Wednesday, May 31, 2017

K-Pop Can Be a Genre If You Want, and some Other Stuff Too: Equivocations on Ask A Korean!

UPDATED: Now with headings and more links!

At long last, something has prompted me once again to set finger to keyboard (doesn't have the ring of set pen to paper, does it?) and, naturally, it is the wonderful old blog friend Ask A Korean! with whom I have disagreed before. Let's party like it's 2009!

This week on his blog, The Korean! (whose series on the recent Korean presidential election are excellent guides) is back talking about K-pop, one of my favorite topics for pontification. He is well-versed in the field: his series of "The Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" is well-researched, interesting, and frankly up there with culturalism as one of the best things he has written on his blog.

But The Korean has, in my opinion, bitten off a little more than he can chew in attempting a be-all and end-all definition of K-pop. We'll get to why in a minute, but first, let's summarize his original argument, as found in his blog post. We'll try to be concise, and if you prefer the real McCoy, go read the original here and its follow-up here, instead of my distillation.

Summary of AAK!

The Korean appears to take issue with those who define K-pop specifically as what others would call "Idol K-pop" -- the image that comes to many peoples' minds (especially if you're on Tumblr or Instagram) of leggy young women and be-sixpack'd young men making cute faces and dancing in sync to highly produced music tracks in elaborately crafted, probably colorful videos. The Korean's definition is clearly in contrast with this, and some of the evidence he uses is solid on first pass:

He uses the examples of three artists who have almost nothing in common musically, but who are all grouped under "K-pop" to broaden the definition from that narrow "Idol Kpop" definition. IU (video here), BTS (video here - recent winners of a social media award at the Billboard Music Awards) and FT Island (video here - whose youtube channel, FTISLAND makes me want to read 'FISTland' which sounds more Chuck Tingle than JYP) are all called "K-pop"; he also points out the lineups of the "K-pop Stage" at the SXSW music festival, where groups ranging from idol pop to indie punk to hip-hop all appear on the same concert stage, under the K-pop banner. Most damning of all for "small wagon" K-pop definers, when Psy's "Gangnam Style" became a smash hit, those who were talking about K-pop in 2012 were, for the most part, perfectly happy to hitch their wagon to his comet, rather than making a stronger effort to clarify that Psy does not fit the mold of "Idol K-pop" in a number of ways.

Genres need boundaries but we're bad at describing them

When glimpsed through a closing elevator door whilst pelvis-thrusting, the Korean language lyrics, colorful video, electric, synth-heavy arrangement and rap sections were similar enough to what we'd seen on the latest Hyun-a single (not to mention her appearance in the video) that anybody anxious to boast that K-pop was taking over the world would gladly paper over the differences between Psy and those handsome, be-sixpack'd boy bands that fit the K-pop mold more accurately. More about Psy later. This is definitely the strongest part of The Korean's argument: that little or no effort has been made to draw boundaries for what is K-pop and what isn't, and genres need boundaries, even fuzzy ones.

Think about other music and this is intuitively true: there are songs that straddle the line between soul and R'n'B, or soul and hip-hop, or folk and twee pop, or grunge and punk, but there are also songs that are definitely one or the other, even if the genres are not clearly defined and people couldn't explain why they think one is and one isn't part of their genre. People argue about whether this song or that song is this genre or that, and when Taylor Swift stopped being country and whether Justin Bieber qualifies as R&B, but don't dispute that genres exist, and are different from each other. However, The Korean does his argument a disservice in his rejoinder post when he puts up pictures of white cats and brown dogs: music genres do not delineate as starkly as cats and dogs, which cannot mate and create viable offspring. Music genres are constantly mating and creating viable offspring in shocking combinations. The Korean is a smart guy and knows what false equivalence is, and he is guilty of it here. Sandwiches are a much better comparison because different people will pitch their "This is NOT a sandwich" flag on different squares of the chart, and be able to defend their choice.

This chart is culturally biased.

Words get more than one meaning all the time

The Korean's argument derails when he starts insisting that words -- the term K-pop in particular -- be defined and used more narrowly than what is actually done in practice. While it's one of the best-written paragraphs in the original article, it is also where his argument is weakest:
In our current, "post-truth" world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say. "K-pop" plainly means "pop music of Korea," because "K" obviously stands for "Korea," and "pop" obviously stands for "pop music." Q.E.D. And in fact, that is exactly how the term was used when it first entered the English language. Most English speakers--i.e., non-Koreans--encountered pop music from Korea for the first time in the early 2000s, and called such music "K-pop." The term was essentially the equivalent of gayo [가요], the word Koreans use to denote popular music generally, without reference to any genre, style or era.
Besides the fact he never defines what "pop music" is, which is a baffling and difficult conversation of its own beyond the scope of this response (given that AAK did not address it either), The Korean slips here and gives up the fatal flaw in his discussion, mentioning that it was in the early 2000s that most English speakers first encountered pop music from Korea, and described it as K-pop.

Because the problem with using the term K-pop to describe "pop music of Korea" is simply that Koreans generally don't use it to describe Korean music, and certainly didn't before the early 2000s. I teach at a Korean university and sometimes ask my students what music they like, and they name genres like "ballad" or "dance" or "hip-hop" and even if they name a group known as "K-pop" to the world, they might describe it as K-pop, or they might describe it as girl-group or boy-band. The Korean cops to the fact the term K-pop is used differently in Korea than outside of Korea in his rejoinder post, written after reading some comments disagreeing with his original post.
...when one observes the actual usage of the term "K-pop" by non-Koreans, it is abundantly clear that the term is not the same thing as "idol pop." When the international fans encountered Korean popular music that was clearly not idol pop--such as Gangnam Style--there was no effort to enforce the conceptual boundaries of "K-pop" to exclude Korean popular music that was not idol pop. When the international fans recount the history of "K-pop," there is no effort to trace the development of idol pop as a distinct strand of style that exists within the broader universe of Korean popular music.
The term K-pop is used differently by Koreans than by non-Koreans. We can drill down into even more detail if we want. When we poke around the term K-pop, and learn about its origins, and look at how it's used in different places, the inescapable truth is this: the term is used differently by different people, for perfectly good reasons that are easy enough to grok. The only confusion comes when people start cross-talking, failing to pause and take seven seconds to clarify "Hey, random stranger on the internet, do you mean K-pop as in popular music in Korea, or K-pop as in manufactured Idol Pop from Korea?"

The Korean wants to insist that every word or term have one meaning, and one meaning only, across all contexts, regardless of who is saying it, but language doesn't work that way. The word "set" has different meanings, depending on whether you are a performer getting ready for a concert (a set list), lining up to begin a footrace (ready, set, go), a sailor (set sail), a tennis player (won in straight sets), making jello (put it in the fridge to set), programming your digital alarm clock (can you set my alarm for me?), collecting pokemon cards (two cards short of the whole set), work for a theater company (set design is fun but hard), or preparing for a corner kick (our team is good at set plays). Some of those meanings resemble each other, and so do the different meanings of K-pop, but the context and the speaker changes the meaning.

"Set" is not the best example because it's such a simple, flexible word that it's easily co-opted into new contexts, but there are other words we know have hugely different meanings in different contexts. Buffer means different things if you're talking about financial planning, diplomacy, car care, or Youtube videos. Suite means something different if you're a composer or a hotel manager or MS Office user. Pitch can be a baseball move, a tar-like substance, an attempt to sell something, a degree of darkness, a musical note, or the ability to sing the correct musical note. Words like insulate, program, developing, overture, advance, target, and on and on. Even within art circles, indie can mean a distribution model or musical aesthetic, dubstep refers to a completely different musical sound if you are from America or the UK. Meanwhile, wherever someone draws a line between genres, artists specifically flock to that boundary to defile it, just for the sake of argument, or out of sheer playfulness, or because they don't give a shit who says what is which genre: they're just making art they like. Ask Banksy or Marcel Duchamp, or Prince, or John Cage, or Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Avicii's country techno song.

How are people using the term?

K-pop also has different meanings depending on who's using it, and where. That's normal. The meanings are conceptually coherent within those contexts, to those using it, so... what's the problem?

Website developers want it to have as broad a meaning as possible, in order to use it for search engine optimization. If the tag "K-pop" gets more hits for their band EXP edition, then EXP edition is K-pop by gum! (Warning: this article might make you angry)! But lots of people say a group of North American boys making (mostly) polished pop and goofing off in a video like the "Orange Mocha Frappuccinos!" boys in Zoolander (spot Eric from True Blood) while singing Korean they are reciting phonetically isn't K-pop, even if they sing in Korean.

If you are trying to promote Korean cultural products, then anything that you think will generate interest (and then tourist dollars or cultural export dollars) for Korea gets a K- in front of its name. Anything popular (or profitable) is K-pop, and anything that garners international success or accolades becomes retroactively tagged "Korea's Representative X" (this explains Psy suddenly becoming the flag carrier for K-pop when, by the strict definition of Idol K-pop, Psy doesn't fit the mold).

If you are stocking shelves at an American record store in 2003, or making music more searchable in the iTunes library by categorizing Asian popular music by country, and you want to differentiate music from Korea and music from Japan (and this is my guess as to the reason it is specifically called K-pop rather than some other name), or you need a shorthand tag to let people know where all the Korea-originating acts will be performing at your music festival, then K-pop means any music from Korea other than traditional stuff... or from the other end, if you have so much Korean music in stock now that the "World Music" shelf is overflowing and Korean music needs its own shelf, K-pop is a nice catch-all for anything that comes from Korea.

If you are a PR or an economics lover looking at the infrastructure of music content distribution or promotion in Asia, K-pop is a business model, a content development model and/or a distribution model.

On the other hand, if you like looking at GIFs of sexy Korean boys with sixpacks, or leggy Korean women making aegyo poses, and you have a Tumblr account and use the word "oppa" a lot but don't know any other Korean, then K-pop means a specific type of look, a specific type of music, and a specific type of sexy people.

If you are looking for other people to join you in celebrating a set of shows, bands and whatnot you like, or that has a connection with something in your heritage, K-pop is a good term to use to find other people who want to celebrate it with you.

On Orwell's on language and retroactive naming of things

It is not Orwellian that different people have found different definitions of K-pop serviceable labels, in the different contexts where they use it: though Korea promotions has been involved, it has not been a sinister top-down attempt to manipulate or control people, or to make Korean culture or art into something it is not, just a bit of fuzzy-minded opportunism on the part of K-pop power players and Korean promotions folk hoping for a windfall. This has happened before: on his Hot Fives and Sevens albums, Louis Armstrong had a bunch of tracks with "Blues" in the title (14 by my count in the 4 disk set), even though he was making one of the foundational jazz recordings, because blues was selling at the time. Look at the number of songs with "Soul" in the title in the 70s, be they soul or not. K-pop's popularity abroad would have continued at, or nearly at pace without the Korean government's intervention, and K-pop would still exist if it weren't being marketed abroad, though it would look different and act a bit less grandiose. Not all meaning-slippage is Orwellian manipulation of meanings and reality, aimed at creating confused passivity in a populace. Sometimes they're just trying to sell units, or people are grabbing onto the nearest searchable tag to increase their platform's reach, or looking for others who also like their favorite genre, in order to celebrate it together, and engaged fans will figure out where they stand soon enough.

If you define K-pop as "popular music of Korea" like The Korean, then Shin Joong-hyun and Kim Wan-seon are K-pop, because their music was popular, and it was Korean. But here is the catch: Koreans never called those artists' music K-pop, and probably won't start. Sometimes retroactive naming can work -- for example, when the terms "Mansplaining" "Slacktivism" and "Vaguebooking" were invented, something clicked and people could relate the new term to things they'd been observing/practicing for years, but had no name for it until those terms were coined. How handy to have a word for it now!

In most cases, though, retroactive naming that goes back too far makes me uncomfortable, because it can bulldoze more nuanced stuff that was going on at a time in the past. The term K-pop appeared around 2001-2003, and going back a few years to call SES or Seo TaeJi K-pop isn't too much of a stretch, because early K-pop groups were intentionally, specifically trying to duplicate their success. But going back decades gets more and more spurious, because Koreans did have names for the music genres that The Korean is retroactively erasing under the K-pop banner.

Mansplaining, vaguebooking and slacktivism were terms that brought more clarity and understanding (though they are now also suffering meaning creep); calling everything K-pop does not. I would be interested to hear The Korean explain to me why HIS act of lumping groups that aren't K-pop like Jo-yong Pil or Kim Chuja under that banner are OK, but Korea Inc.'s effort and/or lazy-minded non-Koreans' lumping of disparate groups like IU or FT Island under that banner are Orwellian, other than that Ask A Korean is not a government ministry (which, to be fair, is a solid point if we are concerned about mass-manipulation). I would be happier still if he removed overdramatic claims of Orwellian manipulation from his discussion of meaning slippage in music genres as descriptors. (UPDATE: Beyond Hallyu discusses this much more concisely than I do.)

The foreign gaze in Kpop, and definitions that do too much

There is one other important thing The Korean seems to miss in his discussion: the term K-pop was invented to differentiate Korean music from other types of Asian pop music: a differentiation that only needed to be made once Korean music started gaining, or targeting, audiences outside Korea. It became popular at the time of (not necessarily because of) efforts to promote Korean culture abroad. From its very origin, the foreign gaze is baked into the term K-pop. This is why such disparate groups get lumped together. That is how Psy can be the most important K-pop artist, even though he doesn't fit the K-pop mold (foreign gaze don't care), yet also not rate a place on The Korean's "Top 50 Most Influential K-pop Artists" (he hasn't changed Korean music much; he's just made more people outside Korea aware of it, which doesn't affect the music scene in Korea very much at all). Psy's position relative to K-pop changes completely depending on whether you're looking at Korean music from inside Korean culture or outside, and any definition of K-pop that doesn't/can't account for this is suspect. The Korean gets quite close to realizing the importance of the foreign gaze in defining K-pop while addressing Jon Dunbar's objection in his rejoinder post, but stops a couple steps short of it clicking.

I would argue that The Korean's definition of K-pop is unhelpful, because it does too little (it ignores the crucial part the foreign gaze plays in lumping all modern popular Korean music together) and too much (identifies things as K-pop that are not and never have been called K-pop by people in Korea -- the ones who consume and care most about Korean popular music) at the same time. I would have no issue with this if he just said "Here is my working definition of K-pop. Got it? Got it!" But instead, he asserts that his definition of K-pop is the definitive one and others are incorrect. That is why I am writing to re-muddy the waters.

K-pop is a great tag for search-engine optimization and helping readers find his excellent countdown, but by naming it the "Most Influential K-Pop Artists" series, and even worse, insisting his definition is the correct one and others are wrong, he is flattening out the huge diversity of sounds and styles of Korean music that exists, and confusingly hinting at a foreign gaze upon a series in which he has worked very hard to take Korean music on its own terms. I would find it much more accurate if he titled it "The 50 Most Influential Korean Musicians" or "The 50 Most Influential Korean Popular Music Artists" because the term K-pop and the aesthetic Jaden Smith will shoot for when he plans to drop a K-pop single wouldn't exist yet for 30 years when some of The Korean's top-ranked artists made their music.

Let's have more language, not less (speaking of Orwell)

In the end, while I enjoy the discussion of what K-pop is, and really appreciate The Korean's engaging in the discussion, and especially sharing some great music in the video clips, I would advocate spreading and popularizing more names for the different types of Korean music, rather than butting his head against a wall, trying to change the common usages of a term that is already out there, being used by different people in different, understandable ways, for good reasons of their own. Instead of saying all popular music of Korea is K-pop, let's get K-punk, K-indie, K-folk, K-hip-hop, K-dance, hell, K-Britpop and K-Eurotechno out into the ether as well, so that people have more tools to describe the music they like, instead of torturing the one single term we've been working with into froot-loops of twisted and confusing definitions.

Let's get away from too much lumping-together-of-things: clearer, more accurate language is better, the term K-pop has its uses, and it's not that hard to clarify and avoid confusion. It is not necessary to insist words must all have only one, context-free definition when they don't, and trying to do so bulldozes all the other terms that are being used to talk about Korean music. Actual, engaged K-pop fans would happily learn that variety of terms, use and discuss them, while non-engaged observers would never bother to learn any of them no matter how much online huffing and puffing there is for them to ignore, but who cares what they think anyway?

This image is sexist, but you know which one of these people will have more helpful conversations about colors?

Music genres do this. They just do. And outsiders don't care. Deal with it.

Let's play a game...

Let's play a game! (source: pinterest is rubbish for sourcing photos. Sorry.)

You may notice that I have not offered a definition of K-pop of my own in this whole discussion. Is K-pop a genre? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ sure! I don't really have a horse in this race: on an upcoming episode of the podcast I do with my buddy Eugene, (listen here!) I'll offer something of my own definition, but the point here is, K-pop works better as a term if we don't ask it to work too hard, or do too much. Beyond Hallyu's piece explains this admirably. If your definition of K-pop works for you, and either connects you with like-minded people, helps you find music you like, or gives you a framework for your top 50 Korean musicians countdown, go with it! But don't be too pushy insisting on your definition: language and culture tend to resist becoming overly tidy, and when it doesn't, that is when to bring Orwell back into the discussion.

There will always be big wagon and small wagon K-pop believers: people who think K-pop should be defined as broadly as possible, and those who think it should be more narrow. In that spirit, here's a fun game: let's make a rubric. Run your favorite group through this, and count up their score. Set the bar as high (small wagon K-pop) or as low (catch it all) as you want. Decide for yourself how many points a group needs to earn before they count as K-pop, and we can decide if Psy is or isn't K-pop, whether it's still K-pop when the Wonder Girls start playing their own instruments and singing in English, whether EXPedition is, or No Brain, or Diana Ross and The Supremes for that matter. Here is the checklist, with my own point values. Change the point values to fine-tune your own definition, and then check who clears it and who doesn't.

Group 1: Necessary? Sufficient? Disqualifying?

__ Marketed toward Koreans in Korea (50 points)
__ Sung in Korean (50 points)
__ Marketed toward Korean diaspora (15)
__ Group is signed with either: A Korea-based, Korean-owned label (15) One of the "big three" Kpop labels (YG, SM, JYP) (30)
__ Group promotes itself on Korean shows like Music Bank, Inkigayo and Music Core (40)
__ Group is NOT signed with a Korea-based, Korean-owned label (-60 not completely disqualifying, but close)
__ Group/singer was active before the 1990s (DISQUALIFIED)
__ Group/singer was active since 2007 (3 points)
__ They play their own instruments at live shows (-80: they're not K-pop anymore. They're K-something else.)

Group 2: Makeup and Formation

__ Add 5 points for every member the group has after the first five (so, a six-person group gets 5 points; seven-person = 10 points; a 12-person group = 35 points)
__ Subtract 3 points for every member of the group who was not born and raised in Korea
__ Subtract (__) more points for every member of the group who could not pass for Korean in physical appearance (ethnicity/race is important to some people, who will want to put a point value here. I don't really care as long as the next requirement is satisfied).
__ Subtract 8 points for every member of the group who is not fluent enough in Korean to make appearances on Korean television
__ Group was chosen and trained by the label (15 points)
__ Group members are on restrictive, probably unfair long-term contracts (7 points)
__ Group members are all gorgeous by conventional standards of attractiveness. (18)

Group 3: Aesthetics

__ Creative choices for songs, videos and dances are made by the studio, not the performers (8)
__ Music videos all have a "concept" (5)
__ 3 points for each group member with a designated role ("the visual" "the bad girl" "the vocal")
__ Music is driven by synthesizers and sounds like a mash-up of other popular music genres (4)
__ Features rap solos that add nothing to the songs, or dance breaks that sound like the trendiest EDM styles of the day. (4)
__ Cute poses and extreme close-ups feature prominently in videos (3)

Group 4: Promotion/Differentiation from other Asian pop

__ Subtract 4 points for every single released only in a language other than Korean (lose too many points, and you're not K-pop anymore: you're Asian pop, J-pop or something else)
__ Subtract 2 points for every single released with a Korean version and a version in another language
__ Subtract 5 points if the group has a "sub-group" targeting markets outside Korea
__ The Korean government has actively promoted their music (12)
__ Add 2 points for every advertising campaign they appear in in Korea.
__ Add 1 point for every advertising campaign they appear in in the rest of Asia.
__ Has an online fan club (10 points) with a quirky nickname (3 more points) run or closely managed by the label (8 more) pumping fans for more money through special offers and deals (5 more) whose fans will fucking dox you SWAT you and cut you if you diss their group (12 more)

Group 5: Other

__ White men over thirty living in Asia who don't listen to it sneer at it contemptuously and talk about it as if they were experts on it (7 points)
__ One or more performers were discovered on a Korean audition reality TV show (__) add value here: I don't care about this but some might.
__ Nobody has suggested a different hyphenated K-genre for their music (For example, "She isn't K-pop: she's K-indie!") 5 points
__ Somebody HAS suggested a different hyphenated K-genre for their music (-15 points)
__ Their fans in Korea insist upon this different hyphenated K-genre (-25 points)
__ Their fans abroad insist upon this different hyphenated K-genre (-40 points)
__ The fans abroad insisting on this different hyphenated K-genre name are organized, have a fan club nickname, and will fucking dox you swat you and cut you if you diss their group (cancel all above deductions)
__ When a new video comes out, fans mobilize to try and set Youtube "Fastest to X million views" threshold speed records. 

Add your own criteria in the comments, or change the point value in the comments if you want!

Thank you for reading, dear friends.


Here are some suggested additions to the checklist from Facebook. Thank you, Jon Dunbar!

__ Band is mixed-gender (-20)
__ Band name could be mistaken for a chemical corporation (good one: wish I'd thought of it... DO THE BUZZFEED QUIZ!) (5)
__ Band wears a uniform or uniforms (5)
__ Minus one point for each year above 25 of the band members' ages

(Rob riffing on those:)
__ Band does a video in thinly veiled fetish gear (3)
__ Plus 3 points for each year below 19 of the band members' ages

Any further additions are gladly welcome!

Stephen Epstein has written a brilliant comment under AAK's rejoinder post.
Go read it!