A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to BTS’ latest single, “Dynamite”. The unique selling point of the music video was that its visual concept was similar to something we might see in a US throwback to the 70’s. Even so, judging by the dance choreography, camera movement, and what I term “glam shots” (i.e. Jungkook staring straight into the camera, smiling or winking to make the viewer’s heart flutter — ah yes we live for that one-way attention), “Dynamite” was what a K-pop MV would look like.
On another occasion, I was listening to the radio on the way home. The DJ introduced the next song: “More and More” by K-pop girl group, TWICE. The song was released in June, so the song was kinda “old news” to me. I brushed it off as Singapore radio being a bit slow on the purchase of broadcast licensing.
I didn’t realise it on my first listen.
I’ve watched enough K-dramas and Running Man to identify Korean words, and I catch them on occasion when listening to South Korean music. For “More and More”, I was also familiar with the original Korean version by then. So you can guess how confused I was when I finally realised it.
“Hold up — are they singing the WHOLE song in English?!”
The West has been a key producer of content development and entertainment trends for a long time now. They’ve naturally become “the standard” to follow and the benchmark of success for other countries. And so, seeing K-pop use words of English in the title and chorus, and of course, using a music style that’s very similar to an iconic Western cultural trend wasn’t a cause for concern.
But writing a whole song in English? That’s concerning.
Korea has been commercialising its culture and “cultural objects” since 1997 with the aim of becoming a globalised country. So far, the Korean government’s globalisation project has been pretty successful (even if you don’t watch K-dramas, you would know about Korean musicians. Also FYI, Samsung and FILA are Korean brands). For talent agencies, acquiring and training talent from neighbouring regions (i.e. China, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand) has been implemented since the first and second waves of the “Hallyu wave” in a bid to ease promotion in the talents’ home countries. Today, Koreans born in Western countries, such as the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, are being scouted as well. This move forward seemed to climb up the ranks in terms of “global success”, where the industry has employed multilingual K-pop stars to break into the previously “impassable” Western music and entertainment scene.
So what struck me wasn’t that the overall tone and visual of “Dynamite”, where the set design, costume and overall cinematic style looked like something I’d seen before in Saturday Night Fever. It was the production of songs that were completely in English despite K-pop being one of Korea’s proudest cultural products.
Was singing in English the right way forward?
While Korea’s public school system does enforce learning English as a second language, the development and ubiquitous use of “Konglish” in Korea (which is basically Korean pronunciation of English words based on Korean phonetics) heavily accents the spoken language. Personally, I couldn’t decipher what they were singing in the verses of “Dynamite” and “More and More”, but instead I found myself subconsciously looking for Korean words in my initial listening of the songs.
Which leads me to my second point: I clicked on a K-pop song to listen to a pop sung in Korean. The concessions that the K-pop industry has made to accommodate non-Korean speaking audiences (such as writing catchy English phrases and words that really made the ear-worms stick) in my opinion have been sufficient in attracting global audiences to their stage. The act of globalisation shouldn’t be to conform to a Western-centric system, but rather to strategically frame Korean culture in a way that appeals to the non-Korean demographic*.
Part of Korea’s appeal stems from its language, unique style, thematic focus and method of presentation. If K-pop agencies want to reach an English-speaking demographic, to get on the express lane to appear on Western TV shows, or even to enter into partnerships with large Western corporations and gain greater financial support, I don’t believe creating English-speaking Korean groups that pander to Western tastes is the way forward, as they dilute Korea’s national identity in the process. And in any case…
We need to stop using the US as a yardstick for success
I recently read an article about how many atlases and world maps erroneously showing the United States at the centre, and as a result appears a lot bigger than it actually is.
“The Mercator projection, the map most commonly seen hanging in classrooms and in text books, was created in 1596 to help sailors navigate the world… The familiar ‘Mercator’ projection gives the right shapes of land masses, but at the cost of distorting their sizes in favour of the wealthy lands to the north.” (source)
Echoing the concerns expressed by the people who have noticed this discrepancy, English K-pop songs and wanting to appear on Western interview and awards shows seem to highlight the fact that the rest of the world has gotten too used to developing around the West. But is it true that the US’ money is “bigger”? Is their entertainment scene really the most global, or the most influential?
In “The Book of Tea”, Kakuzo Okakura writes:
“Our insight does not penetrate your culture deeply, but at least we are willing to learn. Some of my compatriots have adopted too much of your customs and too much of your etiquette, in the delusion that the acquisition of stiff collars and tall silk hats comprised the attainment of your civilisation. Pathetic and deplorable as such affectations are, they evince our willingness to approach the West on our knees. Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavourable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers.”
In the past, perhaps using the US as a measure of development was accurate because, well, the Western world seemed to urbanise the fastest. But as recent jostling between the US and China have shown, the world doesn’t really revolve around the US. The “Westerncentric” fallacy generated by Western media leads peripheral countries to believe that the Western world is still leading the game mainly because they’re communicating their ideas louder than everyone else.
But just because you’re loud, doesn’t mean you’re right.
Admittedly, working with established Western artistes has its benefits. Take a look at BLACKPINK’s collaboration with Selena Gomez on their song “Ice Cream” — the song was #13 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts, and has become BLACKPINK’s highest charting song to date. But here’s the thing: it’s popular in the US, but it isn’t doing that well in Korea. Whether the music and visual styles appealed more to Western audiences, if “Ice Cream” did well because of Selena Gomez, or, if this is simply the Western world’s Orientalist gaze on East Asia — frankly, it’s hard to say at this time. My point however is that Korea’s Hallyu wave has been achieving economic prosperity from the transmission of their unique cultural identity. Why they were compelled to pander to Western audiences by singing their songs in English is beyond me.
It is short-sighted for Korea, or any non-Western country, to dilute their cultural identity and willingly surrender the country back to colonialist rule in the name of commercial growth. The problem is: does the industry care enough to honour that?
*To target regional audiences, K-pop groups have released Japanese and Mandarin versions of their songs during the time of writing. This could be due to reasons of music licensing and distribution, or as a result of audience segmentation studies that might’ve shown that Japanese audiences favour different visuals, music styles, or certain members. I still argue that K-pop is a “cultural production” that should reflect the South Korea’s identity. The pronunciation for the Mandarin version is just slightly off, but I find it’s still more comprehensible compared to their English pronunciation.