There are certain things about South Korea of which my pride is unwavering. The miraculous World Cup run in 2002 to finally take 4th place; the unparalleled rapid economic development since 1953 to place itself outside the category of a developing country; the growth of Christianity to become the 2nd most missionary sending country in the world; the best subway system in the world (yes, this one is biased); and even having the most wired city (Seoul) in the world. But of course, there are certainly things of which I am very much ashamed, few being the fake cloning fiasco and the current hair styles of young Korean men. Then, there are things that keep me on the fence with a peculiar seemingly inexplicable uneasiness, one such being K-pop, or Korean pop music.
My pride stems from K-pop’s growing global influence and the unprecedented success it is having outside the Asian continent. Jon Caramanica writes “Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel” in the New York Times:
In the past few years K-pop has shown a creeping global influence. Many acts release albums in Korean and Japanese, a nod to the increasing fungibility of Asian pop. And inroads, however slight, are being made into the American marketplace. The acts here sang and lip synced in both Korean and English. Girls’ Generation recently signed with Interscope to release music in the United States. And in August Billboard inaugurated a K-Pop Hot 100 chart. But none of the acts on the SM Town Live bill are in the Top 20 of the current edition of the fast-moving chart. This is a scene that breeds quickly.
Of course, the quote does affirm that there is much more to achieve in the international realm of music. But as the achievements are my reason for pride, at the same time, these achievements no less produce concern and worry. That question that places this concern in the realm of inexplicable uneasiness is this: “What kind of influence does this growing global phenomenon have on the mind of viewers and listeners?” Not unlike the influence wrought out by the increasing popularity of Korean Dramas (which I address, in part, in this previous post “Korean Dramas? A Female Addiction?“), the powerful nature of K-pop’s “innocence and hair gel”, to use the article title, is the influence it has on the images that shape our desires. On the side of women, the desire to look like these perfect Asian girls on stage may have contributed to the increase and normalization of plastic surgery in the Korean peninsula, possibly a similar influence that the ‘barbie doll’ has on its young fans. On the side of men, the standards of attraction are unreasonably externalized, that is men’s standards of beauty become highly idealistic to put it mildly. Of course, these are very simplified concerns and explanations and I am sure there are more complex perspectives on the influence of this K-pop phenomenon. A disclaimer must be made for those who may want to demonize the K-pop industry or phenomenon without warrant or even ridicule K-pop for is lack of musical excellence, for anyone who does, has not experienced the fun of the ‘noraebang’, acting silly and goofy with friends while singing songs that are quite not up to the musical standards of Chopin or Mozart. Such western snobbery forgets that America is the land of the Justin Bieber, Hanna Montana, Backstreet Boys and the like.
But to return to the sense of uneasiness, that sentiment does not merely emerge from K-pop’s influence upon image or the standards of beauty. It stems also from the concern Bob Goudzwaard addresses in Capitalism and Progress. That progress, to crudely simplify, becomes the idolatry of capitalism. That progress instead of the true beauty of the art form or work becomes the ultimate goal. This well-oiled K-pop machine drives itself on ‘innocence and hair gel’ as a means to reach the end goal of increasing popularity. It does anything at all cost to increase its following, not unlike capitalism. Currently those means are skinnier and younger boys and girls with make up on stage, these means may change (though unlikely), but the end goal will always be the same, fame and money. The art forms of music, dance, and theatrics are in this perspective exploited to achieve the end of fame and money, and in the process, the drive to discover the beauty of such art forms is forgotten.
All good work contains in it, beauty that wants to be tapped and discovered. Even finance and economics, as difficult as it may be to see, contains in it an aesthetic nature, but it is lost when that art form or work merely becomes a means to an end. I am hopeful that there are some in the K-pop industry who engage in their careers to unearth the beauty in their art form, to improve and discover. But for those that are in it only for the popularity that skinny bodies, make-up, and fireworks bring, it may be good to listen to the experienced counsel of Madonna:
‘I have an iron will,’ she says, eating her Ceasar. ‘And all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I’m always struggling with that fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. And I find a way to get myself out of that. Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.’ (From Vanity Fair, “The Misfit” by Lynn Hirshberg)