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 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.

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.

Is this the final death knell for soaps? Or has the genre just gone international?

Flames of Desire -- Korean makjang Drama

With the recent cancellation of All My Children and One Live to Live, after Guiding Light and As the World Turns, many are calling the death of the American soap.

I think more than the end of these specific dramas, especially those that have watched the same drama with the generations before, people are saddened that the community aspects that soaps brought to the lives of many (especially women) will be gone. Many learned about the canon/fanon divide not from Star Wars / Star Trek, but from learning the histories of characters from older sisters, grandmothers, or family friends. Or were able to share the commonality of experiences, such as Megan’s week-long death scene on OLTL, with others. Sam Ford (friend of TLF) and others wrote about the commonality of fandom experiences of soap fans in the book, The Survival of Soap Operas (University of Mississippi 2010) .

He also has an article in Fast Company where he gets to the heart of how once soaps are gone — they are gone for good:

As opposed to the world of comic books, or pro wrestling, or sports franchises–where different media formats come and go, but the core narrative and the characters and the backstory lives on–soap operas are nothing without their network TV slot. With the network TV time goes the whole narrative. Decades of creative development. Thousands of characters. Lost and locked away from further storytelling.

Most of those that I know that at one point watched soaps have indeed given up on them. But not because of the reasons listed in many of the “death of soaps” articles — the lack of time, the inability to dedicate oneself to a long-running storyline, or Facebook games. Many of the one-time fans would

have continued, but the storylines became less relateable and less based in already established canon and character development — some of the super-ridiculous plots (even for a soap) included on All My Children having Erica’s thought-to-be-aborted fetus coming back as an adult and on One Live to Live having a rape victim and the rapist become co-grandparents. Or as one former soap fan said “I just couldn’t handle any more sexual assault storylines as plot devices. ”

But internationally, dramas that look very similar to American soaps are doing very well. Telenovas are very popular (though I admit I’m not very familiar with them).  Korean dramas have the potential to take over much of the same role than American soaps serve, but with time-shifting!

While there are many different subtypes of Korean dramas, there are definitely over-the-top romance dramas. And doesn’t this sound like a soap?

These dramas typically involve conflicts such as single and marital relationships, money bargaining, relationships between in-laws (usually between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law), and often complicated love triangles while the female hero usually falls in love with the main character who may treat her badly since the beginning, instead of the one who always cares for her.

Unlike American soaps, Korean dramas range usually from a dozen to 200 episodes — and while there can be extensions, the overall plot is planned out beforehand. Melodramas, similar to American soaps, are a popular genre, called makjang.

According to Dramabeans, makjang is

a stylistic, tonal, or narrative element in dramas that chooses to play up outrageous storylines to keep viewers hooked despite how ridiculous the stories become (adultery, revenge, rape, birth secrets, fatal illnesses, and flirting with incest possibilities are some makjang favorites). Shows can be part of a makjang class of dramas (Wife’s Temptation is a makjang series), or they can have makjang tendencies (Mary Stayed Out All Night went makjang toward the end). Generally considered a negative thing (“Gah, how makjang can you get?”), unless a drama intentionally embraces the style (such as Baker King Kim Tak-gu or Flames of Desire).

In an upcoming post, I’ll write more about an overview of Korean dramas — and how there is likely a Korean drama for everyone, ranging from Flames of Desire for the melodrama/makjang fan (overview of first episode with spoilers) to Sign for the CSI fan to Coffee Prince for the romance-through-secret-cross-dressing fan!

Update on Hallyu Wave: It’s getting closer

Of our very diverse blog posts, some of the most popular are about hallyu, the export of Korean pop culture. While still very much a subculture outside of Asia, the idea of k-pop music used as psychological warfare against North Korea is being considered — in a similar way to the use of the music of Nine Inch Nails, Pantera, Queen, and Sesame Street was used at Guantánamo.

So who are potential psychological weapons of cute pop music? Some of the most likely candidates are Girls Generation (song above that will get stuck in your head — and yes, that is a sample of New Order), Brown Eyed Girls (video directly above) and the Wonder Girls. The Wonder Girls especially have been marketing themselves for a worldwide audience, including websites directed to the U.S. and other English speaking audiences.

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What Harujuku? and Gossip Manwha

As a followup to our recent posts about anime and Korean dramas, we have more about the cross-cultural influence of pop culture from Asia, or what Lisa Katayama calls on BoingBoing, the weird /othering of Japanese pop culture moves on to fashion.

The New York Times recently had an article on the difficulty of Japanese fashion designers to find recognition outside of Japan. Surprisingly, there was only passing reference to the appropriation of Japanese fashion — completely sans mention of the problematic aspects of Gwen Stefani and her fashion line, Harujuku Girls.

There was also no mention of the subcultural aspects of Japanese fashion that have found success outside of Japan, including anime fans, especially through cosplay — and the San Francisco branches of the Gothic Lolita store, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright and the Japanese store, Black Peace Now.

And considering that NYC’s FIT recently had the Gothic: Dark Glamour exhibition, including panels and fashion from Japanese subculture, this omission from the NYTimes article is striking.

However, the article did include mentions of the Lolita fashion trend thusly:

(Although Lolita style is a reference to the Vladimir Nabokov novel “Lolita,” its look is more covered-up Victorian schoolgirl than skin-baring teenage vixen.)

— and yes, the original was in parentheses.

I’m not sure why in an article about the Japanese fashion trends this description of the Lolita fashion style was viewed as a sufficient description — girly steampunk would have been more appropriate, but that is likely still too subcultural.

Interestingly, Google search filters out the word lolita from Google SafeSearch — even though this is the title of a well-regarded novel!!!

On the other hand, Jezebel recently highlighted the licensed manhwa version of Gossip Girl. Interestingly, even the publisher decided to describe this graphic novel / comic by a Korean artist as manga (the term for this art literature from Japan) rather than manhwa (for Korean litart). Considering the growing influence of hallyu as the appropriate term for Korean pop culture, and the growing understanding about the difference between graphic novels/comics from Japan and Korea, I’m really surprised by the lack of distinction. Blair would be highly disappointed!

Why you should watch Princess Hours (Goong) on Dramafever

So now you know where to legally stream anime (at least in the U.S.) and considering our post on Hallyu was our most popular post last year, what about watching Korean dramas with English subtitles? For example, Princess Hours (Goong), one of the most popular Korean dramas, can be streamed legally from two different websites, Crunchyroll and Dramafever.

Like anime, legal streaming content from Korea is part of an interesting new economic model, allowing for media from one cultural locus to be legally spread outward near simultaneously from the source to locations where it is both diasporic and part of a subculture.

And the economic impact of Hallyu (korean wave) is significant enough that the South Korean government is promoting the export of Korean pop culture:

the Korean drama “Winter Sonata” in 2002 started the Korean wave [was] so popular in Asia that the economic benefits generated by the leading actor Bae Yong Joon alone, is estimated to account for 0.1 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2005.

Korean dramas, unlike U.S. soaps that last over decades, usually run between 20 and 100 episodes, depending on both the popularity and intended plot of the show.

One of the most interesting aspects of the legal-streaming “market” for Korean dramas is owners, licensors, and fansubbers all working together to make dramas available. While Dramafever was still in beta, Dramabeans, one of the most popular English-language Korean drama websites posted

The subtitles for many series have been provided by the companies themselves, but there’s a chance Dramafever will collaborate with With S2 fansubbers to provide subtitles to other dramas in the future.

And that has held true, as shown before the title sequence for the clip of Boys Over Flowers above (and yes, I see the irony in using an albeit, official YouTube clip), fansubbers *are* supplying subtitles. And the website for the fansub community links back to Dramafever.

I don’t forsee such a comfortable relationship between anime fansubbers and owners/licensees any time soon! But this is one great example of fan labor working to serve the interest of fans — and that of content producers — in a mutually beneficial way.

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