The Center for Korean Research at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute hosted a seminar on March 8, called “100 Years of Korean Popular Music.” Senior Staff Writer and K-pop fan Ramisa Murshed was there.

On Friday afternoon, the 9th floor of the International Affairs Building was filled with scholars and enthusiasts of Korean popular music, or more colloquially, K-pop. The seminar, moderated by Dr. So-Rim Lee, CKR-AKS Postdoctoral Fellow, and Dr. Hye Eun Choi, Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, touched on the history of K-pop and its socio-cultural implications with presentations by Dr. Roald Maliangkay, Associate Professor in Korean studies and Director of the Korea Institute at the Australian National University, Dr. Dal Yong Jin of Simon Fraser University, and Dr. Suk-Young Kim, Professor of Theater and Director of the Center for Performance Studies at UCLA.

Dr. Maliangkay’s began his presentation on pop music in colonial Korea by describing what we see to be prevalent in K-pop today – groups of young men and women singing upbeat pop songs while simultaneously creating synchronized dance formations. He traces this back to an extensive history of synchronized dance in Korea, specifically mentioning “dance girls” in the 1920s who would perform synchronized dances while wearing revealing clothing. Dr. Maliangkay then transitions to the first instances of the marketing of pop music in colonial Korea, which was marketed to foreigners and Japanese consumers before it was marketed to middle-class Koreans. Many of these early record companies, Dr. Maliangkay explained would force consumers to buy “special” records they would release with “secret” artists’ songs on them, which could only be revealed through purchasing the records.

People began to criticize popular music in the 1930s, but that didn’t stop Koreans from indulging in the excitement of pop music. Korean music rose to become more widely enjoyed, which lead many Korean singers to perform under Japanese pseudonyms in Japan to not anger nationalists. Maliangkay concluded by stating that in combination with different global processes, Korean popular music was able to change from what it was in colonial Korea to what it is today.

Next, Dr. Dal Yong Jin gave a presentation on the influence of Japanese pop music on K-pop. In his presentation, he took a look at the different hybridization strategies that both J-pop and K-pop have utilized. He mentioned that in hybridization of local popular music, in order to advance globalization, the music loses some of its own cultural odor. Dr. Jin then goes to describe the emergence of J-pop in Asia, mentioning that the ‘J’ in J-pop refers to concepts associated with Japanese lifestyle and culture rather than Japan itself and that the fastest-growing type of J-pop is one based on kawaii (cute). Next, Dr. Jin discussed the growth of K-pop around the globe and mentioned that the term ‘K-pop’ was first used in Japan when a few Korean idol groups, like H.O.T., became popular in Japan and China, using it to distinguish K-pop from other Korean music.

Dr. Jin then went on to describe the similarities and convergences between K-pop and J-pop. In the late 1990s, Korean pop music experienced a lot of J-pop influence; K-pop musicians tried to reach Japan by making Korean music similar to J-pop; SM, a major K-pop entertainment group, hired leading Japanese voice and dancing instructors, and the music and image of K-pop were characteristic of both Western and Japanese music. While K-pop and J-pop both adapted the “idol” system, which refers to those who simultaneously sing and act, the dancing of K-pop idols is something that J-pop agencies have been trying to assimilate into J-pop to make it more marketable. Additionally, K-pop uses different hybridization strategies from J-pop, Dr. Jin said, including a stronger training system, social media, and the inclusion of non-Korean K-pop idols. Dr. Jin concluded his presentation by stating that although “K-pop’s global success is not Korean-ness, but the lack of it,” there is a third space based on local identity that is evident, particularly in the case of BTS, where the experiences of Korean youth are embedded in their songs and become globally popular.

Lastly, Dr. Suk-Young Kim gave her presentation entitled “’Teletubbies Generation’ and the Rise of K-pop Fandom.” She likened Teletubbies, of the popular children’s show of the same name, to Gen Z, and more specifically, K-pop fans. With close analysis, there are aspects of Teletubbies that are also characteristic of Gen Z: the Teletubbies having screens literally embedded in their bodies mimics the withdrawal syndrome that some Gen Z’ers experience when they go long periods of time without electronic devices, the Teletubbies’ repetitive viewing habits mimic binge-watching, and reaction as a focal point of viewing for Teletubbies mimics reaction videos.

Reaction videos tie into Dr. Kim’s next point, which was the idea of para-spectating. She based this term off of the idea of parasocial relationships: media consumers, in this case, consumers of K-pop, develop a false sense of a two-way relationship, but the K-pop idols have no idea who the fans are. This, however, Dr. Kim explained, is changing with the new emergence of reaction videos in the K-pop fandom world. Dr. Kim showed a slide of fans watching the K-pop idol group NCT watch fans pretend to be NCT by dancing. Idols are beginning to react to people reacting to themselves, making spectators an important part of K-pop. She tied her presentation into global affairs by first describing Teletubbies as an “anticipatory medium of making the transition from para-social to para-spectating,” calling para-spectating “not inherently unique to Korea,” but also claiming that K-pop has become a “centrifugal trendsetter.”

The presentations were followed by a question and answer session.

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