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Crystal S. Anderson, PhD
The 1960s girl group concept makes regular appearances in K-pop. While some think that this kind of image represents a lack of ethnic identity in a quest for mainstream acceptance, I suggest that the 1960s girl group image promoted by women of color represents an ethnic glamour aesthetic.
Contemporary K-pop is driven by image as well as music. Part of this has to do with its emergence along with rising technologies like the music video and the Internet, which “generate[d] a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders,” and resulted in photogenic performers as part of appealing images (Lie, 353, 356). This is similar to rhythm and blues-inflected pop music of the 1960s. Gerald Early notes that technology contributed to this music becoming an “artifact,” in part because television distributed the music as well as an image (60, 62).
K-pop agencies, like SM Entertainment, carefully craft the images of K-pop artists for concepts. This is part of the training process, which also includes language instruction, choreography and hosting practice. This also contributes to criticisms that such preening in the quest for audience acceptance diminishes the presence of ethnic culture. John Lie argues that contemporary K-pop lacks Korean culture: “As a matter of traditional culture, there is almost nothing ‘Korean’ about K-pop” (360). Motown acts under Berry Gordy also received similar kinds of training and, were subject to similar criticisms. Nelson George defines Gordy’s project as assimilationist in nature, where “white values were held up as primary role models” and as a result, “blacks lost contact with the uniqueness of their people, and with their own heritage” (xii). For George and Lie, mainstream appeal translates into a loss of ethnic culture.
When K-pop adopts the 1960s retro look for female artists through chic hairstyles and dresses with eye-catching prints or dazzling sequins and fur reminiscent of The Supremes, I suggest that it partakes of a model of ethnic glamour established by black girl groups. Brian Ward characterizes Gordy’s quest for mainstream success as one predicated on challenging prevailing notions about American blacks: “Gordy felt [the training] might make them more acceptable to white America and an expanding black middle class for whom mainstream notions of respectability remained important” (266). The aspiration was felt by blacks, even those not in the middle class: “The spangled pursuit of success carried no stigma among black fans who had routinely been denied equal opportunity to compete for the financial rewards of the mainstream” (Ward, 267). This is key, because it shows the importance of how viewers read such images. Cynthia Cyrus argues that even though the images of girl groups of the 1960s were well-managed and carefully crafted, they nevertheless resonated positively with fans: “The girl group images offer affirmative messages about what it means to be female, messages about belonging, about possibilities for participation, about the possibility of success. . . . The role of the viewer is central to creating meaning, and the girl group fan engaged actively in dialogue with the images placed before here” (190-1).
Just as black fans interpreted those images of black women as positive, Korean women like the Kim Sisters, styled in the same way, represent a glamourous ethnic, in this case, Korean, experience to aspire to. Ian Kim writes: “For a Korean American like me, who grew up in parts of the US where I was the only Asian kid in school, it’s pretty astonishing to discover Korean performers who were successful in the US such an early time. Even more impressive is that they sang in English.” The Kim Sisters’ images and participation in the entertainment world in the United States functioned as an alternative to the realities of the aftereffects of the Korean War and American military presence. San Byun-Ho remembers: “After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world; we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died” (Forsyth). Just like images of 1960s black girl groups, such images of the Kim Sisters represent an image of ethnic aspiration.
Contemporary fans may see retro images in K-pop, like those by Lee Hyori and the Wonder Girls, as drawing from a visual discourse of ethnic glamour. The measure of the impact of the image should also be measured by those who make meaning out of it. These images matter precisely because they show Koreans in a glamorous context that also acknowledges their ethnicity. As the Vintage Black Glamour Tumblr and forthcoming book suggest, images of ethnic glamour still resonate today. Nichelle Gainer says that any image she chooses has to have “a certain style to it, a certain beauty” and that she includes information about the photo because “I want people to know you’re not looking at some anonymous random person” (Brown). Given the frequency that the 1960s concept recurs in K-pop, ethnic glamour still matters.
Brown, Tanya Ballard. “‘Vintage Black Glamour’ Exposes Little-Known Cultural History.” The Picture Show – Photo Stories from NPR. NPR . 12 Oct 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.
Cyrus, Cynthia J. “Selling an Image: Girl Groups of the 1960s.” Popular Music 22.2 (2003): 173-193.
Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Grove: Motown and American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Forsyth, Luc. “Korea’s Stressed Masses.” Groove Korea. 20 Aug 2012. Web. 27 Jan 2014.
Kim, Ian. “The Kim Sisters.” Ian Kim. 23 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Jan 2014.
Lie, John. “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.
Ethnicity, Glamour and Image in Korean Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Crystal S. Anderson, PhD
Many know that K-pop fans play an active role in K-pop, but few may know just how complex K-pop fandoms are.
Crystal S. Anderson, PhD
Last week, I wrote a piece, Who Can Speak For K-pop, for my public blog, High Yellow and received a huge response. As I suspected, there are a variety of fans in the United States whose voices are not being heard in the larger discussions of K-pop. In order to capture those opinions, my iFans project has added a new survey! U.S. K-pop Fan Study seeks to understand the attitudes and opinions of all K-pop fans in the United States, but especially African American, Asian American and U.S. Latino fans. In other words, it is the first academic survey that wants to understand the K-pop experience of U.S. fans of color. To take the survey, click here. Tell your friends!
CFP: K-POP AND K-DRAMA FANDOMS
Special issue of Journal of Fandom Studies
Guest Editors: Crystal S. Anderson and Doobo Shim
This special issue responds to the well-established and global subculture of fans of Korean popular music (K-pop) and Korean television drama (K-drama). K-pop and K-drama are the products of Hallyu, a cultural movement from Korea directed towards the global stage that originated in the late 1990s. Recent global successes of Korean artists such as Psy, Girls Generation, 2NE1 and BigBang as well as K-drama actors such as Lee Min Ho and Jang Geun Suk represent only a portion of the vibrant and diverse fandom. This special issue seeks to examine the uniqueness of K-pop and K-drama fandoms and their contribution to global fandom scholarship.
IFANS: Mapping K-pop’s International Fandom is a scholarly research project that examines global fan attitudes and activities through surveys, collection of information on online communities and analysis of websites. Crystal S. Anderson, PhD (Elon University) is the Principal Investigator of the studies and Curator of the iFans project site.
By Crystal S. Anderson, PhD
Elon University (U.S.)
Whether it’s excited yelling by fans or crying by K-pop artists, emotions run deep in K-pop. While some focus on obsessive emotional attachments and behaviors by fans, research shows that fans themselves describe a range of emotional responses to K-pop. 100 responses by 18- to 30-year-olds show that fans find K-pop to be a source of happiness, hope and motivation. These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at KPK: Kpop Kollective.
Some writers tend to characterize fan activities and emotional expressions in negative terms. Patricia of Seoulbeats describes emotional expressions of appreciation for K-pop as bordering on obsessive: “I think there’s something to be said about my stance on the emotional toll that idol fandom takes on its devotees. That’s why I become so alarmed when I see these SHINee fans writing these intense emotional outpourings about how SHINee has changed their lives, or how much SHINee means to them. It breaks my heart to hear fans say that they turn to K-pop as a distraction for real life because their friends and family can’t offer them the same comfort that K-pop idols do.”
Adeline Chia writes that such emotions translate into obsessive behaviors: “Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry. . . . K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate. Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals.”
To view entire “Can’t Stop Loving You” infographic, click here.
However, fans talk about the emotional appeal of K-pop in more positive terms. Some talk about overall emotions that go beyond the lyrics. One notes, “Kpop has the power to touch people even for those like me who don’t understand the lyrics. I think [it] is the r[h]ythm, the emotion in the voices, the dances. Kpop is like a best friend, it is here for you whenever you are happy or sad. Powerful stuff.” Another said: “The music is more touching and you can feel the emotions of the singers when they sing regardless of what genre.” Others link emotions to performances: “They sing and perform with passion and emotions, so even if you can’t really understand the lyrics you will get to know what it’s about by just listening. Kpop is not just another type of music it’s much more, that I can’t describe it with words” (Anderson).
These responses echo what scholars have discovered about emotional responses to music that transcend cultural differences. In a study with Western listeners listening to Hindustani ragas, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson find that it is possible for music to travel cross-culturally: “According to our model, this indicates that the psychophysical cues for joy, sadness, and anger were salient enough to enable listeners to overcome their unfamiliarity with culture-specific cues and to make an accurate assessment of the intended emotion. . . . That naive listeners demonstrated such a high level of agreement with expert listeners, who were deeply familiar with the culture-specific cues embedded in the music samples, is remarkable” (58). In other words, listeners from other cultures can identify emotionally with music of a different culture, and this may shed light on why global fans identify with K-pop emotionally.
This emotional response runs the gamut. Many respondents describe how they find K-pop to be fun and happy. One notes, “Cause the music is always so free and fun to dance to. It simply makes me happy.” Another adds, “The songs are really refreshing, and listening to it puts me in a happy mood because of their lyrics and beats.” Other respondents link the happiness they feel from K-pop to their lives in general: “It always puts me in a good mood and makes me feel energized. Kpop sometimes can make you feel like your part of something bigger. It’s hard to explain but the feeling it gives you is great” (Anderson).
Others related K-pop to more somber emotions. One respondent says, “Because it’s very different and the music touches something in me, I mean this is not superficial, there are feelings in every song, this could be happiness or some sad feelings.” Another notes, “When I listen to sad songs I find that it have feelings in it and it will touched me too.” One says, “There’s an upbeat to the music that sometimes make you want to dance other times depending on where you heard it from makes you sad” (Anderson).
Some fans talk about how K-pop helps them through hard times. One respondent notes, “It was introduced to me at a hard time in my life and it has been the only music I listened to help me get through it.” Another says, “Kpop appeared in my life all of a sudden. I was really depressed back then and it helped me get out of my miserable state, pulled me out of the worst” (Anderson). Music can have the therapeutic effect these respondents describe. Annemiek Vink explains therapy methods, such as Guided Imagery in Music, which is “based on the assumption that the most appropriate music can be selected for healing purposes.” She further finds that the choice of music impacts the therapeutic results of GIM: “In all aspects, carefully selected music based on the person’s preference and personal background was far more effective than standard relaxation music” (153, 154).
This range of fairly positive emotions challenges negative characterizations of their emotional expression. These responses come from adults rather than young teenagers, so it is less convincing to describe them as obsessive along the lines of Chia. She refers to incidents involving K-pop celebrities, but respondents speak about their emotions mostly in relation to the music. When they do comment on the artists, it is often in terms of the positive relationship they have with fans. One notes, “The singers are so dedicated to their music and their fans. They put their real emotion into every word” (Anderson).
This emotional connection that some K-pop fans feel also translates into a discourse of protection, the desire to protect their group or artist from mischaracterizations. The Triple S Pledge encourages fans of SS501 “To support and shield them through hard times…To ignore rumors.” The same sentiments can be seen in the “Prom15e to Bel13ve and 10ve” philosophy held by some fans of Super Junior, which acknowledges every member regardless of current status or sub-group membership.
These findings suggest that emotion plays a role in the attitudes and opinions of adult global K-pop fans, often in a positive way.
Anderson, Crystal. Infographic. “Can’t Stop Loving You.” 14 Dec 2012. Web.
European Kpop Fans. Digital Image. WeHeartIt. Originally posted on european-kpop-fans.blogspot.com. 14 Dec 2012. http://weheartit.com/entry/29104058
Anderson, Crystal S. “Data Set: Hallyu Kpop Survey 2 and Kpop Kollective KiFs Survey 2, 18- to 30 Year Olds.” Korean Popular Music International Fanbases Project. 29 Apr 2011 – 15 Apr 2012.
Balkwill, Laura-Lee and William Forde Thompson. “A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music: Psychophysical and Cultural Cues.” Music Perception 17. 1 (1999): 43-64.
Chia, Adeline. “Sick Cult of K-pop.” Originally published on Straits Times. 8 Dec 2011. SGSJELFs & SupershowSG. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://sgsjelfs.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/sick-of-k-pop-cult-by-adeline-chia-of-straits-times/
Patricia. “Fans Love Oppa, But Oppa Is Uncomfortable With Such Feelings.” 24 May 2011. Seoulbeats. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/05/fans-love-oppa-but-oppa-is-uncomfortable-with-such-feelings/
TS Pledge. Triple S: The States. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://triplesstates.blogspot.com/p/about-triples.html
Vink, Annemiek. “Music and Emotion.” Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 10.2 (2001): 144-158.
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Crystal S. Anderson, PhD
Academic research suggests adults like K-pop for a variety of reasons, the chief of which is music. These findings complicate assumptions about the identity of international K-pop fans and their preferences. According to 638 responses among 18- to 30-year-olds from around the world, other top reasons include choreography and idols.