The Once and Future Fandom: How Media Shapes Perceptions of K-pop Fans

Image of varying tones of gold in a kaleidoscope
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Whether K-pop fans are praised political activists or denigrated as delusional enthusiasts, both characterizations reduce K-pop fans, especially Black fans, and fail to recognize their value beyond politics.

Up until recently, K-pop fans had a questionable reputation. On March 19, 2020, I did a search for K-pop fans, and these are the search terms Google offered:

Screen capture of Google search for k-pop fan
Screen capture, Google search for K-pop fan

This is what today’s search (June 24) for K-pop fan brings:

Screen shot of Google search for K-pop fan
Google search for K-pop fan

In the span of a few months, the perception of K-pop fans has changed, largely due to several events with political ramifications, including overwhelming the Dallas police iWatch Dallas app, taking over the #whitelivesmatter hashtag, and most recently, disrupting President Trump’s Oklahoma rally. Coverage by mainstream media outlets have praised these actions, suggesting that K-pop fans now have value because they are politically active.

However, others are pointing out that calling K-pop the newest wave of political activists is not as positive as it seems. Abby Ohlheiser does a really great job of explaining the complexity surrounding K-pop fandom and why the sudden characterization of K-pop fans as activists is problematic:

Some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.

The K-pop fan-as-activist is the other side of the K-pop-fan-as-crazy coin. Both are imposed by the media and narrowly construe K-pop fandom. K-pop fan activity did not suddenly become important or significant just because it intersects with the political arena or because major outlets say so. Fans were always important and significant, in and of themselves. K-pop fans’ ability to organize and mobilize for a cause can be seen as early as 2012, when fans of Seo Taiji, often credited with being the first major figure in K-pop, fundraised to create the “SeoTaiji Forest” in Brazil to support conservation. It’s the same organizing used to support groups when they promote. But it’s also scores of smaller, collaborative projects that collect information in informal archive projects. K-pop fans have always been proactive in producing culture around K-pop.

This has a particular impact for Black K-pop fans. While Black K-pop fans have been part of K-pop fandom since its early days, they are increasingly being brought to the fore solely within the context of K-pop activism around Black Lives Matter, or increasingly, to articulate their negative experiences within the fandom. While both are important in understanding the experiences of Black fans, they are not the only way to understand those experiences. Raising Black K-pop fan voices only to tell stories of racism and discrimination suggests that Black fans cannot talk about just being a fan, who they like and why. It excludes Black fans from having a voice on any other aspect of K-pop and silences them under the auspices of giving them a voice.

Black fans, and Black people in general, have a complex experience one that includes joy.  Imani Perry recently wrote for The Atlantic: “My elders taught me that I belonged to a tradition of resilience, of music that resonates across the globe, of spoken and written language that sings. . . . The injustice is inescapable. So yes, I want the world to recognize our suffering. But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.” Calling on Black voices only confirm their negative experience with ignoring their opinion on everything else in the fandom excludes them from being fans in the truest sense of the word. If the only way the public sees Black fan is as a tragic victim, we reduce the Black fan.

K-pop fans in general, and Black K-pop fans in particular, are having characterizations imposed on them by entities that do not have the best track record on K-pop coverage.  This narrative of activism is being generated by mainstream media outlets rather than the fans themselves. As a result, it continues the age-old tendency of the media reducing K-pop fans to the simplest of terms.

Sources

Abby Ohlheiser. “How K-pop Fas Became Celebrated Online Vigilantes.” MIT Technology Review. 5 Jun 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/06/05/1002781/kpop-fans-and-black-lives-matter/ (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).

Imani Perry. “Racism Is Terrible. Blackness Is Not.” The Atlantic. 15 June 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/ (Accessed 24 June 2020).

Kim Rahn. “Fans Name ‘Seoetaiji Forest’ in Brazil.” The Korea Times. March 2012. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/03/113_107088.html (Accessed 24 Jun 2020).

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The Once and Future Fandom: How Media Shapes Perceptions of K-pop Fans by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Soul in Seoul Playlist: g.o.d (Groove Overdose)

Image by SanderSmit from Pixabay

Veteran “idol” group g.o.d (Groove Overdose) is the first K-pop artist explored in-depth in Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. When writing the book, I always knew that g.o.d formed the foundation of understanding the use of R&B rhythm and vocals for later “idol” groups. Their consistent use of funk rhythms and vocals, especially gospel-inflected vocals over their decades-long career allows for an exploration of their sound over time, which remains remarkably consistent. The group’s engagement with black popular music ranges from soul ballads to upbeat dance tracks. Below find a collection of the best examples of g.o.d’s engagement with black popular music. (*Tracks marked with an * are explored further in the book).

  1. Observation, Chapter 1 (1999)* | 2. So You Can Come Back to Me, Chapter 1 (1999) | 3. With Little Men, Chapter 1 (1999) | 4. Promise, Chapter 1 (1999) | 5. Love and Remember, Chapter 2 (1999) | 6. Dance All Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 7. Friday Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 8. Five Men’s Story, Chapter 2 (1999) | 9. 21C Our Hope, Chapter 2 (1999) | 10. One Candle, Chapter 3 (2000)* | 11. Need You, Chapter 3 (2000) | 12. Lie, Chapter 3 (2000) | 13. Dance With Me, Chapter 3 (2000) | 14. Road, Chapter 4 (2001) | 15. The Place You Where You Should Be, Chapter 4 (2001) | 16. Let’s Go, Chapter 4 (2001) | 17. Report to the Dance Floor, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 18. Lately, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 19. The Reason Why Opposites Attract (Bandaega Kkeulrineun Iyu), Ordinary Day (2004) |  20. I Don’t Know Your Heart (Ni Mameul Molla), Into the Sky (2005) |  21. It’s Alright (ft. G-Soul), Into the Sky (2005) | 22. Crime (Mujoe), Into the Sky (2005) | 23. Change, Into the Sky (2005) | 24. Sky Blue Promise, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 25. Stand Up, Chapter 8 (2014) | 26. Saturday Night, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 27. G’swag, Chapter 8 (2014)

Soul in Seoul Playlist: g.o.d, “Change”

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

“Change” is from g.o.d’s (Groove Overdose) 2005 album Into the Sky. It combines rap with the distinct soul vocals of Kim Tae Woo.  The track’s lyrics were written by Park Jin Young, the CEO of JYP Entertainment also known as The Asiansoul, while the composition and arrangement is credited to Mad Soul Child.

Video

okatokat003. “g.o.d – [NeverSayGoodbye Concert] Change.” YouTube. 6 Aug 2008. https://youtu.be/XMakx_Qzvtg (Accessed 23 Apr 2020).

The Soul in Seoul Playlist includes tracks from Korean pop, R&B and hip-hop artists that appear in the book, Soul in Seoul: African American Music and K-pop. Tracks with an * are analyzed in the book. See the complete playlist here. 

Is K-pop Fandom Becoming Less Visible and More Fragmented?

Image by Elivelton Nogueira Veto from Pixabay

Online platforms have been a major force propelling the spread of K-pop globally, but are shifts in how they are deployed contributing to a more insular fandom?

When you ask K-pop fans about their journey into K-pop, YouTube usually features prominently. Over the last few years, K-pop fans have been treated to content by companies and artists who recognize the platform as a significant way to get content to fans. However, Jeff Benjamin reports a new trend that sees companies shifting their focus from the easily accessed platforms like Youtube (depending on your country of residence) to more proprietary platforms that promise more direct interaction with K-pop artists and more profit for companies: “The apps will enable K-pop companies to retain all of the ad revenue generated by the content they post. YouTube’s revenue-sharing model only gives 55% to channel owners, which can get more complicated when international viewership is involved.”

While access to such proprietary platforms such as WeVerse and Lysn are free, revenue is generated from fees to access more premium content with artists. Fans could pay $30 for a global fan membership or $20 to view the individual fourth season of BTS’s Bon Voyage, while an individual membership for a subscription to SM Entertainment’s personalized message system “Dear U” costs $3.45 per month for an individual member, and  a subscription for all 14 members of NCT could run about $40 (Benjamin 2020).

What are the implications for K-pop fandom, which for years was sustained by free content on platforms like YouTube? On one hand, this move could limit access for fans who choose to not pay for such services, and they may lose interest in K-pop.  On the other hand, fans have been circulating artist-related material for decades, keeping interest going for K-pop long before the companies started to look to proprietary platforms for revenue.

There would be a particular dilemma for the multi-fan of groups who may end of on several different proprietary platforms. Moreover, it could contribute to the continued balkanization of K-pop fandom, with fans becoming even more territorial and defensive about their groups. Channeling fans to proprietary sites may translate to even less exposure to other K-pop groups as well as the larger K-pop industry.

Such a move could also make fandom less visible. Because of its ease of access, YouTube is not only a platform for artist content, but for fan content as well.   This put fan activity on global display. If interaction between artists and fans move to more proprietary platforms, such fan activity becomes less visible. Which stricter rules on sharing, it could also have a negative impact on the visibility of fan-artist interaction, which began on very visible social media platforms in the first place.

Source

Jeff Benjamin. “Why K-pop Content Creators are Leaving YouTube and V Live.” Billboard. 16 Mar 2020. https://www.billboard.com/articles/deep-dive/9332981/why-k-pop-content-creators-are-leaving-youtube-and-v-live (18 Mar 2020).

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Is K-pop Fandom Becoming Less Visible and More Fragmented? by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Mini Data Note: Female American Fans, K-pop Girl Groups and a Critique of Empowerment

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Survey responses suggest that American female fans of K-pop girl groups simultaneously critique Korean society and music industry and recognize the impact of their position as foreign fans on their perceptions of representations of empowerment in K-pop.  These are findings from the U Go Girl: The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study and are based on 129 responses from female fans who identified their country of residency as the United States.

Transcultural fandom, when fans admire something outside of their culture, often revolves around nationalism. Koichi Iwabuchi talks about “brand nationalism,” or a “nationalist strategy of disseminating culture for national interests” (90). However, brand nationalism focuses on the interests of the country creating the culture rather than how fans outside of the country make sense of it. The field of fan studies tends to focus on the way fans admire culture, but what about when they critique it? When asked about their attitudes towards concepts/images of K-pop girl groups in relation to empowerment and agency for women, some American female fans of K-pop girl groups articulate a critique of gender dynamics in Korean society, while others recognize the impact of their American identity on their perspectives of female empowerment in Korea.  Both show how an American perspective can influences the discourses around K-pop.

Critique of Korea

Several respondents criticize Korean culture and society for a lack of representation of empowerment by K-pop girl groups. One respondent notes: “I think Korea has a huge issue with misogyny that is reflected in K-pop and that women are forced to be boxed in to one ‘type’ or another in order to appeal to men and to be socially acceptable to both men and women.” Another respondent says: “A lot of times they are held back due to Korea still holding sexist attitudes so I think there is more potential but it will all slowly become better.” How much do the respondents know about the history of Korean culture? Do they form such opinions based on Western media, which has been known to skew representations of foreign culture? Is “Korea’s issue with misogyny” or its “sexist attitudes” different than those within the United States?

Recognition of American Subjectivity

At the same time, other respondents recognize their perspective as American fans of a foreign popular culture. One respondent notes: “We have to remember as foreign fans, the concepts, images and sonic soundscapes that we hear/see in K-pop are coming from a unique place and culture. That means we are not always going to immediately understand it. . . . . We all have different experiences and thus different frameworks. Foreign Kpop fans need to remember this.” Another respondent notes: “This is a tricky question, because I’m a white American woman speaking on gender politics in Korea, a country I have no relation to and have never lived in. . . . At the end of the day, I’m not a defining voice on the subject, all I am is someone trying to find grey area in music and entertainment from a country that isn’t my own. I still am friends with quite a few Korean-Americans so I hear what they think on certain concepts, and that contributes a lot to my hesitancy to place my Western ideals on another country dismissively.” These fans recognize that their perceptions of Korean culture are filtered through their experiences as fans outside of the country. What kind of knowledge would a fan have to gain to make a valid critique of representations of empowerment? Do their perspectives not count because they are foreign fans? Do ideas about empowerment change as they cross national boundaries?

Other Observations

Such divergent responses suggest that perceptions by American fans may be influenced by American culture in general.  The impact of nationalism has been explored in fan studies.  Kyong Yoon’s study of K-pop fans in Vancouver included Canadians of East Asian descent, white Canadians and one Canadian of mixed race. Yoon noted: “Some fans of Asian descent engaged with K-pop in relation to their Asian Canadian subject positions, while White Canadian fans emphasized their individual and alternative cultural tastes that do not belong to mainstream culture” (185). Yoon suggests that a Canadian context informs the way these fans interact with K-pop.

The United States represents a unique context informed by a history of the interplay among gender, ethnicity and nationality. As a nation developed by a variety of immigrant groups and a major site for women’s rights, the United States also elides those very varied experiences in favor of one dominant narrative on empowerment, currently often represented as fierce, outspoken and brash. Images and concepts not in keeping with this narrative might be construed as not empowering. This suggests that a distinct and particular American cultural lens can have an impact on the way fans read empowerment in Korean girl groups.

Sources

Iwabuchi, Koichi.”Undoing Inter‐national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism’. Mechademia 5 (2010): . 87‐96.

Yoon, Kyong. “Transnational Fandom in the Making: K-pop Fans in Vancouver.” the International Communication Gazette vol 81, no. 2 (2018): 176-192. DOI: 10.1177/1748048518802964.

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Mini Data Note: Female American Fans, K-pop Girl Groups and a Critique of Empowerment by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

K-pop Was Not Born Last Night

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K-pop is old enough for us to recognize that it has a bonafide history, and the way we divide up that history affects the way we see K-pop.

Some scholars place K-pop within a larger history of Korean popular music. In the article “Mapping K-pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange,” Keith Howard begins a theorization of the K-pop music industry with an overview that begins in Korea’s colonial period. Similarly, John Lie contextualizes the exploration of K-pop within the development of music stretching back to the Choson era. These moves provide some legitimacy to K-pop based on its proximity to what some may view as more substantial forms of culture found earlier in Korea’s history.

However, K-pop is a distinct mode of Korean popular music, distinct in its production, sound and global reach. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “Despite the Western influences that have morphed Korean popular music into an expression unrecognizable from the standpoint of traditional music, K-pop has undeniably clear origins.” In addition, media have recognized that K-pop has gone through different phases throughout its almost 30-year (and counting) run. Their attempts to periodize K-pop suggests that it is worthy of a history of its own. At the same time, such attempts are also largely defined by “idol” groups, which skews our understanding of K-pop’s past when it fails to include other genres.

Nearly everyone agrees on first-generation K-pop, beginning with the debut of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 and ending in 2002 with the disbandment of several of the first K-pop groups. Both a staff reporter for KPopStarz and TAKE-KR list Seo Taiji, H.O.T, Turbo, Sechs Kies, g.o.d. and Fly to the Sky as part of first-generation. TAKE-KR adds Shinhwa and KPoPStarz includes BoA. At the same time, both publications overlook several genres within early K-pop, including Korean hip-hop acts like 1TYM, R&B groups like 4MEN, bands such as Jaurim and Nell and solo artists like Park Hyo Shin, Wheesung and Rain. Such lists tend to be “idol”-centric, but in fact, there is much overlap and influence among these artists under the large K-pop umbrella.

There remains a level of consensus for second-generation K-pop, which runs from 2003 to 2009. Articles from KPopStarz and TAKE-KR both list TVXQ, BigBang, SS501, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, 2NE1, BEAST, f(x), UKISS, 2AM, 2PM as part of second-generation K-pop. KPopStarz includes Epik High and several girl groups, including TARA, KARA, After School, 4Minute, Brown Eyed Girls and Secret. TAKE-KR includes MBLAQ and the bands FT. Island and CN Blue. Second-generation K-pop did produce a different variety of “idol” groups. It also continued to produce solo artists, such as Lee Hyori, Kim Tae Woo and Se7en, as well as several significant hip-hop groups, including Dynamic Duo, Supreme Team and Mighty Mouth.

There is much dissent for subsequent generations of K-pop. TAKE-KR identifies two more generations: EXP Generation (2010-2014), which includes BTS, EXO, Miss A, GOT7, Red Velvet and Mamamoo, and the XFMR Generation (2015-present), which includes Day6, Ikon, Seventeen, Twice and BlackPink. KPopStarz counts EXO, BlackPink, BTS, GOT7, Red Velvet, Ikon and Winner as part of a third generation that runs from 2011-2018. Again, the periodization does not include other genres.

Why does it matter? It matters because how we talk about K-pop shapes the perception of K-pop. As a mode of popular music, K-pop already suffers from the perception that it is trendy, faddish and disposable. Despite many predictions of its demise, not only has K-pop remained, it has developed over time. When the media talks about K-pop, it tends to focus on the popular “idol” groups of the moment, rather than putting those groups in the context of K-pop history or putting them in relation to other contemporary groups in different genres. We can only understand K-pop if we contextualize it within a comprehensive history.  That history does not have to go back to the beginning of recorded music or popular music in Korea in order to recognize that K-pop has a legitimate trajectory of development.

 

Sources

Howard, Keith. “Mapping K-pop’s Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange.” Korea Observer 45.3 (2014): 389-414.

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.

Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010).” East Asia 2013,DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.

Staff Reporter. “Generations of K-pop.” KPopStarz. 14 Jun 2019. https://www.kpopstarz.com/articles/289260/20190614/generations-of-kpop.htm   (4 Feb 2020).

“TAKE-KR K-pop Generations Chart.” TAKE-KR. 4 May 2019. https://www.take-kr.com/take-kr-magazines-k-pop-generations-chart/ (4 Feb 2020).

 

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K-pop Was Not Born Last Night by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The Multiple Meanings of Manufacturing in K-pop

Image: Pixabay

Media coverage and scholarly writing about K-pop often negatively characterizes it as a manufactured mode of music. However, there are other connotations of this term that more comprehensively address  the process by which K-pop is made.

It is common for stories about “idol”-based K-pop (singers and groups who sing and dance, appear on television shows and engage in promotional activity) to  characterize K-pop as manufactured, which is regarded as negative, not real, and disposable.  This is common in stories that seek to expose the “seedy underbelly” of K-pop. For example, Kathy Benjamin writes: “And it might not even be their choice. K-Pop bands are highly manufactured, and if your manager says you need to go under the knife to be beautiful enough to be a star, you probably do it.” Benjamin links what she sees as the manufactured nature of K-pop to appearance, rather than the music.  The unqualified assertion that K-pop is manufactured is echoed by Euny Hong: “Bands are treated like consumer products from the beginning. Producers design the band they want—down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign—before they even audition members.” Hong extends the description of K-pop as manufactured beyond appearance to the music, but with the same result. Both Benjamin and Hong assert that K-pop is manufactured in a way that makes creativity impossible.

The same approach can be found in scholarly writing. John Lie likens K-pop to a product, produced by “a business in which financial and other business concerns consistently trump musical or artistic considerations” (357). In other words, K-pop is a commodity, and as such, does not embody the creativity associated with other modes of music.

However, these negative characterizations are not the only way to view manufacturing in relation to K-pop. Manufacturing can embody creativity. Instead of being an esoteric, solely personal experience, Gil-Sung Park views the creativity in K-pop as a collaborative effort as part of “manufactured creativity,” which “signifies opening the entire global music industry to musical talents and audiences from all corners of the world, allowing them to participate in an endless interactive communication and discourse about music” (16). Negative characterizations perceive this musical interaction as coercive or manipulative, but Park sees them as creative.

Moreover, the results of such collaboration are truly innovative musical creations. Using SM Entertainment as an example, Park observes that “the internal modification process (or localization) requires a set of creative skills (i.e. tacit knowledge). . . . Production requires creativity and processes created by geniuses, but the SM style of localization also demands a steady supply of high-quality performers, which is the most important factor in local production of K-pop” (25). Unlike the product that Lie purports it to be, K-pop is the result of creative processes on the part of global and Korean music personnel making the music as well as the K-pop artists who perform it. Vocal ability and dance talent are indispensable to K-pop: “Understanding the K-pop phenomenon requires the knowledge of K-pop’s sustainable business model that is firmly based on musical talent and creativity” (16).

While the concept of manufacturing is often applied to K-pop, there are alternative uses of the term that recognize its creativity.

Sources

Benjamin, Kathy. “The Disturbing Truth Behind K-pop Music.” Grunge. n.d. https://www.grunge.com/92002/disturbing-truth-behind-k-pop-music/ (Accessed 29 Jan 2020).

Hong, Euny. “The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-pop Machine.” The Paris Review. 6 Aug 2014.  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/08/06/the-lean-mean-star-making-k-pop-machine/ (Accessed 29 Jan 2020).

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.

Park, Gil-Sung. “Manufacturing Creativity: Production, Performance and Dissemination of K-pop.” Korea Journal 53.4 (2013): 14-33.

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The Multiple Meanings of Manufacturing in K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Why Is K-pop Coverage So Negative?

Image: Pixabay

Much like the current tone of the Internet, wholly negative criticism threatens to skew our perceptions of K-pop.

On any given day, one can wander out on social media and witness what has become the all-too-common negative critique of K-pop. A recent Twitter thread began by Yim Hyun-su pointed out how media tends to write stories disproportionately on “the dark side of K-pop” to the exclusion of other types of stories. This trend is also at play in academic scholarship.  In an article for The Point Magazine, Lisa Riddick observed a level of “meanness” associated with the current culture of scholarly critique: “Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation” (“When Nothing is Cool“).

K-pop is particularly susceptible to negative criticism because it belongs to two fields often negatively criticized:  popular culture and fan studies. Popular culture falls on the low end of the culture hierarchy. Lawrence W. Levine locates the origins of the hierarchy in the United States at turn of the 20th century, with highbrow used “to describe intellectual or aesthetic superiority” and “lowbrow”used “to mean someone or something neither ‘highly intellectual’ or ‘aesthetically refined” (Highbrow Lowbrow, 221-2). K-pop is mass-produced and appeals to a wide audience, so writers assume that it could not have any aesthetic value.

Similarly, fans have long been negatively characterized. Matt Hills notes that “stereotypes of mass cultural consumption still hold that fans have an appetite for what seems to be trivia. . . . Fans are undiscriminating followers of mass culture. This locates fandom as a kind of tool of the media industry” (Understanding Fandom, 40). This line of thought assumes that fans have no taste and inherently follow unimportant things. This resonates with K-pop fandom, with its majority-female fan base, for female fans have been negatively characterized especially in relation to pop culture. Diane Railton observes:

A constant image of fans of this type of music is of a girl or young woman, screaming, out of control, totally absorbed in the bodily experience. And the image that is reproduced time and time gain is not usually of one girl but of a heaving, screaming ‘mass’ of femininity. ‘Pop’ music of this type is about losing control; surrendering the rational mind to the body and the emotions. it is here that we can get some clue as to the (horrified) fascination in which such music is held by the ‘serious’ music press. (328).

Such negative appraisals give the air of serious engagement, but the repetition of the same negative appraisals actually reflect a lack of true engagement with K-pop. It comes off as lazy and suggests that writers cannot be bothered to actually delve into K-pop because they feel it is superficial.  This gets worse when we look at coverage by English-language media, especially those located in the West and the United States. When these entities write the same negative stories about K-pop, it comes off as cultural chauvinism. Moreover, individuals parrot the same superficial observations, solidifying them as the “true” characterization of K-pop. Treating K-pop as a legitimate phenomenon would go a long way to improving media coverage of  K-pop.

Sources

Hills, Matt. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Railton, Diane. “The Gendered Carnival of Pop.” Popular Music 20.3 (2001): 321-331. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261143001001520 (Accessed 18 Oct 2019).

Riddick, Lisa. “When Nothing is Cool.” The Point Magazine. 7 Dec 2015.  https://thepointmag.com/criticism/when-nothing-is-cool/ (Accessed 9 Jan 2020).

 

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Why Is K-pop Coverage So Negative? by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Labor from Below: What Neoliberal Capitalism Overlooks in K-pop

Image: Pixabay

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Director, KPK: Kpop Kollective

Scholars frequently use the neoliberal capitalism frame to contextualize K-pop within the Korean wave, but the over-reliance on critiquing capitalist forces further silences the creative personnel of K-pop. If we approach K-pop using the “history from below” framework, we can reveal the perspectives of the individuals in the industry.

A number of scholarly articles that contextualize K-pop within Hallyu, or the Korean wave, invoke neoliberal capitalism as the interpretative frame for K-pop, a frame which focuses on  political and economic conditions that surround K-pop. Hyewon Kim describes neoliberal capitalism as “a theory of practices that pursue the liberation of individual entrepreneurial freedoms through free market and trade” (422). The neoliberal capitalist frame makes sense, given that the rise of K-pop coincides with a particular mode of globalization.  Cho Hae-Joang notes that the neoliberal perspective “highlights the cultural ‘industry'”:

The bulk of editorials and columns by news reporters, government officials, and people in the culture industry are concerned with how to advance and continue the promotion of the Korean Wave. Lamenting a lack of strategies, people in the forefront of cultural export institutions sought clever ways to crack open the enormous emerging Asian market. To them, the origin or quality of cultural products did not matter as much as the market and the bottom line. (159).

However, when K-pop is seen only as an industry, artists become mere cogs in a machine, the ensuing narrative is one of exploitation  for how much profit they can generate, with little concern with what they actually produce or how they perceive themselves within the industry. In From Factory Girls to K-pop Idol Girls: Cultural Politics of Developmentalism, Patriarchy, and Neoliberalism in South Korea’s Popular Music Industry, Gooyoung Kim notes that “the management and production style of the K-pop industry is almost identical to that of the manufacturer industry”: “K-pop industry has rendered highly homogenized, predictable music commodities, female idols, whose only aim is to make viable financial profits” (9).

However, using the framework of “history from below”  recognizes the people and their actions in the industry. The Institute of Historical Research‘s website Making History notes that “history from below” “seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrate on their experiences and perspectives, ” and “differed from traditional labour history in that its exponents were more interested in popular protest and culture than in the organisations of the working class.”

In his book, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, Robin D. G. Kelley explains how people, even under the most controlling labor conditions, can resist the forces around them.   He recalls his own experience working at McDonald’s:

The terrain was often cultural, centering on identity, dignity, and fun. We tried to turn work into pleasure, to turn our bodies into instruments of pleasure. Generational and cultural specificity had a good deal to do with our unique forms of resistance, but a lot of our actions were linked directly to the labor process, gender conventions and our class status. (3).

Kelley adds that in studying the labor of people so often overlooked in favor of the mechanisms of labor, “we have to step into the complicated maze of experience that renders ‘ordinary’ folks so extraordinarily multifaceted, diverse, and complicated” (4). This is the thrust of much working-class scholarship, focusing on individuals overlooked in the focus on the industries that employ them, even if there is no formal labor movement.

If we apply “history from below” to K-pop rather than relying solely on the neoliberal capitalism frame, then we would focus on the stories and narratives of creative personnel of K-pop, including “idols,” as individuals, rather than always painting the agencies as entities that control every aspect of life. We would see the narrative of K-pop go beyond its “dark side” to fully encapsulate the experiences of those who work within the industry, and recognize their humanity even within capitalist forces. We would cease to erase the actual people who work in the industry.

Sources

Cho Hae-Joang. 2005. “Reading ‘The Korean Wave’ as a Sign of Global Shift.” Korea Journal  45 (5): 147-182.

“History From Below.” n.d.  Making History. https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/themes/history_from_below.html  (25 Nov 2019).

Kelley, Robin D.G. 1994. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press.

Kim, Gooyoung. 2019.  From Factory Girls to K-pop Idol Girls: Cultural Politics of Developmentalism, Patriarchy, and Neoliberalism in South Korea’s Popular Music Industry. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Kim, Hyewon. 2018. “Domestiating Hedwig: Neoliberal Global Capitalism and Compression in South Korean Musical Theater.” The Journal of Popular Culture 51(2): 421-445.

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Labor from Below: What Neoliberal Capitalism Overlooks in K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Who’s Better, Who’s Best: Competition and Manipulation in K-pop

Image: Pixabay

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Director, KPK: Kpop Kollective

Recent developments involving award and competition shows reveal the impact of mainstreaming on K-pop. As stakes increase for industry and media, accolades and competition are perceived as metrics for quality. However, they largely measure popularity, which is subject to manipulation.

While many K-pop acts are managed by an agency and undergo rigorous training that may span years, others result from competition shows developed by broadcast companies. These shows produce a temporary K-pop group that promotes during a fixed promotion period, and then often disbands.  Such shows have proven popular, drawing on the increased global popularity of K-pop. For example, Produce 101, created by CJE&M, has produced K-pop groups I.O.I, Wanna One, IZ ONE, and X1 in four seasons.

Such shows have not been without controversy. While fans may express their displeasure when their favorites do not win, police in South Korea have found that results of the shows were manipulated. Writing for soompi, D.S. Kim reports: “According to the police, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s cyber investigation team found differences between the number of votes revealed on the final episodes and the raw data showing the actual votes that were sent in by viewers.”

Questions about vote manipulation are also leveled at accolades such as awards. Not very long ago, mainstream recognition was not an issue in K-pop because of its marginalized status. However, the mainstreaming of K-pop involves participation in award shows. When the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK recently won several People’s Choice Awards in November 2019, major American media outlets like Newsweek reported on the frustration of fans of BTS, who during the past couple of years had been the most recognizable K-pop group in the United States. Other media outlets revealed suspicions by BTS fans similar to those that sparked the Produce 101 investigation: “Others were confused at the group’s loss given how popular BTS is, with a few fans keeping tabs on fan voting for the People’s Choice Awards. ‘There is no possible way that blackpink beat BTS for this award,@peopleschoice you have some explaining to do,’ wrote @tae25 while tweeting out screenshots of Awards stats that show BTS leading in votes” (Ali).

While fans often lead the charge with accusations around manipulation, it is the personnel in the corporations that manage the competitions and awards. They encourage the use of popularity as a metric of quality. The Produce 101 competitions ultimately relied on fan votes that were based on the performances shown by the show itself, performances that generated profit for the companies when the shows aired. Similarly, awards like the People’s Choice Awards are popularity awards, popularity which results from exposure that the media helps to generate in the first place.

When accusations of manipulation are made, it is in part because of an environment that uses popularity as a metric for quality and benefits the very entities that create the competition.  This is only possible when K-pop goes mainstream, generating a certain level of popularity.

Sources

Ali, Rasha. “BTS fans upset after K-pop group lost to Blackpink at 2019 People’s Choice Awards.” USAToday. 11 Nov 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2019/11/11/peoples-choice-awards-bts-fans-frustrated-k-pop-group-lost/2560369001/ (16 Nov 2019).

Kim, D.S. “Update: Police Find Suspicions That “Produce 101” Seasons 1 And 2 Were Also Manipulated + Mnet Responds.” soompi. 14 Nov 2019. https://www.soompi.com/article/1365570wpp/police-find-suspicions-that-produce-101-seasons-1-and-2-were-also-manipulated (16 Nov 2019).

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Who’s Better, Who’s Best: Competition and Manipulation in K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.