Writing about K-pop: Choose Your Disciplinary Adventure

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In my previous article, I talked about how taking a historian’s approach to K-pop considers the past in making  sense of the present. In this article, I’ll discuss how this informs my approach to K-pop in my book Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. In making sense of K-pop, I choose several disciplinary approaches to increase our understanding of K-pop music.

The first thing scholars do when writing about a subject is to think about how the study will contribute to what we already know, or as we call it, the body of knowledge. Much of the scholarship on K-pop focuses on factors around K-pop music, but very little of it focuses on the music itself. From my  previous research, I knew that music was the primary appeal of K-pop to global fans. As a fan who listens to a broad array of K-pop, I also know (like many others) that it incorporates influences from African American popular music. But what does that mean? This becomes my inquiry, or research question.

Scholars usually write about things using the tools and methods of an academic discipline. Different academic disciplines ask different questions. They can come to different conclusions, even while considering the same thing. Those methods are tools and some tools work better for certain jobs. The same goes for using disciplinary methods to explore a research topic. In order to answer my question, I choose to to use use multiple tools by using a multidisciplinary approach that includes popular music studies, transnational American Studies and fan studies. 

Popular music studies seems like a no-brainer. K-pop and African American popular musics are popular musics. However, as a tool, popular music studies allows me to consider both the music and its audience as well as the way the audience experiences the music. Global  fans enjoy K-pop without necessarily knowing the lyrics, just as Korean artists incorporated African American popular music without knowing the lyrics.  This is because music itself has meaning that speaks to emotion and transcends language.  Popular music studies helps to reveal the music’s meaning.

Transnational American studies allows me to view the way African American popular culture travels and influences other cultures. It has a complicated relationship to the larger American culture, which has sometimes been used as part of a cultural imperialist project when it has traversed the globe.   African American culture is, in part,  shaped by the larger American values. At the same time, it challenges aspects of that larger culture. So we have to see African American popular culture with complexities rather than as a part of a monolithic “Western culture” or ambassador of American culture to the world. It carries the distinct experiences and aesthetics of African Americans. In order to understand the hybridity of K-pop, I draw on the well-developed field of African American cultural studies to illuminate the meaning of those aesthetics, which go beyond oppression and discrimination.  

Both popular music studies and transnational American studies value knowledge outside of traditional academia. Both disciplines treat non-academics as valued knowledge producers, including music journalists and critics and amateur historians and archivists. They tend to focus on topics that have yet to be recognized by  the mainstream, but are nevertheless significant. As a result, I use fan studies to elucidate the role of the fan reviewer of K-pop. These fans  act as creators and archivers of information about K-pop, including music reviews. Examining these reviews  gives me a sense of how the audience for K-pop makes sense of the music.

Thus, popular music studies, transnational American studies and fan studies act as a Swiss army knife that I use to make sense of K-pop music and contribute to our understanding of it. 

Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (2020, University of Mississippi Press) explores how K-pop draws on various genres of black popular music and how fans deem such practices as authentic. It is available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and University of Mississippi Press.

Creative Commons License
Writing about K-pop: Choose Your Disciplinary Adventure by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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