The world of music is in the grips of K-Pop mania. This mania has received heavy criticism of little weight. It has also received accolades that verge on the hysterical. On Korean K pop is a simultaneous defence and critique of K-Pop mania.
Most critics of K-Pop lament the loss of attention that America has got in the music industry. The music world has tilted towards the East with children of the West abandoning their own adult musicians. Of course, the critics do not frame their criticism in such a blatant manner. Doing so would make it obvious they are suffering from sour grapes. But the resentment is noticeable under the veneer of critical self-flattery. The critics tell us that people’s fascination with K-Pop shows their total capitulation to the incoherent; since, international fans of K-pop rarely understand Korean. These critics do not realise, or admit, that this fascination with the incoherent is a direct product of the Anglo-American music industry. Lady Gaga is a supreme example of this, but not the only one. The critics deplore that “mechanical” aspects of K-Pop, but they are not willing to testify that the mechanisation of music is due to the direct influence of Henry Ford’s manufacturing methodology applied to the American music industry. Classical Western music eschewed tedious repetitions that dull the mind and extinguish the creative flames. Contemporary Western music does the opposite. K-Pop follows contemporary Western music in this aspect, but does it better.
The Western audiences’ fawning over K-Pop stars is interpreted as blind allegiance to the Exotic. It is hard to take this criticism seriously when we read in supposedly informed magazines such as GQ the mind-dumbing praise heaped on Western music stars. It is true K-Pop gives the aura of the Exotic. This is because the themes and tropes of contemporary Western music have been recycled and rehashed to the point of rigor mortis. The audiences at home are bored and you, the music industry, are not willing to innovate and try new things; so, do not be surprised when your audiences look overseas for new entertainment.
Newspapers give us stories of female teenagers leaving their homes in Scotland, for instance, and settling in Korea just to feed their K-Pop lust. The newspapers portray such behaviour as aberrant and a sign of the decay of society. A decade ago, these same newspapers spoke approvingly of how Asian teenagers flock to America to listen to, and live nearby American pop idols. When the tables are turned, so is the judgement.
We are told, with an air of incredulity, that teenagers in Hackney are heard reciting Korean lyrics without understanding them. More than a few of these teenagers end up learning Korean, as evident by the rising number of Western music-lovers learning the language. No incredulity was hinted at when stories of Arab boys reciting 50 Cent were told. Instead, the stories were seen as a harbinger of good times, globalisation uniting the world by breaking through cultural and geographical barriers.
The rise of K-Pop has put a dent in the Anglo-American music industry. The industry is desperately trying to counter this mania. That is why many new music coming out of America is not in English, but Spanish. The desperate bid to make the American Way exotic again shows how the new so-called inclusive approach of the Western music industry is a last ditched attempt to stop the inclusion of the Eastern music industry in the world of music. Even though the Western music industry is suffering, the Western audience are gaining. The rise of K-Pop has given greater vibrance and freshness to the world of music that had gone stale from ad infinitum repetitions.
K-Pop mania shows an important distinction between Western people and Western industries. Western people are gratified with K-Pop and are not complaining due to it. Western industries are less enthusiastic. Unlike in colonial ages where cultural products from other countries were seen as enemy combatants by colonial people, today’s globalised age has led to far more rationality in how people relate to other cultures. This shows a huge shift in West-East perception, which although not perfect, is a laudable advancement from the colonial mindset.
Having said that, I am not a fan of K-Pop. There are legitimate criticism that can be made of it. Like any genre of music, or art, or literature, K-Pop embodies certain ideas and concepts that it imparts to its audience. That is why K-Pop can be philosophically scrutinised as can Rock and Roll. To give a familiar example, Rock and Roll embodies certain concepts of masculinity which can be legitimately criticised, e.g. celebrating the masculine as bereft of intelligence. Without delving into Hegelian dialectics, we can sketch three criticism of K-Pop.
K-Pop fascinates due to its incomprehensibility, but it is exactly this incomprehensibility that will soon end the fascination. When a teenager listens to K-Pop, she projects her own fantasies and struggles onto the music. This projection, however, is transferable to any other foreign music. I have known people who gave up K-Pop for Slovenian music simply because they got bored with the projection game they played with K-Pop. Later on, they gave up Slovenian music for Farsi music. And so on. Ultimately, K-Pop has nothing to offer apart from people’s fascination for it. It is similar to the cartoon cat running off a cliff but still continues running until he realises he is off the cliff, then plummets. This criticism does not apply to Korean people or to foreigners who speak Korean. It applies to K-Pop mania among non-Korean speaking fans.
Even though it is seen as celebrating differences, K-Pop sanitises differences and advocates homogeneity. The female actresses and models in the K-Pop videos look freakishly the same. One would be forgiven for thinking they were cloned. This, of course, is not a uniquely Korean aspect. The Barbie Revolution in America sold sameness under the guise of difference. The clone-like aspect of K-Pop is the Barbie Revolution but in an Asian context. This clone-like aspect is self-defeating because, on the one hand, K-Pop mania is fuelled by its celebration of differences while, in fact, it asks all girls to look exactly the same. Even when seen from a local viewpoint, this clone-like aspect is frightening, at least to me. It is as if, we are told, there is only one type of female body in Korea, when obviously there are many types of female bodies. Any reductive approach to life that tries to eliminate diversity in the world is pernicious; since, such approaches suck the zest for life that arises for the buffet of humanity.
Lastly, K-Pop is not prescriptive. Madonna’s music was prescriptive in the sense she advocated for greater female sexual virility. K-Pop lacks this advocacy aspect. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because contemporary music has an appalling track-record in advocating anything. It is a curse because it shows K-Pop lacks content and could be akin to white noise. As in all issues of importance, K-Pop mania has its positive significances and negative outcomes. This does not necessarily mean we have to stop loving it or start hating it. It doesn’t even mean we should stop abhorring it or start empathising with it. All it means is that by understanding both fans and critics of K-Pop, we can reach a greater appreciation of K-Pop as a social phenomenon.