Noteworthy

The Korea Herald Debates Kpop Succeeding In America

[Voice] Can K-pop break the U.S.? – The Korea Herald
Why K-Pop is Hell-Bent On Making It Stateside – Seoulbeats

The Korea Herald has recently had another point / counterpoint styled editorial on the hallyu wave, this time asking the big question: will Kpop succeed in the United States?

Ceefu – whose real name is Crystal Anderson – argues for Kpop’s success, while Seoulbeats managing editor Amy He argues against it. I must admit that I came into this with a strong bias – I knew which side I agreed with and had my reasons – but it was still fasincating to see the debate play out.

For instance, I find it interesting that both sides share certain points to argue for opposing effects. Both argue that Kpop uses familiar elements from American music but also has a distinctly Korean sound. For Anderson, that means Kpop will already have appeal for Americans (adding that the elements they draw from isn’t currently being used by American music artists) but at the same time offer an exotic angle to keep it lively and distinct to listeners. For He, it’s the opposite: the American elements are so familiar that Kpop can’t properly distinguish itself from the original, while the more exotic Korean elements will just alienate those who aren’t already open to such sounds.

I also was intrigued by Anderson starting with a comparison to hip hop but then disappointed that she didn’t do anything with it. Yes, hip hop was also said to fail, like Kpop – but it was an indigenous pop cultural form, it’s not a transplant the way Kpop is. I don’t see how the two can be analogous, and I’m not given enough direction to see otherwise.

He brings up the cult of authenticity in much of American culture and how it would look disapprovingly at the system by which Kpop idols are made. I’m not sure if I agree with that completely – after all, American Idol and its ilk remain quite popular – but it’s certainly a point worth weighing. The issue of xenophobia also comes up, though He is delicate in addressing it and how it can influence the market.

And ultimately, there’s the problem of defining “success in America”. For Anderson, Kpop has already succeeded because its influence can be felt and its popularity on the internet is undeniable. It’s a very populist approach to success, one concerned with mindshare more than dollars and cents. Or rather, that the mindshare of Kpop idols being well-known will translate to dollars and cents in endorsements. Which is fair enough, but feels like a bit of a stretch.

Seoulbeat’s He seems to be taking a more traditional measure of success, expecting Kpop songs that top the Billboard charts and sales figures that match the artists currently dominating the American landscape. And why not use it as a measure? It’s the standard that many people still go by, it’s what we usually mean when we say a music artist has “made it”, Quite frankly, “big on the internet” only takes you so far – about Rebecca Black far, apparently. That’s enough to be a bit of contemporary pop trivia or a quirk that some fans will glom onto, but that’s not exactly Justin Timberlake level visibility or sales we’re talking about. By that measure, the hallyu is a very long way off from achieving such success and likely never will do so.

(I also appreciate that He takes a side-swipe at how Korean media constantly trumpets each and every instance of a Western figure praising Kpop or of the small recognitions here and there in overseas charts and TV shows and so on. Sure, these matter to some degree, but the way they are handled does create a false sense of the hallyu wave’s reach in certain corners of the West.)

But why is the American market so damn important, and why does making that market matter so much? A recent article on Seoulbeats approaches this from a refreshing angle, showing a certain financial urgency I hadn’t considered till now. All this time, I figured it was simply the global cultural status, the fact that American pop culture has dominated the world in the past century and continues to define much of what is considered trendy and cool on an international level. In other words, Kpop wants to take on the great cultural imperialists of America and beat them at their own game.

However, there’s more to it than that – and there’s also a dark side to the current global hallyu wave… and it has to do with C.R.E.A.M. For all the vaunted popularity of Kpop around the globe, in many markets this isn’t translating to huge profits for the artists or their management, thanks to the large amount of pirated products available. In other words, does global popularity matter if global profits aren’t following the way it should? Like Anderson, one can argue the importance of mindshare and being visible spokespeople ripe for endorsements – and I wont’t deny that can be a very huge amount of profit. But it still does not measure up to music artists, y’know, making money off of their actual music.

The United States, on the other hand, may suffer from piracy the same as other nations, but tries its best to stop as much of it as possible – and has legitimate digital formats such as iTunes which are very popular. This is probably what makes Japan an important market, as well – a developed nation’s protectiveness of IP, and a market willing to actually buy product from the proper sources. (Along with the bonus added value of close geographical proximity.) Tapping these markets, then, provides not only a huge new audience, but a huge new audience that can potentially spend a lot more than the audiences already enthralled by the hallyu. Certainly, Japan has already proven its financial importance to Kpop, as we’ve previously covered reports that higher profits can be made by Kpop idols in Japan than they back home in South Korea. The American market could potentially dwarf the Japanese market demographically and financially.

Of course, having an excellent reason to break into the American market and actually being able to do so are two very different things. I’m rooting for the Wonder Girls to succeed – but then, they’re not making a straight ahead assault for the top of the charts. Instead, they’ve made the wise choice of narrowcasting to the Disney market and hoping they click with that specific demographic enough to justify all their time touring with the Jonas Brothers and mastering English.

And if that does work, who knows? Maybe 2NE1 will show up on an episodeof iCarly, or After School can do their tap routine on Victorious, or maybe Big Bang can pal around with the boys of Big Time Rush!And would any of that be so wrong? To me, it’s a lot better than the Jpop acts relegated to anime cons whenever they hit Stateside. And it’s probably more than we’re actually ever going to get.