[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.

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