The (Soft) Power of K-Pop

Quick thoughts on soft power. It is ridiculously important if a country wants to have positive sway over a another one’s populace, they should have some sort of soft power. I’m not making a value judgment. I’m not saying they have to do this. I’m not saying they should do this. But soft power goes, oh, so far.

What is soft power? Using this rigorous definition from Wikipedia, we see the defining feature is it’s being non-coercive. In the context of this article I’m mainly talking about culture, be them material goods or otherwise. Korea has its music, TV, brands and food all over pop culture the world over. Japan has, well, a lot: manga, TV, movies, trading cards, video games, other collectibles, brands, music, electronics. China requires a bit of thinking as to their soft power, which is precisely the point.

You say, “Germany!” people think good beer. You say, “Japan!” people say Nintendo. (I hope.) You say, “Mexico!” people think, verbatim, pre-Cortesian, Mesoamerican-inspired  cuisine. (Although, maybe these days some think other things.) These are defining cultural features.

You think “China!” and it’s probably the Great Wall, cheap take-out and kung fu. The Great Wall requires you to get to the Middle Kingdom, which is no easy feat. No culture wants outsiders to think of their food as “cheap take-out.” Kung fu is definitely awesome, but the average person would conflate it with every other form of martial art, defeating the central purpose of soft power, which is to identify that people.

Using three East Asian neighbors (China, Korea, Japan) we see that the former lacks any palpable sort of soft power, while the latter two have it in spades. China badly wants its TV, music, video games, something to make it over to Europe and North America to change perceptions, either rightly or wrongly applied.

Again, I’m not trying to make a value judgment. I don’t want mean to say China needs to appeal to American consumerism if it wants to be successful. I’m saying at least to some degree, they want to. Many people I’ve spoken too admit their TV doesn’t exactly charm foreigners, that they listen to international music instead of local tunes. They look to Korean music and TV for entertainment.

That is the strength of soft power.

Folks in China love Korean pop music, henceforth known as K-Pop. It’s blasted on TV, in front of store shops, on radios, on kids’ phones, etc. It is pretty central to Korean culture in a number of ways, but that’s not to say everyone adores it. The style of K-Pop is hard to describe, as would American pop music as it’s always changing. One feature I seem to notice is a tendency for male bands to have many rapped parts. Beyond that, just go YouTube some songs, but please not Gangnam Style. A little piece of me will die.

First, in terms of a girl’s image, it can be pretty damaging, much the way I guess a pop star could do to a young American girl. Here, though the effects seem to be magnified much further. The K-Pop stars are undoubtedly attractive, but they are also obviously fake. Heavy doses of plastic surgery, make up, and hair dye got them to look that way. They are treated as indispensable, and (from what I’m told anyways) will be replaced on a whim if they don’t fit the mold they’re told to.

There are even music videos that are deemed “too sexy” and are banned from public viewing. They basically involve overt gestures or touching of body parts. I read about how absurd this can be though. Korean videos will be banned for probably good reason, while this exists, with Katy Perry being kneaded sexually saying “bon appetit!”

Second, the music is everywhere, obviously as American music is in the US. At one point, I was walking in Gangnam and there’s just TV screen playing a random K-Pop song. The video/audio quality was subpar. There were no freebies. There was no extra promotional material at all, and yet there were actually hundreds of people staring at the screen—abruptly the song ends.

Next song = the exact same song. (That song ends.)
The third song = the second song. (That song ends.)
Rinse. Repeat.

I stayed there because I was waiting to meet up with a friend, but I was becoming increasingly interested if people were going to stay for the fifth repetition of the same exact song, because at this point, the already grainy screen had a Windows error message waiting to be X’ed out. Hmmm…

People love K-Pop so much they just stare at low quality videos on repeat in a central square.

So yeah, this art form is definitely important, and even knowing this, I was surprised to walk into my hostel fresh off the plane and see a group of non-Koreans just watching K-Pop videos in the basement. I was down there for the wifi to look some stuff up, check maps, etc. for about 20 minutes, and the whole time they were just singing/humming these tunes, and continued to do so even as I left.

This! This is the soft culture China really needs, as you want people to associate your culture with beautiful songs and amazing art, rather than take-out food and bargain shopping. Certainly they already have culture, it’s just not that exportable in its current form. Once they have this, they will truly have taken our consciousness by force.

Like what you’re reading on Korea? Check out some other related articles in: The Korea Chronicles!

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