Originally published on July 30, 2011 on KPK: Kpop Kollective by CeeFu
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.
Let me start by saying one thing: this is not personal. This is not about Koreans. This is about this STATEMENT and IDEA about Korean popular culture. The love is overflowing here at KPK for Koreans, all things Korean and fans of all things Korean. So it’s only out of love that I say this: when people say that you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, my darlings, you are wrong. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I am not Korean (I know, shocking!).
I have heard that you have to be Korean in order to understand Kpop from people who should know better: Korean academics. So part of this post has some big words and stuff, but don’t worry: I’m going to break it down!
When Korean academics says you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, it does not mean that you need to know the Korean language to understand Korean lyrics in Korean popular music. It means that there is something basically Korean about Kpop that you cannot understand because you are not Korean. They are saying that it (Kpop) is a Korean thing, and you wouldn’t understand. This is troubling coming from academics because it is essentialist. What is essentialism? According to the Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies, essentialism:
Refers to the argument that there are fixed truths to be found about identity categories so that there exists an essence of, for example, women, Australians, the working class and Asians. Here words refer to fixed essences and thus identities are regarded as being stable entities. (61)
What this basically means is that when people say that all Asians are this way, or all women are that way, they are thinking that there is something basic about women or Asians that every woman or Asian has that makes them a woman or Asian. You can only be Asian or a woman if you have these traits, and only these traits. But what if the traits are something that all members of the group do not have? Are they still part of the group? If you don’t have dark hair, does not exclude you from being Asian? (we know Asians have many different hair colors). If you don’t have children, does this exclude you from being a woman? (we know lots of women who don’t have children). You see how this could become problematic, because essentialism basically lumps everyone together in ways that do not match the reality we see.
Ok, so why is essentialism bad? Christopher Warley answers this question this way:
Essentialism is bad because it is socially oppressive. It blindly stresses one side of a binary opposition (high not low; inside not outside; left not right); it naturalizes and universalizes the interests of a particular group (capitalists, men, The West, whatever) in order to dominate another group (workers, women, The East, whatever).
Ok, so let’s apply this to Kpop. When people say that you have to be Korean to understand Kpop, they are an example of “inside not outside.” Koreans, because of their “Koreanness”, understand Kpop. If you are not Korean, you do not have this “Koreanness”, so sucks to be you. But remember that people are different, cultures are diverse, so how can there be this universal “Koreanness”? So what about Koreans who don’t know Kpop, or don’t like Kpop, or (gasp) don’t understand Kpop? That undermines the whole “all Koreans have this “Koreanness”/you have to be Korean to understand Kpop” argument. Do you have to be Chinese to understand kung fu? Black to understand hip hop? Irish to understand Riverdance? You see how silly this gets, right?
So we know that there are millions of fans of Kpop around the world, who don’t speak Korean, who are not Korean, who understand Kpop. Because I think EVERYONE understands THIS:
You do not have to be Korean or know Korean to understand what Junsu is putting down in this video. Everyone understands the body roll.
Even more ironic is that so much of what makes up Hallyu Kpop comes from other cultures, especially American culture, ESPECIALLY African American culture. For example, let’s look at TVXQ’s Keep Your Head Down (yeah, that’s right, ANOTHER TVXQ video, just sit down and watch):
And this, a marching band sequence from the 2002 movie Drumline (sorry about the sound, but this was the best video I could find):
See anything similar? Hear anything similar? I’m not one of those people who are saying that Kpop is imitating African American culture. What I am saying is that a good deal of Hallyu Kpop is a mixture of Korean and African American popular culture. I NOT mad at that. So it would follow that in order to understand Kpop, you really need to understand Korean and African American culture. From what I’ve read from some of my Korean academic counterparts, this is not always the case. I’m not saying that they couldn’t form arguments based on some knowledge of African American culture. I’m saying that they tend not to.
Need more evidence? Who is Yunho’s favorite singer? Michael Jackson. Who does Onew count as one of his favorite singers? Stevie Wonder. Who does Eunhyuk, Shindong and Donghae imitate in the Super Show? Beyonce.
And what about Big Mama?
Yes people, that’s some straight up GOSPEL they are putting down for you. My point is, that really to understand Kpop, it seems to me that you need to understand the things that go into Kpop.
I really thought that in this day and age, we all understood that no one owns cultures, that cultures travel, intermingle, make friends. Once your culture decides to go global, you can’t control that. It’s going to do what it do. And, people who are not OF that culture can STUDY that culture. I really thought that what matters is what you KNOW when it comes to talking about a subject, not who you are. But in the two times I’ve heard the statement, there was no mention made of what others may know, just the assumption that if you are not Korean, you can’t know anything worth knowing. At least call non-Koreans out on whether or not they know all the members of Super Junior, know that Jay Park used to be in 2PM, know that Cheongdung of MBLAQ and Dara of 2NE1 are related, know the debut date of SS501. I don’t care about who you are, I care about what. you. know. And if you can take the time to learn about Kpop, then why can’t you speak about Kpop?
I am not Korean. I know as long as I live I will not know everything there is to know about Kpop. I will never be able to tell you what Koreans think about Kpop like someone who has spent a large chunk of time in the culture or studying the culture (my research tends to focus on what international audiences think about Kpop). But what should matter is that whatever I say about Kpop has an argument that makes sense and that is well-supported by evidence. I know I know a little something something, and when I speak about my little something something, I’m fairly confident that I know what I’m talking about. We can discuss it until the cows come home; reasonable people can reasonably disagree. But you just cannot dismiss out of hand people who aren’t Korean, who know their Kpop and like it. Last time I checked, Kpop was equal opportunity.
And this is not to say that ALL Koreans hold this opinion. I know there are lots of Koreans who throw their arms wide open for anyone who is down for Kpop.
So, if you think that only Koreans can “understand” Kpop, then YOU don’t understand Kpop.
Chris Barker, The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies.Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004.
Christopher Warley, Patience: Still A Virtue, Arcade