Time For An Update: A Response to Kim Ji-Myung’s ‘Serious Turn for Hallyu 3.0’

Shinhwa, Cosmopolitan May 2012 – Source: http://asia247.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/shinhwa-cosmopolitan-may-2012/


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.

Why I Do Kpop Even Though Chuckleheads Keep Giving Me The Side-Eye

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.

Continue reading “Why I Do Kpop Even Though Chuckleheads Keep Giving Me The Side-Eye”

Why I Do Kpop Even Though Chuckleheads Keep Giving Me The Side-Eye

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

Don’t Hate The Playa AND The Game: Recent Criticism of Kpop

Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on June 4, 2011 by CeeFu

So, this week I ran across a brief story by Esther Oh on the “failure” of Kpop.  While I’m always open to hearing what others have to say about Kpop, good or bad, I disagreed with several points that she made.  Ok, it’s not just I don’t agree with what she says. What she says is not the Kpop world I know.

First of all, her story had “tone.”  It just didn’t take a position on Kpop, it set out from the get-go hatin’ on Kpop. It’s clear she has no love for Kpop.  She says she “cringe[s]” when she hears about the Wonder Girls or Rain. Personally, I have a different reaction when I hear about Rain, but that’s just ME, and I’m not even the biggest Rain fan in the world.

Rain; Credit: Esquire

That attitude runs throughout the story. She doesn’t think Kpop is all that, and look, according to her, “the world’s biggest music markets simply don’t care” either. As evidence, she takes shots at BoA, who “bombed” despite working with famous music industry types, and Se7en, who produced “complete flops.”  She says that both BoA and Se7en’s forays into the American music scene were “disastrous.” In other words, if a Korean artist fails to break into the American mainstream music scene, this translates into “failure.” By that standard, there are a whole lot of American music artists who are “failing” as we speak, because they are not super popular according to some secret measure. Hey wait, she never says what she means by “failure.” Are we talking record sales? concert attendance? popularity? There are many ways to measure success, none of which she clarifies. I think the popularity of Kpop sites, online fan clubs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages attest that SOMETHING is going on.

What I find very interesting is who she uses as examples of Kpop’s “failure.” She points to BoA and Se7en’s efforts from YEARS ago and ignores one of the most significant examples of Kpop’s attempts to interact with the pop scene in the United States just in December of last year: JYJ, who by measures of even mainstream success did respectable. And what about SM Town Live LA in 2010 that brought the biggest names in SM’s stable to a pretty large American audience?

Also, the United States does not equal the world. Um, the U.S. is part of the world, not the entire world. I looked on a map and checked. Plus, I live here. At the beginning of the article, she claims to talk about the failure of Kpop’s “global domination,” but only gives examples of artists and their experiences in the United States. Given that Hallyu is a global phenomenon, and not one solely directed at the United States, I find her conclusions to be, less than convincing. Especially given the love that other countries have for Kpop: Peru’s love affair with Changmin of TVXQ,  ELFs (fans of Super Junior) in Saudi Arabia, and Paris’ demands for an additional SMTown show.

Finally, there is a slippery slope when she talks about the use of American producers in Kpop. She asks the question:  “BoA and Se7en have sung songs in English that were produced by Americans, and were transformed and marketed (albeit, unsuccessfully) in a way to suit the American public. Is there, therefore, anything that is so specifically and exclusively “Korean” about their U.S. debuts or their music?”  Now, given that she chose two examples of artists who are consciously looking to break into the U.S. market casts some doubt on her conclusions.  But once again she completely ignores international fans who like their Kpop straight outta Korea with no changes, complete with actual Korean. It doesn’t bother us. She implies that Americans want American things, and won’t accept things that aren’t “American.” AND, that any kind of collaboration between US and Korean artists and producers must produce something palatable to the American mainstream. Psst, here’s a not-so-secret secret: Hallyu Kpop has always mixed Korean and Western influences (that’s a WHOLE OTHER POST). She seems to be completely ignorant of how often American producers are involved in Kpop albums and the great collaborations that result.  For example,  Sean Alexander and Steven Lee, producers both based in Los Angeles, worked on Heo Young Saeng’s (of SS501) album, Let It Go.  Yes, that album is SLAMMIN’ and YES, I am biased, but I also know what I like.  That’s some groovy stuff, and it is Kpop.

Esther Oh seems to assume that Americans don’t want Kpop and rumors of its success have been greatly exaggerated. Yeah, I’m taking this article with LARGE grain of salt.  In the end, it just seems to be just a very narrow take on Kpop, especially its international effects. So rarely do you see someone hate the playa AND hate the game.