Sonic Historiography and Cover Songs: Ramsey Lewis/Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder/The Brand New Heavies

Cover songs are a great way to rediscover the trajectory of sound.

There is a collection of music scholars who direct their attention to how regular listeners interact with music. In “the Future is Now. . . and Then: Sonic Historiography in Post 1960s Rock,” Kevin Holm-Hudson draws together several similar strands of thought regarding sonic historiography, which he describes as intramusical references (247). He cites “self-quotation, quotation from previous rock songs by other artists and stylistic references to (not direct quotations from) previous rock songs or artists” as major types of intramusical references (251). Holm-Hudson also links sonic historiography to Kofi Agawu‘s notion of listener-competence, which requires the listener to know the sonic vocabulary a song uses (247). He also cites Theodore Gracyk‘s work: “Intelligent listening occurs when one makes appropriate intertextual inks and responds in terms of both musical and social contexts” (248).

While song covers are not included in Holm-Hudson’s treatment of sonic historiography, they can contribute to a listener competence. Like Holm-Hudson and Gracyk, Doyle Greene recognizes the ability of regular listeners to develop competence, as they ” ‘understand’ music by listening to it and the affect produced” (6). As a result, they can detect the different meanings when the performer of a song embarks on a different performative interpretation, where “authorship is primarily assigned to the performer” (7). At the same time, the performance of a cover song is linked to what Greene calls the “standard version,” or the “best-known version associated with a specific performer and performance of a song” (8). The dynamic between the cover and the standard version can expand listener competence and allow the recognition of a set of intramusical references.

“Les Fleur,” Ramsey Lewis/Minnie Riperton

“Les Fleur” originally appears on Ramsey Lewis‘ 1968 album Maiden Voyage. The album features covers of several well-known songs, including The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Given that Lewis is a pianist, it is no surprise that the piano is featured in the track. Trippy vocals and orchestration alternatively build and recede throughout.

Ramsey Lewis, “Les Fleur”

However, searching for Lewis’ “Les Fleur” also brings up Minnie Riperton‘s version of the song included on her 1970 album Come To My Garden. With a slower tempo and more fleshed out lyrics, the instrumentation is denser, includes guitar as well as horns and foregrounds Riperton’s vocals. In fact, Charles Stepney was arranger on both Lewis and Riperton’s track. Fun fact: Maurice White, of the legendary group Earth, Wind and Fire, played drums!

Minnie Ripperton, “Les Fleur”

The two versions of this song creates a sonic relationship between Lewis, Stepney and Riperton. Lewis and Stepney have jazz roots and Riperton sang backing vocals for Lewis. Also, Riperton, who is well-known for her high octave range, demonstrates an additional kind of vocal. By listening to both versions, listeners expand their competence over several genres.

“I Don’t Know Why (I Love You),” Stevie Wonder/Brand New Heavies

“I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)” originally appears on Stevie Wonder‘s 1968 album For Once In My Life, and also appeared as a B-side on the 1969 hit single, “My Cherie Amour.” Opening with sparse instrumentation that features guitar, the short track includes Wonder’s distinctive vocals. The instrumentation builds as the tracks continue, with percussion and guitar flourishes added.

Stevie Wonder, “I Don’t Know Why”

The Brand New Heavies‘ version of the track appears on the group’s 2007 album Get Used to It. It features the more direct and pointed vocal style of N’Dea Davenport, who is supported by strategically placed backing vocals. After the introduction, the track develops with more varied instrumentation, which complements Davenport’s equally diverse vocal stylings.

The Brand New Heavies, “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)”

Listening to both versions show how the artists make different musical choices. Wonder’s version sounds understated compared to the Brand New Heavies, who bring up the vocals as well as the R&B instrumentation.

Sonic historiography helps us to track how sounds develop over time and link artists and genres together across generations of listeners.


Delicious Vinyl. “BRAND NEW HEAVIES – “I DON’T KNOW WHY (I LOVE YOU)” YouTube. 25 Jun 2006. (27 May 2021).

Doyle Greene. The Rock Cover Song: Culture, History, Politics. McFarland & Company. 2014.

Kevin Holm-Hudson. “The Future is Now. . . and Then: Sonic Historiography in Post 1960s Rock.” Genre 34 (2001): 243-265.

Ramsey Lewis – Topic. “Les Fleur.” YouTube. 18 Oct 2018. (27 May 2021).

Stevie Wonder. “I Don’t Know Why.” YouTube. 25 Jul 2018. (27 May 2021).

therotatingchinmen. “Minnie Riperton – Les Fleurs.” YouTube. 14 Apr 2010. (27 May 2021).

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Sonic Historiography and Cover Songs: Ramsey Lewis/Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder/The Brand New Heavies by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Modeling Black Womanhood in K-pop

Given the influence of black popular culture on K-pop, it is not surprising that female K-pop artists also draw on images of black womanhood, especially those associated with hip-hop. While some scholars focus on prominent, sexualized images of black women as the defining model, other scholars point to the more complicated nature of representations of black womanhood.

Erick Raven‘s “HyunA: The Nexus of Blackness, Feminism, and K-pop” argues that the female K-pop artist draws on a form of black feminist hip-hop to craft an image that challenges Korean standards for women. Placing her in a context that includes African American female hip-hop artists Queen Latifah, TLC and Salt ‘N’ Pepa as well as Korean female rapper Yoon Mirae, Raven argues that HyunA “uses the highest regarded social benefit that she possesses, her body, to commit feminist acts of subversion against traditional expectations for Korean women in order to attract social attention and criticism for the purpose of promoting positive change for women” (196).

In order to make this argument, Raven’s article de-emphasizes the nuances of blackness. It describes blackness in the United States as “the indispensable antistandard, an object accounted as deformed, dejected and dismissed to make obvious the fully formed, accepted and embraced according to hegemony. . . . Thus, a black body is given life and made into a ‘person’ inscribed with the DNA of American hegemony, which defines the societal roles and acceptable norms and expectations for a black ‘person.'” (192). This characterization of blackness is defined by what it is not rather than what it is, by forces outside of blackness. It is very complex in its own right. Raven’s article overlooks the ways that African Americans have constructed their own conceptions of blackness in ways that do not centralize “hegemony.” To argue for this kind of blackness silences African Americans and denies their participation in the very creation of blackness.

Similarly, Raven draws an uncomplicated line in a defiant black female tradition from the blues to hip-hop, overlooking the complexity of black womanhood in the process: “This defiant tradition first established by the blues women went dormant after the 1920s, but re-emerged through hip-hop” (194). This characterization ignores any number of black female artists who not only drew on the blues tradition, but used music as a means to express themselves. It ignores other modes of popular music and genres, such as jazz, rock, and punk that black women inhabited. It also overlooks other ways that black women disrupt popular music, including songwriting and music production.

Moreover, Raven’s article focuses on HyunA’s use of her body to promote a black feminism rooted in hip-hop, ignoring the trope of the hyper-sexuality of women in hip-hop. Raven cites black female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and TLC, but does not discuss how these artists critiqued the hypersexualization of black women in hip-hop. The article also glosses over how Korean female rappers like Yoon Mirae, the veteran female Korean hip-hop artist, followed suit by challenging hypersexualized images in her concepts and music videos. Marquita Marie Gammage‘s “From the Auction Block to Hip-Hop” examines the role media in the form of hip-hop music videos play in the promotion of the hypersexuality of black women. One finding suggests: “Black female characters in popular rap music videos are reduced to hyper-sexual commodities. . . . . This study also substantiates propositions by Black feminists that rap music videos, loaded with hyper-sexual and sexist imagery, contribute to the devaluation of Black womanhood” (49).

Other scholars of black womanhood in hip-hop focus on its complicated nature. Rana Emerson‘s ” ‘Where My Girls At?’ Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos” argues that music videos by black women exhibit a combination of themes that simultaneously challenge and uphold “hegemonic” themes, resulting in complex representations of black womanhood. Emerson explains that their videos emphasize black women and their bodies as well as other themes that promote agency and independence: “What seems to emerge is a contradiction between the complex and often unconventional representations of Black women artists and the appearance of objectified and clearly one-dimensionally sexualized Black women dancers” (129).

There is no doubt that female K-pop artists are influenced by black womanhood. Just as black womanhood is complex, so is the nature of its influence in K-pop.


Emerson, Rana. 2002. ” ‘Where My Girls At?’: Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender and Society 16 (1): 115-135.

Gammage, Marquita Marie. 2015. “From the Auction Block to Hip-Hop.” Representations of Black Women in the Media: The Damnation of Black Womanhood. New York: Routledge, 34-70.

Raven, Erick. 2020. “HyunA: The Nexus of Blackness, Feminism, and K-pop.” The Journal of Popular Culture 53 (1): 192-214.

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What Type of Fan Are You?: Fan Hierarchy vs. Fan Continuum

Image: Pixabay

Fan identity is at the heart of fandom studies, and one of the most contested issues revolves around differentiating types of fans based on their knowledge, behavior or both. Fan hierarchy and fan continuum are two concepts that attempt to answer this question, with different implications.

In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett defines a fan as “a person with a relatively deep, positive emotional conviction about someone or something famous, usually expressed through a recognition of style or creativity. He/she is also a person driven to explore and participate in fannish practices” (18). As a result, a fan differs from a general member of an audience, for “contemporary culture still marks out an emotional and rhetorical divide between the identities of the fan and the ordinary audience member” (45). By definition, fans are emotionally attached to the object of fandom, while ordinary audiences are just not as attached. Fans can be identified by what they know and how they engage in a variety of fan activities.

Perhaps it is this emotional attachment that also factors into the way fans see themselves in relation to each other. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills refers to the notion of fan hierarchy, which he argues involves both fan cultural capital, or “the knowledge that a fan has about their object of fandom,” and fan social capital, or “the network of fan friends and acquaintances that a fan possesses, as well as their access to media producers and professional personnel linked with the object of fandom” (57). Hill’s issue is more with academics who study fans and how they arrange fans in relation to each other. Fan cultural capital is based on knowledge alone, whereas fan social capital is based on interaction with other fans and larger fan culture. This tends to lend itself to comparisons and valuing certain kinds of fans over others, privileging those who have more knowledge or more interaction with the larger fandom.

But Duffett realizes that this may not capture the complexities of fan culture. It also may reinforce a negative appraisal of fans. Remember that Duffett defines fan activity as positive. Instead, he proffers the notion of a fan continuum “that stretches between the least committed fans and the most dedicated fans” and allows for the consideration of other kinds of fan characteristics, including “fan self-identification, community participation, consumption of publicity material and archiving” (44).

This move attempts to get us away from thinking about “good” fans and “bad” fans, and more on what fans do and how they think of themselves. It recognizes as a fan anyone who has any level of the emotional attachment to the fan object. In this way, if you think you are a fan, then you are one. At the same time, it allows us to make distinctions based on how fans operate. We might be fans, but we are not the same type of fans. Some fans have a superficial engagement with the fan object, while others have deep knowledge. Hills acknowledges this when he notes that one can have high fan cultural capital, but low fan social capital. This doesn’t take away a fan’s identity, but it does describe a different mode of fandom. Fan continuum allows us to recognize the differences in fan practices without passing judgement on fans or questioning a fan’s authenticity.


Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Boys in a Girl’s World: Men, Fandom and K-pop


The fandom for Hallyu-era Korean popular music (K-pop) is overwhelmingly female. However, a portion of it does involve men, both as participants and critics. How does that impact the way we may view the fandom?

In “Girls’ Generation: Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop,” Stephen Epstein and James Turnbull challenge what they call “the triumphant discourse of the cultural industries,” or the recurrent idea that the rise of K-pop translates into an overall positive phenomenon for female artists, their audiences, and the South Korean government (317). As a result of their analysis of over 100 videos by top K-pop female groups, they suggest that the target of the performance of K-pop girl groups are men, because “the viewer in such videos is regularly constructed as male”  (318).  The essay concludes that K-pop girl groups do not empower girls and women. Instead, such performances shows “that Korea’s pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that for middle-aged men to focus their gaze on underage’ performers becomes cause for rejoicing rather than embarrassment” (333). In other words, female K-pop groups’ primary impact is on middle-aged men rather than the largely female fanbase they claim to target.

Conversely, Jarryn Ha examines the motives of male K-pop fans in Korea in “Uncles’ Generation: Adult Male Fans and Alternative Masculinities in South Korean Popular Music.”  Ha contextualizes the behavior of male Korean fans in their 20s within Korean cultural expectations:   “The ajossi type influences not only the outward appearance expected of men but also their behaviour, their consumption pattern and the ideology that constructs and perpetuates a particular kind of masculinity long prevalent in the Korean society. Both the persistent Confucian patriarchal values and the ideal of hard-working men. . . contributed to the conventional ajossi masculinity” (47).   While such male fandom can be viewed as an extension of the male gaze, Ha suggests that such behavior can actually challenges restrictive societal expectations: “Rather than a diversion and distraction from having a one-track mind devoted solely to the work and family life, pursuing well-rounded knowledge in the humanities, political activism and other interests stands for overcoming the closed, uncommunicative and authoritarian world-view that the previous generations of Korean men have established” (54).

While Ha examines possible motivations for male fans in Korea, Ingyu Oh and Choong-Mook Lee look at the role of male protesters of Hallyu in Japan.   Oh and Lee acknowledge the central role that female fans play in Korean popular culture in Japan:  “The feminine domination of the Hallyu movement in Japan is a natural outcome of persistent postcolonial gender inequality. . . .  [which] later developed into the multinational or transnational cultural experiences that comprise non-Western and even Korean pop culture in recent years” (286). Men come into the picture, not as fans, but as protesters of this female activity. Oh and Lee cite data that suggests men are at the forefront of protest activity around Hallyu in Japan:  “The recent Internet-based anti-Hallyu movements are connected to Japanese male chauvinism, which is closely linked to Abe’s second cabinet, anti-Hallyu protests, and anti-Hallyu comic books” (294).

K-pop fandom is overwhelmingly female, so why talk about men at all?  Male fans may be small in number, but they form a subculture within the subculture and scholars view their impact in different ways.  Both Ha and Oh and Lee speculate on the impact of actual male participants within specific cultural contexts, which gives insight on the motivations for male fans.  Ha reads Korean male behavior as a response to shifting societal conditions following Korea’s financial crisis, while . Oh and Lee link male protests to specific political dynamics in Japan that are linked to Japan’s colonization of Korea. However, Epstein and Turnbull address a potential male viewer of K-pop female groups. They also assert that K-pop girl groups cater to male desires to the detriment of the agency of female fans. In making this argument, do they shift the focus to male concerns rather than contextualizing male participation within a female-dominated fan activity?  In other words, we end up talking about men to the exclusion of women in a female-dominated fandom. On the other hand, Oh and Lee acknowledge the dominance of female K-pop fans in Japan, and characterize their fan activity as resistance to male protests.

Through few in number, there are various ways that men impact the female-dominated fandom of K-pop.


Epstein, Stephen with James Turnbull.  “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop.” The Korean Popular Culture Reader. EdKyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 314-336.

Ha, Jarryn. “Uncles’ Generation: Adult Male Fans and Alternative Masculinities in South Korean Popular Music.” Journal of Fandom Studies 3.1 (2015): 43-58. [Disclosure: I co-edited this special issue on K-pop and K-drama Fandoms for the journal]

Oh, Ingyu and Choong-Mook Lee. “A League of Their Own: Female Supporters of Hallyu and Korea-Japan Relations.” Pacific Focus: Inha Journal of International Studies 29.2 (2014): 284-302.
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New Orientalism or Old Hybridity?: Indian Music in K-pop

Sarod. Wikipedia.
Sarod. Wikipedia.

In “So Contagious: Hybridity and Subcultural Exchange in Hip-Hop’s Use of Indian Samples,” Sarah Hankins explores the sonic meaning of music from South Asia in African American music, specifically hip-hop. This made me wonder about the implications for K-pop, in light of its own practices in relation to hip-hop and its own cultural exchange with South Asian sounds.

Hankins frames the discussion between two poles. On one hand, the use of Indian samples in hip-hop recordings could signal “what Sunania Maira and others call new Orientalism—a cross-cultural appropriation of commodities encompassing such trends as the emergence of ‘Indo-chic’ within Western fashion” (194). In other words, such sampling could be seen as taking from a culture (as a Westerner) without acknowleding the original context (which happens to be in the East), what some may identify as misappropriation. On the other hand, the positioning of African Americans in relation to Western power dynamics complicates this explanation for Indian samples in hip-hop: “African Americans are a minority group and, in a broad sense, a diasporic one; in this light, their creative production is distinct from that of a hegemonic Western popular culture” (194). Hankins resolves this by asserting an argument where hip-hop’s use of Indian samples “is better understood as part of a subcultural exchange of commodities, one result of which is the creation of hybridity as a means to negotiate a relationship between both parties, as well as to a dominant culture” (195).

This strategy may help to explain the use of Indian musical soundscape in K-pop, which is not limited to hip-hop groups. Listeners can identify Indian music in a variety of K-pop songs. It can be heard in the back half of the chorus for 2NE1’s “I Am the Best”:

f(x) also uses it throughout the single “첫 사랑니(Rum Pum Pum Pum)”:

Most recently, MFBTY incorporated similar sounds into “Bang Diggy Bang Bang”:

As Hankins suggests, K-pop’s use of Indian sounds signals more hybridity and less new Orientalism. Like African Americans, South Koreans occupy a subject position that is not hegemonic in relationship to South Asia. If anything, they may be located on the same side of the Orientalist divide as a small economic power in East Asia dwarfed by China and Japan. At the same time, the use of Indian sounds relates more to the hybridity that defines K-pop. As the music videos by 2NE1, f(x) and MFBTY show, they cite Indian sounds but do not uncritically invoke the culture in the visuals. Instead, these videos follow the expectations of the respective K-pop groups. “I Am the Best” continues 2NE1’s representation of a hip-hop-inflected futuristic vision, with lots of eclectic outfits, shiny surfaces and attitude. The only visual in the video that invokes the East may be the large black pyramid near the middle of the video. f(x)’s video features their characteristic quirky style and bright colors along with choreographed dance.   MFBTY invokes their signature hip-hop style with a bit of humor in its video.

Hankins’ article does provide new insight in thinking about how other cultures use Indian sounds in pop music.

Image: “A Sarod.” Wikipedia. N.d. Web. 15 Apr 2015


Hankins, Sarah. “So Contagious: Hybridity and Subcultural Exchange in Hip-Hop’s Use of Indian Samples.” Black Music Research Journal 31.2 (2011): 193-208.
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Does Music Compute?: Computational Approaches to Emotional Expression


In looking for critical approaches to emotional expression in music,  I discovered the work of Patrik N. Juslin, Anders Friberg and Roberto Bresin, who propose a computational model to analyze emotion is music. This computational model simultaneously de-emphasizes cultural meanings of music while providing a vocabulary to describe emotional expression in music.

In “Toward a Computational Model of Expression in Music Performance: The GERM Model,” Juslin, Friberg and Bresin note that there are several approaches used to study the expression of emotion in music, including “generative rules,” “essentic forms,” ” cues from vocal expression of emotion,” “composers’ pulses” and “physical motion” (64).  In response, the authors propose a computational model that integrates these approaches, the GERM Model:  “The general aim of the GERM model is to describe the nature and origin of patterns of variability in acoustic measures shown over the time-course of a human music performance” (65-6).   The authors go on to describe the way these approaches come together in a way that allows them to draw meaning from a computational analysis.

On one hand, the computational approach does not seem to be compatible with my inquiry, which focuses on how English-speaking audiences of K-pop determine emotional meaning from music which contains lyrics in a foreign language, namely, Korean.   Attempting to apply a computational model to creative expression seems odd, in that such an approach uses something akin to the scientific method to reduce artistic nuances to numbers, formulas and algorithms.  Indeed, Juslin, Friberg and Bresin use just that language to describe computational methods, for they note, “It is commonly suggested that the central act of the scientific method is to create a model,” which “is a simplified representation of a phenomenon in terms of its essential points and their relationships” (65).  From a cultural studies point of view, this still leaves certain questions unanswered. Moreover, the classical music and subsequent performances under investigation in this study may be more amenable to a computational approach than popular music, which, by its very nature, is structured differently.

On the other hand, the authors do provide a vocabulary that I can use to describe the emotional expression of music. In describing the GERM model, the authors note scholarship that shows that “performers are able to communicate specific emotions to listeners” by using “a code which involves a whole set of acoustic cues (i.e. bits of information)”(71).  They proceed to summarize such cues and link them to certain emotions. For example, the authors associate “fast mean tempo” and “bright timbre” with happiness, a positive valence, but “slow mean tempo” and “dull timbre” with sadness, a negative valence. Because many of us listen to music so often, we may be so familiar with such cues that we do not pay them much attention.  However, such a summary is helpful in that it can help me to reveal these common cues in K-pop and understand how listeners make meaning out of them.


“Math in Music Project.” The Mathinator. 12 Oct 2012. Web. 2 Jan 2014.


Juslin, Patrik, Friberg, Anders and Roberto Bresin. “Toward a Computational Model of Expression in Music Performance: The GERM Model.” Musicae Scientiae 5 (2001-2002): 63-122.

What is ‘Western’ Music?: Foreign Influences on K-pop

Seo Taiji
Seo Taiji

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.


“Seo Taiji, Xahoi,” Hallyu Harmony, accessed September 3, 2014,


Kim, Chang Nam. K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music. Seoul: Hollym Publishers, 2012.

Lie, John. “What Is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.

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Girl Culture, Individuals and Neoliberalism

SISTAR's Sailor Moon Cosplay
SISTAR’s Sailor Moon Cosplay

As part of my research for my book project, Crazy/Sexy/Cool: Transnational Femininities in K-pop, I’ve been reading up on girl industries and girl cultures. Such scholarship invariably places these in a neoliberalist context, and this has a bearing on female K-pop groups.  On one hand, K-pop girl groups are created by Korean agencies to appeal to global mass audiences, who are mostly female. At the same time, individual fans find such groups appealing, sometimes in ways that challenge the intention of the Korean agencies. Marnina Gonick and Yeran Kim take two different approaches that bear on my work on K-pop girl groups.

In “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies,” Kim argues that “girl bodies are the core of the neoliberal regime of knowledge, power and pleasure” (334). Specifically, female K-pop girl groups are “cultural content that is designed and cultivated in a corporate management system. The mission and process of self-making as idols, regulated in the norms of competition, strategic training and management, self-invention, flexibility and multi-playing, embodies neoliberal idealization” (336). This makes sense to a certain extent, given the careful training of idols in general. This strategy can be traced back at least to the Hollywood casting system of the early 20th century, which was used for male and female starts. There is a business as well as cultural interest in promoting certain images for profit. The image that is used to appeal to various ages and ethnicities of fans reflects an ambiguity:  “The girl’s excessively sexualized body image tears up the pretentiously safe discursive surface of the girl, which should be innocent and pure in its literal meaning. The girls’ ambiguous sexuality is placed between pretty child/seductive adult, and split between conflicting binaries of purity/sensation, innocence/maturity and neatness/vulgarity” (340).

It is this very tension between seemingly opposing images that Gonick seeks to unravel in “Between ‘Girl Power’ and “Reviving Ophelia.”  While she writes on girl culture beyond K-pop girl groups, Gonick argues that rather than reinforcing the binaries that emerge from girl cultures, we should see them as interconnected. She describes a binary that includes Girl Power, which “represents a ‘new girl’: assertive, dynamic, and unbound from the constraints of passive femininity,” and Reviving Ophelia, which “presents girls as vulnerable, voiceless, and fragile” (2).  She argues that both “participate in the production of the neoliberal girl subject with the former representing the idealized form of the self-determining individual and the latter personifying an anxiety about those who are unsuccessful in producing themselves in this way’ (2).  Gonick recognizes that these modes of girl culture are contextualized by neoliberalism as Kim does, but gives more emphasis to the way girls participate and make meaning of these complex images:  “Both Girl Power and Reviving Ophelia discourses emphasize young female subjectivities as projects that can be shaped by the individual rather than within a social collectivity. The discourses encourage young women to work on themselves, through the dual campaigns of the Do-It-Yourself self-invention and ‘girls can do anything’ rhetoric of ‘Girl Power,’ as well as the self-help books and programs that are available to remedy girls in crisis” (18).

Both authors talk about the divergent images promoted by girl cultures like those that surround female K-pop girl groups, but Kim favors a structural interpretation of how fans interpret those images. She relies on reading such interpretations through the economic and governmental means that produce them and elides the interpretative work that fans do. Gonick keeps open the possibility that fans read those conflicting images in ways they may find empowering or the foundation for self-improvement.


“SISTAR’s Sailor Moon Cosplay Tickles Fans’ Fancy.” KoreAm Journal. 17 Jan 2014. Web. 28 Aug 2014.


Gonick, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia”: Constituting the Neoliberal Girl Subject.” NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 1-23.

Kim, Yeran. “Idol Republic: The Global Emergence of Girl Industries and the Commercialization of Girl Bodies.” Journal of Gender Studies 20.4 (2011): 333-345.
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