K-pop is still a thing

Exploring the Subcultures of Union College

Stefani Leeper

Without doubt, almost everyone in America is familiar with Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which was released in the summer of 2012. “Gangam Style” took the world by storm, having garnered an impressive one billion views by December 21 of the same year.

With Psy came a national, though brief, awareness of Korean popular music, or “K-pop.” However K-pop had already permeated the nation. In October 2011, the SMTown Live World Tour sold out Madison Square Garden. Female pop group “Girls’ Generation” kicked off 2012 with an American release of their album “The Boys” and a guest performance on David Letterman, as well as on Live! With Kelly. Their hit single “The Boys” (released in Korean, English, and Japanese versions), was produced by Teddy Riley who also acted as producer for pop legend Michael Jackson. In late 2012, KIIS FM, Los Angeles’ #1 popular music station, featured Korean girl group Wonder Girls in an exclusive interview. Korean culture has effectively begun to catch eyes in what is known as the Hallyu (Korean) Wave.

Despite the growing force behind the Hallyu Wave, many Americans are still unaware of K-pop’s presence in the media. Therefore, it comes as a surprise to many that K-pop has been silently embraced by many students attending Union College and other Adventist universities and academies.

Why K-pop?

In a nutshell, Korean popular culture in America began to pick up popularity when Korean dramas and film found pockets of Korean audiences. “Korean dramas and film are more ‘family friendly’ and centered on Confucian values,” explains Eun-Young Jung in the 2009 article “Transnational Korea: A Critical Assessment of the Korean Wave in Asia and the United States.”

Exposure to Korean visual media opened up America to a whole new world of entertainment. Music stars Rain and BoA were packaged in more westernized fashion and music styles. (BoA went on to gain more popularity in Japan, whereas Rain was adopted into American film.) After experimenting with these two stars, Korean music labels began to hybridize their music bands with appeal to both Eastern and Western concepts, especially because Korean pop sales help spur the South Korean economy.

According to a handful of Union students, Korean popular culture was first introduced through friends. They maintained their interest because of the quality of the music, the personality of the stars and the messages behind the film. Of course, the hybridization of Eastern and Western culture has also played a large part in their interest.

Samantha Jones, a second-year linguistics student from Ontario, Canada, who attended Union College during her freshman year, attributes her love for Korean culture to her love of language. She is currently learning Korean to help immigrants and visitors to the country, as well as to assist Korean-speaking students in Canada. “I can help them with their studies and concepts that they don’t know when they are learning English. What better way to help than through their mother tongue?”

Her introduction to Korean culture all began with, of course, a Korean drama. “I realized there are a lot of new concepts of the country that I hadn’t thought about before,” she explained.

“And,” she added, “one misconception that I want to address about South Korean culture is that the women are always submissive to the men. That is not true.”

When thinking of misconceptions, a few comments usually come to mind:  

“Doesn’t their language seem angry?”

“Isn’t that like anime?”

“That’s, like, Chinese, right?”

“What’s the point if you don’t understand the language?”

These are just a few of the questions commonly asked of English-speaking non-Koreans who enjoy Korean media. Unfortunately, these questions also point to stereotypes and misconceptions of the culture.

“My first impression was that this language was really hard to understand,” explained Amanda Funk-Hilton, an adjunct professor of English at Union College. “But after watching K-pop dramas, I was really excited about how I was starting to get a handle on the cadence of the language.”

Stefani is a sophomore studying communication.