Guide for the Perplexed: Kpop, or how I learned to Stop Worrying about the Lyrics and Love Korean Pop

We write a lot about hallyu (exported Korean pop culture) on this blog, and K-pop has really started to hit the mainstream U.S. press this year, including a write-up in Pitchfork and two of Spin Magazine’s best of 2011 albums were by Korean artists (2ne1 & Girls Generation — despite the fact that the Girls Generation album was at the time a Japanese import only album!) — and an article in Harvard Business Review. And there were even showcase shows by some of the major Kpop labels in New York earlier this year — and 2ne1 won MTV Iggy’s “Best New Band in the World”.

So why listen to Kpop? If you remember a time where large groups with talent existed (the present lack in the U.S. decried in both The Atlantic and The Root), waiting for anticipation for both singles and entire albums, and exciting live performances, then Kpop is worthy of you giving it a shot.

The way the Korean pop industry works is very different than the U.S., with everything blatantly manufactured. Potential artists become trainees to usually one of the four major labels at a young age, and hopefully, after many years of training, are then selected to become members of a group. Often, groups have leaders (the go-between the management company and the group), those that are primarily singers, primarily dancers, and at least one rapper. The rate of new music for these artists is frequently at Rihanna-like rates, with at least a new single coming out every year.

With the release of every new marketing push, there is usually a new “concept” for the group and live performances on television shows — similar to American Bandstand, Soul Train, Top of the Pops, and MTV shows of yore. Unlike U.S. pop artists who are increasingly phoning in live performances,  K pop artists do it live — frequently changing up the arrangement, dance routine, and costumes. With. Every. Performance. As highly manufactured as all the music is, the performers are true professionals.

One advantage for newbies that Kpop has is that in the dizzying array all of the singles, double singles, EPs (they still exist in Korea), regular length albums, and then the reissues (oh, the reissues — usually albums that are reissued with one or two new songs and new inserts), is that frequently albums and videos name check themselves — 1st Album or 2nd Reissue — and include the name of the artist and song in English.

Before we get to the individual artists, the most comprehensive source of frequently posted well-written (in English) writing on Kpop with a critical eye is Seoulbeats — which rather than surface writing delves into thoughtful essays — and doesn’t shy away from mentions of racism and homophobia in Kpop. Other recommended sources are KoreAm magazine’s blog (for Kpop from a Korean-American perspective) and AllKpop (breathless updates with the feel of old school Metal Edge or Tiger Beat).

Below are some suggested Kpop artists to try out — ranging from underground hiphop to girl groups with attitude to aegyo (cuteness). For our earlier post on Korean female rappers, go here.

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The Short Second Life of Post Secret; or How Griefers, Sexters, and Haters Ruined an App in Only Four Months

Today, the Post Secret app officially died. How things spiraled down so quickly is a highly cautionary tale for anyone who fully trusts anonymity — and expects it not to become a tragedy of the commons. As Frank Warren, the founder of Post Secret, states on the website, this was a difficult decision made, but one made necessary due to problems with some of the anonymous secret postings:

Like the PostSecret Blog, the App was designed so each secret was absolutely anonymous. Unfortunately, that absolute anonymity made it very challenging to permanently remove determined users with malicious intent.

99% of the secrets created were in the spirit of PostSecret. Unfortunately, the scale of secrets was so large that even 1% of bad content was overwhelming for our dedicated team of volunteer moderators who worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week removing content that was not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening.

For many users of this app, this is a great loss — not just of a fun way to pass the time, but also the app served as a supportive community for those who were suffering through great loss and difficult times (such as having children with cancer, multiple miscarriages, soldiers with PTSD). And now that community is erased through the removal of the iPhone/iDevice app. Forever. (At least not in a recoverable way).

As cNet reports, users are saddened by the loss of community through the end of the PostSecret app:

“I will always wonder about the beautiful woman fighting cancer that always had the kindest words to say in response to people’s secrets. I will wonder about beard guy and assume he’s still brightening people’s days…Thank you for the opportunity to take a look into the world Frank, and help me realize that I am blessed and privileged in a world where many people are not. It gave me a new sense of compassion for others.”

The app was released in September to much fanfare — including a glowing article in Wired. And according to ReadWriteWeb, the app “taught beautiful lessons about privacy on the web” (and is where you should go to read about what the user experience was like, if you haven’t used the app.) The app rocketed to the top of the App Store, becoming the #1 downloaded app within 24 hours.

And the PostSecret app was a highly entertaining app, easy to use, with secrets ranging from the tragic, to the hilarious, to the simply banal. My own user experience likely followed those of other early adopters — only positives, then surprise by the negatives, then annoyance with those who were wrecking the app for others, to now, acceptance of the shutdown. And the negatives started slow — with anonymous pleas for sexting, complete with Anthony Weiners, moving on to a flood of these posts — and also occasional direct personal attacks. And then things got much worse around Christmas, with the amount of what I would describe as legally obscene pictures posted — no message — so the entire point was to disturb the viewer.

Of course, some of the secrets posted were racist, sexist, or demeaning to others in some ways. But as long as those were “secrets”, they were still within the spirit of PostSecret. But the direction that many of the postings that shut down the app showed the worst side of people generally and specifically on the internet.

The Post Secret app was launched after years of the PostSecret brand as a website, books, and speaking tours. It failed not because people did not want it to succeed — but because a tiny percentage were interested in their own needs, upsetting others, or something else negative towards communities, everyone lost.

I doubt that future app developers will be so amenable to anonymous user experiences as PostSecret was, and the next time you wonder why we can’t have nice things (read: more privacy) remember the griefers, sexters, and haters that ruined the PostSecret app for all.

Unexpected Allies: Decibel Magazine’s Feminist Take on the DC Reboot

In the December 2011 issue of Decibel magazine (“America’s only extreme music magazine”), I read the interesting, but expected Dave-Mustaine-this-time-he-is-totes-over-his-feuds-he-means-it-even-if-he-is-called-SuperDave-and-Junior-isn’t-called-Junior story; lots of short articles with bands filled with fourth-degree clones of Zakk Wylde; and the usual review of extreme albums that I won’t be listening to.

But unexpectedly, especially for a magazine dedicated to metal and other extreme music, there is an actual for-real feminist take on the DC reboot that says that treating women as soulless objects is not entertainment. For an audience that reads a magazine featuring bands with album covers that will give children nightmares.

Unfortunately not online, Joe Gross’ one-page column dissects the reason why the reboot doesn’t make economic sense, by turning away girls and women (and men and boys) that aren’t interested in a “cruel, violent vibe and crueler sexual politics”, asking the question “Who the fuck is this crap for?”

He says that between the reboot “and a noticeable decline in women creators at DC, it would be tough for the company to have constructed a bigger “Fuck you, we don’t want your money” to potential female readers”. And that is a potentially huge loss for an industry that could use new readers — or at least not lose older newly disgusted fans. Perhaps it is just those that I know, but a large percentage of the comics fans I know *are* people of difference (such as women/girls, people of color, gay/queer, some other other, or a combination) — not the stereotype of Comic Book Guy.

One of the benefits of having this article written for this particular audience is demonstrated by the pull-quote on the page:

I’ve seen hardcore, [gnzo p!@#] that treated women with more dignity that DC is treating those two gals [, Catwoman and Starfire]

THAT knowledge is not likely to be found by writers from traditional feminist sources, even third-wave ones.

Gross also references “the terrific essay” by Laura Hudson on Comics Alliance, The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their “Liberated Sexuality”.

Thank you, Decibel. And to Shortpacked (who created the economics of comics comic above). And to all of the disappointed seven-year old American comics fans, may I suggest mahou shoujo (and manhwa)? It isn’t without issues, but that’s where I’m sending the comics-loving kids in my life.

I Read A Book: Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

Creative Commons licensed photo of a parasite

The best thing about this book is the title. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to learn about how to stop parasites? Especially when they are digital! But the book offers little more than the simplistic model of payment is good for copyrighted materials – and pirating is bad.

One of the ways that I judge books that talk about culture and copyright is based on how fans and fandom are written about. And this book doesn’t disappoint, by carefully discussing elements of fan culture and their importance to the continued economic success of multiple media properties. I joke. There is no mention of fandom at all, beyond a page-long dismissive mention of the concept of 1,000 true fans, no mention of consumer buy-in, nothing beyond “you parasite.” In a book about digital culture, this is an EPIC fail.

I also judge books in this oeuvre by their description of Nine Inch Nails’ effort to release music via Creative Commons and other more open means, including the Creative Commons-licensed albums The Slip and Ghosts I-IV, and the label-delayed therefore placed online for the free remix album, Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D (AKA Year Zero Remixed). And lest we forget, Trent Reznor decried his labels at every opportunity, including praising fans for … wait for it, engaging in illegal downloading, Levine’s “parasitic” behavior, extorting them to “steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

But Levine’s description of T. Rez is:

“the acts that have most successfully used free music to promote major tours –Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails—have benefited from millions of dollars’ worth of marketing from their respective major labels.”

What ho, Jeeves.

If you think I’m playing the detail game, Levine calls out William Patry, one of the pre-eminent copyright scholars for getting the sales of Grand Theft Auto wrong, and then intimates that he would not have the viewpoints he does, but for being Google’s attack dog. Correlation does not imply causation – and Patry held the same views before starting his present job. Levine’s anti-scholar bent is not just directed at Patry. One of the most detrimental aspects of this book is the implication throughout that academics (and academic institutions, like Harvard and Stanford; and non-profits, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons) that are not copyright extremists are activists and in the pocket of big companies (read: Google and its ilk). He directly calls Pamela Samuelson an “activist [,] who wanted to weaken copyright in other ways” (26), calls Jessica Litman someone who ignores the law (46), but saves the majority of his directed fury towards academia towards Lawrence Lessig.

There are actual well-reasoned critiques of Lessig’s work – but this isn’t one of them.  And to publish a book in 2011, critiquing Lessig with nary a mention of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, where in 2008 Lessig spends a whole book discussing the ways that remix culture can work with traditional media so everyone makes money, is just intellectually lazy. Or deliberate.

Because I am *that* sort of reader, I checked the acknowledgements, which include mentions of Fred von Lohman, Jane Ginsburg, and Marybeth Peters – all huge figures in the area of digital culture and copyright. Highly surprisingly, there are no quotes in the book from them –  except for a brief snippet of Peters’ congressional testimony in her role as the Register of Copyrights, but nothing from the interviews Levine conducted.

In an odd way, I actually prefer Mark Helprin’s “alone in my room, I reign supreme” copyright-should-last-forever-because-I-am-a-brilliant-author diatribe because he was straightforward about what he wanted. And if you want to read about the dangers of Google, read Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything. If you want to read about how the music industry took things in the wrong direction, read Greg Kot’s Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.

Summary: Not recommended. Save the entertainment and publishing industry through paywalls! Google bad!

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The Dark Side of Hallyu (Korean Wave)?

Today, the BBC posted an article entitled The Dark Side of Korean Pop Music. Interestingly, this is only a couple of months after the Guardian had an article on K-pop: how South Korea turned round its music scene (subtitled: Strict anti-piracy laws, pop production houses and clever marketing have helped this struggling market thrive once more).

So what is one of the most important negative (or positive, depending on the article!) aspects of Korean pop music? The highly manufactured aspect of K-pop. Aspiring performers are taken on by labels, as trainees, where over time, they hope to be added to a group.

K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.

Companies such as SM Entertainment and Play Cube Entertainment tapped into the 360 degree model way before the major labels – being independent record labels, talent agencies and publishers with their own academies where they groom young teenagers to be pop stars.

Or as Mark Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, puts it:

A big company like SM Entertainment (or JYP or whoever) will likely have 50 or 70 kids in training at any one time. That’s a lot of ramyeon noodles and dance instructors and real estate to pay for. The big companies especially need a steady revenue stream to pay for all of that. So it is no surprise the kids are treated like commodities, like links in the supply chain. After all, the supply of young hopefuls is endless. The number of successes available is very small.

But how is this really different than the manufactured pop anywhere else — with the exception that the timeframe for training before performance is extended? And this is pop taken to its most pop-py — as shown in these videos from SNSD/Girls Generation, Super Junior (yes, there were thirteen members of the group), SHINee, 2ne1, and 4 Minute (mentioned in the BBC article performing in malls).

One of the major differences between Kpop and music elsewhere is how much sales are dependent on appearances on music shows, similar to Top of the Pops and the former MTV live performance shows. The general lifespan for Kpop groups is not long, and there have even been stories about former Kpop singers going to law school in the states. Oddly enough, even in this highly manufactured world, there are more groups that have recognition than are found in U.S. music that seems to be only focused on A-list music. Can anyone honestly say that groups like Baroness, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Genghis Tron have even the chances for mainstream success that, bleh, nu metal had?

On the other hand, even within the music factory town of Korean pop, there are those that can find success. Most notably, in rap/hiphop, such as Drunken Tiger (and … his crew):

Hip hop is good example, as groups and performers like Epik High, Tasha (Yoon Mi-rye), and Drunken Tiger have escaped the management system and had great success on their own while (most importantly) making better music. With iTunes, Soundcloud and other online music portals, no band needs to be controlled by managers/labels anymore, like they were in the age of terrestrial TV dominance and record stores.

That isn’t to say there aren’t potential issues with Kpop, such as the pay for performers. Or how hard they are pushed by their labels to perform (as was recently questioned by many fans of Girls Generation during the recent Japanese tour and Paris concert). But many of the problems with the Korean music industry are true for the worldwide music industry, where audiences want new music, but not too different, and don’t want to pay (too much) to purchase it. But that is something that Korean pop — with its strong fanclubs — has an advantage, by supporting both live performances and tons and tons of merch.

I Read A Book: Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law, edited by Kembrew McLeod & Rudolph Kuenzli, is a variety of essays (including photo essays) collected from the conference, Collage as Cultural Practice. Unlike many of the other books regarding copyright’s influence on art, these essays focus on the experience of artists, including rappers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers.

Negativland explains the role law has played for many artists:

“For artists, copyright means that other art is emphatically not allowed to be seen as part of their landscape, not part of their usable environment, not allowed to be part of something that influences their creative minds, unless they are rich enough to “buy” whatever they want to use. … This withdrawal of all copyrighted art from any future recycling goes directly against the universal and historical prerogative of artists (and consumers) to see the entire world around them as grist for their mill.”

This book is highly recommended for artists and those who want to understand collage/appropriative techniques in art, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything for academics. This book includes some entertaining footnotes, similar to Erik Jensen’s Shortest Law Review in History (Considering it is only one sentence, would quoting the article be acceptable under the proposed Georgia State copyright settlement) and my all-time favorite footnote regarding H.R. from Copyrights and Copywrongs. One essay is basically a series of footnotes, questioning the concepts of copyright, appropriation, and citation:

Citation buries the truth that we all borrow ideas behind the lie that somewhere there is an individual point of origin, of authorship, of ownership. Steal creatively, and profligately, and stand with chutzpah on the intellectual booty of our collective history! …Let this note be the last note, ever. [It isn’t even the last footnote in this non-essay!]

This book also reminded me of the far reaching influence of the alternative press magazine, Stay Free! The book includes two interviews — of Siva Vaidhyanathan and Chuck D — reprinted from Stay Free, but also the Illegal Art exhibit. Carrie McLaren’s work in creating a space for these issues to be discussed and displayed by creatives is sorely missed, but bills need to be paid!

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In a somewhat related note: Duke University Press, what is with your copyright statements about books on your website? This is at least the third book with a Creative Commons license within the physical copy of the book, but there is nary a mention on the official page of the book (click on rights). Instead, there are directions to contact the Copyright Clearance Center (!) and your permissions department.

What is the point of Creative Commons licensure if you don’t even mention it? And you (Duke University Press) do not own the copyright for either the compilation as a whole (the editors) or the individual chapters (mostly the chapter authors), so your misdirection doesn’t have a clear intent. Or is this copyright statement page the default for all Duke University Press books? If so, then please add in the possibility that either entire works or sections could have Creative Commons licenses!

Guide for the Perplexed: The Baddest Female Seoul City Ever Had: The Rise of Korean Rappers

Here in the U.S., it seems like there can only be one highly successful female rapper at a time — now Nicki Minaj (and hence the “Eve wants Lil Kim to settle her beef with Nicki”). But in Korea, mostly as part of pop groups, but also as individual artists, there are several popular female MCs.

For example, CL from 2ne1 (rapping above — self-proclaimed “baddest female”), HyunA from 4Minute (formerly from Wonder Girls), Yubin from Wonder Girls, Miryo from Brown Eyed Girls, and Amber from f(x) all are known as rappers within their girl groups. In addition, Tasha (AKA T, Yoon MiRae) has been a very successful rap solo artist. And as shown in the video below from an awards show, including a performance of Tasha’s Pay Day, they can share the stage.

And what is the reason for the lack of Highlander-ish “there can only be one” female rapper at the top of her game in Korea? Perhaps a large thanks goes to the highly manufactured aspect of most Korean pop. Because groups are put together by labels, usually after years of training, as long as having rappers in groups sells, then they will continue to be added to groups. And considering present Korean pop music seems to be very international pop with a light R&B twist plus rap, this likely won’t change.

But it is also because their styles vary — ranging from the gritty underground sound of Tasha, to the very pop-friendly raps from Yubin and HyunA, to the barely recognizable as rap from …, well, I’m just not going to name them. Another major influence is the U.S., where many Korean musical artists have lived for a while, and brought back these influences.

So if you haven’t already started listening to Kpop and Korean rap, you should consider it.

In this post, I’ve decided to mostly include live performance videos to show this isn’t studio-crafted perfection — these are all excellent live performers.