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.
While it is great to see so many people writing about K-pop and its cultural implications around the world, what’s not cool is generalizing about cultural appropriation in K-pop.
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 Style. Promi 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.
“Anti-American Gangnam Style Star Also Rapped About Murdering US Soldiers and Their Families.” 7 Dec 2012. PJ Media. 22 Dec 2012.
Divakaran, Mithun. “SNSD – ‘The Boys’ album review… and about Girls Generation succeeding in America.” 20 Oct 2011. Mithun on the Net. 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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
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!!!!
Justin Hayes, Korean Grand Prix Six of the Best: Things You Never Knew About Mokpo, Redbull
The viral status of Psy‘s Gangnam Style has reached epic proportions. While some see it as an unprecedented K-pop crossover, others point to its social critique of conspicuous wealth in the South Korean district. However, the tendency for American mainstream culture to accept stereotypical and reductive images of Asians also plays a part in Psy’s popularity.
It’s hard to deny that the song has made an impact in media. Psy’s video appeared at No. 25 on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which “ranks the most popular artists on YouTube, Vevo, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, using a formula that blends weekly additions of friends/fans/followers along with weekly artist page views and weekly song plays.” Such popularity also made Psy a fixture in American media, earning a mention on CNN as well as write-ups in major publications such as The Atlantic (more on that later).
In addition to appearing at Dodger Stadium, Psy appeared on VH1′s Big Morning Buzz Live show to teach the dance to the hosts. In addition, the popularity of the song put him in conversation with American music celebrities. Yang Hyun Suk (the YG of YG Entertainment) sees Psy’s success as an opportunity: ”Regarding the love call from the international pop sensation Justin Bieber, the founder of YG responded, ‘We cannot reveal all the details yet, but an amazing collaboration project is in progress so please look forward to it.’
While some marvel at this popular cultural moment, others seek deeper meaning for Psy’s song in its social critique. Sukjong Hong writes: ”PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea. . . . Ultimately, by declaring “Oppa is Gangnam Style,” he turns the lens on Gangnam, getting specific about power and privilege in a country where a single district has long dominated in almost every arena.” Max Fisher credits Psy as unique in K-pop: “Park Jaesang isn’t just unusual because of his age, appearance, and style; he writes his own songs and choreographs his own videos, which is unheard of in K-Pop. But it’s more than that. Maybe not coincidentally, he attended both Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, graduating from the latter. His exposure to American music’s penchant for social commentary, and the time spent abroad that may have given him a new perspective on his home country, could inform his apparently somewhat critical take on South Korean society.”
I find the Psy phenomenon in the America interesting, not because of what it says about Korea, but what it says about the United States. Psy’s video did not enter a vacuum; it entered an American popular cultural consciousness that has a history with Korean popular culture in particular, and Asian representations in general. One fan observes this history in a Tumblr entry, ”Asian Stars and The USA: A History.” After listing BoA, Wonder Girls, Jin Akanishi, and Girls’ Generation, Asian artists who have been recognized for their talents and attained success in Asian countries but failed to enter the mainstream in the United States, the entry concludes with this observation:
Psy: lol omg guys watch me dance like a horsey.
USA: YES! EXCELLENT!
Psy: Wait what?
Psy’s video owes some of its popularity in the United States to the way the mainstream likes to portray Asian and Asian Americans in popular culture. One of those ways is in comedic roles, where laughter comes at the expense of Asians and Asian Americans. Chris Biddle writes about the tendency he sees in films like The Hangover and television shows like The Office:
Now I’m no kill joy, and admittedly am a fan of both the The Hangover and The Office, but while watching these scenes I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the Western audience seems like they just don’t take Asians seriously. While hearing a French or Latino person speak English might suggest a kind of exoticism, an Asian person speaking English is downright goofy. While on the outside this racial stereotype might not seem as malicious as some of the ones that Hollywood and broadcast television are guilty of, it nonetheless signifies a serious lack of respect for our Eastern counterparts.
What is missing from much commentary on Psy’s video is the existing American cultural context that embraces stereotypes of Asians while rejecting more realistic portrayals. When people ask why Psy’s video is so popular, this is one of the major issues that goes unanswered. I think more people are laughing at Psy than laughing with him.
The narrative that has emerged around Psy’s success in the United States also distorts the story of K-pop for audiences in the United States. Fisher misspeaks when he characterizes Psy as atypical of artists in K-pop, pointing to this as a reason for his success. Psy has contemporaries who do the same thing. At 34, PSY joins other older K-pop artists and groups with successful careers, some of whom debuted around the same time, including Kangta, Park Hyo Shin, Rain, Shinhwa, and Lee Hyori. K-pop artists ranging from G-Dragon to TVXQ write their own material. Tablo of Epik High graduated from Stanford University.
K-pop has been engaging in socially-relevant issues from the beginning. While Seo Jung Min-gaph, a pop music critic, questions his ultimate impact, Seo Taiji, arguably the grandfather of K-pop, unquestionably engaged social issues in his songs: “Seo was not only a dancer and musician, but was also an artist who delivered his messages directly to Korean society with his music.” The narrative seems to be that Psy succeeds because FINALLY K-pop has produced something culturally significant that the United States can recognize. In actuality, Psy is not that different. He’s not the only one by a long shot.
When thinking about what Gangnam Style means, we have to remember that it just doesn’t ride into an America that has not encountered Korean popular culture. The way we’ve been reading it says something about us in the U.S. as well.
‘Gangnam Style’ Viral Video Sends Psy Onto Billboard’s Social 50 Chart,” Billboard
Psy Teaches His ‘Gangnam Style’ Horse Dance on VH1′s ‘Big Morning Buzz Live,’ allkpop
Yang Hyun Suk Discusses His Thoughts on Psy’s Global Success With “Gangnam Style,” allkpop
Sukjong Hong, Beyond the Horse Dance: Viral Vid ‘Gangnam Style’ Critiques Korea’s Extreme Inequality,” Open City Mag
Max Fisher, Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” The Atlantic
Cho Chung-un, K-pop Still Feels Impact of Seo Taiji & Boys,” The Korea Herald
Chris Biddle, The Asian Stereotype, Other Side of China
Psy Gangnam Style News US TV Appearance, YouTube
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective in May 20, 2012 by CeeFu
Kpop fans are known for being strident in their opinions, but there is one thing we should all be able to agree on, and those are facts. If Kpop fans can do it, surely mainstream American media outlets should be able to get the facts right about Kpop. However, several recent stories show that some mainstream American media misrepresent Kpop, which can present a distorted view of Kpop in America to those who are less-informed.
To be clear, I am not talking about statements on which reasonable people may disagree. In April 2012, Los Angeles Times ran a story on Kpop entering the pop consciousness of Americans. We can have different opinions on whether the choreography of The Boys is “gently lascivious,” or whether the girl groups are “groups of women deploying butt-kicking superhero imagery,” or whether SNSD‘s Gee ”drew the blueprint for a culture to come.”
I’m talking about fundamental errors that prevent individuals from making up their own minds about Kpop based on facts.
National Public Radio (NPR)
In December 2011, NPR ran a story on the worldwide fans of Kpop, but focused on SNSD. Here’s where Claudine Ebeid gets into trouble: ”They [SNSD] sold out Madison Square Garden.” You do not need to be a SONE to understand how that is misleading. Here is an informational video about the SM Town show in Madison Square Garden to which Ebeid refers:
As you can see, this is not the SNSD Tour; it is the SM Town World Tour, where SM Entertainment showcases several of its artists in one large show. SNSD does not have “top billing.” All of the acts are promoted equally. The actual show did not showcase SNSD. Rather, the groups took turns performing, and members of several groups even performed with each other, as you can see with this performance of Hip Hop Papillon featuring Shindong and Eunhyuk of Super Junior and Minho and Key from SHINee (SNSD is not in this number).
The early placement of this statement in Ebeid’s story makes it seem that SNSD demonstrated its popularity through the SM Town show. If you are knowledgeable about Kpop, you know that is not true: SNSD did not headline the show, and as a result, did not sell out Madison Square Garden. If you are not, this misrepresentation of the SM Town show would skew your opinion of SNSD and its impact in the U.S.
On May 18, 2012, Rolling Stone ran a story speculating on Kpop groups are most likely to “break in America.” We can have civil discussion about who is and isn’t on this list, but there is a fundamental error. Jeff Benjamin describes Kpop this way: “K-Pop is a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop (J-Pop).” This is not Kpop. August Brown did a better job describing the multiple influences found in Kpop in the Los Angeles Times story: ”K-pop artists pull from techno, hip-hop, R&B and top-40.” Kpop is a mixture of several musical genres, and Jpop isn’t even the most dominant one. How do we know? Well, you could listen to some Jpop and Kpop, or you can compare the way people define Kpop.
Wikipedia: K-pop (Korean: 가요, Gayo) (an abbreviation of Korean pop or Korean popular music) is a musical genre consisting of pop, dance, electropop, hip hop, rock, R&B, electronic music originating in South Korea. In addition to music, K-pop has grown into a popular subculture among teenagers and young adults around the world, resulting in widespread interest in the fashion and style of Korean idol groups and singers.
Before you get up in arms about the Wikipedia entry, take a look at the citations for this definition. They include academics and authors of actual books:
Jung, Sun (2011). Korean masculinities and transcultural consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop idols. Hong Kong University Press.
Hartong, Jan Laurens (2006). Musical terms worldwide: a companion for the musical explorer. Semar Publishers.
Kim, Myung Oak; Jaffe, Sam (2010). The new Korea: an inside look at South Korea’s economic rise. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn
Holden, Todd Joseph Miles; Scrase, Timothy J. (2006). Medi@sia: global media/tion in and out of context. Taylor & Francis
What’s really problematic about Benjamin’s uninformed reference to Jpop and Ebied’s error regarding the SM Town show is that both writers fail to present basic information about Kpop correctly. This can affect their credibility, which is why the first thing in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is: Seek Truth and Report It. Now, I know we are not talking about politics or the law, but oddly enough, SPJ doesn’t make a distinction. It doesn’t say “seek truth and report it” on national affairs, but “make it up” when you are talking about culture. Consistency is key. If writers take it upon themselves to write on a cultural phenomenon, then it is their responsibility to get the basic information correct.
August Brown, K-pop enters American pop consciousness, Los Angeles Times
Claudine Ebeid, K-Pop Blows Up: Korean Music Finds Fans Worldwide, NPR
SM Entertainment, SM Town Live in New York_Information, YouTube
iKimization, [SMTown New York] SHINee and Super Junior (Minho, Key, Shindong, Eunhyuk), YouTube
Jeff Benjamin, The 10 K-Pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America, Rolling Stone
SPJ Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on March 31, 2012 by CeeFu
In the last few months, the Kpop world has been subject to a rash of episodes of Asians Behaving Badly: the Block B-Thailand controversy, the Jenny Hyun incident, and an episode of blackface on MBC’s Quiz to Rule the World. In each case, netizens voiced their dismay in national and cultural terms and took it to a global level.
Kpop fans are no strangers to extreme rhetoric. Anyone who braves a Kpop forum knows exactly what I’m talking about. Any kind of disagreement has the potential to erupt into a full-on war of the words. So it’s not surprising to see the huge responses to these recent controversies related to Kpop. But these stand out in that they place the controversies, started by individuals or representations, to an international version of “who’s dissin’ who?”
A routine interview sparked widespread Internet controversy when Zico of Block B made light of the receent devestating flooding in Thailand: ”The interviewer brought up the crisis, to which Zico replied, ‘I know that many people have it hard due to the flood. With this monetary aid, we hope that you will feel better. The only thing we have is money.‘ To this, another member chimed in, asking how much money Zico had, to which the leader answered, ‘About 7000 won?‘ which is roughly $6 USD” (lawlietta).
This article sparked over 7,000 responses on allkpop. While the comments ranged from unwavering support to harsh criticism, several commenters elevated Zico’s comments to the level of a national conflict. Alexander Ming Xuan wrote: ”They are idols of Korea. And off they go, to another country, Thailand. Since they are idols of Korea, which would definitely means that they are a part of Korea’s visual representation. As which, they are tarnishing not only their reputation but also Korea’s reputation. It’s not about them anymore.” WhatItIs stated: ”They were there representing Korea and the Korean people and they made a bad impression.”
Other commenters challenged the idea that one group’s actions represented an entire country. Janny Van Der Woodsen wrote: ”Please do not say ‘PEOPLE.’ It’s not like you have interviewed every single people in Korea let alone the world.” Ayrianne Anderson wrote: ”I’m offended that they are taking it to this level considering that these are ‘boys.’ I hate to state the obvious but they are young men and they will act occasionally with the foolishness of their age. And should be sternly talked too but the drag it out as if it’s an actual national issue is crazy.”
In response to the firestorm their comments unleashed, Block B issued several apologies, including this one:
While some fans saw the apology as sincere, others were unmoved.
On February 16th, Jenny Hyun sent a series of tweets, initially in response to Floyd Mayweather‘s comments about Jeremy Lin. Yoojin wrote: ”Hyun responded that Floyd was a ‘subhuman, ungrateful APE,’ and then started spreading vitriol about the black community in general. She insinuated that Whitney Houston‘s recent passing wasn’t such a loss because of ‘all that baggage’ she came with, and referred to African-Americans as ‘disgusting, violent, arrogant, and stupid.’ Then, in an even more frightening twist, she repeatedly called for the eradication of the entire black race.” IATFB describes her rant as “bigoted verbal diarrhea.”
In the over 400 comments on soompi‘s story on the incident, netizens expressed almost universal dismay at Hyun’s actions. Once again, comments reflected a national or cultural point of view. sarahj wrote: ”This is a disgrace to the Asian community.” MaGee wrote: ”You saying that a lot of people in America feel that way, is really just you saying that YOU feel that way. I care less that you’re trying, for whatever reason, to damage America’s name. What really irks me is that anyone from the country I was raised in, where we are taught not only about freedom and equality for all men, but also to learn from our history of ignorance and predjudice, is trying to justify this hate.” tanio12 added: ”i’m black and i’m really hurt but this matter, but don’t disrespect koreans and their culture because you’re mad! hate only brings hate.”
Hyun briefly released an apology on her site, but Yoojin questioned the sincerity of her apology: ”She prefaced it with an explanation that people were saying they knew where she lived, and followed it up with a statement that she did not regret what she said.”
Blackface and MBC’s Quiz to Change the World
On January 21, MBC aired an episode of Quiz to Change the World that featured blackface. choiwj writes: ”During the episode, comedians Lee Kyung Shil and Kim Ji Sun parodied Michol by wearing similar costumes and both covered in black makeup. Unfortunately, oversea fans did not find the parody to be entertaining and furiously commented saying that it is a ‘racial discrimination.’”
In the over 2,000 comments on the allkpop story, several placed the controversy in a national context. Shiharu reasoned: ”I understand why this is considered racist, but Westerners intentionally or unintentionally poking fun at people of Asian descent also happens a lot (and this wasn’t poking fun at Africans at all; the character just reminds one of an African person).”
norimix posted a series of full-length articles culled from various sources, all of which note the amount of discrimination Asian Americans experience in the United States. This prompted Kahi to respond: ”You mentioned in your previous post ‘Do you think … that African-Americans don’t perpetrate racism?’ You got to be kidding me! Anyone can be racist. Not just Americans! I can post thousands of articles stating how poorly foreigners and mix children in Asia gets treated. You need to relax and open your eyes. Seems like you’re trying to prove Asian Americans have it worse in American!”
MBC issued an apology that read, in part: ”This is something that occurred because we did not think carefully at the time about the fact that many international viewers also have gained a high interest in the show with the spread of the Hallyu wave. In the future, we will think through the selection of the material, no matter how small it is, so that we will not cause any discomfort to our viewers” (choiwj).
These three incidents generated massive netizen reaction where fans placed these incidents within a national or cultural context. The comments ranged from criticizing to condoning the actions as representative of the country of origin of the “perpetrators.” While some people complain about the relentlessly positive representation of Kpop by Korean media, national and cultural concerns remain largely in the background in Kpop. These incidents show that they are often barely below the surface. Kpop fans live in countries and will often express their opinions in a way that reflects that.
What is interesting, though, is the sheer diversity of opinion. For every person who fiercely chastises Block B for failing to represent Korea well, there was another commenter urging restraint and calling out others on their generalizations. Commenters were quick to point out that Jenny Hyun did not represent anyone but herself, even as they argued about the role her reported mental illness played in her actions. While some netizens tried to downplay the racial implications of blackface in MBC’s show, others turned the conversation into one about how other races participate in negative racial portrayals.
The early part of 2012 saw more controversy around racial bad behavior than average. While such incidents are ugly to watch, they also show us that the fanbase for Kpop is varied, and often carries perspectives informed by nation and culture.
lawlietta, Block B Stirs Controversy with Thai Interview, Draws Response from 2PM. allkpop. February 19, 2012.
xxxKrissKrossxxx, Block B “Suicide Petition” is Unfounded? soompi. February 25, 2012.
eunhyuk100, Block B Releases a Video Apology About Thailand Incident. YouTube. February 23, 2012.
Yoojin, K-pop Songwriter’s Racist Tweets Spark Outrage. soompi. February 19, 2012.
IATFB, Jenny Hyun, Songwriter for SNSD & Choclocat, Is a Racist Psychopath. Asian Junkie. February 18, 2012.
choiwj, MBC Issues an Apology After Recent Blackface Controversy. allkpop. February 28, 2012.
Dance is a huge part of mainstream Kpop, and while many recognize the dances popularized by the groups and artists, few know the people behind them: the choreographers. Not only do choreographers impact Kpop through their routines, they also have an impact on fans as well.
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on January 25, 2012 by CeeFu
How do you feel about a Shinhwa comeback? What do you think it means for Kpop? Find out what CeeFu thinks, and post your comments here or on YouTube!
When people talk about Kpop, granted, it’s usually about the idols. But some people equate Kpop with idol groups, and then conclude that they lack talent, and as a result, do not make “real” music like non-idols do. However, both idol and non-idol artists are a part of Kpop, and they have more in common than you may think.
One’s identity as an idol group can be a point of contention. M.I.B. insists in an allkpop article: “We’re not an idol group, and we want to prove this simply with our skill and expertise. We want to show you that we know how to have a good time on stage.” Aware of the negative perception some have of idol groups, Junsu of JYJ maintains in a Han Cinema article: ”"We are guaranteed to try many different things because we are an idol group. Some are trying to escape the image of an idol group because people tend to have a prejudice that idol groups have a lack of talent in music, but we want to show a whole new image of idol groups by showing that idols can have excellent music ability.” Both groups respond to perceptions about idol groups.
But what is the difference between an idol artist and a non-idol artist? Idol groups, including BigBang, TVXQ!, 2NE1, MBLAQ, BEAST, Super Junior and SHINee, share certain charateristics that cause others to label them as idol groups. They all are graduates of a training system used by many Korean agencies, but pioneered by the former chair of SM Entertainment, Lee Soo Man. Han Cinema refers to what Lee calls “the methods that we use when selecting and nurturing aspiring singers into real gems,” culture technology: ”CT includes not only the broad system itself but also the techniques we use to make music, choreography, music videos, live performances and even the stars’ makeup.” As a result of this training, idol groups not only record albums and make music videos, but they also engage in a wide array of other activities, including:
Eunhyuk and Leeteuk MC-ing SBS Awards
TVXQ! at ElleGirl Photo Shoot
appearances on Korean televisions shows,
Shinhwa on Happy Together
appearances in their own reality shows,
Infinite on Sesame Player
stints as ambassadors,
2AM as Ambassadors for 2012 World Conservation Congress
and spokespersons for a variety of products.
Kim Hyun Joong for The Face Shop
Because these activities give them greater exposure, idols are the face that many people see when they encounter Kpop. But the very training that allows them to engage in these various pursuits is the very thing some people point to as evidence of their inferiority, their “fakeness.” In a seoulbeats roundtable, Young-Ji suggests that they have limited careers: ”All the idol group members from the 2000s are currently nobodies — either that, or they’re trying to make something out of themselves — take a look at all the members of H.O.T., Sechs Kies, S.E.S., Fin.K.L; with the exception of only a few members and perhaps Shinhwa, it’s difficult for idols to redefine themselves.” Nabeela, of the same roundtable, suggests the limited careers are related to a perceived lack of talent: “Young’ins will always try to become idols due their lust for that glamor. On the other hand, serious musicians and artists know how fickle idol glamor can be, and I think they make an honest effort to differentiate.” Both imply that Kpop idols work hard to be temporary, fake artists, unlike “serious musicians.”
However, these are sweeping generalizations that are challenged by looking closer at idols. Former idols continue to work using their talents honed by the training process. For example, three of the four former members of Fin.K.L. are actively working. Lee Hyori did a photo shoot for Ceci as recently as November of last year. Ok Joo Hyun starred in the successful Kdrama The Musical just last year, and will star with Junsu (of JYJ and formerly of TVXQ!) in the German musical Elisabeth. Sung Yu Ri frequently stars in successful Kdramas, including Hong Gil Dong (2008), Swallow the Sun (2009) and Romance Town (2011). Kangta, Tony An, Moon Hee Joon and Jang Woo Hyuk of H.O.T. still make appearances and are still active musically through collaobrations with newer artists. Kangta has assumed some administrative duties at SM Entertainment, thereby remaining active on the business side of Kpop.
Well, if idols are just talentless hacks, their non-idol counterparts are the talented underdogs of Kpop, or so the logic goes. They are seen as more serious and more talented. They are “real” artists who are not idols. Jeon Jin Woo compares idols to airplanes and non-idols to chickens:
Entertainment companies select would-be singers based on their visual appearances; hence, someone who sings really well has a low possibility of becoming an idol singer if his/her looks are not good. This is why many talented, prospective and new singers go through difficult times. These people are often unable to live as flying birds (successful singers) but are only continuing their heavy flap of wings as chickens. . . . Idols are not singers. The definition of a singer is a person or a musician who uses his/her voice to create and express music. According to the definition above, idol ‘singers’ cannot be singers. Idols put more effort on their appearances and dance skills. Furthermore, many of them do not have the ability to create their own music. What is more, singers should be able to convey a song’s melody, lyrics, and its embedded emotions to the audience.
But is there a great difference between idols and non-idols, especially when it comes to talent? There is far less distance between the two than one might think. First, idols can be found singing some decidedly non-idol songs that show their vocal range. Here is Onew of SHINee getting his disco on in his rendition of the Bee Gees‘ How Deep Is Your Love:
Onew has a penchant for taking the vocal path less traveled, as demonstrated by his performance of Puccini’s Nesseun Dorma:
Not only do idols sing things you woudn’t expect them to sing, they sing them well. They have singing talent, and this is something that they share with non-idols.
Take 4Men, R&B group known for their vocal stylings, as an example. (seoulbeats considers them to be an idol group, but I do not. We can talk about why later).
But 4Men know idol songs and dances. Witness members of 4Men do their best impression of SNSD’s Oh!
That’s not the kind of choreography you get just by passing by the television while the video is on. You have to study that. 4Men also covered Big Bang’s Love Song, a song by another idol group:
Non-idols sing idol songs, and vice versa. Here is SHINee’s Jonghyun singing Wheesung‘s Insomnia:
While Jonghyun is known for being a member of the group SHINee, Wheesung is not known for being an idol. He appears on Kpooop‘s list of Non-Idol Songs Worth Listening To. Here is his original:
These examples suggests that idols and non-idols are part of a one large, diverse music scene. Non-idols are quite aware of idols, and even know their songs and dances. Idols know their non-idol counterparts and appreciate their work. While they may go about their pop lives in different ways, they are both part of the Kpop scene. One is not better than the other, just different. Fans of Kpop can and do like them both. Idols and non-idols can live peacefully together on an iPod.
“JYJ: We Are Still Idol Group,” Han Cinema
leesa86, “M.I.B.: We Are Not an Idol Group,” allkpop
Roundtable, “What Makes an Idol?”, seoulbeats
Jeon Jin Woo, “Sky Full of Airplanes and Chickens that Cannot Fly,” KHUL
SPONJiE, Lee Hyori Transforms into Marilyn Monroe,” soompi
‘Elisabeth’ Brings Death to Life on Stage Next Month,” Han Cinema
dorkykor3an, “Moon Hee Jun and Tony Perform ‘Candy’ for MBC Lunar New Year Special (2012),” allkpop
“Kpop Non-Idol Songs Worth Listening To (Part One),” kpooop
Kpop is subject to a lot of criticism. A LOT. The most repeated charge against Kpop is that it is manufactured. But is that really true? Usually when critics level this charge, they make sweeping generalizations about the whole landscape of pop. In doing so, they perpetuate stereotypes about the lack of originality in Asian popular culture.
Read more at KPK: Kpop Kollective (originally published January 1, 2012)
Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on January 1, 2012 by CeeFu
Kpop is subject to a lot of criticism. A LOT. The most repeated charge against Kpop is that it is manufactured. But is that really true? Usually when critics level this charge, they make sweeping generalizations about the whole landscape of pop. In doing so, they perpetuate stereotypes about the lack of originality in Asian popular culture.
It seems almost obligatory for anyone writing about Kpop to describe it as manufactured. Critics frequently focus on Kpop idol artists, who, in addition to making music, participate in other forms of entertainment, including variety shows and Kdramas, fashion shoots, endorsements and commercial films. In some ways it make sense. Idol artists dominate Hallyu, and tend to be the most visible to audiences outside of Korea.
But critics tend to describe all Kpop artists as manufactured. In defining Kpop on About.com, Bill Lamb writes, “As Western influences grew in Korean pop, the concept of the manufactured pop band took root as well.” Renie of Seoulbeats, in pondering whether or not K-pop is too perfect, writes: ”Of course this all goes back to how idols are trained and manufactured.” Lucy Williamson of BBC News states: “K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.”
These writers are not wholly wrong. Let’s be real. Given the number of Kpop groups in circulation and the kind of profits that can be made from even a moderately successful group, it is naive to believe their promotion is not deliberate. However, instead of qualifying their statements, critics suggest that it applies to every idol and all members of an idol group. Critics rarely name the artists against whom they level the charge, thereby qualifying their statements. As a result, calling all Kpop artists manufactured has resulted in negative connotations. At the heart of Kpop beats an artificial heart. Because the description is repeated so often without any challenge, it has become accepted as fact.The widespread idea that all Kpop is manufactured is surely a case of wikiality, coined by Stephen Colbert as truth by consensus, where “all we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”
Just because everyone says that Kpop is manufactured does not make it true. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that all Kpop is not manufactured. What does “manufactured” mean, and what do people really mean when they say that Kpop is manufactured? The Oxford English Dictionary, the grandaddy of dictionaries of the English language, defines it this way:
1. a. Of an article, goods, etc.: produced from raw material, esp. for sale or trade; b. Chiefly depreciative. Of a literary work, a speech, etc.: produced in a mechanical or formulaic way, with little or no creativity, imagination, or originality.
2. Of a story, statement, etc.: fraudulently invented or produced; deliberately fabricated, false.
When writers routinely describe Kpop as “manufactured,” they mean primarily two things: that Kpop idols lack talent, and that the process that creates Kpop is artificial and fake.
Wikiality “Fact” #1: Kpop idols lack talent.
To say that Kpop artists are manufactured suggests that the artists themselves lack talent, and in this way are “fraudulently invented or produced.” Renie suggests this when generalizing about idol trainees: ”Trainees go in as a blank slate but come out as a product that can sing, dance, and sometimes act.” Similarly, Jangta makes a distinction between singers and entertainers using this spectre of fakeness: ”Many mainstream K-pop groups today are actually strong at only three things. . . Unfortunately, singing isn’t one of them.” (Full disclosure: I am an assistant chief editor and editorial writer for hellokpop. Hey Jangta! )
But is this true? Most people would agree that you cannot fake good singing. There is more than enough evidence to prove that many idols can, in fact, sing well. Because Korea still has a live radio culture, idols regularly sing on the radio, a place where they cannot rely on autotune or slick production tricks. I would imagine folk would regularly call in to complain about an idol’s inability to sing on the radio.
These aren’t even the hardcore idols singers, like Junsu of JYJ (formerly of TVXQ!), Yesung of Super Junior and Heo Young Saeng of SS501, individuals known for their voices. But wait, you may say, “Every group can luck up and have one person who can sing, but the others are just filler.” Are they? What do we make of groups that can harmonize, which suggests that all of them can sing?
The point here is that the sweeping generalization that all Kpop idols lack talent is contradicted by the actual landscape of Kpop.
Wikiality “Fact” #2: The training and production process of Kpop creates fake music.
To say that Kpop is manufactured also suggests that the music and the process that creates it lack “creativity, imagination or originality” and is therefore “artificial.” Such music is created through a process that is ”mechanical or formulaic” because it is “produced. . . for sale or trade.” Renie writes, “It irks me that the industry thinks idols can be formulated as if they are some sort of math problem.” In a review of a review of an article, IATFB suggests that the basis of the comparison of Kpop groups and American pop groups like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys rests on, “a corporate-vetted, manufactured sound.” These statements suggest that the people who are involved in the production of Kpop are also talentless hacks who produce sucky music and janky dance routines.
But does a deliberate process of training individuals to sing and dance equal artificiality? Let’s explore one of the first “manufactured” groups on the planet: The Monkees. In 1965, two producers wanted to capitalize on the popularity of The Beatles by creating a television series about a rock and roll group. When they couldn’t find a group to star in the series, they made one. They cast four guys: two musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork), a singer (Davy Jones) and a guitarist (Micky Dolenz). However, in need a drummer, they trained Dolenz to play drums. While they played their instruments on tour, they did not play on the albums.
Sound familiar? Here’s the thing: these guys were not just picked for their good looks or their charisma. They had talent, but more importantly, the artistic team behind them, the writers and composers of their songs, also had talent. Some of their biggest hits were written by people whose talent credentials were hard to question. For example, Neil Diamond, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, wrote I’m A Believer. The people who played the instruments on their albums were veteran musicians. Just because the process by which a group is created is deliberately designed to be commercial does not mean that the actual music and those who create it are fake.
Similarly, the creative people behind Kpop idols are talented, even as they produce music made for commercial consumption (which is no different from any other pop music artist, I might add). While we were mesmerized by the members of Super Junior in the intro to the Mr. Simple video, has anyone wondered who sings that jazzy intro? Because it’s not anyone in Super Junior:
That is Yoo Young Jin. Most people don’t know who he is, but he is the man responsible in some way for nearly every hit by artists of SM Entertainment, and, a talented singer in his own right. Have you heard Young Jin sing? Would a person who can sing himself produce lots of people who can’t sing? Would he deliberately make his own albums suck? No, because that does not make sense.
What about the choreographers? Jangta refers to the “easy-to-do” dance moves of Kpop artists. This is not easy:
I can’t do this, and I’m willing to bet most of you can’t either. Ask a dance cover team if these are easy moves. These moves do not make themselves. They are the product of trained choreographers, and one of the best known is Rino Nakasone. Nakasone, along with Sim Jaewon, are responsible for the choreography of both of these routines. Before choreographing for SME, Nakasone was a principal dancer working with Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani and a choreographer for Britney Spears.
Impact on Asian Popular Culture
So what? Stating that Kpop is manufactured takes away agency from those who produce it (most of whom are Asian) and contributes to the larger misconception that Asian culture is mere an imitation of other (read Western) cultures.
Most people would have you believe that idols have no agency. Renie seems to believe they are automatons who just do what they are told. But let me get a little philosophical on you. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher, talks about hegemony, where dominance occurs as the result of consent, meaning that those who have less power are not just forced or coerced into their positions. Just because you may not have a lot of power does not mean you don’t have any power. Your consent is needed by those who have more power than you.
In relation to Kpop idols, they give their consent by participating in the Kpop business, but they also get something out of it. They are not mindless automatons. For every story you hear about an idol suing their company, there are untold stories of idols traveling around the world, learning new languages, learning to write and produce music, receiving royalties from the songs they write and generally having experiences they would not otherwise have. It is too simplistic to say that Kpop idols just do what they are told.
To repeatedly say that Kpop idols do not have agency participates in a long-standing discourse that says Asians do not have agency. Any Chinese, Japanese or Korean history course can tell you about the repeated incursions by Western powers as well as other Asian powers, but I’ve found no better illustration of this than Bruce Lee‘s iconic scene in Fist of Fury, where he insists that China is not “the sick man of Asia.”
To repeatedly say that Kpop is mere imitation perpetuates the idea that any form of Asian popular culture, particularly those that are very successful, is merely imitative. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write that success among Asian cultures has been explained in negative terms before. Asians are described as “chameleons who, with no culture of their own, take on the cultural coloration of the society around them. . . . The negative aspect of this stereotype is not the purported adaptability, which could be considered a positive trait. Rather, it is the specific form of that adaptation, which is described as purely imitative with no creative component. . . . Asians. . . have similarly been described as imitative and without a culture of their own” (581-581). When Nakasone is a principal dancer with Janet Jackson or Gwen Stefani, or choreographing for Britney Spears, it’s all cool, but when she choreographs Lucifer for SHINee or Keep Your Head Down for TVXQ!, her moves suddenly become robotic. Why? Because the dancers are Asian?
Kpop needs as much critical attention as it can get. But, it’s problematic when it comes in the form of generalized statements that perpetuate erroneous notions about Kpop in particular, and Asian popular culture in general. More nuanced critiques supported by concrete examples would go a long way to making the discussion more fruitful and enlarging the conversation on the impact of the success of Kpop on its quality.
Yeah, I know all the cool kids are into SNSD and Super Junior and BigBang and SHINee. I like them too. You get to see them doing stuff nearly every day. But it takes commitment to be a Changjo, a fan of Shinhwa, an Orange Princess.
Cassies always keep the faith and all, but try being an Orange Princess. It is no secret that I LOVE Shinhwa. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways: Andy, Eric, Dongwan, Minwoo, Hyesung, Jun Jin:
While I love the individual members of Shinhwa, you know there is always your bias. You hear that, Andy? It’s you and me, baby, YOU and ME! It’s true, I have a thing for the maknaes….
Read more at KPK: Kpop Kollective (Originially published on June 22, 2011)
Hey shorty…It’s me (Kpop)
I gotta tell you something
It’s about us
I’ve been seeing other people
Millions of other people, around the world
I really think this is gonna work out baby
I’m not sorry
–KPK’s Reimagining of Eric’s intro to Shinhwa’s Crazy
“You cannot understand Kpop unless you are Korean.”
Recently, I heard this statement, in more than one place, uttered by more than one person. Not only is this perception narrow-minded and old-fashioned, it does not reflect the international reality of Kpop….
Read more here at KPK: Kpop Kollective (originally published on July 30, 2011)
Yes, I argue the pro side of the question, “Can Kpop Break the U.S.?” Read the entire editorial here.