CONFERENCE ABSTRACT: The Cultural Politics of Asian/Americans in Kpop @ Association of Asian American Studies

A Far East Movement: The Cultural Politics of Asian/Americans in Kpop

Dr. Crystal S. Anderson

Association of Asian American Studies Conference, Washington, DC

April 11-14, 2012

ABSTRACT

With the global spread of Hallyu (global Korean cultural movement expressed through music, television dramas and film), many have focused on the reception of Korean culture by other countries.  However, there is also a reciprocal movement, one where Asian/Americans migrate to the Korean popular music scene, bringing a sensibility reflecting experiences as people of color in the United States AND members of an Asian diaspora.  This paper explores the complicated results of such movement.   On one hand, Korean American artists like Jay Park have encountered obstacles in navigating the Kpop scene. Initially a member of the all-male group 2PM, Park created controversy over his abrupt departure and subsequent negative comments about Koreans.  His experience suggests challenges in acculturating to what seems to be a foreign culture to him as an Asian American.  On the other hand, Korean artists born or raised in the United States (i.e. Hyesung, and Andy of  Shinhwa) or Canada (i.e. Henry of Super Junior) seem to avoid the kinds of troubles that Park encounters.  In addition, Asian American groups such as Aziatix have gained a measure of success in Kpop. My paper will explore factors that may account for this difference.  In addition, American producers such as Steven Lee regularly work behind the scenes making music that draws on American R&B and soul, while Korean producers such as Yoo Young Jin work with African Americans to create what can only be described as Korean soul.  What are the implications of this transnational movement of culture? Is the reception of these subjects in Kpop impacted by transnational cultural politics?

An Idol Army: Thoughts On The Mega Group

Too many!

That’s what a lot of netizens say when offering an opinion on new or returning idol groups with extremely large numbers. They may have a point, but I also think that there is something to be gained from mega Kpop group.

While fans are always noting the sheer number of idol groups that debut, they seem to be especially sensitive to groups with large numbers. Five members may be ideal, but when numbers start to climb beyond that, as it does with groups such as U-Kiss (seven members), T-ara (seven members), Infinite (seven members) , ZE:A (nine members) and After School (nine members), people get antsy.  Given their success, fans seem to have accepted the large numbers in SNSD and Super Junior, but that was not easily achieved. So I wasn’t surprised at the reaction to newer, larger Kpop groups. Something seemed to snap in fans when Golden Goose Entertainment announced plans for a Japanese debut for APeace (formerly Double B/21) back in March. With 21 members in tow (yes, 21!), some viewed APeace as a science experiment gone horribly wrong, one that created a monster with the numbers of Super Junior and SNSD combined. Kpop fans flooded forums with their displeasure at the high number of members. Some wondered how all 21 of them get paid. Others complained about not being able to see them all. And still others lamented having to learn all of their names.

I have to confess, I like APeace. I like their single, Lover Boy. I find it to be a great dance song. But what can prepare you for the music video for Lover Boy? It makes me absolutely giddy, and it has everything to do with the fact that there are eventually 21 of them dancing on the screen at one time!

Maybe I like this video so much because it brings back memories of being in a marching band. I especially like the move at :41, which I’m sure will be come the international sign for “baby girl.” However, beyond my potential fangirl-y reaction to APeace, I do think that they learn from some of the challenges that other mega groups like Super Junior face, and, as a result, could make it work.

Mega groups mean mega profits for agencies, as they can strategically place members in multiple places at once, so it makes sense from their point of view. Clearly, SM Entertainment did not foresee how attached fans would get to the initial membership of a mega group like Super Junior. Now, before we get started, I like Super Junior, so I want all the ELFs to take a deep breath. I am not hating on Super Junior, but there are some things that we all know to be true. For instance, all was well in Super Junior land back in 2007 until SM Entertainment started making noises about adding more members, like Henry, to the already super large Super Junior. This prompted some fans to take action to protect the membership. Asianbite.com featured a story about fan protests over the plan. One fan stated, “We do not want Henry or anyone else to be added in Super Junior. We want Super Junior to be a safe 13-membered group.”  I believe that some of this anxiety came from the fact that fans perceived the membership of Super Junior to be set, and that the addition of Henry was not something they signed up for. As a fan, you would wonder whether or if the additions would stop.  SM Entertainment could just keep adding members, with no end in sight. However, APeace avoids this by hitting you with 21 members up front. 21 is a large number, so if you accept that APeace has 21 members, you are not likely to have anxiety about the possibility for additional members. If they added more members (gasp!), would it really be that big of a deal?

The creation of subgroups by SM Entertainment to capitalize on as many markets as possible contributes to even more anxiety around the mega group. Hey, when you are working with 10 to 13 people, you have options. But sometimes these subgroups cause challenges of their own, especially for new fans. I encountered Super Junior M before I encountered Super Junior, so I didn’t understand the relationship between the subgroups and the main group. I could not understand why I couldn’t find Henry or Zhou Mi in what I have come to call Super Junior Proper.  And don’t get me started on the guest status of Sungmin and Eunhyuk in Super Junior M right now. Are there more subgroups on the horizon? One never knows with SM Entertainment. However, APeace has the foresight to establish their subgroups up front. According to their official website, we can look forward to APeace Lapis, APeace Jade and APeace Onyx, three subgroups with seven members each. This move avoids fan disappointment and confusion.

The number of members and the subgroups are not the only things that causes anxiety in fans in relation to a mega group. One of my issues with Super Junior is the presence of the membership of Super Junior at any given time. When a news story runs that Super Junior will make an appearance, can you really be sure who is going to show up? How often do you see all of them together? Yes, we know that Kangin has a good excuse, as he is doing his military service, but when was the last time you saw Kibum? Is he even still in this group? I miss him.  This inability to predict which members of the group participate in group activities is in part linked to the busy schedules of individual members, and this is a problem for me. I was introduced to Super Junior as a group. I kinda expect them to act like the other groups I like.  You know, to be together, to show up, together. Sometimes, it just seems that they are individual artists who get together once in a while and make music. However, I don’t even expect APeace to function as a group in that way because they are rolling 21 deep. I’m not looking for them to have a deep bond with each other. I don’t know APeace, but I don’t feel that I’m expected to know them individually in this 21-member unit. Yes, I vaguely remember them introducing themselves, but who remembers that? I remember them being introduced as a 21-member group, so I don’t invest in their group dynamic, as I did with SS501 or SHINee. APeace, with its large numbers, lowers your expectations about the interaction among the members. I see them more as individual artists who come together to form the mini-nation that is APeace every once and a while. So if fans rarely expect to see them all together, then they are less likely to be disappointed.

I guess this is why I’m not up in arms about APeace. I know I won’t convince a lot of you that bigger is better, but that’s not my goal. What I am saying is that creating a viable model for a large Kpop group is worth exploring. Whatever you think of APeace or any other mega group coming down the turnpike, it takes a certain amount of expertise to promote a mega group. Somebody had to arrange 21 voices on a track. Somebody had to choreograph a dance for 21 people, and I think APeace pulls it off. They are so in sync, a friend of mine thought it was a special effect. Somebody had to film 21 people in motion. There is something to be said for the people who work behind the scenes and for the members of mega groups themselves. You try doing anything with 21 people.

Sources:

“Super Junior Fans Protest Against Addition of New Member,” Asianbite.com

Profile, apeace.jp

Photo Credits: thehottestprimadonna

Video Credits:

APeace, Lover Boy, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvUuSfXlA7I