I’ve always had mixed feelings about the “meteoric rise” of K-pop that defined the latter part of this past decade. On the one hand, I’m glad to see more of my culture being represented globally. It’s validating. I’d like to think that any kind of representation is better than nothing at all.
But I know better than to leave the conversation there. The way Korean cultural products are consumed and covered is still very othering and exoticizing. This is a rant about Billboard’s list of “100 Greatest K-Pop Songs of the 2010s.”
Everybody sucks here.
I’m not even going to talk about how Billboard and music charts and awards, in general, have been struggling for relevance in the age of taste personalization. I will talk about the colonial optics of how Korean music is being covered in English-speaking spaces. I deeply doubt the sincerity of outlets that go on about how Korean culture is cool.
There’s money to be made from appropriation and pretending to care. The complexity of the Korean music scene and the musicians who keep it going are completely lost in this process. I need to call out this ignorant and violent silencing because Korean Indie stands with the people, not the money.
First of all, putting 10 years’ worth of an entire country’s music into a list of 100 songs is hard to get right. Keen editorial decisions have to be made about the scope of the list, so as to not end up marginalizing certain musicians over others.
Billboard’s list has failed in that it chose to gloss over genre and scene distinctions and lump everything under the label of “K-pop.” It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see media outlets, like Billboard, lazily throw around such blanket terms to describe music they are supposedly experts on.
There is only one person of Korean ethnicity in the “Billboard Staff” enlisted to write up the 100 songs. Ethnicity does not necessarily equal expertise, sure. But this is an opportunity for Koreans to take up space in the mainstream. The ostensible point of the article is to help Korean culture be better represented to English-speaking audiences.
Enlisting cultural outsiders to do so seems fundamentally flawed to me, especially when it would have been next to nothing for Billboard to have reached out to Korean music critics for a more nuanced take – there’s plenty of English-speaking music experts in Korea.
Heck, there’s plenty of bilingual reporters who could have reached out to Korean-speaking experts. And last but not least, Billboard literally has an office in Korea which it could have used to conduct better research.
What makes this situation more complex is the way the list is being received by Korean musicians themselves as well as the fans. Being featured on Billboard’s platform awards a kind of validation.
Featuring non-Korean faces talk about Korean culture is a trope prevalent in Korean media, as if the inherent value of a cultural product can only be proven once a foreigner (preferably white and male) says so. Many Korean critics also actively participate in and reinforce this phenomenon, quick to get behind musicians that foreign media seem interested in to grow their own personal platform.
Whether this is right or wrong matters less than the fact that this is something that happens. A colonial history has presented us and western music outlets with a specific power dynamic. I would place more of the burden of mindfulness on those who flourish from the legacy of perpetrators.
The entire debacle here is just another noble savage, Asian lunch box narrative.
Billboard’s list is merely the culmination of an attitude that pervades the industry. Pitchfork, with all of its self-importance, only occasionally covers Korean music, dragging itself to do so to stay on the bandwagon. NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts only ever features East Asian musicians that have a stunning visual component (think SsingSsing and CHAI). Again, complexity and nuance is being lost in such selective and orientalizing coverage.
This is frustrating because there’s actually a lot to be talked about on the topic of K-pop. The entire industry is a sexist and capitalist money-making machine that treats humans like expendable resources. Lives have literally been lost in this process. Media conglomerates have rigged the entire system, gatekeeping resources required for success to the select few that will succumb to their logic of corruption.
Consumers are left powerless, unable to develop their own tastes with any sense of agency in the face of a monopolized market. At the same time, feminist voices continue to try to break into the mainstream, a process itself not perfect from an intersectional point of view as some musicians take advantage of the rising hipness of drag culture and take its aesthetics out of context.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the particularities of the Korean indie scene yet. Current English-language coverage of Korean music is at best fodder for gossip.
I understand that maybe pop culture, Korean or otherwise, doesn’t have to be taken so seriously, that the gossip and consumption of visceral content is just a part of the package. But considering the platform and audiences that Korean cultural productions now have, a skewed representation and uncritical consumption of its glamor can be socially detrimental.
It essentializes entire cultures and histories. It leaves little space for Korean musicians (and by extension, people) to be themselves instead of a figure crafted by fetishism.
I can be this angry because I don’t have anything to lose.
I was born and raised in Korea, save for a couple of years in Canada and four more in the U.S. for college. I don’t have to deal with an identity crisis in the face of implicit and explicit racism.
My lunch box moment wasn’t as personally damaging; it was also an odd kind of fun to prove people wrong when, in conversation, they assumed I was Asian American. This is what grounds my efforts to promote Korean music to English-speaking audiences.
I feel no need to fit into a cultural paradigm crafted exclusively by western influences. Korean music is cool, in and of itself, and people should learn to love it on its own terms.
It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to not care. But it’s not okay to pretend otherwise. If media outlets really think Korean music is cool and want to better represent it, they should make an extended effort to help actual residents of the scene take up space.