Chocolat: How K-pop Simultaneously Commodifies Asian-American “Otherness” and Rejects It

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As a form of transnational media, K-pop has found success with many Asian-Americans identify with and enjoy K-pop because they see a bit of themselves in them. For young Asian-Americans who feel stuck between two worlds, K-pop is a way of reconnecting with a form of pan-Asian culture. K-pop has certainly seen success crossing over into America, as evidenced by multiple concert tours in the US, including sold out tours. However, what happens when Asian-Americans move past their role as consumers and become direct participants of K-pop? This is the case of Chocolat, a recently disbanded K-pop group that debuted in 2011 who’s concept was based around the fact that most members were mixed race and had lived overseas or been born abroad. Many might consider this fact enough to quality Chocolat’s music as Asian-American music, but I argue that Asian-American music is not just defined by who performs it, but it is also defined by intent. According to this definition, Chocolat does not fit the standard of Asian-American music because Chocolat’s company used the members’ Asian-Americanness as commodity and noise marketing rather than purposeful growth. K-pop takes advantage of Asian-American “otherness” as part of their marketing technique, thus disqualifying K-pop from acting as a form of Asian-American music advocacy.

Many young Asian-Americans are self-conscious of their state as others in America and turn to K-pop as a way of finding commonality. Ju and Lee note in their article “The Korean Wave and Asian Americans: the ethnic meaning of transnational Korean pop culture in the USA” that Asian-Americans felt connected to Korean culture regardless of their personal ethnic group. Two of their interviewees reflected this as, “Jessica and Morgan perceived some similarities and differences in East Asian culture based on the Korean dramas they watched, and their cultural perceptions of Korean dramas are deep. They identified themselves as Vietnamese Americans, but they felt close to the culture that the Korean dramas represented” (Ju and Lee 330). Thus, the pan-ethnicity of K-pop is a major drawing factor for the overseas audience. For Jessica and Morgan, “It is significant to note that they did not distinguish the Vietnamese culture from the overall East Asian or Asian culture, but rather believed that the Vietnamese culture was similar to some parts of the Korean culture. This is why Korean dramas are attractive and sympathetic to them” (Ju and Lee 330). Their status as “others” in the USA pushes Asian-Americans to seek solidarity in K-pop, hoping to find more acceptance and belonging among the familiar values and traditions that they see somewhat reflected in their own upbringings. However, K-pop betrays that expectation with its commodification of the Asian-American status, simultaneously using it to produce revenue while rejecting its inherent value.

Chocolat was originally formed with five members, three of which were biracial Koreans who had lived overseas. The group debuted with the song “Syndrome” in 2011 and met little success, eventually fading into the background. Though they had no official disbandment announcement, member Melanie Aurora Lee revealed through an interview with Kpopalypse that the group’s contracts had only officially expired in February of 2017. In the same interview, Lee also exposed many details about her time in Chocolat, including how her company only viewed being mixed-race as a marketing tactic. When asked whether it was planned to have so many members be biracial, Lee said, “It was completely planned… Our company boss didn’t really care, he just wanted an all-biracial group, something that’s never been before, that would cause a lot of hype.” While debuting an all-mixed group would have been a huge opportunity to bring attention to social issues about race in Korea, instead the company only viewed it as a marketing venture and to gain more revenue. In effect, this says that K-pop heads find Asian-Americanness as a positive factor in terms of marketing, but they give Asian-Americans themselves little to no agency over their own music and what they produce. As Lee notes about Chocolat’s songs, “My only thing about not having anything to say about the songs is that we didn’t pick any of them.  We weren’t given a say in any of them, so I don’t really have any attachment towards any of them.” Because of the lack of intentional action surrounding their Asian-American music, Chocolat’s songs cannot qualify as Asian-American music. Instead, their songs are swallowed up by the ownership of K-pop as Korean music targeting young Asian-Americans. This is a form of exploitation, specifically exploiting the feelings of otherness many young Asian-Americans feel.

There is also an intriguing paradox in Chocolat’s very formation and continuation as a group as they were touted for their diversity, yet forced to assimilate into Korean culture. Lee notes the most confusing criticism she had to face in her time in the K-pop industry as, “Act more Korean.” Her company regularly told her to that she wasn’t respectful enough and looked too American. Lee recalls this and says, “One of the things that I found personally… especially in the beginning experience, was that I was “too American” or “too foreign” or whatever you want to say.  They said, “you’re not acting like a Korean, you’re too Americanised.” This criticism extended past just attitude and personality and even to appearance as Lee says, “We were half-American, they were saying “because you are half-American you are more prone to get fat, because you are half-American you need to stay pale so you don’t get darker”, just stuff that makes no sense, you know?  That was just so ridiculous to me, I just didn’t understand.” At this time, Lee was still a minor and debuted at only fourteen years old. Most teenagers already struggle with identity issues, but Lee’s exposure to their overly critical and hypocritical environment at such a young age is especially toxic, yet reflects the way Asian-Americans are stuck between two cultures: not at home in America, yet rejected by K-pop and its standards.

K-pop puts on a pretense of embracing Asian-American’s unique status of otherness to cater to audience demands, but as Melanie Lee’s behind-the-scenes interview shows, there is little tolerance or acceptance of the actual cultural differences that stem from being Asian-American in the K-pop industry. Young Asian-Americans who turn to K-pop as a way of connecting to their Asian identity should be aware that the otherness that characterizes them and pushes them out from finding acceptance in America is also regulated in K-pop. While K-pop has proved to be a highly successful and lucrative form of transnational media, it seems difficult for a reverse flow to happen. Rather than Korean artists finding success in America, it seems like Asian-Americans cannot yet find success in Korea as the most authentic version of themselves in a way that can be characterized as Asian-American music. No matter how Asian-Americans are promoted in Korea, they are still using a borrowed form of music, whether in direct participation as K-pop stars or consumers.

Source: Kpopalypse Interview

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