It’s no secret that K-pop groups such as BTS are heavily influenced by Black American artists. But now these groups are facing a call to action that comes along with embracing American culture — and that’s activism.
Here & Now‘s Tonya Mosley speaks with Crystal Anderson, affiliate Korean studies faculty member at George Mason University and author of the new book “Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-Pop.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Soul In Seoul’
By Crystal Anderson
Rhythm and blues as practiced by Motown represented cultural work because it effected a cultural change by shifting pop music itself. It was initially positioned opposite pop music. Going back to the 1950s, pop music initially included songs by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, whose style Martha Bayles (1994) describes as “smooth, polished vocal music set to an orchestrated background” (108). On the other hand, rhythm and blues represented “black oriented” music that mixed elements of swing and the blues with vocals derived from gospel (Bayles 1994, 111). This new form of music threatened pop music, as an article in Variety from 1955 shows: “The established pop vocalists are finding the current rhythm and blues phase of the music biz to be tough sledding. . . . The major diskers are not finding it easy to crack the r&b [sic] formula. . . . The kids not only are going for the tunes and the beat, but they seem to be going for the original interpretations as well” (Brackett 2005, 77). Rhythm and blues not only represented a different mode of music, it also provided the foundation for rock and roll and changed the pop music scene by introducing soulful vocals and rhythm-driven tracks that promoted dance and choreography in ways that continue today. Fitzgerald (1995) identifies Motown’s role as an innovator in the development of pop music itself and points to how the musical team of Holland-Dozier-Holland “elevated rhythm to new structural status,” creating “a new style of mainstream popular song . . . where the hidden architecture supporting the melodic/lyric hook is now primarily rhythmic” (8). After this point, it is almost impossible to talk about pop music without recognizing its R&B foundations, an influence that went beyond the black people who initially created it or its initial black American audiences. Rhythm and blues influenced pop music so much that “in late 1963 Billboard discontinued its rhythm & blues chart for over one year, apparently because it was similar enough to the more general Hot 100 music chart as to be redundant” (Ripani 2006, 81). Pop may go by a plethora of names, but much of it still retains the elements of R&B within a pop context. Ward (1998) suggests that Motown “forged a flexible house style which appealed across regional, racial and even generational boundaries” (262). That influence in pop music not only represented a measure of mainstream success, but also a recognition of the craft behind the musical production that made African Americans the envy of all.
Similarly, Korean music producers, who have great influence on the sound of K-pop, are known for high-quality music production and, when coupled with images, undertake cultural work. G.-S. Park (2013) observes that the Korean mode of music making relies on a particular kind of production that is local: “Thus far, however, only Spanish and Korean singers have been able to generate such wide success without relying on the global ‘track guys’ [melody composers who create popular music] indicating that these countries have been able to localize their music in a way that other countries cannot easily emulate” (29). Foreign producers who attend music camps in Korea sponsored by Korean entertainment agencies also recognize the quality of this distinct form of Korean pop music. Rodnae “Chikk” Bell describes the difference between American music production and Korean music production: “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies” (Leight 2018). Kevin Randolph adds: “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there. . . . You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs” (Leight 2018). This high music quality is inextricably linked to the image of Korean pop artists, who engage in the kind of cultural work we also see in Motown. The casting and training system makes it possible for Korean artists to use quality music as a springboard for parlaying their image. For example, government agencies and non-profits call on such artists to promote causes that produce a positive image of Korea. In 2015 the “idol” group MONSTA X was selected as ambassadors for Girl Scouts Korea because of its image: “We chose MONSTA X as ambassadors due to their diverse talents and charms. Their active and healthy persona fits Girl Scouts’ image” (K. Do, 2015). Beyond Korea, the “idol” group BTS delivered a speech at the United Nations as part of UNICEF’s Generations Unlimited initiative. The focus on image and music quality makes this possible.
Moreover, like Gordy, Korean agency CEOs promote an image of their own making rather than one thrust upon them by others. Given the experience of events like Japanese colonialism, this was sorely needed: “The experience in the Japanese schools engendered ambivalent feelings towards their own language, history and culture” (Eckart et al. 1990, 263). Rob Wilson (1991) details a number of instances of “a grandly orientalist rhetoric of Korean misrepresentation/ underrepresentation”: “If Asia is a territory of vast misrepresentation subject to recurrent tropes of Western orientalism, Korea remains more simply an enclave of sublime forgetting. . . . North/South ‘Korea’ still comprises for postmodern Americans a forbidding and forgotten landscape of belligerency” (239). In other words, Koreans face a global context where the image of their country remained distorted by others. Image has thus become a mechanism where Koreans create their own version of themselves. As Seabrook notes, “Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life” (Seabrook 2012). While this is often described as soft power, it also represents a specific, ethnically informed strategy of cultural work. Korean agencies mirror Gordy’s strategy to rehabilitate the image of Koreans globally. Korean CEOs like Lee Soo-man want to represent Korea well: “What I set forth was the idea of ‘culture first, economy next.’ I believe if the culture of a country becomes known to foreign people first then the economy of that country would thrive through those people. The same dream that shared with the artists, fellow employees and staff members is no longer just a dream. Now our dream has finally become reality” (“Korean Entertainment Agency Takes Its Acts Globally” 2011).
Korean CEOs, and black music producers like Gordy who preceded them, used the casting and training system and the quality of musical production to achieve crossover. Crossover includes the impact of image, combatting reductive ones and replacing them with ones based on work ethic, virtuosity, and quality of performance and music. Korean pop music uses the image of talented and hard-working performers who make and perform high-quality music to dispel the view of the country as weak, unstable, and lacking leadership. Korean entertainment agency CEOs seek to use Korea’s culture to project a self-determined image onto the global stage. It ties its creative and commercial cultural production to its national image through cultural work that worked for Motown decades earlier. By making music that simultaneously emulates and enhances the R&B tradition, CEOs and their pop artists become a global branch of R&B.
Excerpt from Crystal S. Anderson, “Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop,” Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2020, pp. 85-88.
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