Saturday, 17 March 2012

The success of the Hallyu Wave: A curse in disguise?

There is no doubt at all that the Hallyu Wave is spreading, extending its grasp across the world, surpassing regional and linguistic barriers to introduce new generations of people to Korea and Korean culture. In particular, introducing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people to Korean pop music, classically termed "K-pop'. 

Now while this wide reaching success may seem hard to believe, if you consider recent events it suddenly becomes much more believable with many Korean pop groups breaking into music markets in Europe, Latin America and more specifically, America alongside with having a pre-established support base in the Japanese market. 

빅방 (Big Bang) with their EMA award
Last year, Big Bang, probably the most popular boy band at present, won the EMA for Best Worldwide Act beating Britney Spears and numerous other globally recognised artists.

Girl group: 소녀시대 (Girls Generation)
Girls Generation, one of the most popular girl bands in Korea who only debuted in 2009, recently performed on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman as well as ABC's LIVE! with Kelly. B2ST (pronounced 'Beast') performed in London with labelmates 4Minute in London last December and are currently in the middle of their 2012 world tour with stops including Berlin, Madrid, LA, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, 5 cities across Japan, Shanghai, Taipei, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manilla, Singapore and Jakarta with potential dates also being lined up in Argentina and Brazil!  

With such credits to the industry and the rapid expansion in interest that it has gained in the last few years, it would be somewhat difficult to argue that K-pop isn't spreading with virus-like speed, however the question I would like to approach is whether this is actually entirely beneficial for Korea? 

The 한류 or Hallyu Wave was coined by Beijing journalists back in 1999 who were surprised by the dramatic expansion of the Korean entertainment industry and the popularity of Korean entertainment in China. The term itself refers to the sweeping phenomenon of the spread of Korean culture around the world and the positive response it has received from neighbouring East and South East Asian countries, although this is now being extended to include Australia, America and Europe.

There is no questioning the power of the Hallyu Wave. After the collapse of the Korean economy in the 98' East Asian financial crisis, officials turned to the Hallyu wave as a tool of soft power to reignite interest in the country and encourage tourism and demand for cultural exports. More than a decade on, this "tool" is serving its purpose of putting South Korea on the map incredibly well with news coverage on Bloomberg stating that "Hallyu makes the biggest contribution to the Korean economy after home-grown chaebols (family run multi national business conglomerates) such as LG, Samsung and Hyundai. Korea's pop music industry in the country's most potent weapon." Previous President Roh Moo-Hyun even once remarked that the Hallyu wave would be the key to reuniting the Korean peninsula. 

On another note, tourism has rocketed with thousands flocking to the sites of popular Korean dramas either on their own or in groups on "drama tours" run by various tour agencies who have identified the niche in the market. Additionally, many come to watch their favourite idols perform in person. These drama tours and idol fans all pour money into the hundreds of ancillary businesses which have sprung up to support this rapid growth in demand. 

But is it really as good as it seems to be? 

While out to dinner the other evening, I was discussing the Hallyu wave when the person I was talking to asked about the negative effects of the wave. Initially, I didn't really know how to respond. As previously mentioned, the Hallyu wave is one of the main marketing tools used to attract attention  to Korea and as a (self-admitted) somewhat Korea-obsessed person, I couldn't really think of much on the spot to say against it. It was only on the way home that I really started to think about it and bring it up with other (equally obsessed) friends which led to me deciding to write about it here. 

The first point to clarify is that from here onwards when talking about the Hallyu wave, I am regarding it as focusing on the spread of K-pop in particular, excluding food, drama and other potential exports. 

It's a slightly difficult topic to pick apart actually, I almost don't know where to begin. For those who haven't had any contact with Korean pop music, it is rather VERY sugar coated - in general anyway. Groups have anywhere between 4-12 young, good looking members, there are co-ordinated wardrobes, dramatic themed comebacks and there's nearly always an incredibly catchy, very well rehearsed dance routine. (You should be thinking Spice Girls / Backstreet Boys-esque 'sugar'....then far beyond that!). This goes some way to explaining its audience and the global audience that Hallyu wave has seemed to gain - that of a generation of teenage girls. An army of screaming, half-crazed, (definitely) hormonal, love-struck teenage girls. And for anyone who isn't part of the army, it can be a somewhat terrifying experience when faced with it. 

The mayhem that ensues.....
I won't lie. I am a big K-pop fan but I have my limits. Would I pay  £60 to watch a band perform? No. Would I  start queuing outside a concert venue the night before? No. I could continue. Yet these girls seem to have the financial resources and the time and more importantly, the determination and devotion to do exactly that. 

Shinee visiting Abbey Road Studios  
Here you can see a shot of all the fangirls for very popular boy band, Shinee, who waited to see their idols. The boys were given the honour of performing a mini-concert at Abbey Road studios in London in celebration of their Japanese debut. Go figure. The honour being because they were the first Asian artists ever to do perform at Abbey Road and they did exactly that, for a small group of Japanese, yes only Japanese, fans who had won a competition back at home. All the English fans (and European fans who had travelled to London for the event!) were simply there to cheer them on...for a concert they weren't going to see. 

This is how I know I am a bad fan girl. 

Their behaviour all good and well until you consider the effect it has on the now slightly terrified people who, like me, don't fall into the fan girl army category. 

The face made by those not initiated at the sight of the K-pop fan girl army
As I went along for my weekly Korean language class at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, I walked past another class going on in the centre - that of the newly established 'K-pop Academy'. All of the participants that I observed were young and female - which says a lot if you compare it to my Korean class which is mostly older and a good mix of male/female. 

When chatting to some friends in my class and also to some fellow bloggers, I asked what they thought of the new K-pop academy. Many had no doubt it was a great idea but had actually been put off by its "K-pop association". One of my friends said "I guess I was a little scared to apply at the risk of being accepted then turning up to the first class to find I'm the only one older than 20 with a full time job", a fear that was echoed around the group. As I walked past this class this morning as they went on their way to a lecture on the Korean war... I felt a little sad. How many others had wanted to apply but had been put off because of K-pop? 

Don't get me wrong - I have plenty of friends who would describe themselves as engaged or married, working full time and also a manic K-pop fan...but the number is decreasing as they start to wonder what is the age when such "fan-girl" behaviour is no longer...well..socially acceptable? (Especially considering most group members are in their mid-late teens) This tends to be followed by the big question of "What then?". Without the draw of K-pop, where does my interest in Korea now lie? 

In fact, I guess it's two problems. Firstly, we must consider those who either have or are in the process of growing out of K-pop and how to retain their interest in Korea? Secondly, what about the people who are actually put off Korean culture due to the proliferation of K-pop? I believe both issues can actually be tackled in a similar method. 

It seems to me that from what I've heard from Korean friends, it is assumed Korean culture and language will piggy-back the spread of K-pop and that through interest in the pop music, people will want to know more about the country itself. The problem occurs when this theory doesn't necessarily translate to reality and thus, we must ask ourselves how to introduce other aspects of Korean culture and tradition to the wider audience? 

This in itself is becoming a big issue with many people starting to ask "What can Korea do to diversify itself?" as otherwise, it stands to lose a large audience of people. 

I think both the problem and solution lie in a two key things : provision of resources and communication. At present, Korea seems so focused on the Hallyu wave that there seems to have been little attempt to aggressively promote others aspects of Korean culture such as the cooking, the language or the literature, even the national sport, Taekwondo. Now, I can only speak from my experience, not for every country in which there is a Korean cultural centre or organisation but perhaps, just perhaps if these alternate aspects of Korean culture were really made to piggy back the wave, if they were put into the spotlight and if people were given the opportunity to get involved with them more easily then Korea wouldn't become just for the fan girls but rather would be available and accessible for everyone. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, now that we are in 2014, what would you say has become diffrerent, if any?

    For one, I think webtoons have gotten more legal exposure thanks to Naver.