From the library: The Birth of Korean Cool, by Euny Hong

From the library: The Birth of Korean Cool, by Euny Hong August 17, 2014

Over the last couple days I’ve been reading two books:  the first, about pensions and Social Security, will get a much longer treatment over the next couple days (spoiler alert:  if he can get a book published the central narrative of which is “greed destroyed defined benefit pensions,” why can’t I write and publish something that’s actually useful?), but here’s a bit of a summary of my mental-health-break book.

It’s hard to really process how much and how fast Korea has changed.  In my grade-school days, each of my siblings and I had little black-and-white TVs from Gold Star — which, due to its reputation for cheap, poor-quality products, renamed themselves LG in 1995.  And it’s hard to fathom that Korea wasn’t a democracy until 1987, previously being governed by a series of autocratic rulers.

And, of course, Psy burst on the scene with the hit Gagnam Style, which we have watched in the original, the Minecraft parody, and multiple other variations.  News reports would periodically tell us that this wasn’t really “K-Pop” though I had never heard much about K-Pop in the first place, though there’s a store in nearby Woodfield Mall which specializes in its memorabilia.

But here’s the story:  after the financial crash of 1997, Korea’s leaders crafted a deliberate plan to move the country forward economically when they had little in the way of natural resources, and they actively supported cultural exports.  In addition, certain elements of Korea’s situation made them well-suited to be pop culture exporters.

Pop music:  apparently this is huge in Asia, even overtaking “J-pop” in its home turf.  The music is not the result of individuals or garage bands crafting their sound, but of corporate forces.  Children are taken on with very long-term contracts, spending the first 5 – 7 years training in dance and voice.  The songs (videos and concerts) are meticulously choreographed.  And, even though my quick youtube survey of K-pop revealed a lot of hip swaying with camera close-ups of rear-ends, the sort of misbehavior that’s the norm for an American pop star is absolutely out of the question; the musicians have to be squeaky-clean or they’ll be replaced, pronto.  Other factors in Korea’s favor:  for a long stretch, rock music was banned, so the creators of K-pop had a blank slate, and didn’t hesitate to create/copy sounds.  The men in the boy bands have great followings across Asia due to a stereotype that Korean men are both masculine and caring at the same time.  And some of the bands even record their songs in Japanese.  (I was struck, in my brief listen, by the fact that the lyrics, while of course, incomprehensible, didn’t sound “foreign” — I don’t know whether that’s just how Korean sounds, or whether it’s something in the nature of how the music is created that the lyrics sound generic.)

Television:  again, this is huge, and not just in Asia but in the Middle East and Latin America.  One factor is the government’s decision to make this an export industry and fund the creation of these shows; another is the fact that Korean shows are generally fairly conservative and well-suited for more conservative cultures.

Movies are growing.  And video games are big.  And beyond that, Samsung is establishing itself as a tech giant.

The author spent time in Korea in the 80s, as the child of Korean-American immigrants who returned home, so she was an outsider in many ways but experienced the culture more closely than an ordinary American journalist coming in to do a series of interviews.  And her anecdotes and her now vs. then contrasts add another dimension to the book.

Beyond that, it raises the question:  how much can the government do to direct the economy?   Because their strategy here sure seems to have been worked.  Is this something that works in some unique circumstances?  Or were they just lucky that they picked an area where they truly were able to succeed, as opposed to throwing away money on boondoggles of one kind or another?

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