“The World’s Most Controversial K-Pop Group” left me considering many questions about modern K-Pop– about its definition, its ownership, and its cultural impact. While they don’t have objective, easily-uncovered answers, I tried to dig into how modern fans perceive the genre and its limits.
K-Pop as it is today, mainly run by enormous entertainment labels with grueling trainee programs, takes inspiration from Western entertainment while incorporating distinct aspects of its home country. I find this to be a beautiful example of cultural exchange, as well as a celebration of Korea’s unique culture.
As seen in Vice’s interviews, many people didn’t feel that white singers could ever be considered legitimate K-Pop artists because of their race. Instead of viewing K-Pop as a uniquely Korean phenomena, and see it as a more broad Asian platform.
Has modern K-Pop in fact evolved past its connection Korean culture, and come to be defined by race alone?
The reception of non-Korean Asians, both by Korean and international audiences, offers insight into how modern K-Pop is perceived in its home country and around the world.
When Hangeng joined Super Junior and became the first non-Korean singer in a K-Pop group, he was met with some hesitation by Korean audiences. His Chinese nationality was often emphasized over any other quality, frequently in the form of racist remarks.
Since then, it has become far more common for non-Korean Asians to seek a K-Pop career. There are foreign members in some of today’s biggest groups, like Lisa of BLACKPINK. While these artists still encounter racism or different treatment than their Korean counterparts in Korea, they are widely accepted by international audiences. In fact, they help Korean entertainment labels relate to their overseas fans. As idols of different Asian nationalities integrate into K-Pop, many modern fans define the genre by race.
In order to examine the implications of defining K-Pop by race, I will respond to an article from SeoulBeats about The Gloss, a K-Pop group who debuted with a French member. While the piece is from 2013, its thorough discussion of race in K-Pop has stuck with me.
The SeoulBeats article harshly criticizes The Gloss for introducing a white idol into K-Pop. The author claims that Olivia, under the supervision of her directors, was “using” whiteness to elevate herself above her Asian competitors. The author feels that K-Pop is an important platform for Asian and Asian American representation in media. Therefore, she firmly states that the introduction of a white member does nothing to make K-Pop more “global” or “accepting”. Instead, it represents a white person leveraging their race to invade an Asian space, reflecting a long history of glorified whiteness and cultural commandeering.
First and foremost, the author makes clear the main criteria for K-Pop is in fact the race of its artists. While she claims it is not racism that prevents non-Asians from entering K-Pop (it is simply East Asia consuming the most Korean pop culture), she defines K-Pop as an essential platform for Asian representation. She describes K-Pop as a means for Asians and Asian Americans to establish a space for themselves amidst an unjust Western media which favors white performers. This definition allows her to defend the introduction of artists outside of Korean culture while dismissing the legitimacy of a white K-Pop artist.
Interestingly, this argument could also excuse the use of cultural elements from other Asian countries in K-Pop, such as Koreans performing in the traditional clothing of another Asian nation.
The author points out that, to her and many others, K-Pop has served as an escape for Asian-Americans from a racially unjust Hollywood. To paint this picture, she reminisces about her own experience in global K-Pop auditions, a place for Asian Americans to compete based on their ability and not be automatically ruled out for their race. I have heard similar arguments all across the internet, which define K-Pop as a much-needed platform for Asian American representation. This implies K-Pop’s purpose is to represent Asians and counter Hollywood’s non-inclusivity, not to provide media and entertainment for its home country.
I disagree with this definition. While representation of Asians and Asian Americans in Western media is severely lacking, this argument is more based on the context of American race relations than the culture of Korea. While the author goes to great lengths to describe the glorification of whiteness in K-Pop, I feel she has entered the discussion with pre-conceived ideas about race that are more specific to the United States, not the more culturally homogenous Korea.
This takes away from Korea’s interesting contributions to music and pop culture. Deciding based on your own experience that K-Pop is defined by race removes it from its home culture, and pushes forward a dialogue about race relations which is more about the treatment of whiteness in Western media. Making K-Pop about whiteness and representation in the United States disregards its origins in Korean culture, as well as race relations in its home country. In a way, it is imposing a Western definition onto the Korean entertainment industry.
The author also argues that the addition of a white singer does nothing to progress towards a more “international” or “inclusive” K-Pop, instead playing into an existing glorification of whiteness. Because the white singer will not face the same obstacles as an Asian or Asian-American artist, they argue, even reducing her to a “token member” is problematic. Again, I feel that this is entering the conversation with ideas based on a Western experience of race, not one that applies to Korea or the rest of the world. Assuming that events in K-Pop push forward a specific conversation about Western views of race imposes Western ideology, along with its racial conflicts, on Korea. I would argue this takes away from K-Pop more than a white person learning the Korean language and trying to reach Koreans in their own country.
The author concludes by proposing that Olivia could pursue a career in her home country, but instead has chosen to utilize her race to leverage her appeal with Korean audiences. Therefore, her choice to debut in K-Pop is irritating and disrespectful. However, I would guess that auditioning in K-Pop is not merely a ploy to gain fame using your race to leverage your appeal. Surely Olivia, similar to non-Korean Asians who seek a K-Pop career, choose that specific industry for many reasons. I would hope that they are familiar with K-Pop’s history, it’s target audience, and have a love and appreciation for it.
I would be curious to know the author’s thoughts on Alexandra Reid, the first African-American artist to debut as a K-Pop star. During her time in the girl group BP Rania, Alexandra simultaneously faced racism and accusations of “whitewashing” her appearance from many Korean fans. It seems contradictory that in an industry which, according to the SeoulBeats author, favors whiteness, a non-white person would be criticized for adapting their appearance to conform with this image.
Would the author believe that she, like Olivia, took away from an important space for Asian representation? Or did Alexandra’s time in K-Pop represent a movement towards a more progressive genre?
Alexandra’s frequently harsh treatment does reflect a real issue of racism in K-Pop’s home country, and further emphasizes the possibility that the modern genre is more defined by race than by any cultural connection.
Looking to the future of K-Pop, an announcement was recently made about Z-Pop Dream, a new K-Pop label planning to debut the first “truly international” K-Pop group and establish “star academies” in several Asian nations. None of the announced members of their groups Z-boys and Z-Girls are Korean. Will this group be accepted as “real” K-Pop idols by Korean and international fans?
Will this group represent a progressive movement towards global K-Pop, or is it merely a marketing technique appeal to a growing international audience?
Perhaps only time will tell. I wish them all the best in their debut, and look forward to seeing their reception both in Korea and abroad.
Vice Video: The World’s Most Controversial K-Pop Group
SeoulBeats Article: Token White Member: The Problem with Foreign K-Pop Idols