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.

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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.

Guide for the Perplexed: QR Codes

From Clever Cupcakes, Montreal (@clever_cupcakes)

Ever seen those square bar code-looking thingies on the bus or train or in a magazine and wonder what they were? They’re called QR Codes and they are being used increasingly in interactive marketing in the U.S.

These little barcodes can store text or URL info and are used to  point  your phone to information  like websites,  videos, contact information, etc. Some visual artists have incorporated QR codes into their work,  such as this 2009 public art exhibition in Amsterdam , and some entreprenuers have adopted novel uses for the technology like the above QR Code cupcakes for Twestival Montreal, a Twitter – based charity event.

Having originated in Japan, QR Codes have been used for marketing and entertainment in Japan and Korea for years now and are nearly ubiquitous, but for the most part hasn’t caught on here in the U.S. with the same enthusiasm. I have two theories as to why:

1.) Consumers haven’t been sufficiently educated about what QR Codes actually are and how to use them by the companies/organizations using them.

I noticed an ad on the train earlier today promoting a non-profit. There was a QR Code at the bottom. The text: “Take a picture of this QR Code to learn more about us!”

Two people on the train were looking at the ad. One person asks the other, “What’s a QR Code?” The other says “Oh, it’s a Google app.”

There were two levels of fail going on here. First off, the ad itself failed to explain what a what a QR code is and only vaguely explained how to use it. Secondly, I believe the individual on the trainl who did recognize what a QR Code was had conflated QR Codes in general with one particular use of the technology,  specifically Google Places.

In general the  marketing/tech world has a bit of work to do to educate the public on this technology. It’s not difficult, but some level of explanation would help to encourage its use, which them brings me to the other issue hindering the use of QR Codes:

2.) Most of the time QR Codes point to really boring content that no one cares about

Most of the time, scanning a QR code doesn’t really offer much for the user. Marketers use QR codes as a vaguely interesting way to point people to existing content that users wouldn’t care about even if they were sitting at their computers at home: boring websites, boring ads, boring contact information. There’s still a “so what” factor with QR codes, where the content hasn’t caught up with the technology. What would motivate someone to scan a QR code when they can check out your organization’s website at home or work? Offering exclusive information or special deals could be the solution.

I was definitely on the QR Code bandwagon for a while, encouraging it for my workplace and for volunteer projects. I still think it’s a great technology with a lot of potential uses but waiting for it to catch on surely isn’t working. The company or organization that manages to educate users while offering something new and different will eventually win this race. It could be Google, based on the exchange I saw on the train, but time will tell.

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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When is 1000 true music fans not enough?: Faith No More, Kylie Minogue, hallyu, and J-pop

If you don’t know the artists (Faith No More & Kylie Minogue) and musical genres (J-pop & hallyu) mentioned in the title of this post, that doesn’t make you odd. You just aren’t aware of these music more popular outside of the U.S. (and the “hallyu wave” is not limited to music).

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have fans — they have many! The U.S. music audience often doesn’t get to hear the music popular elsewhere, yet American music is popular worldwide.

As Frederick Stiehl in his article about J-pop/Hallyu artist BoA,

America has known few foreign artists outside of Latin America or Britain. Indeed, America has proven itself to be quite resistant to foreign singers, and especially to non-English artists. A few exceptions include Icelandic Bjork and German Rammstein …. However, both of these artists demonstrate a specialized style, known to but not followed by “mainstream” Americans.

So where does subgenre begin when it includes an international superstar like Kylie Minogue?

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