The Korean Popular Culture Reader: Out Now!

The Korean Popular Culture Reader(Source)

Squeee!

Ahem. But, it has been a very long and frustrating wait at my end, so frankly I’m thrilled to finally have my contributor’s copy of The Korean Popular Culture Reader in my hands. And on the day before my birthday no less!

For a free, downloadable copy of the introduction, see Scribd here. Alas, you’ll have to actually buy the book itself for Stephen Epstein’s and my contribution, the chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K- pop,” but it’s a surprisingly cheap $25 for the whole 450-page tome.

14.3(From page 323: “Figure 14.2. So Hee gives a knowing look in the Wonder Girls’ So Hot, acknowledging the power she wields over the male gaze.”)

To any readers who do buy it, thank you, and please feel free to post any rants, raves, or questions below. I’ll also put a link to this post in the right sidebar for continued easy access in the future.

What are you waiting for? ;)

17 thoughts on “The Korean Popular Culture Reader: Out Now!

  1. James, hey! Well, this is my first time here – and I’m so desperate ’cause I can’t find The Korean Popular Culture Reader copy in Brazil. Well, I’m Bruno Henriques and I’m finishing the last year of Fashion Design in a brazilian university. PLEASE, help me! I need this book so much to finish my final essay – and I can’t wait for 8 weeks for the shipment! Do you know if there’ll be any ebook available? I bought Korean Masculinities… and it’s helping me a lot. Please, I’d appreciate so much if you could answer this message…! Thanks and hugs from Brazil!

    • Thanks, and sorry you can’t find a copy. I could ask the editor about an ebook for you if you want, but I’m pretty sure there won’t be one sorry, and definitely not in time for your essay.

      Best of luck though!

      p.s. Does it really take Amazon 8 weeks to ship to Brazil? Jeez…and I thought shipping to Korea was slow!

  2. Hi James,

    I’m very late to the party, but I figured I’d comment anyway: felicitations!

    Maybe you’ve seen it, but in case not: I actually reviewed this book for The Kyoto Journal. (Somehow I get invited to review for Japanese publications more than for Korean ones.) Dropping by today, I saw the cover and remembered that I hadn’t let you know at the time.

    Though there were some fascinating pieces in the book, I was actually pretty critical of it—mainly because the editors claim that it’s supposed to address the needs of Korean Studies profs suddenly having to teach Hallyu-related pop culture in Western universities by popular student demand, but it almost exclusively doesn’t deal with anything in the range of popular culture that those students are interested in.

    In that respect, your and Stephen’s chapter is one of the few that is usefully on-topic in terms of the book’s stated mandate, and certainly one of the few that could be used with undergrads in a Korea Pop Culture course (in my opinion). I don’t much care about Kpop, even as a social phenomenon—I find the institutional embrace of Kpop here (by government, as representative of Korean culture generally, I mean) rather degrading and pathetic, really. In fact, the older I get, the more I suspect the academic embrace (and let’s be honest, celebration) of pop culture, and this searching of it for snippets of political significance, probably amounts to carefully and creatively reading tea leaves while the whole polis burns and collapses all around us… Which I suppose marks me as potentially hostile to the whole enterprise from the outset, though I enjoyed the book more than I expected.

    Bu even with that critical bias of mine, I will acknowledge that one sometimes must teach the subject of pop culture—not only because universities must provide such courses due to student demand, but also because it’s the culture students are best acquainted with—and for those purposes, I found myself wishing it had been a whole volume of critical papers on contemporary popular culture, like yours.

    Anyway, the whole review was in a print issue (though I could send you a PDF clipping, if you like) but the gist is here:

    http://www.gordsellar.com/2014/11/02/clueless-reviews-complicit-academics-and-hallyu-nationalism/

    … embedded among mostly the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. I’m much more specific about my general criticisms in my blog post than I was in the printed review, though, mind you, because of course reviews must of necessity be shorter.

    Hope you’re doing well…
    Gord

    • By the way, I don’t mean any offense regarding the pop culture thing; it wasn’t really an attack on your whole, you know, project here. My view is a little more complicated that it seems above: after all, I’m an SF writer, and would like academics in literature to take SF seriously.

      Just in case it felt like a half-veiled slam. It wasn’t.

      • Hi Gord,

        Sorry again for the delay, and for the confusion caused by my leaving a comment last night and then deleting it later; my first attempt was very rambling. I’ll try to be more focused this time round.

        First up, no offense taken at all about the pop culture thing: I didn’t for a moment take it as a veiled attack, and indeed we’re probably in broad agreement about the quality of much of Korean pop culture (or any country’s pop-culture). As I predicted, K-pop in particular seems to have degenerated into an endless succession of ever more provocative, ever more mindless and vapid “sexy concepts”, so I’ve lost much of my former enthusiasm for it.

        Like you say, your views about the academic embrace of pop-culture are more nuanced than in your quick comment, so I shouldn’t overanalyze it (not for a second time at least!). Again, we’re probably in broad agreement about the navel-gazing nature of much of it — albeit no more than in any other social science — and the imperative of its practitioners to find snippets of political significance in their material. That natural bias aside, the older I get and more I study it, I am indeed more firmly convinced of its profound impacts on people’s lives. But I also acknowledge that too often that link is taken for granted, and that the onus is on people like myself to do the expensive, inconvenient, and impractical ethnographic research necessary to prove the links do indeed exist. (And even more expensive, inconvenient, and impractical for an unpaid blogger. Sigh.)

        As for the institutional embrace and constant, uncritical celebration of K-pop and so on, actually I probably find that just as nauseating as you do. But no less than I did the NZ media and public’s embrace of sport say, and I certainly don’t bemoan the Korean government’s embrace of it. Partially, because the alternative, more “authentic” cultural forms usually presented are rather specialized, rather elitist tastes, and consequently could never and will never gain much popularity overseas. And mainly because, if not through dramas, music, and film then, all with wide potential markets in culturally similar East Asian countries, through what else could Korean ever have gained any soft power? (Which is not to say that, on the momentum of the wave, more attention should be paid to promoting things like Korean literature and encouraging, rather than dictating, the grassroots embrace of Korean food that is occurring.)

        Certainly you could argue that the music didn’t have to be vacuous K-pop, but a good source I’m using for a journal article I’m working on at the moment (I can find it for you if you like, or for anyone else reading for that matter) convincingly demonstrates that a combination of factors, including: the timing of the Asian Financial Crisis; the consequent more rapid decline of CDs here compared to in European, North American, and Japanese markets; the inability to sing in English and compete in the US market; the rise of the internet and SNS, which Korea was an early adopter of; and so on, meant that Korean entertainment companies had a strong comparative advantage in pushing the very visual, online-focused, non-controversial and ad-friendly, idol trainee system that most critics dislike so much, including me. And for Korea’s sake, I’d much rather the rest of the world was talking about K-pop and so on than North Korean nukes, or – worse – not at all.

        Finally, I hear you about the contents of the book, which I’ve seen echoed in online reviews, and frankly I too would have been very disappointed if I’d picked it up wanting to know more about Hallyu. It’s also ironic, and a little bittersweet (edit: but also nice thanks), to hear that our chapter would remain the most interesting for most students, as it was highly time-sensitive, and pretty much completed by the time of the associated conference in (I think) September 2011, but didn’t end up being published until March 2014. Probably the less I rant about that online the better though.

        I did see your original post when it came out (I still read all of them!), and would still appreciate a PDF of the final review thanks, either via FB or to james_turnbull@rocketmail.com. I’m sure Stephen would too, unless he’s already picked up a copy himself. Cheers.

        p.s. Apologies in advance if I’ve gone off on tangents over things you didn’t actually say. Suffice to say, as per usual your comment got me thinking for at least 3-4 hours (counting this reply I mean), so thanks!

        • Hi James,

          No worries about the delay and confusion. I also sometimes get struck by the need to edit a rambling comment I’ve already posted. :) I’m glad no offense was taken.

          On the crappiness of pop cultures: well, yes, but I’d also draw a line in the sand and emphasize the fact that pop culture is a spectrum. Contrast, say, Deep Impact or Independene Day with, oh, Upstream Color or a novel by Ted Sturgeon or a short story by Connie Willis. On one end of that spectrum we find huge companies manufacturing product for profit, and on the other end we find individuals creating stuff because it excites them and they vaguely hope enough people will dig it that they could, oh, do gigs in their local live music bar.

          I despise the corporate side of it everywhere. I don’t always like what people on the cottage-industry side produce, but I can respect it more. What I find singular is how, in Korea, the cottage-industry side is so much smaller, and the corporate side so much bigger, than most places I’ve been… and yet, without it benefitting the cottage industry side. There’s much less trickle-down, which I suppose is partly down to social forces (military service was the death of many an aspiring young band) and partly down to the same ridiculous corporate octopus that seizes control of (and as much as it can, ruins) everything else here—in music, the “trainee” system which turns being a pop group performer essentially into indentured servitude.

          All I know is, I saw busking in the streets of Tokyo, I saw constant live shows (and buskers on van-buses, even) in Jakarta, and… well, when I was gigging in Seoul regularly with a rock band and up to speed, I can say the city of 25 million had approximately the same number of live music venues (for youth music) as my hometown of 350,000 had around the same time… but all crammed into an area roughly the size of my hometown’s downtown area (which was the opposite of our situation, where the places were all over town, and this more accessible). What I’ll say is this: you cannot have a vibrant, meaningful popular culture without that churn and bustle. I’m riffing on something I heard John Ralston Saul say about arts funding in Canada decades ago, about how it was better to fund community theaters country-wide than to inject money into a few film productions. He talks very convincingly on the necessity of a vibrant living pop culture.

          (And certainly that’s true of Chungmuro: a lot of the people who can actually act in Korea do TV and crappy films for money, but do stage drama because it’s a chance to actually fucking act.)

          Like you say, your views about the academic embrace of pop-culture are more nuanced than in your quick comment, so I shouldn’t overanalyze it (not a second time at least!). Again, we’re probably in broad agreement about the navel-gazing nature of much of it — albeit no more than in any other social science — and the imperative of its practitioners to find snippets of political significance in their material. That natural bias aside, the older I get and more I study it, I am indeed more firmly convinced of its profound impacts on people’s lives. But I also acknowledge that too often that link is taken for granted, and that the onus is on people like myself to do the expensive, inconvenient, and impractical ethnographic research necessary to prove the links do indeed exist. (And even more expensive, inconvenient, and impractical for an unpaid blogger. Sigh.)

          Well, also, if you’re going to be at all critical or thoughtful about it, you’re bound to piss off the wrong people eventually, and that makes it much harder to get paid around here… something I call The Arirang Effect.

          I’m not completely convinced that this all-pervasive influence of popular culture is actually true, at least not to the degree people seem to make it out to be: for example, I think the whole youthful need for “role models” is a weird, patronizing fantasy invention that belittles young people. I think pop culture analysis often seems to be predicated on some weird, mass embrace of the third person effect, where everyone else is totally susceptible to being droided by the screwed up values embedded in media/pop culture, but the analyst somehow has the superpower to stand back and see and question those embedded values. My experience is that even fairly unreflective people can be aware of (and critical of) those embedded values, without the scaffolding of ten-dollar words, and that lots of people aren’t critical or aware because they’re either too lazy to care, or too stupid to think it though. That said, I think it’s also a failure to train youth to read media critically… not to read it necessarily as I’d have them read it, mind, but for them to come to it questioningly.

          As for the institutional embrace and constant, uncritical celebration of K-pop and so on, actually I probably find that just as nauseating as you do. But no less than I did the NZ media and public’s embrace of sport say, and I certainly don’t bemoan the Korean government’s embrace of it.

          Well, yes, if the embrace of sports in NZ is anything like the embrace of sports in Canada, nauseating is a good word. But I do find it rather embarrassing to have government pushing corporate pop—the least vital, least creative form of music possible—as an icon of South Korea. Indeed, when we travel abroad, Jihyun’s always quite disgusted to hear K-pop and says, “I feel sad my country did this to the world.”

          But that brings me to this other thing, this holding-up of “soft power” as if it were something so incredibly important. Is it? Canadians famously can recite which famous Hollywood actors and American music acts are originally from Canada… because supposedly nobody outside Canada realizes those performers are Canadian. Yet Canada has a place in the world’s consciousness, and not because of Shania Twain or Rick Moranis or Mike Myers or The Barenaked Ladies. Canada has a place in the world’s consciousness for all kinds of other reasons: for being a first world nation. For establishing a pretty decent standard of living for people who live there. For its historical progressiveness in terms of things like unemployment insurance and health insurance. For its support of the arts. For its racial diversity—at least in the big cities. Canadians didn’t up and decide, “Oh my God, we’ll never be a world-class nation unless our pop culture becomes globalized!” Priorities, priorities.

          Essentially, what I’m saying is that if Korea wants to become a leader of something, why not make it something worthwhile? There’s the resources. There’s the spare labour pool. There’s everything except interest in improving the lives of regular people here. Well, and any inkling of awareness as to why Korea doesn’t loom larger in the imagination of the rest of the planet, though the people who angst the most about that are also the least likely to listen when one explains the long historical background leading up to that. (I mean, Americans have been excited about Japan since at least the 1800s; Westerners have felt a weird curiosity about China for centuries. Most Westerners can’t even find Korea on a map because, until the 20th century, Korea did its best to stay off everyone’s radar. Duh.)

          (Which is not to say that, on the momentum of the wave, more attention should be paid to promoting things like Korean literature and encouraging, rather than dictating, the grassroots embrace of Korean food that is occurring.)

          Well, I mean, I’m not even sure its reasonable or sensible to talk about this “wave” anymore. It’s a notion that was created in Korean newsmedia and pop culture reportage, as a form of boosterism for Koreans. Yes, Korean pop music is popular in Asia. But what does that soft power translate to? When the mobs stalked through the streets of Saigon last year, angry at the Chinese, they also attacked Korean-owned factories. Korean teens in miniskirts lip synching doesn’t do anything to diminish the (bad) reputation Koreans in a lot of places in Southeast Asia have. And, well, the elephant in the room is that while Korean pop music is very hot in S.E. Asia, it’s not performing that well in the places Korea most ardently wishes it would: white, English speaking countries.

          So, what’s this soft power for? This is the thing: it’s not going to impact trade negotiations. It’s not going to lessen the number of environmental toxins. It’s not going to help redress the growing difficulty of those temporarily improverished from recovering. It’s certainly not impacting the suicide rate, or the rampant alcohol abuse or change attitudes towards chils abuse or redress the misogyny here. What’s this soft power for? In the end, it seems to me that soft power is a mirage: once it’s attained, well, hooray. Now we need more. So, in that, it’s inherently a political red herring, and yes, I criticize the government for embracing it as a distraction from the issues the government should be doing more about. As, by the way, Noam Chomsky quite similarly observed about sports, I now recall after typing all this:

          Which, well: I think you’re dead wrong when you say it’s better for the rest of the world to talk about Kpop than Korean nukes: after all, North Korea is an issue that South Korea needs to deal with, needs to be proactive about, needs to start thinking creatively and intelligently about. Bruce Sterling isn’t a Korea specialist, and it shows, but his talk at LIFT in Jeju back in 2008, I think it was, made a very pertinent point: South Koreans need to start thinking about how they can deal with North Korea after it inevitably collapses: how to produce software and interfaces for a population that has no experience with computers or the internet. And South Korea would also have massive comparative advantage there, since that’s also a vast, unclaimed terrain. If the rest of the world were talking about North Korea, maybe South Korea might feel a little more pressure to do something about the whole messy situation now, instead of letting it go further unaddressed and deteriorate until something truly awful happens. (Because the long-held policy of deferring as long as possible? Yeah, we all know how that usually works out.)

          Likewise, would it necessarily be so bad if the rest of the world was talking about South Korea not at all? How would that hurt South Korea? I honestly don’t think it would… because, mind, I don’t really see how any of the talk that does go on about this pop group or that cruddy TV series really benefits Koreans on the ground. Maybe a smidge more tourism, maybe a little more foreign export sales, but most of that benefit flows into the hands of a small minority… and the country’s trained to cheer as it it’s benefitting everyone. I don’t know: I’m skeptical because the idea that Korea *needs* to be talked about, that seems to play uncritically right into Korea’s very specific geopolitical anxieties, and also, of course, into the hands of the PR and advertising flacks who capitalize on those anxieties. (As ad people do in every arena.)

          Which doesn’t speak to the market impetus for the corporatizing of Korean popular music: sure, that exists, but my point is that a grown-up government would look at pop music with a reasonable and balanced sense of its importance: cute girls in miniskirts shaking their asses and singing badly is not international ambassadorship, and you’re never going to be taken seriously as a grown-up government if you treat it like it is. It makes as much sense as Koreans taking pride in Korean brassieres being on the market in Vietnam or Singapore. Actually, the bras would be more worth being proud about, I’d say: at least they do something useful for someone.

          I’ll add that I found some chapters in the book interesting, but also a few quite terrible. (The one on letter-writing, early in the book, is awful to the point of conflating fictional representation with lived reality. Um?) I really liked the one about the rise of whatever band it was, within the broader historical context of the creation of a Western-styled music scene in Seoul back in the 60s-90s, and a couple of other pieces. They were interesting just to read, and I kept wondering, “Why hasn’t someone made a film in this milieu?” (Maybe they have since, and I’ve just missed it? I haven’t seen Go-Go 70s, for example.) But yeah, I think the book’s title is a dodge: it’s about Korea Popular Culture, but not about Hallyu. And while I think the former is probably more worth investigating anyway, it’s dumb to compile that kind of book, and then pretend the book is about the latter. But that’s the editor’s fault, not yours.

          As for datedness, eh: most academic work is dated by the time it gets published anyway. It’s a snapshot of a moment.

          I’ll email a copy of the review (as published) to you now, and Stephen as well—I’m pretty sure I have his email on file someplace. And no worries, tangents skipped are necessary in such conversations. I’ve added more tangents, I suppose.

  3. Pingback: Celebrity Endorsement in South Korean Advertising | Ewha [Brand Communication]

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