Update (1 May 2015): My more formal review of The Korean Popular Culture Reader was published in Kyoto Journal 82, for those interested.
Original Post: First, the clueless book reviewer:
I am sorry to have to say it, but The Korean Popular Culture Reader is close to the most disappointing book I have ever had to review.
Not long ago I found myself engrossed in a Korean TV mini-series called Hot Blood. It concerned the unlikely subject of an ambitious car salesman, but the production standards, acting and plot, together, I have to admit, with the extremely photogenic character of many of the performers, made me an instant addict.
That second paragraph is an immediate disclosure that this particular clueless reviewer actually wanted a totally different (and rather stupider) sort of book:
So a book that claims to be a reader relating to these phenomena was surely going to be of interest. What about the cosmetic surgery that’s said to have produced all these flawless faces? What about the near slave conditions in which these teenage groups have allegedly been trained from a very early age? And what about the exceptional screen-writers responsible for these highly watchable Korean dramas? How about the relation of these distinctive art forms to fashion, to Korean politics, to exports of other Korean products, not to mention the fan-hysteria (unmatched, some say, since the days of the Beatles), and the companies such as S M Entertainment behind these pop groups? A book that threw light on such things would surely make compelling reading.
This is pretty clueless when it comes to any kind of book: why didn’t the author write what I wish she’d written?
But it’s also incorporates a special kind of cluelessness regarding academic texts. Academics aren’t supposed to celebrate pop culture; that’s what fans do. Academics, being, you know, educated and stuff, may not even share the clueless fan’s enthusiasm for whatever “awesome” and “highly watchable” media Winterton likes. (I personally find most South Korean TV series completely unwatchable.) But if even if they did like this or that bit of media, academics wouldn’t write this kind of book in the first place, because that’s not the kind of thing academics write: even (or especially) the stuff they like, they dissect and analyze in ways that complicate and problematize the text. Maybe even moreso, because they know that liking something can easily blind them to its flaws and deeper complexities.
In other words, Bradley Winterton went to a fashion show and complained that he didn’t get a single lap dance.
Not that his objection regarding the choice of “popular culture” surveyed is completely invalid: the editors start out by claiming they put the book together to serve those professors teaching Korean Pop Culture courses, since it’s Kpop and Korean movies and TV that are actually drawing most new students to Korean Studies departments. But precious little of the book actually addresses that media doing the attracting, which is sad. After all, the book could have served up essays more focused on that material that were still critical, thoughtful, and useful in helping students learn more about Korean society, history, politics, and so on. But that better book still wouldn’t be the Kpop flog that Winterton longs for.
The real problem is, I think, is the essays collected in the book neatly avoid that kind of deep, critical dissection of the most mainstream, most recognized Korean pop culture materials… and I think the avoidance isn’t necessarily an accident, though it’s probably not completely conscious, either.
What is that reason?
I think what we have is a case of deep complicity with an ideology I’ll call Hallyu Nationalism; that is, a form of nationalist ideology focused on “The Korean Wave,” which reframes the success of Korean pop culture abroad as important (or even crucial) to Korea’s domestic narrative of national success. (And yes, I mean nationalism: A certain proportion of Koreans actually see foreign people consuming Korean media as a form of national validation or national victory; the quixotic longing for Americans to embrace Kpop girl groups is actually quite profound in South Korean society, though obviously it’s not universal.)
This is unsurprising for any number of reasons, most especially the way Korean media talked about the “The Korean Wave” for a long time. It’s penetrated into Korean identity, and Korea’s national identity, to the point where people talk about a century-old “traditional” art form in the past tense (“Before Kpop there was Pansori”: as if pansori is a dead, no-longer practiced tradition):
… while tying themselves in knots to try find a way to explain who Koreans singing what is essentially slightly modified Western pop music, and performing a modernized Can-Can dance in essentially Western clothing, is somehow deeply and truly emblematic about something specifically Korean:
(Yes, that’s dated. I’m also not current on whoever is the latest Britney Spears analogue back in North America. For good reason.)
It’s fascinating that this naturalization is new. Back when the Kim sisters were performing, they actually played out the novelty of Korean women singing Western-style songs in Western clothing, as a kind of musical schtick that (discomfitingly) smacks of a kind of cultural version of recapitulation theory, one that privileges Western pop over traditional music in the same way, but more anxiously:
By the way, I’m not arguing that Koreans shouldn’t make or consume pop music. There will always be a market for musical junk food, even if I personally find pansori much more interesting. It’s just that when you start trying to argue that American cheez-whiz or Japanese instant ramen is somehow suddenly “uniquely Korean” because you stirred in a little kimchi-flavoring, you’re going to look stupid. When you start crowing at the “success” of Korean culture abroad and point to your slightly-modified cheez-whiz or instant ramen concoction, you’re going to look even stupider.
Anyway, in the review I made some extended observations on this idea of Hallyu Nationalism that didn’t make it into the final piece, for reasons of length. I figured I’d share them here. I’ll indent those pieces of text, because I want to interject some commentary:
Something radical has happened in South Korean society alongside the rise of popularity in South Korean pop culture abroad, which deserves to be called Hallyu-nationalism. That nationalism, and that pop culture, are actually deeply connected with many other issues in Korean society–the increasing jettisoning of traditional culture and defunding of the fine arts generally, the anti-feminist backlash after 1997, the chaebolization of South Korea’s economy and society. All of these issues are, ironically, in fact boldly on display throughout contemporary popular culture, including the same music, film, and TV programs that Kim admits attract most students to Korean studies classes today. When the validation-seeking ideology of Hallyu-nationalism–whether its roots lie in South Korea’s postwar inferiority complex, in exaggerated media reports, Korea’s nationalist discourse, or elsewhere–has hypertrophied to the point where kiddie pop groups have eclipsed Korea’s traditional culture and arts as a point of national pride: something very odd is going on here, but what’s infinitely more odd is that almost nobody in this book seems to think that’s worth talking about.
Secondly, by “hallyu nationalism” I mean that South Korean popular culture is explicitly understood by many South Koreans as a kind of soft-power currency abroad: the (real, exaggerated, or imagined) embrace of Korean TV dramas and music overseas (in Asia, and especially in the West), when it is discussed, is nearly always (and certainly, throughout this book) talked about in terms of how South Koreans feel about it. Almost no attention is ever paid to why the embrace occurs in the first place (in those cases where it does occur). Here are some interesting questions that are scarcely even considered, let alone thoughtfully addressed:
- Why did Japanese TV viewers seize upon Korean soap dramas in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Why and how have Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and Indonesian audiences chosen to follow this trend? (ie. Viewing the media consumption choices of overseas audiences with some sense of those audiences’ volition and choice.) What role is played by distribution contracts connected to the acqusition of cinemas overseas (like for example the acquisition in Vietnam of major local cinemas by Lotte and CGV)?
- What reactions have occurred abroad in the past to Korean popular culture exports? The subject of the reception of Korean pop culture in Japan has been studied carefully and thoughtfully… but not by a Korean studies specialist, so that view has been excluded in favor of a Korea-centric approach.
For example, it’s not like Westerners haven’t consumed TV performances of groups of Korean female musical performers before:
How did Americans react? Did the Kim Sisters sell well? To what degree was their access facilitated by the Korean War, and to what degree did that aspect color how people perceived or received their performances? How did Koreans feel about the Kim Sisters’ performances in America back in those days? All of this seems like it’d be appropriate material for a a chapter in English language book on Korean Popular Culture, for people who probably think Korean pop culture has never been noticed in the West, now, doesn’t it?
- How has the popularization of South Korean media in Southeast Asia affected those societies’ perceptions of Koreans? How have people abroad reacted to South Korean pop-cultural infiltration into their own media spheres, for example in urban China or in Singapore?
For example, consider Joyce Chu’s song “Malaysia Chabor” for more about how pop culture exports have informed both positive and negative attitudes towards South Korea in one Southeast Asian society. (Apparently she’s from southern Malaysia, though I’d swear I’d read someplace else that she was currently living in Singapore.)
Here’s the video, complete with plenty of interesting hints and suggestions on how Koreans, and especially Korean women, are perceived thanks to Korean media:
I ran across it after trying to search out an odd reference to a “kimchi girl” in a random (and frankly kind of terrible) Malaysian comedy movie. (Presumably, there enough young Malaysian women are styling themselves after what they see in South Korean media for that term to be immediately transparent to the audience?)
The more you look, the more these kinds of references are all over the place. Funnily enough, though, Korean studies people aren’t looking: they see happier imagining foreign audiences passively cherishing Korean pop culture because of its inherent awesomeness, cleverness, or whatever, and like many non-academics, tend to assume the embrace of Korean pop culture abroad can only boost Korea’s image on the international stage.
Back to the text left on the cutting room floor:
Such questions—the issue of voluntary adoption of Korean media as “foreign entertainment” and the reception of (and response to) hallyu overseas—are so often ignored in academic discussions of Korean popular culture that one feels almost compelled to ask just how distinct such academic work really is from the self-congratulatory propaganda that dominates South Korea’s mainstream media accounts of hallyu.
Either that, or it’s the typical old “frog in a well” inability to proceed from, “This is how it looks from inside the well,” to “I wonder how it looks from outside the well.” Except, well… academics at least are supposed to do better than that.
Then, finally, there is the issue of cross-pollination. It is wholly uncontroversial to say that global pop culture is very obviously and inextricably hybrid and transnational. In South Korea specifically, virtually all pop cultural forms are the result of South Koreans adopting and slightly reformulating or adapting Japanese and American pop cultural forms: the live hip-hop performance, the webtoon, the girl group video, the blockbuster movie, the television drama, and the instant coffee advertisement are each the product of a hybridized, homogenized global pop culture that is not uniquely or completely Korean.
Yet this profound hybridity is discussed explicitly only occasionally in the text (specifically two on music—which directly discuss American and Japanese influences on Korean song—and one on fashion under the dictatorships, which explicitly fought such cultural cross-pollination). Elsewhere, the issue of transcultural hybridity, or the internalization of (mainly, originally, Western) global pop culture forms, is so studiously avoided that one cannot help but wonder whether this is because the ostensible “Koreanness” of Korean pop culture is so fundamental to the rubric of hallyu-nationalism.
In other words, South Korea now has evolved its own bizarre form of inept pop-culture-nationalist, predicated on:
- the triumph of South Korean pop culture abroad, as proof of South Korea’s greatness, when the pop culture materials themselves both participate in, and explicitly depict, most of the serious problems in Korean society: rampant misogyny and anti-feminist backlash; a rapidly growing wealth gap and deepening class impermeability; the defunding of the fine arts and traditional culture; the increasing oligarchic nature of Korean society to the detriment of Korean workers (not to mention xenophobia, corruption, terrifyingly prevalent child abuse, and more),
- that triumph being because of some inherent quality of South Korean pop culture, rather than complexly interacting with the wants, needs, and frustrations of audiences overseas,
- the idea that overseas audiences who engage with Korean media do so in a way Koreans would like them to do, and
- the idea that South Korea pop culture is ultimately, on a fundamental level, profoundly Korean, rather than the product of a complex interaction with foreign pop culture forms.
None of which matters much in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. But the power with which this idea has taken hold is so profound that even academics seem to have internalized it, and occasionally mumble the words to that crazy tune.
And it’s at the point, I suspect, where doing otherwise would probably provoke outrage. Witness how Winterton’s review above even manages to take offense at someone describing Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video “silly.” If that video’s not silly, what in the hell is?