Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop is the first scholarly book to examine how contemporary Korean popular music (K-pop) references and incorporate musical and performative elements of various genres of African American popular music. Specifically, it argues that K-pop simultaneously cites instrumentation and vocals from various genres of black popular music and employs distinct Korean musical strategies, thereby enhancing the R&B music tradition. Such citational strategies are deemed authentic by global fan critics who function as part of K-pop’s music press. Defining K-pop as an umbrella rather than a genre, the book explores music by Korean pop (commonly referred to as “idols”), R&B and hip-hop solo artists and groups to reveal how K-pop functions as a global branch in a global tradition of R&B music.
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.
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.
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.
Many professors bemoan the failure to do the assigned reading on the part of their students. But is that a reason to shy away from giving students challenging texts?
After regaling readers with the common experience of encountering students in the classroom who have not done the reading, Theresa MacPhail offers a solution in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She suggests assigning less reading: “Long story short: Don’t assign too much reading–and don’t assume you know how much reading is too much for your students.” Why? Because students are pressed for time and, “read only if they have time and if the readings are relatively easy to digest.” Moreover, she suggests that professors avoid long texts: “It may be the biggest reason students are no longer reading the things we assign. They have complained over and over again that a lot of assigned texts are just too boring or too long or–the deadliest of combinations–both at once.”
In her own classroom, MacPhail incorporates other kinds of material, including documentaries and podcasts. She only has students read a few scholarly texts during the course. The result: “My student are getting the information–but in formats with which they are most comfortable. Instead of reading more, they are doing more research and writing.”
There are two things that struck me. One is the idea that learning should be easy and comfortable. Whereas learning shouldn’t be torture, it also shouldn’t be without discomfort. I’m a proponent of meeting students where they are. At the same time, the goal is also to move the student forward, even if it’s just a little bit, and that often means taking the student out of a comfort zone to a new place that is unfamiliar and sometimes scary. But that’s ok! The unfamiliar then becomes familiar; then we move on to more unfamiliar things. What we should be doing is making students comfortable with being uncomfortable, with ambiguity, with not knowing and confident enough to charge ahead and grapple with difficult texts or challenging readings.
The other idea that struck me was placing reading in opposition to research and writing. As a person who designs and implements research programs for undergraduates and trains them to work on my own research, I know the value of reading for research. I know some academics who look down on basic bibliographic research, but that research is the foundation for any subsequent research. An inability to read well at this stage does not bode well later down the road. I have seen students who have never been asked to grapple with a “difficult’ text that challenged them. As a result, they lack the confidence and ability to do so. If a student never has to grapple with a dense text, then a student will never learn how to grapple with a dense text. But it’s about more than grappling with jargon or a boring text. It’s about developing critical reading skills that they can use anywhere.
Rather than denigrating difficult texts, perhaps what we should teach students is how to read smarter, which would really make the best use of their time and engage them with the material. Miriam E. Sweeney offers some great insights in her post, “How to Read for Grad School.” Instead of a cursory review of the material, these suggestions offer a reading strategy to ensure the reader understands the material at a sufficient depth to be able to engage its ideas. There are probably others who have written similarly.
In the 1970s, I remember seeing public service advertisements for the Reading is Fundamental program, which was designed to increase literacy rates. Reading is still fundamental. The way to address student reading is not to encourage students to avoid difficult reading, but to teach them how to engage it.
The K-pop fandom landscape has changed in the past few years. Data suggests that the general K-pop “idol” fandom is more divided than it was less than 10 years ago and challenges some widely held notions about the preferences of global K-pop fans. Read more at KPK: Kpop Kollective…..
OMO!: Korean and Chinese Drama and Commentary is my newest digital humanities project, which curates information on dramas and the global response to them in the form of reviews. It represents not only resource creation but also an examination of how global audiences make meaning of this transnational popular culture.
The project also includes the work of undergraduate researchers, providing the valuable experience of working on a research project. The first exhibit, City Hunter (2011), includes an analysis of the promotional poster as well as an overview as well as short-form and longer reviews compiled by De’siree Fairley, undergraduate research assistant. Users can view complete reviews in Evernote. As the project includes more dramas, we hope that we can determine a pattern in the consumption of dramas by global audiences.
Can’t decide which K-pop group or artist is your favorite? You are not alone! Global fans of K-pop tend to support several groups and artists at the same time, while their Korean counterparts tend to support only one group or artist. But why? And which groups tend to be in a global fan’s multi-fandom? This study seeks to answer these questions in survey that uses open-ended and multiple-choice questions. Take the survey and tell your friends!
One of the things that happens when conducting qualitative surveys is that they can raise more questions than they answer. This is what happened with the preliminary data from Last Fans Standing: Longtime and Adult Fans of Korean Popular Music (K-pop). Response rates were unusually low, which was unusual given the rising number of fans who have been fans for more than five years. I speculated that respondents may think that only adult fans who had also been fans for five years or more could take the survey. So, I revised the survey to focus solely on veteran fans of K-pop, individuals who had been fans for five years or more. The revised survey can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/vetfans !
We Are One! EXO::EXO-L is the first fandom profile for my iFans project. Like the profiles to follow, it provides information on K-pop groups and their fandoms, including curated cover songs, cover dances and fan projects by fans. Click here to check it out!