In order to comprehensively examine the hybrid nature of music and performance in the Korean wave, we should recognize the multiple meanings embedded in these cultural modes that transcend language.
This cultural translation is clearly illustrated in Lia Kim‘s choreography for Earth, Wind and Fire‘s “September,” a single released by the iconic R&B group in 1978. Kim is known for her choreography for K-pop artists, including the girl group Mamamoo. Uploaded to 1MILLION Dance Studio’s YouTube channel in February 2020, the dance video for “September” translates the exuberance of the song, an exuberance that transcends language. The choreography uses dynamic handwork and travels through the dance space with sharp body moves that highlight the distinctive horns of the song. The energy the dancers is matched by yells from the audience.
While the song’s lyrics tell a story, Jefferey Peretz also points to the groove in the track itself: “There’s four chords in the chorus that keep moving forward and never seem to land anywhere–much like the four seasons. . . . It’s the end of summer, it’s the beginning of fall, it’s that Indian summertime; it’s the transition from warm to cool” (Charnas). Israel Daramola says, “The reason ‘September’ is iconic has little to do with its lyrics–as White would tell you–but instead its majesty and intricate musicality. It is funk and disco and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, all at once, designed to get you moving and smiling.” Both Peretz and Daramola point to the embedded meanings in the music itself.
Kim’s choreography for the track also reflects a hybridity that transcend language because African American cultural production contain meanings that transcend language. In A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, Craig Werner notes that that genres such as hip-hop, gospel, soul, funk, reggae and disco are not just “a black thing”:
While those strategies are grounded in the specific history of blacks in what Bob Marley called ‘Babylon,’ they’re available to anyone who doesn’t call Babylon home. (xiii)
Music, visuals and performance transcend language because they draw on experiences that people share. Daramola cites major genres of black popular music, which carry what Werner calls “impulses” that draw on black experiences. Such impulses are embedded in the music and are accessible to anyone who can recognize them. For example, Werner describes the record label Philadelphia International Records, a major figure in the soul sound, as creating “a socially uplifting music that would appeal to everyone in the black community and as many as possible on the other side of the rapidly re-forming racial line” (197).
If the cultural flows that produce the hybrid music and performance of the Korean wave ripple across national and linguistic boundaries, then our examination of it should also. The embedded meaning is the reason why people who don’t speak the language respond to it. It is also the reason why we can study the cultural production of Hallyu without knowing the language. While language is important, it’s not the only important vehicle for the transmission of meaning.
1MILLION Dance Studio. “Earth, Wind & Fire – September/Lia Kim Choreography.” YouTube. 14 Feb 2020. https://youtu.be/6mb76aRJxaw (Accessed 28 Aug 2020).
Craig Werner. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. Plume, 1998.
Dan Charnas. “The Song that Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ Sustains.” npr music. 19 Sept 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/09/19/349621429/the-song-that-never-ends-why-earth-wind-fires-september-sustains (Accessed 29 Aug 2020).
Israel Daramola. “Taylor Swift’s ‘September’ Cover is Completely Joyless.” SPIN. 13 Apr 2018. https://www.spin.com/2018/04/taylor-swift-september-earth-wind-fire-cover-review/ (Accessed 28 Aug 2020).
Dancing in September : Cultural Translation in Hallyu Performance by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.