by Raizel Liebler
John Lie’s K-pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea is a good, but poorly named book. The book’s strengths are not in the discussion of the present state of k-pop, but in the historical, cultural, and economic answer to how k-pop happened. If you are trying to read a basic overview book in English on kpop, this shouldn’t be your starting point.
But if instead you are seeking a musical journey through the musical influences that led to kpop, including the Japanese pentatonic scale and the long history of taking Western music and making it Korean, then this is the book for you. The first two-thirds are quite interesting, explaining the various threads that led up to the musical melange that is kpop, shaped by local folk music, Western and Japanese music, imperialism, war, and censorship.
Lie writes about how government censorship up until the death of President Park in 1979 shaped popular music, by helping trot — a musical genre that is like a cross between 60s tv show theme songs and unfunky disco (think the Ranma 1/2 theme song) — remain popular precisely because it was not viewed as “proper.”:
“Trot was too Japanese, Japanese songs were imperialistic, rock was sex-addled and drug-infused, and folk songs were anti-government; even composers of classical music … came under fire for their political views. … The government-sanctioned healthy songs had cheerful lyrics and melodies … and at least one of these songs had to be included on every LP. (Imagine listening to a Bob Dylan record and finding a Pat Boone song at the end!)” (48-49)
So the historical section — up to and including the 90s — is well-written and useful for any academic or semi-academic who wants to understand Korean music. But the short section that is actually about present-day kpop just isn’t where I would recommend for this information. Yes, it does include information about the trainee programs that labels have, and on some of the songs that retain the pentatonic scale, but the same zip from the earlier sections just isn’t here.
For example, there is inconsistent naming of Girls Generation. One section refers to them as Girls Generation, but an earlier section uses their Korean name, So Nyeo Shi Dae, but even then he uses the McCune-Reischauer translation of Sonyo Sidae. A simple solution exists of using their abbrevated name of SNSD throughout, since that is used by Korean, Japanese, and English speaking fans. There are other oddnesses in the present kpop section — for anyone reading footnotes, Hyuna hasn’t left 4Minute just because she also is in Trouble Maker!
Summary: This book is good for understanding the historical and cultural backstory of kpop from an academic perspective. Look elsewhere for analysis of kpop of today. If this book is too academic, check out Euny Hong’s Birth of Korean Cool from a journalistic perspective. (The reverse holds — if you are looking for a more academic take than the Birth of Korean Cool, read this.)