Popular Culture Reflects Social Changes

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

The craze for plastic surgery, suicides of celebrities, and singers and actors doing "comedy" gigs on entertainment programs seem to be separate areas of the local showbiz industry. But they are closely interconnected through the same mechanisms in this fast-changing information and technology era.

Kim Yeon-soo, a culture critic, has picked out five keywords commonly permeating our lives to explain and define current popular trends.

In a new book, "Reasonable Bias for Popular Culture", she chose the five ― deconstruction, interaction, multi, image and reality ― which are prevalent in popular culture these days.

This book provides a comprehensive introduction and examines the problems and possibilities of study in this fast changing field.

Employing a unique approach, Kim uses techniques of deconstruction to unpick, analyze and deconstruct contemporary examples of popular culture. The book looks at various fields to question claims behind the importance of popular culture and encourage readers to form their own interpretations of what they experience every day.

Kim said that the rapid development of communication technology has accelerated "deconstruction", turning people's interest from a meta-narrative to more private and individual matters.

"Popular culture evolves from social customs and conventional wisdoms to the pursuit of individual happiness. The deconstruction process is now happening all over the cultural field, which breaks down stereotypes based on ideology and common values dominating the past era", Kim says in her book.

She cited some popular TV dramas dealing with love affairs out of wedlock. "In the 21st century, social perception about improper relationships in married life has been changed as individuality has been highlighted. It's because people put their own happiness and desires before social values to lead a truly happy life", she said.

Also, the dramas even portray the collapse of gender roles through "A Frozen Flower" and "Coffee Prince", and the denial of age roles found through the new terms such as "NOW" (New Older Women, "NOMU" (No More Uncle) and "Kidult".

She said that "deconstruction" has raised the status of the masses, which means the power of the masses brings about "interaction" with culture.

The author said that the new "interaction" age has transformed popular culture too. In the past, there was a clear distinction between producers and consumers. Meanwhile, now, the boundary is getting blurred between, ushering in the era of "prosumers". This is happening in the cultural field too, she said.

Kim introduced entertainment programs, which communicate with the audience through the Internet, which can ultimately affect the contents of the programs and change the direction of the shows.

"In recent years, communication between viewers and producers is inevitable due to the wide use of UCC, personal homepages and blogs", she said.

A couple of years ago, "Champion Mabbagi" ("Champion Mabbak"), part of the KBS comedy program "Gag Concert" garnered huge popularity despite the childish format in which four comedians appear on stage beating their foreheads with their hands. But the segment made a good use of UCC clips which showed viewers imitations to induce their participation in the show.

Also, idol groups' fans are becoming more influential in the entertainment industry. Some fans of Super Junior, a 13-member boy group, bought 60,000 stocks, or 0.37 percent of the total, in SM Entertainment. The fan club did it in order to influence the company's policies, actually to prevent it from adding another member to the group. She said "fandome" culture is more than just supporters of stars ― it has the power to affect their activities and often overshadows the original intention to interact with stars.

The digital era has also created a new paradigm of "multi-function", fusing genres and roles.

In entertainment programs, many stars are crossing over genres from singing to acting and vice-versa.

Also, announcers are becoming entertainers to survive in the industry. Programs are mixing entertainment elements with information and education to better appeal to viewers.

One-source-multi-use is often found in various genres from animation and books, to TV dramas, films and musicals.

"In the convergence era, various genres are intertwining with each other, creating a common element and producing a synergy effect. It's a natural trend of the cultural industrial period", she said.

Kim said that "image" is inevitable in reading cultural trends. "The craze for plastic surgery and the desire to get into shape are reflections of the segmentation of desire in the pursuit of beauty", she said.

Many variety shows create characters and nicknames for stars that show their personalities easily, which are all part of an image-oriented strategy, the writer said.

Lastly, "reality" is the term defining current trends. Last year, except for dramas, the most viewed programs of the three major broadcasters were "The Unlimited Challenge", "The Family Is Out" and "Two Days and One Night" and they were all reality (entertainment) programs. The programs were popular because they reveal stars' natural looks, habits and personalities.

"People don't merely regard stars as those in the sky because they know their images are created. So they want to see the natural and spontaneous look of their everyday life", she said.

Kim said that all the trends reflect social characteristics under a capitalist society.

"The problems facing popular culture are related to the problems of capitalism in Korean society. It's because there has been no philosophy to sustain rapid economic growth. And it's the same situation for popular culture", she said.