The Korean boy band Seo Taiji and the Boys appeared in a talent show on one of Korea’s major television networks in April 1992. They made history by incorporating rap, hip-hop and other American music trends in their music. Their appearance is regarded as a watershed moment, beginning Korean pop as we know it today.
In the same year that I was born on Gadigal land, the IMF crisis hit Korea. It was the worst financial crisis in South Korea’s history and uprooted the lives of many, including my family. The South Korean government embarked on reforming fiscal policies and rebuilding their economy, particularly by injecting funds into their entertainment industry.
For older generations like my mother’s, music like Seo Taiji and the Boys was novel and controversial. The prevailing styles in Korean pop consisted of slow ballads and trot, a heavy Gagok style characterised by repetitive wavering vocal inflections and vibrato. South Korea’s travel ban was only lifted in 1988 and strict censorship laws during the military dictatorships of Park Chung-Hee (1963–1979) and Chun Doo-Hwan (1980–1988) curtailed experimental music production and consumption. Both military governments had prohibited the import and sale of unapproved foreign records. A 1972 regulation meant that foreign jazz and rock and roll songs could only be performed after 11pm.
Older generations like my mother’s, who had immigrated to countries in the Anglophone West in the 1990s, found themselves amongst people unable to place Korea on a map.
The next twenty-three years would see the grand, global crescendo of K-Pop. The diapason of the diaspora would take form in these formulated tracks.
In my high school cohort, there was a small group of East Asians who naturally gravitated towards each other in a predominantly white school. We lovingly and un-creatively called ourselves ‘The Asians’, and our lunch times were spent copying K-Pop dances. They were halcyon days of shuffling to SNSD’s ‘Gee’ and everyone knew how to play Taeyang’s ‘Wedding Dress’ on the piano. The dizzying speed and the sugary rush of febrile beats was sonic inebriation.
We were a mixed group of East Asians—from Taiwan, Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong—but we all consumed K-Pop together. This was, of course, partly due to the insidious and deliberate design of the K-Pop groups themselves: most groups contain several members of different East Asian nationalities, inserting multilingual hooks and choruses. Take, for example, Wondergirls’ ‘Nobody’ in 2008 which has an English hook—“I want nobody, nobody but you”—and an incredibly simple dance that even I, an uncoordinated 12-year-old, could mimic (point fingers upwards four times, clap twice, point fingers forwards once). The song was primed for virality and was recorded and released in four different languages: Korean, English, Mandarin and Japanese. However, to us teenagers, these songs were modes of mediation. K-Pop was not just music but a performative visual culture that allowed us to distinguish ourselves from the Australian mainstream and acquire a sense of community.
As one of two Koreans in my grade, I was treated with particular envy by ‘The Asians’. By proxy, I was gifted with linguistic and cultural privilege on the basis of heritage and ethnicity.
Yet, I was uncomfortable with this idolisation, then in turn, guilty about this discomfort. If these popstars were the models of ‘Korean-ness’ I was expected to subscribe to, then I was not Korean at all, completely off-beat and discordant.
While Korean idols glided effortlessly in their dance formations, I was self-conscious that my thighs rubbed against each other. My knees were scabbed from running and falling on gravel and my skin was often burnt from spending days in the sun.
Korea, and Korean pop, was cacophony. At the same time that I was given access to an inlet to my identity, I also felt denied it.
Several cultural theorists, like John Lie in ‘What Is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity’, have already decried K-Pop as an industry that has “denuded and destroyed whatever exists of received (South) Korean culture and tradition”.
Ingyu Oh in ‘The Globalization of K-Pop: Korea’s Place in the Global Music Industry’ argues that “producers are concerned with singers becoming global stars and eventually generating high cash returns on initial investments in those would-be stars over a five- to ten-year period.” For Oh, K-Pop cannot be considered “Korean” as it is a “timely, commercial combination of: 1) the global liberalisation of music markets in Asia and the rest of the world; and 2) the rapid advancement of digital technologies like YouTube which prefers to select and feature perfectly photogenic performers from all over the world.”
At a time when I was already grappling with the slippery concept of Korean-ness, it was packaged in particular measurements and weights. To tune in to K-Pop was to find authenticity—a score already composed.
At fifteen, I was now listening exclusively to Triple J. I looked upon K-Pop with disdain, believing that any non-Western music lacked refinement or sophistication. There was a depth and idiosyncrasy that I thought only belonged in the tracks of Two Door Cinema Club and alt-J. Music by Korean groups was fungible, each group expendable and replaced in cycles, a sentiment deeply embedded in the internalised racist rhetoric that Asian-ness itself was homogenous and monolithic.
This was also the year that Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ became a viral sensation; Korea became a place of bizarre and spectacular otherness. 2012 marked my ninth year growing up away from Korea, thereby becoming more and more of an outsider to Korean local perspectives. This distance ostensibly obscured my ability to fully comprehend K-Pop.
Many members of the diaspora have found harmonic freedom in the music. There are countless essays, reviews and memoirs that wax lyrical on the power of K-Pop for reclamation of identity, heritage, and the importance of representation.
However, to purely consume K-Pop as celebratory feels facile to me. Giddy with praise, room for development is compressed.
The notes in these pieces fail to resonate because for me there is a difference between immigrant, like my mother, and diaspora. I have grown up in decades where Korea can now be placed on the map, and Korea has garnered a frightening amount of cultural soft power. I have grown up in years where nationalism has been weaponised to create the phenomenon of ‘kim chic’ as coined by Caroline Gluck in her 2002 Times article ‘Asia dances to Chic Korea’, and I have benefitted from it.
So much has been written about K-Pop and I worry that, by giving it space, I am merely perpetuating its hegemonic reach.
The fanfare of representation is not true parity without structural equality. Rather, one might hope that it is the portent of bigger tangible change. There is no doubt that my own writing has benefitted from writing on and about media representation in white Australia. I cannot discount that this is what my younger self needed at some point in time. However, to grow as a writer means to become more aware of the power structures my writing plays into. To grow, is to veer away from solipsism, towards an acute awareness of complicity.
It is the silence between the beats that reverberate the loudest. Looking into the industry, the latent machinations of manufacturing belies the glossy veneer.
Last year, I was a writing resident at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art’s Creative Studios in Chinatown. I would often walk around the area in Haymarket, through the newly gentrified, spotless lanes of Darling Square and its overpriced cafes, down to the corporate skyscrapers of Darling Harbour. The enormous concrete structures match the grey of hustling suits below.
Yet, tucked around the corner of the International Convention Centre, I would often see a group of young dancers in sneakers and coordinated outfits. Their colour was incongruous amongst the Sydney hostility of banks and law firms. The electric grooves of K-Pop blasting from their speakers formed polychrome ribbons that sliced through the stale air.
Several of my friends from university were actually involved in these dance crews, and they describe the other members as “family”, often spending holidays like Halloween and birthdays together. These dance groups include diverse members from 15 to 27 years of age, who gather to simply enjoy sociality for no commercial or productive gain. These fans find each other through Facebook groups and gravitate towards one another purely through the mutual love for K-Pop. Some are at university, some still in high school, and some live over two hours away from Sydney’s CBD but travel to simply spend time with others. Most of them are women and non-binary folks (and particularly from pan-Asian backgrounds) and they dance to gain confidence, perceiving K-Pop as a cultural resource for coping with marginalisation, and the impetus for the formation of new ethnicities. There are over 28 groups in Sydney alone, including popular crews such as Triple Threat, Horizon, Genesis and K-nights. Crossover Dance Studio hosts three large K-Pop events annually where these crews can perform for one another.
I know that this phenomenon exists because K-Pop is orchestrated to appeal. The synchronised dance moves are easily replicable for fans to imitate, thereby expanding their demographic. It is easy to subject the industry to depredations and they are very valid criticisms.
However, it is also disingenuous to think that those who enjoy K-Pop are oblivious to its problems. If anything, the fans listen most attentively to the oscillating pitches. For many, it is not about echoing idols but recognising particular fortes to be drawn from and transformed.
In Australian mainstream media, xenophobia persists. Last year, Channel Nine’s ‘20 to One’ featured ‘comedian’ Alex Williamson, referring to BTS as “the South Korean One Direction… yeah, never heard of them”. He also tied the phenomenon to unrelated and insensitive jokes about North Korea: “Kim Jong Un is well into boy bands”, and, “When I first heard something Korean had exploded in America, I got worried. So, I guess it could have been worse. But not much worse.”
Considering the dominant sentiments that are still deeply rooted in white Australia, I understand the appeal of K-Pop for the Korean diaspora community as well as young people of colour and its potentiality for resistance. While the product itself is deeply flawed, what is created by these products for different communities, what they provide in strength and solidarity, is worth listening to.
While others may hear the simple formulaic melody, for me K-Pop is a fugue, of co-existing counterpoints.
A polyphony of my past voices and selves muddying the melody.