[Review] K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea (by John Lie) and Globalization and Popular Music in South Korea: Sounding Out K-Pop (by Michael Fuhr) by Keewoong Lee

PDF

The Journal of Contemporary Korean Studies (JCKS) – VOL.3-1,2

2016-08-31

http://archive.much.go.kr/archive/publicationRead/InfoDetailInqire.do?publicationId=PLCT_0000000106

K-Pop: The Soundtrack of Korea’s Globalization

K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea, by John Lie. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. 241 pp.

and

Globalization and Popular Music in South Korea: Sounding Out K-Pop, by Michael Fuhr, New York and London: Routledge, 2016. 256 pp.

LEE Keewoong[1]

The Rise of International K-Pop Scholarship

In July 2012, I was in Taipei attending the biennial Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies Conference (IAPMS). The weather was scorching hot but the fever inside the auditorium felt even hotter. The heat I am speaking about emanated from the enthusiastic participants from all over Asia who were buzzing with new-found joy about K-Pop. The official theme of the event was, “Ways of Listening: How Do We Listen to Pop Music in/from Asia, and How Can We Talk about It?” Though the conference intended to cover the music of Asia in general, the star of the show was, without a doubt, K-Pop. Thirteen of the sixty-four papers presented at the conference were devoted to K-Pop or its related topics, and there were a number of other papers which covered non-K-Pop Korean popular music such as rock and trot. It was a dramatic change from the previous conference, held two years before, where the sum total of papers on the Korean Wave, not specifically K-Pop, was three. Personally, I remember the 2012 IAPMS Conference as the moment when international K-Pop scholarship exploded.

K-Pop is now a staple in the international conference circuit, particularly in the disciplines of Popular Music Studies and Korean Studies. In fact, we may even go so far as to claim K-Pop scholarship as a crowded field, inundated as it is with literature covering the many dimensions of the topic. Specifically, there have been studies on gender (Jung 2011; Maliangkay and Song 2015), race (Jung 2013) national identity (Jung 2015; Khoo 2015), language (Lee 2004; Jin and Ryoo 2014), the music industry (Epstein 2015; Kang 2015; Kim 2015), media (Oh and Park 2012; Ono and Kwon 2013), and fan culture (Siriyuvasak and Shin 2007; Khiun 2013; Sung 2013; Choi and Maliangkay 2015), to list but a few in English. Increasingly diverse topics are being covered and debated. This makes K-Pop a tricky subject as it is becoming increasingly difficult to say something that has not already been said. This is the first hurdle any new K-Pop literature needs to clear. Despite the great interest in the topic, it is still true that international K-Pop scholarship remains in its infancy, as the dearth in English-language book-length expositions on the topic testifies. Until very recently, K-Pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music (2012) by Kim Chang-nam was the only authoritative and systematic account of K-Pop apart from popular guidebooks (e.g. Russell 2014) and edited volumes (e.g. Choi and Maliangkay 2015).

In this circumstance, John Lie’s K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea (shortened to K-Pop in this article) and Michael Fuhr’s Globalization and Popular Music in South Korea: Sounding Out K-Pop (shortened to Sounding Out), the two books reviewed here, are welcome additions to the hitherto scant K-Pop bibliography. Both Lie and Fuhr are of Korean descent. The former is a Korean-American scholar of sociology who grew up in Korea, Japan, and Hawaii, whereas the latter is a German ethnomusicologist with a Korean mother and was brought up in Germany. The authors’ dual identities render them ideally positioned to play the role of cultural translators, as they are acquainted with the cultures concerned. To an extent, that is indeed the role they perform with their books–transferring what is considered an aspect of Korean culture to a target audience of Anglophone, presumably non-Korean, academics and intellectuals. Both authors appear competent in the job. They are at once knowledgeable of Korean history and culture, and have a sense of the demands of their target audiences. While Korean authors sometimes find it difficult to engage foreign readers since they tend to be too fixated on local interests and agenda, Lie’s and Fuhr’s keen understanding of their readership is certainly beneficial for initiating a new dialogue on the subject.

However, the work of cultural translation is far from straightforward. In the cases of K-Pop and Sounding Out, there are two concerns. First, both authors expose themselves as non-experts on Korean popular music. Popular music is very difficult to study for newcomers because of its ephemerality. It is music of here and now always subject to oblivion. This means the field of popular music is rife with misinformation, wrong memories, and ungrounded rumors. Furthermore, popular music feeds on myths. The past is constantly reconstructed and re-remembered. Without a certain amount of expertise, it is very difficult to distinguish reliable sources from those that are not. In this respect, it is not surprising to find so many errors in their accounts of Korean popular music, particularly in the historical details. Second, the in-between position of our two authors does not mean neutrality. They have their own issues to tackle and agenda to pursue with regard to their identities. To an extent, these issues and agenda dictate the contents of the books. For example, Fuhr’s discussion on mixed ethnicity in Korean pop music (Fuhr 2016, 199-202) is off-topic since this has not been an issue thus far in what is normally called K-Pop. Fuhr’s discussion is more an outcome of the author’s desire to talk about it than it is relevant to the theme.

As two books handling the same subject matter, K-Pop and Sounding Out cannot be more different. K-Pop is a highly opinionated and at times insightful essay-style offering centered in theoretical speculation. It locates K-Pop in Korea explaining it in terms of the country’s history and internal dynamics, and focuses on K-pop as a cultural text, painstakingly debating its artistic merits and values. In contrast, Sounding Out is more a textbook account of K-Pop, an empirical analysis rooted in extensive and rigorous fieldwork as it is based on the author’s doctoral thesis. It conceptualizes K-Pop as a flowing cultural form, an outcome of transnational mobility and cooperation, and attempts to draw a larger picture of K-Pop as a global cultural phenomenon by analyzing the multiple layers of its construction. In these respects, these two books can be seen as complementary to each other, shedding light on different aspects of the phenomenon. With some reservations, which I will go into in the remaining parts of this review, both books can serve as good starting points for in-depth understanding of K-Pop. In fact, there are few alternatives at the moment for the English readership. In the following sections, I will discuss each book’s handling of K-Pop in more detail.

Subverting the Aesthetic Hierarchy

Frankly, the first impression of Lie’s K-Pop is not very positive. Despite its title, first of all, there is only one chapter that discusses K-Pop, and the length of the chapter is sixty-six pages, just one-fourth of the entire volume. Long preceding chapters on the history of Korean popular music and Korea makes it feel as though two-thirds of the book is introduction. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, these chapters are replete with errors. I gave up counting inaccurate facts and misjudgments after just first twenty pages. Lie claims, for example, after the marijuana scandal in 1975, that “until the mid-1980s, rock music was silenced in the South Korean soundscape” (Lie 2015, 46). He obviously ignored Sanullim’s sensational debut in 1977, Saranggwa Pyeonghwa’s the next year, and the explosion of campus group sounds from 1977 to 1980. Contrary to his claim, the late 1970s was a heyday for rock music in Korea. Lie’s error-strewn lecture on the history of Korean popular music goes on and produces some unintentionally hilarious examples: “Kim Hyŏn-sik distinguished himself with songs of his own composition” (Lie 2015, 52); “Shinchon Blues were a minjung kayo outfit” (Lie 2015, 53); “repression of rock music made young people listen to rock music on short-wave radio” (Lie 2015, 54); “For an ear attuned to the post-Sŏ (Seo Taiji) period, Yi Sŏn-hŭi or Yi Mun-se might as well have been trot singers” (Lie 2015, 59). He also speaks of Hyeuni as Hye and as a trot singer (Lie 2015, 50), when Hye is not her surname and she is not a trot singer.

Lie is said to have grown up in Japan and it shows as he relies heavily on Japanese sources for this book. Perhaps he might feel more comfortable with the Japanese language than Korean. In my view, however, it was a fatal mistake since most of his erroneous claims came from Japanese sources. Furthermore, I find his use of Japanese nomenclature for Korean persons and song titles deeply disturbing. He refers to Cho Yong-pil’s hit song, “Dol-awayo Pusanhang-e” (Come back to Pusan Harbor) as “Fuzanko e Kaere,” its Japanese title (Lie 2015, 43); idol group Dong Bang Shin Gi as Toho Shinki (Lie 2015, 105); and composer and saxophonist Gil Ok Yun by his autonym Ch’oe Chi-jŏng (which he spells incorrectly, Ch’oe Chi-Sŏng is correct) and by his Japanese name Yoshiya Jun (Lie 2015, 44). In the last case, it is his stage name—Gil Ok Yun—by which he is known in Korea, but Lie does not mention that a single time. Although I understand and am willing to ignore faults and errors in historical details, mistakes of this kind are difficult to turn a blind eye to. These are not just oversights but a matter of scholarly integrity. Unless this book was written for Japanese readers, which it does not appear to be, the author should have done a basic check. It is incredible that Lie thought it was fine to address Korean people by their Japanese names, particularly when those names are not used outside Japan. Even if the book contained great ideas and insights, grave negligence like this tarnishes its reputation and leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of readers.

Thankfully, the chapter on K-Pop shows a significantly lower error rate. This time, however, the chapter is marred by poor organization. The chapter titled “Seoul Calling” is divided into seven sections. The length of each section is uneven and some longer sections are crammed with too many topics. In the section called “Internal and external transformation” (Lie 2015, 130-136), for example, the author charts changes in Korean culture during the last thirty years to explain the global rise of K-Pop. He touches on everything from the noraebang or karaoke craze, Confucian ideology, competitive and meritocratic schooling, and plastic surgery to copyright protection, the spread of Western musical conventions, globalization and consumerism, and the Korean Wave–all in six pages! Inevitably, the account is superficial and unfocused, revealing that the author does not have much to say about K-Pop in detail. There is also a vague thematic relationship between sections in that they do not seem coherently linked but arbitrarily placed. It is difficult to understand why some sections are there, such as one on Japan and J-Pop (Lie 2015, 136-140). Even though I tried, I still do not know the function of this section with regard to the thesis of the book. It only serves to distract the reader’s attention.

With my complaints out of the way, which I realize are many, I will now concentrate on assessing the book’s accounts and key arguments. It is instructive to start with recapitulating Lie’s encounter with K-Pop, which he notes at the beginning of the book. What we see here is a typical reaction from a Western-educated culture-rich Korean male intellectual towards what is supposedly populist, lowest-common-denominator music. Initially, he was not interested in K-Pop, and failed to find its artistic merit. Lie’s world turned upside down when K-Pop became a global sensation not just in Asia but also in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. The implication of cultural discrimination aside, Lie appears genuinely unsettled by the fanatical reactions from people in “advanced” countries towards the music he once despised. This book is a sustained effort for him to come to terms with this unsettling experience and the cultural shifts K-Pop instigated around the world.

Lie handles the issue by mobilizing various theoretical resources and reassessing K-Pop, and mainstream popular music in general, as legitimate music. It seems that one of the main purposes of the book is to persuade readers as well as himself that it is okay to like K-Pop. This topic is intensively discussed in the final two sections, namely “The aesthetics, branding, and character of K-Pop” (Lie 2015, 140-155) and “The legibility and legitimacy of popular music” (Lie 2015, 148-155). These two sections count as unqualified high points of the book and the two redeeming features of an otherwise very problematic work. As Lie saved the best for the last, I would like to outline the author’s thought process and how he eventually reaches his conclusion.

The main argument of K-Pop is summed up in its subtitle Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. Lie sees K-Pop as an outcome of the combination of cultural amnesia and economic innovation. Cultural amnesia denotes two-fold severance from tradition: one is from the traditional musical form of Kugak, and the other from the dominant culture of Confucianism. Throughout the book, Lie repeatedly emphasizes that K-Pop has nothing to do with Korea’s cultural tradition. Presumably it is his reaction to the influential essentialist discourses of the Korean Wave that relates the global success of Korean popular culture to the supposed superiority of the country’s national culture (e.g. Im 2013; Yun 2014; see Cho 2005 for a critical assessment). Against this, Lie argues that it is ruthless Westernization or Americanization rather than Korea’s cultural tradition that was the key to the worldwide triumph of K-Pop. Lie’s praise of Seo Taiji–“Seo Taiji wa Aideul invented K-Pop” (Lie 2015, 99)–is in the same logical vein. In his view, Seo’s greatness lies in his being able to narrow the gap between Korean and American popular music culture (Lie 2015, 58). He contends that K-Pop is post-Seo Taiji Korean dance pop that is contemporary to American or global pop music, and that it is thanks to the breakthrough achievement of Seo that K-Pop has been possible. While this contention is entirely agreeable, questions still remain. If K-Pop is Americanized contemporary pop music, does that mean it is indistinguishable from the latter? Does K-Pop have distinctiveness? If so, in what ways?

Lie answers these questions by referring to the second factor, economic innovation. Economic innovation here signifies the entrepreneurial spirit of the entertainment industry whose invention of K-Pop was conditioned by dire financial crises and driven by the “export imperative” of the Korean economy (Lie 2015, 109). Thanks to the sudden collapse of the record industry, and the disastrous Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the Korean music industry was forced to embark on a series of innovations. Among them, the most successful and enduring was the invention of the K-Pop formula. Lie enumerates a number of elements that he characterizes as distinctive features of K-Pop: first, the group structure that is flexible, efficient, and has reach; second: the performer self who is polite and professional; and third, almost complete eschewal of the independent musician-artist. The last one is closely related to other peculiarities such as the embrace of the studio system to develop talent, and an extreme division of labor in the creation of songs and videos (Lie 2015, 123-124). Lie considers these traits as purely commercial characteristics of K-Pop. From his point of view, K-Pop is an archetypal commercial enterprise completely devoid of artistic concerns such as authenticity, originality, and autonomy. In this respect, Lie sarcastically poses, “The ‘K’ in K-Pop has more to do with Das Kapital than with Korean culture or tradition” (Lie 2015, 130).

On paper, this kind of inauthentic, calculated, and formulaic music cannot be good. This is the kind of music that should be loathed and ridiculed forever. In reality, however, worldwide K-Pop fans are not dopes or dupes manipulated by evil “captains of consciousness” (Ewen 1976), but people who genuinely love K-Pop music and acts, and actively engage in various fan activities purely for pleasure. How is that possible? How can so many people the world over wholeheartedly embrace what is essentially cynical commercial products? This is the challenge Lie takes up. Here, he adopts an anti-Adornian position (see Adorno 1941) and takes the trouble to question the dominant aesthetic dogmas of romanticism. He claims, “if we can liberate our senses from romantic ideology […], then it may become possible for us to appreciate K-Pop’s interesting and innovative features” (Lie 2015, 145). After criticizing romantic ideals of creative genius, originality and authenticity, Lie goes on to reevaluate what have been deemed negative aspects of K-Pop such as the “hook” and “formula,” and underrated elements such as lyrics, song craft, choreography, and music videos (Lie 2015, 146-148). Lie sees artistic achievements and innovation in all of these areas. In the end, Lie argues that popular music is different from classical music. The former is about everyday beauty, not sublimity (Lie 2015, 147). Being conventional, repetitive, and formulaic is not vice but virtue as popular music should be legible and comprehensible (Lie 2015, 155). It is undeniable that popular music provides joy, pleasure, and even a moral compass to millions of people every day (Lie 2015, 154), and there is nothing inauthentic about the tears and laughter it brings to the listener. Like popular music in general, Lie argues, K-Pop marks the beautiful in ordinary life: a promise of happiness, the anticipation of bliss (Lie 2015, 155). 

Reassembling K-Pop

Michael Fuhr’s Sounding Out is K-Pop scholarship tour de force. It is often the case that a doctoral thesis is a scholar’s most ambitious work. Fuhr’s book certainly fits this statement. Here, he attempts to disassemble and reassemble the whole phenomenon of K-Pop. Virtually all the elements are taken apart and thoroughly analyzed, and then put back together again to produce a comprehensive picture. This research strategy is reflected in the organization of chapters. Seven chapters are grouped into two parts corresponding to the processes of disassembling and reassembling, respectively. In his analysis, he draws on his specialties in anthropology and ethnomusicology producing an exemplary interdisciplinary study. The main purpose of the book is to demonstrate the complex and dynamic relationship between the concepts of global imaginary and national identity in the transnational cultural flow of K-Pop. The author explains this with the concepts of three asymmetries–temporal asymmetry, spatial asymmetry, and asymmetries of mobility–which I will go into later.

Unlike K-Pop, the first impression of Sounding Out is positive. It looks well organized and substantial, and has a much wider scope. Whereas Lie’s sights are fixed in Korea, Fuhr takes into account the more complex dynamics of K-Pop such as the global flow of the talent, songs and technologies of its own creation. By doing this, the scale of the research extends to the global. He approaches K-Pop as an arena, cultural traffic and networks. It operates well beyond the boundaries of Korea. This conceptualization of K-Pop allows Fuhr to go further than Lie’s take on it as Westernized or Americanized Korean pop or a tamed/commercialized version of American pop. Fuhr refuses to take this stance and tries to make sense of it as a source and result of an ongoing process of cultural globalization. For him, K-Pop is “a thoroughly hybridized product, a unique coalescence of music, visuals, lyrics, dance, and fashion, a postmodern product of pastiche and parody, a carnivalesque celebration of difference, a shiny world of escapism, and a highly participatory cultural practice enacted through digital media” (Fuhr 2016, 10). It means K-Pop is not just cultural text but a whole universe of production and consumption. Adopting this view, Fuhr is able to specify the innovative aspects of K-Pop better than Lie does. Another virtue of this book is its extensive analysis of fieldwork data. It provides readers with the joy of new discoveries and interesting facts. Although it lacks the impact of Lie’s last two sections, Fuhr’s is a very solid and informative work on K-Pop.

Part I of the book is made up of two chapters: one on the history of K-Pop and the other on its production. Chapter 2 traces the history of Korean popular music from 1885 to the present. This is the weakest chapter of the whole volume. Although considerably less serious than Lie’s, it is another error-strewn discussion all the same. It is regrettable to find claims like “hip-hop and R&B act 015B,” (Fuhr 2016, 83)–015B was a pop/rock outfit–and “[g]roups such as the Add4, the Key Boys, the K’okkiri Brothers, and He6 initiated the new sound era” (Fuhr 2016, 46)–He6 were latecomers debuted in the 1970s Mercifully, Fuhr made a wise decision in keeping the chapter short, thus minimizing the damage. The next chapter, “Producing the global imaginary: a K-Pop tropology,” is the longest and most ambitious. Here, Fuhr engages in full-blown analyses of various aspects of K-Pop production: terminology, artist names, lyrics, fansubbing, the industry, idol nurturing and training, musical text and convention, group dance, and music video. You would be hard-pressed to find a more systematic and comprehensive analysis of K-Pop.

The results are impressive. Here, I can only list a few highlights from Fuhr’s observations. Near the beginning of the book he discusses the mixing of English codes in lyrics, claiming the practice as not a shallow attempt to copy American pop, but rather as a way to provide both a lingua franca for international fans and a sense of modernity to the young Korean audience (Fuhr 2016, 64-66). Fuhr also dissects K-Pop artists’ common use of enigmatic initials, acronyms, and numbers, rather than their real names (unlike their American counterparts), asserting it as fulfilling the double function of ensuring accessibility for non-Korean audiences and conveying the image of globality to Korean audiences (Fuhr 2016, 62). Fuhr’s next topic is the performance-centered aspects of K-Pop songwriting, i.e. the way the songwriting itself is rhythm and dance-based and takes into account dance choreography from the beginning (Fuhr 2016, 82). He then delves into song hooks, which he claims are strategically composed over a maximum duration of thirty to forty seconds in order to fit the length of ringtones and ringback tones. And unlike Western mainstream pop songs, Fuhr says, K-Pop songs often have fragmentary structures and moods, and show unexpected changes, e.g. Nu ABO by f(x). (Fuhr 2016, 92). He also touches on the signature moves in K-Pop choreography and the ways they elicit active participation from the audience through their kinesthetic qualities (Fuhr 2016, 112). His discussion of K-Pop music videos as heterotopic sites—in the way each opens up a new space or a non-place removed of locality—and his assertion of K-Pop music videos as visual representations of the globalization strategy pursued by Korean entertainment companies (Fuhr 2016, 118), are compelling.

Though his findings are generally informative, there are a few questionable claims in the chapter too. First of all, Fuhr’s “flexible” categorization of K-Pop is confusing. When analyzing K-Pop’s rap flow, he takes LeeSsang as an example (Fuhr 2016, 99-102). It is dubious whether LeeSsang could be classified as a K-Pop band. In later chapters, he presents YB (Fuhr 2016, 174-179) and Skull (Fuhr 2016, 179-183) as other examples of K-Pop’s entering the American market. At this point, you start wondering whether Fuhr’s K-Pop is synonymous with Korean pop. Next, Fuhr engages in a lengthy discussion on the “ppong” factor (Fuhr 2016, 102-108), which he considers a unique characteristic of Korean popular music. In fact, he argues that the ppong factor makes the K-Pop sound uniquely Korean. Perhaps it must have been an exciting discovery for him during his research. However, he appears to oversell it. Ppong is deemed a necessary evil. Music businesspeople are in favor of it because they believe using it is commercially beneficial. Musicians hate it because it represents quintessential uncoolness. To put it simply, ppong is good for making money, but bad for style. Some K-Pop songs might contain ppong elements here and there, whether intentionally or not, but it is far from being embraced or deployed as a marker of “Koreanness.”

While Part I focuses on microscopic analyses of K-Pop’s elements such as text, performance, and management, Part II presents macro-level analyses of K-Pop’s dynamics. In particular, Fuhr’s concern is asymmetries in the global flow of K-Pop, which he breaks down into the three categories of temporal asymmetries, spatial asymmetries, and asymmetries of mobility. The first is temporal asymmetries. Here, the author touches on the question of temporality, coevality, and cultural lag. Drawing on Iwabuchi (2008), Fuhr discusses different temporalities in the consumption of cultural artifacts. For example, while Taiwanese reception of Japanese TV dramas rested on a sense of coevality, Japanese consumption of imported Asian TV dramas was based on its denial (Fuhr 2016, 151). In the same way, Japanese audiences received Korean TV dramas with nostalgia as if they were transferred from the past. With the advent of K-Pop, however, the temporal gap between the two countries vanished and a sense of coevality replaced the nostalgia. This time, however, Fuhr observes that Koreans show a denial of coevality against less well-off Asian countries. The Asia Song Festival is symbolic of this attitude, which places Korea at center stage and musical acts from other Asian countries as foils. He warns that this could create “bumps and blocks” (like the backlashes against the Korean Wave in Japan, China, and Taiwan) that impede cultural flow and exchange.

The next chapter is on spatial asymmetries. Here, Fuhr tries to show that the transnational flow of K-Pop is “a complex, multi-layered and at times contradictory phenomenon entangled in multiple strategies, contingencies, and attempts to reference and construct places through musical and visual imaginaries” (Fuhr 2016, 162). For doing this, he analyses the different strategies four artists–BoA, Wonder Girls, YB, and Skull–adopted in entering the American music market. Despite different strategies, a sense of spatial asymmetry was crucial in shaping their respective approaches to the market and produced transformations in their sounds and appearances. BoA conformed to the stereotypical image of the American female pop star; Wonder Girls employed mild ppong melodies to distinguish themselves; YB used kugak to highlight “Koreanness”; and Skull completely erased his Koreanness and presented himself as a reggae artist. Whatever the method, the sense of spatial asymmetry was forceful in Korean artists’ attempts to make inroads into the American market, Fuhr says, expressed in the belief that Korean pop music will never make it in its original form in the United States. Unfortunately, the book was written just before Psy’s 2012 global smash, “Gangnam Style,” which was never intended for release in the American market. Psy’s success all but brought to an end all those elaborate strategies and costly operations by proving those are not necessary in the age of YouTube and Facebook. It also exposed that spatial asymmetry was a form of ungrounded fear of pop music’s biggest stage rather than a material reality. In this respect, it was interesting to see the way K-Pop’s attempts to “conquer” the U.S. market dramatically subsided after “Gangnam Style.”

Finally, asymmetries of mobility indicate the flow of talent. K-Pop is a paradoxical construct. The “K” in K-Pop signifies Korea but the scale of its operation is global. While “deterritorialization is central to the K-Pop phenomenon” (Fuhr 2016, 18), Korea’s status as K-Pop’s symbolic and material home is indisputable. To put simply, K-Pop is simultaneously flowing and fixed, which produces contradictory sentiments, namely global aspiration and nationalist/patriotic fervor. This is an inflammable contradiction that can develop into full-blown conflict at any time. Although K-Pop has kept an apolitical image, it could always potentially become intensely political due to this contradiction. In this chapter, Fuhr charts the conflicts and negotiations in K-Pop as global mobility. K-Pop recruits talents from all over the world, but the recruited must come to Korea and transform him/herself into a Korean entertainer. The process inevitably involves cultural clashes. In this book, Fuhr examines a few cases including those of Park Jaebeom and Yoo Seung-jun who caused controversies by contradicting the nationalist sentiments of Korean people. Fuhr argues that K-Pop’s contradictory demand produces a contradictory subject out of an immigrant body, the subject who embodies cosmopolitanism and self-censorship all at once. Fuhr’s contention here is difficult to disagree with. However, I would like to point out his narrow sight with regard to the issue of nationalism. Korea is not the only country where K-Pop is embroiled in nationalist controversies. From the abuse of Girls’ Generation’s images in a Japanese far-right cartoon to the latest case of Tzuyu’s forced apology for waving the Taiwanese flag, K-Pop has been a minefield of nationalist dispute for quite some time. As K-Pop’s reach broadens, it is put under increasing pressure to toe the line not only to avoid offending the Korean people but also the nationalist sentiments of global people who follow K-Pop.

A Perfect Textbook?

In July 2012, I taught a popular music class at a summer school for a group of overseas students. It was the time when K-Pop’s popularity was at an all-time high and had culminated in the explosive success of “Gangnam Style.” Although the course title was “Understanding Korean Society through Popular Music,” it was apparent that the majority of the class was only interested in learning about K-Pop. The problem was that it was very difficult to prepare for the course since academic literature on K-Pop was extremely limited. I used to consider myself lucky when I came across anything K-Pop-related that I could use in class. Thankfully, things have much improved on this front. It is not difficult to find at least a handful of journal articles on virtually every topic. However, a decent textbook is still a necessity. Between the two books reviewed here, Sounding Out fits the bill nicely. Yes, it is undeniably flawed: it not only makes some factual errors, but also misses out on quite a few topics such as media, fan culture, gender and so on. However, its advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. On the other hand, K-Pop is too awkward to be considered a textbook, but, thanks to its powerful arguments in the last chapter, it could make a decent auxiliary text as long as the first chapter is skipped.

It is an exciting time for students of K-Pop. Starting with K-Pop and Sounding Out, long awaited books on the topic are finally being released, and others will soon follow. Just when K-Pop scholarship gathers momentum, however, K-Pop is becoming an unpredictable entity. On the one hand, it is showing signs of decline no longer producing such heavyweights as Girls’ Generation, KARA, Big Bang, and 2NE1. On the other hand, however, its popularity is belatedly rising in the Anglo-Amerian world having been refigured as the latest hipster music. This unexpected turn of events makes K-Pop even more interesting. Hopefully, it fuels further enquiries and debates.

References

Adorno, Theordor. 1941. “On popular music.” Studies in Philosophy and Social Sciences 9: 17-48.

Cho, Hae-joang. 2005. “Reading the ‘Korean Wave as a sign of global shift.” Korea Journal Winter: 147-182.

Choi, Jungbong, and Roald Maliangkay. 2015. “Introduction: why fandom matters to the international rise of K-pop.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 1-18. New York and London: Routledge.

Choi, Jungbong, and Roald Maliangkay eds. 2015. K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry. New York and London: Routledge.

Epstein, Stephen. 2015. “Into the New World: Girls’ Generation from the local to the global.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 35-50. New York and London: Routledge.

Epstein, Stephen, and James Turnbull. 2014. “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (dis) empowerment, and K-pop.” In The Korean Popular Culture Reader, edited by Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, 314-336. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Im, Jae-hae [임재해]. 2013. “Current Phenomena of Smartphone and Pop-Culture and the Recognition of Meme” [스마트폰과 대중문화 현상의 문화유전자 인식]. Journal of Namdo Folk Culture [남도문화연구] 27: 213-256.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2008. “Dialogue with the Korean Wave: Japan and Its Postcolonial Discontents.” In Media Consumption and Everyday Life in Asia, edited by Y. Kim, 127-144. New York and London: Routledge.

Jin, Dal Yong, and Ryoo Woongjae. 2014. “Critical Interpretation of Hybrid K-Pop: The Global-Local Paradigm of English Mixing in Lyrics.” Popular Music and Society 37 (2): 113-131.

Jung, Eun-Young. 2013. “K-pop female idols in the West: racial imaginations and erotic fantasies.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 106-119. New York and London: Routledge.

———. 2015. “Hallyu and the K-pop boom in Japan: patterns of consumption and reactionary responses.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 116-132. New York and London: Routledge.

Jung, Sun. 2011. Korean Maculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Old Boy, K-Pop Idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Kang, Inkyu. 2015. “The political economy of idols: South Korea’s neoliberal restructuring and its impact on the entertainment labor force.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 51-65. New York and London: Routledge.

Khiun, Liew Kai. 2013. “K-pop dance trackers and cover dancers: global cosmopolitanization and local spatialization.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 165-181. New York and London: Routledge.

Khoo, Gaik Cheng. 2015. “’We keep it local’ – Malaysianising ‘Gangnam Style’: a question of place and identity.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 146-163. New York and London: Routledge.

Kim, Ju Oak. 2015. “Despite not being Johnny’s: the cultural impact of TVXQ in the Japanese music industry.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 88-80. New York and London: Routledge.

Lee, Jamie Shinhee. 2004. “Linguistic hybridization in K-pop: discourse of self-assertion and resistance.” World Englishes 23 (3): 429-450.

Maliangkay, Roald, and Geng Song. 2015. “A sound wave of effeminacy: K-pop and the male beauty ideal in China.” In K-pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, edited by J. Choi and R. Maliangkay, 164-177. New York and London: Routledge.

Oh, Ingyu, and Gil-sung Park. 2012. “From B2C to B2B: selling Korean pop music in the age of New Social Media.” Korea Observer 43 (3): 365-397.

Ono, Kent A., and Jungmin Kwon. 2013. “Re-worlding culture? YouTube as a K-pop interlocutor.” In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 199-214. New York and London: Routledge.

Russell, Mark James. 2014. K-Pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.

Siriyuvasak, Ubonrat, and Shin Hyunjoon. 2007. “Asianizing K-pop: production, consumption and identification patterns among Thai youth.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8 (1): 109-136.

Sung, Sang-yeon. 2013. “K-pop reception and participatory fan culture in Austria.” Cross-Currents 9: 90-104. Accessed July 31, 2016. https://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/e-journal/articles/sung.pdf

Yun, Young-in [윤영인]. 2013. K-pop DNA and History. Seoul: Bookshelf [북셸프].

[1] Lee Keewoong is a research professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sungkonghoe University. He holds a PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics. His research interests include the cultural industry, popular music, and urban change. His latest publication is “Gentrification effects: The flow of cultural refugees and place making in the vicinities of Hongdae” (City Studies, 2015).

 

Advertisements

[Review] Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music (Hyunjoon Shin and Seung-Ah Lee eds) by Keith Howard

Hyunjoon Shin and Seung-Ah Lee (eds): Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music. (Routledge Global Popular Music Series.) xiii, 247 pp. New York: Routledge, 2017. ISBN 978 1 138 79303 3.

Keith Howard (a1) 

Published online: 23 February 2018

This volume brings together eighteen Korean and Korean-heritage authors to cover the major bases of South Korean popular music, dividing their contributions into four broad sections: “Histories”, “Genres”, “Artists”, and “Issues”. A “Coda” basically profiles an additional issue, while an afterword transcribes an interview with the rock and metal artist Shin Hae-chul. “Histories” contains chapters by Shin, Keewoong Lee, Jung-yup Lee and Sun Jung, and, rather than offer a chronological timeline, looks at music on stage, in recordings and broadcasts on the media, and pop’s global marketing. We read how recordings in Korea almost always had less importance than live or broadcast performances, how musicians “uniquely” honed their skills working for American military shows (why “uniquely”, given the entertainment needs of American forces posted elsewhere during the Cold War?), and how the notion of “spreadable media” (taken from Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media (New York: New York University Press, 2013)) has in recent years challenged notions of copyright. The last is given as a reason why Korean fans created myriad parodies of Psy’s Gangnam Style; surely, though, Gangnam Style was sufficiently hated by Korean pop aficionados that its parodies were created by just about anybody other than fans.

“Genres” curiously occupies a politics-free zone as its four authors attempt to tie specific music styles to times, places, and people. Yu-jeong Chang’s consideration of the early popular genres of trot and ballad ignores too much previous scholarship on both genres and on Japanese equivalents, and has inaccurate moments, but Pil Ho Kim and Aekyung Park in contrast provide excellent discussions of rock and modern Dylanesque folksong. Jaeyoung Yang’s account of soul, funk, rap and hip hop is particularly informative and readable, although he admits that his title, “Korean Black Music”, “is contradictory as it implies a socio-geographic and racial incongruity” (p. 95). Yang reveals his personal tastes openly: mainstream hip-hop, he tells us, relies on “sweet melodies over rapping”, while massive idol groups such as Big Bang and 2NE1 lack “rhythmic diversity and beat variations” (pp. 102, 104).

“Artists” starts with a useful consideration of the colonial-era jazz musician and composer Kim Hae-song by Junhee Lee, although eyebrows will be raised by the claim that Kim “was Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Jimi Hendrix, all compressed and accumulated into one” (p. 108). It closes with Eun-Young Jung’s account of Seo Taiji lifted, though no credit is given in Made in Korea, from my edited volume, Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2006). In between comes an analysis of rock by Dohee Kwon that finds Korean identity in pentatonicism (based on an outdated Korean musicological theory of mode), and Okon Hwang’s splendid discussion of the multi-talented Kim Min-ki and his legendary status as a dissident songwriter. Within “Issues”, Haekyung Um offers a finely detailed account of vocal style, Hyunseok Kwon explores how Korean traditional music (kugak) relates to popular music, and Soojin Kim gives an over-simplified account of pertinent legislation during the rules of successive South Korean presidents. Dong-Yeun Lee’s “Who’s afraid of Korean idols” is likely to be the most cited chapter: his somewhat rhetorical discussion is excellent, detailing how 50,000 aspiring idols are tested each year but only 10 or so will end up debuting after four or five years of strenuous training. Oppressive management masks “emotional” labour that from a Marxist perspective results in privation for idols as workers. Finally, as the “Coda”, Sunhee Koo and Sang-Yeon Loise Sung explore the circulation and reception of Korean pop beyond Korea, but the coverage is severely limited because they focus on their personal Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Austrian expertise.

Some editing is poor (particularly in the first section), and a few errors have made it into print. For instance, a German trader is said to have demonstrated a gramophone in Korea “in 1866” (p. 24), when Edison didn’t invent the phonograph until 1877 (the gramophone followed later). How can the claim that Korean TV broadcasting “started prematurely in 1961” be justified (p. 38)? For “Drunk Tiger” read “Drunken Tiger” (p. 104). The group Sarang kwa P’yŏnghwa did not, as claimed, only “prolong their career into the 1980s” (p. 99), since they disbanded in 2000. The volume sadly excludes any coverage of North Korean music, on the disingenuous grounds that “conditions for studying it are not mature”, with too few researchers existing in North Korea and insufficient data available outside the country (p. xi). Hundreds of albums featuring the groups Pochonbo and Wangjaesan as well as the “Songs of Korea” series are available, along with many clips on YouTube, providing plenty to study; indeed, I profiled North Korean pop in my edited volume (2006: 154–67). However, the editors of Made in Korea elect to critique my volume rather than engage with it, claiming that it and its constituent scholars make it “difficult to know the views of the scholars based in Korea” (p. xii). This is then used to justify only including authors who are Korean. However, my volume includes six Korean authors (three of whom reappear here, one reproducing the same contribution) as well as several foreign academics working at Korean universities. If the claim to provide a local take on Korean pop is to be taken seriously, then how is it that 12 of the 18 authors either work in, or completed their doctorates, in Europe and America? And, why do so many authors reference standard Euro-American popular music scholarship – Nicola Dibben, Charles Fairchild, Simon Frith, Bruno Latour, Keith Negus, Roy Shuker, John Storey, Tim Wall and Peter Webb all make an appearance before page 30?

Rather disconcertingly, recent years have seen two groups of Korean gatekeepers emerge for Korean pop, one led by Shin, and the other, the World Association for Hallyu Studies, led by Oh Ingyu and (until 2017) Park Gil-Sung. Shin points out that Oh and Park would not agree with his perspectives (p. 8), but otherwise ignores them and their group. Again, it is disappointing to read Shin’s comment that his participation in the 2005 conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) in Rome “marks the emergence of Korean scholarship on Korean popular music on a global scale” (p. 8), since this denigrates the contributions of so many. It also ignores the fact that my volume resulted from a series of conference papers and panels begun a number of years earlier at conferences of the Association for Korean Studies in Europe, the British Association for Korean Studies and the Society for Ethnomusicology, and for the International Institute for Asian Studies. Any attempt to police or sideline the efforts and scholarship of those with non-Korean ethnicity needs to be resisted, particularly in books like this designed for a non-Korean readership. We deserve better from Routledge, and the Made in Korea editors.

[Book] Language, Media and Globalization in the Periphery The Linguascapes of Popular Music in Mongolia by Sender Dovchin

Language, Media and Globalization in the Periphery

The Linguascapes of Popular Music in Mongolia

Description

The title seeks to show how people are embedded culturally, socially and linguistically in a certain peripheral geographical location, yet are also able to roam widely in their use and takeup of a variety of linguistic and cultural resources. Drawing on data examples obtained from ethnographic fieldwork trips in Mongolia, a country located geographically, politically and economically on the Asian periphery, this book presents an example of how peripheral contexts should be seen as crucial sites for understanding the current sociolinguistics of globalization. Dovchin brings together several themes of wide contemporary interest, including sociolinguistic diversity in the context of popular culture and media in a globalized world (with a particular focus on popular music), and transnational flows of linguistic and cultural resources, to argue that the role of English and other languages in the local language practices of young musicians in Mongolia should be understood as “linguascapes.” This notion of linguascapes adds new levels of analysis to common approaches to sociolinguistics of globalization, offering researchers new complex perspectives of linguistic diversity in the increasingly globalized world.

Table of Contents

1. Language, Media and Globalization in the Periphery

2. Globalization as World of Scapes

3. A Theory of Linguascapes

4. Linguistics (N)ethnography

5. Derivative Linguascapes

6. Symbolic Linguascapes

7. Relocalized Linguascapes

8. Bi/Multilingualism, Linguascapes and Language Education

About the Author

Sender Dovchin received her Ph.D. from University of Technology, Sydney in 2015. She is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Education, Curtin University, Western Australia. Previously, she was an Associate Professor at the Centre for Language Research, University of Aizu, Japan. Her research explores the linguistic practices of young generation in the current age of globalization. She has published her works in the Journal of SociolinguisticsInternational Journal of Multilingualism, Multilingua, English Today, World Englishes, Asian Englishes, International Multilingual Research Journal, Translation and Translanguaging in Multilingual Contexts and Inner Asia.Her most recent book is Popular Culture, Voice and Linguistic Diversity: Young Adults Online and Offline (2018) co-authored with Alastair Pennycook and Shaila Sultana.

Subject Categories

[Review] Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music (Hyunjoon Shin and Seung-Ah Lee eds) by Michael Fuhr

 

[Cfp] CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: SINOPHONE MUSICAL WORLDS AND THEIR PUBLICS

http://www.cefc.com.hk/china-perspectives/submissions/call-sinophone-musical-worlds-publics/

CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: SINOPHONE MUSICAL WORLDS AND THEIR PUBLICS

 Call for contributions China Perspectives / Perspectives chinoises

 

Sinophone Musical Worlds and their Publics

 

Guest editor: Dr Nathanel Amar, postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong

 

Photograph by Elaine Ip for The Week Hong Kong, 2017

Download PDF File here:  Call for abstracts CP China musical worlds

Recent success of Chinese reality television singing competitions broadcasted on national television or streamed directly on the internet, has shown the extent of musical genres represented in the Chinese world, from pop to folk via hip-hop or rock ’n’ roll. The popularity of new musical styles up to then considered as deviant as well as the recent attempts of the State to intervene directly on musical contents, tend to blur the distinctions between “mainstream” (流行) music, “popular” (民间) music as non-official, “underground” (地下) music or even “alternative” (另类) music. This call for papers aims at promoting a better understanding of the transformations of Chinese “musical worlds”, in the sense that Becker gave to “art worlds”, which stresses the role of cooperation and interactions between the different actors of the artistic sphere. As Becker wrote, “all artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number, of people. Through their cooperation, the artwork we eventually see or hear comes to be and continues to be. The work always shows signs of that cooperation” (Becker, 2008: 1). We thus welcome contributions which take into consideration the necessary cooperation between individuals, allowing the constitution of musical worlds.

This call for papers wishes to approach the political management of popular music and its paradox. For instance, the Chinese authorities have indeed tried to co-opt marginal or ethnic minorities artists on national television or by producing their albums, such as the nationalist rap collective CD-Rev whose songs are produced by the Youth League, or the Uyghur folk singer Perhat Khaliq, celebrated on the popular TV show “The Voice of China”. However, at the same time, the authorities went after hip-hop culture after the so-called “hip-hop ban” of January 2018, or even imprisoned popular musicians as the “Xinjiang Justin Bieber”, Ablajan Awut Ayup, incarcerated since February 2018. We also welcome contributions which analyze the use of music and music-video by the organs of government propaganda, such as the multiplication of music-videos to promote the “Belt and Road Initiative” – the most recent was made by the People’s Daily using the music of a famous Coca-Cola advertisement of the 70s – or in the recent past to celebrate international events, as the Olympic Games of 2008 or the Shanghai International Expo of 2010.

In this special issue of China Perspectives, we would like to rethink the role of music in Chinese society. If the intervention of the Party-State is essential, it is necessary to raise the question of the public. How and where do people consume music? What is the relationship between music and the construction of subjectivity in contemporary China? We invite submissions focusing on the public and spaces of popular music and the meanings the audience gives to the activity of listening to music; we thus strongly encourage submissions which use an ethnographic approach. The papers can focus on precise case studies, for instance Karaoke consumption (Fung, 2010), dancing and singing in public spaces, or the transformation of popular opera.

This special issue will also represent an opportunity to analyze Chinese musical worlds beyond the national boundary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by considering the relations and influences of other parts of the sinophone world, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, without forgetting the territories at the margins of the PRC like Xinjiang, Tibet or Inner Mongolia. The use of the term “sinophone”, as coined by Shu-mei Shih, allows us to investigate musical worlds outside the national territory of the PRC, but also the cultures of “minority peoples who have acquired or are forced to acquire the standard Sinitic languages of Mandarin, often at the expense of their native language” (Shu, 2013: 3) residing on Chinese soil.

We welcome contributions from any discipline focusing on popular music and encourage the inclusion of visual material. We are also open to non-academic papers as scene reports or photographic reports.

We welcome proposals, but by no means exclusively, exploring the following topics:

  • Opposition and crossing from the underground to the mainstream
  • Listening, dancing and singing together in contemporary China
  • Political uses of popular music
  • Music and the construction of identities
  • Musical influences and local adaptations
  • Music, the public sphere and uses of the past
  • Metamorphosis, structures and actors of the Chinese musical industry
  • Censorship and its circumvention, uses of propaganda
  • Music medium (radio, TV, internet, magazines, music schools)

 

For those who are interested, please send abstracts (between 300 and 500 words) to Nathanel Amar <namar@hku.hk> before 31 October 2018.

 

Format of abstracts and articles

Abstracts (written in English or in French) should be 300-500 words long, submitted by 31 October 2018.

Research articles (written in English or in French) should be 8,000 words long, and follow the format of articles guidelines available here. They will follow a double blind academic peer-review process.

“Current Affairs” articles, based on the latest developments in the Chinese music scenes, should be 4,000 words long.

Schedule of publication: full articles should be submitted by 15 February 2019 for publication of the special issue in the winter 2019.

 

About the journal China Perspectives / Perspectives chinoises

China Perspectives / Perspectives chinoises is an interdisciplinary academic journal, established in 1995, which focuses on the political, social, economic and cultural evolutions of contemporary China (PRC, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan). It is endowed with an Editorial Board of internationally recognized experts in all areas of the social sciences; All submissions are blindly reviewed by two anonymous external referees; Indexed in the Emerging Sources Citation Index (Web of Science); Indexed in 8 international databases (including SCOPUS); Ranked by the French Council for the Evaluation of Research (HCERES) in Political Science, Sociology/demography and Anthropology.

Bibliography

BARANOVITCH Nimrod, China′s New Voices. Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, & Politics, 1978 – 1997, University of California Press, 2003.

BARME Geremie, Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, Hill and Wang.

BECKER Howard, Art Worlds, University of California Press, 2008.

CHU Yiu-Wai, Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, HKU Press, 2017.

CONDRY Ian, Hip-hop Japan. Rap and the paths of cultural globalization, Duke University Press, 2006.

DE KLOET Jeroen, China with a Cut. Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music, Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

DE KLOET Jeroen, CHOW Yiu Fai, Sonic Multiplicities. Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image, Intellect, 2013.

FUNG Anthony, “Consuming Karaoke in China. Modernities and Cultural Contradiction”, in Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, Vol. 42, no. 2, 2010, pp. 39-55.

HALL Stuart, JEFFERSON Tony (eds.), Resistance Through Rituals. Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Routledge, 2006.

HARRIS Rachel, “Reggae on the Silk Road: The Globalization of Uyghur Pop” in The China Quarterly, No. 183, 2005-2, pp. 627- 643.

HEBDIGE Dick, Subcultures. The Meaning of Style, Routledge, 1979.

JONES, Andrew F. Like a Knife. Ideology and Genre In Contemporary Chinese Popular Music. Cornell East Asia Series, 1997.

LINK Perry and MADSEN Richard P. (eds.), Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thoughts in the People’s Republic, Westview Press, 1990.

LINK Perry and MADSEN Richard P. (eds.), Popular China. Unofficial Culture in a Globalizing Society, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

SHIH Shu-mei, Visuality and Identity. Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific, University of California Press, 2007.

SHIH Shu-mei (ed.), Sinophone Studies. A Critical Reader, Columbia University Press, 2013.

WONG Chuen-Fung, “Singing Muqam in Uyghur Pop: Minority Modernity and Popular Music in China” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 36, n°1, 2013, pp. 98-118.

 

[Review] Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History (Yiu Wai Chu) by Nathanel Amar

http://www.cefc.com.hk/article/yiu-wai-chu-hong-kong-cantopop-a-concise-history/

YIU-WAI CHU, HONG KONG CANTOPOP: A CONCISE HISTORY

Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2017, 256 pp.

Review by Nathanel Amar

Yiu-Wai Chu, director of the Hong Kong Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong, continues in Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History the analyses he outlined in his previous book, published in 2013, Lost In Transition: Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China.[1] Like Lost In Transition, this book is haunted by the decline of Hong Kong culture since the handover, and by the spectre of mainland China. By offering a chronological history of Hong Kong popular music, Yiu-Wai Chu’s book emerges as a reference in Asian Cultural Studies in English.

The introduction (pp. 1-20) reviews the notion of “Cantopop,” a term that emerged in the late 1970s to describe popular music in Cantonese produced in Hong Kong. For the author, Cantopop lies at the intersection of the two traditional definitions of pop music, as it is both “the main commercially produced and marketed musical genre” (p. 3) and popular in the sense that it is “capable of uniting a variety of social groups” (p. 4). This fairly wide definition of pop allows Chu to not contrast Cantopop too strongly with rock and alternative music—which are present at the margins throughout the book. The author justifies his focus on Cantopop in view of the limited existing English language studies on Hong Kong folk music: “Academic work on Chinese popular music shows a bias toward rock music from Beijing rather than pop music from either Hong Kong or Taiwan” (p. 10). The present work is thus an introduction to Cantopop. This leads the author to leave aside the study of the lyrics of songs, which, while regrettable, is justified by the global economy of the book.

The second part of the book (pp. 21-39) challenges the representations traditionally associated with Cantopop, by making a genealogy of it even before the appearance of the term. Until 1974, Cantopop was marginalised in the colonial society of Hong Kong, with music and the Cantonese language being perceived as inferior to English and Mandarin. Popular music in Cantonese was thus considered a “working-class pastime” (p. 21), which most often dealt with the difficulties of daily life during colonisation.

The rise of Cantopop in the 1970s is the subject of the book’s third part (pp. 40-68), concomitant with the identity and social claims born of the workers’ revolts of 1967 and the extension of the market in the 1970s. The year 1974 marks a turning point in the history of Cantopop, with the broadcast on TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited) of the series A Love Tale between Tears and Smiles, the Cantonese theme song of which was hugely successful. The author shows the close links between Cantopop and other cultural forms, such as television and cinema. The 1970s saw the emergence of many singers and lyricists who made it possible for Cantopop to develop, such as Sam Hui, “the God of Cantopop” (p. 48), who took up social problems in songs using vernacular language. Composer Joseph Koo and lyricist James Wong also participated in the popularisation of Cantopop through their songs for the television series Jade Theater. James Wong, nicknamed “the Godfather of Cantopop,” was also to make Cantopop the subject of his thesis, defended in 2003 at the University of Hong Kong,[2] and which serves as a reference throughout Yiu-Wai Chu’s book. The popularity of Cantopop pushed the music industry in Hong Kong to turn to Cantonese. Singers who hitherto sang in Mandarin or made covers of English hits began producing songs in Cantonese, giving Cantopop the hybrid aspect that would make it successful.

The 1980s, described in the fourth part, represent the golden age of Cantopop (pp. 69-104), as well as its cultural hegemony on the Asian scene during the period of economic reforms in mainland China. The popularity of the song “The Bund,” from the eponymous television series, sung in 1980 by Frances Yip with music by Joseph Koo and lyrics by James Wong, went well beyond the borders of Hong Kong and was even translated into Mandarin and Thai. During this decade, the first “superstars” appeared, such as Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung, and Anita Mui, who initiated a wave of unprecedented concerts. More than mere commercial events, these concerts “became a venue for building a collective memory for Hong Kong people” (p. 84). It is also the period when a limited but very influential Cantonese alternative music scene developed, including the rock bands Beyond and Tat Ming Pair, whose songs contain subversive political messages. The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 profoundly marked Cantopop, prompting singers, even the most popular ones, to pose the question of the future of China and Hong Kong in their songs.

The fifth part of the book focuses on the 1990s (pp. 105-144), in which the decline of Cantopop began, although it enjoyed a prosperous period at the beginning of the decade with the “Four Heavenly Kings”—Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, and Aaron Kwok, and the “Four Heavenly Queens”—Sally Yeh, Cass Phang, Sammy Cheng, and Kelly Chen. These singers were to dominate the Asian musical and visual scene in the 1990s, but this was not enough to stop the more general decline of Cantopop in the face of the development of Mandapop—popular music in Mandarin—from Mainland China and Taiwan. This shift is illustrated by the journey of the singer Faye Wong, born in Beijing, who became famous after settling in Hong Kong in 1987 by singing Cantopop before returning to Mandapop in the late 1990s. The slow decline of Cantopop was accompanied by a crisis of Hong Kong identity as retrocession approached, expressed in 1997 by a song that reeked of nationalism, “Chinese” (“Zhongguo ren”) by Andy Lau, sung in Mandarin.

The last part (pp. 145-183) deals with the Cantopop crisis, which began in the noughts. In addition to declining sales, the world of Cantopop lost two of its most popular representatives in 2003, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, while the SARS epidemic hit the Hong Kong economy hard that same year. The promotion of four new Heavenly Kings, Andy Hui, Edmond Leung, Hacken Lee, and Leo Ku, did not enable Cantopop to resist the domination of Mandapop. Cantopop nevertheless followed the evolution of society, and some groups took a stand in support of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, such as Denise Ho, Anthony Yiu-Ming Wong, and Kat Tse, who sang the anthem of the movement, “Raise the Umbrella.” In the midst of an identity crisis, Hong Kongers also turned to other forms of music, such as hip-hop with the collective Lazy Motha Fucka (LMF), while the record labels were no longer investing in new singers, preferring to recycle the old glories of Cantopop.

Yiu-Wai Chu’s book opens new perspectives in Asian cultural studies, including a comparative approach to popular music in mainland China. The author provides some very interesting analyses of the queer genre and the queer imagination of Cantopop, but one is surprised when he states that “Leslie Cheung never openly declared his sexual orientation” (p. 135), nor does he mention TVB’s censorship of homoerotic clips produced by Cheung.[3] Moreover, the scandal provoked in 2008 by the diffusion of pornographic photos taken by the actor Edison Chen in the company of popular Cantopop singers is barely mentioned.[4] The book’s aim to write a history of Cantopop, which undoubtedly fills one of the gaps in Chinese studies, neglects the mainland’s popular music, whether inspired by or critical of Cantopop. The book therefore encourages future research on the relationship between Cantopop and Chinese rock in the 1990s, for example through the concert given in front of 8,000 people by He Yong, Tang Dynasty, Dou Wei, and Zhang Chu on December 17, 1994 in the Hong Kong Coliseum, during which He Yong called the Four Heavenly Kings “clowns” and insulted Cantopop.[5] Similarly, the author’s desire to deal with Hong Kong alternative music at the same time as Cantopop forces him to bring together bands as diverse as the hip-hop collective LMF, the subversive anti-folk group My Little Airport, or the hardcore-punk band King Ly Chee, all of which deserve to be further analysed. Unfortunately, there are typos in the names of some Mainland singers and song titles, as well as repetitions in the body of the text.

Hong Kong Cantopop nevertheless remains an essential book for Asian cultural studies. In addition to a very complete chronology of Cantopop, accompanied by an excellent appendix, Yiu-Wai Chu’s book makes it possible to place Hong Kong pop music in its geopolitical, cultural, and social context. Also to be appreciated is the effort of systematic transcription of the names of singers and songs in Chinese characters. This is an important book for understanding the construction of Hong Kong identity, which more generally enables taking popular music seriously, and deconstructs many prejudices about Cantopop.

Translated by Michael Black.

Nathanel Amar, Ph.D. in Political Science, is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities of the University of Hong Kong (namar@hku.hk).

[1] Chu Yiu-Wai, Lost in Transition: Hong Kong Culture in the Age of China, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2013.

[2] James Wong, The Rise and Decline of Cantopop: A Study of Hong Kong Popular Music (1949-1997), PhD Thesis, Hong Kong, University of Hong Kong, 2003.

[3] Natalia Sui-hung Chan, “Queering Body and Sexuality: Leslie Cheung’s Gender Representation in Hong Kong Popular Culture,” in Yau Ching (ed.), As Normal As Possible: Negotiating Sexuality and Gender in Mainland China and Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, p. 147.

[4] It was the subject of a chapter in the book by Jeroen de Kloet and Yiu Fai Chow, Sonic Multiplicities. Hong Kong Pop and the Global Circulation of Sound and Image, Chicago, Intellect, 2013, pp. 81-100.

[5] Mike Levin, “Chinese Pop Music Lovers Show A Taste For Rock,” Billboard, 21 January 1995, p. 45.

China Perspectives
SUBSCRIBE HERE

 

[Book] Hong Kong CantopopA Concise History (香港粵語流行曲簡史) by Yiu-Wai Chu

https://www.hkupress.hku.hk/pro/1611.php

Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History
(香港粵語流行曲簡史)
Yiu-Wai Chu
January 2017
256 pages
6″ x 9″, 5 tables

Cantopop was once the leading pop genre of pan-Chinese popular music around the world. In this pioneering study of Cantopop in English, Yiu-Wai Chu shows how the rise of Cantopop is related to the emergence of a Hong Kong identity and consciousness. Chu charts the fortune of this important genre of twentieth-century Chinese music from its humble, lower-class origins in the 1950s to its rise to a multimillion-dollar business in the mid-1990s. As the voice of Hong Kong, Cantopop has given generations of people born in the city a sense of belonging. It was only in the late 1990s, when transformations in the music industry, and more importantly, changes in the geopolitical situation of Hong Kong, that Cantopop showed signs of decline. As such, Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History is not only a brief history of Cantonese pop songs, but also of Hong Kong culture. The book concludes with a chapter on the eclipse of Cantopop by Mandapop (Mandarin popular music), and an analysis of the relevance of Cantopop to Hong Kong people in the age of a dominant China. Drawing extensively from Chinese-language sources, this work is a most informative introduction to Hong Kong popular music studies.

Yiu-Wai Chu is professor and director of the Hong Kong Studies Programme in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong.

“Few scholars I know of have as thorough a knowledge of Cantopop as Yiu-Wai Chu. The account he provides here—of pop music as a nexus of creative talent, commoditized culture, and geopolitical change—is not only a story about postwar Hong Kong; it is also a resource for understanding the term ‘localism’ in the era of globalization.” —Rey Chow, Duke University

“Yiu-Wai Chu’s book presents a remarkable accomplishment: it is not only the first history of Cantopop published in English; it also manages to interweave the sound of Cantopop with the geopolitical changes taking place in East Asia. Combining a lucid theoretical approach with rich empirical insights, this book will be a milestone in the study of East Asian popular cultures.” —Jeroen de Kloet, University of Amsterdam

[Preview] Chu, Yiu Wai 2017 Hong Kong Cantopop – A Concise History