September 18, 2020 | Arts and Culture
not your cultural reset
imperializing attitudes in american k-pop culture
This summer, amidst the global pandemic, I found refuge in three things: my iced Americanos, my canine and non-canine sisters, and Seventeen, the thirteen-member boy band that I love with all my heart. At the end of June, the Pledis Entertainment K-Pop group released their seventh mini album 헹가래 (Heng:garae). The Korean title conveniently describes “the act of a group of people standing in a circle and throwing an individual up into the air repeatedly (i.e. at sporting events),” a perfect symbol for the triumphant celebration of youth that is captured in the six tracks. My form of escapism in July and early August was bopping to the sweet longing on 좋겠다 while strolling through my Northern California neighborhood. And when wildfires rendered those walks impossible, I sang away the stress of living in apocalyptic smog to “My My.” Listening to Seventeen’s music always leaves me feeling better than before. Their songs, composed primarily by Woozi, a member of the band, combine beautifully poetic yet easy-to-understand lyrics with simple instrumentals in a range of genres, from pop to hip-hop to EDM. Each of the thirteen members, whose names I can list off on command (in age order!), has a special place in my heart, and it’s the variety of their voices, styles, and personalities that makes Seventeen such a vibrant and loveable group.
Growing up in an immigrant household, I was surrounded by Korean music and television. In preschool, my mother borrowed episodes of my favorite show 동물농장 (Animal Farm) from the video store each week. The cassette tapes, carrying tales of brave mother geese and kittens rescued from rooftops, made the long journey across the Pacific Ocean before arriving into my waiting hands, around one month after the episodes had originally aired. Once the cassette player had been switched out for DVDs, my family streamed trending K-dramas through illegal links found on MissyUSA (essentially Reddit for Korean moms, except more powerful). And on our way to the Korean side-dish store or driving to swimming lessons, my sister and I enthusiastically belted along to Sistar, Super Junior, and Girls Generation with the CDs we purchased from Hankook Market.
It wasn’t until middle school that I experienced Korean music being played outside the context of my home life. I was sitting with two friends at our usual lunch spot when I heard Psy’s “Gangnam Style” being blasted through the speakers. The student council members at my school curated the lunchtime playlists, and this was one of the only instances that I actually recognized a selection. I was even more surprised to learn that many of my classmates had viewed the music video, which featured the comedians and celebrities I regularly watched at home, and were learning the iconic “horse dance.”
In the following weeks, “Gangnam Style” resounded from all of the radio stations I usually pretended to listen to. A mix of amazement and confusion accompanied me as the song’s popularity spread. Suddenly, Korean music was cool enough to be played at middle school dances (which, in retrospect, maybe isn’t that cool…). The part of my life that I had always categorized as my “immigrant side,” to be shamefully hidden away when out in the open, was being included, and even welcomed, in my “American” life.
Even after Psy’s success, however, I continued to hate being asked about my music taste. Teenage me would shrivel up in fear and give a nondescript answer, deathly afraid of being read as some weirdo who liked “boys who wear makeup” and “girls who act like children,” terrified of being seen as “other.” I told my friends in my high school’s K-Pop club that I thought Korean music was too “manicured” and “overproduced” and enthusiastically hated on Twice, BTS, and other popular third-gen groups. Attending a predominantly white and wealthy school didn’t help, and in my spare time, I desperately scrolled through Spotify playlists in hopes of becoming a “real hip-hop listener.”
And it wasn’t only the people who thought Korean music was “exotic” and “weird” that stressed me out, but also the adoring fans. Non-Korean enthusiasts would talk to me in broken 한글 (Hangul) and even tell me that they wished they were ethnically Korean too, as if that was some sort of compliment. Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I often encountered comments that were written in Romanized Korean: Englishified Hangul words like ‘saranghae,’ ‘oppa,’ and ‘chingu’ made me cringe. Usually, I simply laughed or replied back in Romanized myself, unable to pin down the uneasy feeling in my belly.
Witnessing the Hallyu Wave gain more and more traction in what is currently known as the United States has been a troubling experience as a Korean American. K-Pop has become strangely incorporated into American culture in recent years. BTS is a household name, tops the Billboard charts regularly, and attends awards shows alongside artists like Halsey and H.E.R. The group even spent this past New Year’s Eve in Times Square, forgoing their invitation to a Korean broadcast network’s performance. Korean entertainment industries eagerly market toward the profitable American audiences, stopping in most major cities on international tours and running Twitter ads that read “Learn Korean with BTS!”
Yet, there remains a veil of entitlement and “othering” through which Korean music is received and discussed. In interviews, American hosts ask Korean guests why they can’t make songs in English, as if that’s the obvious next step in their career. Singers are expected to give beaming reviews about performing at venues like Prudential Center or the Rose Bowl. Furthermore, popular groups are given nicknames like “the Korean Beatles,” and the genre itself is described with phrases like “adult candy” that undermine the seriousness of the music and play into the exoticization of Korean people. I’ve even witnessed American artists who work with Korean musicians mispronounce and misspell their collaborators’ names after the joint performance (would this ever happen with a white collaborator?). And any K-Pop content that is uploaded to the Internet is immediately flooded with comments asking for “English speaking please” and “Where are the English subtitles?”
These instances might not seem very harmful on the surface, but the problematic aspects of American K-Pop culture stem from larger patterns of anti-Asian racism and the history of U.S. imperialism in Asia. Korean music isn’t considered as authentic or legitimate as American music because it’s made and performed by Asian people. And Asian people and culture are still exoticized and dehumanized to this day, just as we and our culture have been in the past. We are objectified, fetishized, and exploited because we aren’t thought to be as intelligent, as emotionally capable, or as human as white people. And these imperialistic attitudes are reflected in K-Pop culture.
White people (and plenty of non-white people indoctrinated into whiteness) practice a mentality of white saviorism and American exceptionalism in the ways they talk about Korean artists and fans. The Korean people are characterized as one formless mass of ignorant and conservative racists, queerphobes, and sexists in the white imagination. So when a K-Pop celeb speaks out in support of gay people or Black Lives Matter, they are overindulgently praised all over the Internet for “teaching those Asians the superior values of the liberal West.” In reality, these condescending comments applaud the artists for overcoming what is perceived as their (inherently flawed) Koreanness and getting closer to realizing their truest, whitest selves.
This was the case when Jo Kwon, a member of the well-known ballad act 2 AM, talked about embracing a genderless image in the singer’s musical career. Western fans militantly demanded that Jo be referred to with they/them pronouns, completely ignoring the fact that there are no gendered pronouns in the Korean language. Nor did Jo ever claim to prefer a specific pronoun in English, a language that Jo does not even speak. At the same time, Korean men have been exoticized for years because they wear colors, styles, and makeup that is viewed as feminine through the lens of Western gender norms. This instance demonstrates how “social justice” crusades claiming to “save the Asians” are really more focused on centering whiteness and white supremacy than on productive and respectful conversations. To quote my sister, “I don’t think the way forward is for white people or Westerners to try to educate Asians on how not to be racist when their own countries invented white supremacy.”
Like in so many other forms of cultural consumption, many white people are too willing to use people of color as entertainment while ignoring how their whiteness is implicated in the oppression of BIPOC. In the case of my people, South Korea has a complicated relationship with what is currently known as the United States due to lingering histories of war and imperialism and the continuing U.S. military presence. This past and the power dynamic between the two countries cannot be blissfully ignored by Americans who choose to partake in K-Pop and then feel entitled to make judgements about Asian people. Nor can the U.S.’s history of Asian exclusion and continuing discrimination (which has become more blatant during COVID-19) be conveniently forgotten. K-Pop is not a “neutral” space where these histories we have inherited are removed from the picture.
Clicking open my Spotify this morning, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that Joshua and Dokyeom, two of the vocalists of Seventeen, have collaborated with Pink Sweat$ on a remix of the singer’s “17.” Touché. The track begins with a pleasantly thrumming bass that’s joined by warm percussion and Joshua’s soft and flirty voice, then DK’s earnest and sorrowful singing: “널 만난 그날 부터 시작이 된 건 가봐… 서툴던 나를 받아준 널 품에 안고 싶어 난…”. The Korean and English lyrics mingle together, creating a special kind of resonance: “이 손 놓지 않을게. 지금처럼 내 곁에, 영원히 머물러 줘 when we’re ninety-two the same as seventeen.” Pink Sweat$’s loving and nostalgic vocals blend well with the members’ voices into a sweet and soulful melody that has me swaying in my chair before the start of my first Zoom meeting.
I find a retweet on Pink Sweat$’s account from one hour ago: a photo of DK and Joshua making V’s at the camera while wearing blush pink sweaters and coral lipstick, accompanied by the Pink Sweat$’s comment at the top: “MY GUYSSSSS” with teddy bear emojis and hearts. All of the comments near the top of the thread are in English and can be categorized into (1) ecstatic joy and 팬심 (literally, fan’s heart) or (2) thanking Pink Sweat$ for “the collab with our boys,” “for working on the collab with them,” “for making this possible.” I’m very happy for 지수 and 석민, but I’m also saddened, wondering why this has to be positioned as an “opportunity” that was graciously granted to them by the American music industry, when they are already such talented, successful, and beautiful artists on their own.
I started listening to Korean music again when I entered college, after a long hiatus and much self-introspection. My short-lived flirtation with “real hip-hop” (another site of whiteness ignoring inherited histories—see above) had been rather unsuccessful, and I now recognize it as a violent, albeit valid, attempt to pursue “belonging” in this settler-colonial society. Diving into the warm embrace of Mamamoo, Suran, and Day6, I’ve become acquainted with the part of myself that flutters with joy at Wonwoo’s witty rhymes and swoons to Hwasa’s sultry vocals. I’m learning that I don’t need to turn away from my own Koreanness––it is whole and human, all on its own.
*special thanks to my sister Michelle for helping me think through the ideas in this article and offering many insightful suggestions.