Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The First World Congress for Hallyu

There is a lot of noise surrounding Hallyu (in English often called the Korean Wave, this refers to the transnational spread of Korean popular culture, particularly music, movies, and TV dramas). Back in 2005 I can remember looking at people starting to write on Hallyu and thinking "well, I hope their publication is still relevant in two years when this is totally over." Yet today Hallyu still survives and the academic work on Hallyu is (naturally) increasing. At Korean universities, including my own, we're planning on the popularity of Hallyu to bring us foreign students. Although my Department of Korean Studies will open this fall with only Korean students, after we translate our pamphlet into English and start to promote it to appropriate non-Korean audiences the university hopes to get foreign students. To cater to undergrads we're having an unabashed focus on modern Korea, including one of our four tracks, which we will call "Performance and Media Studies." In this track classes will often address Hallyu topics, although those who know me will not be surprised to know that we will also tackle issues related to performances that could not be called "popular culture."

As this noise about Hallyu has grown rather than subsiding (in fact there have been a couple lulls, I've seen some people call this the "second wave"), the academic scholarship has become more organized, with the World Association for Hallyu Studies recently inaugurated. Last weekend they had their first conference, and although the event seemed to have a confused identity (crossing government interests, commercial interests, diplomatic interests and scholarly interests), it also had an impressively large budget. The event was hosted at Korea University, in a very swank set of rooms, including complimentary lunch and dinner (an expensive meat-laden buffet for lunch and a Western style 7 course meal for dinner), and a fancy bag and fountain pen for each registered participant.

I was only able to attend the first day of the conference. I attended all the morning welcoming address type speeches, and the keynote by Keith Howard, a noted expert on all things related to Korea and music. Dr. Howard made some excellent points about Hallyu from a historical perspective-- a perspective lacking from those who have been attracted to the field of study later rather than earlier. His PPT even showed the evolution of Korean popular music. His well-illustrated points about how the popular music scene in Korea had broadened and become visible outside Korea were spot on, and theoretically nuanced. After lunch I attended a roundtable with the ambitious topic "On Sustainability of Hallyu." In retrospect I wish I'd gone somewhere else. Although the people at the table represented a wide range of interests and organizations, there were too many of them. As each of the nine and the moderator took turns talking, the two hour time slot was lost in posturing about what wonderful things each organization was doing. The only useful attempt to steer the discussion towards sustainability was offered by Kim Taehwan of the Korea Foundation, but his attempts to refocus were too late and provoked some defensiveness from other panelists. For the last panel of the day I was excited to attend a panel titled "K-pop Musicology." The title, however, appeared to be a misnomer. Although it was true that each paper approached K-Pop I might re-title it "Stories of K-Pop Reception from the UK, Austria, and Germany." This title leaves out a short overview presentation by Park Seonhyeon of KOFICE, who spoke at easily triple the speed I would advise, especially to an audience that was not exclusively made up of native speakers of Korean, while showering us with statistics about K-pop in Europe. At that speed I could not understand anything (it was the sort of data that is presented with deviance from this or that being significant or insignificant but it flew by so quickly I was completely lost). The papers by Um Haekyung, Sung Sang-Yeon and Michael Fuhr identified club activities of active fans in the three countries including photos and video clips to illustrate how locals and international residents of the three countries were participating in the K-Pop world.
Half of the Roundtable... the only photo I took at the conference

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Korean Immigration Offices and the Drive for Multiculturalism

Today my "Contemporary Korean Culture and Society" class topic was Multiculturalism in Korea. The students had been assigned a group project (3 or 4 people per group), worth 20% of their grade. They took it very seriously (when I arrived at 9:12 for our 9:30 class there were already 7 of 10 students in the room checking to make sure their PPT including video and/or audio files were working). Six of my students are Korean (although one lived for 13 years in the US) and four are Chinese. I made them form a group that had to include one student majoring in English Translation and one student from China (sometimes that is the same thing), as well as one native Korean student. The students presented in the language they are more comfortable using, so that the presentation language even switched back and forth during each group's turn at the podium, but the paper submitted had to be in Korean (the language of the course).

Their assignment was to determine if Korea could become a multi-cultural society. They had to go find foreigners to interview about multiculturalism and prejudice in Korea. No one took a shortcut-- they didn't interview fellow students or professors here. We heard and saw interview snippets (for all but one interview) in Korean, Chinese, and English, and had photos of the audio-only interviewees. Each group was responsible for as many interviews as they had group members, and of those only one interviewee could be white (I prepped them heavily to go look for Chinese--the largest group of foreigners in Korea-- or farmers and marriage migrants in our local farming community). In one group all three group members interviewed people who were all rosy-eyed about Korea (perhaps because they had not been here long), but two of the group members balanced that message out by contributing their own difficult experiences living in Korea. I think the assignment was somewhat sobering for the Korean class members as they heard stories about feeling ostracized (when restaurant staff won't listen to the foreigner order and look at the Korean wife at all times), about pretty horrible working conditions (at a 3D job in a factory), and about a half-Korean child's struggles with the education system (and the mother, who spoke good Korean, eloquently described her frustration). All three groups concluded that Korea wasn't a multi-cultural society yet, but to varying degrees believed it could happen in the future. Honestly I was very impressed with their presentations.

After the students finished (they spoke for nearly an hour, but it was good stuff!) we had a follow-up general discussion that only got really lively when I asked them how it felt to approach foreigners and interview them. I finished the class with a lecture to discuss the changing laws and policies related to foreigners in Korea and presentation of some statistics with an extra focus on multicultural education.

Ironically as soon as I had lunch I had an experience of how Korean laws and policies play out on the ground. I had been putting off going to the Immigration Office to get my residency permit until Karjam arrived since it's such a pain to go there. I have previously visited many of these offices-- in two places in Seoul, in Incheon, and in Daegu. As a general rule, a yearly visit is needed, so I've visited such offices at least ten times (although when continuing the same employment this process is virtually painless, just a waste of time). Despite the increased population of foreigners in Korea -- over 1.5 million at this point-- this process has not been streamlined or improved in any particular way since I last went through it.

Arriving at the Suwon Immigration Office, first of all, it was very difficult to find where to grab a number. Grabbing a number, we looked for an appropriate form. The names of all forms (in slots under glass table tops) were written only in Korean or Korean and Chinese (mind you, these are traditional characters, somewhat different from many characters used in mainland China). At the very least each form could be given a big number and a guideline could be taped to the table top in a gazillion languages explaining which form you need: "Form #1: this and this and this. Form #2: another thing" and so on. The boxes on the form we needed were labeled in Korean and Chinese. There was an English instruction sheet. It did not specify which form it corresponded to, but I presume it was for the one I was filling out. However (in somewhat broken English) it explained "boxes 7-11 fill in your address, phone and cell phone in your home country" but the form did not have any numbers on it, and if you counted, starting from the top, it was obvious that the directions were for a previous iteration of the form and the order of items had been switched (significantly). Since this guideline didn't list the accompanying Korean, it was as good as useless. Above the table top a laminated copy of several forms was hanging, partially filled out. These were also the old version of the form, and had been photocopied so many times the Korean was almost unreadable.

I filled the form out (for Karjam) and then, just to be safe, confirmed the process at the info desk. The staffer there only spoke Korean, although she did tell me (in Korean) that if I wanted the info in English there was an English speaker "over there" (gesturing towards no where in particular). I paid the fee (which is lower than it used to be!!) with their new bank machine method, and then waited and waited for our number to come up. I observed the other foreigners in the room and found that they were either relying on a minder/friend/boss to translate or in some cases they were proceeding through the form as easily as I did (whether reading the Korean or the Chinese I don't know, although most appeared to be Chinese).

But we couldn't finish the process because I had forgotten my passport at home (we realized over halfway there), and K's visa is dependent on mine, so I have to process first. I'll go back tomorrow and try to take some photos for this blog post.

All of this really made me wonder about the government's sincerity in revising their attitudes towards foreigners. An entire huge room of bureaucracy that could easily have had forms available in 20 languages (perhaps with a sign to say "ask here for forms in names of languages" if they were afraid to have all the choices sitting out) instead elected to make an annoying process as troublesome for any foreigner who can't speak Korean (or read Korean or Chinese) as possible. They were polite about it, but the message that in Korea you needed to conform to the Korean way of doing things or GTFO was echoing through the room. I imagined myself as someone only in Korea a couple weeks, desperate to make my new ID (essential to getting health insurance, opening a bank account, getting a cell phone contract and more), and I could feel how stressful that visit to Immigration would have been.
On the second day we were there before the office opened and our number was still 39...
Behind K is the actual immigration officer that served us

There is a time to assert that in Korea foreigners need to learn some Korean, and at least a basic understanding of Korean culture, but I don't think that is when dealing with bureaucracy in a state that repeatedly insists that it is creating a new multicultural society. I'm the foreigner who will search for the squat toilet in the public restroom (partially because it's more comfortable and better for your bowels) because I don't want to be seen conforming to stereotypes about foreigners. I also get embarrassed to be seen walking around with bread (and yes, it's still hard to find good bread in Korea), insist on the 온돌 ondol room at the hotel (the room where you sleep on the hot Korean floor instead of on some sketchy mattress that can't be laundered), sometimes add an extra squirt of hot sauce to my 회덮밥 (sashimi salad) when someone's watching me dress it, and refuse English translation on principle (even when I secretly hope I understood everything). Because I am that foreigner, who asserts my preference for Korean things, Korean ways, and desire to be treated like a Korean, please do not misunderstand that I think the Korean government should coddle people through life in Korea. But life in Korea and completing your process for becoming a resident, not just a visitor, are two different things. Being sensitive to the difficulties of being new to Korea (as most people in that office surely were) is compassionate and good PR.

All Done! 
A good blog entry on multiculturalism in Korea from the Culture Muncher.
Another blog on the topic of white/English privilege in Korea on Mapping Words.

POSTSCRIPT: When K and I visited the office the second time I did see a copy of the form with English instead of Chinese characters. But the fact that I hadn't been able to find a single one the day before means that others couldn't have found one, either.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Korea and Death

This is a very brief account, and reflects my limited experience. If I learn more anytime soon I'll come back to edit this post.

My friend Son Byeongman died at the end of last week. We're the same age. I met Son in 2005 through Bongsan Talchum, where he became an isuja not long after I'd first met him. He was extremely dedicated, very serious about mask dance drama and the Korean arts, a graduate of the Korean National University of the Arts (K-Arts), and a full time performer. Everyone knew the story about Son-- that he'd gotten an amazing job at the most prestigious Korean company after graduating college, and then had realized that he didn't want to be a cog in the Korean corporate machine. He quit and went back to college, studying mask dance drama and devoting his life to the performing arts. Since most Korean performers either were tracked into performing arts from an early age, or were not academically gifted/dedicated enough to get a job with a major company, everyone was very impressed by Son's story.

I liked Son Byeongman most because when I would interview him (and he was someone I interviewed repeatedly) he was completely forthright and not afraid to say things that other people hedged around, hinting at the issue but not wanting to seem so critical. Son was willing to say it like it was, and I loved that. Interviews with him were very helpful. He had a reputation as a "무서운 선생님" or scary teacher. He got this reputation because he was so dedicated to his student's success (he often trained students who were auditioning for entry to K-Arts). Although they called him scary (I even saw someone cry once), they loved him for trying so hard, and everyone I know who was trained by him was accepted.

He was in a three man group called Cheonha Jeil Tal with my little brother Heo Changyeol and another man I don't know as well. I wrote about this group for my first published article.
Son Byeongman performing with Cheonha Jeil Tal

After a performance by Cheonha Jeil Tal. Son Byeongman is seated in the center. 

He died. How and why are a bit vague, it seems that he collapsed (no evidence of slipping on a wet floor or anything like that) while home alone. He was discovered 2-3 days after when his students got worried that he wasn't answering his phone. He had never been particularly robust, in fact he was very thin and weak, but even Changyeol did not know if he was actually diagnosed with any particular illness. He may have known and not wanted to burden others. He may have just figured that in our early 40s we don't need to worry that much. When I saw him in July he seemed thinner than usual, but no less energetic-- Son was driven from within by the force of his will.

After I found Son had died, I talked to Changyeol-- everyone had gathered at the funeral home.

In general one spends three days (two nights) in a funeral home (not in the same room as the body), grieving, praying, and saying good-bye. Friends and relatives stop by the funeral home (located within the grounds of a hospital) at any time and they stay as long as they want, depending on their feeling of closeness to the deceased. Changyeol spent the night. So did some of Son's former students.

I arrived at the funeral home, the entrance way lined with giant displays of white chrysanthemums with ribbons proclaiming the giver's name or organization. Son was having a low-key affair as his mother (and father?), grandparents, and siblings were all still alive-- larger and more elaborate ceremonies are held when the younger generation remains but a member of the older generation has passed on. One room was dedicated to Son. Inside there was an altar with his photo, his name, fruit, incense, and candles. Visitors came in, and slipped money into an envelope at the door (I gave 50,000 won, if I was closer it would have been more). The visitor's name (not Son's name and nothing else, no message of condolence) was written on the envelope and each visitor signed the guestbook (with their name and perhaps organization, but no message). Then they proceeded to the altar, and bowed (big bows, head touching the floor) two times (not more, not less, two is for the dead) to Son, followed by a bow from the waist. As I bowed two men were at the side of the mat/altar area. I believe this was a brother and maybe an uncle, or maybe his father. After I bowed to Son I should have bowed deeply to them once, then from my waist once. However, I messed this up and only bowed from the waist. I was unsure of the protocol, but watching the only other new guest who arrived after me I felt pretty embarrassed. Still, I presume they were not offended because I had come all the way to be there, and obviously I am not Korean.

After I bowed I was ushered to a table (a low table, so I was sitting on the floor). Interestingly the funeral home staff member was a woman I know, as well, she is also a performer of Bongsan Talchum. Since she had an official uniform and name tag, I think she is actually a regular employee, and this probably explains why he was taken to that funeral home, instead of another. She offered me drinks and fruit, and we talked for a few minutes. About fifteen family members were occupying the back corner of the room, many of them half asleep, none approached me, and I didn't know if I should approach and talk to any of them. The male blood relatives were all wearing hemp arm band stripes on their sleeves. Most of the men had double stripes. I think that a single stripe would be reserved for a son, and three for a grandson, but I might have that wrong. I'd spend more time researching that but I really have other stuff to do besides writing blogs!

While I was having my drink and wondering what I should be doing, Changyeol came into the room looking very sleepy. He'd been napping next door. We talked for a bit, and other people and friends also filed in and out, although they did not bow because they had already done that when they first arrived. Many were there because they were waiting to carry Son's body (or ashes?) out, formally, at noon when the three days would be over. Changyeol and some others ate instant noodles, kimchi, and rice, in the hushed atmosphere of the hall. Although funerals can be quite loud, full of screaming and crying, on the last day everyone seemed quite exhausted. Until an older couple arrived. The elderly woman, probably in her 70s, came to the altar with some large photos of Son performing, and after she bowed, she yelled at him, shaking a photo and crying. "See, here you are. Doing what you love. You have more performances to do, why did you leave so soon?" she wailed. Her husband tried to calm her. After forty minutes in the hushed environment I bowed and left, retracing my nearly three hour route back home.

I wish I had read this before going to the funeral, this is a very thorough blog entry on Seoul Site.
Here is a blog post I wrote in about 2000 or 2001 about another funeral I went to with some photos.

Trusting the Universe, Korean Honesty, and My Wallet

Back in 2000, as everyone knows, I met K (my husband), at the Andong International Mask Dance Festival. This is also the festival that made me fall in love with Korean Mask Dance Dramas (in the inaugural year, 1997). And of course both of these things have changed my life.

In 2001 I went to China to see K for the first time (before I knew more than a few words of Chinese, and none of Tibetan). I took the boat from Korea to Qingdao, and without any Chinese managed to buy myself a  ticket (seat, not sleeper) on a train to Xi'an (most of the way to the end of the train line nearest K's home). In Qingdao in the train station waiting for my train, nervous, laden down by a huge camera bag and another bag for clothes and necessities, I desperately needed the bathroom, but had already realized how hard this would be to navigate without setting my bag on a very nasty Chinese train station bathroom floor covered in fluids one does NOT want to identify. Then I met a Korean-- he had seen me on the boat and said something to me. All I needed to know was that he was Korean. "Can you watch my bag? I have to use the bathroom!" and off I went, only realizing once in the bathroom how funny it was that I was willing to trust this fellow based purely on the fact that he was Korean. (As it happens Kenneth as I are still friends, he brought his family to a performance of K's in Vancouver in August-- I don't think we'll ever lose touch of each other).

I have always been convinced of Korean honesty, and a little government and business corruption aside, I maintain that belief.

I did lose my wallet on the bus once. Dang that sucked. And I did have to pay a "finder's fee" to get it back (the finder claimed the cash was already gone when he found it). Actually he wouldn't even deal with me. My friend Yoomi's mom had to go meet him and exchange for my wallet. Ugh. But that guy did not dim my belief in Korean honesty.

Until last Thursday, that is.

I arrived at the Andong International Mask Dance Festival at 2pm, right as the performance of Goseong Ogwangdae was starting. I had left home at 7:10, caught a bus to the bus station in East Seoul (a single bus... but it took forever to get there), but then was stymied when the next two buses to Andong were sold out. As an experienced traveler in Korea, I joined the line of people hoping that not all the ticket holders would show up... allowing me to catch an earlier bus. I missed the first bus by three people. When the second bus hit departure time I was third in line and made it on. Anyway, I arrived in Andong with this big rush rush rush stressed energy. I got in line and bought a ticket for the performance hall (the festival is free, except for that one hall. A single entry is 7,000 won, in order to come and go as I liked I bought a 30,000 won ticket good for the entire duration of the festival). I even managed to find a front row seat in the packed hall. When the funeral procession of the last act entered the stage I stood up and slipped 10,000 won into the rope on the front of the "coffin" for the character of Keun Eomi. This was the last time I saw my wallet.
Hwang Jong-uk Performing in the Role of the Old Monk

After the show I gleefully reunited with my Goseong friends (although in fact I saw them all in July, but still I had a chance to tell them about my job, and I'm still pretty excited to say "I got a job! I'm a professor now!"). Before long the bus took most of them back to Goseong, except Hwang Jong-uk, Minsu, and two K-Arts students who were helping out. I hung around with the four, especially Hwang, walking around, taking photos of them teaching a demo class for kids, and then eating dinner together (Hwang's treat-- I think I owe him about 20 meals at this point). Once they left I had to carry all my stuff again, and decided to go check into a hotel, then return for some night photography.

In the hotel room I couldn't find my wallet. "Don't freak out! Don't freak out!" I kept repeating. But it was really gone. The hotel owners (who couldn't remember me from last time, but that might be good as last time I left with their key and didn't find it in my pocket and send it to them for at least a week) were pissed when I tried to leave with the key but not paying, but I assured them my friends would loan me money.

My friends?!!! My only real Andong friend, Yeong-ae, was in Bali performing at the opening ceremony for APEC. I walked back to the festival in a half panic, looking everywhere I'd been and asking at each official desk, tourist info center, the police station, the ticket office, and finally the main festival office if a wallet had been turned in. In the main festival office Gwon Duhyeon (festival director whom I've met before but barely remember) reached into his wallet and set 50,000 won on the table in front of me. "Give me your name card" I insisted. And eventually he did, although he really would have just given me the money. I went looking more, then returned to the office. "Can I use your computer?" I asked Gwon and checked, finding out that my Chase accounts hadn't had even a whiff of action (my wallet had a Korean cash card, "check" card, two Chase cards, my Islander's Bank card, my driver's license, my university ID that I'd received on Tuesday, my transportation card loaded with more than 40,000 won, 110 in American cash AND over 250,000 in Korean cash). Sitting there I got a text from Hwang Jong-uk "Shall I save you?" he asked. "What does this mean?" I asked Gwon, handing the festival director my phone. "Oh, you're a friend of Hwang Jong-uk?" He asked, laughing, and dialing Hwang who promptly ordered Gwon to give me another 50,000 won.

I couldn't shake the memory of the man who'd wanted a finder's fee to return my wallet, and although I felt that my wallet had to return to me, I tried to accept that all the cash would be gone. And I kept trying to remind myself that I have a job. After spending seven years as an MA and PhD student with only one year in between (on Buddhist pilgrimage) and one year after finishing my doctorate (unemployed), I am very used to being stressed about money. And if someone started using my check card, I'd lose much more than just the cash. Korean "check" cards (kind of like a debit card) don't need even a pin, just a signature. (Gwon and I had tried to cancel my check card, but I couldn't use the automated system because I didn't know the account number). Dejected, but "saved" from embarrassment at the hotel by Gwon's loan, I settled in for a mostly sleepless night tossing and turning as I imagined someone partying with my money.

I was first in line as the door opened at Daegu Bank in the morning. What would you do if a foreigner walked into your bank without any ID? Would you cancel and reissue their "check" card?
Me:      (After summarizing the no money, no ID issue) You need to call my friend at Daegu Bank in Seoul (holding out my phone with her name and number)
Them:    Uh, we can't do that. (But then checking on their computer) Oh, a Jo Suhyeon does work in Seoul!
Them:     (After their phone connects) Do you know a foreigner called 시이달?
Jo SH:     Yes, of course.
Me:        Give me the phone! (Into phone in total Daegu-dialect whine) I lost my wallet. It has this and that and that and that in it! And I'm in Andong! Alone!
Jo SH:     Don't worry, give me back to them.
Them:      (After listening to Jo SH) Here is our form filled out with your ID number and your bank account info, sign here. Okay, here's your new card. And there hasn't been any activity on this account.

Of course I called Jo Suhyeon back to thank her after I had withdrawn some money. At that point I felt much less stressed, because it seemed I wasn't going to have a large amount of money lost, just potentially a lot of hassle to replace all the rest of the cards and ID. Then I had a nice breakfast (at my favorite Andong restaurant).

By the time I got back to the festival I knew my wallet had been found. Arriving at the festival I learned that it had been found by Im Jaeseon, a "friend" of mine whom I've known for about 15 years-- a professional mask dancer with Hahoi Byeolshin'gut Talnoli. Every single thing, including all the cash, was still there. I paid back Gwon, bought a fancy ceramic plate for Im, and had a good rest of the festival, my faith in Korean honesty stronger than ever.

Breakfast on my third day in Andong-- Note the Andong Salted Mackerel and two-type of squash squash savory pancakes

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Post for Ryan's Class on K-Pop

My friend Ryan sent me an email:
I have a question for you. I'm working on my world music exam (a syllabus), and I want to include K-Pop in a unit on recording industries (and I know nothing about it). Are you aware of any good articles/books on the subject that I might include and/or excerpt?

Also, off the top of your head, what are the five most important K-Pop groups I should include?

Dear Ryan,

I started out by answering you in an email, but then I realized that the email was going to take me (at least) a couple hours to write. So, might as well share with some others while I was at it. 

It is simultaneously easy to illustrate a presentation about recording industries with examples from K-pop, and hard. If it is your intention to show something about recording industries in general, K-pop is not your cup of tea. But to talk about the powers beyond the actual artists we see/hear, then K-pop is great, since the heavy involvement of the management companies is not hidden behind narratives about artistic freedom or inspiration. Although it is not an academic book, Mark James Russel has a book based on years as a reporter in Korea (working for Billboard and what not) called Pop Goes Korea. (Here's the official website for the book). Mark does a great job outlining the dominance of the management system (which really is manager, promoter, choreographer, costume designer, record label, recording studio and everything else all rolled into one), and explaining how this system came about. The system in other areas is somewhat similar (like in Japan where they also manufacture groups based on specific ideas of what will appeal, not based on the desire of group members to perform that type of music --they may be stuck doing slow songs when they want to do dance tracks-- or perform/train with people they can barely tolerate). Japanese, though, still legally buy music, so the ways the system works there is a little different than in Korea. Also, as you surely know, Korean pop has a larger than just cult following in other areas, unlike Japanese pop which despite a brief bloom more than a decade ago now seems relatively unknown anywhere but Japan. 

I'm starting with your request for five groups (although it's important to note that there are a few solo acts that are pretty important). This, on the surface, appears very easy. But since you don't know much about K-pop, I found it took much more time than I at first thought. I've also linked a few songs that I think are illustrative of the group in some way. As I was inserting the links I realized that my bias towards what is called "dance" (as opposed to "ballad") is very heavy, so this is a slightly skewed list. I can't help it. I find "ballad" (slow songs) to be pretty much crap unless the vocalist is out of this world, and vocals are not the first reason that K-pop groups/artists become big/influential. 

I think you have to include 2NE1 even though they are not representative of K-pop and what it looks/sounds like because 1) they are satisfying musically, visually, creatively, vocally, choreographically and in most other ways. If people dislike this group, it can't be because they're another cookie-cutter K-pop group they are 2) representative of what hugely produced –but creative- musical acts can be and still be popular in Korea. All of K-pop could be full of such interesting and exciting acts, but it's not. Many management companies play it safe, and not all groups include as much talent. That said... I know there is a lot of autotune. The group has four members, following a K-pop convention of lead singer, featured dancer, group leader, and rapper (that's only 3 of the members, but the fourth has a large personality). They conveniently came with bonuses such as foreign language ability (the personality was a TV star in the Philippines, the lead singer trained at Berklee College of Music). Managed by YG Entertainment.
"Can't Nobody"  (okay, I'm a fan, also this last song is my favorite)

Girls' Generation (also known as SNSD, an abbreviation of their Korean name)
I think you need this group because they are a perfect example of stereotypes about K-pop. When people roll their eyes and say that K-pop has a bunch of plastic looking people parading around in short skirts or short-shorts, they are talking about Girls' Generation or similar groups. They're managed by SM Entertainment (the big powerhouse company), and they've been around long enough that they are mentioned in a fair amount of academic literature. There are 9 members, including a couple Korean-Americans. I find their music occasionally fun, but mostly uninspired.

Seo Taiji and the Boys 
This group is what is considered the first official popular music group in Korea (long before the Chinese discovered K-pop). They are much closer to the American ideal of artist-driven music with musicians performing on stage. The group included songs with serious social-issue content, and introduced Koreans to a lot of new musical sounds/innovation that were mostly gleaned from American music. They are deservedly called trailblazers. And there is more literature on them/mentioning them than any other K-pop. Try in Keith Howard's edited book Korean Pop: Riding the Wave. As a side note, YG Entertainment is owned and run by one of the "boys" in this historic group.

I think that after those three groups, who to include is a toss up. You should probably include a "boy" group, because K-pop is certainly not dominated by women (at the moment there are more highly successful "girl" groups than "boy" groups, but it's not too imbalanced and at other times there have been more "boy" groups at the top of the charts.

"Boy" Groups:
The initials TVXQ correspond to how their Chinese character name is said in Japan, the Korean initials are DBSK. This group was absolutely huge for quite a few years, but then they imploded in a big contract dispute. Now two members continue to perform under this name, while all five are still popular (the other three perform as JYJ but their music seems to suck and there have been a lot of jokes in Korean about how the group is actually better now as a two member group than they were before the split. It seems the best talent is still with the group. They're managed by SM Entertainment.
"Keep your Head Down" (2 members)
"Mirotic" (5 members)

Big Bang 
I actually really like the music that Big Bang releases (most of the time). It's danceable, the videos are fun, and the production is pretty crazy. Big Bang is the male equivalent of 2NE1 (actually they debuted first, so 2NE1 is the female version of Big Bang and has been repeatedly billed that way). The five members in the group are all pretty talented, and that definitely helps. But I don't see them as representative of K-pop, I just see this as better music/more original production than most big hit groups. 

I have a friend who would never forgive me if I suggested various male groups important to a class or an exam on popular music, and didn't mention SHINee. The group has been around for awhile now, and they seem to have staying power. They are, in my opinion, representative of generic K-pop "boy" groups, not surprisingly, they're produced by SM Entertainment.

Male Solo Artists:
Drunken Tiger
This is Korean-American rap/hip-hop produced and performed in Korea. Actually, properly speaking this is not a solo artist. Drunken Tiger was a duo, made up of Tiger JK and DJ Shine, they've parted ways, but Tiger JK hasn't switched to performing as a solo artist, and continues to acknowledge the help of others in his musical creations, esp. his wife, who is a well-known singer. He is not in any way representative of K-pop, but he's quite popular, multiple releases (8 cds?), highly watched videos, etc. His label is Jungle Entertainment, he doesn't operate in the same system as all the others on this list.
"The Cure" (this song features his wife, Tasha) 

G-Dragon is the front man of Big Bang, and I actually like the solo releases of three members of Big Bang and like G-Dragon's personality a little less than two other members, yet his work really stands out in Korea. REALLY stands out. He's hyped as writing a lot of his own songs (how true?), and as a fashion icon (fashion is such a weird area!).  Naturally he's also managed by YG Entertainment when he's solo, as well.

More Women:
Brown Eyed Girls 
I'm a big fan of Brown Eyed Girls. Their music is good, but more than that, they push interesting boundaries, come out with really creative stuff, and do things like openly admit their plastic surgeries. (Most stars in Korea try to say they haven't done any work on their faces). They are managed by NEGA Entertainment.
"Plastic Face" (Korean Saturday Night Live skit featuring 3 of the 4 members)

Sistar (two woman sub-group Sistar 19)
This group is way oversexualized. Yet at the same time they have one member with amazing singing ability. So I am pretty torn. I own and listen to many of their songs, but watching their videos... well, let's just say I use them as an example when I talk about sexual objectification. Starship Entertainment.
"Alone" (Sistar)

Wonder Girls 
The Wonder Girls are a group produced/managed by JYP Entertainment, at one time the second biggest company, but in the last few years the company has had some bad luck and made some risky choices. One of those was to work very hard at having the Wonder Girls make it in the US market. They are fairly well known in America, I suppose, in comparison to other K-pop groups because they've played shows (as an opening act) in places other than large centers for overseas Koreans. But I find them boring at best.  One of JYP Entertainment's more recent girl groups, Miss A, is more interesting to me partially because two members are Chinese.
"Tell Me
"Nobody" (English version, the guy in the beginning is the head of the entertainment company)

Solo Female Acts:
I cannot in good conscience fail to mention BoA in a list on K-pop. BoA has been big since 2002, but she was born in '86, so if you're thinking that Miley Cyrus has nothing on this woman, you'd be right. Except that BoA will never be part of a controversy. And she first broke out in Japan. Has released albums in Japanese (I think more than in Korean), Chinese, and in 2009, in English (she also tried to make it in the American market and got some traction, briefly). I am much more impressed by her dancing than her vocals, but... no one is perfect. SM Entertainment.

Lee Hyori 
Hyori is another HUGE artist, but she's probably on her way out. I am skeptical about her ability to survive some of the various scandals, lower viewer ratings on a show, her increasing age, and keep on top in K-pop. She originally debuted with a group called FinKL in the late 90s, and is really talented—I love a lot of her music, esp. the album before last (H-Logic)—but then it turned out that almost everything there was plagiarized or ripped off in some way or another, without compensation, and she got in a lot of hot water, although she claimed not to know (she was not credited as the songwriter, the major issue was songs all from a single songwriter, who appears to have no idea what fair use actually is). She's with MNet Media, now.
"Swing" (sorry, no link available b/c of copyright claims, all the links are muted)

It is worth mentioning that all of the performers on this entire list are heavily involved in TV (reality shows, talk shows, variety shows, dramas (often as the main star), and even at times movies. They also do all sorts of advertising. In Korean music more money is made from those activities than from selling MP3 downloads (by far). 

Surely some other blog visitors will eventually point out that I have neglected to tell you about some hugely important acts. H.O.T. (the first big export act), or Sechkies, or SES or Baby Vox, or in fact hundreds of others that are currently performing like T-Ara, KARA, After School, 2PM, 2AM, 4 Minute, Super Junior, Shinhwa (they're all out of the military now!), B2ST, DTMN or the independent(ish) acts-- many of them much more creative than what I've listed on here. Yet when I made this list I was also thinking about when you teach this class. If you teach the class in a year, or six months, or even three years from now I think the names on this list will still be relevant. If you check on Youtube you'll probably find more recent releases (K-pop acts tend to release new mini-albums or full-length albums at most two years apart but usually closer to once every nine months). 

And I'll email you more about readings you can assign. 

[UPDATE] This well-written article about the phenomenon Busker, Busker is instructive about some of the ways the popular music circuit works in Korea, if primarily because the trio didn't do what they were supposed to do. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Friends and Moving

As I get older, I feel both that I have a bountiful rich array of friendships, and that I am increasingly alone. The latter feeling is undoubtedly because I cannot seem to stay in one place. I never really said anything good about living in LA, and K didn't like it much, either, but now that I don't live there anymore I feel incredibly nostalgic for the things I rarely did in LA. Like going swimming in the ocean. I don't think I ever did. I waded in the water quite a few times, but I don't know if I can ever remember swimming with actual strokes in the ocean. I see LA in movies or TV shows or advertisements and I find that it occupies a very happy place in my heart, and now I want to go back. Not least because of the friendships I have there (although give it a few more years and most of those friends will probably have left).

I want to be surrounded by community, like I am on Lopez. I want to have family, or friends as close as family, who are just down the road.

I have moved, too often. Now I find myself back in Korea, but my four closest friends living in Korea, if "friends" is even the right word, are in Daegu, Jeonju, and Seoul (2).(The idea of "friends" is a complicated concept in Korean culture and requires being the same age, preferably born in the same year. These four women are older (2) and younger (2)--one of the younger is American, so at least we share the definition of friends).  A fifth close Korean friend is now in Seattle (what horrible timing, as she arrived just as I was leaving for the summer in Korea). Realistically it is at least a four hour transportation commitment to go to Seoul, and longer for the other locations, so meeting is not very practical.

So I feel a bit isolated out here in the boondocks.

But I also feel so incredibly blessed. Yesterday I was working myself into a panic about the class I teach in Korean (again) because one of the two articles I'd assigned to the students (newspaper articles) just didn't make sense to me (even though I'd looked up tons of words in the dictionary). Finally I called one of my friends and she reassured me about my Korean (very important so that I'd be able to teach class today), had me read her the beginning of the article as she got ready to leave for school (it was morning for her), and explained the entire giant back-story I hadn't known (hence making the article just seem completely bizarre). Furthermore while I was sleeping (and after her class) she wrote up a summary of the whole thing, with additional details and even a photo illustrating the issue.

Here's the photo.
It may not surprise you to find out that when I read the article and it said that "women wrote messages supporting freeing Jeong Bongju from jail on their breasts and uploaded them to the internet," that I was completely confused. What?!! Why would they upload bikini shots with some guy's name as a form of protest?!! So my dear friend Jisoo had to explain to me the entire complicated story about Jeong and his fellows criticizing the Lee Myungbak administration until he was locked up. After which the reasons I'd chosen to assign the article (the sections about sexual objectification of Korean women, even in politically liberal circles) were much easier to connect to the initial paragraphs about bikini shots. (On the other hand, my five Chinese students were just as confused as I was, or more, since their Korean isn't as good as mine, and even the Korean students seemed pretty unaware of the entire issue-- current affairs are not their forte).

So I am very lucky that I have friends like Jisoo. And she's not the only amazing friend I have. They're allover the world, these amazing friends. Being amazing. Raising kids in all these awesome ways (not all the same awesome ways, but all iterations of "doing it right"), succeeding in their careers (I still can't get over seeing my friend's name outside her office at a swanky law firm), rocking their graduate studies, seeing the world... they're all quite inspiring so I have to keep concentrating on my feelings of love and gratitude that I have them at all and stop worrying about living in the boondocks (and hey, I have new friends Maria Anna and Sara here!).