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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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.

I Read A Book: Hip-hop Japan: rap and the paths of cultural globalization

Americans are often separated from the musical traditions of other countries and unaware of the cultural influence of American music, Hip-hop Japan: rap and the paths of cultural globalization covers one small corner of cross-cultural music that needs more explanation.

While many of the artist examples are dated in this 2006 book, as would be true with much cultural anthropology, overall the book includes discussions of the issues of perceptions of race, gender and music, and the influence of sales on the production of music. I would highly recommend this book to those interested in an academic view of the Japanese music industry, and there are some fascinating charts that discuss the interaction between fans, artists, record companies, and media.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t places where more discussion would have been appreciated (especially about cultural issues surrounding race and gender)  — and I am dismayed by yet another book that lumps together hip-hop music, rap, and hip-hop culture. But the biggest failing of the book is not actually of the book — it is that there is so little discussion of Asian music outside of small subcultures — whether it is Japanese hip-hop, K-pop, K-rap, etc.

And when there are discussions, they are not mainstreamed! — SXSW 2010 had a very interesting panel discussion of the global influence of Japanese music, with a large focus on visual kei. Unfortunately, the podcast has been pulled. I know that many pay lots of money to attend SXSW, but it would be nice if the podcasts would be available after, say, six months. And no matter how much the website says earlier podcasts are available–they aren’t “(Also be sure and check out our extensive list of full panel podcasts from 2009.)”

The video above is from Suite Chic, a one-album Japanese collaboration; the singer is Namie Amuro, one of the biggest Japanese pop stars, the self-professed Queen of Hip-Pop; and the rapper is AI, a Japanese-American Japanese rap/singer (known in these parts as Japanese DaBrat). And they aren’t mentioned in the book.

One Nation Under a Groove: Intellectual Property and Hip Hop

When is something a quotation or a reference and when is it a sample that needs to be licensed? According to a recent Sixth Circuit decision regarding Atomic Dog, Bridgeport Music v. BMG Recordings, No. 07-5596, November 4, 2009 (no official citation yet), a copyright violation can be found when no licensing fee is paid for

use of the phrase “Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea” (the “Bow Wow refrain”), as well as use repetition of the word “dog” in a low tone of voice at regular intervals and the sound of rhythmic panting

One of the many interesting aspects about this case is that George Clinton, the performer and co-author of the song, has no dog in this fight, despite the fact that he is so closely tied to the song. As described in the excellent documentary, Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove, P-funk and George Clinton lost the rights to their own music. (On a tangent: I highly recommend this documentary (shown usually during Black History Month on PBS) — and not just because Shock G appears to be interviewed while completely off his gourd).

But the issues about copyright explored by the Sixth Circuit don’t touch on the songs larger cultural significance, instead viewing the importance of the song through an economic lens:

“Atomic Dog” “is an anthem of the funk era, one of the most famous pieces from that whole era . . . one of the most famous songs of the whole repertoire of funk and R&B.” In addition to the song’s continuing popularity on its own, “Atomic Dog” and other works by Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are said to have influenced many contemporary rap and hip hop artists, with the most notable being the style of rap popularized by West Coast rappers such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Coolio. [note: The court couldn’t have left it at three. Really!?!] …

Testimony at trial confirmed that “Atomic Dog” and other works by Clinton are among the most popular works sampled by rap and hip hop artists. According to an expert musicologist, the Bow Wow refrain “is one of the most memorable parts of the song” and is often licensed by itself.

UMG failed to introduce any evidence that would have explained why the songwriter chose to include elements of “Atomic Dog” to honor George Clinton, nor was the purported tribute acknowledged in the credits or liner notes to the album.

Two recent books explore the interaction between intellectual property (mostly copyright) and hip hop culture — Adam Haupt’s Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property and Hip-Hop Subversion and Richard Schur’s Parodies of ownership : hip-hop aesthetics and intellectual property law. Both books explore and apply Henry Louis Gates’ idea of the importance of signifyin’ — a metaphor for textual revision — located in African-American culture and globalized via hip-hop.

Stealing Empire is valuable for its analysis of the impact IP regimes on South African culture. And it is therefore useful for a reader with a literary / cultural / media studies perspective; the legal analysis is less useful because it does not distinguish between differing jurisdictions.

Parodies of ownership : hip-hop aesthetics and intellectual property law
is a excellent edition to both the fields of critical race theory and cultural studies, and adds greatly to the ongoing discussions of power and control regarding intellectual property. This book is yet another book published this year that is highly recommended.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is Schur’s suggestions for erasing the invisibility aspect of intellectual property law:

[Judge Richard] Posner [and others] conceive of originality, fair use, and transformative use as transcultural and color-blind strategies to regulate the circulation of texts, including raced texts. [They] do not connect texts to specific genres, to cultural traditions, or to how popular culture’s taste [] derive, in part, from interactions with America’s racial history. (144)

He suggests specific challenges/suggestions to intellectual property law (especially in the U.S.), including mentioning fan culture(s):

African American culture has engaged in a rigorous discussion about the right to copy (i.e., sampling versus biting) …. [but law has] adopted color-blind rhetoric [so] such cultural distinctions have not been judicially sanctioned even if they structure how audiences understand hip hip texts.

Attempting to remedy the inefficiencies or absurdities of intellectual property law without referencing its complicity in the de facto and probally de jure transfer of wealth from African Americans to white Americans is unlikely to prove successful. Resolving other cultural/economic conflicts, whether they involve fan fiction or unauthorized music trading, probably requires engaging with histories of discrimination and power inequalities, not simply a slight tweaking of abstract legal formulas. (179)

But both books are sans any pictures (let alone an audio or video accompaniment) leaving the analysis missing the “quotation” that is so needed here to provide a complete picture of the richness of the music at issue. I’m not sure that the Pokémon vid above is the best illustration, but if you didn’t know Atomic Dog, wouldn’t it better help you understand what is at issue?

And that brings us back to where we started with George Clinton and Atomic Dog — when is something a quotation or a reference and when is it a sample that needs to be licensed? Or as Richard Schur states in Parodies of Ownership,

the question of who owns the imaginary domain out of which African Americans form cultural identity remains unanswered (23)