K-Pop's Soft Power

By Manticore-Griffin, Neil | In These Times, June 2011 | Go to article overview
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K-Pop's Soft Power

Manticore-Griffin, Neil, In These Times

This spring, the Hollywood Bowl hosted a big-budget festival "for all generations" featuring a familyfriendly parade of torch singers, hippop crews, and boy and girl bands. But instead of a shot in the arm for America's pick-pocketed music industry, it's a showcase for the boom of cultural exports from what CNN dubs "the Hollywood of the East": South Korea.

K- Pop- named after (Japanese) J-Pop before it- has attained fashion first status in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore. More surprisingly, acts are making inroads into the self-sufficient charts of Japan - and more unpredictably, starting to occupy the imagination of a neo-capitalist China.

K- Pop's rise began in the '90s. South Korea had emerged as one of the Tiger Economies via a determined, decadeslong drive to build up a competitive hi-tech manufacturing industry (starring Samsung, Hyundai and LG). This triumph of capitalism could only be achieved via a failure of democracy - a series of military republics kept free speech and wages down, as true to their own ideology as their more notorious neighbor. Democracy finally arrived in 1987, and the new rulers attempted to reform, while continuing to rely upon, the country's chaebol (dynastic family businesses the size of multinational corporations). Likewise, as nearby China outpaced the Tiger Economies, South Korea's previously isolationist foreign policy shifted to segyehwa - a political term usually translated as "globalization" (but more usefully ambiguous).

Trade became key for Korea to build its regional position, which is why the country's Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology recommended support for "creative content industries." Reportedly, it was the international success of the film Jurassic Park- equaling "the foreign sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars" - that sealed the deal.

It was, however, a string of soapy miniseries - often historical, always sentimental epics inhabited by glamorous stars - that would prove the monster hits. Lavishly produced by public broadcasters and sold insultingly cheaply, romantic shows like "Winter Sonata" and "Autumn In My Heart" would root in TV schedules across East Asia, proving hugely popular in China especially. With (Korean) product placement all but running the props department, emotion-ravished authences came to relate to these neighborly characters, their fashion - and the musical soundtrack.

K-Pop was born in the '90s for domestic use - an artificial transplant to South Korea, a place where record companies are called "talent agencies" precisely because they train (and maintain) pop star "idols" in a country with no tradition of such - and it fully evolved with the arrival of the "Queen of KPop," BoA. Trained for two years behind closed doors, her career launched in 2000 at the age of 13. At 15, with moderate success back home and a sound that gentrified her genre's urban influence, she conquered Korea-phobic Japan, the world's second-largest music market. (Her coaching included both Japanese and Mandarin.) In 2008, having learned English, she became one of the first idols to attempt an American release. The songs were unsurprisingly modeled on what Rolling Stone called "possibly the most influential pop album of the last five years" - Britney Spears' Blackout. The fact that you haven't heard of BoA tells you how it went, but her influence in South Korea was considerable.

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