Well, in short, I thought Ms. Hong did a fine job of exploring why and how Korea has pushed it cultural output to places like… Manipur. But she falls very short in evaluating the content that it's pushing. The problem is that Ms. Hong was born and raised in the US and retains a Western standard of what makes "good" product. In one particularly (pardon the pun) tone deaf section, she pulls out the same old post-Woodstock Generation talking points about "bands" and "authenticity." Because the Korean music getting exported is not made by "organically formed, self-contained bands" (her words, p.120) ergo it's worthless, except as product.
This whole section is ridiculous:
Why does it matter how a band gets formed?
It matters a great deal. The organically formed, self-contained bands had one crucial, history-altering characteristic: because they came from nothing, they had nothing to lose. They could experience with new sounds; they could improvise…
Furthermore, there is one major difference in western versus Korean culture: western kids can goof off… If a Korean music industry was going to form, it didn't have time to wait for the Korean John, Paul, George, and Ringo to magically find each other.
I mean, first of all, the "organically formed, self-contained band" is a myth of record company marketing departments. Even the Beatles had plenty of molding and sculpting from managers, company men, and marketing departments. That's where Ringo came from. THEY SACKED THE ORIGINAL DRUMMER BECAUSE MANAGEMENT SAID TO. And their sound was not just magically formed on the streets of Liverpool but was heavily guided by well-educated producer George Martin.
And don't get me started on "goofing off." Nobody makes it in the music business by goofing off. You goof off in your basement; the Beatles worked their fingers to the bone.
These two myths are so poisonous--that music has to be "organically formed bands" and must emerge from some mysterious font of creative energy that can only be tapped by "goofing off." FUCK THAT. It's why American popular music sucks so much these days. With a few exceptions. Janelle Monae for one.
Dismissing any non-monetary value of the "non-organically formed, non-self-contained band" is why in the West have to suffer through the so-cynical-it-hurts, bottom-of-the-barrel pop churned out by One Direction AND self-indulgent, navel-gazing "serious" music by the type of people who sell CDs at Starbucks. We get five embarrassed young men shuffling through safe, bland songs written by Simon Cowell's buddies from the 1980s and 1990s pop scene while Korea gets this:
That's BIGBANG's "Fantastic Baby," written by a couple members of the band and the extremely hip Korean-Japanese rapper Verbal. BIGBANG are what we would call a boy band but just because they don't play instruments and aren't "organically formed" doesn't mean they can't produce amazing, vital stuff.
And that's just one example of many. I've said this a million times but the major difference between American/Western and other pop musics is respect for THE PERFORMANCE, for entertaining an audience. What frustrates me more than anything about the "organically formed band" mythos is that it leaves THE AUDIENCE out of the equation. All these artists who supposedly just write or perform for themselves… why should I care about what they have to say? Just make your own Bob Dylan style basement tapes and I'll be over here buying limited edition albums from somebody who actually wants to engage with me.
Anyway. That Western attitude of "organic art" = "quality product" poisons much of Ms. Hong's discussions of Korean pop art.
She also has apparently never read a single interview with an Asian artist before because she appears to take all their statements at face value. I admit, I used to be like this, too. However, I put in the time and effort to observe how Asian artists interact with the media and it's VERY different from the types of interviews American artists give. You can't just accept it at face value when director Park Chan Wook (Oldboy, etc.) says he prefers the American way of making movies. (Which she does, on p.186) I mean, maybe he does think that but it's equally likely that he feels that he needs to be respectful to his American colleagues while talking to an American reporter or is just going with the flow and telling her what she wants to hear. There is a 99.9% chance he would give a completely different answer to a Korean reporter.
(AND her reporting on the Japanese music scene is just factually wrong. So wrong, in fact, that it's not even worth bringing up. It's like she didn't even GOOGLE ANYTHING TO FACT CHECK HERSELF. Like, for example, AKB48 does not have 48 members. I mean… COME ON!)
So, like I said, I wouldn't exactly recommend this book. It might be worth borrowing from the library and skimming for the memoir sections.
But it did remind me of how much I loved Korean dramas. I hadn't watched any in a few years but with all the stress of the holidays, I decided to indulge in a little light-hearted drama called Mary Stayed Out All Night (available in the USA with subtitles on Hulu!)
The drama isn't anything extraordinary--a young couple kept apart by money problems and family drama--but it was satisfying somehow. This type of story with a girl and boy who find each other, with complicated family backstories, with a meandering plot, where the marriage may not be a happy ending, this type of story is what you used to find all the time in Hindi films before they started looking towards Hollywood. Is it causation or correlation that with this change the influence of Bollywood has fallen off and Korean dramas have gained a foothold in places like… Manipur. And Malaysia. And Indonesia. And Burma. And… And…
And now, I think I'm going to watch the next drama that was in that time slot: Dream High. I hear it's good.