By Nadine Kam I
Never in my life did I dream that K-pop would be a subject worthy of college level study, but why not for the politics, history, psychology or sociology student who wants to know how popular culture shapes a society, or the business or economics student who wants to know how a multibillion dollar industry was built from nothing? Which is where K-pop was in 1992 when Seo Taiji and the Boys took to the Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. stage on April 11 with their hiphop act and lost the evening’s music competition but won enough fans to change the way music is made in Korea.
It was only five years after South Korea became a democracy, and people were finally free to emulate their Western counterparts regarding music and fashion. Prior to that, they had lived under autocratic rule similar to North Korea today, where personal freedom was limited and little things like hair lengths and skirt lengths were strictly regulated.
While Seo Taiji and the Boys took their cues from American hiphop, others flocked to J-pop, and within a year after democracy was established, 10 percent of all music sold in Korea was J-pop. One of the “boys” was Yang Hyun Suk who would later found YG Entertainment, one of the Big Three agencies in South Korea, who professor Jayson Makoto Chun now compares to Darth Vader, having gone to the dark side as someone who once fought for creative freedom, but stifles his own artists.
“ASAN 464: K-pop and J-Pop: Korean and Japanese Popular Music and Society,” led by Drs. Patrick Patterson and Chun, grew out of their respective interest and research into the worlds of J-pop and K-pop. They joined forces because they said there can be no discussion without knowing the countries’ intertwined histories.
It made me thank back to a post from last year after BTS appeared at the Grammy Awards show. I remember one commentator wrote of one of their videos rocking out to Dolly Parton’s performance, “Those are the whitest guys I’ve ever seen. That’s what colonialism gets you.”
On the one hand, I was angry about the snarky comment, but at the same time I had to acknowledge that K-pop is essentially American or Western music sung in the Korean language. The course is driving home this point even more as Chun raised the question: “What is Korean about K-pop?” pointing out that most of the songs are written by Swedish or American songwriters; their dances are created by American or Japanese choreographers; their training system is modeled after the J-pop system; and these days group members are increasingly coming from the United States, Thailand, Japan, China and Taiwan as they seek out the best and brightest who may no longer be in South Korea.
It’s a question that will come up more and more as the Korean music industry itself tries to stay ahead of the pack and are moving into other countries, hoping to replicate the K-pop formula with homegrown talent in countries across Asia and the rest of the world, including this country as SM Entertainment prepares to launch a second Girls’ Generation with American talent to sing in English, and a second NCT comprising Europeans.
Obviously, they have the know-how to create and train groups in countries such as Indonesia or Thailand that don’t have the infrastructure to grow and market their regional talent.
I’ve often thought this about Hawaii, where we have a lot of people with innate musical ability, but lack the vision and training centers to create superstars. Someone like Bruno Mars had to go it alone and blaze his own trail, but what if we had studios connected to L.A. producers who could identify and work with talent from a young age? Mars (born Peter Gene Fernandez) at least had an advantage in having been trained in stagecraft by his musician father.
But the whole idea of the K industry looking elsewhere for talent has me worried about the future of K-pop and Koreans who want to enter the business as the market will become saturated with singing, dancing boys and girls from every country, speeding the decline of this style of music as the audience grows weary of it and moves on to the next big thing.
The overall purpose of the class is to learn the ways the Koreans have managed to hack our brains as we decode the workings of an industry that is shaping the way all music is made.
Professor Patterson compared it to a baseball field in which one action sets every player on the field into action. Although in the scheme of things, BTS is not as big in terms of record sales in America as the perception may be because of their constant news presence, all industry eyes are on them to see what they will be doing next and to crack the code to their success. You can bet there are people hard at work now to reverse-engineer their music and marketing methods to find out why they have managed to captivate so many, irregardless of gender, sexual identity, race and age.
During an earlier talk to raise interest in the course, Chun suggested that suffering is a crucial component of K-pop because fans identify with the struggle and the fact that the group members continue to work hard even after they become successful, unlike their Western counterparts, who often adopt a decadent lifestyle and feeling of entitlement. In contrast, every K-pop star knows he or she can replaced any second by someone younger and more talented. As trainees, they compete every day and are role models for a generation sick of the childish behavior exhibited by our politicians and other adults around them. American adults talk about morals and values but display none of the traits they idealized. On the other hand, K-pop stars are generally trained to act like model citizens as they are sent as ambassadors of South Korea abroad. Fans often call them princes because of the elegance they project abroad.
Another reality is that South Korea is still a relatively poor country and in rural areas, a family’s well-being can rest entirely on their child, which is why they can sign them to slave contracts. It’s why the kids feel incredible pressure to perform well, and adds to their feelings of disappointment and shame when they are unable to debut.
When Chun asked us whether we would have been willing to sign our lives away at age 11, it’s funny only me and the other musician in class raised our hands. “Seven years is not that long,” I whispered to my friend. At their age it covers “wasted” time in junior and high schools.
I already know what it’s like to suffer for one’s career and stick it out for the long haul. I feel like I would have been tough enough, though after watching some of the survival shows I feel as if I—like so many of them—would be crying after every evaluation. It all drives the feeling of empathy and compassion we feel toward them. It was already pointed out in class that after one of our class members related one of the difficulties of her high school years, we sympathized and liked her more.
The same is true of the K-pop bands we stan. The fans are always there to offer up an encouraging rallying cry of “Fighting!” “Save him!” or “Protect him!” when we see them enduring hardships or taunts from other fandoms. Just today there were anti-fans trying to spread the hashtag “TaehyungleaveBTS,” calling him ugly and talentless. Of course Army fought back.
And there’s a reason EXO’s catchphrase is “We are one.” Fans and stars, we are all fighting for their success together, and that makes for an unbreakable bond.