Some Thoughts on K-Pop as a Guilty Pleasure

This is a safe space. A space where we can be honest. So I’m going to say it straight: it’s not OK to like pop music or soap operas, especially not foreign ones. Or at least that’s the message I’m overwhelmingly getting from just about every direction. Let’s be real — they’re the media of despised demographics like tween and teen girls or old maids.

This bias is the flip side of the quest for that musical unicorn: the band of friends brought together by a deep love of music, whose passion and growing skills attract fans until they are propelled toward stardom, all the while combating the pernicious influences of money and fame. This image is closely associated with rock and roll, but is now applied as a standard of “real music” in many genres.

The Beatles are probably cast as the role model for this dream, with romanticized memories of their performances in Hamburg or the Cavern. If we think about it though, the Beatles took off after they had a producer and were immediately asked to change their line-up and their image. They covered American hits, initially presented a clean cut style, used simple repetitive lyrics in their own songs, appeared on a wide range of fan merchandise, and explored crossover projects in other mediums. Screaming, fainting girls are a major reason they succeeded to become the universally respectable legends we love to this day, yet these are aspects we still see played down. The kids who rise to stardom through a “passion + talent + effort vs. fame + money” dichotomy are basically a myth.

The accusations leveled at pop music, particularly K-pop, are grave indeed: “Idols are products manufactured by industrial machines that prioritize profits and beauty over musical talent and target young girls who are too stupid, tasteless, shallow, and emotionally overwrought to know better”. Which begs two fairly simple questions: Is that true? Does it even matter? Ishmael says no to both.

The first question is easier to answer. Idols are products, but although they are trained systematically, they retain personal agency to varying degrees. Particularly as their experience builds over time, idols are often given greater responsibility in composition, production, choreography, and fashion/visuals. Senior idols may also participate in training their juniors or scouting talent. This feature has been present for years and is only increasing over time. So yes, idols’ personas and group concepts are meticulously planned and performed, but it does not follow that they are entirely artificial or that they are segregated from the creative and productive side of the music industry. Different companies have different methods and strategies, within which idols are given varying degrees of artistic license.

Is beauty valued? Yes. More than talent? Sometimes. Of course, dancing and singing are not the only talents valued in an industry with so many crossovers. Further, there are many K-pop idols who are or were considered unattractive, provoking the initial (joking but not joking) assumption that they must be musical prodigies. Big Bang’s Daesung is a notable example of wit and voice surpassing beauty (he’s gotten better looking though!), and I could add that all of Big Bang was accused of being visually underwhelming when they debuted at the height of the Flower Boy era. Daesung said that he was attracted to YG Entertainment because of their claim to be a company that didn’t care about physical appearances. [1] Super Junior’s Shindong commiserated with Daesung on “Strong Heart.” Despite being in one of the most iconic flower boy bands, as the chubbiest idol in K-pop, Shindong’s contribution was not musical or visual, but instead arose from his dancing and humor.

K-pop is a very visual genre, defined as much by the dances, fashion, and sets/locations as by the music. To be fair, this is also true of hip-hop culture which recognizes b-boy/girl dancing, graffiti artists, and fashion alongside rap. So, is the real issue with pop music the physical attractiveness of the artists? My first response is that the degree to which good looks are emphasized and the preferred aesthetics are factors which change rapidly over time. Flower Boys were joined by “Beasts”, while many groups defied neat categorization. At the present moment, the introduction of more generic diversity in the mainstream and an increase in artists from competitive audition shows shifting emphasis away from personal appearance. Akdong Musicians or the rapper Swings are potential examples. I’d also add that there is more variety among male artists than female and attraction is subjective. Musical talent is sexy, often transferring from ears to eyes in the hearts of fans (though Ishmael accepts that the reverse is also possible).

The last accusations were aimed at the fans. Yes, pop music’s primary demographic is young women, though the “nuna” and “ajumma” fans are plentiful these days. However, to frame that as a flaw is to imply that there is something inherently wrong with being liked by girls. This is the real problem; not the music, but the perception of girls’ and women’s taste as lacking value. Pop is often styled as something to grow out of – something fun and self-aware then is demonized as vapid and shameful.

You know what? Pop is fun. It usually doesn’t take itself too seriously. It can be playful and experimental. It’s meant to be visual and put on a show. I love Bob Dylan’s songs, but I’d choose a K-pop concert (even a band I don’t like) over Dylan any day. The loss of pop, means leaving society prone to massive hipster-ism, in which people’s taste becomes something that is competitive, must be justified and proven, and exists in self-denial. Ironically, the music may matter less when “authenticity” is the goal. Authenticity is a false god. Who decides and how? At least pop’s mission is to make you feel good. That’s something rock and pop should agree on. [2]

Music can be enjoyed for a number of different reasons. Many genres are appreciated for their social commentary, which is still rare in K-pop, but by virtue of its very foreignness it can inspire reflection. Much of the joy of music comes not only from the emotional reaction immediately provoked, but the emotions that emerge from the memories and associations connected to a song or artist. It is in this area that pop, particularly K-pop, excels as companies deliberately seek to establish an affective network around their products. This ties into another component of enjoying music: the sense of belonging to or identifying with a particular group or lifestyle. True musical purists are rare. Most of us lack the expertise to evaluate what is “good music” based on its composition and/or the artists’ interpretation.

Finally, there is the frankly ridiculous assumption that those who love pop don’t or can’t appreciate other “good” music. I was raised on classical, old jazz, and classic rock (with a healthy side of 80s New Wave). The this day I feel a stronger musical affinity with Baby Boomers than Beliebers, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel an emotional high at a Taeyang concert or rock out to even SHINee — yes, SHINee — from time to time.

 

[1] This was in the documentary on the making of Big Bang, but the Strong Heart YG Family Special raised the issue again and concluded that YG stars were on the whole a good looking bunch, and so looks were a consideration, especially a good smile.

[2] Ishmael is aware that hip hop, however, was born under different circumstances and the role of social commentary changes the significance of claims to authenticity.

Hallyu is People!

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happening. Hallyu is PEOPLE! It’s made out of people. You’ve gotta tell ’em!….but you don’t necessarily have to stop them.

TL;DR: Hallyu is addictive because of the interplay of multiple media platforms that are designed to provide a wealth of detailed personal information, fostering a perception of intimacy between the audience and idol(s). Some of the mediums that contribute to this process, such as social media, directly enhance the sense of belonging to a community. Meanwhile, that perceived intimacy motivates and rewards those who consume a broader spectrum of media to glean more details about idols, reinforcing their commitment to Hallyu.

A lot of people have been asking why K-pop is so darn addictive. We lived for years without depending on a steady supply of eye-piercing costumes and catchy choreography (Well, some of us did anyhow. Some people are lifers. This is a judgment-free zone). If you follow K-pop -and the odds are good if you’re reading this- I probably don’t need to explain to you that the music is only the tip of the iceberg. The catchy beats are fun and addictive, don’t get me wrong, but the real product being sold is the idols themselves: their bodies, their characters, their personal lives, and their emotions. Today Ishmael wants to look at why the idol as product is powerful fuel for Hallyu, while also enhancing its influential power and representative roles. I’ll show you how these lives are produces, distributed, and consumed. After that I will re-examine the consequences of this strategy not only for the idols, but also for the future development of Hallyu as a representative nation brand.

It doesn’t actually take much to see that the music itself is not the driving factor behind K-pop’s success. Nor is it purely a matter of good looks. After all, there are dozens of good looking idols and some of those outfits really threaten to undo all the effort put into making idols cool. When you pay attention to what fans say (and really, not enough writers do), it’s clear that what makes K-pop special is the idols themselves. The music is equal to or even less important than the idols’ personas. The constant sharing of private information creates a sense of intimacy. Fans can accumulate so much data that it’s easy to feel one knows the idol as well as a close friend. Seriously, Ahab is my best friend and I know less about her underwear than G-Dragon’s, Jay Park’s, or Junsu’s. Not that I sought out this info; honestly, the things you learn from variety shows … that is my whole point. They’re putting that knowledge right there in easy reach. As such, fans become emotionally invested in a perceived relationship with idols and likewise invested in the artists’ welfare and success which then this fuels financial investment. In order to keep this up, artists must constantly perform their character role and package their daily experiences and emotions for audience consumption.

How They Do It

Everything starts in the training period. Since the early stages of K-pop in the 1990s, major entertainment companies have molded aspiring talents’ public personas, speaking skills, appearance, and language as much as singing and dancing skills. The careful construction of group concepts and dynamics is no secret. Cognitive dissonance allows audiences to accept these personas as genuine, while open acknowledgement of planned characters enables fans to appreciate multiple layers of the “real” self. The search for better/more data can draw fans deeper into the interplay of Hallyu formats and bolster a stronger sense of connection. This is also why you got the “beastly” tough party guy who wants to be cuddly and the flower boy who has a black belt. This duality is a key strategy in appealing to conflicting audience desires simultaneously.

Of course, the music alone cannot convey the rich personal details that really keep fans hooked. That’s where variety shows, social media, and fan meetings come into play. There is a plethora of media formats through which idols can promote themselves.Keep in mind this is absolutely essential because the need for knowledge (and through knowledge, belonging and connection) is the major force that drives this genre. It can’t be over-stressed. Fans constantly need more information to feed the obsession (I mean that in the nicest way). Let’s take a look at how Ishmael’s deep need to procrastinate ended up becoming rather educational in more ways than one:

The first thing is that idols should seem approachable and close. Seoul is a space that we share. That’s why  on “Guerrilla Date” (KBS), the stars arrive at crowded public, even touristy, locations for the interview. This strategy is also used in K-dramas’ trendy locations to invite the audience to physically enter the idols’ world by visiting the same places (giving a convenient boost to tourism as well). Programs can also assist through sets designed to appear casual, seated on the floor of an apartment eating snacks in “Come to Play,” visiting a sauna on “Happy Together,” or driving around Seoul and visiting average restaurants in “Taxi.”

Emotional vulnerability and openness is another crucial technique to secure the hearts and minds of the audience. In interviews, artists share embarrassing stories for humor, often performing a calculated persona such as having a ‘princess syndrome’ (Goo Hara) or playful antagonism between band members. I mean, there’s a special warmth in my heart when I watch Big Bang try to manage their incorrigible maknae, Seungri (that’s it, that’s all the confessions you’ll get from me. I’m a professional, dammit). By carefully removing the façade of perfection, they invite audiences into a perceived intimacy.

“Strong Heart,” whose premise was a competition among celebrities to tell the most amusing or moving story, rewarded stars who were most articulate and adept at selecting personal material that appeals to viewers’ interest. Some of the stories revealed the trauma of childhood poverty or losing family members to cancer. Sharing these intensely personal hardships may be to forge a connection, but it can also be an opportunity to set straight a scandal. “Healing Camp” on SBS is a show aimed at healing the mind and body of stars who appear to frankly discuss their personal and professional problems.

Performances on both television and concerts are opportunities to manage an idol’s image through powerful emotional displays. (Of course, these emotions can also be sincere. Ishmael isn’t trying to be cynical, but spontaneous or pre-planned, the impact of the display is the same). It is not uncommon for idols, male or female, to publicly break down in tears. In July 2012, I attended one of BEAST’s concerts in Seoul, and Yang Yoseob was so emotionally overcome by the opportunity to perform live after a long hiatus that he had to leave the stage during the band’s farewell speeches until he was sufficiently composed to sing the final song. On another level, the themes of these stories often appeal to Korean cultural values, such as the importance of family and hard work.

Sometimes the premise of a show can blend reality and fantasy by placing “real” stars in imagined scenarios and relationships. “We Got Married” is a popular variety show that depicts celebrities as imaginary couples acting out daily married life. This kind of plot easily allows the audience to imagine the celebrity as their own romantic partner. This format also offers international audiences insight into Korean culture and manners by depicting events like housewarming parties, interactions with parents, and holidays. Additionally, the domestic sphere allows men to portray a variety of masculine roles through participation in housework and childcare. The show has specifically included couples with considerable age and cultural differences. Recently, the show has introduced an international twist, pairing couples from different countries.

Pre-debut documentaries, often with an aspect of audition or elimination, are another broadcast format that aims to create and emotional bond with viewers. YG is the master of this format and he’s been polishing it into an art form of its own. Compared to Big Bang’s pre-debut, the shows “Who Is Next” and “Mix and Match” have been used as an opportunity to connect new bands to their seniors, other companies and shows, and even bring some 90s hits renewed relevance. These are not only important sources of publicity, they relate the dreams and struggles of hopeful young idols and generate a sense of connection often before the audience has had a chance to see them perform or hear their songs. Along with reality shows (another popular format, particularly effective thanks to YouTube) they follow stars through their daily schedules and reveal interactions with other stars and staff, backstage preparation, killing time between photo shoots, their pets, their homes, and their literal dirty laundry. Some of these shows, such as “2NE1 TV,” have social networking complements. Stars purposely expose their labor, exhaustion, frustration, doubts, loneliness for family, and the simplicity of their lifestyle instead of presenting a glamorous or luxurious lifestyle that came easily thanks to innate talent. Some stars have also given tours of their homes complete with dirty laundry and that one room we all have where there’s a system underlying the chaos, we swear. Actually, it’s pretty common to see idols’ dorms. There is a multitude of videos out there on YouTube if you want to see them being reluctantly awakened on camera. You can watch them cook with varying degrees of confidence and success. As if that weren’t enough, the most recent shows have given audiences the vote on who will become a member or which team will debut!

Bulletin boards, blogs, and diaries all serve to make things more personal. Through posting comments or participation in ranking systems and contests, audiences feel that they are able to influence and contribute to the creation or success of the novels they enjoy. K-pop idols similarly use social media to connect with their fans. Thanks to Twitter, followers can share even experiences as mundane as what an idol made for dinner and how it tasted. On Instagram, idols can share images that inspire or appeal to them as well as personal pictures, even childhood photos. Websites such as these allow the public to leave their own messages for stars or to observe the communication between stars. Many K-pop idols also post messages in multiple languages, sometimes double posting, in order to include as wide an audience as possible. These accounts allow fans to constantly check in with what the stars are up to and in the event of any scandal, you can be sure every detail will be scrutinized for possible clues.

Big Bang even wrote a book, “Shouting Out to the World,” on their self-development. Both in the book and its publicity, the members discuss their personal thoughts, dreams, and struggles. G-Dragon can be seen reading the book in his music video “Michigo.” He further emphasized the personal connection between the band and fans by adding “Fans and students have sent me many books. Whenever I had the time, I would read the books. But to say the truth, I feel that my level of writing is not to the level of my lyric writing.”.

Idols frequently mention the influence of fans in their own lives, describing a multi-directional interaction. They share stories about the importance of fans’ comments and support upon their own moods and motivation, and prove that they use gifts from fans. The personal significance of fans to artists is frequently and passionately expressed. The fans also consider their behavior to represent the idol and as such they carry out charity work in the idols name and remind others to act respectfully at performances (but not always. I mean, I was actually literally beaten and cursed by Korean fans at a G-Dragon concert). Perhaps the most direct fan to idol connection is the fan meetings. A limited number of tickets are sold to these meetings where idols will perform and talk. The highlight is the end of the meeting when fans are able to greet, give gifts, take pictures, and sometimes even hug the idols. Such fan meetings are sometimes also held internationally. Ahab does a waaaay better job of explaining this. Ishmael wants the info without the affect, which is an uncomfortable position because those tend to go hand in hand. I’m very sincere when I say it’s hard to follow a band and not come to care about them.

So, what can we learn from this?

The Need to Connect with Something “Real” (but from a Safe Distance)

Whereas previous generations could find self-determination and belonging from the workplace or family (shoutout to Durkheim), it seems that young people are seeking these experiences elsewhere. Gabriela Lukacs argues that the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan demonstrates the ability of a cultural product to provide personal and thereby “authentic” entertainment through the description of private experience. Korean idols strive to create this effect through variety programs and social media. Thus, Hallyu markets idols not only as affect producers (performing labor in which emotions and subjectivity are the raw material), but also as affective products themselves. The sense of connection and intimacy engendered by this “authenticity” is central to K-pop’s appeal. As a need to connect drives consumption of Hallyu, fans may also seek to learn more about Korea’s language, history, and culture in order to better understand their favorite stars. Also, the avid consumption of stars’ personal lives transmits a multitude of social and cultural details (not by accident either).

Can We Depend on Them? After All, They’re Only Human

Although this format may seem well-suited to nation branding’s soft power goals, it carries an inherent weakness: it depends on the idol’s ability to attract and maintain audiences’ interest. As such, the demands of representation limit the range of characteristics through which artists’ personas may be developed. The constant pressure and scrutiny of idols’ behavior — often from the fans themselves — is probably exhausting. I can’t absolutely confirm because I don’t exactly have a lot of personal conversations with idols, but this seems like a pretty safe assumption. Just the thought of sasaeng (stalker) fans leaves me kinda horror-struck. Your past is never really behind you and you may not be able to change your image freely in the future, because an idol is always held accountable by and to the fans, fans which have been encouraged to tear down personal boundaries.

Because Korea currently focuses on a clean image, one misstep can derail an artist and one bad apple can taint all of Hallyu. People under pressure will make mistakes (and oh wow! have there been a lot of mistakes: racism, being flippant about other countries natural disasters, racism, questionable lyrics, and sometimes even racism). Not to mention, a squeaky clean image doesn’t necessarily play well in every market. Even Taeyang has revealed in interviews that his “model student” image may be an obstacle for his career. For example, the US market may find itself questioning exactly what misdeeds CL has committed to warrant her title as the “Baddest Female”. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, but it will require some careful balancing of priorities.

On top of all this, idols’ training includes many things but they’re hardly masters of international relations. They know that they are representing Korea, but I suspect that in most cases there is very little education on the countries they visit (and hip hop aesthetics don’t exactly center around diplomacy). Northeast Asia is a region fraught with political tensions and they’re throwing powerful gendered imagery on top of that. Those aiming at the US can’t escape the complicated history of race relations there, not only because they are Asian, but because they have heavily appropriated hip-hop culture. God knows I’m intimidated by the task and I have an M.A. on the subject. Block B and B.A.P are great examples of why we don’t make teenagers diplomats. From truly awful lyrics (Zico is under fire, rightly so, for his “ignorant” use of the term “faggot bitch” and wearing a confederate flag on his sleeve), to jaw-droppingly racist music video images, K-pop’s rising visibility threatens to expose a side of Korea that could be intensely problematic. Maybe it’s because I’m from Michigan, but I don’t approve of B.A.P in face paint dancing in the smoldering ruins of Detroit while black rioters battle white cops or black people shoot each other in the back after a (drug?) deal. Our prisons are not your props. Actually, I have a lot of issues with B.A.P’s videos which feature robbery, vandalism, gangs, domestic violence, suicide, racism, and oh how the list goes on. That deserves its own post (as a white girl from the Midwest, I’m not in the best position to talk about racism and cultural appropriation in Asia, but if no one else is going to…..). Of course, some bands do have international members or focus on a specific country. When Block B managed to insult Thailand, 2PM was right there at the forefront calling them out on their poor behavior (2PM’s Nichkhun is Thai so the band has a particular connection to Thailand). Also, speaking of 2PM, can we talk about how Hallyu puts bodies and sexuality at the front of Korea’s national image?

By way of closing remarks, I’d like to suggest we all take a moment to consider what it means for Hallyu if the predominant music style and/or production process should change? Audition shows cut training time and include artists from other genres. Hip-hop in Korea — a rapidly growing genre in the mainstream — certainly does not rely on creating a perceived bond between artist and audience. Meanwhile, rookies are being sent overseas within a year of debut. Plus (stay tuned to Ishmael & Ahab) not all K-pop idol are Korean. There are a lot of changes taking place this year that could strongly impact the way that audiences consume Korean music and through it, Korean culture.

Shots Fired O’er the Starboard Bow: Ishmael takes on Euny Hong, OR, a Lesson on How NOT to Write About Hallyu

(WARNING: this is a really monstrous rant, full of vitriolic ferver and stuff, but I have truly censored myself).

OK, so my research is sparkly and has some eyeliner issues. That doesn’t mean that just anyone can do what I do. Hell, I barely feel qualified to do what I do because I understand how tremendously complex it is. So I was excited and apprehensive when a friend told me about a book that seems to have been peeking at my thesis drafts: “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture” by Euny Hong, the stunning tale of how an “uncool” and repressive country transformed itself through an “extraordinarily elaborate and effective strategy to become a major world superpower by first becoming the world’s number one pop culture exporter.”

…but as it turns out, the whole book is bullshit. This book hurt me so much, I came perilously close to literal tears of frustration (and Ishmael is not a crier). Hong took the seeds of something brilliant and utterly failed to nurture them into so much as a sprout, while wasting resources some of us may need later in order to do it right.

I cannot believe that this book has been published and sold in Korea. It is not doing Korea any favors. It is RUDE and grossly inaccurate. This is NOT how to write about Hallyu. As far as I can discern from Hong’s resume, she has spent most of her life outside of Korea, aside from junior high and high school, and during that time she had difficulty assimilating and transferred to an international school for high school. Hong’s only claim to expertise on Korean culture and society is her ethnicity and this limited lived experience. Her writing in this book makes it absolutely clear that she misunderstands and/or disdains not only Hallyu, but many elements at the core of Korean history and culture.

While Hong is a particularly bad example, this is a problem that applies to many publications in the Hallyu genre. So I am writing this long, long, rant to set the record straight. What entitles me to claim that I’m doing it right? I suppose my literal title of “Korea Studies M.A.”. I have had to actually defend my ideas on Hallyu and Korea to an academic committee.

Perhaps an advanced degree isn’t necessary to analyze Hallyu. Hong has a BA in Philosophy from Yale and has international experience as a journalist. She spent her formative years witnessing Korea’s transformation in a way that I never have or will. But none of that helped her write a book that wasn’t a flaming pile of shit. So while I am loathe to pose as an expert, there is no way I am letting her pass herself off as one. Thus I submit to you my humble resume as an American who has witnessed the discovery of and reaction to Hallyu over seven years in Japan and the US, plus that whole “Korea Studies M.A. with a focus on the evolving role of popular culture in nation branding” thing. Obviously we’re coming at it from very different perspectives, but I will demonstrate that Hong committed a dozen unpardonable sins that prevent this volume from having any redeeming qualities. After I eviserate it, I’ll share my humble opinion on how it should be done.1


1. The All-Or-Nothing Argument That If The Government Is Involved, Then It Must Be A Massive Conspiracy Envisioned And Implemented A Quarter Century Ago

Hong’s main argument is that Hallyu is primarily envisioned and carried out by the Korean government. Conspiracy is actually her word, not mine. Choi Bokeun, director of the Popular Culture Industry Division of the Ministry of Culture, directly and bluntly disagreed with her “characterization that the government was the invisible hand behind Hallyu” and informed her “The Korean Wave is not guided by the Korean government; we just serve a coordinating function” but she chose to pass over this without much consideration (p. 100). By making this a government conspiracy, Hong neglects the vast majority of actors shaping and producing Hallyu. She credits no agency to the entertainment industry and idols who are literally the stuff Hallyu is made of; or the academics whose publications influence rhetoric and perceptions of Hallyu; or the audience’s power through consumption, distribution, commentary/analysis, or fan-production; or other industries’ influence and support; or external influences like foreign media and collaboration. And that list only took me a few minutes. One simply cannot explain Hallyu through government conspiracy alone. Believe me, it would have made my research a lot easier.

The other producers and gatekeepers of what has collectively come to be known as Hallyu are not minor supporting characters. In fact, I argue that the government is essentially a reactive sector, with little influence over the production of Hallyu materials. It spins what it is given and may offer advice and support, but it cannot keep Hallyu going if the raw material is bad (or worse, stubborn and rebellious).

If the central tenet of this book cannot stand up to the mildest of criticism, why should we listen to Hong? If you want to know about the “K-pop Idol Machine” (God, I despise that term. You know what, don’t listen to anybody who uses that dehumanizing crap. Once again looking at you Caramanica of the NY Times), you’re infinitely better off reading Peter Russell’s work. He is much better at tracking development and trends.2 It’s informative without the snarky condescension or delusions of grandeur. This narrow-minded focus costs Hong the opportunity to examine many of the most fascinating nuances and potential developments of Hallyu.


2. Hong Reaches Insupportable, Sensationalist Conclusions (and Hyperbole, Oh God, the Hyperbole).

A lot of the claims she makes are just astounding. If I uttered any of this tripe in front of my advisor…..

P. 3 “Western expansion [of Hallyu] is inevitable”

No, it’s not. That’s why they’re working so hard.

P. 4 “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hallyu is the world’s biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history.”

YES, IT REALLY WOULD *facepalm*

P. 5 Hallyu’s main aim is to dominate untapped “third-world” markets ignored by the West.

P. 6 Because Korea was once a “third-world” country it understands the stages of other nations’ development and thus has a “peculiar, unreproducible advantage” in analyzing which “K-culture” products have the best odds of success there. Also, any country that enjoys “K-culture” will loyally buy Korean brands once they can afford luxuries like mobile phones and appliances.

No expert really calls it the “third world”, a problematic Cold War term, which technically never referred to Korea, a nation firmly in America’s anti-communist “first world”. Hallyu’s primary targets are not developing nations. Korean rhetoric on development is quite problematic in its insistent recycling of Park Chung Hee’s philosophy and the belief that if other nations follow Korea’s example of hard work and sacrifice their problems will be solved. Also, very few people purchase appliances or electronics out of loyalty to a popular culture.

P. 6 “The South Korean government has made the Korean Wave the nation’s number one priority.”

I’m pretty sure that’s ridiculous. Education reform, North Korean security, historical and territorial disputes with Japan and China, and burgeoning demographic crises are all priorities that probably exceed the Korean Wave.

P. 18 Korea decided to invest in pop culture exports in order to beat Japan at something, anything.

I sincerely doubt that was in any way a primary motivating factor. Seriously. It’s more like a bonus, and since they tend to export very different cultural products it’s debatable to what extent they are in direct competition, let alone one beating the other.

P. 98 “Hallyu, not politics, will bring north and south together.”

Well… where to start? Hallyu is already intensely political, as Hong herself is inadequately trying to argue. Engagement, which  can come in many forms, is what will improve North Korea’s relations with the world. Experts on Korea rarely call for outright reunification, which could prove disastrous in the short term. Hallyu has the potential to play a role, but I don’t think it will be a leading one.

That’s it, I’m not picking them all out because there are way too many. It’s insane. Is it the journalism background that encourages these sensationalist statements? As a book that claims to make a single revolutionary argument, it should stay focused on supporting that argument in order to convince readers. It doesn’t need catchy headlines to draw people in.


3. Hong Fails to Define Hallyu, Pop Culture, Export, or Korea (kinda key terms)

Hallyu is a very nebulous term that is frequently expanded and altered. Thus definitions are very important. Hong describes it as exporting pop culture. This doesn’t explain why she is also discussing Samsung appliances and she completely misses other crucial non pop culture Hallyu components like skin care, medical tourism (plastic surgery but possibly also maternity services), and traditional culture (still culture, but sooooo not pop). She does say that Samsung is related to Hallyu because they were one of the earliest companies to rebrand, which spilled over to rebrand Korea, but she never clarifies why Samsung chips in iPhones are part of Hallyu (spoiler: They’re not, but VISIBLE Samsung products can be. p. 3). Those facets are now part of Hallyu and should be discussed, but she doesn’t explain in how the campaign expanded to integrate such disparate products or how this reflects the interplay of diverse agents and priorities as Hallyu develops.

I reject her overly simple assertion that the popularity of Korean media will throw open the doors and secure consumer loyalty based on products’ country of origin. I know a lot of people who love Hallyu, but none of them drive a Hyundai and most use Apple products. She also misses all of Hallyu that isn’t exported, which as it turns out is an awful lot. Gee, that has a few implications. If you’re a follower of Hallyu, think about how much you get from official sources and how much comes from fan-translations, unofficial news sites, unoffical youtube channels, or even knock-off fan goods shops in Seoul.

Furthermore, she lumps Korean and Korean-American into a single homogenous category. That’s a problem; a problem so big it deserves its own post. I’ll sum it up: Koreans and Korean-Americans are different and there is diversity among Korean-Americans. Ethnicity does not make you an expert on the place your family once came from. Even if you maintain a relationship and visit often, there are differences. This is often extremely obvious when these “overseas Koreans” go to their “homeland” and are met with disapproval (Jay Park is a famous example of this, but many “diaspora” Koreans I’ve met share similar experiences and sentiments). There is also considerable discrimination amongst the Korean diaspora based on what country they are now from and when they emigrated. Furthermore, the influence of the Korean government over members of the diaspora is limited. Finally. she repeatedly says that 12 is too late for an American to adapt to Korean culture, but misses all the implications of that for her own research and claims to expertise.

This is why I think Korean food, for example, does belong in this book, but not bulgogi taco trucks of the American West Coast. Seriously, c’mon, even China doesn’t try to claim General Tso’s chicken. China may try to claim Hallyu as Chinese culture, but they know Moo Goo Gai Pan is as American as it gets. Hong didn’t even pause when writing about a Korean-American chef’s restaurant with a Japanese name (Momofuku), or when he declared that the French way is the only way to cook, or when Koreans were outraged at his terribly un-Korean gall to *gasp* charge for kimchi!


4. This is where a Korea Studies M.A. is Handy. Hong Gets Almost Everything About Korea Wrong. Really Wrong. And Weird. Also, She’s Rude.

These are just basic things that you should know. If you don’t know these, you shouldn’t write about Korea. Also, it’s not that hard to find correct information. She’s so wrong it’s almost impressive. If Hong’s theories are based on this faulty foundation, she should be stopped.

    Confucianism:
    “the most stressful belief system on Earth”. Basically she plays the Confucianism card to explain Korea as it pleases her while resenting the hell out it. Her expert on Confucianism is a German who “went native” and is now head of the Korean Tourism Organization (not like, you know, a scholar who has studied Confucianism). She parrots his belief that Confucianism was great and all people were equal if separate under it but that “Korean ancient rulers corrupted Confucianism and turned it into a political tool.” (p. 67-70). Sorry? What? I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that Confucius himself advertised it as a political tool. Also, he was not a champion of women’s rights or children’s independence. Besides, Korea specifically embraced Neo-Confucianism. Yes, women had a lot more rights until the fifteenth century, but you need to explain what was going on then and why things changed socially and politically (like war). It wasn’t the beliefs that changed, it was the degree to which they were followed.
    Yangban:
    Although theoreticallyyangban (aristocrat) status was determined by performance on exams, it was never actually a meritocracy. When the old aristocracy was overthrown at the start of the Joseon dynasty, the new aristocracy was not chosen purely through exams. That’s ridiculous. If you were educated in Korea, you should know that. There were many restrictions on who could sit for the exam and even being the son of a yangban  family didn’t necessarily qualify you. Also, families managed to keep power nicely consolidated over generations even without impressive exam scores. This is information that one can acquire through graduate courses on pre-modern Korean history (as I did) OR through just about any Korean historical drama (secondary sons: a classic plot device since Hong Gil Dong) OR Wikipedia OR quite possibly you can glean this knowledge from the ever-resentful-of yangban ether in Korea to this day.
    Shamanism:
    Hong goes off on a bitter diatribe against shamans that depicts them as mentally ill or witches who illegally con the superstitious and ignorant out of their savings. But that’s not all, she goes on to claim that shamanism corrupted Confucian rites and crept into Korean Christianity, which is why they go into trances and speak in tongues. Ishmael doesn’t even know where to start with this. It’s rude and uninformed. She may have spoken to an “expert”, but guess what? I studied under an expert too (plus I kinda have a shaman friend; it’s complicated). She brings up shamans for no reason and then gets everything wrong. For shame, madame. Also, depictions of shamanism are an increasingly important and frequent aspect of Hallyu, particularly in their status as a “purely” Korean belief system that predates Chinese influence.3
    Nature:
    Connected to this, Hong dismisses Korea’s traditional belief that “the body and earth are one” as”nature fetishism”. Because Seoul is not a natural environment, it must all be nonsense. Ishmael once again doesn’t know where to start. Most societies believe that the environment and consumption of local products are important, often to an extent that outstrips common practice. Though I, like Hong, am not an avid camper or hiker, I cannot share her disdain of these activities as hypocritical or pointless. This belief is in fact at the core of many aspects of Hallyu, such as skin care products and tourism as well as the growing “traditional culture” sector.
    Arirang and Early Korean Music:
    She brings up “Arirang” as a song that represents Korea, which is absolutely correct. However, she brings it up in order to emphasize that it’s all about han. “That first stanza is spiteful and vengeful. And it speaks volumes that Koreans have used ‘Arirang’ as their international ambassadorial song [ ]. They don’t question whether it’s okay to air this kind of hostility in public” (p. 51). Wow. Hong clearly knows nothing about this song. “Arirang” has a complicated history and there are countless versions and lyrics connected to it over the decades. Despite its popularity in Japan during the colonial period, it is generally believed that the lyrics were a cleverly disguised protest against the Japanese. This history has a lot more to do with why it is representative than the expression of han alone. Surprised that “Arirang” was  a hit in Japan? Actually, E. Taylor Atkins does a good job of discussing Koreana in Japan during the colonial period in Primitive Selves.

    The Japanese were not in Korea with the single minded purpose of destroying all traces of Korean history and culture. We don’t have to be happy about colonization, but we do have a responsibility to look it directly in the face for what it was, and by “we,” I mean scholars. Hong claims that “Korea had very little musical identity for much of the twentieth century. During the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, the use of the Korean language was banned, and by default Koreans adopted Japanese cultural trends” (p. 111). That’s an exaggeration. Preventing the entire Korean population from speaking their native language ever was too much even for the stringent controls of the Japanese, particularly as they were very actively promoting the widespread use of radios. In fact, many Japanese and Western musical styles filtered into Korea and were explored during the twentieth century.4

    Irony:
    “‘Gangnam Style’ and its 2013 follow-up song ‘Gentleman’ signaled the emergence of irony in South Korea, marking the country’s final stage in its modern evolution.” (p. 18) If Hong really believes that Koreans have never laughed at their own society, particularly elites, then she needs to get herself educated. Pansori and masked dances would be a good start. I am quite certain that Psy is not the first to combine “Confucianism” and dirty or scat humor. Just look at the yangban masks. You think they’re twisted and pock-marked because commoners and performers were reverent? Yes, the military regimes were repressive, but Psy is not the “Birth of Irony” in Korea.

5. Hong Spends Half the Book Talking about Korean Social Transformation Without Actually Explaining How or Why it Happened.

Now this one really is a complicated topic. As much as the transformation of Korean society is described as a miracle, there’s no real explanation of what changed or how in this book. Yes, it was a time of great political change as Korea had finally shed Chun Doo Hwan’s military dictatorship and moved towards a more democratic government. Just before the IMF Crisis shook Korea, Kim Dae Jung had become the first President truly from an opposition party. This had tremendous implications for his ability to adapt/fulfill the political hopes/ambitions/promises that had accompanied his election. Yes, there was an economic transformation as Korea rebranded and started to gain the world’s attention as a prosperous nation. Recovering from the financial troubles of the IMF Crisis was fairly easy compared to coping with the tremendous social change that came with the new economic policies.

Hong mentions a loss of faith in chaebol and a new willingness among youth to engage in venture capitalism. OK, that’s close-ish. Of course, the government was also strongly supporting venture at this time and the reorganization of chaebol and their financing was often mandated, not solely their own wise insight and subsequent self-correction. Hong does not discuss the havoc this wreaked in the family and the considerable generational conflict. She also lightly skips over the fact that many of those employees laid off were middle aged men in mid-level positions, whereas the youth were struggling with finding any job in the first place. A great deal of pressure and blame were put on women, who now must support the family financially but were criticized for inadequately supporting their husbands emotionally in this trying time. Let me put that another way, this was a time when the government was promoting new ideals for individuals and newly defining who was deserving of government aid, while the population was renegotiating many social expectations and relationships.5 These new ideals turned a lot of things on their heads, holding the youth in higher estimation than anyone expected (and higher than many elders could tolerate). Hong doesn’t address the new emphasis on youth, beyond grousing over the deterioration of good manners.

This is not the place where I want to explain all of this. However, if you want to make the transformation a major part of a book you’re publishing, you should take the time to spell it out and get it right. Particularly because Hallyu and idols can be considered a product and/or representation of the new ideals promoted and neoliberal reforms implemented during the 90s. That’s one big reason it matters. The other reason is because the financial recession hit a lot of countries, who could then no longer afford to import Japanese media products. Without this opportunity, Hallyu may never have gotten off the ground, no matter how carefully the Korean government was planning.6


6. Hong Really Doesn’t Get Hallyu Media and it Kills Me

I would bet my last dollar that Hong doesn’t personally follow K-pop. This book reeks of someone who just looked up some articles on events that seemed pertinent to her project and attended a Psy concert. A lot of band names crop up, but there isn’t much actually said about them or the members. Grossly generalizing K-pop is not the way to write about Hallyu. Even if you believe that the government is covertly orchestrating everything, the different management and product styles of various entertainment companies is rather significant in analyzing the rise and spread of Korean “cool”. She had the sources to do this. She even cites Russell, but doesn’t use his account of how Lee Soo Man devised his own business model for SM Entertainment.

I just have to question how well you understand Hallyu when you describe it as a “shock-and-awe cultural invasion” (p. 23). On the same page she claims that “conventional, beautiful K-pop bands never really gained significant appeal in the West” (which is really odd, given a. REALITY and b. the European reaction to SM concerts that she describes later in this book).

“The girls always smile; the boys never do, instead bearing warrior expressions.” (p. 131).

OH MY GOD, Really? How many K-pop videos have you seen? It’s atypical that “Gangnam Style used real street scenes and unadorned locations? Ummmm, except the dozen or so videos featuring foreign street scenes, or all the studio/practice room themed videos or the ones that feature dramatic versions in cafes or parks or schools, or early Big Bang videos, or recent folk Hallyu stars, or other Psy videos…. I’m not saying it’s a majority, but it’s not insignificant or obscure. I could name thirty in under a minute (that’s the kind of thing you can do when you actually follow K-pop in order to analyze Hallyu, Ishmael said with smug condescension as if she hadn’t been reduced to an apoplexy of not being able to can or even mere seconds before). I’d say “sparse, futuristic, and sometimes wintry, like a space-age version of a Chekhov play” is not the norm. “Gangnam Style” is the song that “put K-pop on the map” (p. 4)? OK, which map are you using honey? Focusing so much on Psy makes it seem like you didn’t care about Hallyu or come into this project until Psy’s hit, aka about a decade late.

Still, the best example of cluelessness is her description of G-Dragon, which works great for me as watching people who are clueless about Hallyu describe G-Dragon is becoming something of a hobby. “When I first saw him on stage [at a Psy concert], I didn’t know who he was or what to make of him” (p. 136). Oh, you didn’t have to spell that out for us. Everything you say makes it very clear. An obvious blunder was thinking that “Crayon” is literally about art supplies. Hallyu does terrible things to English, but this is by no means the most convoluted. Cray=Crazy, Get Crazy/Get it on + Dragon … Cray on, Get your Cray-on… If you don’t approve of this linguistic contortion, that’s fine. I’m not really a fan either. Yet I don’t try to compensate for being out of my comfort zone by trying to sound smart. When a performer asks you to answer their call with a set response back and forth, like a cheerleader, you can just call that a chant or something, not a “neo-Dadaist chorus.”

Also, don’t mock his understanding of English or rap culture: “He bellowed to the audience what the non-English speaking world believes to be a universal rapper cry: ‘Whassup!'” OK, given that many of her American culture references are the Brady Bunch or Gidget, I’m guessing Hong’s not an afficionado of American rap culture.7. Cultural appropriation in Hallyu is definitely something to talk about, but Hong is not doing that. She’s snidely implying GD is ignorant, and that’s uncalled for. It’s a relatively common greeting, one of many that GD uses. Big Bang generally doesn’t mangle English pronunciation or grammar (*cough*Beast*cough*BAP*cough*Block B*cough*) and they work with native English speakers. GD, Big Bang, YG? Given their current prominence and careful strategizing, these are the names crucial to understanding the direction and future of Hallyu. Don’t waste our time with comments like these when there are truly important issues to discuss on language and cultural appropriation.

I’m getting a little worked up here and it’s not entirely Hong’s fault. She is merely the most recent in a long line of writers who discuss Hallyu while evidently not engaging it. It comes across like your grandparents explaining Backstreet Boys and Snoop Dogg. It’s hard to accurately explain why people like it when you don’t like it. One can like different components of Hallyu for very different reasons.

I guess I’m saying that important voices are missing. When I decided that I wanted to research Hallyu, specifically K-pop, I didn’t actually listen to that much of it. However, I set out immediately to change that. Sometimes I thought I’d go insane. I went months on end without touching any of my classic rock, indie, or jazz. I forewent most American TV so I could watch Korean variety shows and dramas. Sometimes it was fun, but sometimes not. I tried to follow as many major bands as possible, even ones I really don’t enjoy. I went to as many concerts as I could afford, even for a group I not-so-mildly despise, because I thought I could learn from the experience (and I really did learn a lot). I have a lot of trouble accepting the work of Hallyu’s armchair anthropologists. It’s more than catchy tunes and pretty faces. It’s more than enraptured teenage fans. Someone who is unfamiliar with even the most famous bands and basic trends of K-pop gets to publish their insupportable theories before me?


7. Hong Really REALLY Doesn’t Get the Appeal of Hallyu to Fans

OK, #7 is probably part of #6 but it felt important enough to earn it’s own separate rant. First, Hong argues that the primary appeal of K-pop aside from physical beauty is that “large groups acting in unison are catnip to fans” (p. 131, and again, I find catnip a bit dehumanizing as a metaphor). People are addicted to K-pop because of the precisely synchronized dance moves (note: this is also an aspect that leads many journalists to dehumanize K-pop by comparing it to machines).

Yeah, about that … no. I mean, it’s nice, and I’m impressed by the hard work it takes to accomplish that, but it’s neither mandatory for all videos nor actually a main reason Hallyu is addictive. How does one even come up with that? Did Hong even ask fans? They can be far more articulate than people give them credit for. In fact, the hard part is actually getting them to stop explaining why they like it so much.

Here’s where she not only gets it wrong, she gets it the dead opposite of the truth:

“If this sounds like a marketing plan for mix-and-match shirts and pants of different colors at the Gap, that’s exactly the effect the producers are going for. You don’t need to know what the individual singers’ back stories might be – which ones grew up in a trailer park or started singing gospel in their church. I mean, how interesting can a twenty-year-old’s biography be, anyway? K-pop labels love stars, but not superstars: they don’t want to get into a situation in which one band member becomes indispensable.”

It was a mistake for Ishmael to read that paragraph in public. NO. nononononononononononono. WRONG. Make the bad person stop.

In fact, Hallyu and K-pop are all about the persona of the artist. Please see the (currently upcoming) post “Hallyu is people” (spoiler alert: Hallyu is literally made out of people). Idols are at once affective products and performers of affective labor. An incredible system is in place to convey a mind-boggling amount of personal information about idols through social media, books, concerts, magazines, and a plethora of variety shows. This can make fans feel as if they know the idol as well as their best friend despite having never met. Perceived intimacy is absolutely crucial. If your band members are interchangeable or replaceable, you have done a bad job. As bands develop over time, they push for more solo projects. No one debuts as a superstar, but it is possible to become one. Labels generally don’t resent this kind of success either. GD is a good candidate to consider (although all Big Bang members have achieved individual success). One could make a strong case for Siwon of Super Junior based on social media, acting, and modelling. The goal is to have a band that is strong collectively and individually. Media format crossovers can raise one idol’s fame, but the entire group benefits. Being a “superstar” also varies based on region.


8. Only Hong is This Incredibly Stupidly Exceptionalist, OR Korea: a Beautiful, Unique, Snowflake Where Normal Rules Don’t Apply

Hong frequently exclaims that an idea, attitude, product, or policy could only exist in South Korea. This is just ridiculous. No matter how beautiful and special Korea is (and I really believe that. I mean, look at my life. Look at my choices. You think this dedication is easy or without sacrifice?), no matter how fantastic this country is, there’s nothing in this book that is only possible in Korea. In fact, some of the things she cites as “unique” exist in several places if she bothered to look around. Plus, Hong describes these examples in incredulous and negative terms, like “It’s an idea so ridiculous that only South Korea would think of it.” (p.8)

As much as she doesn’t get Korean media, she also doesn’t get American media or culture. She’s so busy talking about how much Psy’s music and life represent Confucian influence (“self-flagellating, Confucian filial piety) that she steamrolls right ahead to portray American as devoid of any love or respect for family. Seriously. It’s ridiculous: “No western pop icon would write a song about his or her parents, with the possible exception of Eminem’s song “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” which contains the line, “You selfish bitch, I hope you burn in hell for this shit.” (p. 27). I beg your pardon? There are dozens of heart-wrenching songs dedicated to parents in Western pop, from John Lennon and Cat Stevens to N*SYNC. Let’s take another moment to consider this quote “Psy will go down in history as the first real twenty-first century entertainer.” For the love of God, REALLY?)8

I despair of the lack of good comparative analysis of nation branding campaigns through popular culture at least once a week (literally once a week; Ahab is kind of sick of it). This is a legitimate problem with the academic literature on Hallyu. However, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to look around and realize that Korea is not the only one who has had this idea. Perhaps the best case to compare with Hallyu is “Cool Japan”. Hong was so busy researching this unique Korean political approach to popular culture that she never got around to checking whether it actually was unique. For example, she discusses the government’s attempts to influence Korean cuisine abroad but misses the controversial “sushi police” incidents from Japan. She never provides figures for what other governments invest in cultural and information technology for comparison (plus she sloppily implies that investments in IT were primarily intended for the promotion of Hallyu, despite the fact that IT gets more money than cultural tech and it came first, as in before Hallyu existed). Even though she is citing others, it’s dead wrong to claim that Japan never tried to export popular culture to the US and Europe. If you don’t believe me, check out the work of Anne Allison, Christine Yano, Susan Napier, and maybe Thomas Lamarre or Ian Condry. Or just go with your gut instinct based on the popularity of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Nintendo, and all the other manga, anime, games, and characters. In fact, ask a random American what they know about Japan and I’d be shocked if they don’t primarily focus on pop culture.


9. Just Plain Shitty Research: I’m Sorry, You Cited WHO?

Worst bibliography ever. If you’re blowing the cover on “the world’s biggest, fastest, cultural paradigm shift in modern history”, shouldn’t you address what people like Koichi Iwabuchi or Chua Beng Huat have been saying about it for almost a decade? I mean, she connected with some interesting people to interview, but I can’t see any evidence of even a cursory lit review. Although I complain about the paucity of analysis that has been published, there is some great work out there. In fact, there’s no theory in this book. There’s no framework for her analysis. She explains one of the most remarkable social transformations of the century primarily through personal anecdotes. If you really believe that you are shedding light on a government conspiracy that is revolutionizing the world, you need to do more homework.

She speaks to or cites a few government officials, a few people in the entertainment industry, some chefs, other journalists, bloggers, and a cultural critic. Aside from the fact that most of those people are literally selling something, basically selling Hallyu, she cites almost exclusively Koreans or Asian-Americans as experts. Trust me, if you are already making the error of focusing on Hallyu in the West and the neglected (non-Asian) “third-world”, you should talk to those people, even the white and brown ones. Here’s another crazy idea: talk to some people from China, Japan, Vietnam, or Thailand, which are all significant current markets for Hallyu. Or maybe I’m just prejudiced against anyone who cites the “Ask a Korean” blog (which is authored by a Korean-American no less). Since when does citizenship or ethnicity qualify as expertise?

Also, I’ve notice that “Eat Your Kimchi” is being cited in books on Hallyu. I have very mixed feelings about this, despite liking “Eat Your Kimchi.”


10. Hong is Totally Off Topic for Half the Book. Literally HALF the Book is NOT about Hallyu.

The first half of the book, about 100 pages, is almost entirely devoted to her version of why Korea used to be a shithole, but how all those things she hated were the backbone of Korea’s current success. Seriously. Chapter 1 is just her reminiscing about Korea sucking in the 80s and she survived by imagining that she was a “street urchin” in a primitive land. Chapter 2 is all about rich kids in Gangnam. Neither of these chapters have anything to do with Hallyu. She just wants to prove Korea wasn’t cool. Chapter 3 is incredibly titled “The Dying Art of School Thrashings”, in which she details the psychotic cruelty of punishment in Korean schools where teachers are worshiped (because Confucianism), before hakwons destroyed the nation and young people lacked respect and manners.

I half loathe, half love Chapter 4’s title “Character is Destiny: the Wrath of Han”. Frankly it’s a clusterfuck, but eventually it seems like her point is that a nation under constant threat for 5000 years gains the confidence to survive anything. ….. Well, that’s a special view of Korean history. If memory serves, Joseon was a pushover in the Imjin War because they’d had peace for so long they had no clue what to do during an invasion. A nation that is being constantly invaded does NOT develop a culture that disdains martial arts. Not to mention that 5000 years and 400 invasions are problematic numbers. Long story short, this chapter has a lot of extremely politically loaded and some overtly nationalistic statements.9

That’s just the tip of the iceberg with the bile she spews in this chapter praising han10 for providing the kind of embittered stubbornness and hair-trigger rage that enabled Korea to prosper. This is also the chapter where she gets most of Korean culture and history wrong, simultaneously mocking and deriding it. Then she delivers her brilliant conviction that Hallyu was all about beating Japan at something, anything, to cope with their rage and inferiority complex. That’s it. That’s all this chapter had to do with Hallyu.

Chapter 5 is a major waste of time. She bitches about kimchi, unconnected to Hallyu. Then talks about Korean-American chefs, which honestly is more about America than Korea. This section does not involve any Koreans. There’s a way to talk about the role of food in Hallyu, but she doesn’t really do that. This is bad. This is not how you write about Hallyu. There’s also a chapter (9) on North Korea that is unrelated to Hallyu. She almost had something interesting about a TV show featuring attractive female emigres from North Korea, but it’s actually about domestic perceptions of North Korea, not the international campaign that is Hallyu.


11. Excuse You, NO. That’s Just Rude.

There is no way I could possibly list all of the rude and condescending things Hong says in this book. It’s just inappropriate. Hong vomited poisonous bile onto every page of this book. She should be embarrassed of flaunting her ignorance and prejudice in this way. There, I said it. Hong should be ASHAMED, not just of how she describes Korea, but of how she describes other nations as well. I’m not even going to try to list the examples, but if you don’t believe me just send me a message and I’ll give you a taste. But be warned, it’s pretty stomach churning.

On making Kimchi:

kimjang – the nationwide custom of making enough kimchi to last the winter. This seemed to me like the lamest seasonal ritual ever. To me this makes about as much sense as making sure there were enough cow pies to last the winter. From an early age, I found kimjang absurd and irrational, which of course it wasn’t. Witnessing this ritual made me feel like Gulliver in all those strange lands with their incomprehensible customs. Gulliver arrives in new land and discovers acrid smell, finds whole country massaging cabbages, concludes they are doing it in service to the Wicker Man. Surely there must be a human sacrifice involved because such a society could not be sane. We were cabbage eaters, like the Irish. We delighted in the cheapest vegetable.”  (p. 78-79)

She also includes a quote from Goldfinger, “[Koreans] are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world, Korean have no respect for human life” when the villain is referring to his bodyguard, Oddjob. However, Hong does not reference this in order to contradict it. Instead she continues “Fleming’s description of Koreans is regarded as widely racist, but my desire to be offended is contradicted by a sheepish ‘How did he know?’ sort of feeling.” (p. 51).


12. As If That’s Not Bad Enough, Hong Misses the Big Picture Several Times Over

There is a right way to talk about Hallyu. There are a lot of important issues that need to be discussed, preferably by people who not only have a solid foundation in Korean studies and relevant academic theory, but are actively and consistently engaging Hallyu products and scholarship (ideally, some experience in the industry could be added to that list, but that’s awfully ambitious … I am that ambitious though). I’m talking about people who are invested in researching and understanding Hallyu in the long term as part of broader international trends in increasingly globalized societies because let’s be honest, Hallyu scholars take a lot of shit for the glittery nature of the field and we don’t need people like Hong making it harder to earn academic and professional respect.

Hallyu started almost twenty years ago and has been going particularly strong for a decade (which is almost as long as experts have been predicting its demise). It has proven both resilient and adaptive, expanding and re-branding to attract new audiences and keep them coming back for more. It is a mistake to write about Hallyu without analyzing how both the phenomenon and strategies to capitalize on its popularity for political and economic gain have developed over a generation. That’s right. A generation. Aspiring young trainees were born into a Korea that was already exporting popular culture. We’re now dealing with a generation of Hallyu idols and fans that have only known post-IMF Crisis Korea. By the same token, we’re dealing with international audiences that have potentially grown up with a very different image of Korea. The music isn’t the same. The dramas aren’t the same. The means of transmission aren’t the same. Therefore, analysis of Hallyu must likewise reflect Hallyu as a process evolving in response to both domestic and international forces. It didn’t explode out of nowhere as something cool and appealing and it isn’t coasting on what it has achieved so far.

There are dozens of other issues that Hong doesn’t consider; doesn’t give us the implications, the “why it matters” of her argument. Here is a brief overview of some issues to consider. As Hallyu is very much being used as a campaign to promote Korean influence, you can be sure that there has been backlash. Some of the negative reactions are tied to protection of their own culture industries; some is tied to bigger geopolitical conflicts; some is probably tied to perception of relative economic status and gender issues. Backlash is just one part of the many ways to approach the complex relationships between Hallyu as a nation brand and nationalism (pro-tip: sports are a good angle to use too). Then that leads to consideration of Pan-Asianism rhetoric, which itself recalls rhetoric of the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (which is why we really need more comparative analysis of Hallyu and Cool Japan). Pan-Asianism is a huge area for research. It’s also tied to nation branding through popular culture as a contraflow of global culture and media. Hallyu has implications for other aspiring nation brands and for intellectual property law. Hallyu needs to be considered from both international and domestic perspectives.

You could have a field day researching all the ways that Hallyu is increasingly international in its production, not only as many products are hybrid in nature, but because the stars themselves represent a more diverse Korean and non-Korean cultures and languages. Hallyu is rife with politics of representation, but Hong barely touches on the complexity of who is not included or supported, or how those idealized portrayals reflect changing expectations of gender. Hallyu products are broadly about selling a lifestyle, but there are consequences to commodifying and consuming “culture”, particularly “traditional culture”. The music and drama genres themselves are also exploring more diverse styles and images to generate new appeal.

Thus I must conclude that this book is highly offensive trash; an obstacle in the path of others trying to write on Hallyu as a nation branding strategy. I’m not saying that she didn’t get a few things right. I liked the chapter on video games and she makes an excellent point that Korea’s fame for gory horror and revenge films (thank you Old Boy) is not actually representative of Korea’s most successful films. The interview on the Korean government official’s involvement in organizing flash mobs to demand a second SM concert in Paris was also quite interesting. Still, that doesn’t fix these massive gaping holes in her work.

I’ve been trying to develop an analysis of Hallyu as a government strategy for a couple years now, so I am intimately acquainted with the difficulty of sorting out Hallyu’s development and the diverse conflicting opinions within its production. It is not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly.

Personally, I believe there are four sectors involved in Hallyu which need to be considered: government, academia, industry, and audience. Industry I would probably divide between the entertainment industry and other major Korean industries. One also has to decide whether their research will focus on top-down strategies and development or bottom-up studies of reception. Defining parameters can be very tricky, such as how one defines a “fan” or which news sources (official/unofficial) to examine. Up until now, almost all serious scholarship on Hallyu has been done by academics with a background in cultural anthropology. Koichi Iwabuchi has rare insight from having worked for NHK for many years, but the industry perspective is generally limited. There is still a lot of room for research on Hallyu, but books like “The Birth of Korean Cool” do a disservice to anyone genuinely seeking to understand policies of public diplomacy through popular culture.


Notes and Citations
01. Ishmael should perhaps add that she has found the right research institute to continue her projects, but is somewhat irrationally resentful of other people here writing on Hallyu. It’s not just that Ishmael is a terribly selfish academic (though she really is … bitch). Rather a string of disappointing publications have made her pessimistic about anyone getting it right. This field has enough problems without wading through a mire of bullshit from people who tried to jump on a trendy bandwagon.

02. For which I truly commend him but sadly he’s so relentlessly positive about everything that there’s not much of an argument or analysis. That and he obviously bowed to pressure from SME to leave some people out of his book.

03. “I have always thought shamanism was some embarrassing part of Korea’s primitive past, practiced only by the illiterate.” “It was mostly a loose agglomeration of female witches and soothsayers often viewed as mentally ill women” “When Mason told me more about shaman rituals I couldn’t see how anyone could help but find it embarrassing and stupid.” p. 62-65

04. See E. Taylor Atkins “Primitive Selves”

05. You really want to look at Jesook Song for this topic.

06. Less importantly, she claims that bobki biscuit makers have all but disappeared which is kinda bullshit. I saw one yesterday. There are tons still around, as evidenced by the fact that I knew immediately what she was talking about. Seriously, has she been to Seoul or Busan lately? I’m not saying it’s a popular snack, but they’re definitely still around.

07. Hong seems unclear about who her intended audience is. Cultural references for comparison range wildly from Brigitte Bardot to the Fonz to Eminem to Harry Stiles. People who buy a book on Hallyu probably have already heard of G-Dragon.

08. So in addition to not knowing much music and using primarily 50s and 60s Americana to describe Western culture what other atrocities did she commit? Oh yes, there’s more. She believes that “in the West, hell-raising celebrities are celebrated. They take pride in bad behavior.” (p.25) While that is true to an extent, there is also significant disapproval of stars who behave poorly (Bieber) and adulation of stars who are down to earth, kind, and generous, like the internet popularity of Dave Grohl perhaps. The bad boy rock star image is a product of the 1970s and is not unproblematic in the West. She’s not wrong that K-pop demands a cleaner image, but I don’t think she’s really thinking about this in depth or critically.

09. The recent dramatic increase in plastic surgeries in mentioned in this book, under the heading “Gangnam Chainsaw Massacre”. Hong brings it up mainly to refute accusations that Koreans are trying to look more caucasian. She’s right. It’s not about looking caucasian. However, she doesn’t address how biopower has positioned the body as another asset requiring investment and development as a tool in an ever fiercer competition for employment. She also overlooks the social significance of a massive increase in surgery as opposed to an individual’s personal motivations for surgery. This is precisely the kind of situation where one cannot explain things away with “Confucianism”, instead begging for a reexamination of social influences.

09. Exibit A: “Korea was the whipping boy of fate for 5000 years”. Honestly, I think a lot of historic figures would be insulted by this dismissal of their cultural, academic, political and yes, also military achievements. On a more personal note, I sorta think they were asking for a Qing invasion when they dethroned Gwanghaegun in favor of Injo. I mean, really… that’s not being abused by fate. That’s making a dumbass political decision because elites value Neo-Confucian principles or factional politics over the well-being and safety of citizens. I’m getting off topic…

10. Han is a Korean-specific accumulation of rage and sorrow over injustice which can never be resolved. The Han card is played almost as often as the Confucianism card for explaining anything about Korea, only slightly more than the Kimchi card

Neither Deliberate Nor Accident: The Long Road to K-Pop

Let’s be honest, Asian pop music doesn’t get a lot of respect. K-pop is definitely rising in popularity, but a cursory examination of coverage by Western media reveals a lot of prejudice (I’m looking at you Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, author of “Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel”). In the broadest strokes, K-pop will have to stand up to accusations of being manufactured and derivative, implying that real music is created by American or British artists who have struggled through poverty for the sheer love of performing, gradually winning over a fan base before finally achieving fame/selling out to the man. Such depictions are a topic for another day, however. For now, I want to provide context for how we got the K-pop we know and love — or at least have a complicated relationship with — today.

For starters, let’s get one thing straight: K-pop and J-pop are very different things, which you know if you’ve ever heard them (BoA and DBSK defy this logic, but they’re very special cases). Kim Chang Nam1 draws a line between music before and after the 90s, which is essentially a line before and after Hallyu, or a line before and after democratization and the easing of censorship. Really, that decade just flipped everything on its head and those changes are all reflected in the popular music and culture. Still, there are a few things that have remained constant: hybridity and political influence. Korean popular music has always combined several generic styles and international influences, particularly from the US and Japan. The exploration of some of these styles was cut off by military regimes when deemed politically expedient. At other times, perhaps most particularly today, music is used as a medium for national representation or spreading a national-political vision. This will be a brief overview of the development of Korean popular music from its beginning through the colonial period to liberation, then the turbulent military regimes from the 60s through the 80s, and finally a look at the early 90s when the last few stylistic and production elements were introduced, setting the stage for K-pop and the musical branches of Hallyu.

The hybridity of Korean music has never been a secret or source of shame, nor is it something that started with K-pop in the 90s. The traditional genre of folk songs was popularized to create a genre of new folk songs (sinminyo) in the 1920s when radio broadcasting and the recording industry got their start in Korea. Western genres of folk, classics and jazz found their way over, often filtered through Japanese music (because colonization) to mix with traditional styles and form “trot”. Similar production styles allowed a lot of crossover. Trot dominated from the 1930s to the 1960s, with its upbeat songs of tragedy, even when American influence increased after liberation (1945). American-style songs reached the same level as trot from 1961, with “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt”.

Many of the performers got their start playing for U.S. troops and Kim associates this music with urban middle-class lifestyles. However, it failed to solidify into a distinct genre and faded in the 70s.  Dance music was particularly popular, giving rise to serious social concern. Kim suggests that trot drew on the heartbreaking circumstances of many Koreans, whereas the American music was more escapist. Although many American genres were influential, acoustic folk rock seems to have been the most popular.

Likewise, mass media has been a vehicle for supporting political authority since it was introduced to the peninsula. The Japanese certainly weren’t promoting radios out of the goodness of their hearts. Music was highly, highly censored until rather recently, by one regime after another. Of course, there were subversive musical elements too, but I’ll let E. Taylor Atkins2 explain that if you’re curious. Park Chung Hee also promoted or suppressed music to bolster his flagging legitimacy. He composed two lively propaganda songs himself in the 60s, but in 1971 cracked down on rock music, long hair, and mini-skirts as “vulgar, decadent culture” that undermined his vision of ideal obedient, industrious subjects. This change is connected to international economic recession and domestic political challenges, especially the normalization of relations with Japan, which had badly damaged Park’s legitimacy and ultimately led to the Yushin constitution in 19723.

Park Chung Hee

Shin Joong Hyun

This quest to remove “impure” influences meant many musical venues were shut down, songs banned by censors, and many musicians, like Shin Joong Hyun, were prosecuted for marijuana use (though there weren’t clear legal grounds as marijuana wasn’t technically illegal. Shin believes he was persecuted because he refused to write propaganda songs praising Park’s presidency). So youth culture was smacked down hard just as it started to build. Rock went underground and stayed there while go-go clubs thrived by working around curfews; thus we see a strong trend towards dance music (There’s also some evidence to suggest that banning rock and folk cost Korea in good beer as it was part of the same independent youth culture as blue jeans and rock. If Hallyu can somehow bring better booze to the peninsula I swear I will forgive all the sequins and even some of the feathers. Though most idols are probably a better metaphor for Hite or Cass, there are a few who could perhaps save us from this dismal fate).

And so trot rose once more, setting aside some of its melancholy and fusing with some elements of rock, go-go, and disco to reach out to new youth. Then Chun Doo Hwan opened the door for more sex, color TV,  and pro sports, but by no means eased up on censorship (the “3S policies: sex, screen, and sports). More importantly (yes, more important than even a new military dictator), teenagers came into their own as consumers. Not just teenagers — teenagers with color TV (and thus variety shows!) and video games, teenagers more visually oriented and flush with cash than any generation before them. So, not so shockingly, the music industry began to prioritize dancing skills and good looks, producing “idols” rather than “artists”. Pop ballads were left as the middle ground between adults’ trot and teens’ dance music.Thus we have many of the key elements of K-Pop in place by the 80s.

While many of the changes in the 1990s were behind the scenes, on the surface, two new trends revolutionized the way Koreans approached music. It is easy to forget that the ubiquitous karaoke room has not always been a feature of Korean life. Introduced to Pusan by a video game arcade owner in April 1991, its popularity spread nationwide in under a year. The government encouraged it as “healthy-minded” entertainment (Russell 2008: 149-150). Then Seo Taiji and Boys took Korea by storm in 1992, with dynamic hip hop music and dance moves, all written, arranged, and recorded independently. The sudden removal of censorship had opened the door for new music styles and Seo Taiji certainly was different. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8em1w3KIFA). Korean b-boy culture also formed a few years later. All that was missing was the means of production.

Seo Taiji and Boys

Lee Soo Man, a former DJ, was working on this, however, bringing to life his vision of a new style of management that oversaw the development and production of artists from audition to training to public persona, encompassing every aspect of the performance and personal life. Under this system, the company invested heavily in every hopeful trainee, reclaiming the cost from the earnings of those lucky few who succeeded. Unlike the Western system, musicians generally came with little to no experience and therefore were indebted to the company for any success, which could put a serious cramp in their artistic and personal freedoms 4.

H.O.T. “Candy”

Three entertainment companies now dominate the Korean music industry. In 1995, just before the financial crisis, Lee Soo Man’s SM Entertainment launched H.O.T, its first great success. They started out bright, colorful, and playful but later moved to a more goth look. Since then, the company has debuted a successful group or star almost every year. The other two largest entertainment companies, JYP and YG, were started by former artists Jin Young Park (a solo R&B artist) in 1997, and Yang Hyun Suk (one of Seo Taiji’s boys) in 1998 respectively (Cube totally deserves mention as the fourth and many other companies have sprung up in the wake of Hallyu). Each brought their own style and experience to create distinct sounds and brands, yet the three companies tend to adapt successful strategies of their rivals, contributing to a general K-pop image.While each company has different relationships with trainees, it is the company that is ultimately responsible for the strategic design of each star’s image. This has led to the widespread reputation of Korean music as strategically manufactured for commercial goals, such as a New York Times review of the 2011 Madison Square Garden concert, in which Jon Caramanica describes the industry with phrases such as “companies that specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols”, “it only slightly tweaked that polyglot K-pop formula”, and auditions that “will keep the machine oiled” (*shakes fist vehemently*).

1997 was a year of terrible upheaval and opportunity. The Asian Financial Crisis (or IMF Crisis, as Korea calls it) was a really big deal. I’m not going to go into it now (neoliberal reform!!), but it was a game-changer in soooooooo many ways. What you need to know for right now is that Asian countries could no longer afford Japanese media so Korea had an opportunity to export popular media (they’d been liberally borrowing Japanese formats and were much cheaper).  Korea seized that opportunity. Big time. Also, the government started to introduce new ideals and goals for Korean individuals, which lined up rather nicely with the entertainment industry (qualities like creativity, language and tech skills, or international experience). Did I mention that the government was strongly promoting awesome internet connections? I should mention that. It has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Hallyu.

Technically, one can date the Korean Wave to 1997 when melodramas first began to pick up popularity in China (this is when and why they coined the term “Hallyu”) and other nations.  The Hallyu that most of you reading this in English recognize probably hit the scene closer to 2003-2004 (the era of Winter Sonata, Full House, Dae Jang Geum etc). The dramas had a pivotal role in K-pop because many stars didn’t gain wide fame until after success as an actor (like Rain in Full House or Jung Young Hwa in You’re Beautiful). Reminder: rock was/is still very much an underground indie thing, so some groups played in Japan, which has a stronger rock scene, but most aren’t known outside Korea. There has been a lot of change and development to the keen observer. I’m running out of steam here so I’ll sum this up: lots of familiar boy and girl groups in the late 90s (far more bubble gum and at that time called gayo), replaced by solo R&B giants for a few years (Rain, Wheesung, SE7EN, Lee Hyori), before bigger shinier boy bands and girl groups, riding the full momentum of the Korean Wave culminate in the K-Pop we know today. Those two decades of K-Pop are rather complex, especially the last decade (the transition from kkotminam flower boys to jimseungdol beastly idols alone is a fun shift….), deserving their own separate analysis.

It’s true that the visual and dance elements have been in place for some time, but K-Pop isn’t stagnant or one-dimensional. Nor is it the sum of all Korean popular music. The prioritization of K-Pop as part of Hallyu has come at the expense of other genres, but there is reason to hope for diversification. Competitive shows in an American Idol format are bringing interesting changes to the line ups of major companies, especially more folk-style singers. K-pop artists are exploring more genres in their songs or new bands strongly align themselves with a particular genre, like hip-hop. Korean rappers seem to be gaining more exposure and b-boys are lobbying for government support. Then again, this overwhelming surge itself brings potential problems like oversaturation of markets or loss of quality in the rush to jump on the bandwagon. The strong connection between pop music, celebrity culture, and nation branding is something I will discuss often and at length. I hope this brief (ha ha, but seriously, I held back) background will provide a starting point for some of those conversations. Thanks.


Citations and Notes
01. Kim Chang Nam, K-POP: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music .

02. Atkins, E. Taylor. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, detailing the popularity of Korean music in Japan during the colonial era.

03. Pil Ho Kim and Hyunjoon Shin’s The Birth of “RoK”: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Glocalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964-1975

04. Russell, Mark. Pop Goes Korea (there’s a chapter on SM Entertainment).

Note: I’m in the middle of moving and can’t access the books…… so if you need page numbers, write me a message and I’ll find them for you later.