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Korea Blog: Indie Synth-Electro-K-Pop Queen Neon Bunny’s Journey from Seoul to the Stars

From time to time since the 1960s, South Korea and North Korea have blared propaganda at one another through hulking stacks of loudspeakers aimed into the Demilitarized Zone. These border blasters came down in 2018, during a period of thaw in North-South relations, but in the years leading up to that point the mutual sonic provocation had become unusually aggressive. This provided fodder to many an odd-news corner in the West, which seized especially upon the fact that the South had been mixing K-pop songs in with its denunciations of the Kim Jong Un regime. “Now, they haven’t said exactly what music they’ve been playing, but I hope it’s some of the better K-pop stuff,” said comedian-commentator John Oliver on a 2015 broadcast of his show Last Week Tonight. As examples he rattled off names surely unfamiliar to most HBO viewers at home: Uhm Jung-hwa, Jo Sung-mo, TVXQ, Neon Bunny.

How avidly Oliver really listens Korean music isn’t clear, though he did heap praise last year on a member of boy-band BTS, the highest-profile pop singers ever to come out of this country. “It’s frankly shame-inducing that K-pop has produced him, while American pop fans are stuck with Adam Levine,” said Oliver (undiminished though Korea’s own enthusiasm seems for the likes of Maroon 5). Just this month, BTS chalked up a couple more achievements that attest to their rise in the global zeitgeist: a performance at the Grammy Awards, followed by a report in the Onion in which they thank the “Horrifyingly Exploitative System That Got Them Where They Are Today.” The latter purports to quote one of the BTS boys expressing the group’s “heartfelt appreciation to the corporations and shareholders who never gave up on draining us of all personality and remaking us us into easily interchangeable commercial objects.”

BTS’s vast self-described “ARMY” of fans, a demographic not known for its sense of irony, took great exception to this bit of satire, and not wholly without cause. Among successful K-pop boy-bands and girl-groups, one could indeed find much clearer-cut examples of standardized industrial production. But the article nevertheless reflects a persistent distaste felt by many Western holdouts against the “Korean wave”: while the United States of America may have invented the pop star all but genetically engineered to meet consumer demand, Korea appears — as with other adopted foreign practices — to have taken it too far. And as has been argued elsewhere, Korea’s hit machine absorbs so great an amount of resources financial, cultural, and attentional within the country that other kinds of music, even other kinds of pop music, go begging. Or in the case of performers like Neon Bunny, one of Oliver’s picks, they go crowdfunding.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.