Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What to Make of Korean Wave?

Dear Korean,

What do you make of the 'Korean wave', is it just an easily replicable fad or are Koreans becoming a key player in Southeast Asian pop culture?


Dear Joonki,

When many a K-pop group fills up stadium after stadium across Asia with their concerts, it is pretty hard to say that Korea is not a key player in Asian (not just Southeast Asian) pop culture:

Many of the readers of this blog come here because Korea's pop culture, so not much elaboration would be necessary about "Korean Wave". But of all the achievements of modern Korea, its rise as a soft power nation is the greatest surprise to a lay observer. One might have reasonably expected Korea to make better and better products until those products become world-class, but this? This is not just a function of having a lot of money. There are plenty of wealthy countries in the world which do not leave a particularly strong mark in the regional and world culture. Germany is far wealthier than Korea, but one does not hear all that much about German cultural products as far as pop culture is concerned. (That is, unless one counts the subtle yet undoubtedly powerful cultural influence generated by beautifully performing machines.) The same is true for, say, Canada or Spain, although they are about as wealthy as Korea.

What does the Korean make of Korean Wave? There are many factors responsible for Korean Wave's success. Here are some preliminary ideas of what some of those factors might be (that may well turn out to be really wrong):

- Korea is wealthy. Like the Korean pointed out above, this is not a sufficient condition. But it is pretty clearly a necessary condition. Only wealthy people have the time and money to nurture a pop culture. As a result, Korean dramas and Korean movies rarely lack production value. More specifically, having major production companies with the resource to commit to a longer-term strategy and delayed return on investment has been critical for Korean Wave's success.

- The competition in Korean pop culture market is cutthroat. Entertainment market in Korea is not very big. There is enough for a spectacular winner, but not enough for a second place who can get by. This is conducive to creating a type of "success formula" that can be widely shared within the industry. This means that Korean pop culture consistently maintains a level of excellence.

- As Asia became wealthier overall, the pop culture market in Asia grew enough such that there is an international demand of good pop culture products. This goes hand in hand with the fact that ...

- Korea's pop culture filled the need that was left unfulfilled by other major pop cultures, most notably from U.S. or Europe. Asian people want pretty Asian faces to whom they can relate. Similarly, Asian people want Asian-style narrative arcs, focusing more on the relationship between people instead of what happens next. (This is obviously a gross over-generalization, but bear with the Korean here.)

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


  1. the GDPs of both canada and spain are far more than korea's, so they aren't "about as wealthy as korea". but aside from this, i think a lot of it comes from countries needing to create their own entertainment to supplant the very impressionable, dominating force from the united states. in canada, there are laws that prevent too much american content being shown on tv and played on the radio. but that is more about the geograpical nature of the two countries. canada, obviously, needs to protect what is canadian.

    the korean wave is likely a fad (and one that i really enjoy), much like the french new wave in cinema during the 1960s. art and entertainment changes with the tides, and nothing like this is strictly permanent. it will continue on and influence other genres and waves - that's how it works.

  2. This might veer into question territory instead of being a comment, but is it really true that Korean dramas and movies focus on relationships rather than what happens next?

  3. @Adeel

    It seems to be a recurring theme that the lead character often chooses their lover over their career or other aspects of their life.

  4. "Many of the readers of this blog come here because Korea's pop culture, so not much elaboration would be necessary about "Korean Wave". " AGREE!

    i'm one of those riding the wave and i'm seriously enjoying it ^^

    btw, i love your blog~

  5. Jake, in 2009, the GDP of Canada was $1.279 trillion, Spain's was $1.362 trillion (and probably less now), and South Korea's was $1.364 trillion (and probably more now). So actually the Korean was accurate and perhaps a little kind to say that the GDPs of those countries are about the same.

  6. Playing the devil's advocate here - so what if the country has become a 'key player in Southeast Asian pop culture'? I tentatively agree with that statement, with one big caveat. Korea looks to American pop for much of their base material (remember all the plagiarism accusations?), and seems to play off many of those aspects (the boy band, the girl band, etc.).

    My other big question is of the 'is THIS what we should encouraging little kids to become?' variety. I see a little kids emulating their hair-tossing and worrying about how they look makes me wonder how many of them will opt out of those more helpful classes... So what if other Asian countries aren't showing off local 'singers' with flashy shows? Maybe they're more interested in keeping their traditional forms of culture alive.

  7. Adeel,

    Not always, which is why the statement was a huge generalization to begin with. But generally, Asian style narrative is about relationships and emotions rather than recounting what happened. (For example, Lost in Translation had a very Asian style narrative structure.)


    Thanks for the clarification. To be sure, Canada's per capita GDP is far greater than Korea's. Spain is closer.

    Chris in SK,

    so what if the country has become a 'key player in Southeast Asian pop culture'?

    Money and soft power are nothing to sneeze at.

    Korea looks to American pop for much of their base material (remember all the plagiarism accusations?), and seems to play off many of those aspects (the boy band, the girl band, etc.).

    Very true, but somehow Korea's pop culture appears to have as strong or stronger a hold in Southeast Asia than American pop culture. That's the point that the Korean was trying to make -- Korean pop culture is providing something that American pop culture is not/cannot.

    So what if other Asian countries aren't showing off local 'singers' with flashy shows? Maybe they're more interested in keeping their traditional forms of culture alive.

    When the Korean was younger, he wore a black suit and white gloves and did Michael Jackson impressions. Contemporary pop culture, regardless of where it's from, will infiltrate no matter what.

  8. So TK. The question EVERYONE is dying to know. Who is your favorite Girls' Generation member????

  9. The Korean hates them all. Seriously. HATES them. They are choking out good music in Korea -- they need to go away and take their likeness with them.

    The Korean is fond of some actresses in Korea, however.

  10. I don't think the Korean Wave is a fad, it looks like it is going to be pretty pervasive in South East Asia.

    A few reasons:

    English - yes, believe it or not, the common factor is that English-subbed dramas, movies and even music videos are available from broadcasters like KBS World, SBS's ONE etc. For countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines where it is widely used, English allows easy access to a whole new range of good quality entertainment.

    Cost of content - with satellite TV booming in Asia, there's pressure to fill content. I'm guessing the quality & quantity vs price of Korean content makes it a good deal when compared to prime time fare from the US, so broadcasters are filling up time with Korean product.

    No historical baggage and even some commonality - i.e. the Japanese occupation - we have a shared history of occupation/colonisation. So there is this admiration that comes from knowing what Korea has been through and how far the country has gone, now surpassing everyone else.

    Sino-korean words - speakers of Cantonese and Hokkien find it easy to recognise and understand bits of conversation in Korean, so Korean occupies this unique linguistic space that is different enough to be exotic but familiar enough so as not be completely alien.

    Hotness - Asia is a young continent, average ages are low, hordes of tweens, teens and 20+ year olds looking for idols and crushes who are not blonde but actually look like them! Ok, plastic surgery not withstanding... What passes for idol good looks in Korea (fair skin, big eyes with double eyelids and sharp features) are the same from India to Indonesia to Indochina.

    Endorsements deals = more exposure

    Appearances especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan = even more exposure and piques the interest of your canto-pop, mando-pop and J-pop fan to find out more on these newcomers (see 'Hotness' above)

    It's the perfect storm - all the right conditions at the right time.

  11. Korean wave, must be huge enough for many foreigners to want to ride it.
    One lucky blogger who seems to have it all with the celebs. For many it's a dream come true, but for her, it's merely reminiscing. :)

  12. TK

    You don't hate them, you hate the idea of them. The girls merely follow the the master cash cow plan created by SM. Kim Taeyeon the leader of the group stated once that she cried when they had to do Gee promotions, and has stated she didn't like Oh! I think she has a beautiful voice that is wasted doing Girls' Generation songs. Have you heard her OST I love you from Athena.


    Kwon Yuri stated that she did not feel it is appropriate for them to be doing cute songs anymore. A few months later they went right back into Japan and began Japanese Gee promotions.

    No matter how bad this song is?
    How can you say you hate them???

  13. No, the Korean is pretty sure he hates them all. If they truly felt strongly about their music, they could write their own songs. Or take a solo career that shows off their musicality more. But nooo, they play along with that stupid shit because they don't care about music.

  14. @Chris in South Korea Korea looks to American pop for much of their base material (remember all the plagiarism accusations?), and seems to play off many of those aspects (the boy band, the girl band, etc.).

    Have to disagree with this. Korea did look to American pop for much of their base material years ago, but now, it can be argued that it has branched off and and has developed its own unique style and sound in very similar ways to how White performers emulated Black music in the 1950's and developed it into something different over the years.

    Yes, there are issues with Kpop producers plagiarizing, but those who follow kpop closely know that these kpop acts aren't really copying Western music artists nearly as much as they are copying other kpop acts - whether it's the music, choreography, dance moves, style, or even a group's name. If there is a hit kpop song or group or dance move, you can bet that other kpop companies will try to emulate them.

    Kpop has developed into a unique sound and look - as unique as you can get in pop music. Otherwise, I don't think it would have reached the popularity it has if it were just an imitation of Western music as so many seem to believe.

    My other big question is of the 'is THIS what we should encouraging little kids to become?

    True, that is a concern. I don't have kids, but I've asked myself, would I let my own children listen to and watch Kpop and kdramas? My answer was a fairly easy one - an unequivocal, "yes." Ideally, kids should be listening to Jazz, reading classics, and watching thought provoking films, but we all know that ain't gonna happen. And no matter how much we try to shield them from pop culture of any kind, they will be exposed to it. No doubt about it. So I would much rather that my kids get into kpop and kdramas than any other pop culture that I'm aware of - especially American. Hey, I like violence, vulgarity, and overt sexuality as much as the next guy, but for my 13 year old? Eh, not so much. Has anyone seen the latest Lady GaGa video? Yeah, kinda like that.

    Also, I went to high school that had a significant Asian population here in California. Almost everyone, even the guys watched Kdramas, and Kpop was beginning to get huge with Rain. And it was exactly what The Korean said - Asian people like to look at pretty Asian faces. It was true back then, and it's true now.

    So I would argue that no matter what the shortcomings are of Kpop and Kdramas, it's better that Asians, especially Asian kids, are looking at mostly pretty Asian faces than mostly pretty White faces as they were for decades.

    Ideally, of course, all the races would be represented equally on the international stage, but we're a long way from that. Meanwhile, I'm gonna crank me up some 2ne1 and see what all the fuss was about Secret Garden.

  15. "but one does not hear all that much about German cultural products" one word NAZI's

    Pop culture has been around forever in Korea and not much everywhere else. Korea has the best productions and so it captures the hearts of Asians world wide. Go to Vancouver Canada and see how many Asians live there just like my home San Jose. Sure these people have no clue wtf these people are saying but they like to see people from the similar region acting happy and dancing. Either way its a fad that is over done. I ask you this. Do Asians know how bad people idolize there cultures because of basically 4 things. Martial Arts, Anime, Dragons, and mysticism. Those 4 things have the world (Specially nerdy Americans of all color and race) enthralled in Asian culture. Plus as much as I can not stand to watch 8 zombie like lemmings singing hooks on bubbly tracks over and over again with no other point then "yadda yadda love love be happy"...still love to look at there beautiful faces (about the only thing going for them in the eyes of most Americans like myslef...if you like tiny boobs and stick figures more power to you)

  16. @ JacL "how White performers emulated Black music in the 1950's and developed it into something different over the years. " ya well black music and white music are the same thing...its called American. Trust Koreans and most other countries copy the hip hop genre in there pop culture. A lot of famous K pop crap that has been around are from American born Asians who move to Korea to get big because they have no chance here. "black Music" is still American music and your pop culture rapes the shit out of it...but hey American music scene has been killing our brain cells for years. Just like most things in the world....there all not original.

    Also I can say that as much pop culture as I seen coming from Korea when I was involved with Korean Martial arts in the 90's they have always had pop music and they have always had a MTV like generation. Korea is not like other Asian countries when it comes to mind set of the masses.

  17. oh ya if this is not biting American pop then I dont know what is...


  18. bigsampson,

    You really gotta stop smoking pot before trolling blogs. Repeated stupidity deserves a ban.

  19. I doubt the Korean wave is a fad. It may lessen in importance, but I think it will always have a real significant place. I'm sure it will keep a significant place with Asians, since it is more theirs than something from the US, Europe, or Bollywood. I guess the main thing that could rip it up is if Geopolitical situations get to the point where a hyper-nationalism grows in the region, making countries really hating and rejecting each other.

    I'm sure other counties may be able to establish their own acts, but if people are used to getting quality acts from Korea, I'm sure it is set pretty well.

    I also think because it is pop it also has staying power. If it was high art that might be different. Its much more difficult to make high art formulaic. Pop, generally tends to be more of a bad art, but one has to come to it with a different approach. People like SNSD, because they like cute. People tend to like dramas, because people like the wild nature of people falling in love. A good piece of high art on the other hand has a deeper sense of beauty, truth, and/or realness to it.

    As far as SNSD, I doubt they really are in a position to break their contract, and so they will in large part have to do what SM wants them to do, especially if any of them want to go off later in their own direction. The group retaining the SNSD concept can only go on for so long before it is no longer marketable. If being a musician is any of their blood, I'm sure those ones will continue to perform albeit with less fame.

  20. Maybe some of it is business smarts:

    I can make a fortune toeing the line and being part of the bubbly girl group for a few years, and then, when the fad is over, and I'm 30, I still have four or five decades where I can be a serious musician.

    Personally, I'm amazed at how many musicians blow their fame and wealth opportunities to be 'artistic', even though they could wait five years, be just as artistic, and earn a hell of a lot more money

  21. Jack,

    You raise a good point. Particularly with male idols, once they enter the army, they can pretty much kiss their idol days good bye. Two years out of the scene, as well as being two years older throws fans off and you either have to move into producing or similar, or try and find a new path.

  22. I think k-pop popularity is relatively recent compared to that of k-dramas.

    As I being an ajusshi, I had the feeling that idol could not sing, now I think I had been full of predudice. How could a talented ambitious youngster after hard working for several years not sing?

    So I think the success of k-pop lies in the system. Before SM, JYP, and YG the business was run by black money and was related mafia. I think before those enterprises the entertaninment scene was full of sexual assault, extortion, or mifia. Smaller management companies are not free from that habit yet. I think the scene is not so different in other countries because the environment is not so different.

    I remember that they said they had founded such coorporation run by musician themselves to be free from such corruptions, believe or not. I think some fans might resent about the alleged extortions by SM, but I think the coorpartive system is much better that the previous system. At least you can resort on law instead of fist.

    I have been interest in the idol groups since "Tell me" like many other adults in Korea. They might have killed other artists who the Korean favors but I have changed my favoring style. And I feel that the idol groups sing better, perform better, and are treated better. It looks like that the older artistists in Korea also praise the idol groups.

    Did I become of a fan of JYP Entertainment rather than Miss A?

    I think this system is one thing unique in k-pop that tells everything. Who did ever expect one becoming a fan of a labeler rather than an artist?

  23. @bigsampson ya well black music and white music are the same thing...its called American.

    You're missing the obvious. Since the beginning of slavery, Black culture and White culture developed separately so that by the 1950's, the two cultures were very distinct from each other. It would be very difficult to argue against this. In fact, I would say that by the 1950's, White Americans had more cultural similarities with the British than they did with Black Americans.

    So within this context, the way White Americans emulated the music from Black culture and then later developed it into something unique is very similar to the way Koreans emulated Western music and then developed it into something they could call their own.

  24. Ah, the Korean wave. I must admit that being exposed to mainstream Korean pop culture made me appreciate the more serious part of Korean music. Like the from the Bad Guy ost for example, 4MEN relly has the soul & the voice I hardly hear in Western music. And I also like CNBlue & 2ne1.

    As for girlbands, they'll be around as long as there is a market demanding for them. I personally cannot distinguish who belongs to which group if seen a photo somewhere, and their music sounds redundant already. I find it personally weird why they would title songs limited to sounds, like A and Oh..LOL.. Boybands on the other hand do hardcore dance moves & rap, so I distinguish them easily.

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  26. I think the Korean Wave is good and all. But at the same time I think it might be going too fast. Also, there seems to be like a new K pop girl group every 2 weeks. And alot of them seem to be getting younger and younger. Maybe if it slows down a bit, it might be better. Because right now, there just seems to be way too much going on.

  27. Canada does have a major music industry, with plenty of world-famous, best-selling artists. Their trouble is that in the United States, people often consider any English language artist to be American, unless they're particularly known for being British, like the Beatles or the Spice Girls. (Same with Australian artists.) There's probably a better chance of someone being recognized as Canadian in Europe though.

  28. Very true. (Celine Dion, Hot Hot Heat...) Perhaps Canada was an inapposite example.

  29. Its not about wealth! Everyone loves good pop. culture because its fantasy and storytelling. It's the globalization that made K pop so popular in other Asian countries.

    K Pop is pretty Asian centric so yeah I figure it will be popular in other Asian countries.

  30. TK listening to this might make your ears bleed, but have you heard the comparison between Lady Gaga's born this way and SNSD's Be Happy. I WARN YOU, if you hate SNSD listening to this song might make you want to kill yourself.


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  32. why do you always say something about smoking pot when I comment TK? I understand that is is not normal or something for you but it is for me so it is weird when you point it out. I have opinions and I put them down. That is the whole point of blogging. Then you bash me for repeated stupidity? I don't try and use back doors to find small things to use on someone in a one line negative comment. Your the college educated one right?

  33. Sam,

    If you don't know why I keep saying you should stop smoking pot before commenting, I will tell you. Your comments are randomized ramblings with no organization and no logical flow. Much of it is totally irrelevant -- or if something is relevant, you don't bother making the connection. That's why it reads as if you wrote it while smoking.

    The whole point of THIS blog is not for you to put down any unorganized, passing opinion that you might have. You can do that on your own blog. Here, you are required to make sense. So please, think a little harder before you write a comment here next time.

  34. addendum: what to make of the korean wave.. with the ever expanding social media facilitating the influx of this wave, it might stay constant and last quite a while. Delivering similar products via different means = generates new interest/perspective/demand to sustain its supply, perhaps?


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