On Korea’s March to Global Cultural Domination, plus a K-pop playlist

So far, South Korea’s cultural industries appear to be pandemic-proof. They are also gaining huge global audiences, not just large national audiences. In recent years, the South Korean television series (Squid Game, Descendants of the Sun) and movies (Parasite, Oldboy, The Maid) have become worldwide hits. However, it was the music industry led by the BTS group that made the strongest impression on Western audiences, and on a scale not seen since the heyday of The Beatles. Werewolf has previously written about the immense contribution BTS makes to South Korea’s GDP figures each year. Despite Covid, BTS’s success story continues despite everything, as news service Nikkei Asia recently reported:

The 2020 chart-topping single “Dynamite”, BTS’s first song sung entirely in English, created an economic impact worth $ 1.43 billion, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, in stimulating huge increases in merchandise exports and the creation of 8,000 jobs in tourism. and other sectors.

This worldwide popularity campaign was the culmination of a plan launched by then-President Kim De-Jung in the late 1990s to develop South Korea’s cultural industries alongside its businesses. of information technology. For centuries, South Korea has lived in the military and cultural shadow of giant neighbors like China and Japan. This dark history makes the country’s current cultural impact in Asia and around the world all the more astonishing. Today, South Korea dominates them via the soft power influence of K-pop music, fashion and dance.

Hallyu The (Korean Wave) effect became so pronounced that Beijing’s increasingly paranoid leadership began cracking down on all manifestations of idol culture – whether of Korean, Japanese, or Chinese origin. Alienating Chinese youth by banning the K-pop (and K-pop influenced) artists they (arguably) like is a greater threat to the survival of the Chinese authoritarian regime than a fleet of submarines. Australian nuclear power plants. The Korean wave is also making inroads into the structure of the American music industry. Korean record label Big Hit – now renamed Hybe – began to diversify away from its reliance on BTS, which would have accounted for 87% of its revenue in 2020. Earlier this year, Hybe bought a 100% stake in Ithaca Holdings, the American Entertainment Empire that counts Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Latin star J. Balvin among its roster of artists.

K-pop offers a complete package. Like Detroit’s Motown record label in the mid-1960s – but on a much larger scale – K-pop talent factories subject their young recruits to a notoriously grueling schedule that combines singing, dancing, self-grooming and style training. of life. It’s all wrapped up in music videos, the primary vehicle for marketing K-pop idols to the world. There is a darker side to the story. In 2019, the major label Big Bang was rocked by scandals linked to artist burnout, sexual exploitation and a few major suicides. The scandals do not seem to have led to visible reforms.

Obviously, the K-pop music playlist below doesn’t have the dimension of a music video. This is just a personal selection. The oldest track is “Gee”, Girls Generation’s flagship track from 2008. Before I get to the playlist, I’d like to mention a track from the beginning of last year – called “Daewichta” by Agust D – which illustrates how some of the best K-pop draws on a number of traditions in addition to hip-hop, American boy groups from the 1990s and girl groups from the 1960s.

Agust D is a solo project by Suga, one of the seven members of BT S. The name is Suga backwards, with the D and T being a reference to Suga’s birthplace, Daegu Town. “Daechwita” is the name of a traditional form of Korean music associated with royal and military occasions, and it provides the skeleton for the song. In the video below, Suga plays two roles. He’s both the berserk king and the idealistic commoner who seeks to overthrow him, a task the commoner is doing just as he’s about to be executed. The lyrics indicate the name of Gwang-hae, a teenage general during the ruinous war of 1592 between Korea and Japan. He later became the leader of the nation, and the nature and value of his period of imperial rule is still hotly debated.

In interviews, Suga has indicated that he sees the song and the video as a metaphor for his own relationship with the music industry. Ultimately, in this brief K-pop song, you can find Suga’s personal impulses related to domination and liberation, his ambivalence about the music industry, the fusion of hip hop with lore. Korean musicals and an introduction to Korea’s historical resentments against Japan. . Announcement on top of all that, it’s a pretty cool video:

By the way, there are other examples of how the lore has been exploited in K-pop. For example, this is a pretty enchanting example of the Korean female dance tradition known as Ganggansullae. The Stray Kids, a relatively new male group, have chosen to include aspects of this tradition in the choreography available here, for their 2020 track “Back Door”. Among hundreds of possible examples, this video for Momoland’s “Baam” is not just a typical example of K-pop video values, but of the industry’s global ambitions, with Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Chinese cultural references. French women who mark out his happy career.

If I had to single out an influential choreography piece, the sultry dance moves in this video of Park Ji Yoon’s excellent r & b influenced piece “Coming of Age Ceremony” caused a stir when it was first released over 20 years ago. . Years later, you can see a few guys from BTS playing silly at a rehearsal and lovingly celebrating it in this video. Meanwhile, Chung Ha’s video for “Gotta Go” is a neurotically intense example (from 2019) of where it all can lead.

Here is the playlist. Below I have included notes on some of the artists.

“Ko Ko Bop” was a huge hit in 2017 for EXO, and it was inspired by the line “ko kop bop” contained in Nelly’s old hit “Country Grammar” “which in turn referred to the single” Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop “from 1959 by Little Anthony and the Imperials which was (in turn) a cover of a great 1956 doowop piece by the El Capris, which you can find here. Ah, let’s talk about the rich tapestry of the song…

“Gee. As mentioned, remains an airy and highly regarded stage in K-pop history. Besides BTS, Stray Kids and NCT 127 are two of the most innovative male idol groups. In search of examples of K-pop flirting with noise and (currently) with 70s disco and 80s electro-pop are rabbitholes that anyone can disappear into for ages. time. BTW, the Lisa who sings “Lalisa” is also a member of the influential female idol group Blackpink.

Finally, it’s probably worth noting that Korean popular music is not entirely made up of idol groups. After winning a TV talent quest earlier this year, Lee Mujin’s alluring “Traffic Light” was a huge hit in Korea in 2021, while being unlike what is normally considered K-pop. . It’s more like a slice of 1970s California soft rock about a young man who isn’t so much in the red or green of life, but who lives much of his time bathed in the amber light of the world. indecision. If you are inclined, you can check it out here.

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