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Music Monday: On Black music, KARA, & Why K-pop bands are so large…

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Three things of interest I came across all in the space of this morning…

First up, a recent edition of the BBC4 podcast Thinking Allowed, which – paraphrasing slightly – discusses the contention of cultural critic Paul Gilroy that:

From Curtis Mayfield to 50 Cent, from Nina Simone to JayZ, black music has declined in its quality and lost its moral stance. Outlined in his essay “Troubadours, Warriors, and Diplomats” in his book Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (2010) , he joins host Laurie Taylor and music journalist Caspar Melville to discuss the counter-cultural stance that black popular music once had, and explore whether it really has been destroyed.

On the surface only tangentially-related to Korea, in that modern K-pop has strong hip-hop roots (in contrast to J-pop, which are more in rock), this 28 minute, very accessible synopsis it is still surely required listening for all those interested in music and cultural studies. And indeed, the second half of the discussion in which they talk more about the impact of technological developments on music, and especially the reality that precious few young people are prepared to pay for it anymore, is perhaps more pertinent to the Korean music industry than most.

Next, an Icelandic reader passed on a link (thanks!) to the journal article “Crazy About You: Reflections on the Meanings of Contemporary Teen Pop Music” in the Electronic Journal of Sociology (2002), by Phillip Vannini and Scott M. Myers, in which the highlighted part below immediately leaped out at me. With apologies for the long quote for the sake of context (actually, only 2/3rds of the paragraph!):

…Centralized corporate production insures continued consumption through pervasive distribution, vast output volume, and structured product obsolescence (Gitlin, 1981) while strategies of careful manufacturing of the image and sound of pop icons ascertain that audiences are treated as ‘targets’ and ‘market-segments’. Take for example the case of Britney Spears. Her image and sound had been first controlled by Disney as a pre-teen Britney worked as a host of the Mickey Mouse Club. Subsequently her schoolgirl image was spiced up to appeal to the 12-16 age group and her videos were made to occupy a steady spot in the rotation of Zoog ABC and the Disney Network. Now, with her continued biological growth her image has been recreated as sensual and provocative and formatted to meet the demands of MTV. As this takes place new ‘Britney’s’ mushroom on the market to appeal to different targets: Jessica Simpson to Christian teenagers, Mandy Moore to preteens, Jennifer Lopez to Latinas and older fans. Producers’ control extends from songwriting to image-packaging and personality development (Frith, 1978). Any boy-band act is put together to appeal to various personalities and life outlooks of fans as each band includes a member portrayed as cute and sweet, one funny, one good-looking and mysterious, one creative and goofy, one talented and motivated, one dark and tough, and such. Bands are created with the consumers’ demand in mind4, for example LFO target through MTV an older adolescent urban audience with their hip-hopish sound and sexual innuendos, while S Club 7 and Aaron Carter target preteens through Fox Family and ABC Family. This is an example of the diversification of products that allow producers the broadest appeal possible and the highest profit margin.

In passing, footnote 4 from that is also interesting:

4. The structure of consumer demand is an important concept to keep in mind. As Frith (1978) suggested producers’ ability to shape needs is limited. Why or when a style becomes popular or unpopular remains a conundrum for the music industry. It is much easier for any producer to stay with one genre or act after it has become popular and produce endless imitations than experiment with new formats or shape consumer demand. Record industries still find very few acts highly profitable, while the majority of albums produced and distributed hardly bring any profit at all (Burnett, 1996).

But the highlighted part caught my eye because of what I’d read in the post Thoughts on K-Pop Vol. 1: So Addictive at the blog Multi, which is definitely required reading for those interested in Korean music specifically:

Another important thing to note is that the Korean music industry is populated mainly by groups of at least five members. With a main audience of between 10 and 19, this is a brilliant idea because all the kids will have at least one person they like in every band, are enthralled by their personalities as seen on numerous TV shows, and will not hesitate to buy their albums and merchandise. This works for other industries as well, as phone, food and clothing companies almost solely hire celebrities to star in their commercials. They also record songs and shoot music videos (and short films) for these products and then endorse them on their numerous TV appearances. Basically, the celebrities become the only people you see on screen and in print. They become ridiculously popular really quickly, and then are sent around Asia to maximize their worth because all the other countries have succumbed to the “hallyu wave”.

Naively, I hadn’t been aware that the same logic also existed outside of East Asia. But having said that, it is still much more marked in K-pop. For not only it is exaggerated by the overwhelmingly celebrity-focused nature of advertising here, but that in turn is further exaggerated by the need to sell singers rather than their music per se,  for reasons mentioned earlier. And there’s less space for independent artists that don’t subscribe to that logic to emerge too.

Finally, all the photos of KARA (카라) in this post are from their performance at (unfortunately spelt) Wonkwang University (원광대학교)* last month, in which it started to rain halfway through their song but – seemingly without so much as batting an eye – they kept performing nonetheless (see video below).  Found via Omona They Didn’t!, admittedly I probably wouldn’t have given the photos a second glance if they had been of a boy-band instead, but once I had then I really responded to them, well-aware of how refreshing and especially liberating it can feel to continue exercising – or indeed, dancing – in a downpour.

More to the point though, not only are the photos themselves stunning, which this blog theme doesn’t really do justice to (click on the images themselves for more detail, or see Diabolique here and here for more), but in particular KARA happened to be performing Lupin (루팡), in which as Multi – who else? – puts it:

…From what I gleaned from Youtube translations of the songs, they sing about being confident (in love?) and not being afraid…as opposed to simply trying to get a guy’s attention in “Mister” (미스터); check here and here for respective lyrics, and it shows in their performances. They shine in “Lupin”, but bore with “Mister”. It might just be that “Lupin” is fresher, and they’re bored of performing Mister (side effect of weekly live performances, a.k.a overkill, of songs in k-pop) but I doubt it’s just that…

She tends to prefer performances to the music itself, and presumably to the music videos too, but for what it’s worth here they are to compare:

And finally a fan cam of the performance, although unfortunately it’s of very poor quality. The rain starts falling about at about 1:20:

Thoughts?

p.s. I’d been under the impression for many years that the term “Black Music” wasn’t particularly PC, and consequently have sometimes discouraged my Korean students from using it, but the Thinking Allowed podcast made me realize I may have been mistaken. Was I, or is there perhaps a difference between American and British English?

* (Say “Won-Kwang”, not “Wonk Wang”!)

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Filed under: Boy Groups, Girl Groups, Korean Advertisements, Korean Media, Korean Music Tagged: 루팡, 미스터, 카라, Kara, Lupin, Mister

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