9/06/2012

Is K-Pop Sustainable? Tom Coyner by IPG's Senior Adviser

For the past five years I have monitored with detached interest how Hallyu, or the Korean Wave has grown from a local pop phenomenon into an international trend. There is no denying it. The Korean Wave is huge. But by living in Korea, one could easily get the impression that the Korean Wave has taken the entire planet by storm and there is no telling where Korean culture will make its next global impact.

But is this really the case?

I know as a fact there is creative team in a major Korean tourism bureaucracy that is divided into two camps. One camp tries to shoehorn the Korean Wave into just about everything they touch. The other camp is about ready to scream if they hear “Hallyu” yet one more time.

And that pretty much sums it up.

Either one believes the entire globe is hooked on the Korean Wave - or one wonders if the frogs in this small pond have yet again falsely projected their importance beyond the horizon. As often is the case, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between.

Let’s consider what most observers agree is the origins of Korean Wave. One must first look to Japan where ultra kawaii, or cute, boy and girl acts - either as individuals or groups - have dominated the Japanese pop scene for decades.

Over time, the Japanese have worked out a formula that includes recruiting good looking adolescents into talent stables, training them how to sing, dance, posture and interact with live audiences. The music companies then harvest the very best and put these youths out as single artists or into boy or girl bands.

Particularly when choreography is highlighted, the groups have been particularly successful. Noting such, Korean companies have been emulating this highly successful business model that generates large profits not only within Japan but also throughout Asia. But as often is the case, the Koreans have not only emulated but have improved on the template.

The Koreans wisely recognized what all of this is all about, which is obviously adolescent sexual drives. Consequently, cuteness was replaced with sultry sexiness - but not too much. Just what my generation used to call as “prick tease” sexiness. That is, implying but not actually overly suggesting carnality.

If there is anything that hits the primarily Asian target, this Korean fine tuning has to be it. Most Asian adolescents or young adults wish to think of themselves as - and others to think of them as - being sexy. But Asian culture can create major inhibitions.

For example, there is safety in numbers - particularly when acting out mildly outrageous as part of a group than doing essentially the same as an individual. To put it another way, identifying closely with a boy or girl band (think the Beatles) is less intimidating than to do the same with a iconoclastic rebel like Elvis. To choose the latter path places the individual alone into new, unchartered social territory. But to venture out as a group - even if only by psychological connectivity - there is a social security in what I may label as “safe group sex.”

For many young Asians who have never had a genuine, romantic kiss, the Korean Wave’s boy and girl band are undoubtedly attractive. It is not surprising to find the Korean Wave being extraordinarily popular throughout East Asia and as far as the Middle East where implied sexuality is more comfortably welcomed than the blatant, in-your-face sex appeal of Lady Gaga and other Western stars.

Looking to the West as viewed through Korea’s mass media lenses, one would get the impression that Korean Wave is on the verge of inundating the youth markets of all nations. After all, were there not a sellout crowds at Carnegie Hall and similarly successful concerts in London and Paris? The quick and obvious answer is yes. The more thoughtful reply is “yes, but .?.?.”

Having a son who lives in Korea Town in Los Angeles and who is a musician in his own right, I asked him what in blazes is going on in the United States. His street perspective is that the Korean Wave is indeed big, but only in pockets where Koreans and other Asians concentrate. There are non-Asian ethnic American fans as well, but he noted that most non-Asian American Korean Wave fans are very good friends of Koreans and a surprising number have had or currently have ethnic Korean lovers. How accurate is that observation, I have no idea, but it does tie into the sexuality of my other observations.

All of which is fair game when one recalls how early rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s was strenuously resisted by my parents’ generation who not entirely unfairly pigeon holed “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” into one category.

Even Bob Dylan allowed that the basic beat of rock ‘n’ roll emulates human copulation. But today, given that rock ‘n’ roll is prevalent throughout many societies, one doesn’t give it any more thought than suggestive advertising and gratuitous cinematic love scenes.

What I find a bit humorous is Korean bureaucrats coming up with some pretty bizarre schemes to hijack the Korean Wave as a platform to introduce overseas traditional Korean culture and high tone tourism. It takes genuine self-control not to roll my eyes when I’m asked my opinion - that is, approval - of these naive strategies. I generally give some kind of ambiguous answer. I haven’t figured how to concisely explain to a 60-year-old bureaucrat what is going on in the minds and other body parts of today’s teenagers and twentysomethings have little to do with untapped interest in Korean culture.

Meanwhile, the Korean Wave laps at the shores around the world. Sometimes it overwhelms local pop scenes, but other times it simply competes as novelty acts in other, more sexually explicit markets. In the long run, what the Korean Wave needs is genuine, ongoing innovation. But that is another topic for another time.

Appeared in the Korea Joonang Ilbo at: How Overblown is the K-Wave?

By Tom Coyner.  Senior Commercial Adviser for IPG.