to qualify his comments. He does not describe some fans as engaged in literal idol worship, but ascribes that behavior to all fans.  It just doesn’t apply to all fans.  For every story you hear about a stan or a fan war on a forum, there are loads more of unreported stories about fans cooperating at a fan meet or patiently waiting for somebody to be released from MMA.  This failure to be careful with language, as a figure of authority on a subject, can have a negative effect on Simon’s credibility. Once again, to be a white man who describes a largely female fandom in this way has implications for Simon’s credibility.

The problem is not talking about the extreme behavior of fans. It happens. The problem is when males,  some white, acting in professional capacities talk about it as the only fan behavior among a largely female and very diverse fan community.

Image: Shane Yoon

SourcesL

Al Jazeera English.  “The Stream: K-pop Diplomacy.” 3 Sept 2012. Al Jazeera English. 20 Oct 2012. <http://youtu.be/rYt813fDWTw>

Lansky, Sam.  “Hallyu Tsunami: The Unstoppable (and Terryfing) Rise of K-pop Fandom.” 10 Sept 2012. Grantland. 18 Sept 2012. <http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/57109/k-pop>