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[HanCinema Korea's Diary] SNSD in America: Will the West Ever Truly Embrace K-pop?

2012/02/04 | 3477 views |  | Permalink

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This past week the popular K-pop group Girls' Generation (also called SNSD) made their US prime time debut, appearing on both ABC's morning show "Live! with Kelly" as well as on "The Late Show with David Letterman". This is the latest attempt by a K-pop group/artist to infiltrate the global mainstream music industry, with the US being the final obstacle needing to be overcome in order to truly break into the global music scene. A lot has been made of SNSD's performance and their subsequent media exposure in the US, but perspectives are divided on not only if they could succeed but also whether a Western audience could ever accept K-pop in its entirety.

The "Korean Wave" has been a much-publicised cultural symbol of Korea's attempt to market their local talent and culture to the world. K-pop, in particular, has proven to be a bigger winner for this notion as many of Korea's neighbouring Asian countries have embraced K-pop and its idols. Cultural similarities play into the factors that make K-pop's transition into Asia a success, but the US has proved troublesome as cultural dissimilarities and unavoidable differences in their approaches to music industry hinder K-pop's ability to become fully recognised.

This transcends the simple matter of personal taste and instead raises questions of cultural identity and cross-cultural transference. SNSD performed their new hit song "The Boys", which was sung in English, the biggest cultural barrier, but is this simple change in language enough to create interest in this Asian pop group? If the blogosphere is anything to go by the answer is an unequivocal no. Having followed a number of recent postings on SNSD's performance, there seems to be a number of issues that continual come up, most notably the contrast between Korea's approach to popular music and that of the West.

On "Live! with Kelly" the group was asked how they all met and came to be the popular group they are today. The response was that anyone with a basic knowledge of the K-pop industry would know. They were train, almost manufactured, into the form they now hold. There was no real 'story' of success in their rise to fame and popularity. This kind of narrative is particular important to Western audiences as pure on-stage presences in but only one dimension in a multi-faceted disco ball of how artist come to be recognised, supported, and loved. When the story of a group such as SNSD amounts to little more that cogs in a machine, the necessary emotional attachment to those artists just isn't there. I use this term 'superficial' in the sense that K-pop groups like Girls' Generation struggle to establish themselves beyond their flashy on-stage performances. They have the moves, the looks, and possible the skills but that is a small part of becoming a star.

Shows like "American Idols" and the Korean talent show "Superstar K" taps into this phenomenon as fans become attached to artists and their stories of success. Humans love conflict and we find ourselves more willing to lend our favour to groups and public figures that have persevered and triumphed in a way that hasn't been artificially created. It's that narrative of their lives that grabs our attention and cements our admiration to them as stars and idols. And when SNSD answered that question about how they got together, I cringed knowing that that was not the response that would trigger a favourable response from the American audiences.

My point is that on a fundamental level the problematic transference of K-pop groups to the West seems to be somewhat rooted in the philosophical differences between the two industries. This applies largely to the most popular K-pop groups and less so to some of the smaller music groups that weren't cultivated in the same manner as SNSD. I am not personal apposed to the world experiencing great Korean music, but Korea's mainstream industry seems too tailored to the Asian market that they might just be using the wrong bate. I have seen many a small Korea rock group perform at bars and clubs that have heaps of personality both on and off the stage, and it is these kinds of groups and artist that would, in my opinion, fair better in the West.

Groups such as Girls' Generation are facing obstacles in the West that they might not be able to inherently overcome; but why is that the goal here? Why are the US and the West so important to the K-pop industry? SNSD are hugely popular in Asia and that is not something that can be ignored or undermined. Again it is the nature of the beast as the K-pop industry feels an incessant need to branch out and maximise its efforts, even at the risk of alienating its own culture through culturally specific marketing and the questionable presentation of its idols. Is the international music scene highest level of musical being? And does failure in the US somehow constitute a failing on the K-pop industry or taint Korean pride? These kinds of questions are subjected mostly to the harsh rubric set forth by the Korean media and the K-pop industry itself.

I would be interested to here other people's opinion here on whether or not K-pop groups, such as Girls' Generation, would inherently be able to make a serious and lasting impact on the Western music scene. Or will the Korean Wave never amount to more that a ripple on the shores of the Western music mind-set. Alternatively, does is even matter if mainstream Korean pop groups aren't able to penetrate into West? I believe that many smaller indie and rock groups in Korea would do great if given half the backing bigger more popular groups had. Please feel free to share you thoughts in the comment section below. Discussions are welcome but please be respectful and keep the unadulterated fanaticism to a minimum!

-C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com)

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