Last weekend, you may have not noticed the earth move beneath your feet, and you may not be on the K-pop bandwagon. But many noticed K-pop boy-band sensation BTS when they appeared as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live in the United States.
And BTS were not alone.
In another milestone, girl group Blackpink became not only the first K-pop act to perform at Coachella – the annual music and arts bash held in the Colorado desert that is one of the world’s leading music festivals – but also the first all-female group to top the US iTunes charts since Destiny’s Child in 2004, as reported by The Verge.
Even more remarkably, Blackpink’s Coachella set was live-streamed in New York’s Times Square.
But neither Blackpink’s Kill This Love video – which has been a big hit on YouTube at 192 million views since the video dropped last week – nor BTS’s performance on America’s other most prominent musical stage – proudly and unapologetically in Korean – was the big cultural news for Korea, its diaspora, or K-pop fans.
On iconic comedy sketch show SNL, it was host Emma Stone’s introduction that embedded the milestone.
SNL’s Emma Stone introduces BTS with a characteristically Korean gesture. Video: YouTube
That ‘finger-heart’ moment
A non-Korean or non-K-pop fan could hardly be blamed for not knowing how to make the cutesy, live-action, human emoticons that punctuate young social life – and many, many selfies – in South Korea. If you’ve never seen someone point “finger hearts” in your direction, you might be confused.
After all, Kim Jong Un apparently had some difficulty making it during his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year. And even BTS didn’t throw up finger hearts in their promotions for the SNL episode – perhaps assuming it would have been confusing to those on the K-pop outside.
It was Stone – the celebrated actress who fronted Saturday’s show – who closed the loop with the finger heart gesture. She gets it. Her gesture was a nod to all Koreans and to all caught up in Korean concerns.
And that was the most surprising moment of the weekend – a sign that Korea’s cultural influence has ratcheted up to a higher-than-ever level.
A ‘shrimp between whales’
Korea lives with the cultural fact of sadae juui – an attitude of “deference to greater powers.” Its pre-colonial heritage was as a vassal of China, modernity was forced upon it by Imperial Japan, then after 1945, it entered a neo-colonial relationship with new occupier come liberator the United States.
Seeing itself as a “shrimp between whales,” South Korea has learned to keep a close and wary eye on the big powers all around. But at the same time, South Koreans knew from whom and how to learn.
Whether it was reverse engineering American Jeep parts into new, hybrid creations that became Korea’s first homegrown, sky blue taxis and Hyundai vehicles, or Samsung learning to make semiconductors and smartphones, South Koreans knew what they needed. They also learned to do it cheaper, better and faster than those they learned from.
The methodology South Korea used in commerce was applied to pop culture. The “economic warrior” mentality of conglomerates was replicated in militaristic training regimens that music labels instituted for their hopefuls. And just as the government had supported industrial exports in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, they got behind the culture exports – television dramas, cinema and pop music – in the ’90s.
By the time the century flipped, South Korea had created pop culture factories that churned out pop songs and TV dramas – at first like GM-made cars, but then with practice, with the kind of quality and precision that Toyota and Honda stamped on autos that never broke down.
From plasticity to authenticity
But one of the things that long dogged K-pop in the eyes of the “White West” was the genre’s saccharine, overproduced aesthetic. It just felt fake to North Americans or Western Europeans used to the self-forming, garage-band authenticity of The Beatles or NWA.
That concept made the Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls fodder for youngsters who seemingly didn’t know what “real” music was. K-pop, which borrows heavily from the western girl or boy group model, seems to naturally fit this “inferior” category of insipid, mindless musical art for simpletons who would, it was assumed, grow out of it.
Save for one thing.
As K-pop evolved, it integrated a kernel of actual artistic sensibilities within it – such that even the most commercially crass and insipid songs and videos were often filled with a dense array of signs and symbols that operated as heavy subtextual messaging.
You know that something is going on, even if you’re not too sure what it is, and even if the subtext is ham-handed and clichéd.
EXID’s Up& Down video had push back for apparent symbolic misogyny – but it look artsy, and if it looks like art, it must be, right? That’s the trick. Video: YouTube.
This is what often led to controversy for K-pop videos, creating accolades for some and trouble for many. But this propels videos into the vaunted realm of art, which Korean culture does reserve a special place for, even against deeply ingrained cultural conservatism.
Artiness and appeals to baser instincts in Stellar’s work helped keep this video in the realm of an arty thing. Tellingly, however, viewing the extended version requires age verification via YouTube login. Video: YouTube
This sub-textual play in many K-pop videos is a smart strategy. In a genre that forcefully pushes Lolita stereotypes, lewd undulations by lithe young ladies and other tired-and-tawdry tropes, the working of heavy symbolism and high concept themes into an interplay turns sultry video into – well, art.
That provides a shield against all kinds of negative feedback. K-pop simulated music well enough to actually become music, and art well enough to actually become art. Nowadays, K-pop videos, when first dropped into YouTube, are standalone works of art.
Conquering the West
The genre gained fans in countries that tended to either enjoy the slick, artistic aesthetic of the videos, or who saw the Korean style as aspirational. But K-culture being popular across Asia was to be expected, while K-pop winning fans across Latin America was a curious fact that could easily be ignored.
However, as the late, great African-American comedian Bernie Mac quipped: “When white people come to see you, you successful – you somebody!” And this was the core sadae juui of all K-pop strivings.
Last weekend marked the triumph of the Korean cultural style. When a bright and shiny white celeb – Stone – introduced the Korean insiders’ love sign on US national television, that was the moment.
It’s about time. After the false start of Psy and Gangnam Style it is finally becoming clear that it isn’t just a particular video, or the special, virtuosic talent of a particular group of exceptional people that is making waves. Now, a certain kind of Korean swagger, a way of doing things, a discernible Korean style, is taking the stage.
The entire world – as validated by the top media metrics on the planet – is paying attention and taking note. A clearly Korean style is here.
It’s an unstoppable force of hip, hungry and hybrid elements. It is hypermodern media mastery that is calculating and savvy, filled with a rabid fervor to appropriate and remix everything in its path, hungry to outpace all others. It won’t be mistaken for a fad and it won’t just fade away as the weird kids grow up.
And it is doing it all with a self-confident lean – sealed with kissy “finger hearts.”