음악 for a Korean American Ear
H.O.T. – Candy – white/pink hats and gloves, long multi-colored hair (1996)
2NE1 – 내가 제일 잘 나가 (I Am the Best) (2011)
Psy – Gangnam Style (2012)
As 2NE1 took the stage, I found myself immediately evaluating their wardrobe – combinations of red-black-gold fabric and jewelry. The outfits seemed rather toned down compared to the more multi-colored and funky ensembles I had seen them wear at other performances throughout Asia. When I saw that the setting for the performance was intimate, with audience members close to the stage, I screamed in my head, “No! The stage is too small. They need a bigger stage that shows how they perform at concerts and other awards shows outside the US!” The performance was probably just fine, as was 2NE1’s wardrobe, but I felt the way a parent might feel, worrying about every detail of their child’s presentation. I wanted them to wow the audience, but the voting result spoke for itself. The girls performed their singles, Fire, Can’t Nobody, Lonely, and 내가 제일 잘 나가 (I Am The Best). On November 10, 2011, 2NE1 was voted MTV Iggy’s “The Best New Band in the World” by means of an online vote. A month later the group performed in NYC and MTV’s first Asian American VJ, SuChin Pak, co-hosted the show.
During 2NE1’s performance the commercial breaks had the word 음악 (music) displayed on the screen. I thought to myself, “Wow” – not the English “wow” but the Korean “우와!” I didn’t see too much “음악” featured on television as a kid growing up in northern New Jersey. Instead I saw words like “música” on Telemundo while channel surfing, or Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello on PBS. There was Korean news on channel 63 or 64 after a Chinese news program around 9:30pm EST that may have mentioned 음악, but this was the first time I was seeing the word in my face up front and center on MTV in the US. The only other times I would watch K-pop were recordings of shows like Show Music Tank and Inkigayo on VHS rented from the local Korean markets. K-pop was reserved for home viewing and discussions among my Korean friends – definitely not for “the (American) public”.
I want to believe that 2NE1’s performance in NYC at MTV Studios will give them and perhaps other Korean artists stay power in the US, but have to wonder whether they will fade away into the background like the artists who preceded them. Ever since my first K-pop concert in NYC in the 1990s with R.ef and Solid, I’ve been wondering if I’d see the day that K-pop would be translatable to my non Asian friends. People outside my Korean circles would usually give a furrowed eyebrow, and then look away.
I could certainly understand, however, why after viewing a mainstream K-pop music video like Candy by H.O.T., most American viewers would be confused. I’m not sure if the following is the correct visual interpretation, but the clothing I see in the music video is just a modern interpretation of traditional Korean attire, 한복.
I’ve spent countless years, figuratively on the edge of my chair, waiting to see if artists like Rain (Bi/비) would make a successful crossover. P-Diddy talked about Rain’s 2006 Madison Square Garden performance and there were talks of collaborating. After Rain topped TIME Magazine’s 2007 online poll of the most influential people in the world, Stephen Colbert parodied Rain’s music video, How to Escape the Sun, by singing in Korean about kimchi, Hyundai, and the like. I also waited to see how the American public would receive Se7en’s collaborative single, Girls, with Lil’ Kim in 2008.
How about the Wonder Girls opening for the Jonas Brothers during their 2009 tour, performing on The Wendy Williams Show and appearing on So You Think You Can Dance? Or what about BoA and her American album in 2009? There was also, of course, Amerie – the half-Korean/half African-American artist who made waves with her single, 1 Thing, in 2005. The flash of her name tattooed in Korean on her back @ 3:05 was just awesome for me as a Korean American. But these glimpses are what we seem to get in the US – flashes here and there of Korean ethnicity and bits of the Asian American community in mainstream US media – blips on the radar.
For someone who is just being introduced to K-pop (Korean pop), the preceding names of various K-pop stars and events probably sound like: “And this happened, then that happened, and now we are here riding horses with Psy in Gangnam on CNN and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Of course, there is an entire backdrop and context in which to discuss K-pop’s crossover to the US.
Currently, Americans are viewing K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation (소녀시대/SNSD), Super Junior, Wonder Girls, 2NE1 and now Psy. In most cases, K-pop artists are in fact from South Korea, but what about the K-pop artists from the US?
In addition to becoming acquainted with K-pop artists who were born and raised in South Korea, I hope the American public asks questions about the Korean American artists who “reverse migrated” to South Korea from the US to enter the K-pop world. Could the case be that Korean American artists simply prefer to launch their careers in Seoul, and that’s why we don’t see too many prominent Korean American pop artists in the US? Or are there other factors that influence their decision?
In an interview with Arirang, K-pop solo artist Ailee stated that despite performing well in a talent show on NBC’s prime time American talk show Maury, she wanted to be closer to her roots in South Korea to launch her career. Ailee then goes on to say, however, “I didn’t expect to be placed anywhere near the top because everybody there was so talented – so so talented – and you know being an Asian American I didn’t think that I would win too many votes. So I was surprised mostly, and very very thankful.” Although Ailee preferred to launch in South Korea, her interpretation of the results on Maury are telling of what Asian American, or at least Korean American artists, may expect in the US market.
In 2007, American Idol contestant, Daniel Kim stated on his MySpace page, “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.” Although Kim had impressed the American Idol judges with his voice, fans apparently were not too thrilled about him, eliminating the contestant relatively early in the competition.
Music consultant Morgan Carey believes that K-pop will continue to be just a niche market unless K-pop managers adjust their marketing strategies in the US. Carey was successful in promoting a Korean reggae artist, Skull, by “keeping away from Asian-themed events and trying to build his fan base from the United States grass roots . . .” Skull’s single, Boom Di Boom Di, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard R&B singles chart in 2007. Perhaps Carey’s approach would help to promote K-pop in the US. Carey’s attempt to weave Skull into the American market by not branding him as an Asian or Korean artist, but a reggae artist who happens to be Korean, might just work. I find curious that Skull’s face is not shown in his music video. I assume it was to get people to listen to his music rather than get fixated on his Korean ethnicity.
Take a look at the following interview on Live! with Kelly featuring Girls’ Generation @ 3:55:
Howie Mandel (Host): “Your English is very good!”
SNSD member Tiffany (Stephanie Hwang), who was raised in California, responds, “Oh we’re [Tiffany and fellow member Jessica Jung] – I was born in America.”
Host: “Your English is very good!”
Jessica: “I know! Thank you so much! I studied so hard.”
Mastering English is a challenge for K-pop stars that are trying to break into the US market, but as mentioned before, what the majority of people probably don’t know is that there are a good number of Korean Americans who have opted to launch their careers in South Korea. Jay Park and Yoon Mirae are examples of such artists who are flourishing there.
The American public may be well aware of the existence of Korean Americans who are fluent in Korean and English, but the American public is just not used to seeing a Korean/Asian American in the pop world who is bicultural.
Since Asian American artists haven’t yet taken the main stage in the American pop scene for a complex set of reasons, they’ve taken a newer stage, YouTube. Entities such as MTV K (MTV for K-pop in the US operating under the now defunct MTV World) did try to feature Korean and Korean American artists in 2006, but MTV K, along with MTV Chi and MTV Desi, went off air in 2007 and is now strictly digital rather than on air. These days, existing strictly digitally isn’t such a bad idea. The spread of K-pop/K-drama/K-movies, otherwise known as Hallyu (한류) (Korean Wave), has often been attributed to the use of social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and the like. The ability for a media clip to go viral is the key for what would otherwise be peripheral content, and is the reason why Psy’s music video Gangnam Style didn’t just register a blip on the radar, but caused a wave.
Psy recently expressed in a CNN interview that now he wants to introduce himself as a real person, not just the horse dancer. The horse dance itself divorced from the lyrics and commentary on Gangnam doesn’t really mean much, does it? There is content to be understood behind the aesthetics. That content is generated by a real person, and I want to know who is behind it all. When artists make it big, they’ll be interviewed and the global audience slowly comes to know who the artist actually is – who they are, where they’re from, what they do and say and why – essentially what they’re about.
But does pop culture really matter? Asian Americans are well represented in elite and important professions such as medicine, engineering, law, etc. They play classical music. Isn’t this what matters? The serious stuff? Pop culture gets attacked all the time for being mass produced – just a mass marketing scheme to appeal to the unthinking masses. Sure, pop culture is in many ways a machine, but regardless of the “quality” of the music that is generated in pop music, pop culture’s mass appeal speaks volumes about how the mass is defined. That Asian American artists don’t fit the mold of the “US mass” says something.
What will become of K-pop stars if they were to cross over and have stay power in the US?
I remember popular figures like Alicia Keys and Bono promoting awareness about HIV/AIDS. I remember being exposed to the Rock the Vote campaign on MTV. MTV itself always meant that music was associated with politics, civic duty, and the like. Essentially, MTV was making it cool to care, and just like most teenagers I wanted to be cool. Music wasn’t just about striking a pose.
For me as a Korean American, not seeing Korean faces in the mainstream media signaled, “I guess we’ve got nothing to say,” but this simply isn’t the case. I always grew up wondering where people in the Korean American community were in the media.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper from CNN, Yul Kwon explains how his desires to engage civic activity went against his immigrant parents’ philosophy on education and the proper upbringing in the US. Yul’s interview with Cooper is brief, but it offers more insight into why Korean Americans, and Asian Americans in general, may have struggled with media representation in the US. In other words, Asian American media representation is a two way struggle.
Yul-Kwon also speaks about the feeling of not belonging to any mainstream culture. Most people have probably heard of the dilemma of having a hyphenated identity in America. The concept of feeling neither from/of here or there, but instead perpetually in between places, is probably all too familiar for many Korean Americans. Many of us are in the constant act of translating. There is a lot being said in our community, and we’ve got tons to talk about.
Growing up, whenever my parents needed to yell or express their deepest emotions, the
words were usually Korean. I went to Korean school and Korean church, but like many other Korean Americans, lost my first language as the years passed. My parents were part of the Korean Diaspora to Latin America, migrating to Argentina in the aftermath of the Korean War. I myself lived in Mexico and learned Spanish. In some ways, Spanish is the common language in my Korean family, but it doesn’t make up for my not being fluent in Korean. I can’t fully hear all that my parents have to say, or what most Korean people would have to say to me.
I wonder what Sanchez from Phantom is about. Why has he taken on a Spanish sounding name? Is he, dare I ask, someone like me in the media?
My Korean identity was usually kept to myself, in the household. I need to have the intimate words of Korean sung to me by my iPod, but now I also want to hear those songs projected onto the world and reflected back to me. Humming Korean lyrics to myself with headphones plugged into my ears is one thing; it is altogether a different thing to be able to sing out loud along with the words booming from the speaker systems facing out into the world.
A US album by 2NE1 co-produced by the world renowned will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas is forthcoming. I hope we see more K-pop artists interviewed and they become part of the visual culture in the US. Even though not all K-pop artists have the intention of breaking into the US market, I do want to see them as a Korean American because of the media void I experienced as a kid.
For now, I just wanna say, “You go 누나/형!”