The PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Korea’s Musical Modernities
Patty Ahn / UC San Diego



Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics
Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics

This year’s Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea featured two strikingly different soundtracks. On one hand, the sounds of K-Pop flooded the mediascape as A-list idols performed nightly at the Olympic headliner show, took the stage for numerous promotional concerts held in lead-up to the Games, and closed out the entire Olympic event with show-stopping performances. During the opening ceremony, the industry’s most famous anthems played in the background as delegations from Chile, France, the U.S., and many others marched in the ritual “Parade of Nations.” The score was meant to offer a curation of South Korea’s most popular songs from past to present with K-Pop serving as the pinnacle of this sonic progression.

U.S. delegation marches to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”

These celebratory sounds, however, were met with a more somber tune. As Trump’s escalating aggression toward the DPRK [ ((North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). South Korea is officially titled the Republic of Korea (ROK). ))] led many to fear that a preemptive strike by the U.S. loomed on the horizon, leaders from North and South Korea announced that they would form a unified women’s ice hockey team and march as one delegation in the opening ceremony. In a historic and much anticipated moment, athletes from both countries entered the “Parade of Nations” together, waving white flags emblazoned with a solid blue silhouette of the peninsula while the melancholic melody of “Arirang,” Korea’s national folk song, wailed in the background. The message of this profoundly symbolic gesture was resoundingly clear: the DPRK and ROK were unified in their call for peace and shared dream of reunification.

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Unified Korean delegation marches to “Arirang” (see video here)

The languid and pastoral notes of “Arirang,” which served as the unified team’s official anthem, could be heard across the Games, offering a striking counterpoint to K-Pop’s more futuristic reverberations. I bring attention to these two scores because of the very different feelings they inspire about Korea. In this post, I gesture toward some of the affective structures at work within these musical registers. The dichotomous feelings captured in K-Pop and “Arirang” in many ways speak to a fundamental crisis in South Korea’s identity as a nation and the global image it projects, but I believe an important story also lies in their dissonance.

K-Pop’s trademark melange of electronic dance beats, robotic vocals, neon-laden music videos, and razor sharp choreographies has served as the defining visual soundtrack for South Korea’s postmillennial reinvention. The unexpected success that Korean pop music and television dramas found in the Asian market in the late-1990s buoyed the country’s economic recovery in the wake of the IMF Crisis of 1997. Since then, it has played a central role in supporting the government’s agenda of remaking the country’s reputation as a global leader in cultural and technological innovation.

The opening ceremony at this year’s Olympics reinforced this technological narrative. The artistic segment of the program used a mix of live action performance and virtual reality animations to depict the journey of five children as they travel through Korea’s past, present, and eventual future. Their story begins in pre-modern Korea, where holograms of ancient cultural artifacts and mythologies come to life around them, and concludes at the “gates of the future” where they learn that their careers as K-Pop star, artificial intelligence specialist, urban simulation expert, hologram specialist, and doctor await them. They watch in wonder as a virtual screen appears before them playing a montage in which their future selves excitedly perform their jobs inside an illuminated grid.

Olympic Montage
Artistic segment featuring montage of future K-Pop star performing in illuminated grid

International sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup have provided their host countries with a critical opportunity to re-make their image in the world. This year’s Winter Games in PyeongChang clearly sought to re-orient our imagination about South Korea as a hyper-technologized modernity soaring into its future and solidify the integral role that K-Pop has and will continue to play in shaping this narrative.

K-Pop has already begun to reshape South Korea’s place within the American imaginary in profound ways. Seoul and Busan have become Hollywood’s latest “techno-Orientalist” backdrop with visual motifs taken right out of a K-Pop music video.[ ((David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, n.d.).
))] Meanwhile, countless media stories dedicate themselves to unlocking the mystery behind Korean culture’s recent spate of success in the global market. At the same time, K-Pop has also performed the work of creating a historical amnesia around Korea as it pivots us toward a futurist vision of the country.

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Clockwise, from top left: Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 2012); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017); Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

The U.S. by and large has lacked a historical framework for how to speak about Korea in spite of its commanding role in manufacturing and maintaining its division. Mainstream media rarely acknowledge North Korea’s existence, except through the occasional caricatured depiction of an erratic and hostile leader. Otherwise, the dominant story told about the U.S’s relationship to South Korea is of “an enduring and equal partnership in the face of a shared enemy,” [ ((https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/09/south-korea-straying-off-the-leash/ ))] Yet, Washington has systematically thwarted numerous peace and reunification efforts in the peninsula. In addition to imposing devastating sanctions on North Korea—which have only resulted in humanitarian crises, the U.S. has backed three brutal anti-communist military dictatorships (1961-1992) and continues to maintain a military presence across the south.

Official state narratives about the Korean War (1950-present), known in the U.S. as “the Forgotten War,” has suppressed our historical memory about the nature of the U.S.’s involvement in Korea. The U.S. Cold War in Asia began in Korea, which it saw as key to maintaining a capitalist stronghold and military power in the region. However, the military campaign there, which resulted in the loss of more than 4 million Korean lives (70% of which were civilian), was perceived by and large as a failure. The signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 installed a temporary cease-fire until a “peaceful settlement” between the north and south could be reached, but this accord has yet to be fulfilled, leaving intact a militarized border that continues to separate ten million families.

The sounds of “Arirang” at this year’s Winter Games haunted K-Pop’s technology-driven vision of Korea’s future with the ghosts of an unresolved past. The song has been sung across the peninsula for hundreds of years—long before Korea’s division into two rival nations—and has come to represent an idea and feeling of an ethnically unified Korean people. It became a rallying cry for independence under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). Commonly associated with a sense of sorrow, longing, and separation, it has come to serve as an expression of grief over Korea’s ongoing division and unfulfilled dream of liberation.

This year’s Olympic Games did not mark the first time the two countries appeared at an international sporting event as a unified delegation. However, it did seem to signal an important shift in mainstream American discourse about Korea. Although NBC commentators more or less universalized the message of peace at this year’s games, as Korean historian and peace activist Ramsay Liem notes, the two Korea’s unified departure from Trump’s military aggression began to destabilize the idea of the U.S. as “equal partner.”

Although we still face an uncertain future with respect to Korea, , we might continue to hold onto “Arirang” as a way of listening to these rare moments of dissonance in Korea’s soundtrack. Unlike K-Pops’s highly rationalized and vertically-integrated system of song production, “Arirang” has never been defined by a standardized set of lyrics or melodic structure. A song is called “Arirang” so long as it contains this passage, “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Arirang gogaero neomeoganda,” which simply translates as “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Crossing over Arirang pass.” More than 8,000 variations of the song exist with countless regional variations and thousands of known lyrics. Even the word “Arirang” itself possesses no stable meaning—it is simply an imagined place or feeling.

In many ways, “Arirang” is more than a song or even a feeling. It offers us a capacious and historically messy way of knowing–an entry point into those stories of Korea which might not conform to official narratives. “Arirang”‘s recall of the past pleaded for an alternative vision of Krea’s future–one oriented toward peaceful reunification, liberation, and sovereignty from foreign rule.

Image Credits:
Author’s screengrabs

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YouTube is Taking K-Pop Global
Patty Ahn / University of California San Diego

YouTube map published in Joong Ang Daily on 9/15/2011.
YouTube map Published in Joong Ang Daily on 9/15/2011

YouTube is bringing K-Pop to the U.S. YouTube is taking K-Pop global. Since 2011, these kinds of celebratory declarations have cycled their way through U.S. and Korean news outlets, research studies, academic essays, and promotional literature released by the Korean government. These stories are almost always buttressed by staggering numerical figures about how many views K-Pop music videos regularly rack up on the site, most of which originate in Japan, China, and the U.S. In August, Sun Lee, head of music partnerships at YouTube for Korea, told Bloomberg, “It might have been impossible for K-pop to have worldwide popularity without YouTube’s global platform.” [ ((Sohee Kim, “The $4.7 Billion K-Pop Industry Chases Its ‘Michael Jackson Moment,’” Bloomberg, August 22, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-22/the-4-7-billion-k-pop-industry-chases-its-michael-jackson-moment.))] Views for K-Pop’s Top 200 artists have tripled since 2012, reaching a combined total of 24 billion hits in 2016, 80% of which originated outside of Korea. [ ((Ibid.))]

To be sure, K-Pop’s fan base in the U.S. has expanded considerably over the last five years. This year, KCON, the only major K-Pop fan convention in the U.S., reported its highest attendance record to date, attracting 128,000 total attendees between its Los Angeles and New York events. [ ((Jeff Benjamin, “KCON 2017 Breaks Attendance Records Thanks to Seventeen, GOT7, VIXX, Super Junior-D&E, Cosmic Girls & More,” Fuse, August 22, 2017, https://www.fuse.tv/2017/08/kcon-2017-la-attendance-recap.))] Much of this growth can be attributed to Korean record labels aggressively and systematically using U.S.-based social networking sites, like Twitter and Instagram, to engage fans in the U.S. and western Europe directly and in a variety of ways. A number of scholars now use expressions like Hallyu 2.0, or K-Pop 2.0, to describe how Korean content providers are using online distribution networks to drive Korea’s “second wave.”

Although YouTube acts as one piece of the Korean music industry’s broader strategy, it plays a crucially important role. For one, it provides record labels with a way to deliver music videos and other visual content to audiences in the U.S. without having to go through traditional media outlets. Korean record labels have known since the late-1990s that their particular style of music video promotion has the power to build strong emotional bonds between audiences and their idols in spite of linguistic and ethnic differences. SM Entertainment—Korea’s oldest and most powerful music firm—is widely credited for establishing the “K-Pop formula” with its first generation of idol groups in the mid-1990s:

H.O.T., “Candy”
(SM Entertainment, 1996)

SM’s founder, Lee Soo Man, has said that he modeled the company’s visually-driven approach to musical promotion after Michael Jackson, who displayed his virtuosity as a singer and dancer through high-concept music videos. Lee saw how Jackson reshaped the American entertainment industry while living in the States in the early 1980s, and wanted to reproduce that kind of entertainment to appeal to Korea’s bourgeoning youth culture in the mid-1990s. [ ((Lie, John, and Ingyu Oh. “SM Entertainment and Soo Man Lee.” In Handbook of East Asian Entrepreneurship, edited by Fu-Lai Yu and Ho-Don Yan, 346–52. New York, New York: Routledge, 2015.))] SM developed a company-wide system in which potential idols were recruited based on physical appearance, trained as dancers, vocalists and media personalities, and then aggressively promoted through music videos and televised performances. SM soon learned that the synchronized dance routines, pastel sounds and boyish energy of its idol groups were also captivating young audiences in Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Long before YouTube arrived, regional and satellite networks and local television networks were broadcasting music videos and entertainment programs licensed from Korea.

Chinese-language media coined the term K-Pop to describe this emerging fan base in the late 1990s. It did not take long before the Korean music industry and government assimilated the term into a broader strategy to globalize the “made-in-Korea” brand. In 2009, Korea’s three largest record labels—SM, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment—worked with YouTube to take their visual strategy online. Their incentives for partnering with Google’s video sharing platform were especially high. Between 2006 and 2008, each label ran a failed campaign to bring their top grossing solo artist in Asia to the American market. As for why these campaigns failed, we need only remember the racialized account music critic Jon Pareles gave in The New York Times about Rain’s foray into U.S. music—the JYP Asian mega-star did not meet the American standards of masculinity or originality. [ (( Jon Pareles, “Korean Superstar Who Smiles and Says, ‘I’m Lonely,’” The New York Times, February 4, 2006, sec. Arts / Music, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/04/arts/music/04rain.html.))]

That narrative changed in early 2011 when YouTube began releasing metrics that showed how K-Pop idol groups were tracking on its site. The company published several visualizations of these metrics in the form of color-coded maps, which were then circulated to the public through Korean fan sites [ ((thunderstix, “K-Pop Videos Set New Record on YouTube,” Soompi (blog), January 2, 2012, http://www.soompi.com/2012/01/02/kpop-videos-set-new-record-on-youtube/.))], newspapers [ ((“Web Triggers Global Renaissance of Korean Wave,” Korea JoongAng Daily, September 15, 2011, http://mengnews.joins.com/view.aspx?aId=2941492.))], and research journals. [ (( Min-Soo Seo, “Lessons from K-Pop’s Global Success,” SERI Quarterly 5, no. 3 (July 2012): 60–66,9.))] They all revealed that the U.S. accounted for the heaviest concentration of views outside of Asia. A representative from Google Korea declared, “The year 2011 was the first year when K-Pop really established itself as a global trend, instead of a temporary fad. In 2012, K-Pop will continue to grow its influence around the world.” [ (( thunderstix, “K-Pop Videos Set New Record on YouTube,” Soompi (blog), January 2, 2012, http://www.soompi.com/2012/01/02/kpop-videos-set-new-record-on-youtube/.))]

“Point choreography”—the use of key movements to capture the audience’s attention in a song—has served as a crucially important visual strategy for expanding into non-Asian markets. When executed successfully, point choreography will act as a visual hook, almost like an ear worm that conjures to mind a visual movement repeated in the chorus—a perfect ingredient for virality. SM’s nine-member girl group Girls’ Generation proved the point with their music video, “Gee.”

Girls’ Generation, “Gee”
(SM Entertainment, 2009)

The chorus is driven by a simple, repetitive chant of the song’s title, “Gee, Gee, Gee, Baby Baby” as all nine members perform a tightly synchronized dance routine of geometric movements performed in perfect unison. The main dance number in “Gee” inspired fans to upload videos of their own dance covers and flash mobs organized en masse across Asia, the U.S., and even Paris, France.

K-Pop’s hallmarks as a genre are now defined as much by its spellbinding group choreographies as its heart-pounding beats and melodic hooks:

Brown Eyed Girls, “Abracadabra”
(NegaNetwork, 2010)

Point Choreography in Psy’s “Gentleman”
(YG Entertainment 2013)

Point Choreography in Twice’s “TT”
(YG Entertainment 2013)

Metrics and virality only tell one piece of the story. The hundreds of K-Pop videos being shared and re-shared billions of times per year, and recreated in virtual and public space, more than anything creates a architecture of global sound and gendered fantasy, one which captures a feeling or imagined space of a post-millennial Korea.

Image Credits
1. YouTube Map
2. “Abracadabra”
3. “Gentleman”
4. “TT”

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