Monday, October 10, 2011

Kpop Can't Take Over America. Neither Can Anybody

SeoulBeats has an interesting article that got facebook-posted and twitter'd at me all day today:

It discusses the way Kpop has been facing an increased demand in different countries of the world... a topic sure to get the we'll-repost-every-Korea-article-from-any-foreign-news-source Korea Promotion-type people all hot and bothered.

As you can see from these four videos, K-pop has swept the entire world and every human on the planet now loves Dongbangshinki and Shinee and 2NE1 and Girls' Generation.



and Geneva

and the crowds are no longer just overseas Koreans. See that white girl in the corner of the Geneva video? The one who doesn't really know the dance?

But sarcasm aside, the article brings up some of the usual complaints about the way often the management companies themselves are bunging up the delivery of a great product ...

and K-pop is a great product. It's not art (though there are Korean musical artists to be found if you know where to look) but as performance goes, it's a highly polished act that they've nearly got down to a science. Actually, down to a business model is probably the more apt phrase.

The article also suggests that these days, thanks to YouTube and stuff like that, K-pop has found enough overseas fans that they don't need to try to "convert the masses" the way JYP tried to do, booking The Wonder Girls with the Jonas Brothers: Kpop already has fans in all kinds of places, and they'll do a great job of selling out all kinds of venues... so long as their bookings are in keeping with the size of the fan community in their target cities (but who are we kidding? Ambition will win out. Wembley Stadium cancellation, here we come).

Some people might be a little disappointed if Kpop chooses to cater to that smaller niche, rather than aiming to hit the mainstream...

I'm not. And you know why?

Barenaked Ladies. That's why. And no, that's not a reference to the new look I hope SNSD takes on.

Barenaked Ladies (or BNL) is famous for that one song that gets stuck in your head. The chickity china one. You know it. They've had a handful of hit singles in America. That one catchy song was in 1999. What many people don't know is that in Canada, they first broke out in 1993, with this song:

They got some measure of success in Canada, but to get big in the USA, they toured, hard for a long time. Basically, from 1993 until 1999 when "One Week" broke through, they were releasing albums and achieving slowly increasing levels of fame around the USA, so that by the time the did have a radio hit, they also had a polished act, a solid back catalogue to fill out a full length show, great stage banter,  a pre-existing fan base who could act as their missionaries to those who thought they were one-hit-wonders, and live favorites that new fans could get into, while old fans could sing along.

And if a Korean band really wants to make it in the USA, they're probably going to have to do the same. This whole "hitch our wagon to the Jonas Brothers" thing won't quite do it, and here's why:

He tries to crack up the audience, but his delivery is twelve kinds of "off." It's kind of cute to see him fall on his face, but it's not a speech that will set another million tweens' hearts aflutter, the way the Beatles were charming and cheeky and funny in their moptop era interviews. 

In Robotics, they talk about the "Uncanny Valley" - when robots begin to resemble humans, humans feel more empathy towards them. We empathise with R2D2 more than Robbie The Robot because R2D2 looks and acts a little more human than Robbie does.
We connect more with Mr. Incredible than with Rodney Copperbottom, because he's more human-looking... but then something strange happens.

Call it the Polar Express effect. There's a point where the imitation gets close enough that it becomes weird instead of more and more charming. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was so lifelike... that it freaked everybody out. It was so similar to human that the small differences became the focus, instead of the big similarities.

And Korean stars trying to act the way American popstars act will fall into the uncanny valley - that "almost there, but not quite" zone, that will win over those niche audiences, and people who are willing to take Kpop, its awkward English its aegyoish stylings, and its boys wearing eye makeup on its own terms. It won't win over "the mainstream" in the way that would make the Kimcheerleaders feel validated. (Then again... jimmying music chart results for a meaningless number one single (see here) validates them, so maybe it would).

See, Rain's video up there-- he tries to make a joke - a simple pun - and bombs completely. Because rehearsing softball interview questions is not the same as actually appearing cool enough during a live appearance/interview/whatever, that a teenybopper (they're the audience for Kpop) would go "I want to make THAT person my idol." Making a joke that's culturally acceptable, and delivering it in a way that's funny to a widespread audience, is a very, very culturally specific performance, and you can't traipse across an ocean and expect to be the coolest kid in the class when you don't even speak the language. And that's the level of cultural acclimatization that would be necessary to reach "the mainstream." Lady Gaga knows the culture well enough that she can turn it inside out and play off defying its conventions, but you have to know it to subvert it.

(that uncanny valley goes the other way, too: the two mixed-race girls in Chocolat freak me out because their not-quite-Korean faces look really really weird to me in Korean kpop makeup, Korean kpop fashion, doing Korean kpop dances and aegyo. Big noses and aegyo are like apricot jam and pizza to me: both alright, but not together. Don't ask me why specifically - the whole thing about the uncanny valley is that you can't quite put your finger on it - but it's weird to me.)

Oh yeah: Unless you can do this (Shakira), or something like it.
In which case the rest is kinda moot. (Thanks, Youtube)

That may still not be entirely true: Shakira backs up her talent to back it up, with a really strong stage show, and she was a proven performer in Spanish (and had support from that fan base) before she tackled the VMA's.

But the other rub is this:

There's just no such thing as a mainstream anymore. When the Beatles came across the pond in 1964, the average TV owner had something like three or six channels to choose from, period. It's a lot easier to get astounding tv ratings when you're twenty five percent of all that's available! Even in the days of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," there were few enough methods of media distribution, that probably every person in America had heard "Billy Jean" on the radio, and could hum along. These days, thanks to Youtube, Amazon's long tail and iTunes and online personalized specialty radio stations, you can have an album or song hit number one in the charts, with vast swaths of America's population still saying "Justin Whober?" or "Whoby Keith?" or "Isn't M&M a candy?" Arcade Fire had some good chart results, and they still got the Who the Hell is Arcade Fire? backlash when they won Album of the Year. Modest freaking Mouse had a number one album...because in 2007, that's possible. Wouldn't have happened to the Pixies in the '80s.

That's good for music, because it means anybody can find their niche, and it's good for me, because I don't have to wait through radio crap to find songs I like and buy their albums.

Stornoway. Courtesy of a facebook status update. Song: Fuel Up.

But that same diversity in music means that you can't sweep America, or take America, or the world, or Europe, by storm. At very best, you can take one country, or one demographic by storm - like Justin Bieber did, setting youtube and twitter records while people older than me have NO idea who he is, and couldn't be bothered (at the same time as those tweeners really can't be bothered about Arcade Fire and The National). You could be an indie sensation, or a country sensation, or a teeny-bop sensation, or a CCM supadupastar. If you've got the chops.

And that'd be a pretty impressive accomplishment. But you can't take over America anymore. There's just too much ground, and too diverse, with too many pockets of people looking for something too specific, to be taken. What was the last album that took North America by storm? Has anything since Jagged Little Pill had the same impact across demographics?

The group that has the best chance at it will have every member good enough at English that they can do unscripted stuff, and come off cool. They will be legitimately talented, and also very hard-working, and they'll pay their dues: they won't whisk into L.A. from Seoul, book Staples Center, and sell it out because "The Whole World is Being Swept By the Korean Wave." They'll make it the way BNL made it in America. 200 cities a year, for five years. And then suddenly they'll appear out of nowhere.

The way Bobby Kim did in Korea: by being really poor for a while.

So that's what I think. Now go read the article at SeoulBeats.


Anonymous said...

"They'll make it the way BNL made it in America. 200 cities a year, for five years."

Good thoughts, but why not state the obvious? K-pop by definition is a pre-packaged item, not an organic situation where musicians (actual musicians) come together, write songs, then go out and perform them while living out of a van.

That's part of K-pop's appeal, actually -- surgically enhanced Korean robo-fems dancing and singing like mannequins.

(As you can tell, I absolutely hate K-pop with the burning fire of 10,000 suns.)

Roboseyo said...

The way K-pop bands make it in Korea is not far off from 200 cities in a year -- they're driving all around the country doing personal appearances and tv appearances for 18 hours a day. Extra Korea (remember that blog) had a large number of posts criticizing that aspect of Kpop.

Anonymous said...

No doubt they work hard and put in long hours, but not on musicianship and song-writing (IMHO).

Also, I still can't get over the fact that so many K-pop bands are so dang big. SuperJunior might sell out a stadium, but I'd hate to be there when the check gets cut what, 13 ways? And I'm sure their management takes the biggest piece of the pie right off the top.

As mentioned, I hate K-pop musically. But the obvious exploitation is pretty awful as well.

Not that it doesn't happen in America too, but at least musicians there have embraced the internet and realized that management and record labels are, by definition, unnecessary parasites.

/cranks up some Fugazi

Roboseyo said...

as I say in the article: it's a great product. It's not art, but it's performance polished to a high degree of shine, as its audience expects it to be.

meanwhile... if you like Kpop, but don't like Asians, look what I found at the blog where the original linked article was:
white boy kpop. f'reals.

Roboseyo said...

Ps. Fugazi. F&#^ Yeah!

Anonymous said...

Sorry but I skipped through your entire post(except the 1st paragraph) because I'm sure I could contact everyone I know and ask them whether they've heard anything about K-pop and they'd probably say "NO!"

Roboseyo said...

My goodness! Your piercing insight has convinced me to shut down my blog and go live my life!

Thank you anonymous!

ZenKimchi said...

It all makes more sense when you look at modern pop culture through the lens of American pop culture in the 1980s. The 1980s was a decade of hype after hype with the greatest number of demographics falling into the hypes. By the 1990s Americans started getting hype fatigue and started segmenting more and more in pop culture. But back in the 1980s you had people of all ages and backgrounds at least being familiar with the big acts of the day. It wasn't grunge vs. hip hop vs. mainstream pop vs. college radio. It was Madonna vs. Cyndi Lauper. Prince vs. Michael Jackson. John Cougar Mellencamp vs. Bruce Springsteen.

CA said...

I think the Korean management companies should listen to you, but pride will get in the way. People will keep on thinking that k-pop is "popular" all over the world now.

Chris in South Korea said...

Nice post - and true. What I have a hard time figuring out is *why* anyone would want to take over the American music scene. It's not like there's a big pile of money sitting in someone's bank account, just waiting for a new act to have money thrown at. That's 1990's (1980's?) thinking at best.

Further, coming to the US means competing with record companies who've been at the business longer. That means more (and tighter) connections, less attention paid to any one act, and an ever-harder time to get heard on mainstream radio. Why bother with that when there are fans in dozens of *other* countries clamoring to look up to you?

Anonymous said...

I personally don't like the music, and I've tried, but the music is too foreign (unk language barrier); the lyrics are too simplistic and sound is like something from last century even though I love American and Euro pop because I'm used to its sound. It is not strange to me.

The fact that the groups are manufactured is a major buzz kill.

Anyway, based on my limited Korean entertainment blog exposure, Koreans are prideful like anyone else only there is something nationalistic about their motivation. The government or their ministry of culture and tourism (?) being behind this push to spread the virus that is hallyu in order to feed their economy is my guess. I cannot remove the thought of (a foreign) government influencing this movement.

If only ROK can produce talent like these:

She's nine....

This kid wrote the song he's singing and I cannot wait for him to appear on the music scene....

Anonymous said...

Can't agree anymore with you. If kpop does become popular quite quickly, I will have officially lost faith in the American music industry...

DogDyedBlack said...

I agree with pretty much all that has said, except for the fact that despite being primarily a punk/indie fun, I've come to enjoy a number of K-pop songs over the years--but I'd better, since I do research on it. At first I had to grit my teeth, but now, no doubt about it, I've acquired the taste. But I'm with Roboseyo, you have to recognize it for what it is--a manufactured product, not organically created music based on grit and passion, which are the qualities I value most highly in music.. But the visuals and infectious spirit of K-pop and its ability to engage people across a--let's give credit where credit is due--are not be sneezed at. I know music and musical genres more deeply than pretty much anyone else I know--this is nnot meant to be a boast, but I've played bass guitar in three bands in two countries over the course of my life, have released EPs, played well-known local alternative clubs, been a college radio DJ, etc., and still invest a huge amount of time listening too new music, creating eclectic YouTube playlists, etc., but there is now too much music globally for anyone anywhere to really become an utter global phenomenon even like Michael Jacksonn or Madonna did in the '80s. Technology allows for too muuch diversity. I regullarly stumble across songs that I like by artists I've never heard of and then see that the hit count is over a million. Musical aims have to be more modest, and even, say, K-pop's admitted success in Japan has to be kept in perspective. The phenomenon is real; quantifying it is much more difficult.

I'll close with a great story I recently heard from a friend which really gives a clear idea of just what the issues are (and also even points to such things as the fragmentation of (neo)"liberal democracies" like the US): my friend's friend was telling his 9- year old son about the fact that when he grew up there were only 3 network channels plus a couple of local stations to watch on UHF for reruns in contrast to the 200-300 or whatever channels one can readily now pull up on cable if one is keen to, and his son's response was "Wow, Dad,, you really must have had too spend a lot of time on the internet!"

Opus said...

Yeah this kpop stuff will never work in America, it´s simple they´re not good enough, kind of the eighties i guess

Roboseyo said...

they're not good enough? thats bs
i bet u never saw them preform

Roboseyo said...

This is the real reason Kpop can't take over America.

Roboseyo said...

This is interesting to read, considering the coverage that Psy has received vis a vis Gangnam Style. How close to the edge of the Uncanny Valley is he?

Roboseyo said...

He's not in the uncanny valley, because he's not TRYING to be something he THINKS Americans will like (the way many Kpop exports are)... he's just being his same old awesome self, but in English instead of Korean.

Note that he didn't release an English version of "Gangnam Style" because he's not pursuing the American market per se -- he's just doing what he does, and he managed to hit on something.

Roboseyo said...

I definitely agree with you regarding the fact that he doesn't attempt to ape what he thinks American's would like him to. What are your thoughts on Big Bang? Even though they are label mates, Big Bang has more commercial success in terms of concert sales and fan base. I was actually led to your blog because I am researching the Hallyu Wave, but I also do content contribution for an American fan site for Big Bang.

Roboseyo said...

What are you researching it for? Are you based in Korea? You can e-mail me or meet with me (if you're in Seoul) if you like, to talk about this stuff... but I'm just an observer.

Big Bang hasn't made the kinds of inroads in America that they have in other parts of Asia... but I also think that they're better poised for longer-term success than Psy, because of their look, multilingual skill, and type of talent they bring to the table.

Their releases this year look like they're trying to build a presence in America, and what they have to offer might catch on there better than any other group except perhaps 2NE1, but to make it in the US, you probably either need a viral hit (CF psy or LMFAO) a bit of a scandal (CF the sex-tape crew), some mad sex-appeal that nobody in America's offering (cf Shakira above), most likely also a lot of time touring college towns or whatnot to build a name, MAYBE the backing of someone who already has a lot of cred or a lot of resources (cf: PSY and scooter braun -- he's played his cards REALLY well since signing with scooter -- or 2NE1 with WIll.I.Am... or the mouseketeers) and on top of that, STILL a bit of luck and a bit of good timing.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for your prompt responses. I am based on the East Coast of the United States. However, I am preparing to renew my passport in hopes of a trip to Seoul in Fall 2013. I will definitely email you to talk more about the subject. Right now, my focus is on the correlation of the evolution of the Hallyu Wave, K-pop performers, and the rise of hip hop in 1988. Seoulbeats and other bloggers have touched upon the subjects, but I am extensively researching those subjects for a future writing project. Besides the writing that I do within the aforementioned context, I assist in organizing one of the largest social meetups for Korean culture enthusiasts in New York City.

Roboseyo said...

I like your article, I do agree with most part of the article. Also thanks for mentioning Barenaked Ladies, I wasn't aware they came out in 1993 in Canada, that took them a long time to break into the US. Also I'm glad you mention Shakira and I don't think you know this, Shakira debuted in the 90's in South America, it took her 10 years for her to break into the US. So I think Shakira and Barenaked Ladies would probably understand the obstacles for K-pop groups (BTW, Shakira met with U-KISS in South America when both of them performed in Colombia). Although it looks like K-pop group may never break into the US, I wouldn't say that, the genre made some great achievement like breaking the language barrier at a massive level (not even J-pop could've break it this big), creating a global fanbases bigger then any foreign pop music. Also Peru vice president cited K-pop as a major influence for increasing economic and cultural ties between Peru and South Korea. Even President Obama acknowledge the Korean Wave when he was in South Korea. Also K-pop has became very big in Europe. A German radio has said that "Hallyu is conquering the world", A French TV station not long ago said that K-pop has captured hearts of million of French youths, and there was a statistic reporting that France has more then 100,000+ fans of K-pop. I think K-pop could maybe have a big break, it's getting more fans everyday (that include celebs in the west are becoming fans of K-pop). K-pop is becoming very big in the UK, BBC has been doing a lot of coverage on K-pop and not long ago BBC and KBS (a Korean TV station) has now teamed up and will co-produce a big documentary on K-pop and BBC is really really a big deal in the UK. Go to google and type up "What could the BBC and KBS's collaboration mean to K-pop in Britain", the article is interesting and meaning K-pop could end up going mainstream in the UK. So I think it's inevitable that K-pop could take over UK, but that's a good thing if UK get conquered by K-pop. It can help convinced USA to take K-pop more seriously if K-pop takes UK by storm. I do think K-pop has full potential it can take the US if done correctly.