Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Can Non-Asian Foreigner Succeed in the K-pop Scene?

Dear Korean,

How ready do you think Korea is for a foreigner in the K-pop scene? My definition of a foreigner in Korean market would be someone who isn't Korean and does not look visibly Asian.

Maria J.

The Korean would point out the vaguely racist quality of this question first. "Foreigner," from the perspective of Koreans, has its own definition: anyone who is not Korean. The Korean has no idea why Maria J. had to twist that word and narrow its coverage to someone who "does not look visibly Asian." But be that as it may...

This type of question has been coming in fairly frequently, apparently because a new girl group called The Gloss has a white French girl named Olivia as a member. So is Korea ready for a non-Asian foreigner in its music scene?

Try this for a size:  the number one band of K-pop in 2012 has three members, all of whom young men. Two of this band's members are Korean, but one is not. One of them is a white man from America, named Brad Moore. Mr. Moore has been quite visible in all of the band's activities (including music videos and show programs,) and his whiteness or non-Koreanness has never been a subject of discussion in Korean people's appreciation of the band.

The band's name? Busker Busker.


The Korean is not joking when Busker Busker was the number one K-pop band of 2012. They deserve the moniker based on any serious metric. Busker Busker sold the most number of albums in 2012 in Korea, and their songs were the most downloaded. (They sold significantly more songs online than PSY in 2012 Korea, even with PSY's Gangnam Style.) The band also placed six different songs in the top 10 of Gaon Chart (the most authoritative chart for K-pop) through 2012, and five songs in the top 10 of Billboard's K-pop chart. Busker Busker also took home three Korean Music Awards for 2013, including Best Pop Album and Best Pop Song. In the cafes of Seoul last year, it was practically impossible to avoid Busker Busker's songs, like 벚꽃 엔딩 ["Cherry Blossom Ending", the video above] or 여수 밤바다 ["Yeosu Night Sea"]. And this wildly successful band had a highly visible white member, who is the drummer for the band.

Does this mean that the next non-Asian foreigner will be inevitably successful, or be able to completely avoid Korea's racism? Of course not. But Busker Busker's success is still a significant data point. The number one band of K-pop in 2012 had a member who was a non-Asian foreigner, and Korean pop music scene hardly made a fuss about it. That should have answered the question before it even made its way to the Korean's inbox.

It is fair to wonder if non-Asian foreigners can succeed in the K-pop scene. But it is strange to see that, in discussing this topic, no one among the supposed devotees of Korean pop music brings up the fact that K-pop's number one band has a white member, and it has been that way for a whole year. Maybe they would have noticed if they stopped distracting themselves with shitty music.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

39 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say good point about busker busker.
    also wanted to add groups such as 2PM (nick coon) and other female idol had groups with chinese or japanese members.

    but I also wanted to mention busker busker is a different animal than other "idol" groups. I'm gonna assume most ppl listened and bought their music for their music. none of the members can be considered "pretty"
    and success stories for bands such as busker busker are rare for the current korean music scene dominated by "pop".

    idol groups such as 2AM, Fx etc. just can't survive with their music. they HAVE to be pretty. they have to be visiaully appealling.
    If a white girl or boy idol does debut, they'd better be really really pretty 17 yr old or sadly I see no hope for them.

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  2. For a K-pop performer in a Kpop group that runs according to the kpop business model (and let's be honest - SM/YG/JYP Kpop is a business model, not an art form)... the foreignness will be less important than the performer's ability to speak Korean. And not just enough Korean to say "Bibimbap is delicious" -- enough to project a unique personality on those Korean Variety TV shows like "Running Man" and "We Got Married". Those shows are where Korean Kpop wannabes consolidate or blow their star potential, and to do well on those you need the language.

    WHen a foreign, young, attractive singer/dance is good enough in Korean to be winsome and entertaining on those shows, their foreignness will be an asset to their celebrity, because it'll be something few others bring to the table. Without the language chops, they're at a disadvantage, but in my opinion, less because they're foreign, more because their Korean sucks.

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  3. Even though tons of foreigners are trying to infiltrate Kpop, I hope they don't succeed. Why? First of all, Koreans are much better looking. Who would want to look at some ugly foreigner after admiring some Korean hunk?

    Secondly, they dance better. Compare some Kpop group with Justin Bieber. He can hardly move his legs in the right direction.

    Thirdly, some of them actually can sing. Many of them are very passionate.

    There is a severe lack of new good songs, so I were a Kpop producer, I would seriously hire Rihanna's songwriters.

    If anything, we need more Kpop on American musical scene - there is only PSY at the moment, and this is definitely not enough. Why can't they have a Kpop MTV channel?

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    1. I sincerely hope no one thinks most kpop fans think like you....

      first... on attractiveness... just because someone isn't Korean doesn't make them less attractive than someone who is Korean.... that is such a subjective statement its ridiculous. There are ugly Koreans just as there are ugly non-Koreans. There are attractive non-Koreans just as there are attractive Koreans.

      Kpop idols dance better than Bieber for one major reason: they are trained like freaking machines. Also... you're dismissing talent like Usher who could dance circles around most kpop idols...Don't get me wrong... when you look at people like Taeyang of BIG BANG, JYJ's Junsu, or Yunho of TVXQ, there is some real talent but i don't see people like Kim Jae Joong being good dancers if it weren't for their training...

      On singing... yes there are really good, passionate singers (JYJ's Jae Joong, BIG BANG's Daesung, F.T Island's Hong Ki ) but non-Koreans sing just as well...and just as passionately (Adam Gontier anyone? Former vocalist of Three Days Grace; Lacey Sturm formerly of Flyleaf) so I don't get your point here.

      I agree I want more kpop in the American scene besides Psy. But I would also like to see more Japanese, Russian, German, etc. as well. Really anything to add variety to the music scene is welcome.

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    3. I think I should have made my genre a bit more clear...ROCK. Honestly, for me, Kpop is an anomaly in my taste in music. I generally hate pop. It materialistic, formulaic, CRAP. And for Kpop...I don't even need two hands to count how many groups I like.

      German is not a pretty language, but the rock is awesome. Russian rock is awesome. I would also gladly take Italian, French, Bulgarian, WHATEVER. Anything from anywhere so long as I like it.

      Frankly I could care less about looks, and I think the emphasis kpop puts on them is disgusting. Nothing can replace talent. NOTHING. You could be a one-eyed, hairy, peg-legged pirate for all I care, so long as you can give me good music.

      ...I think I am digressing here...

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    4. Okay, what you say is true, and I think you are very smart and nice about it, but I don't really like music that much. I just like nice looking Korean people. They don't even have to be talented. I know it sounds bad, but what can I do... No, I don't like pirates, sorry.

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    5. By the way, both Russian pop, rock, movies and other culture-related things SUCK big time. They are mostly oligarch's girlfriends and boyfriends so imagine their talent level. Close to -10. Not every nation should sing, you know. Some people should just listen.

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    6. They had a K-pop MTV channel that hardly anyone actually subscribed to: MTV K. The TV channel ran from 2006-2010, but it still has a web presence.

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    1. Your comments are incredibly racist. I'm not sure what you're trying to achieve with that attitude other than make Koreans look bad.

      ~ ~ ~

      Anyway, on topic, yes, I think a foreigner, given s/he can sing and dance tolerably well would have no trouble succeeding in Korea. If s/he speaks Korean fluently on top of that, I'd venture to even say they'll have a MUCH easier time standing out & "making it" than other Korean performers because Koreans tend to adore non-Koreans making an effort to learn more about their culture.

      Quite frankly, I don't think it's Korea who hasn't been ready for a pretty non-Asian foreigner in a pop group - I think there just hasn't been any non-Asian foreigners trying to become popular in Korea. Now that kpop has attracted some eyes overseas, non-Asian foreigners are seeing the possibility to success in a tiny country they never heard of before and applying/auditioning/actually considering moving to Korea to make it work. In the past, I don't think being a Korean popstar even registered in the minds of wannabe celebs of non-Asian origin. I definitely think as talented non-Asian foreigners start seeing Korea as a place they can become a star, Korea as a whole would be more than accepting, if not thrilled, by the addition of exotic faces in the kpop world.

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    3. I can only believe that VB is either writing a parody of kpop/kdrama fans or is intentionally trolling. Either that or I just have too much faith in humanity.

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    4. It is my Margaret Cho imitation. I am trying really hard, can't you tell?

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  5. For now it's not about "a foreigner" becomming successfull in the Korean pop scene, it's about having one exotic member among Koreans in the group. It's all part of make-up. Although, maybe Busker-Busker might be slightly different because they're supposed to be indie, they're roots are different from that of the girl/boy band products.

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  6. I have to be honest, I've never looked closely enough at Busker Busker to realize one of them was white. For a group that is more focused on visual appeal, I think it will be a little harder for someone non-Korean to break into the market. And honestly, I have to say that I hope that happens gradually.

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  7. I think, above all, you'd have to be really, really, REALLY fluent in Korean if you want to be able to succeed as a long-term celebrity of any kind in Korea. I mean, Korean-American singers are often pelted w/ criticisms about their inability to properly pronounce words in their songs (I'm looking at you, TK, in regards to Park Jung Hyun :D) - what chance would a non-Korean have when he or she can't even put together a decent sentence or two?

    I really liked Busker Busker's songs, but they are hardly K-Pop as most people would define the term.

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    1. I am waging a war against the wrong definition of K-pop. Words have to mean what they say. "K-pop" says "Korean pop music." So that's what it means.

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    3. Oops a retype due to typos

      I agree that it is a war against the wrong or different definitions of k-pop. When most people think of "K-pop", they think of idol music. Instead, most Koreans think of "K-pop" as "Korean popular music", which includes a larger variety of artists. In this light, many non-Koreans see Busker Busker as indie, however, Koreans think of indie groups as those who perform in Hongdae etc... (I won't get into more details) Thus, Koreans typically consider Busker Busker as belonging to the "Korean popular music" or "Korean pop music" group.

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    4. But there are asian non-koreans who learnt korean through the training before debut. So excellent language skills are not so much of a requirement it seems.

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  8. Wow, I've heard so much about Busker Busker over the years from my adult students I'm shocked that this has never come up. The fact that Girls Generation has several Korean-Americans (?) is a huge deal to most students (just as a matter of interest/discussion), that the fact that there's a white guy in Busker Busker has never come up in any class conversations kind of shocks me. Perhaps it's because he's the drummer and not the lead singer? It's funny, but watching this video I probably wouldn't have even noticed that he was white if you hadn't pointed it out. He blends right in!
    And I sort of agree with you TK, if Busker Busker had the same popularity in America, we would definitely call them "pop". Why does K-Pop have to be limited to Girls Generation and Big Bang?

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    1. I agree with some points, but I think people take this too seriously. As I said before, it's all make-up, rather than really giving foreigners a chance.

      And I wouldn't completely agree with Korea being EXTREMELY mono-cultural and COMPLETELY culturally homogeneous. Come here to Seoul and open your eyes, you will see a different reality. Korea surely has a BACKGROUND of cultural homogenity (although, a look into history tells us it's a little mixed with Chinese, Mongolian and Japanese, these things you can't prevent), which affects the culture of today, that's true, but times change, cultures change and that's simply natural and the way it should be. You can't keep a culture from influences from the outside (maybe only North Korea, but even them are failing) and that's a good thing. We the people advance and prosper by learning from each other, besides that, a culture that never changes would just be a bore.

      And by the way, as a European citizen, I can tell you that any try to keep a cultural "cleanness" from the "dirty barbarians" has resulted in fascistoid tragedies.

      One last word - you don't need to worry about Korea losing its identity to western influences and becomming a mini-USA, that just won't happen. Even in Europe, with the European Union sometimes we fear for our country to lose its cultural identity, swallowed by this homogenised name, but somehow people worldwide still see that Italy is still Italy, France is still France, Germany still Germany, Sweden still Sweden, Greece still Greece etc. etc. Cultures don't die so easily, unless there has been a massive genocide.

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    2. To call Busker Busker K-pop doesn't mean they are K-pop in the way most people consider it. You giving a new meaning to the word K-Pop doesn't mean you can avoid Busker Busker being inherently different. Busker Busker is self-made, unlike conventional K-Pop groups. They're a real band. They're not a manufactured "boy band." Also, like others said, Busker Busker is a group based pretty much entirely on their sound/musical talent alone (they don't dance, they don't look pretty/cute/handsome, they don't act etc.). Not to mention, Brad is at the back as the drummer.

      Therefore, there still remains a lot to be answered about whether an obvious foreigner would make it (a fully white or black or S. Asian etc. person). This is of course in reference to the conventional K-Pop scene. The conventional K-Pop scene is where groups are produced by big companies and are considered popular based on their looks, dancing ability and the way the act on variety shows rather than their singing ability. This group, Gloss, is the first that I know of that has a non-E/SE Asian member. They haven't even released a single, so we have yet to see.

      Finally, there is a difference between being white (or black or even S Asian) and being E. Asian in Korea. First, why do you think the big entertainment companies come to hold auditions in the US, but only look at people of Asian descent? There is certainly a connotation that 외국인 really means someone from the Americas or Europe or perhaps farther away parts of Asia.

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    3. 외 - outside; 국 - country, state; 인 - person

      No such connotations as you see.

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    4. Technically 외국인 does just mean "foreigner", but non-East-Asians are just so much more obviously foreign than Chinese or Japanese. If you look at Fei and Jia from Miss A (Chinese), they definitely don't look "Korean" but you have to look a little longer to make that distinction than with, say, Tia, Michelle and Juliane from ChocoLat (who are all biracial).

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  10. ?? I'm entirely aware of what those individual words mean. That doesn't mean those words carry a certain connotation. 외국인 isn't even a native Korean word, it's Sino-Korean derived from the word 外國人. So it's entirely reasonable to say that people aren't thinking about the literal meaning of the word every time it's used. E. Asians are more likely to be referred to by the individual countries where they come from. 외국인 may officially mean all foreigners but that doesn't mean that's how it's used in practice.

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    1. Sorry.
      Well, maybe yes. Maybe they think of westerners at the first place, especially American. Not sure, but that's the feeling....

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  11. Just to add in here, everyone loves Busker Busker but I've never heard anyone mention there being a "foreigner" in the group, which is SURPRISING beyond words really... considering how many groups are with Taiwanese, Chinese, American born Koreans etc that get publicity for being non-natives. On the other hand, Busker Busker is more about their music than shaking their butts on stage, so it makes sense that people would take more about their music than their looks or ethnicity.

    and dear the Korean, while I agree that qualifying a "foreigner" as being non-asian is racist, that's just the way it is in Asia. I work for a large IT company here in Seoul and although my team has had Chinese and Japanese people working here for years, after I joined people said, I didn't know FOREIGNERS worked at X company!! - this was said to my Chinese co-worker while pointing at me. To which she responded, uh, I'm a foreigner too...

    and considering that I cannot ride the bus or walk my dog without being pointed at and having people say, hey, look, there's a foreigner, while my Asian non-Korean friends don't have this problem, I think that although its complete racism, the term "foreigner" in Korea (and all of Asia really) refers to non-asians.

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  12. Overseas K-pop fans are usually more interested in the boy bands and girl groups, so Busker Busker flew under their radar. That's a shame, too, as "Cherry Blossom Ending" is likely to be a perennial spring song (it climbed up the charts again this spring, the year after its release) and it's simply a beautiful song beautifully performed, even if you don't understand the lyrics. The video had a neat little twist at the end, too.

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  13. Ehm just to clear that up first, NICHKHUN is ONLY QUARTER CHINESE ,
    Only his mom is half Chinese(& half Thai) & his Dad is FULL THAI.
    Thats one Point why People say HES THAI on interviews etc. and never mention his
    hes quarter chinese(and ofcourse because hes Born and raised in Thailand too yes but however).

    I just hope that it gets more 'open' for non asians to get
    in the kpop buiss .. they already take Half asians anyways,
    a Trainee in YG right now is only half asian (Half Thai ; female)
    shes half White(caucasian) so ... well at least many People heard of it
    and saw pics of her and a vid. where shes Dances in a room with other Trainees.
    Well see what the future brings, it could Change thhe next years ...maybe

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  14. The korean seems to have gotten angry at the question asked, all she did was she made a distinction between asian foreigners and non asian foreigners the former who already have a presence in the kpop scene and the latter no presence at all excluding busker busker cos its doubtful busker busker would label themselves a kpop group and most comments here object to you using them as an example of a kpop group. Plus I feel its koreans who attach that connotation with the word foreigner. It was also from koreans that I also get the same impression as the asker that some one from china or japan would blend in whereas i would stick out like a sore thumb more 'foreign' looking. No. 10 on the foreigner scale, with more labels of foreigner attached to me. Whats with the attitude though, The korean is forgetting that the international fans have different tastes and aren't aware of how big certain groups are without actually living there. We rely on scraps of secondhand information as our only source. So you'll have to appreciate that though busker busker are big in korea, bigger than psy even? International fans wont see that, even i didn't know they were that big until simon and martina put kpop groups and what's hot in korea into perspective for us, it was eye opening how vastly different we are from fans in korea, so the "Maybe they would have noticed if they stopped distracting themselves with shitty music" is uncalled for. you seem to hate kpop in general but I thought this was a 'feel free to ask anything you want website' not a 'I'll give an unprofessional answer with a hostile attitude thrown in website' being hostile towards your audience is so not cool. ("-_-)

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  15. I;m shore if they where Indian or black people would notice but i kinda like the song

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  16. Busker Busker is not "Idol" music and the caucasian is the drummer in the background. I have yet to see anyone who wasn't asian in what would be considered "KPop". Until that changes I'm not holding my breath for someone to show.

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  17. No matter what country in the world white people are always going to be seen as accepted but once we throw in black or espanic no one wants to know. I have in k-pop seem to stick to there own, and when they accept anyone it's going be white. This is how much white people have damage the world, where they have made sure they have they hands in everything. I'm sorry but I'm playing on the racist card, and it's quiet obvious!!!

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    1. Not really. ... I'm korean and I have a friend who is half asian and mexican and she looks like an ulzzang half asians got power :)

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    2. I'm sorry but before you try and insult an entire race of people, you should probably check your spelling and grammer first. Thank you.

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  18. reading these comments filled me with hope and killed my dreams at the same time if that made any sense. of course i know that i have .000000002% chance of making it through the first audition of kpop seeing as i am a non-Asian and i'm half black. but its nice that people write these things so they can give people like me spirit and at least think that maybe possibly sorta get the Cinderella godmother theyve been dreaming for? either way i dont think we need to focus on what should be accepted and what shouldnt. we should focus on how we can make the unthinkable reality...bringing non-asians into kpop could end out bad, if it does...just move on, dont let it happen again whatever, but if it does, it could help South Korea get noticed more by other countries. as a lover for Korean Culture i want that for the best of South Korea...thats my opinion, no hate plz

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