It would be silly of us not to

Last night, Berkeley Professor John Lie spoke about K-pop as part of the Center for Korean Research’s Colloquium Series on Korean Cultural Studies. B&W Culture Editor and Bwog K-pop beat chief Conor Skelding shuffled in a few minutes late. Note: check this September’s issue of The Blue & White for K-pop right here at Columbia.

“South Korea has become a culture that worships mammon,” at least according to John Lie. In a heavily engaging, anecdote-laden hour, Lie traced out what he thinks is South Korea’s cultural trajectory. It ends at modern Korea, a country governed by “state bureaucrats [...] who feel that they need to brand Korea,” and who thus support K-pop, a genre that Lie contends is utterly artificial and expressly made for export. Lie fretted over a “fundamental divide between ‘traditional Korean identity’ and the ‘export orientation [that] is the master cultural reflex of South Korea.’” (An aside: Sacrificing identify at the altar of a “global brand?” I’ve heard that before.)

Lie started with traditional Confucian music, an elite, conservative, and boring genre filled with harmony, filial piety, and balance. He played just enough of a Youtube video that we heard a few woodblocks, and then cut it. Next came traditional, common, peasant music, which was a little livelier, but still reserved. These were trots—4-beat, pentatonic, traditional songs. In both genres, the performer stood entirely still, or maybe just clapped.

Thirty-odd minutes into his talk, I was waiting for some miraculous leap between contemporary K-pop and traditional trots, when Lie came out with it: “This all has nothing to do with K-pop.”

The gist of Lie’s argument is this: during SK’s military dictatorships of the late 20th century, basically all music was banned. Confucian music was banned, because it was too Japanese; folk music was too radical, American acts bared too much skin and brought “sex and drugs” along with it (a fear that wasn’t baseless, Lie added).

After the military dictatorship ended, TV was deregulated, and Korean teens started to watch MTV. A niche opened up which is now filled by modern “sugar-pop idol music,” with sharp dancing. Entrepreneurs moved in, founded media conglomerates, and developed what Lie identifies as a manufacturing process for pop stars.

South Korean media companies started to train prospective K-pop stars from childhood (fact: across all classes, the #1 desired career among Korean teens is that of an idol). Aspiring stars spend 5 years as trainees in a program jointly based on the training that soldiers and Olympic athletes received. There are 1000 graduate annually but only 20 to 30 of those make in on stage. Indie music, Lie says, doesn’t exist, and every aspect of performance and production is market-driven; in other words, South Korea is now a global capital of “neck up, not neck down” plastic surgery.

The current right-wing governors of Korea, who, to Lie’s bafflement, “still think they’re being Confucian,” and who would have decades ago banned K-pop, now support it with an annual $300 million in tax dollars. To Lie, this signifies the “emptiness of South Korean culture.” Somewhere along the line, tradition lost out to “success for its own stake,” of which Lie observes “no deeper analysis [...] of what this means for Korean youths.” Alhough he was avowedly no fan of the military government, he appreciated how candidly and transparently they held their traditional—if restrictive—values.

What does the “K” in K-pop stand for, then? Lie says it’s “Kapital,” and not “Korean,” since the genre is entirely contrived and carved to fit a niche in the global market, and in fact is very traditionally un-Korean. Heavy stuff. “I’m sorry to make this talk boring,” he concluded. “It’s not really about K-pop.”

Seeds of a flash mob (that’s right, Cornell) via Flikr Creative Commons