Project Update: Red Velvet: Queendom

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.

PROJECT UPDATE: TWICE – Girls Like Us

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.

PROJECT UPDATE: ATEEZ- PIRATE KINGS

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.

K-pop as Popular Music

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.

Sources

Emma Carey. “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music.” Esquire. 30 Jan 2021. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g35279080/best-pop-bands/ (2 Mar 2021).

Elijah Wald. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Roy Shuker. Understanding Popular Music. Routledge, 2016.

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K-pop as Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Writing about K-pop: Choose Your Disciplinary Adventure

Image by Cindy Lever from Pixabay

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.

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

Writing About K-pop: History and Context

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

One of the first things I wanted to do with my book, Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop, is to recognize K-pop’s history and development.  Placing K-pop within a historical context is crucial to the way we ultimately understand 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.

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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and University of Mississippi Press.

Sources

Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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Writing About K-pop: History and Context by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Teaching K-pop, Part 1: The Most Important Thing

Image by Simone Lugli from Pixabay

Before deciding on all the cool content to include in my course, KORE 320: Korean Popular Culture, there is one thing that I had to do, something that forms the foundation of the course. Figuring out this one thing made designing the course easier and will make for more effective learning for students. It was not readings, content, assignments or assessments.  The one thing I needed to decide was: What do I want students to know or be able to do by the end of the course?

In other words, it was the dreaded student learning outcomes. Look, I get it. Most faculty first encounter student learning outcomes as part of program assessment or curricular development, and it’s not fun. Within these contexts, it seems very formulaic and disconnected from student learning. But the fact of the matter is, knowing what you want students to know and do by the end of the course helps you to align everything else: readings, assignments and assessments. This means that everything has a purpose in the course. Students appreciate this because nothing is busywork.

In my KORE 320 course, I’m focusing on using Korean popular culture to teaching students about digital literacy, digital curation and digital writing because most of us outside of Korea engage with Korean popular culture through digital means. Students will learn how to locate and evaluate online media, describe the development and global spread of Korean popular culture, use scholarly concepts to interpret Korean popular culture and develop skills through the use of digital, web-based tools.

While they look concise, coming up with my learning outcomes wasn’t easy.  I spent weeks honing them. Why? Because I had to make sure that before students did advanced things (known in HE circles as higher-order thinking)  they had opportunities to work up to them (by doing lower-order thinking). Cue Blooms Taxonomy!

Image: Fractus Learning

For example, I want students to be able to analyze Korean popular culture (higher-order thinking). But before they can do that, I have to give them the opportunity to be able to define concepts that can be used to analyze Korean popular culture (lower-order thinking) and provide opportunities for them to practice applying those concepts to Korean popular culture (midway between lower-order and higher-order). I have some nifty ideas about getting my students to do this (future post), and as fun as it is to start with the readings or the historical and cultural context or the videos or the dramas, I needed to work this out first. As instructors, student learning outcomes help us to map out how learning happens in our courses and create well-designed courses. Other factors can also inform your decisions. Where does the course fall in the curriculum? Is it required or an elective? Are there program outcomes it needs to meet? Is it a general education course? These can shape how you craft your outcomes.

One thing you’ll notice quickly is that you may not be able to cover as much breadth as you’d like. I know, I know, you want to do all the things. I could teach this whole course on 2nd generation K-pop idols. But, there is a good amount of research that suggests that depth is beneficial for student learning.  How many times have you taught a course and had to cut material? How sure were you that students did all that reading? Depth gives students the tools they need to encounter ideas they may encounter beyond your material.

When a course is well-designed, then it is easier to know how it might be able to change to address shifting circumstances, like changing modalities (future post) because of a pandemic. Notice this post does not start out with the modality of teaching (i.e. face-to-face, hybrid, online), because that’s not the most important thing. If you know your outcomes and how you will measure them (future post), then it is easier to change modalities because the foundation of your course is set.

Spending some time crafting your outcomes will lay a solid foundation for your course.

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Teaching K-pop, Part 1: The Most Important Thing by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

What K-pop Can Teach Us About Engagement for Online Courses

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One of the most common concerns about moving courses online is that engagement is lost. However, it could be useful to draw on the kind of engagement that is central to contemporary Korean popular music (K-pop) culture.

Most articles you may read about the need to teach online courses (as opposed to the emergency remote teaching that most instructors engaged in in the spring) contains the often unchallenged assertion that online courses cannot replicate the engagement of the face-to-face course, seen by many as indispensable to learning.  John Kroger recently wrote in Inside Higher Education: “In the process, we have gained a much clearer understanding of what online education cannot do — or, in other words, the ways in which traditional in-person cannot be replaced. The most obvious area in which online delivery simply cannot replicate the value of in-person learning is in science and technology education. ” For many, this extends to other disciplines as well. Many people believe that being face-to-face is essential to learning. Period. Related to this critique is the characterization of online courses. Drawing on their experience this past spring or bad online course experiences, some argue that online courses are merely videos and quizzes.

We know that learning is a social activity. Instead of trying to replicate the face-to-face experience, we might look to modes of engagement that already work online. K-pop artists and fans have used the digital space to form connections and have engaging and memorable interaction for years. K-pop artists use social media such as Twitter, Instagram, VLive and YouTube to communicate with fans and share content. Fans reciprocate, as evidenced by the large numbers of followers artists have on these outlets. From old-school sharing platforms like MediaFire to closed discussion forums to collaborative Twitter accounts, K-pop fans have been deploying social media to communicate with each other for years.  This was particularly the case in the early years of the global spread of K-pop. If you were a fan of K-pop, it was unlikely that you knew anyone in your real life who was also a fan. As a result, fans turned to the internet. And while many people negative characterize K-pop fan activity,  fans more often deploy online modes to collaborate on philanthropic projects, organize promotion support and just engage with each other over a common passion.  K-pop fans often talk about the bonds they form with other fans without ever having met them.

Instructors could use these platforms in their courses to support the kind of engagement that is crucial for learning.  How can we create opportunities for students to create community in our courses? Do we have a space where students can post things they find related to the course and learn to look at such artifacts critically? Do we provide a way for students to talk to each other? Do we encourage students to form chat groups with other members of class for that important back-channel back-and-forth? Do we limit our interaction with students to just sharing information and content from the course, or can we envision a space in our online course where we just chit-chat with students?

When I mentioned this to a colleague, he responded that people spend untold hours watching YouTube or on Twitter because it is something they like. Could this be the real crux of the challenge facing instructors in the move to online, namely, to make our courses interesting enough for students to spend the kind of time on them as they spend in other activities on the Internet?

Sources

John Kroger. “The Limits of Online Education.” Inside Higher Education. 6 May 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/limits-online-education (14 May 2020).

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What K-pop Can Teach Us About Engagement for Online Courses by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Mission Impossible: Curating the History of K-pop

Some of us are using this unprecedented time to work on projects that have gotten away from us. My latest project, KPOPCULTURE, a never ending quest to create a history of K-pop, is one such project!

From KPOPIANA to the Kpop Collaboration Project, I have been working on projects that seek to document and describe K-pop’s development, structure and how we think about it. Such research is the essence of a mission impossible research project, one that relies on ever-shifting sources on K-pop on the Internet and constant development of the music in general. But most importantly, it’s a challenge doing this work for 10 years, especially in the early years when K-pop was not even recognized as a legitimate object of study.  But research is not dependent on what’s popular and trendy; it’s driven by curiosity.

Working with undergraduate students, my colleague Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and I trained students (and pretty anyone else, really) back in 2011 to use digital tools to find and evaluate key information about K-pop and its culture using our KPK: KPopKollective site housed on good old WordPress. Our Kpop Essentials defined common terms used by K-pop fans, while Solo Artists and Groups provided basic information (like explanation of fandom names!), discographies and videographies.   We moved this project over to KPOPIANA, and used its more robust tools to document more extensive information.

At the core of such projects has always been curation and documentation. As my historian friends will tell you, it’s not just about information; it’s about crafting a narrative based on observing patterns, influence and relationships. This means not only going through a lot information, but putting that information in a form that explains and seeks to answer not just what but also why.

Which brings me back to KPOPCULTURE, my most adventurous project to date to capture a comprehensive history of K-pop. Housed in Omeka, a web-based content management system, KPOPCULTURE allows me to document and explain K-pop’s music, choreography, creative personnel and media. The project balances providing information to the public with more in-depth context-building to understand K-pop artists, the industry and the media.

For example, Omeka allows me to create items with more discrete information, like capsule profiles on artists like TVXQ, a group that recently had been deemed under-appreciated and little-known by current K-pop fans. Basics Items includes information about the K-pop artist as well as a selection of music videos that covers the breadth of a career. Omeka also allows me to use Items in Music Exhibits, such as SHINee: Like a Fire, a music exhibit that chronicles the group’s music through a curated playlist, music reviews and fan playlists. I have also created Special Exhibits, such as a retrospective of concepts used by Girls’ Generation (SNSD) in the exhibit, Girls’ Generation: Flower Power.

The quest continues! Let’s hope I can get more Items and Exhibits done.

Image by MasterTux from Pixabay

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Mission Impossible: Curating the History of K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.