Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ramblings on "The Birth of Korean Cool."

While I was out at the book store looking for children's books for a friend's kids, I picked up something for myself: "The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture" By Euny Hong. I can't exactly recommend it, though I did find parts of it interesting. The book is about 1/2 cultural observation and memoir and 1/2 mediocre NYTimes magazine piece-style filler. The cultural observation and memoir sections were good but not good enough to outweigh the mediocrity of the surrounding filler sections. What do I mean, hmm?

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.


Thelondongirl said...

loool thank you for the sunday read. did you really sit up all night and watch Mary stayed out all night? cool. i pretty much went on a Jang keun Suk rampage after that. Dream High is good, though i pretty much stay away from the school teeny bopper stories. Reply 1997 (or is it 1994). I was thinking as I read this. that you would probably write a great book, and I would read it. At least it wouldnt be full of the same old bullshit pandering that you see over here. I find myself stuck in a time warp with Hindi movies, try as I might its rare that I will watch one now and enjoy it, with the exception of KICK & BANG BANG The bolly scene has declined so much it makes me sad. Hence my supplementing with K dramas. and in truth I dont miss it like I thought I would. There are times when only a Hindi Movie will do, but I have to go to the 90's for that. I know you didnt watch Happy New Year, It was laughable at best. But there's a bit in the film where Shahrukh talks to one of the Korean dancers in Korean. Most of the reviewers of the film when they mention that he battles against Korean dancers derided that, I think differently i believe the impact of K culture is felt there also, though you would never know it, just as Bollywood films are a staple in Korea. I was watching the drama A discovery of Love, pretty run of the mill drama (didn't like it much) but i squealed when they showed them watching Rab ne bana de Jodi. maybe it was a bit of pandering on Farah khans part, but i'm sure they have their eye on it too.

Filmi Girl said...

GIRL! You made my day! I didn't know about the Korea-Farah Khan connection. I wonder… I bet your theory is right.

I didn't marathon it overnight but… pretty close. LOL! I've loved Jang Geun Suk since I first saw him in Hong Gil Dong all those years ago… my friend and I used to call him "Emo Prince." I remember when Mary came out but I had gone off K-dramas at that point. But my love for JKS was so strong that when I wanted to watch a K-drama after three years my first choice was a JGS one!

I'm watching Dream High right now and it's SO GOOD OMG!!!! The only thing that comes close in recent years is Student of the Year. I wonder how that would do in Korea/Japan/Taiwan markets. Probably pretty good...

Thelondongirl said...

see i never know if its Jang Geun Suk or Jang Keun Suk. nonetheless I loooove him and he hasnt been doing so well in the last year, his last drama, Pretty Man bombed so he didnt work in all of 2014. I felt that, because just as i discovered in him he drops off. Here's hoping for 2015. Dream high has a sequel, Dream high 2, and my new "boo" is in it, Park Seo Joon. If i was 15,or 21 i would so be crushing. But i'm a grown ass woman , i dont do that, well not much. Hope your year is awesome Filmi

Stuart Martin said...

Thanks for the review. It sounds like one I hope to find at a library rather than having to buy. As a K-Drama fan with effectively ZERO interest in K-Pop, I think large parts of her book will probably be of little iterest, but I would like to read her take on Hallyu popularity among desis. The book's own title smacks rather of the very inferiority complex she mentions in the chapter 5 heading, though.

Filmi Girl said...

@thelondongirl I marathoned eight episodes of Dream High yesterday… oops! IT IS SO GOOD and now Kim Soo Hyun is my new boo. Omg he is adorable.

@Stuart She never mentions it!!!! That was one of the things in the book that made me feel like she did very little original research. She also never mentions "Bollywood" as one of the things that the "Hallyu Wave" replaced in places like Southeast Asia and Russia. If you went by her telling, India doesn't exist and it was Japan that the dominant pop culture force until Korea replaced. That just reads wrong to me.

The parts of her book that I found valuable were those where she gives direct observation on the culture, talking about her schooling and what she learned from it… that kind of thing. Everything else was half-baked.

ThelondongirlUSA said...

@filmigirl, then you will super love him in my love from another star, just be careful, you are gonna want fried chicken and beer.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
.article .article-content { word-break: normal !important; }