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Korea Blog: K-Pop Evolution Traces the Origins of Korea’s Prime Cultural Export

Certain Western observers of Korea wear their aversion to K-pop, or at least their pointed disinterest in it, as a badge of honor. From them I’ve heard the rise of K-pop credited with destroying Korean culture, or — somewhat more positively — with turning the Korean mainstream bland enough to give rise to a counterculture of correspondingly extreme marginality and transgression. But at this point the music itself is, at least here in Korea, never wholly ignorable, and as the country’s third-largest export (a position held fifty years ago by wigs) unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future. Even those Western Seoulites who walk around with headphones lest they pass through one of the many public spaces soundtracked by K-pop must now have moments of curiosity about how and why it’s become quite so prominent. K-Pop Evolution is the first documentary series to attempt an explanation.

Distributed under the banner of Youtube Originals, K-Pop Evolution recently finished making free to view on that site the last of its seven episodes. Together these tell of how Korean pop music has cultivated enthusiastic and often large fan bases around the world, a story not necessarily well understood by many of those fans themselves. Anyone living outside Asia could almost be forgiven for assuming that Korea didn’t make pop music at all until 2012, the year Psy’s “Gangnam Style” went unprecedentedly viral. Though few of Psy’s countrymen would have elected him as K-pop’s emissary to the West, his surprise breakthrough aligned with the priorities laid down fifteen years earlier, at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis. Known locally as “IMF,” that economic disruption weakened the domestic market enough to force many Korean industries, music included, to create product expressly designed for foreign consumption.

“At the time, there was a general sense of inferiority in Korea’s mainstream culture, that we weren’t as good as Japan,” says music critic Kim Zakka, one of K-Pop Evolution‘s more knowledgable interviewees. But there was also a willingness and ability to cater to Japanese consumers, the continuing capitalization on which has meant that “the K-pop we know today wasn’t made for domestic audiences, but created to sell on the international market.” Also among the series’ taking heads is Kwon Bo-ah, better known as BoA, whose great success in Japan almost two decades ago did much to earn her the title “Queen of K-pop.” Coinciding with a period of increased cultural exchange across what Korea calls the East Sea, this endeavor necessitated on her part the cultivation of not just singing and dancing but Japanese language skills as well.

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