Korean Popular Music

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What Is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity John Lie*

In the early 2010’s, the expansion of South Korean popular culture around the world is led by popular music, usually known as Kpop. In this paper I seek to answer two questions. First, what are the sources of its success beyond the South Korean national border? Secondly, what does it say about contemporary South Korean society and culture? Key Words: K-pop, Korean Wave, Hallyu, South Korean Popular Culture, Popular Music

I. Introduction

T

he phenomenal success of the Korean Wave has generated collective celebration in South Korea.1 In the early 2010s, the national self* John Lie is C.K. Cho Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, U.S.A. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University. His forthcoming books include The Global University and The Consolation of Social Theory. E-mail: johnlie@berkeley.edu. 1. The Korean Wave is the literal translation of the term which originated in China ( ; Hánliú). The first character refers to “Korea” and the second usually evokes “flow” or “current,” signifying “style.” The same Chinese characters

KOREA OBSERVER, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn 2012, pp. 339-363.
© 2012 by THE INSTITUTE OF KOREAN STUDIES.

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John Lie

congratulation is especially manifest for the popularity of South Korean popular music (K-pop), which has spread from neighboring Asian countries, such as Japan and Taiwan, to farther ashore in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.2 The K-pop World Festival in December 2011 attracted wannabe K-pop singers from sixteen different countries and confirmed its global appeal to South Koreans (Choe and Russell, 2012). K-pop news generate media headlines. The South Korean government, intent on enhancing its soft power along with its export prowess, has actively promoted K-pop. Many younger South Koreans are eager to embrace the global success of K-pop, which somehow proves the creativity and coolness of South Koreans, hitherto known for producing cars and cell phones rather than engrossing dramas and popular songs: diligence and intelligence rather than beauty and style. K-pop in particular and the Korean Wave in general raise a wide range of questions, but I focus on two. What are the sources of K-pop’s recent commercial success? What does it say about South Korean society and culture?

II. Cultures of Choson Korea
Any effort to make sense of culture is fraught with difficulties, beginning with the concept of culture. Do we mean the greatest achievements of the elite or the least common denominators of the people?3 The very idea of an integrated culture or a (culturally) unified people is also something of a dubious proposition in most places and times before the advent of the modern nation-state (Lie, 2004). Be that as it may, taking the latter half of the long Choson-dynasty period yield Hallyu in Korean and Kanryu in Japanese. See Paek (2005). ¯ 2. See inter alia on K-pop’s popularity in France, Le Monde M Magazine, February 3, 2012; Cambodia, The Economist, February 18, 2012; and Japan, Sakai (2012: 14-23). For a useful overview, see Abe (2012). 3. This contrast is neatly summarized by two late nineteenth-century British writings: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) and E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871).

What Is the K in K-pop?

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(1392-1897), we can identify two distinct cultures, albeit with considerable commonality in music. The elite culture was dominated by Chinese-influenced, Confucian-drenched monarchy and the yangban ruling class. The Sinocentric worldview valorized classical Chinese civilization, conveniently summarized in this period as being Confucian, with its stress on respecting the elders and ancestors, hierarchy and patriarchy, and tradition and order. In contrast, in spite of its regional variations, the culture of the masses or the peasantry tended to be much more...
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