|Courtesy of Peter Kaminski|
By David Tizzard
Korean culture has won Oscars, topped the Billboard charts, and been praised and commented on by world leaders, ambassadors, and adoring fans from Bulgaria to Bhutan. And rightly so.
An important driver of this has been K-pop. And for this piece, as before, I will be using K-pop as a term to denote idol music specifically rather than Korean popular music more broadly.
Others are of course welcome to argue over what the term "really" means. But I have observed that among many Koreans, K-pop is often used when talking about groups performing highly-stylized and choreographed music that is predominantly produced and manufactured by companies that control not only the artistic output but also the idols' lives and characters.
And none of that is throwing shade. There is also a very high level of performance and quality that is expected when calling something K-pop, and I've come to appreciate it more having taught and researched it for years.
In one sense, it seems to have entered something of a post-modern phase. It's now fully self-conscious of itself as K-pop, and its performers are self-conscious of themselves as idols and personas. Such self-awareness, bringing with it a meta-fiction, self-reflexivity, and intertextuality, seems akin to the western literary developments of the 1960s.
People may write about the authenticity of these perfectly constructed idols, their character, humility and lack of ostentation, social media interactions, and proclivity for individual artistic endeavors, but this seems to simply be a sign that the industry is perfecting techniques that encompass psychology, technology, capitalism, and art. It's immaculately constructed in that way: unrepentant and unapologetic.
Heidi Samuleson has likened it to Warhol's pop art replicas of Marilyn Monroe and the Campbell soup can: Simulacra, essentially. Samuleson also makes the case that one's enjoyment of K-pop should not be lessened because of this. In an unforgiving capitalist world, it is the very thing in which we should be reveling in.
Elsewhere, with the expansion of international audiences, and despite the best intentions of the entertainment companies, we have also witnessed something akin to Barthes' "death of the author" in the industry. K-pop songs and videos are still made and produced here in Korea, but their meanings and intentions are dissected and generated by the millions of non-Korean fans overseas.
No longer do we care about the original intentions of YG, SM, JYP, Big Hit or Cube Entertainment, because often they become irrelevant. The true, or at least more valuable, meaning of Oh My Girl's latest release will be found in the interpretation of the text provided by listeners and viewers from around the world.
The analysis of gender fluidity in Taemin's work comes from Thailand; the iconoclasm in Hyori's videos is identified in India; and (G)I-DLE's cultural appropriation is debated in Jakarta.
A whole new set of values and ideas are applied by a global multicultural audience, many of them often foreign to domestic discussion (for now at least). This creates hybridity and textual impurity ― again, something seen as a positive in today's age and with an eye to maximizing consumption.
A great deal of this external interpretation of K-pop texts, scholarly or otherwise, takes place in Asia. The cultural, economic, and social impacts of this aspect of Korean culture are far greater there than anywhere else. Sadly, however, it seems power relations and entrenched views mean that some only notice when America and Europe contribute to the Korean cultural discussion; hopefully, this changes and a new world order can be reimagined: Postmodern and Post-Trump.
But regardless of how much K-pop improves, irrespective of the quality of the choreography and performance, and despite how "ear-wormy" the hooks continue to be, eventually K-pop will be surpassed by something new in the cultural zeitgeist.
Just as tide and time wait for no one, so will cultural influencers and "sponcons" change hands from the smartphone wielding kids of Generation Z to whatever device or apps Generation Alpha have in their hands. New platforms and ways of speaking will render much of it incomprehensible to us, and that will of course be the point.
Rarely do we want to listen to the same stuff as our cousins or, heaven forbid, our uncles. We need our own music, our own culture, and our own identity. It doesn't matter whether it's better or worse ― it simply has to be different. It has to define people, a time, and a generation.
Western pop culture went from plaid shirts and Seattle grunge to the bling of hip hop via a quick detour in the Brit Pop of Oasis and Blur. So too will we look back and chart the development from Beast to Big Bang, to BLACKPINK, and then whatever comes next.
Of course, this isn't really saying much. Is the point of the article simply to say that pop trends and culture change?
Yes, and no. Despite already suggesting how much of K-pop has become post-modern through self-awareness and that the overriding authorship of the products has left Korea, achieved through interpretation rather than creation, there are economic and existential factors to consider here.
Korea is an export country and has long used this to its advantage. It avoided the resource curse (a paradox in which states with an abundance of natural resources develop less than those without) and instead made its mark by focusing on its strength: labor and an increasing emphasis on quality.
It's gone from poorly-made clothes to ships, to semiconductors, and then superstars in a near-perfect example of turbo capitalism. Now, its cultural products are labeled with a K, slapped with a price tag, and sent overseas.
A huge part of this is K-pop. You will find countless articles that try to detail the effects various groups have had on the Korean economy, taking into account both the actual money brought in and the surrounding soft power effects.
The government knows this and thus we see the President not only name-checking certain groups at every opportunity (while ignoring others), but also pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into government ministries so as to support this goose with the golden eggs.
These eggs will likely remain golden. But soon people will want diamond eggs. Or bronze eggs. Or omelettes. Or they'll become lacto-vegetarians and avoid eggs altogether. Ultimately, another country's cultural output will be hybridized and made the next vehicle for global consumption.
But what if part of your economy and identity was dependent on those eggs? It's all well and good being self-congratulatory during the good times, but when the good times are based on the fickle trends of the pop industry it would be wise to understand that while many fans will remain loyal the new ones will very possibly be disinterested.
Despite being hype right now, the future of K-pop for many international fans will probably be akin to watching your mum getting all excited about a Boyzone reunion, a Gloria Estefan comeback, or a Speed tour: A source of great happiness and joy, but no longer on the cutting edge of culture. Today's ARMY will become tomorrow's aunties.
South Korea rightly takes great pride in its acts being successful abroad, particularly when that respect is given by North America and Western Europe, but it shouldn't lose hope or belief when the global cultural wave finds new sources of inspiration.
Popularity aboard often shapes domestic opinion here in Korea: in music, in politics, and also in media reports more generally. This phenomenon is well-covered and Regina Kim recently described it rather aptly in Rolling Stone as a "feedback loop."
But it doesn't have to always be that way. The confidence and self-assurance gained from these recent successes can point to a new future.
K-pop can once again be created for Korean consumption rather than capitalist gain abroad and legitimacy in the international arena; it can regain some of that authorship and meaning for some Koreans that it has seemingly lost recently.
The message and meaning, the lyrics, even the language and the look, can all once again be tailored for Koreans living here in a 5G Starbucks-fueled compressed modernity, once the international spotlight searches elsewhere.
And then perhaps by dying, K-pop will be reborn. Until then, however, we might as well enjoy the ride.
Dr. David A Tizzard has a Ph.D in Korean Studies. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.