Friday, June 8, 2018

Response to Lim's piece in The Conversation on BTS

This post by Susanna Lim, a professor of Korean studies, in The Conversation was making the rounds on English language BTS twitter yesterday and I thought it was worth making a quick response post because I found it interesting. Lim invokes the book The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong as a touchstone for understanding the BTS phenomenon and about identifying with the author’s observation that being Korean didn’t used to be “cool.”

Lim’s conclusion in the post is that BTS has broken through in America because of social media and how they appear to be more authentic than other groups.

But unlike other K-pop groups, BTS have done more than perfect their choreography and looks. They also put their personalities on full display.

Via social media, they’ve been able to connect with and cultivate a community of utterly devoted fans. On Twitter – in English and in Korean – group members give fans a window into their lives, express themselves, and talk about issues important to teens, from mental health to body image.

What I find so interesting about this is that much like Euny Hong in The Birth of Korean Cool Lim has no idea what K-Pop is and how it works. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it very frustrating. Hong was on firm ground writing about her own past and the difficulties in navigating being Korean-American but she had absolutely no understanding of how K-Pop groups work and was unable to shake the extremely American view of “real” musicians being singer-songwriters who write personal lyrics about themselves.

Lim, in her post, says this:

K-pop is a particular style of South Korean popular music that’s distinguishable from other popular forms of Korean music, such as trot and sentimental ballads. Many trace its origins to the early 1990s, but the genre came into its own in the 2000s and 2010s, with acts such as BoA, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang and 2NE1 becoming hugely popular in Asia and beyond.

The “pop” part of K-pop seems easy enough; you’ll hear American pop musical influences – mostly dance pop, but also rap, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, techno and rock — in K-pop songs.

What strikes me here is the complete lack of mention of Japan. There is a huge feedback loop with K-Pop and Japanese musical tastes because Japan forms such a large part of their export market. BoA, Girls’ Generation, TVXQ, Big Bang--which Lim mentions--as well as SHINee, KARA, T-ARA, Twice, etc. were/are very popular in Japan and even spent time training there. Most of these groups have had hits that were hits first in Japan in Japanese before bringing them home to Korea.

I’m not discounting the American influence baked into those early 1990s R&B roots of the “K-Pop” genre but Lim here echoes what I’ve seen a lot in English language coverage of “K-Pop” in that the music is heard through a reductive and very American filter. I’ve written this before but a song like BTS’s shimmering pop love song “DNA” with its uneven tempo and perfect for karaoke melody is aimed at Japanese musical tastes and it’s no mistake that of the “DNA/Mic Drop” single, “DNA” was by far the more popular song in Japan while the more jock jams, rap-heavy “Mic Drop” was the song that Americans could make sense of.

But what about the “K”? This is where the unique Korean flair plays a role: infectious melodies sung mostly in Korean, a few English words strategically placed in the sing-along refrain, and single-sex groups made up of seven to 15 members.

Again, this just shows how little Lim actually knows about “K-Pop” because there is nothing unqiuely Korean about this format. Japan, China, Taiwan, and numerous Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam have identical idol group cultures where single-sex groups sing infectious songs mostly in their native language with English words scattered throughout.

I’m going to talk about this in one of my idol podcast series but you can trace a lot of contemporary idol culture in East Asia back to Japanese idol group SMAP (1988-2016), who were extremely influential in recognizing that the key to idol popularity and longevity comes through packaging personas and natural group interactions on television variety shows.

The group dynamic is huge part of the appeal for idol groups and fans love when the members write each other heartfelt letters or talk about their in-group friendships or film group bonding trips. The appeal of the group dynamic is also a big factor in prohibiting idols from publically dating. Fans need to feel that the group comes first and we don’t want a boyfriend or girlfriend to break up the camaraderie. This changes, obviously, as members age and longtime fans feel comfortable in the group bond. Longtime Japanese idol groups like Tokio and V6 have married members without dropping in popularity. And Big Bang’s Taeyang just got married with an overwhelmingly positive response from fans.

K-pop’s global ambition is another quality that distinguishes the genre from other Korean music. Exporting K-pop to the rest of the world is not only a goal of the Korean music industry, but also a government priority.

Ding ding ding!! This is what actually separates K-Pop from other East Asian musical cultures. Korea has a small population and the Napoleon complex that comes from being a proud culture with a history of getting colonized by it’s more powerful neighbors (and, also, America).

The American market offers not just the potential for large monetary gains but also external validation that Korea is now “cool” and have beaten the cocky American cultural hegemony at their own game. And Korea wants that validation more than anything. Other groups besides BTS have tried to crack the American market and with the exception of PSY’s novelty hit none have made more than a small impression. (i.e. check out American coverage in the mainstream entertainment press of Big Bang around when “Fantastic Baby” came out.) Why?

Lim points to social media and how BTS is seen as “real” by fans and not robotic like Americans typical stereotypical impressions of East Asians. The problem with this theory is that literally all idol groups put out cute images and selfies and behind the scenes videos and showcase their personalities on variety shows and so on. BTS aren’t unique in that. As a long time idol watcher I think there are two huge factors in BTS’s American success, such as it is:

1) RM speaks colloquial English and interviews well on American television. Americans are terrible at languages, cannot understand foreign accents, and are uncomfortable with foreigners in general. The fact that RM can speak American English makes him and the group immediately more understandable than a group like Big Bang, who were charting on Billboard back in 2012 but did not speak English.

2) The current teen pop vacuum for girls in America. There is nothing big popping for teen girls right now--no hot young thing like Justin Bieber, no group like One Direction, no franchise like High School Musical or Twilight or Harry Potter--so BTS essentially has an open playing field.

And this second reason is also why I think it’s way too early to take any lessons from BTS’s success in America as anything other than a novelty. Will BTS be able to hold on to the fans coming in who have no context for BTS outside of “they’re a cool boy band like One Direction”? I don’t know. Unlike idol groups “boy bands” are ephemeral and meant to be disposed of after a few years. And Americans have all sorts of expectations that they put on artists that they have no context for coming from the East Asian music world: “Speak fluent English,” “be able to navigate the complex web of American identity politics,” “validate my existence,” “don’t be too fake,” etc.

Not to mention that finding success as a “boy band” is still considered embarrassing and very gay in an American masculine context and certainly not dispelling American stereotypes of East Asian men as “effeminate.”

Maybe some new American fans hooked by BTS will find out about the joys of idol group fandom but I think most of them will move on as soon as the next teen girl craze comes out.

But until then let’s just enjoy the ride.

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