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What Is K-pop?

What Is K-pop?

A Primer for the Uninitiated

Korean-American writer Edward Chun spent several years in South Korea as a music director for Korean television. With his exclusive special report for MTV Iggy, he takes us behind the scenes of the Korean music industry… and answers a few deeply personal questions of his own.

By farahj
August 30, 2009

Intro: How Steven Colbert changed Korean history forever

It began as another typical Saturday night in New York City. I was hanging out in Koreatown with my friends, fellow Korean Studies graduate students, downing shots of soju (a strong, distilled beverage that tastes either like sweet vodka or Draino, depending on who you talk to), when we began debating the single most important moment in Korean history. Now, Korean history is long, although just how long is a matter of debate among scholars and drunk Korean Studies students. (My time in grad school taught me that it probably isn’t the 5,000 years – shorter than China, but definitely longer than Japan – my relatives have been telling me it is since I was a kid.)

However, it is longer than American history (a fact that my Korean relatives also never fail to tell me) and a lot has happened over the past few thousand years: survival from invasion, division, war, democratization, miraculous economic growth in the South, the creation of cell phones that actually work in subway cars, subway cars that don’t make you feel like you’re taking a roller coaster into Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell…Which is why I was surprised when one of my fellow students stated that the single greatest moment in modern Korean history occurred when TV comedian Stephen Colbert ridiculed pop star Rain on The Colbert Report [The Colbert Report airs on Comedy Central, which is owned by Viacom, MTV's parent company.].

Rain with Su Chin Pak on MTV K in 2006. (Getty Images)

At the time, I thought my inebriated cohort was joking. (Actually, I’m pretty sure he was, since he said the second most important moment was when Margaret Cho first lampooned her mother in a standup comedy routine.) However, the more I think about it, my friend was onto something. Because the meeting of Colbert and Rain was the moment that even I remember thinking, “We’ve made it.”

But what did “made it” mean (at least to me), exactly?

“Made it” meant that we were no longer just a third world wasteland where the TV show M*A*S*H took place for eleven seasons – eight more years, it turns out, than the actual Korean War. We were modern, damn it, and if your Samsung television and Hyundai car hadn’t fully convinced you that Korea was 21st-century equipped and ready to go, then perhaps Rain’s well-produced music videos would show you.

“Made it” meant that the most recognizable Korean in American pop culture would no longer be a maniacal, sociopathic, vertically-challenged Kim Jong Il puppet fighting Team America but a tall, charismatic entertainer whose incredible dance moves proved that Asian males can be – dare I say it – sexy.

Most importantly, “made it” meant that like all countries that capture the world’s cultural imagination, Korea would start setting trends, instead of just following them. Sure, democratizing in 1987 was important. But having your music and culture recognized by Stephen Colbert – that was something that would strike a chord with the American mainstream. And maybe, for the first time in my life, people would stop asking me and Margaret Cho if we were Chinese or Japanese. Simply put, K-pop, shorthand for “Korean popular music,” would make the proclamation of Korean culture’s increasing popularity (often referred to as “the Korean wave”), a reality. After all, if you had America, you had the world.

BoA. Image Courtesy of SM Entertainment

But in spite of all this, the last time I checked, most of my non-Asian friends could not identify a single song by Rain. (A few could, however, sing the chorus from Colbert’s K-pop parody, “I’m Singing in Korean.”) BoA and Se7en, huge superstars throughout Asia, have also racked up less than impressive sales numbers, let alone become household names.

To be fair, K-pop’s journey into the American market has only just begun, and currently K-pop certainly looks like it’s in a great position to make a strong impact on young American audiences. While Rain’s previous foray into the American music market was criticized for failing to draw in non-Korean audiences, his former management company JYP Entertainment’s newest creation, the Wonder Girls, are currently on the road with the Jonas Brothers, drawing positive notices from teenage fans who probably couldn’t locate Korea on a map. Their recent appearance on “The Wendy Williams Show,” surrounded by non-Asian Americans who enthusiastically clapped along to their first English-language single, “Nobody,” did not go unnoticed by the Korean media which proudly declared their American television debut. On the other side of the K-pop spectrum, independent hip-hop group Epik High recently wrapped a U.S. tour where, according to sources close to the band, the shows sold out to an increasing number of non-Asian attendees.

Perhaps, then, only a few years after Rain’s entrance on the American scene, K-pop’s time has come. As a Korean American, I should be ecstatic and excited and fully supportive. I should be… but then why do I feel so conflicted?

NEXT: “If a hit K-Pop song smelled like a ripoff, fans slammed the artists hard and fast online…”

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