Monday, September 17, 2012

Pop 'til You Drop: K-pop and the Marketability of the American Dream

After having my passport pick-pocketed while traveling in Spain, I find myself unexpectedly back in South Korea—my homeland and country of citizenship—for the first time in two years. Having spent the majority of the past 6 years in New York, my point of reference for current news and cultural trends has shifted from being Korea-centric to religiously watching ‘The Colbert Report’ and ‘The Daily Show.’ Consequently, it took a couple days to reorient myself with the political and social climate of Seoul
– one of the world’s fastest moving cities and an urban jungle where over 20 percent of the nation’s entire population calls home.

But let’s face it; nothing piques my interest more than K-pop (Korean popular music). Korea is known for its uncanny ability to produce, if not manufacture, boy and girl “bands” and "artists" that have effectively traveled back in time from a distant future where no one ages and everything runs on the power of LED lights.

The unprecedented, viral omnipresence of veteran artist Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is an anomaly in the K-pop scene. Over the last decade, the Korean pop music industry has grown from a domestic business catering to tweens, to a global enterprise that draws screaming fans in Asia, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and even North Korea. The three largest entertainment groups, JYP, SM and YG relentlessly churn out boy band after girl band, comprised of young dancing and singing machines (usually between the ages of 16 and 24) who have been in “training” to fulfill their self-designated destinies as pop stars since elementary school. One can compare the process to how the Chinese recruit and inure kids for the one in a million chance to perform at the Olympic games – only the commitment to a career in K-pop is relatively driven by free will and the chances of getting to parade one’s fruits of labor are higher.     

In doing so, K-pop has established itself as a subculture and subsequently the title of “K-pop artist” has solidified itself as a legitimate and rather mundane career choice over the past couple of years. I was astonished by the inundation of reality shows on Korean television catering to the contemporary American dream—quit your job and chuck all your eggs in the reality show basket. In 2009, Mnet (Korea’s MTV) launched Superstar K, which was, in a nutshell, Korea’s equivalent of American Idol. The first show of its kind to air in Korea, Superstar K drew hundreds of thousands of aspiring singers. In the past year, 10 additional shows were broadcasted fueling the hopes and dreams of men and women of all ages that yes, they too can take off from their prosaic, 9 to 5 office job to pursue their sincere passion for music. Obviously the prizes, usually a hefty check and contract with a leading entertainment group, are undeniable incentives. Superstar K just is currently airing its fourth season amid a bevy of PR boasting a record breaking one million zealous auditioners.  Granted this takes into account auditions held overseas, regardless, for a country with a total population of 50 million, a one million person turnout to a show in its fourth season is rather ridiculous, and raises a number of questions.

Since when did becoming a diva or maestro capture the hearts and minds of Korean citizens, especially its youth? And more importantly, why? Is this the influence of cultural imperialism from the West where the effects of this phenomenon have already manifested itself in both the positive (America is the world’s leading exporter of popular entertainment) and the negative (America is also importing a record high number of foreign students to account for severe “brain drain”)? Or is this part of an inevitable flow of culture in a post-modern world where the universal language of money overrides historical differences rooted in production? Is the world now unifying under a new cultural currency of instant gratification and consumption? Is it more than simple irony that Americans now line up outside audition sites in New York and Los Angeles to achieve their dream of becoming the next K-pop superstar? 

While the model minority stereotype is now an archaic mode of thought bound to an industrial group of first generation immigrants in the United States, stereotypes exist for a reason. Korea, like China, is known for its militant education system and the world’s highest college-graduation rate. Although we Koreans do not view ourselves as acquiescent, working bees, there is no denying the social status bestowed upon those who perform well in school. Even when I was growing up in Asia, which I swear was not too long ago, becoming a scientist, teacher, doctor or lawyer were the most popular and common aspirations for burgeoning youth. I would like to argue that this was largely a result of the valuation of the production of knowledge and not simply for the pursuit of the greatest financial yield.

Just as much as job opportunities have diversified with the development of modern history and technology, so have the ambitions and dreams of the current generation of the youth in Korea, as well as around the world. However, there is a radical shift from an emphasis on production to consumption. Kids are no longer so concerned about what they’ll be doing as an adult. In fact, many skip this step entirely and arrive directly at the results of an unknown source of labor. Now kids want to be famous, live the “good”, “fabulous” life, or earn enough money to make it rain. To ask specifically how one is going to attain fame and fortune, or to even consider the potentially arduous path one must take is to have missed the point – one only needs to dream big, work hard at what one loves to do and the opportunity will come find you.

Consequently, although shows like Superstar K are conceived from a business point of view to increase viewership and advertising deals, it nonetheless inculcates, in the minds of the public, the notion that my life can change overnight by committing to the pseudo bohemian act of leaping off a cliff to pursue a career in music. Whether or not the audition mania sweeping the country of South Korea is a sign that the concept of the American Dream is becoming a permanent fixture in its social landscape is yet to be seen. In the meantime, I will sit back, relax and marvel at the latest singing sensations this country has to offer.


Anonymous said...

"Now kids want to be famous, live the “good”, “fabulous” life" Bingo. Lots of people want to clutch their Chanel bag while riding around in a "Benju". Most people who participate in conspicuous consumption typically tend to try for the path of least resistance and easy money schemes. Apart from that, no one wants to be a scientist anymore here (Seoul), most kids you ask want to work for Hyundai or Samsung and get paid lots of money.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't gonna say shit, but I promised myself a pop-tart if I read your article. This is for you globalists..a loving gift from me...and it's the secret of the world..(For you especially.) Here goes:

The mind controls the body.
Man controls the world.
We can create what we imagine, and we always have.

So there.

All your confusion stems from false ideas you got from television...or a well learned lesson driven in by programming and science mixed with words and course recuirements etc.

I agree...I despise Idol and the ass monkeys they reap.
I'd rather listen to ZEK LIGHTNING.
(He was well liked in japan.)

But anyway...they've got whole grains and there's no trans fat...and I'm tired....I've been busy on a feel a bit like Atlas.