K-Pop and Korean Xenophobia
South Korean culture in general is blowing up in the West right now. Korean BBQ places are springing up ala sushi in the 90’s and fandoms of Korean pop artists are growing at an unprecedented rate. Bands like BTS and Blackpink bring billions to the Korean economy annually and smash retweet records for artists.
I find K-Pop to be an interesting phenomenon. It’s like American pop music on steroids. Bigger, brighter, more produced, more choreographed, spectacle personified. Just watch any K-Pop music video and you can see how over the top everything is. The devil is in the development. While American pop music was developing in the 1950s, Korea was embroiled in its civil war and as a result missed cultural development in the radio era of music. For the US, having music develop parallel to radio, a medium that is exclusively audio, means that artists must develop personalities and shine through the airwaves on their artistic individuality. But Korean music developed later alongside television, which reduces the focus on the individual as an artist and replaces it with a focus on more superficial elements. That’s what makes K-Pop so visually extra. Dance, fashion and the looks of the idols takes the front seat, while the actual music becomes background, almost like a film.
Artists are largely cultivated by talent agencies from a young age, and it would be wrong of me not to mention they are often overworked and exploited (which is too big a topic and another essay altogether). The combination of all this results in methodical, corporate, pop music, superficially one step above American pop, to suit the tastes of a broad demographic both in Korea and abroad.
Now while the music is factory produced that doesn’t mean that it’s strictly uninteresting, I can stan Mozart and Nayeon! While its production does feel corporate and calculated, the songwriters draw from a wide variety of influences including: post-Kanye pop music, modern R&B, EDM, trap, rap and hip hop. I can’t stress how important this is. This represents an expansion of the bubble of Korean culture. Korea created its own music culture and now that culture is broadening its horizons.
Korea is extremely homogeneous (96%~ Korean). There are still a lot of xenophobic attitudes towards foreigners (particularly people of African, Latin American and Middle-Eastern descent). Immigration for foreign nationals tends to be difficult, housing is hard to come by and the social safety net is stripped away. Even for those already entrenched in the system, it can be hard to move up the ladder or get tenure. To foster national unity South Korean schools taught "danil minjok", literally "racial purity". It wasn't until 2007 that this practice stopped, and only due to pressure from the UN.
Demographically, Korea is in a similar boat as Japan. Japan has the only declining population in the world and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Though not quite as drastic, Korea’s population is aging similarly, a huge piece of the population is aged over the age of 50. This older population in both countries has led to a lingering of socially conservative ideas, particularly those about racial purity.
But here’s where K-Pop comes in: I think that a combination of K-Pop’s integration with Korean society, combined with its ascent to the international stage, and K-Pop’s diverse range of influences is a signal of the beginnings of diversification in Korea.
Malcolm Gladwell has a great episode of his podcast, “Revisionist History” where he takes a microscope to why country music is so sad. I would strongly recommend listening to if you have time. But a TLDR is: country music is very specific, it caters to a narrow demographic that will be virtually guaranteed to relate. On the other hand, pop music tends to be more general in an attempt to relate to the widest possible audience. This results in pop music having a more cosmopolitan audience by nature.
In this case the context is different but the point is the same. Culture influences art while art simultaneously influences culture. If the dominant cultural force is accepting and integrating other cultures then it encourages its society to do the same. Progressive values in the form of less xenophobia will take place in tandem with the younger generation, the generation where K-Pop has the largest audience and will have the biggest effect. I’m not saying this will happen overnight, quite the opposite, but I really do think that this generation of Koreans will be more accepting of outside ideas. You can see something similar happened with jazz in the 1920s. It was a genre appreciated by both blacks and whites where people were judged simply by how rad they were. And as jazz and other jazz influenced, African American dominated music was gradually incorporated into mainstream culture it slowly but surely caused integration. Now, by no means do we live in a post race utopia, but it all about slow, steady normalization. And while the parallels might not be perfect, I think that K-Pop and it’s continued evolution will help Korea integrate more uniformly.
But let’s be honest this is all just an excuse for me to image search a bunch of Korean idols.