On November 1, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article with the title “Psy-chology 101: Academics Put Spotlight on Korean Pop Culture.” Basically, the article essentially questions the relevance of taking an academic look at K-pop.

Ph.Ds from Poland to Argentina are doing such things as scrutinizing the latest music videos from eight-member girl group Girls’ Generation, chatting up middle-aged Japanese women who camp out in line for tickets to see their favorite Korean boy band and exploring the differences between Korean and Japanese karaoke rooms.

Although the article reads a bit satirical, on some level it does supports the idea using the example of Keith Howard, a Professor at the University of London who has studied anthropology and ethnography of people, especially as it related to music, from as disparate as Zimbabwe and South Korea.

WSJ captioned this pic as follows: "South Korean rapper Park Jae-sang, popularly known as ‘Psy,’ performs ‘Gangnam Style.’ Keith Howard, an ethnomusicologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the U.K., writes: “Its performance…can best be analyzed in terms of a potentialized mimetic power, as a kind of reverse Saidian Orientalism.” From “Politics, Parodies, and the Paradox of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’” (2015). AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES"
WSJ captioned this pic as follows: “South Korean rapper Park Jae-sang, popularly known as ‘Psy,’ performs ‘Gangnam Style.’ Keith Howard, an ethnomusicologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the U.K., writes: “Its performance…can best be analyzed in terms of a potentialized mimetic power, as a kind of reverse Saidian Orientalism.” From “Politics, Parodies, and the Paradox of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’” (2015). AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES”

In his recent academic pursuits Prof. Howard has dedicated considerable time to the study of K-pop authoring papers and book chapters on the subject. Recently, he authored a paper titled “Politics, Parodies, and the Paradox of Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’,” as well as ‘Mapping K-Pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange.’

Prof. Howard’s article on ‘Psy’ and “Gangnam Style”

…explores the song, its reception and critique by fans and others, and notes how, in an ultimate paradox that reflects the age of social media and the individualization of consumerism, the parodies the song spawned across the globe enabled Koreans to celebrate its success while ignoring its message.

Hope you got that 🙂

The second article Mapping K-Pop Past and Present, is a historical litany of the Korean music industry from Korea’s pre-colonial era preceding 1945, to the current landscape of Korean pop post-“Oppa Gangnam Style!” It doesn’t necessarily give the academically curious reader a perspective, but instead provides an understanding of the K-pop industry and its origin.

In the WSJ article, Prof Howard expresses the skepticism he’s faced in his academic pursuit of K-pop, saying, “I was told off by a number of people in the audience who were telling me this was not a legitimate field of study”.

The WSJ article concludes saying

“Despite the ivory tower resistance, K-pop scholars may be winning the argument as K-pop’s scholarly appeal spreads within the academic community.”

An example of such scholarly appeal within an “ivory tower” is a 100 page senior capstone project titled “Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular Music” by a Sarah Leung from Vassar College – self-described as “a highly selective, residential, coeducational liberal arts college.”

In fulfilling her graduation requirement Ms. Leung makes a good and well research argument on various topics including K-pop as a hybridization of culture, but then stretches it a bit as she makes her argument regarding K-pop as “authentically Korean”.

WSJ captioned this pic as follows: "K-pop boy band EXO. Roald Maliangkay, an ethnomusicologist at Australian National University wrote, “While their [boy band members’] outfits may be based on the same or a similar fabric, there is usually some variation in how the patterns are tailored and arranged, and members rarely share the same hairstyle.” From “Uniformity and Nonconformity: The Packaging of Korean Girl Groups” (2015). ISSEI KATO/REUTERS"
WSJ captioned this pic as follows: “K-pop boy band EXO. Roald Maliangkay, an ethnomusicologist at Australian National University wrote, “While their [boy band members’] outfits may be based on the same or a similar fabric, there is usually some variation in how the patterns are tailored and arranged, and members rarely share the same hairstyle.” From “Uniformity and Nonconformity: The Packaging of Korean Girl Groups” (2015). ISSEI KATO/REUTERS”
Granted, she wrote her senior capstone project in 2012, pre-Illionaire and pre-AOMG, pre-Hyuna (post Gangnam Style), pre… K-pop’s current iteration. An iteration, Prof Howard argues in his historical litany, where the government has abandoned its role as censor in its pursuit of K-pop as a means of promoting Korea’s “soft-culture” to the world.

Very in depth, Ms Leung takes a look at fetish-ization, sexual-ization , infantil-ization, and gender-bending (feminin-ization?) among others, making some really relevant points along the way. Although, at times she sounds a bit like an apologist. However, particularly insightful is her use of lyrics and data, that every day K-pop fans won’t particularly care much for (as a long-time fan on K-pop, it was my first time actually seeing many of these translations).

Finally, one of the best examples and peculiarly fruitful scholarly pursuit of K-pop, coming from another “ivory tower” is the “I’m Making a Boy Band” (IMMABB) project by Bora Kim, begun during her time as a Master’s student at Columbia University. A project which would ultimately birth the non-Korean and American-based K-pop boy group EXP.

(all non Korean) EXP: from left to right - Koki, Sime, Frankie, David, Hunter + Tarion.
(all non Korean) EXP: from left to right – Koki, Sime, Frankie, David, Hunter + Tarion.

The project is described as:

IMMABB consists of three main elements: pop music, contemporary visual art and documentary film. It is a multi-faceted project which highlights and examines every phase of the process of making a K-pop boy band, including: auditioning, training the band members, leading cultural workshops (around race, gender, sexuality, art, Korean culture), releasing original songs, music videos, dance performances and fan merchandise.

This project is an ongoing collective experience, in-depth research, experimentation, film-making, as well as a business endeavor. As a long-term project, I’m Making a Boy Band intends to exist in multiple stages as well as different iterations and forms of dispersion.

The reaction to IMMABB by the K-pop audience and proponents has been ambivalent. The media have been largely supportive, including mainstream media in both Korea and America, and has gained positive reviews from as far as New Zealand.

However, the K-pop fan base, who it-goes-without-saying are very passionate, have been a mixed-bag about the whole thing. The initial reaction to EXP was a vociferous NAY! from the main core (it didn’t help that the most popular K-pop boy band is called “EXO”), but embracive from the fringe who have shown enough support to help EXP fulfill a KickStarter funding goal $30,000.

One probably unexpected consequence of this academic project by Ms. Kim was to fully unearth K-pop’s race problem, which has an uncanny latent existence in the genre. That is until something like EXP occurs or most recently with Rania (more on that,later), and then it becomes wholly apparent.

Ms. Kim says:

I thought it was very important and poignant that, as a post-colonial country, Korea had successfully managed to export cultural goods to other Asian countries and soon after, “the West.” The Korean pop industry has always appropriated its concepts from the West…

It’s widely accepted in academic circles, examining the work of Prof. Howard, Leung and Bora Kim, that the content of K-pop is largely appropriated. Yet, loosely speaking, when the source of the appropriated content attempt’s a piece-of-the-action, K-pop fans get into a tizzy. Now, that merits academic scrutiny.

WSJ captioned this pic as follows: "South Korean girl group SISTAR in Seoul in 2014. Stephen Epstein, a professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, writes: “A corollary effect of corporeal discipline and these sorts of pseudoscientific but demanding requirements, then, as they trickle down from stars to fans who wish to emulate them is the simultaneous production of narcissism and insecurity.” From “Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination” (2012). KIM HEE-CHUL/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY"
WSJ captioned this pic as follows: “South Korean girl group SISTAR in Seoul in 2014. Stephen Epstein, a professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, writes: “A corollary effect of corporeal discipline and these sorts of pseudoscientific but demanding requirements, then, as they trickle down from stars to fans who wish to emulate them is the simultaneous production of narcissism and insecurity.” From “Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination” (2012). KIM HEE-CHUL/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY”

Beyond all the satire and sarcasm, the point is that well-researched and thought-out academic pursuit of an ethnographic study such as K-pop, including from a cultural and economic perspective is relevant. In a way, it is a translation from the right brain to the left brain. It’s a holistic pursuit, a means of making logical and discrete the intangible and perceived aspects of culture and human behavior.

Lastly, when the first man to allegedly climb Mount Everest, George Mallory was asked why climb the tallest natural structure on the planet, he answered “because it is there.” Well, Kpop is here, so let’s study it. Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two, good and bad.

Read the WSJ article by Jonathan Cheng “Psy-chology 101: Academics Put Spotlight on Korean Pop Culture.”
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