Korea is an odd place. Both Koreas, in fact.
You know all those weird stories that you hear in the West about China and Japan? Stuff like the human jiaozi and the used panty vending machines? Well in China and Japan, the stories about a country where disturbing shit happens all the time are all about Korea. When the Japanese are regaling each other with stories about how strange a place is, then you know it’s really strange.
The excellent Hopes and Fears blog touched upon Korea’s eccentricities in an great piece about the K-pop machine, just recently, in which it noted that:
These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible. K-pop isn’t subtle, but it’s easy to understand the genre’s widespread appeal: it’s pop in its purest form. Larger-than-life, indulgent as a bowl of buttered popcorn, it’s satisfying in a way that so much Western music, with its pretensions to refined edginess, is not. Unlike the sulky Lana del Rey, who moves in a gauzy miasma of hip mystique, K-pop is highly legible. Idols are beautiful, poised, and successful, it loudly proclaims. By admiring them—and purchasing the associated merchandise—we can share in their aura.
Though K-pop encompasses a wide range of sensibilities, its many iterations are uniformly reliant on tropes that convey this common, uncomplicated message. Some artists are clearly trying to parrot American hip-hop artists: CL, of the popular band 2NE1, emulates Nicki Minaj in the video for her single “The Baddest Female,” where she sports grills and a chain—and, later, a flannel buttoned at the collar, a riff on the heyday of West Coast gangsta rap. Other artists, Super Junior, EXO and Beast among them, cultivate a Bieberesque look designed to appeal to teenyboppers who scrawl hearts in their math notebooks. Their videos abound with frosted tips, heartfelt gazes and sentimental gestures. (The music video for Beast’s “No More” explores a quintessentially angsty teen breakup through the filtered lens of Instagram, showcasing the agony each newly-single party experiences upon witnessing the other’s battery of selfies.)
Other artists are up to something different—something with no Western analog. Prime among them is the wildly popular group Girls’ Generation, which was created in the image of the “kawaii” aesthetic originating in Japan. (Interestingly, one former and two current members were actually born in California.) The girls in question are cute, cuddly, and ultra-feminine. In the video for their hit “I Got a Boy,” they cohabitate in a giant pink house where they host a perpetual slumber party, wearing their hair in pigtails and drinking out of dainty teacups. Clad in a baby-doll dress, one of the girls timidly ventures out to meet a male love interest. She is scandalized when her date reaches for her hand, and delighted when he crouches to tie the laces of her gem-encrusted sneakers.
But it also goes deeper than that. Korean culture has always been fond of borrowing and repurposing. To a certain extent, it has had no choice in the matter, being colonised repeatedly by Chinese, Japanese, Americans and Soviets. However, it has also made a tradition of going above and beyond the required levels of hommage to the colonisers, despite arguably, being The Racistest Place on Earth (I would like to point out here that I have never, personally, encountered anything but cheerful courtesy from any of the Koreans I have met – from both the North and the South).
However, when one borrows cultural institutions, there is a tendency to adopt the form but abandon or misunderstand the function. Much of modern Korea’s Confucian rigidity is actually a leftover from the Japanese occupation, when the locals copied the occipiers not just to survive and thrive, but also because – though no one will admit it these days – they rather admired and appreciated Japanese achievements. The result is that modern South Korea is, if anything, more ‘Japanese’ than Japan. Where Japan moved on and developed into a more relaxed society, South Korea essentially retained many of the social mores of the Imperial age. Moreover, the replication was never entirely faithful.
So, while Japan has a highly entrenched shame culture coupled with an emphasis on situational morality and collective responsibility, these features have evolved organically and it is possible to trace the individual and social logics behind their manifestations. Apparently pointless politenesses and rituals can be traced back to their origins and thus explained. (If you’re interested, much of Japanese etiquette is tied in with concepts of self-respect, and should be understood not so much as a matter of exaggerated deference to others as taking pride in one’s own image and ‘polished self-presentation’.)
Korea, on the other hand, arrived on the scene in medias res, and so – a lot of the time – the adoptees of Japanese manners were aware of their outward manifestations, but much less so of the philosophy that underpinned them. Moreover, Japanese culture has also developed a number of safety valves to avoid the more troubling manifestations of such an uncompromisingly image-focused culture. One example would be the formal apology, which often functions as a sort of generalised get out of jail free card. As has been pointed out here before, refusing a formal apology in Japan often incurs a severe loss of face on the part of the refuser, and is always shocking even when you suspect that he has a point.
In Korea, on the other hand, it’s no biggie: the person being apologised to is in a position of power, and may accept or refuse more or less at their own discretion. So, in other words, a formal apology won’t necessarily procure you any practical advantage or help you regain face, but you still have to do it. What became a handy way to negotiate conflicts without violence became a show of dominance and submission. (This is also often the case in China too, where criminals are wheeled out to apologise on tv, but receive little or no leniency as a result, though in the Chinese case the tradition was also influenced by communist notions of self-criticism).
But what does this have to do with K-pop?
Well, let’s look at the original comment:
These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible.
Well, possibly, yes. That’s one explanation, and it’s certainly the one that someone who had known Korea as a poor nation would jump at. The problem is that the vast majority of the consumers of K-pop, even within Korea itself, have never known a poor Korea. They don’t see Korea as a developing country struggling to keep up, any more than the teen and 20-something inhabitants of Leipzig think of themselves as East Germans.
In fact, the imagery of K-pop is only confusing if you expect it to make sense. The K-pop machine has borrowed symbols and aesthetics from rock and rap that do have a meaning and an iconography when viewed in the context of American musical history – and particularly black history. In a US context, it’s possible to trace the evolution of bling post-Flava Flav or situate the dirty South aesthetic within a large historical picture (Matt Daniels does it very entertainingly). When these tropes and styles are adopted by Korean artists, however, they lose that context. They effectively become purely aesthetic choices, with no deeper meaning behind them.
Which is actually kind of cool.
And it’s not just a one-way transfer from West to East. There are examples in Western pop culture too. Take this guy:
M Bison, right?
Actually, it’s Yasunori Kato, the character upon whom M Bison was based, although it’s a rare US or European gamer who’ll recognise the hommage (Japanese gamers got it immediately). Moreover, Yasunori Kato is not a character created out of thin air himself – he is a deliberate reference to the links between Japan’s Shinto revival and its pre-war militarism, as well as various other historical legends dating back to the Hei’an era.
Gwen Stefani did a similar thing consciously with Harajuku Girls – borrowing a random grab bag of Japanese pop culture tropes and repackaging them out of context – and got a lot of drearily predictable criticism for it from the usual SJW suspects.
And then, if it comes to that, Japan is also a great borrower. Take the example of the shinigami. Literally ‘death god’, it is a local equivalent of the grim reaper. It is so prevalent in Japan that people claim to have seen it, and a good proportion of people will, if asked, guess that it is a part of shinto tradition. In fact, while a few regions of Japan can bost traditional boogeymen going by the name of shinigami, the shinigami that we know today is not an equivalent of the grim reaper, it is the grim reaper, imported by mangaka to fill a narrative niche, it escaped the page and went free range, stalking the Japanese countryside in the manner of invasive alien fauna everywhere.
So what’s the conclusion to be drawn?
Well, probably that when it comes to culture, possession, as we used to say in law school, vaut titre.