K-pop fans question the importance of the K
As K-pop gains worldwide popularity, there’s one important question that Korean fans must agree on but struggle to: Do they want to keep K-pop strictly Korean, or do they want to let it evolve with overseas influence? From members of a group to how a song is written and portrayed, K-pop continues to become more global in all aspects as fans in return grow more nationalistic and conservative.
When girl group (G)I-DLE announced the news of its EP “I burn” to drop on Jan. 11, fans were excited to learn that the new lead track “Hwaa” would take on a “traditional” theme. That anticipation soon turned to disappointment when the music video turned out to be a mixture of all things Asian — a little bit of Japanese sakura and fan-shaped patterns, Chinese-style umbrellas and tribal crystal face veils, instead of Korea’s traditional attire or accessories they wished to see.
During a performance for the KBS music program “Music Bank” that aired on Jan. 22, members of (G)I-DLE wore blue and black silk costumes with golden flower patterns embroidered on them, which resembled the Chinese Cheongsam dress, or qipao. Soon after on Jan. 24, a post was uploaded on online forum Nate Pann with the title, “What’s with (G)I-DLE’s qipao?”
“Just because they have a Chinese member, they have been ignoring fans’ demands to wear hanbok [traditional Korean dress] [...] This is really serious. If we don’t take this into our own hands, there’s soon going to be a time where Korean groups can’t wear hanbok because they don’t want to cross China,” read the post.
In less than a day, it had been seen over 132,000 times and as of Monday afternoon had garnered 2,500 likes — compared to only 80 dislikes. Many comments agree with the post, with one reading “This really is a big problem. Not only are they mixing everything from Korea, China and Japan and calling it eastern, they’re wearing qipaos but they don’t wear hanbok. Seriously, there’s going to come a time when people will be afraid to wear hanbok.” It has 740 likes and 10 dislikes.
Fans’ anger with (G)I-DLE stems from a recent internet battle between Korean and Chinese online users over the origins of hanbok that took place in early November. Koreans were infuriated by the depiction of Korean traditional dress in a new Chinese drama titled “Royal Feast” and how the producer of the drama Yu Zheng argued that the hanbok-resembling dress was in fact China’s hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing in feudal dynasties ruled by the Han people, the most populous ethnic group in China) of the Ming Dynasty.
“K-pop fans’ reluctance toward China comes from both the history of K-pop as well as politics,” said Lee Gyu-tag, professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea. “There have been Chinese members of K-pop bands who have abruptly ended their contracts once they have become successful, which has built a sense of distrust among fans. And then there is the sinocentrism that has often threatened Korea politically. Music has the potential to alleviate political, social and cultural conflicts, but it’s impossible for it to exist completely free from its influences.”
Some fans display an insular attitude toward foreign influence even when it’s non-existent, going against K-pop’s international metamorphosis. In 1998, during the early first-generation stage of K-pop, a five-member girl group Circle debuted with members from Korea, China and Japan — even though they only lasted two years. Then girl group Twice debuted in 2015 with one Chinese and three Japanese members and it has since become a trend for K-pop bands to include non-Korean members.
Taking the examples of girl groups Blackpink, the aforementioned (G)I-DLE, WJSN, IZ*ONE, Cheery Bullet, Rocket Punch, boy bands NCT 127, Pentagon, GOT7, Seventeen, Treasure and so many more popular groups that have at least one non-Korean, members from different countries ensure steady fandom from the countries of their origin, regardless of political or social rows. Fans jointly celebrate their idols' success as the result of collective effort, especially when they’re working toward a common goal such as garnering views on a music video or streams of a song.
But then, there’s BTS. Fans and experts alike congratulate the band’s success of dominating international music charts such as Billboard without a foreign member or singing in another language to earn a certain country’s favor — even though BTS’s latest and biggest success was with its single “Dynamite” which has English lyrics. For this same reason, some Korean fans of BTS express joy at the fact that there is no foreign member within the group, even if the majority of fans feel grateful for the global support and attention.
In an online K-pop fan forum Theqoo, fans frequently upload posts reading that they’re “glad that no foreign member is in the band” because it means they “don’t have to see any other countries taking credit for the success.”
“Quite frankly, I’m glad that there’s no foreign member within BTS,” reads a post from Nov. 30, 2017 on Theqoo, shortly after BTS started gaining international press coverage. “Imagine how people would have reacted and taken credit if there was a member from a different country. We’d be worrying whether they were going to leave the band. Honestly, I’m relieved they’re all from Korea. I can’t find [support for] a foreign member however attractive they are because people from that country bring other members down.”
Similar reactions are visible on other Korean websites and experts say that this is not just the result of nationalism, but even carries a hint of xenophobia that has thankfully gone relatively unnoticed because Korea is not a dominating force in the international market yet, but will need to be addressed in the future.
“Patriotism is nothing bad, but there are times when it expresses itself as xenophobia,” said Professor Shin Hyun-joon at the faculty of social science at Sungkonghoe University. “It may have stemmed from a sense of inferiority — that we were once dominated and victimized by China and Japan in history — but the nationalism that presents itself these days is a little different. It is based on a capitalist background where we look up to countries with GDPs higher than ours and look down on those that don't. Exclusivity may have helped us survive competition in the past, but for K-pop to flourish in the future, we need to open up to foreign cultures and learn the values of openness, tolerance and generosity.”
“It may be because this is the first time that Korea is having its first taste of global stardom,” said Michael Breen, CEO of Insight Communication Consultants. “[Singer] Psy and his ‘Gangnam Style’ (2012) was a bit of an exception because he wasn’t a top star himself in Korea, so it’s almost like a freak event. In a way, BTS and Blackpink are the first taste of stardom. It’s that insecurity. ‘Look, we’ve never had a global star before and wouldn’t it be horrible if a couple of BTS members were actually Chinese?’ But I’m sure quite quickly, we’ll move on from that sentiment. If we don’t move on from here, I think you kill your fan base. You’ll find them starting to move on to the next pop."
In fact, the industry has already passed the stage where the K in K-pop is exclusively Korean. K-pop sees an international audience and what Korean people say “isn’t Korean” has actually grown to become a part of K-pop’s identity. Even the term K-pop was used overseas before Korean people started using it to describe the industry as we know it today, so it’s high time that K-pop opens up to losing the K element, according to Professor Lee Jang-woo at Kyungpook National University’s School of Business Administration.
“K-pop has definitely boosted Korea’s status in international society so it’s natural that we applaud it for having done so,” said Lee. “Some people may go too far and think conservatively about that feat, but the global success of K-pop is more than that. The fans who enjoy K-pop do so because it talks about a universal value such as the beauty of life and overcoming hardships instead of political or ethnic issues. The beauty of K-pop lies in the acceptance of our differences and sympathizing with one another. It’s not just Korean people that enjoy it now. It’s enjoyed by everyone around the world and so we should be ready to accept that it’s worldwide content.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]