The empires wave back by John Rey Dave Aquino

On July 2012, Psy released “Gangnam Style,” the most popular and recognizable K-pop song of the early 2010’s. The song spawned the “Gangnam Style” challenge, and people learned the chorus’s galloping horse choreography and posted their own renditions on social media platforms. The dance-pop track peaked at #2 on the prestigious Billboard Hot 100 for weeks, and #1 on the Digital Songs chart. Across the ocean, however, American/Western media predicted the ‘death’ of this Korean song on an American chart. They called the time of death as early as October, identified the cause of death as overexposure (Hu 2015), i.e. “Gangnam Style” overstayed its welcome, the music video produced enough memes, the dance had been covered by too many people, and the Korean government already did all it could to keep the song alive through events like a free Psy concert. Come December, however, “Gangnam Style”’s music video was the first ever YouTube video to reach a billion views. Nine years later, it has already reached 4.2 billion views. 

“Gangnam Style” facilitated a wave of global interest in K-pop. The song marked the end of the genre’s 2nd generation and the beginning of the 3rd generation, which IDOLOGY characterizes as the generation that targets audiences on an international scale. The American media’s grim and fatalistic prognosis interests me because it relies on the Western empire’s cultural industry’s central position in the global cultural consciousness relative to other cultural industries, e.g. Hallyu. The central position of the Western imperial cultural industry allows it to affect and influence marginal cultural industries—wash like a wave. However, the uninhibited growth of Hallyu, from marginal to imperial in itself, threatens this position—a wave meeting another wave.

Cultural waves and industries

Chin and Morimoto (2013) prefer to use transcultural, rather than transnational, in reference to ‘border-crossing media’ and ‘cross-border fandoms’ because of its flexibility “to allow for a transnational orientation, yet leaves open the possibility of other orientations that may inform, or even drive, cross-border fandom” (93). They state that a national orientation is not the only subject position one may consider in studying transcultural fandoms, and forward possible positions like gender, sexual, popular, and fan cultural contexts within which fans may operate, consume and create. A border-crossing product entices fans not because of national-cultural similarities or differences, but “because of a moment of affinity between the fan and transcultural object” (ibid., 104-5). This explains, for example, how non-Koreans become K-fans, non-Japanese become anime and manga enthusiasts, non-Thais become Thai BL binge-watchers, and so on. 

In essence, then, a transcultural wave may originate from any country, from any cultural industry, reaching borders and beyond. With the internet, in fact, there occurred more transcultural waves across pop cultures aside from Hollywood. Cross-border media, such as K-pop, owes much to the internet in the space it provides for the product to overtake borders. However, what separates Hollywood from other cultural industries is America’s (and the West’s) position as a world superpower since the previous century, and with it the relative earliness of their wave. Hollywood has been exporting its cultural products all the world as early as its inception, and in itself is a transcultural wave that people receive because of that ‘moment of affinity.’

It doesn’t matter then if the social context of a film conflicts with the social reality of its audience (or if a young man listening to Taylor Swift’s breakup songs has been single all his life). The Philippines, a former colony of the United States, and also frequent importer of Hollywood products, is a good example—Hollywood movies in theaters, Western songs on the radio, Hollywood celebrities revered. In my case, as an example, I loved the young adult films produced in the early 2010’s (based on books that I read) like The Hunger Games (2012), Divergent (2014), and The Maze Runner (2014). I felt a personal affinity with the characters as a young person myself discovering more about myself and the people around me, and ‘exploring’ the world. 

The Korean Wave

In its cross-border ventures (yes, too mild of a word!), the West encounters ‘marginal’ popular cultures. Marginal here is used in reference to a center, and doesn’t necessarily imply greater and lesser pop cultures in terms of quality, but instead in terms of influence. There is no question that the Western imperial cultural industry dominates the global cultural consciousness like a great ocean wave, while the marginal cultural industries only produce waves that reach the borders of their countries, sometimes with overflow for their neighboring countries. 

Coined by Chinese journalists in the 1990s, Hallyu simply means “Korean Wave,” which refers to the boom in popularity of Korean cultural products that crossed the sea towards China and Japan, and then towards Southeast Asia, and so on. Though it started as a ‘marginal’ cultural industry, it has since grown to become a veritable cultural phenomenon in itself. Instead of being overflow, it’s a great ocean wave, and when the Korean wave meets the Hollywood wave, what happens? As the cultural empire, Hollywood welcomes no competition, thus American media prematurely signing the death certificate of “Gangnam Style.” Though we live in a world of hybridity, diversity and abundance of cultural contents, the K-wave presents a threat to the West’s cultural monopoly. 

Aside from personal affinity, another possible explanation for Hallyu’s popularity is its hybridity as a cultural phenomenon. Jung (201 1) introduces the concept of mugukjeok (‘non-nationality’) to explain the popularity of South Korean popular culture beyond the borders of its home country. The term refers to a trait that enables South Korean popular culture to be globally consumed, particularly “how popular cultural flows enable the mixing of particular cultural elements (national, traditional and specific) with globally popular cultural elements, which then causes those particular cultural elements to become less culturally specific” (3). If we take a look at the transcultural objects sold to K-pop fans (songs, music videos, artists, choreography), none of them is specific to Koreans only except the language of the songs and the nationality of the idols themselves (though not all, of course). Otherwise, South Korean popular culture makes use of ‘globally popular cultural elements’—including Western elements—in order to lessen the cultural specificity of Korean cultural elements. 

K-pop owes its popularity to cultural hybridity, the “fusion of cultural traditions,” the “mixing and interpenetration of the cultural domains” (Flores 2005, 79). In this case, K-pop is a hybrid of the cultural elements that are specifically Korean and globally popular. Since these cultural products go beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries, a K-fan may not know much about Korean culture but understand the themes these products embody. These are universal themes—romance, youth, freedom—for which fans all over the world may feel that personal affinity.

About capital and culture

Because personal affinity and cultural hybridity means that any cultural product may strike a cord in any person in any country, it is curious why particular popular cultures become more popular than others. I think that a cultural industry stands on an economic base, and the popularity of particular pop cultures relies heavily on their potential for gaining capital. If cultural products promise economic gains, then a country’s government will give it resources for export and development. 

Ainslie, Lipura and Lim (2017) writes that Hallyu experiences (or experienced) a backlash in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines because of the recognition of its ‘hidden agenda,’ that is, to earn profit. Accordingly, consumers see the increasingly visible and explicit connection of Hallyu to Korean economic interests in the region as distasteful, such naked “soft power” as a form of cultural imperialism (75). Hallyu has kept South Korea visible and relevant to investment opportunities in countries it enters. This is further evidenced by the South Korean government’s involvement in its spread, such as the formation of a Hallyu Culture Promotion Taskforce, Hallyu Support Council, Advisory Committee for the Promotion of Hallyu and Korean Cultural Centre aiming to introduce South Korean popular culture to the world. This explicit relation of economic interests and Hallyu expansion has become a major factor in this backlash. As such, there are predictions of the death of Hallyu within the next decade, but we already know that it’s too early to talk about the death of Hallyu. 

A characteristic of imperialism is the division of the world, such that empires hold dominion over colonies. In the 21st century, while cultural empires do not divide the world geographically, they compete with each other in the global cultural market. The American cultural empire still holds a dominant position in the industry, but Hallyu quickly gains more audiences by the day, even in America.

In the name of cultural validation

Recently, Korean entertainment companies have made ventures into the Western market and cultural consciousness, in the form of collaborations with Western artists and releasing songs or albums in English. Korean films and TV shows have also gained popularity with their presence on the global streaming platform Netflix, such that in 2020, the Korean dark comedy film Parasite (2019, dir. Bong Joon-ho) won four categories in the prestigious Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film. People celebrated the historic win of the first non-English language film to be awarded Best Picture, which I read cautiously as an example of cultural validation. 

Hallyu also draws from Western pop culture. Aside from the promise of economic gain, entering the Western market provides Hallyu with the chance to establish itself on equal standing with Western pop culture. Promoting K-wave cultural products in America becomes important in the expansion of Hallyu’s market and influence. In a sense, it seeks cultural validation from the West, which is incredibly ironic because Hallyu has the potential to be a counter-wave to Western pop culture. Because while Hallyu draws from elements of global pop culture, it still exhibits specific values, unique aesthetics, and social relevance different from Western pop culture. 

Hallyu’s death will be when it transforms itself to satisfy the palate of Western audiences.

Works Cited:

Ainslie, Mary J., Sarah Domingo Ljpura and Joanne BY. Lim 2017. “Understanding the Hallyu Backlash in the Philippines: A Case Study of Consumers in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.” Kritika Kultura 28: 63-91. 

Chin, Bertha, and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. 2013. “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10 (1): 92-108.

Flores, Juan. 2005. “‘Pueblo Pueblo:’ Popular Culture in Time.” Popular Culture: A Reader, eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz, 72-82. London: Sage Publications.

Hu, Brian. 2015. “RIP Gangnam Style.” Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media, eds. Sangjoon Lee, and Abé Mark Nornes, pp. 229-43. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Jung Sun. 2011. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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