I was never a consumer of K-pop. My fondest memory was the hit song “One and a half” (일과 이분의 일) by Two Two, and then it faded from my life. In my teens, the bombastic style of idol K-pop emerged (much to my chagrin). Studying popular imagery and mass culture in my own practice, it was inevitable I would cross paths with the maximalist pastiche again. But I became interested in BTS and its cultural movement for a different reason.
The critics of (idol) K-pop lump BTS with the industry, which they were a part of, but nowhere near an exemplification of. The cynical attitude of K-pop critics can’t be helped, but the acerbic language and dismissiveness can. It’s problematic because it uses authoritative and ethnocentric strategies of persuasion that hold fastidiously to modernism. This, coupled with the fact that critics fail to address the valuation of audience means that they :
1. Don’t consider the reception/ audience to be a valuable part of the cultural equation.
2. Ignore the transnational shift in cultural consumption.
3. Are clinging to a modernist position that has been challenged since new media, technologies, and language decentralized in the 2000s (but especially in the last 5–10 years).
4. historically legitimize their position by distinguishing between low and high brow culture
One weekend I was reading a rather informative account of K-pop from a socio-political perspective. A few weeks later I was surprised to find an online article from the same writer, about the same subject, using a much different language and polemic tone. It was interesting that the shift from book to internet platform lent itself to a change in rhetoric, a personalizing of the subject. (Maybe online discourse is necessarily hyperbolic and polemic.)
It made me consider how vehement many critics of K-pop are, in diminishing the significance of its reception, and in amplifying the political. They are flippant, disparaging, contemptuous, disdainful, malicious (you get the picture). In the process, they stream roll an entire industry of cultural workers just to… make a point? I always forget, as if once understood it can recede into the background, that discourse is a living organism. Writers of all varieties feed it.
Initially I was intrigued by K-pop fan edits and frame stills, many of which are quite compelling. I learned how participatory the culture was, its heightened level of cultural analysis. It’s an interesting phenomena to see how the consumer is taking on some of the role done traditionally by the artist. Yet the site of reception / audience is all but ignored by critics, and I really wonder why this is.
To examine the rhetoric used by critics, I am using an academic’s writing (to demonstrate that no one is apolitical). The following statement is regarding idol deaths: “far from epitomizing the cool and the advanced, then, we glimpse in these deaths grim portents of South Korea’s future.”
Words like “grim” and “portent” are stylistic choices of course, but unnecessarily fabricate a fatalistic prescription. The idol deaths are a notable issue in a high pressure industry not unlike the American one, which has its share of young deaths, but typically at the hands of drug overdose. Yet the writer signals these deaths as that of an entire nation’s fate. Sensationalist much? Nevermind the other countries with equally toxic industries. Xenophobic at all?
I’m not dismissing symptomatic analysis. While cultural events can reveal socio-political realities, to apply a conclusion deductively onto other artists is obtuse. Writers love to use BTS as an example. Why is it done? To conveniently flatten the subject in discussion, making it easier to use them for their argument.
It also irks me the “we” position critics take on, as if there is a division somewhere, a “them” versus “us” attitude. It suggests that the reader is already on the writer’s side of the argument, without choice.
Next is this statement: “What is curious about contemporary South Korea is that a gaggle of young singers has come to symbolize the nation: the mask that South Korea wears to convince itself and others of its eminence and coolness.”
“Gaggle” is a disparaging descriptor making it seem like the idol singers lack agency or individuality. They come from a diversity of backgrounds and training, some producing their own music, others focusing on performance. And it’s “curious” that popular culture in South Korea should be assessed differently than that of others. It was always born out of a government agenda for soft power, America is no exception (look no further than Pollock and the Expressionists).
While some politicians might be passionate about advancing K-pop as a soft power, it’s presumptuous to assign it as a singular national mentality. In fact one only needs to do a simple internet search to find that most young Koreans don’t even follow idol K-pop. So who are these writers writing for? The annals of history?
Maybe the problem is that these writers are nationalists without transparency.
No pop act talks about the ironies and double standards in national and transnational cultural industries like BTS. They used the extended metaphor of masking in their work to discuss the fake love they received from Korean and foreign media, the people trying to exploit their popularity or use them for their agenda. While their music remains committed to universal arcs of self discovery and voice finding (storytelling), it has a sensitivity to the socio-political specificities of this generation. (Addendum: Their song “Ugh” is about rage culture and the difference between empty and productive anger. “Ddaeng” is a predecessor that models how to wield language to disempower haters without resorting to maliciousness. “Baepsae”, “Dope”, “Am I Wrong” are just a few songs in BTS’ repertoire that discuss the unattainable social goods for younger generations.)
Critics like to reduce K-pop’s polyvalent musical style as schizophrenic, noise. It’s as if they are really trying to say: “stay heternormative, kids!” Fans see K-pop’s prevalent hyper stylized forms as bordering the surreal and absurd, gracing the fantastical, and isn’t that what pop is supposed to do? Like with BTS’ work, it can be operatic, a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art).
By focusing only on the site of production, conventional idol land, critics aren’t interested in getting to know the artists or their audience. With BTS, they just want the most recognizable icon to fit into their little write up. Something that indubitably waves a petulant hand away from it “all” on the basis of “fakeness”. Its generalizing doesn’t apply here, but it’s a bit redundant to say pop is trash on account that it’s “manufactured,” don’t you think?
The artist Dan Graham didn’t like to distinguish between high and low brow, art and popular media. He said: “There is a difference between lived experience and pop-mediated experience. It is also mirrored in the culture. At the beginning of the sixties there was a disposable pop culture, and toward the end of the sixties… a communal sense of experience. Music was more communal. I am also thinking about models of receivership by the audience.”
Graham believed in the audience reception as the site of meaning making and valuation. That was the essence of pop culture — the communal. But in the oversaturated media and music market, what separates BTS as a popular act? Provided is one example: There’s no shortage of pop love songs, but no oeuvre as extensive as BTS’ Love Yourself trilogy: three albums that discuss various forms of love (idealized, romantic), its realities (heartbreak, unattainable) and self love (immaculate, generative). There is in BTS’ work an introspectiveness that goes beyond typified pop acts : what it means to be an artist and icon in a desire based society and image economy, how to negotiate their true selves (“Outro: Ego”) in the trappings of persona (“Intro: Persona”) and the pitfalls of shadow (“Interlude: Shadow”) in their Map of the Soul series. Up to date of their creative journey, one better understands the complexity of their commercial and popular image against their ambitious storytelling as artists and humans.
Part of the culture surrounding K-pop is the dedication of its fans, demonstrating that listening is no longer the basic condition to music consumption. Fans can partake in translation, interpretation, communication, edits, and events, or buy merch. (Personally I am not thrilled with all the merch, but that is on the marketing/branding side of things.) While some exercise their desire for an absolute escape in this time of crisis, others are compelled to dissect the content. And who is anyone to judge how culture is being consumed? Who are the cultural gatekeepers but the very ones who created this crisis? And time again they maintain the staunch audacity to pigeonhole an entire demographic and diverse music industry. (What constitutes K-pop is not well understood, it is a term that conflates idol K-pop with other popular Korean musical genres, but this is rarely clarified by western writers).
In BTS’ case, fans’ desire for advancing the band as a positive cultural movement outweighs critic’s attempts at trivializing them.
Take, for instance, another jab: “The bitter reality of K-pop is that, despite all the superficial shimmer, it embodies almost all the legacy of South Korea’s state-led industrialization, such as top-down, authoritarian management and an overexploited labor force, which it had seemed to have superseded.”
Opined diction like “bitter reality” is a riot. Do critics know that the bitter reality of their position is a product of the top-down as well? That they’re part of the food chain? The value judgement here is that the conditions of K-pop’s inception is an inescapable one. That artistic and cultural forms can’t evolve beyond the site of production…I (obviously) disagree with this, and believe we need to look no further than…
Reception plays an unprecedented role in shaping today’s popular culture. There are conferences about SNS and affective labor in K-pop, about its alternate forms of engagement and tools for co-narration. Audiences have power in generating cultural value and relevance, upending the role of traditional cultural institutions who used to do this for them. As for the paternalistic critics who resort to catastrophizing language, where in the food chain do they really sit?