If you keep with research on K-pop, you may be aware of the iFans: Mapping Kpop’s International Fandom project. The surveys that make up the qualitative studies seek to understand how the fandoms differ from one another and their relationship to the groups they support. K-pop fans know that the fandoms are unique. Because they have detailed knowledge of the groups they support, they provide a unique perspective on the appeal of their respective groups. Too often, commentators make assumptions about K-pop fans, while the iFans studies goes to the source: the fans.
As a person who regularly writes about Hallyu, I’m always excited when others write about it as well. We need as many voices as we can get. So it is in the spirit of dialogue that I respond to Kim Ji-myung‘s piece on HanCinema, “Serious Turn for ‘Hallyu 3.0.” I’d like to see those who write about Hallyu move beyond superficial critiques to more complex analyses.
I think the discourse around Hallyu would be made more meaningful if we treated it as a serious movement and engaged how it is practiced its participants. Kim’s piece replicates some of the more common critiques about Hallyu in general, and Kpop in particular, critiques that I’ve written about here.
Kim assumes that Kpop only has relevance for the young. She attributes the spread of Kpop to “a few young Korean pop groups.” She finds it “surprising and also fun to see so many European and American youngsters dance and sing in unison with Korean tunes (in Korean!) on the streets and in parks.”
However, Seo Taiji and the Boys, often cited as the musical forerunner of Hallyu, debuted in 1992, 20 years ago. The members of Shinhwa (pictured above), the oldest active male Kpop group are all in their 30s, and have just completed a successful comeback with their 14th album. Yes, THAT is Kpop “old school.”
Kpop in its second decade. Its progenitors did not die out with the dinosaurs. Before Jae Chong was a producer for Aziatix, the group who won the 2011 MNET Asian Music Award (MAMA) for Best New Group, he was a member of Solid, one of the first Korean R&B groups that emerged in the early 90s. Just as there are younger groups, there are also older groups and older people in Kpop who play just as large a role. Kim and others need to see Hallyu as more than just a youth movement.
Kim also assumes that international audiences of Hallyu do not care about the Korean culture. She writes: “Young fans of K-pop may be enjoying themselves without even knowing or caring much about the country of origin of the music.” Here where it would be useful to actually talk to someone outside of Korea who listens to Kpop. I’ve also written about this here. Or, perhaps, look at the fan activity on the Internet. Kpop fans like learning the snippets of Korean they get in Kpop songs. Why else would lyric sites list the romanization of Korean lyrics? How else can you sing along in the car?
And when you extend your consideration to Kdrama and Korean film, it’s hard to appreciate these cultural forms without caring about the country of origin. In order to understand a sageuk (historical Kdrama) like Queen Seondeok or Jumong, you need to know about the geopolitics of the time. A film like Shiri requires an understanding of the tensions between North Korea and South Korea. 2009: Lost Memories revolves around the colonial history between Korean and Japan.
Kim abhors the term Hallyu because “it connotes unilateral cultural dissemination” and ” does not carry the depth, subtlety and complexity involved in communicating and understanding cultures among people.” However, her piece replicates that lack of complexity by not recognizing the inherent hybridity of Hallyu. She is right when she says it is not unilateral, but she fails to elaborate. Hallyu itself is a hybrid of Korean and other global cultures, even before it gets redeployed out on the global stage. Shouldn’t we recognize these elements when we talk about it?
Articles like Kim’s continue to reduce Hallyu to a passing phase and a blip on the cultural radar:
A survey shows six out of 10 foreigners believe the popularity of Korean culture will cool down in the next few years. Sixty percent of 3,600 people in nine countries, including China, Japan, Thailand, the United States and France, were doubtful that hallyu will see lasting international success. Some 20 percent said they are becoming ‘tired of standardized content.’
Who are these “foreigners?” Do all “foreigners” see Hallyu in the same way? Fans of Kpop in Malaysia may have different attitudes toward Kpop than fans in the Philippines. And more importantly, are these survey participants people who actually engage in this cultural movement or random people off the street?
Here is my last point: it is virtually impossible to talk about Hallyu 3.0 without understanding how we got from Hally 1.0. Her piece suggests that we either ignore Hallyu’s spread up until now, or embrace the more mature, “serious” version of the movement: “If ‘hallyu 1.0’ was unintentionally initiated by TV producers and a few singers, version 2.0 in the era of social media has been skillfully presented by a more sophisticated entertainment industry of Korea. Now we talk about hallyu 3.0, which may last in a wide spectrum of areas.”
You cannot talk about the history of a thing without talking about the thing itself. This means that even if Hallyu 1.0 was only initiated by TV producers and singers, you have to engage the televisions shows they produced and the songs they sang (I actually think more was involved here). You know the old adage: those who ignore history…
So let’s all continue the dialogue about Hallyu, but let’s also move that dialogue along so that we aren’t talking about the same old thing all the time. Reboot!
Kim Ki-myung. “Serious Turn for ‘Hallyu 3.0.” HanCinema.