Korean Pop Culture, its Dissidents and Authenticity

To the uninitiated, the music scene in Korea can seem a little… well, homogeneous. Especially if you spend your days around middle/high school girls. They literally stand on their chairs and scream if you let them watch a music video of their favorite boy band and cry loudly if you play a group they don’t like.  Which can be confounding, since they. are. all. the. same. The fan culture here in Korea is something I’m unfamiliar with back in the United States, but I’m sure it exists in a similar fashion? I don’t know. Fans in Korea do some very devoted things, like create chants that they yell during a concert that often have nothing to do with the song. They are so choreographed that the chant is as audible and sometimes as clear as the music itself. They are, shall we say, devoted.

Now, I try really hard not to be overly stereotypical. Stereotypes help me categorize and begin to understand new things and experiences (which there are plenty of these days), but at the same time I try to realize that there is a deeper or broader story to be discovered. This is how I have felt about Korean music. I have only been introduced to Korean Pop music and until recently, it seemed that this really was all there was here. I once engaged a friend in a conversation about genres in Korean music and basically got the response that everything is k-pop. They don’t make a distinction like we would in the United States. And after listening to some of the popular music that we might call “rock” or “hip hop”, I kind of agree. It is different, but not so different that I think they need a new genre. Particularly in the style.

“We were recruited for our personalities.”

But still, I felt that it couldn’t be true. Pop culture always has its counter culture. In America these days, the counter culture (which is quickly becoming pop culture) is the Indie scene. The response to big-record label. With the advent of the internet, and social media, it’s never been a better time to be an independent artist. You can get your sound out to the public directly without dealing with the suits back at the office.

The role record-label is another difference between Americans and Koreans. Ask the average American who the big pop star is these days and you’ll get some answers. Stuff like, “Justin beiber, Britney spears(?), Katy Perry” and so on.  Next question, who are the record-labels for these musicians? I don’t know about you, but I have no idea. No clue! And even if I did know one or two of the record labels, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which artists worked for them. Not so in Korea, ask your average fan who their favorite artist sings for and you’ll get a name. JYP, Loen (and some others I don’t know, and don’t care about). Not only will they be able to tell you who the record label is, they will be able to tell you other artists who work for the same label.

For example, the ever-adorable IU sings for the same record label as the Scandalous Ga In (of Brown Eyed Girls). The importance of the record label means that these two very different artists make TV appearances together. It’s still a little confusing to me, an uninitiated, and I try to keep my exasperation to myself. But for awhile, I thought that maybe an Indie culture simply didn’t exist in Korea because of how tightly interwoven the artist and the record label are, not just to the production of music, but to the individual fan.

IU on the left, Ga In on the right

Thankfully, I am wrong. And in reality there is a vibrant Indie scene. So vibrant in fact that many Indie artists are making break-throughs into Pop culture, much like in the USA. Now, depending on how invested you are into the Indie scene, this may be a heresy to sign with a major record label after being indie for so long. My impression is that some will call you a sell-out and others will celebrate your new-found legitimacy and your chance to spread your music even further.

But still, there is a price to be paid when an Independent artist gives up that title and joins forces with the Dark Side. To give a unexaggerated example, Jack Johnson is probably one of the most well known Independent artists. (He owns his own record label, so I guess that gives him some sort of inbetween evil-record-label-but-still-authentic status?) I love Jack Johnson’s sound and even when he does a pop-song-movie-collaboration, like “Upside-Down”, it’s still a good song.

But… something gets me. Have you ever seen the music video for Upside Down? It’s Jack Johnson.. but at the same time.. it’s, something else? It’s other, it’s.. popish. It’s cutesy, it’s adorable, it’s.. not quite Jack.

And at some level, I struggle with this, not because I care if Jack Johnson is a pop star, or if he is going to “sell-out”. But because it suggests to me that to gain wide-spread legitimacy, one must give up their independence and authenticity. At some level, one must be less than ones true self.

Of course, talking about ‘authenticity’ might actually be served better with “air-quotes”.  Being ones true self is most likely an idealistic fantasy. Simply interacting with another human being is a social transaction which necessitates that you act, in some small way, less than truly authentic. Life is a continuous series of accommodations, made to help yourself and others live in harmony and unity. I accept this. With this critique firmly in place, lets make the pop vs counter-pop argument one of degrees. A relative scale. Jack Johnson may be inauthentic while still being an independent artist, but it seems he becomes even more so when he tries or is forced to appeal to a broader audience.

With “Authentic” being our goal, and pop culture being the force pushing against us, what does Pop-culture use to force our obedience?  Well, pop culture often reinforces our social paradigms.  Sure, women wear less and less in the pop culture, but is this anything but a reinforcement of established male/female roles?  How exactly does a woman pushing social modesty boundaries to make herself more attractive from a male perspective do anything to change social perspectives?  Pop-culture does work to push society as well, but I argue that pop culture is powerless to inact real change before it has been generally accepted a priori.  Otherwise it is not “popular” culture by definition.  Those who fight against the social movement of pop culture, are generally the same old guard  who halt movement in any sphere.  All the way from science to religion (and here).

Now– back to some K-indie/k-pop. For one of my lesson plans based on American Culture, I decided to look at Indie Music. I had already done one on Pop music and so I thought it only fair and fitting to do one on the modern counter-pop. But how to describe it? This is how I stumbled upon koreanindie.com. My first gateway into music that isn’t kpop!! My joy is hard to describe!

Upon listening to a lot of the K-indie scene, I wasn’t too impressed (but I’m not all that impressed by a lot of what I hear from American Indie musicians either). There are a lot of people trying to make it the independent route, and some of them just aren’t that good. Some are though, and it was great to see music with strong latin influences, punk rock, and a pretty strong folk scene. One of the bigger groups is called MilkTea. They’ve achieved near-pop status and have a song called “Ramyeon King” that is the anthem for a popular TV show here in Korea.

MilkTea’s Ramyeon King is the perfect example of Pop vs Indie culture because the group made two different music videos to appeal to its two bases. One music video is for the pop culture, those who maybe learned of the song via TV and another for MilkTea’s indie base.

As you can see from the videos, the indie music video is a completely different beast. It is filmed in a park, in some trees, no computer graphics, the dress is noticeably more un-pop culturish. Her hair even attracts less attention. Compare to the Pop music video. The lead singer’s make-up, hair and dress is in the traditional style of pop-icons. Namely, cutesy. (For an extended critique of pop-culture in Korea and women, check here). There are tons of “cute” CG and artwork. Consider even the way she sings, the very first “1, 2” is noticeably different. She is putting on a front of cuteness.

Now… I try to stop myself here before I go off too much. I have my own biases here. Before I demonize the pop-cutesy style too much, I have to recognize that I am biased towards the indie style. I like it more because it feels more authentic- not because it is, in reality, more truly authentic or genuine. And it feels more authentic to me, only in counter to the pop style, which I have decided is inauthentic.

But, I would still make the argument that the indie video is based more in reality, and in being so, it is more authentic. The amount of computer graphics, the type of setting (a green-screen in one, nature in the other) and the level of fantasy in the pop video make me feel valid in this critique. Though I accept a level of inauthenticity in the indie video, it is still a counter-point to the pop culture, even if in the end they both point me away from authenticity.

Because in the end, if we were all truly authentic with each other, could we ever stand to live with one another? To some degree, the fantasy, inauthenticity and exaggerated lifestyle of pop-culture is what binds us together in mutual self-delusion.

(For the lesson plan associated with this post, check here.)

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