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Gangnam Style & How The World Woke Up To The Genius Of K-Pop
Robert Barry , December 18th, 2012 07:09

Robert Barry takes a deeper look at the k-pop phenomenon and Western responses to it, and argues that this natural extension of South Korea's high-tech culture is this some of the most innovative music currently being made

Will 2012 go down in music history as the year the rest of the world finally realised that all the best pop music is now made in South Korea? It's a question worth pondering. The success of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' has proved a gateway drug for many mainstream media outlets suddenly eager to experiment with k-pop. The song's about as representative of the dominant style as a chocolate-covered brazil nut in a box of soft centres, but never mind. If they can put the phrase 'gangnam style' in their metadata and spread the piece over several pages, their departmental search engine optimisationalist will doubtless be prostrating himself with gratitude until Whitney Houston and Kate Middleton decide to join forces to create an iPhone app to help crowdsource the search for April Jones. Naked. Or something like that. In the meantime, The Guardian, Spin, The Telegraph, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, The New Yorker, NME, and many others have all 'discovered' k-pop in the last twelve months and run conveniently click-baiting listicles to celebrate their new crush.

In China and Japan, people have been talking about the Hallyu Wave for a decade now. The sudden upsurge in Korean cultural exports since the late 90s has taken in not just music, but also books, comics, TV soaps, and especially cinema. Such has been the phenomenal rise of the latter that in 1996, The Oxford History of World Cinema could merrily omit any reference to Korean film at all without feeling the slightest dint in its plenum. Even in Korea itself, domestic audiences seemed to show little interest in their home-grown cinema. Within just five years, the cinema industry looked to be going through a renaissance, sometimes dubbed a New Wave, which has caught the attention of both cultish geeks and major Hollywood studios such as Fox, Dreamworks and Columbia (all of whom were either distributing or paying for remake rights of Korean films by the early 00s).

The origins of the current k-pop boom go back further, however, to the relaxation of Korean state censorship in the early 90s, when the underground college music scene burst into the mainstream. One man, in particular, seems to epitomise the new Korean pop of that period: Seo Taiji, latterly dubbed the "president of culture". A former bassist with heavy metal band, Sinawe, he quit the group in 1991 only to bounce back a year later with a new group, Seo Taeji & Boys, and a startlingly new hybrid sound.

Listening to their breakthrough single, 'Nan Arayo', today, you hear at first something like the Beastie Boys' fusion of hip hop, rock and punk attitude, with a little of the laid back beats of British groups like Soul2Soul thrown in and a bit of a daisy age cherry on top. But then the chorus comes in to reveal a remarkable melodic sensibility, and the boys break out in synchronised dance moves which anticipate some of the animatronic slickness of current acts. Many of the first generation of Korean Idol bands later in the decade, like H.O.T. and Shinwa, would cite Taiji's group as a major influence. In a way, things came full circle when Sinawe, now reformed without their original bassist, performed their heavy metal cover of 'Gangnam Style' earlier this year.

Today, this kind of hybridity is often remarked as a predominant feature of contemporary k-pop. But then isn't some form of transnational genre-mashing a feature of just about all pop music these days? What we find in many of the current Korean groups, however, is a specific reference to all the most self-consciously futuristic Western styles of the last decade or so: the French filter house of Daft Punk and Cassius, the ghetto bass-inflected pop of Interscope acts like MIA and Gwen Stefani, and the day-glo 'aquacrunk' of the Glaswegian LuckyMe collective.

Tracks like 'Gee' by Girls Generation, 'Bubble Pop' by Hyuna, and 'Nobody' by The Wonder Girls display an ingenuity in melodic construction, a sophistication in programming, and a rhythmic invention that make most recent Anglophone pop sound positively stone-aged by comparison. Considering the size of the Korean professional gaming industry, it's perhaps unsurprising that the influence of chip tunes and computer game music is evident in 'Tell Me' by The Wonder Girls and 'Like the First Time' by T-ara. Even the videos for many of these tracks seem to take place in computer worlds: shiny science fiction non-places like those seen in Kara's 'Pandora', 'Boys' by Girls Generation, and 'Shock' by boyband, Beast, evoke CGI spaceships, equal parts Ridley Scott and Luc Besson. The prevalence of autotuned vocals, robotic dance moves and super slick, self-consciously artificial-looking make-up and hair styles seem to create post-human avatars of even the stars themselves.

In a sense, k-pop groups can be regarded as accelerated versions of Western pop acts. Within the space of three or four years, they will release a string of hits, break up, pursue an array of splinter groups and solo projects, before triumphantly re-uniting for their comeback in a clockwork battleplan that seems to follow the pattern set by Marvel superhero movies. The music, likewise, pursues this same sense of acceleration: streamlined, compressed, efficient, taking elements already present in American pop and R&B to their nth degree. Now.

K-Popism: Contemporary Girl Fronted Pop From Korea by Monster Bobby on Mixcloud

Rarely just singers, many members of k-pop groups lead parallel acting careers and may engage in a whole range of other cultural activities. In a way, they are the ideal representatives of Alvin Toffler's cognitariat. They may be ostensibly freelance, yet bound by highly restrictive contracts and subject to extraordinary degrees of precariousness. 'Free' to exercise their creativity but subject to intense and constrictive scrutiny, they are expected always to 'be themselves' through a constant effort of affective labour, yet if the image of their 'true self' which they show to the public slips out of line with expectations there can be harsh reprisals. There has even been a reality TV show in which the members of Girls Generation became unpaid interns at a fashion magazine.

The international spread of Korean popular culture has led some political scientists to detect a kind of diplomatic mission behind it all; pop music as politics – paraphrasing Clausewitz – by other means. While suspicious talk of Hallyu as 'soft power' akin to the CIA's cultural Cold War bears a whiff of the old Victorian fear of yellow peril, equally apparent in Dan Bradley's new Red Dawn remake, it remains nonetheless clear that the Korean culture industries are increasingly at the centre of a complex network of state and corporate interests focused on economic enrichment at the expense of allegedly impoverished artists tied into "slave contract" 360 deals.

State appropriation of pop culture never runs smoothly, of course, and the last few months have seen k-pop stars banned from the Japanese broadcaster NHK's big end of year music contest, Kohaku Uta Gassen, for indiscrete comments concerning the fractious issue of the disputed territory of the Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt islands. Meanwhile, Psy himself has found himself in hot water in the US media for a rap in which he expressed his desire to "Kill those fucking Yankees… slowly and painfully".

Psy's now-notorious outburst was back in 2002, the year two Korean school children died under the wheels of an American military vehicle and a RAND Corporation survey found 60% of Koreans held unfavourable opinions of the USA. He has since apologised profusely and President Obama, at least, appears to have accepted the apology. But the story highlights the delicate dance that requires choreographing, once a significant part of any small nation's export economy is engulfed by pop culture icons beloved for their eccentricities.

Beyond the curious spectacle of senior politicians and internationally recognised contemporary artists doing the funny donkey riding dance from his video, and what Slavoj Žižek has called the "quasi-sacred scenes" of hundreds of thousands of people copying Psy's moves and calling him Messiah, there remains the curious fact that – in a year when Brit rock is increasingly dominated by the privileged – the biggest song of the year is all about class. The situation is a little like a British rapper releasing a track called 'Knightsbridge Style', mocking the habits of the rich Sloane Rangers of west London.

Except of course that Psy himself was born in Gangnam, the son of the chief executive of a semiconductor corporation. One gets a little bit of an idea of the intricate dance of culture and commerce when you discover that, despite losing money in each of the last four quarters, Psy's father's firm has seen an eightfold surge in share prices since the song's release.

Then there is the fact that, though most people probably have some vague understanding that 'Gangnam Style' is taking the michael out of some posh, trendy district of Seoul, very few of its listeners really understand in quite what way, due to the language barrier. It's as though the question of class can only arise in mass culture clothed in this layer of obfuscatory mystification. Nor does it seem most people particularly want to know what the lyrics are actually saying. When Korean music TV channel M-Net started broadcasting in America, they asked their viewers whether they would like the videos to be subtitled and received a resounding no.

There's evidently a disturbing degree of orientalism going on in the western fascination with Asian pop culture. Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj have both been picked up on in the past for their 'yellowface' appropriations (see the latter's video for 'Check it Out' with Will.I.Am if you don't know what I'm talking about). At the moment, one need look no further than the current hit by AME, 'Play the Game Boy'. It's a fine song, evidently having a lot of fun with the arcade game sounds already mentioned with regard to Kara and Girls Generation, and singer Amy Kabba knows what she's doing here, having previously scored a hit in Korea with a song she co-wrote for girl group, f(x). But just in case people didn't get the reference, they've filled the video with colourfully doll-like Korean guys taking incessant photos and making mock-Japanese bowing gestures like extras from some dubious 60s comedy film.

To many k-pop fans, girl groups like Sistar and Girls Generation present a cooler, more self-assertive image of women in comparison to the reductionist emphasis on child-like kawaii exhibited by many of their Japanese contemporaries. But it does not take a painstaking semiotic analysis to realise the problems confronting a feminist recuperation of the images of women presented in k-pop videos. To cite just one example, while Miss A's recent hit 'I Don't Need a Man' may seem on the face of it to proffer a positive vision of independent women, the clip makes abundantly clear that the need for a man is made superfluous only by conspicuous consumption.

In March of 2009, the award-winning Korean boy band, Big Bang, released their new single, 'Lollipop', a riff on the old Julius Dixson and Beverley Ross song of the same name, here fast-forwarded into delirious technicolor. 'Lollipop' also saw the debut of a new group in the k-pop firmament, 2NE1, who are seen singing and rapping alongside their male counterparts in the video. But 'Lollipop' did not just launch a new band off the back of the already successful reputation of another; 'Lollipop', the video, was also part of the marketing campaign for LG's new phone, also called 'Lollipop'.

LG further marketed their new phone with a website, created by the digital branding company Dream of Electric Sheep (named after the Philip K. Dick novel about androids indistinguishable from humans), in which we see the members of Big Bang and 2NE1 as cardboard cut-outs performing the song on a miniature stage with the flashing lights of the phone as the centrepiece of its mise-en-scene. Various features on the website emphasise how you can use the phone to express your own individuality and creativity: by customising the pattern of LED lights on the back of the phone, choosing from a variety of pre-recorded ringtones, and using the inbuilt camera to take photos of yourself and your friends.

The whole emphasis on the marketing campaign seems to be about the disposable, replaceable nature of the pop stars (as cardboard cut-outs mechanically acting out wooden dance moves on a fake 'stage') in comparison to the unique, personal nature of the consumer. This is clearly in stark contrast to the view presented by any kind of equivalent ad campaign from the Fordist 50s, in which the celebrity endorsing the product would be presented as a distinct personality shilling a product to a herd of ultimately indistinguishable consumers. But even more crucially, what the 'Lollipop' campaign makes explicit is that the launch of a band and of a mobile phone may now be one and the same, without in any way compromising either. Indeed, 2NE1 and Big Bang are often cited as the most 'real' and 'authentic' of the current crop of Korean pop acts. After all, the former write their own songs, and the latter look set to break America under the stewardship of producer, Will.I.Am.

It has been increasingly the case worldwide that the music industry has become an adjunct to the marketing department of the consumer electronics industry. Sony Music can afford to care little about diminishing returns from CD sales, for the music they produce sells in turn the idea that anyone can produce such music – with the help of the audio editing software sold by Sony Creative Software. This is as true in Europe and America as it is in Korea, but perhaps in the realm of k-pop this is somehow more brazen, more unashamed. It feels less of a need to hide behind the cloak of rock's old romantic humanism.

And why should it? This is a country economically dominated by its high tech sector. A country in which something called "internet addiction" is a recognised psychiatric disorder from which some 80% of the population are considered to be at risk. Pop music is often at its best when it reflects most closely the production process of its time. Motown gave us the sound of the Fordist man-machine interface in Detroit's automobile factories. Techno was the sound of those same factories replacing men with computers, the production process moving to automation. At the nexus of high finance and the consumer electronics industry, maybe k-pop is the sonic expression of the production process of the new virtual economy.

William Gibson once predicted the existence of a Japanese pop idol, Rei Toei, who existed as a pure simulation, an embodied virtual agent endowed with artificial intelligence. Something of this sort came true last year when the Japanese pop group, AKB48 announced their newest member, Aimi Eguchi, who proved later to be no more than a CGI composite of the group's six other members. Perhaps a more radical idea than the holographic fiction which simulates a real human, however, may be the existence of real human singers painstakingly trained and crafted to simulate a virtual fiction, playing music which sounds as if it might be entirely computer generated but proves in fact to be the work of human bodies, albeit heavily processed. K-pop may be a sound, a movement, a means, whose time has come. For better or for worse, it expresses the nowness of the present better than any other music.