Transnational Music as a Pan-ethnic Community

The prevalence and success of Korean pop music, or K-Pop, in the American economy and culture comes largely at the consideration of how Asian Americans seek to own a pan-ethnic identity in the East Asian community. Despite the fact that American-born teenagers of Asian immigrant parents are exposed to American pop music through their upbringing, there is something that K-Pop offers to Asian Americans which American music does not. There is, above all, a sense of belonging that surpasses actual understanding of language. Many of the students in Ju and Lee’s study were not even Korean-American, but rather were Chinese-American, Taiwanese-American, and Vietnamese-American. However, they had assurance of their identity which came from participating in the enjoyment of Korean media, whether it was music or TV. To see other Asians and to partake in the consumption of this media with other Asian Americans through the connection of Internet in the end becomes a very special type of community.

Korean entertainment companies are the ones who, in a sense, manufacture the artists who perform K-Pop. They have mastered the formula for pop music domination, as NPR’s Money Matters podcast puts it. By distributing their product — these K-Pop bands — to the rest of the world through visual and audio performances on YouTube and other dissemination routes on the web, Korea has intentionally created a niche for those across the world to partake in this cultural dialogue (Ju and Lee 334) by making it easy for us to access.

For context, the Korean Wave, often referred to as Hallyu (its name in Korean) is a phenomenon spanning since the 1990s which saw an incredible transnational flow of Korean media and Korean pop culture to the US. Korea was only able to accomplish this by capitalizing on “media content and cultural commodity for the nation’s economy” (Ju and Lee 325). The Korean Broadcasting Act of 1990, which allowed free-market competition in the broadcasting world, created a new era in Korean media that allowed them to largely play into the profitability of commercialism.

sm town
SM Town, the family of recording artists under Korean entertainment company SM Entertainment (2012)

Beyond the views on YouTube, of which dominating entertainment companies like SM Entertainment has racked up over 6.9 billion views on its YouTube channel, other monumental milestones of K-Pop’s dissemination into worldwide and American media include Billboard’s inauguration of a K-Pop Hot 100 Chart in 2011, and SM Town and Cube Entertainment starting their annual own world tours, SM Town Live in 2008 and United Cube in 2011. They clearly have mastered the art of producing their artists as global entertainers, allowing their American fans, the majority of which are Asian Americans, to have as much opportunity for exposure and contact as possible.

As a case study for our discussion, Girls’ Generation, also known as SNSD, is a group under SM Entertainment. They were formed in 2007, after up to seven years of training (for members Jessica, Sooyoung, and Hyoyeon). They gained recognition and fame in 2009, with their song “Gee” which currently has over 183 million views on YouTube. To date, their music video for “I Got A Boy” currently holds one of the top ten most viewed K-Pop music videos on YouTube, with over 190 million views. Both of those songs include choruses which repeat the English title words, which makes it even easier for English-speaking audiences to understand. An English version of their song “The Boys” was even released and debuted in America on “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 2012. They have toured around the world, including in American cities in California and New York. Cities like Los Angeles and New York City were targeted for their large Asian American population, and again shows Korea’s knowledge of their targeted audience.

Furthermore, two of Girls’ Generation’s members, Jessica and Tiffany, were born and raised in America. The inclusion of Korean-Americans and other Asian Americans in K-Pop groups by these companies also plays into the appeal of overseas American fans. Above all, these different aspects in which Korean pop music is distributed in America and the way that Asian Americans relate and participate in it revolves around the need and ability to feel a pan-ethnic identity embodied by Asian artists in the media.

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