Hallyu: The Korean Wave

2012-5-25

South Korea puts on a display of soft power for the MBC Korean Culture Festival at the indigO2.

4 Minute at the MBC Festival in London

On Saturday, over two thousand fans of Korean pop gathered at the indigO2 for the second K-pop concert ever held in the UK. Despite poor promotion, the show sold out quickly based on performances by 4minute, Norazo, and Exo-K. In addition to K-pop, the festival also included performances of Korean folk music (Pungmul) and a fashion show of traditional dresses (Hanbok). Before the show began, the audience was informed that the proceeds from the concert were to go to a memorial for British veterans of the Korean War, neatly putting the link between culture and power at centre stage. While its northern neighbour prefers collective gymnastics, military parades, and rocket launches to demonstrate its power, South Korea has adopted a different strategy: it is going after your children.

Throughout Asia, this strategy has been a resounding success. Korean music, film and television is consumed voraciously across the continent. The Hallyu or "Korean Wave" process began in the 1990s, but really took off with the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by Korea and Japan. K-pop in particular has proved so irresistible internationally that officials have even used 4minute's Huh in psychological warfare against North Korean troops.

The growing popularity of Korean culture, in Asia and the rest of the world, has not been unopposed. Japan, whose cultural products are often displaced by Korean fare, has seen a particularly strong backlash: a popular manga comic book Hating the Korea Wave exhibits a xenophobic attitude towards Koreans and Korean culture which resonates with conservative elements in Japanese society.

While condemning these attitudes, the Korean response has been to increase its output, finding an additional €490 million of funding for cultural products and promotions. European governments that find themselves slashing cultural expenditures under austerity budgets should take note of Korea's power play.

It seems that South Korea has integrated the lessons of cultural theorists Adorno and Horkheimer more completely than anywhere else. Back in the mid 1940s, they wrote:

Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors' incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Korean cultural exports are worth €8 billion a year. This doesn't include the domestic market, increases in tourism, and any of the nebulous soft power benefits Korea has accrued.

The industry churning out the "rubbish" (to use Adorno and Horkheimer's characterisation) consists of companies like Cube and YG Entertainment, which maintain stables of performers, songwriters and producers. Members of K-pop groups are selected through auditions and competitions for their abilities, their looks (often surgically enhanced) and their backgrounds. In order to increase a their appeal across Asia, some groups include members with non-Korean origins. For example, girl-group Miss A has two Chinese members: Jia (Meng Jia) and Fei (Wang Feifei). Typically performers train for years before their debut. Their regimen can be very demanding, and the terms of their contracts are often unfair. Very little about a K-pop group is left to chance.

The similarity to the culture industry described by Adorno and Horkheimer is striking:

Any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it.

However, one has to wonder whether or not the conditions faced by an aspiring K-pop star are so different from those faced by say, a Russian ballerina. Of course, Adorno detested Stravinsky as well.

The structure of the Korean cultural industry is only the simplest part of the production side of the equation. Cultural production is complicated because unlike other industries, what is being produced is a particular form, as opposed to a thing. This is not an air-tight distinction, but it serves to emphasise that cultural production is qualitatively different: it necessarily involves a closer relationship with consumption. This introduces a new problem as the consumption of culture and entertainment involves questions of pleasure.

In order to gain some insight into the nature of this relationship, consider the case of Hyuna (Kim Hyun-a) of 4minute. Not only did Hyuna perform at the indigO2 as part of 4minute, she also helped present the event. In this way, she simultaneously filled the role of a K-pop star and served as an exponent of South Korean soft power. Behind this, Kim Hyun-a the woman is, completely unknowable. To know her would ultimately be detrimental to our enjoyment of Hyuna the performer. The K-pop framework provides us with all the phantasmic support required for our pleasure, you could even say she is overdetermined.

At the age of 20, Hyuna is already a K-pop veteran. In addition to appearing regularly with 4minute, she was a member of the well-known group Wonder Girls. Along with Beast's Hyunseung (Jang Hyun-seung), she performs and releases albums as the duo Trouble Maker. Finally, she is a legitimate K-pop star in her own right. As a solo performer, her looks and visual style are exceedingly close to those of superstar Lee Hyori (who at 33 is getting too old for the eternally youthful world of K-pop).

Hyuna's popularity exploded in 2011 with the release of Bubble Pop!. The release was accompanied by a music video which viewers found "easy to masturbate to," and which received a ban from the Korea Communications Standards Commission for being sexually suggestive. The actions of the Standards Commission with regards to Bubble Pop! is somewhat unusual. While Bubble Pop! is highly sexual, its not significantly more so than other K-pop videos (e.g. Sistar's Alone). This raises two possibilities. First, the censorship represents a cynical ploy on the part of Hyuna's management. The subsequent difficulties with the censor over the choreography for Trouble Maker would lend some weight to this point of view. The second, more interesting possibility, is that a production system that seems to have made such use of Adorno and Horkheimer's criticisms internalised this one as well:

The secret of aesthetic sublimation is its representation of fulfilment as a broken promise... By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduced to a masochistic semblance. There is no erotic situation which, while insinuating and exciting, does not fail to indicate unmistakably that things can never go that far. The Hays Office merely confirms the ritual of Tantalus that the culture industry has established anyway. Works of art are ascetic and unashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish... The mass production of the sexual automatically achieves its repression. Because of his ubiquity, the film star with whom one is meant to fall in love is from the outset a copy of himself.

With K-pop videos, there is always the possibility that people would use them to masturbate, the problem with Bubble Pop! was that people actually were. From a moralistic perspective, the problem with masturbation (since it became a problem in the eighteenth century) is that the object of desire is a self-sustained fantasy, not a real woman.

For Luis Buñuel, whose film That Obscure Object of Desire deals with a similar issue, the solution is to pour a bucket of water over the woman (and ourselves) effectively destroying the fantasy and putting an end to any pleasure it may have given us. K-pop stars resist this approach both because they are pure fantasy to begin with, and because these fantasies are highly mediated and social. Through shared pleasures like K-pop, an individual can access the pleasure of millions of people, of society-at-large.

What then, is the proper way to enjoy Hyuna? Is it possible to access the shared pleasure offered by the Hyuna fantasy, without being overwhelmed or defeated by the knowledge of a real Kim Hyun-a or the mechanisms which support the whole K-pop edifice? That is: without throwing a bucket of water over the whole affair. This is essentially to echo the call of Richard Dyer for means by which a leftist can masturbate without guilt:

Pleasure remains a forbidden term of reference, particularly on the left. Pleasure is something you can guiltily have, or have after the important things, or get as a reward for doing other things. As itself a goal, it is still not, to speak paradoxically, taken seriously. And nowhere is this more true than on the left. (Only Entertainment:166)

The problem of K-pop is not simply a sexual, libidinal one, nor is it an exclusively male concern, as anyone who heard the deafening roar of the female fans as the pretty boys of Exo-K took the stage can attest. While sexual pleasure and desire are key components, K-pop's pleasures also include music (SNSD's Genie is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded) aesthetics (see 2NE1's I am the Best), narrative (T-Ara's Lovey-Dovey), and - dare I - jouissance (KARA's Step). There is no reason why these additional pleasures shouldn''t cause similar problems. What is striking about the contemporary Korean implementation of these pleasures is just how difficult it is not to enjoy it, even when one is fully aware of its methods. Should these simply be overlooked?

For Dyer, to dismiss ideological concerns amounts to neo-hedonism - an ultimately regressive fantasy. Therefore, the best solution involves a closer examination of pleasure and how it is constituted. The way in which such pleasurable experiences are derived is complex, particularly in the case of a shared and mediated pleasure like a K-pop concert.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari named their book (A Thousand Plateaus) after anthropological work on the libidinal economy of Bali. The observations of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (from Balinese Character) involves a different conception of pleasure, one which is based on intensification without climax. Interestingly, Balinese Character includes descriptions shared ritual performances of pleasure in the form of Tantric dances and rituals.

This makes a Deleuzian framework well suited for considering the pleasures offered by K-pop. After all, by including traditional Korean folk dances as part of the festival, the organisers seek to establish a link, in the Korean context, between pre-capitalist shamanistic traditions of shared pleasure and the modern K-pop experience. Certainly K-pop is a highly ritualised affair - the steps for the preparation and release of a new artist are well known - but this hardly seems to detract detract from the enjoyment.

To consider pleasure within a Deleuzian framework involves the realisation that individuals have a certain capacity for pleasure. When an individual hears a pleasing melody, pleasure intensifies. If the melody is pleasing enough, a new plateau is reached. Rather than conceiving of pleasure as a hedonistic indulgence, this framework recognises that individuals constantly experiencing pleasure, but to a greater or lesser degree depending on their state (more precisely: how pleasure is actualised).

Thinking of pleasure in these terms allows individuals to retain agency over their decision to listen to K-pop. Rather than being victims of a particular ideology, individuals can use K-pop to reach new levels of pleasure (to actualise virtual potentials for pleasure in Deleuzian terminology). At the same time, this avoids the trap, pointed out by Dyer, of declaring something pleasurable despite its lack of value. In this new context, K-pop is of value precisely because of the way in which it allows people to experience pleasure.

It is hard to say whether K-pop is a stable emanation of South Korean power, and whether further investments will be successful in preventing a stronger backlash against Hallyu. At the same time, it''s impossible to think of another soft power strategy that feels so good.

The MBC Korean Culture Festival was held at the indigO2 on June 23rd, 2012. The photograph of 4minute's performance comes from Denise, who had a much better seat than I did.


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