Glamour Girls: Cross-cultural Visual Aesthetics in K-pop
March 26-29, 2015 ♦ Association for Asian Studies ♦ Chicago, IL
One of the reasons for the global resonance of K-pop comes from its visuality, which crosses language barriers to reach a diverse and global audience. While governments and corporate agencies use this visuality to promote soft power, the global audiences that receive such images also make meaning outside of intentional image branding. Such constructions of meaning, especially for female K-pop groups, are derived from, K-pop, a hybridized form of Korean popular culture, and occur within established contexts, including a long tradition of “girl groups.” Using theories of transnational feminism in popular culture and discourse analysis to examine images, music videos and fan responses through social media, this paper explores how three generations of contemporary female K-pop groups embody hybrid femininities that incorporate elements from 1990s African American R&B female groups. In turn, female fans interpret these hybrid femininities in ways that expand the notion of empowerment for women beyond mere “girl power.” This paper adds a contemporary and transnational element to the study female pop groups by placing female K-pop groups within a larger tradition of girl groups. It challenges interpretations of female K-pop groups that characterize them solely as vehicles that appeal to male desire by seeking to understand how the largely female fandom makes meaning of femininities represented by these groups.
S.E.S is an acronym for “Sea, Eugene, Shoo,” the names of the three members of the group. Formed in 1997 by SM Entertainment, this female group consisted of Sea (better known as Bada, born Choi Sung Hee), Eugene (Kim Yoo Jin) and Shoo (Yoo Soo Young) and became the first successful female group in the Hallyu K-pop era. . . . See the entire exhibit at Hallyu Harmony: A Cultural History of Kpop.
K-pop is well-known as a hybrid musical tradition, incorporating elements from musical traditions developed in locales outside of Korea, including Japan, Latin America and the United States. While some attribute some of the foreign elements to “Western” music, other scholars recognize the tremendous impact of distinct black American musical traditions.
In “What Is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity,” John Lie describes the dynamic between traditional Korean popular music traditions and foreign traditions. During the 1970s, he points out, “In urban areas, in spite of the elite embrace of Western ‘classical’ music, the prevalent popular music was ‘trot,’ a Korean variant of Japanese enka” (343). Yet, the incorporation of Japanese music seemed less foreign because “the register of Korean and Japanese musical sensibility remained stubbornly rooted in traditional musical meters” (344). According to Lie, a quantum shift occurred with the emergence of Seo Taiji and the Boys in 1992. While he acknowledges that the group “was one of the first groups to incorporate rap music and hip-hop sensibilities to South Korean popular music,” he also asserts that Seo’s significance comes from “pioneering a new musical soundscape that became almost invariably ‘Western’ pop music” (349). Throughout the essay, Lie creates a dichotomy between Korean traditional music and “Western music,” which often means rock music: “There was, in short, a chasm between Cho [Yong Pil] and Elvis Presley or the Beatles, much less Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin: the musical distance between South Korea and the United States (and the so-called West) remained significant” (346). Lie collapses much of Western music, failing to note the impact of particular genres at particular times.
Most significantly, Lie overlooks the tremendous impact of African American music on K-pop. In K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, Kim Chang Nam describes the impact of African American music rather than generic “Western” music:
It is not easy to discuss African-Americans’ influence on music in isolation within the scope of Korean popular music history. Considering the fact that the progression of Korean popular music unfolded under the profound influence of pop and rock from the United Kingdom and the United States, where African-Americans were prominent music pioneers of popular music, it should be noted that their impact indeed permeated the overall history of Korean popular music. (33)
Not only did this hold true for Korean music of the late 1960s, but also of the 1990s: “It was the hip-hop of the early 1990s that marked the full-fledged emergence of a Korean hybrid hip-hop, the heir to the soul music that went through a short-lived boom at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s and demonstrated a Korean variation on the genre. Just as soul music appeared as a hybrid form of soul-psychadelic, hip-hop instantly surged into the mainstream as a compromise form of rap and dance music” (70). Kim goes on to cite Seo Taiji as “playing a critical role in popularizing hip-hop and rap music” (71).
The hybrid nature of K-pop requires the historiography of K-pop to untangle the complex impact of foreign musical traditions. Musical traditions like hip-hop and soul emerge under specific socio-cultural conditions, and carry specific meanings for their first audiences, which is often carried to more global audiences. Lie’s assertions place a premium on national distinctions that keeps traditional Korean music in view, but a comprehensive overview of K-pop’s development also requires Chang’s approach, which also makes distinct foreign musical traditions and their impact on Korean popular music visible.