Strange and wonderful things are afoot at the circle “K.” Indeed, if I had gone back in a time machine to just over two decades ago — say 1994, the year I graduated from college— and told anyone on the planet that South Korea would be a global pop music powerhouse, I would have been soundly snickered at and dismissed as a Back to the Future, Doc Brown kook. Or if I had been speaking to any Korean fashion folks in that fateful year Biggie Smalls dropped his first album, and been spreading word that Korean street fashion would be the talk of international fashion media from a few years ago, I would have been soundly disbelieved. But then again, try to imagine explaining 2019 smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, or GPS to anyone in 1994 and you would be thought equally insane. Frankly, flying cars, killer robots, and aliens are easy next to explaining “social media” to someone still listening to CDs and who doesn’t know what email is.
But that’s the whole point — while not being the point — of this piece. We’re in such a new age, with so many new technologies and its cultural products swirling about, converging, and exploding, that it’s hard to make much sense of all this. Just know that without camera-connected, mini-supercomputers in our hands focusing algorithms through new media forms that influence our brains in scarily powerful ways, there would be no President Donald J. Trump, Kardashians “breaking” the Internet with their posteriors, or K-POP supremacy. We live in an exciting, new, social media-driven age. There is no more important media phenomenon in the world than the advent of social media and K-POP is its prophet. And K-POP, more than just being a thing, is really just a container of Korean style.
Towards a Theory of the Korean Style
If one is to look at the “Korean Wave” as an actual phenomenon, it becomes necessary to talk about what its defining characteristics even are. Even as the world — and especially Korea — goes gaga over all the BTSing and Blackpinking, it is important to talk about more than just the fact that it’s happening or even why all this is important, but also why it happened for these manifestations of Korean pop music, why Korean street fashion is getting so much attention, or why Korean cinema is getting bigger and better. There are many possible questions, stretching across many fields of artistic endeavor. What makes Korean stuff so hot? What makes it special? Why do many people across the world see it as cool and worthy of their attention?
Korean pop culture products are brimming over with the smug triumphalism of the newly made-over character Fern in the cult film Jawbreaker. Like Fern, the events that led up to Korea’s makeover moment were as unforeseen as they were unpredictable, and the circumstances that led directly to a seemingly complete transformation were tragic and traumatic. But Fern did gain (and own) her sense of swagger, surprising as the change was for her. But no one saw it coming, even as no one would have believed it before the fact and even laughed off the mere suggestion of its possibility. Now, Korea and its myriad artistic products have made it the cool kid of not just Asia, but the rest of the world.
Is a sense of aesthetic and actual swagger built into the upstart, DIY, jury-rigging mentality? In the same way Grandmaster Flash built a crossfader to connect and mix the sounds of two turntables and then created a new artform out of the parts of others, this by-any-means-necessary spirit of Korean success/development was also an inexorable force that defies explanation.
The Style of Korean Media Culture
If one is to look at the “Korean Wave” as a phenomenon, it becomes necessary to talk about what its defining characteristics even are. Even as the world — and especially Korea — goes gaga over all the BTSing and Blackpinking, it is important to talk about more than just the fact that it’s happening or even why all this is important, but also why it happened for this manifestation of Korean pop music, why Korean street fashion is getting so much attention, or why Korean cinema is getting bigger and better. What makes Korean stuff so hot? What makes it special? Why do many see it as cool and worthy of their attention?
Although I am going to attempt a typology here, the characteristics of the Korean style are not mutually exclusive, but generally appear in a way that adds and reinforce one another. But each attribute is clearly visible across the fields if one is paying close attention.
The Remix Aesthetic
The swagger that comes from being a creature of circumstance, possessed of the survivors’ resourcefulness, and quasi-legal methodology of the mixtape is a built-in part of the Korean style. And given that this aesthetic not only runs parallel to that of hip hop, and that K-POP has so many direct connections to and influences from American hip hop, this should come as no surprise. Is swagger inherent to the process of creative, resourceful remixing? Well, perhaps, but since the foundational processes of American hip hop and Korean cultural production are so similar, not to mention the fact that K-POP is perhaps American hip hop’s most apt and avid, non-Anglophone pupil, this makes a certain degree of sense.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Korea is the first culture to quietly embrace a hypermodernity in which old, traditional categories of self such as boy/girl, teacher/student, Korean/foreigner, hetero-/homosexual, or even one’s occupation-as-identity are blurring or even dissolving away, replaced by categories in which individuals can pick and choose, alternate between, or even remix in different ways. Although Korea’s conservative Confucian values supposedly define the culture, that culture code is not the firmware being run by a younger generation that sees themselves as consumers first, whatever other interchangeable identities second. A 20-year-old Korean is much more likely to see herself as a Marvel movies fan, Webtoon aficionado, or feminist; if this were 1970, that same kind of Korean person might see his identity through the business card he carries, the status and position he holds, or other assigned social categories. Nowadays, a new generation of Koreans is defining themselves according to their own ways and means.
There is a Korean style in (cultural) production’s willingness to use/repurpose anything to make things work. As a country that has learned to live in the shadow of either outright colonizers such as Imperial Japan or under the influence of big brothers with very large cultural sticks, South Korea learned to be at ease with outside cultural influence. Korea calls this tendency (for better or worse) sa-dae-ju-ui or “deference to the greater.” This general mode of comfort with combinations that might otherwise culturally/aesthetically offend as outside, dissonant elements that “shouldn’t go together” is what allows them to occur in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief in supposed Korean “homogeneity,” there are many outside cultural elements in modern Korean culture, as well as a base state of non-plussedness about the presence of non-Korean elements in things that are presented as part of a Korean whole, as well as other cultures’ coming into contact with Koreanness. Modern Koreans grew accustomed to viewing foreign films in dubbed and subtitled translation as superior to domestic fare, and this tendency extended to music, fashion, food, and all the fields that now have K-prefixes affixed to them. As pride in Korean things has risen in recent decades, the Korean elements/ways of doing things allowed for new fusions such as those found in Korean food trends such as Korean fried chicken or even the wonderfully new and strange things such as the zombie flicks Train to Busan or the Netflix hit Kingdom.
Because the reaction to a Kingdom or “Gangnam Style” or some other product that is jarringly unusual in the sheer, seeming craziness of its combinations is consistently a variation of “Now, that’s just crazy” or “that’s so extreme it might be inappropriate” to the point that people seeing it are often confused as to if it’s serious or perhaps a sendup. In this way, calling PSY a “rapper” in the western, conservative sense of the word feels kind of wrong in a certain aesthetic sense, but yet it’s correct. Given the generations of aesthetic/cultural programming of “proper” bodies, faces, and skin tones to go in a Korean traditional dress, putting the traditional Korean look of a Joseon Dynasty-era gentleman-scholar at Seoul Fashion Week seems a bit…odd. But given the already remix-originated resurgence in popularity of the 18th-century scholar look because of Kingdom, adding another, seemingly “wrong” element of placing said garb on a black model seems right if one can pull it off. Context aside, it often comes down to the specific execution, to whether it works or not. We used to call this kind of aesthetic audacity “punk rock” in an adjectivial sense; now, we might call it “Korean.” And once a particular, new formation takes form and finds its legs, it often travels.
Now, if you take a heaping helping of hip hop, already-defined K-POP genre conventions evolved from group acts from Motown to NSYNC, throw in some newer musical trends such as the subsonic bass and triplet syncopations of the trap music, and then wrap it all up with inspired art direction, you might get something like Blackpink’s new smash hit “Kill This Love.”
Or, remix it in different amounts and play with the recipe a bit and you might get BTS’s “Idol.”
Either way, you’re going to get a cultural product in the Korean style of stylistic hybridity and mixture done with a sense of self-assured confidence, no matter how contrasting the elements may seem or dissonant certain chords might sound. The results will look like the swaggering self-definition and assertion that a similarly self-confident group of creators gave the world with African-American rap and hip hop culture. The swagger and aesthetic audacity of Korean cultural products is whats them stand out, what makes them cohere as a discernible Korean style.