Book review: The Korean Popular Culture Reader

‘The Korean Popular Culture Reader,’ an anthology of essays on Korean pop culture, does little to enlighten the reader as to why K-Pop has become a global sensation

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Mar 20, 2014 - Page 11

I am sorry to have to say it, but The Korean Popular Culture Reader is close to the most disappointing book I have ever had to review.

Not long ago I found myself engrossed in a Korean TV mini-series called Hot Blood. It concerned the unlikely subject of an ambitious car salesman, but the production standards, acting and plot, together, I have to admit, with the extremely photogenic character of many of the performers, made me an instant addict.

It was an example of the much-vaunted genre of K-drama, and such programs have become hugely popular worldwide. I’ve lost track of some of the other titles, both contemporary and historical, I’ve found myself watching, but other sensations have included Stars Falling from the Sky and IRIS 11: New Generation of 2013.

As for the related phenomenon of K-pop, my teenage years are long gone, but I’ve nonetheless watched a number of girl groups cavorting in TV studios and performing songs that some condemn as “bubblegum pop” but which have, even so, attained astronomical ratings on social-media Web sites.

So a book that claims to be a reader relating to these phenomena was surely going to be of interest. What about the cosmetic surgery that’s said to have produced all these flawless faces? What about the near slave conditions in which these teenage groups have allegedly been trained from a very early age? And what about the exceptional screen-writers responsible for these highly watchable Korean dramas? How about the relation of these distinctive art forms to fashion, to Korean politics, to exports of other Korean products, not to mention the fan-hysteria (unmatched, some say, since the days of the Beatles), and the companies such as S M Entertainment behind these pop groups? A book that threw light on such things would surely make compelling reading.

Sadly — indeed astonishingly — almost none of these subjects, not even the pop groups themselves, let alone the TV dramas, are treated in any real depth in The Korean Popular Culture Reader.

Instead its main text opens with a chapter on early 20th century fiction, followed by one on Korean comics in the 1970s, then one on computer games, then one on the Internet as the medium for K-dramas (but little on the dramas themselves). Next come two chapters on Korean film in the 1950s, followed by one on North Korean film, and a final one in this movie section on a 2003 product designed to confront various forms of discrimination.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when, already at page 195, I found that next came a section on – sport!

Already exhausted, I turned to a Web site called “goodreads,” to find two young ladies who had been “awarded” copies of the book and had given it five stars without, in either case, having read it. One was “looking forward to reading it,” while another said she hadn’t read it yet, but loved K-pop and drama. I thought both had a major disappointment coming.

I pressed on nonetheless. After the sports section came, on page 249, a section on music. I was wrong to be relieved, however. Its first chapter was on the 1930s, the decade of our present girl groups’ great grandparents, then came a moderately interesting one on Korean rock groups in the 1960s and 1970s and their problems with the authorities, then an essay on the music of the 1990s.

Finally, on page 314, I arrived at a chapter on the phenomenon of the present-day girl groups. This was an oasis in the veritable desert surrounding it. It considered videos by Girls’ Generation, KARA, After School, Miss-A, 4Minute, 2NE1 and f(x). It questioned somewhat predictably whether they really represented an “escape from patriarchy,” but ended up by interestingly noting that Girls’ Generation were said to be made to live on only 1,200 calories a day, and that currently half of Korean high-school girls were unable to donate blood because of anemia and malnutrition caused by dieting.

There was, I admit, the routine reference to “late capitalism,” but nevertheless, with its quoted claim that 60 percent of girl group members admitted to pressure from their managers to wear revealing clothing and/or perform dance moves with which they were uncomfortable, this was an insightful and relevant chapter. Would that more of the book had been like that.

With 50 pages still to go, I still had hopes of more on what the book’s title had promised. But I discovered — to my horror — that all they contained were chapters on tourism, Korean cuisine, and an academic’s trip to North Korea.

The fundamental problem with this product is that its publishers desperately want to appeal to the huge global following that K-pop and K-drama have won (rightly or wrongly), but that most of the commissioned academics know next to nothing about it, and fall back on writing about their research topics, which are inevitably largely historical.

But that’s not all. In the book’s promotional material, Psy’s record-breaking Gangnam Style video, with some two billion hits on YouTube not counting parodies, is described as “silly.” Can something that’s received MTV Europe’s Music Award for Best Video, and has been watched by approaching a quarter of the world’s population, be labeled “silly” without a patronizing tone creeping in? I don’t think so. To patronize, and at the same time seek to please those you’re patronizing, is, it seems to me, an especially lethal combination.

The moral is, never trust literary academics, at least of the current generation, and when they’re attempting to elucidate popular culture, don’t trust them under any circumstances. They have no idea what it is, have little to say about it and, in this particular case, mostly don’t even try.