Book Review: Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Culture

by Raizel Liebler

Made in Korea : studies in popular music (2017), edited by Hyunjoon Shin and Seung-Ah Lee is another excellent entry in the growing field of academic studies of Korean pop culture available in English. Thematically, this collection works hard to situate Korean popular music — ranging from folk music through jazz to trot to punk and rock to Korean hiphop through early kpop to present-day kpop — within both a historical and musical context. This context is highly deliberative, with the provocative introduction explaining how little Korean music is understood within larger cultural contexts, both from musicologists and international fans.

Throughout the majority of the essays regardless of specific genre — such as folk or punk — there is a focus on the importance of the push-pull of government intervention on both popularity and music production, from bans (prevention of certain musical forms), to censorship (prevention of certain terms and more), to government financial support of idol labels.

There are also little mentions throughout the book regarding elements in Korean pop culture that would not be apparent to international fans. For example, while discussing trot, the editors mention how to a Korean audience the melody, rhythm, and singing style of the Wonder Girls song Nobody sounds local, while simultaneously to an international audience, it sounds like a Motown girl group throwback sound. (61)

While all of the essays are interesting, two essays specifically reflect present kpop fan studies and production. As snapshots, the importance of these essays will grow in time, considering how little is written about kpop with such an important critical tone. Dong-Yeun Lee’s Who’s Afraid of Korean Idols? even discusses the emotional labor by idols — and how what is perceived to be “real” is carefully constructed: the “idols’ emotional labor–initially taken up for pleasure as well as a means of living a fantastic life– is piled upon real labor.” (177) The cynicism that is nevertheless realistic, considering the churn rate for idol groups, continues: “The idol’s destiny is like that of the fancy flowers that may fall off before others; no one knows when they may not be there anymore.” (178)

Finally, I appreciated what Sun Jung’s chapter, Emerging Social Distribution: The Case of K-pop Circulation in the Global Pop Market, will do for my own research! This chapter focuses how kpop spreads, especially to and among international fans. Jung states “fans and other active audiences develop an expertise for the content and a mastery of distribution technology during which economic and cultural values are generated through audience activities” (57). The spread of kpop is based on a “conceptual paradigm of an intrinsic mixture of two different models–the newly emerging alternative, grassroots-driven, bottom-up model, and the existing, corporate-led, top-down model–in which multilayered regional, global, industry, and audience desires intermingle in the building and acquisition of cultural capital.” (57)

Overall: Strongly recommended for its historical context and discussion of the political economy surrounding Korean popular music. Properly places the popular music of South Korea as both opposition to and benefiting from government and structural forces. Not a casual read!

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