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.