The new exhibit on KPOPCULTURE, “Red Velvet: Queendom,” details the group’s musical production featuring their dual concept since debut in 2014. The exhibit provides basic information about the group and its music as well as a curated playlist derived from fan data.
This exhibit is a part of the KPOPCULTURE digital humanities project, which curates global Korean popular music (K-pop), creative personnel and performance.
The new exhibit on KPOPCULTURE, “Twice: Girls Like Us” shares the group’s impressive run of promotional tracks since debut in 2015. These tracks resonate with fans more so than deep cuts from releases. The exhibit provides basic information about the group and its music as well as a curated playist derived from fan data.
This exhibit is a part of the KPOPCULTURE digital humanities project, which curates global Korean popular music (K-pop), creative personnel and performance.
The new digital exhibit, ATEEZ : Pirate Kings, marks the return of the KPOPCULTURE project. Even though ATEEZ is a rookie group debuting just in 2018, the group has been quite prolific, and fans have been diligent in listening to their music, as evidenced by the healthy combination of promotional as well as deep cuts on playlists. The exhibit provides basic information about the group and its music as well as a curated playlist.
This exhibit is part of the KPOPCULTURE digital humanities project, which curates global Korean popular music (K-pop), creative personnel and performance.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Looking for something exciting to do during the pandemic? Check out this book talk at 1:00 – 2:30 (PST) on April 30, (sponsored by the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Africana Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills). Register here.
K-pop is a form of popular music whose significance goes beyond its financial success.
In January 2021, Esquire published Emma Carey‘s article, “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music,” which acknowledged the slippery nature of the label of “pop,” but also declared: “In simple terms, pop music is literally. . . popular music.” It goes on to explain the criteria for the listing of best pop bands: “When it comes to pop bands, we’re basically just looking at collectives of hit-makers, no matter their pop purity or crossover creed. From rock and roll adjacent pop bands like The Beatles, to Motown greats like The Supremes, R&B/pop/ crossovers like Destiny’s Child, and disco-influenced pop acts like ABBA, the variety of pop bands knows no bounds. The only requisite to making the cut? Topping the charts.” The article lists only one K-pop group, BTS, a choice that conforms to list’s criteria. For Esquire’s list, economic success equals chart success and chart success equals popularity.
But should chart success define popular music? Elijah Wald, author of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, reminds us of the original function of music charts: “It is always worth remembering that they were intended specifically to serve the needs of the record and radio industries, and at best measured only selected markets. The charts of pop, R&B, and C&W hits were never meant to be lists of people’s favorite performers or songs; they were lists of favorite–or most-played, or best-selling–singles” (181). Wald reminds us that the whole concept of charts serves the music industry rather than audiences. Currently, charts like Billboard use a method that includes paid digital downloads and digital streams. Both indicate economic impact, or how well an act sells.
K-pop’s audiences are spread across ages, locations and, most importantly, greatly vary in their ability to contribute to the economic criteria for the charts. There are many K-pop fans who may not have access to paid digital downloads, streaming plays and streaming data or may not engage with them frequently. Using these metrics do not capture how these fans feel about their artists. Moreover, it is widely known that K-pop fans work to collectively mass stream their favorite artists to improve their performance on these metrics, so that such metrics do not always reflect an organic popularity. When we define popular music by economic success, we marginalize and erase significant figures from the landscape of K-pop, which skews our perception of K-pop as a music tradition spanning over 20 years.
It might help to view K-pop as popular music defined beyond economic success. In Understanding Popular Music, Roy Shuker warns against using commercial success as a basis for a definition of popular music: “Related to this emphasis on the popular, are definitions emphasizing the commercial nature of popular music and embracing genres perceived as commercial, with the term ‘mainstream’ often used to indicate these. . . . In such definitions, certain genres are identified as ‘popular music,’ while others are excluded. However, this approach can suffer from the same problems as those stressing popularity because many genres have only limited appeal or have had limited commercial exposure. Moreover, popularity varies from country to country and even from region to region within national markets” (5).
Defining popular music solely by its financial success marginalizes and excludes. Shuker suggests that music can be popular without widespread financial success: “The criteria for what counts as popular, and their application to specific musical styles and genres, are open to considerable debate. Classical music clearly has sufficient following to be considered popular, while some forms of popular music are quite exclusive (e.g. Norwegian black metal)” (5). K-pop is like Norwegian black metal in that it appeals to a subculture not in the mainstream but it is still popular music. Wald is concerned with avoiding reductive canons that can emerge when we solely focus on popularity defined by economic success: “One thing I want to stress is that I am trying to write history, not criticism–that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work” (10). In other words, Wald seeks to look at the context that surrounds popular music rather than assume that the best-selling are the only significant figures. Considering K-pop as popular music would mean going beyond the best-selling artist to explore the musical environment of the time.
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.
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.
K-pop is often seen in present-day terms. It is described and treated as a short-term trend. Much of what many people know about K-pop comes through the media. Journalists tend to focus on the current developments and their coverage of K-pop is no exception. K-pop’s coverage includes metrics of popularity, such as views, streams, charts and awards. We need that coverage.
At the same time, Elijah Wald sees a difference between the way critics and historians approach popular music in his introduction to How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2011):
The critic’s job is to assign value and importance on an artistic level, which necessarily is a judgment about how the work stands up in the present. The historian’s is to sort out and explain what happened in the past, which means attempting to understand the tastes and environment of an earlier time. And the latter task also involves sorting out and understanding how earlier critics and historians were affected by their own times. (8).
My book, in part, tries to understand K-pop, beginning with what it actually is. As early as 2013, I explored how we could talk about K-pop in a way that recognized its highly visible pop groups (i.e. “idols”) but also included other types of groups that K-pop fans also liked, thereby avoiding the often-repeated myth that K-pop is a genre (“Let’s Call This Song Exactly What It Is: Defining K-pop” 2013).
Understanding K-pop also involves recognizing K-pop’s iterations and developments over time, which is much more like a historian than a critic. In addition to talking about the way black popular music informed K-pop, I felt that it was also important to talk about K-pop examples and explain why these examples were important within the larger historical narrative of K-pop. For example, each section of the book begins with a bit of contextualization, explaining where the groups under discussion fit in the general history of K-pop and how they relate to each other.
For example, g.o.d, a first-generation K-pop group, and 2PM, a second-generation K-pop group, were both labelmates at JYP Entertainment and their sound draws from black popular music. While the prevailing notion is that all “idol” groups sound the same, these groups couldn’t be more different in terms of genres of black popular music they draw from and the way they use their vocalists to produce very different music. Only by understanding them in relation to each other can see how they are related as well as their differences. Ultimately, I emulate Wald’s attempts “to write history, not criticism–that is, . . . [to] explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work” (10). Like Wald, I’m more interested in connections among artists across time.
K-pop warrants a consideration of its history because it impacts the way we see it now.
In Part 2, I talked about how to help students develop knowledge and skills (assignments) and how to evaluate what they know and are able to do (assessments). Finally, in Part 3, we get to what many of us consider to be the fun part: deciding what material to cover and activities to do in our course.
I made two decisions about the content for my course. The first was that I would not require students to purchase a book on Korean popular culture. I want students to have a critical framework for examining Korean popular culture, but I also did not want them to get hung up on academic jargon. This is an elective course with multiple majors, not a required major course culminating in a major research project. Moreover, I was more interested in students being able to apply scholarly concepts and see the impact of historical context than their ability to recite this or that theory. So I opted to have students read journal articles, which are more accessible. I will supplement this information with mini interactive lectures that also show them how to apply scholarly ideas. I have also allowed flexibility in my choice of other course material. Other than choosing our course K-drama, I have decided to use current events in Korean popular culture and relate them to the historical context and scholarly ideas we will encounter in the readings. This will keep class fresh and relevant for students.
The second was that I would emphasize discussions about what we were learning. Fully a quarter of my course is devoted to some kind of discussion. My course is online and asynchronous. I know many of my colleagues worry about how to maintain student engagement, since it is so different from their face-to-face experience. I’m taking a page out of the K-pop handbook, and allowing my students to have smaller but more frequent interactions about the material by having them respond to specific topics I pose. By guiding the discussion, I also model how students can also post engaging discussion questions. I’m using Slack (my first time) to have students talk and work with each other and engage the material. Slack is also an app that students can access on their phones, as opposed to our clunky LMS (yes, Blackboard, I’m talking about you). Slack also allows you to post multimedia, so I encourage students to share things that are related to their interests, much like you would among your friends. I also know such conversations are fruitful to me as a scholar.
These decisions also support student learning in a pandemic. I really like this piece, “Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All” by Daniel Stanford on low-bandwidth teaching. He reminds us that “courses that require frequent use of high-bandwidth technologies can limit their ability to fully participate in course activities. This can jeopardize their success in the course, create a sense of shame and anxiety and leave them feeling like second-class citizens.”
By using Slack for collaboration and discussion, I hope to keep the course accessible for all students to increase the chances that not only will students continue to participate in the course, but will have more effective learning as they do so. I know my students are familiar with chat and messaging so if they can use these in our course, they will be more likely to be engaged in the class and its content.