Under the Microscope: K-Pop's Social Checkup

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A phenomenon in globalization, or the second white wave of East Asian appropriation and micro-aggression? Or is the fault in the game itself? "Under the Microscope" is a look at cultural trends from a social standpoint- the progressive, the harmful, and all the gray area in between.

EXO in "Love me Right"

I got introduced to K-Pop, or Korean Pop, less than six months ago; and I loved it. The cinematography and aesthetics of the music videos, the perfectly synchronized choreographies, the trendy outfits, the pretty performers- it was a full sensory experience. Every part of me- the fashionista, the secret dancer, and the 13-year-old fan girl- was inspired and mind blown. It was something unlike any other pop music I have ever heard, and it felt like entering an entirely new world. But it's not as alien as I thought. Before, I thought of K-Pop as its own little niche that only a couple kids in my area liked on the very down-low. But, the more I listen to it, the more I see how it is truly gaining notoriety rapidly on an international level. I mean, my school has a K-Pop club. My little, overwhelmingly Hispanic sector of a school has an entire society dedicated to listening, discussing, and performing music that only about 2 [Korean] people in it can actually understand. I immersed myself into the world as a 6th grade girl would immerse herself into One Direction. You name it: watching every single music video repeatedly, following all the Tumblr blogs, developing a very strong affinity for my "bias" (bias, definition: your hands-down, absolute, unconditional favorite member of a group. My first one was Do Kyungsoo, or D.O., of EXO. I haven't had a celebrity crush, no-obsession, of that sort since I was thirteen. You would understand if you saw/heard him- Kyungsoo is a dreamy guy), and more. Heck, I even wandered into Korean beauty store Nature Republic at my local mall because the band EXO endorsed its products. But, hey, I did get an amazing deal on nail polishes. And some EXO hand lotion. As I delved further into the hallyu world, I did pick up some socially problematic tendencies of the players and the game: the subtle colorism and discrimination among members, the mechanical reign of entertainment companies, the cultural appropriation of fans and idols alike, and much more. Although I witnessed my fair share of petty fan wars, that is not what I am talking about. I am speaking of the truly ugly aspects of the movement that reflect or even propel ideas that grossly derail and insult certain groups. Not to erase the good parts of it, either- because there are plenty. Throughout the rest of this article, I will do a comprehensive social check-up of K-Pop based on my very own observations.

The Good

BTS in MV for title track "Blood Sweat +Tears"


Korean-Pop has added depth and variety to music in global culture. It is no longer a domestic industry with home-grown artists, but an explosive palette of differing groups and artists. The rise of K-Pop can be seen all over the charts: BTS' latest album "Wings" broke records as an international act- beating even Western artists. The world is getting smaller, and music (with K-Pop being only a contender) is a part of it. International artists, now more than ever, are appealing to people of all types: from Europe to North America to Asia. This is evident in the world tours Korean pop stars are now embarking on, like in KCON, or Korean Convention. Los Angeles, New York, France- all these spots host the series of concerts by various groups in KCON. Not only does K-Pop aid in giving the American consumer a more open-minded point of view when dealing with pop culture, but it brings cultures together on a more personal level. The music Korea is exporting holds some basis in American culture, which is partly a showing of how meshed culture is starting to be. K-Pop also globalizes not only from music to audience, but among the audiences themselves. Following EXO blogs from Spain to California to New Zealand to Korea itself, and watching them all discuss further from their favorite songs and more onto current events or their personal lives exemplifies how the hallyu wave is taking part in the transition from distinguished, isolated societies into a melting pot of cultural homogeneity.



Boy groups in particular have done much to challenge American norms of Asian men and masculinity. Asian men, in mainstream culture, were never seen as having sex appeal or being the love interest. How many rom-coms have you seen with an Asian man playing the lead? With a selection full of white men, K-Pop is bringing representation for Asian men into pop culture. It challenges racial stereotypes and presents an Asian man that is not only attractive to audiences, but well-rounded and relatable. Stars can be goofy, dorky, awkward, quiet, bubbly, childish, confident, cool. They are many-faceted both positively and negatively, which is a more humane representation from the stereotypical, racist portrayals of Asian men as robotic nerds or dragon martial arts fighters. Boy groups are also important in that they challenge Western norms of masculinity: they wear make-up. Although now we are seeing a movement of make-up as an art form for all genders, K-Pop was there first. The men of these groups sport everything from sparkly green lids to highlighter. Just watch any video from a boy group, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Male groups also dye their hair crazy colors, and take immense care in skincare routine.. Derailing the ridiculous boundaries the notion of masculinity sets is progressive, and gives inclusion to all genders in all aspects of life- not just in beauty.

The Bad

EXO in "Monster"

Globalization, or Global Westernization?

While K-Pop has indeed challenged the English music market that dominates, it is very important to note that it is an extremely calculated export. It is a larger-than-life multimedia performance with familiar electronic dance beats, R+B, rap and English! It's everywhere: the stage names, the group name, the song and album titles, the English phrases strewn about in the songs. This is not a coincidence, it is actually done knowingly by the entertainment companies to appeal to a Western audience. I mean, I can probably sing half of EXO's "Monster" easily, as those are the parts in English. Apart from the music itself, we can also see the apparent Euro-centrism in the "idols" themselves, especially in their appearances. There are entire sites dedicated to investigating the plastic surgery pop stars have had done- most which include achieving a whiter look through widening the eyes or slimming the nose. Most groups are curated by entertainment companies, and the criteria for becoming a member does include "visuals"- that is, an attractive appearance. This fact becomes startling when you begin analyzing groups: out of EXO's current 9 members, only one has single eyelids; Kim Minseok [stage name: Xiumin]. Adopting Euro-centric ideals of beauty is socially problematic in that it can dehumanize those who do not possess those facial features. Examples of this can also be seen in some of the behavior members of groups have towards each other regarding skin color. One of my favorite K-Pop blogs on Tumblr, problematickpop, does an amazing job at pointing out the blatant colorist actions EXO's members have towards each other. Kai and Tao, among EXO's darkest skinned members, often face taunting from their fellow band mates over the color of their skin, such as getting called "Blackie" and being told to try skin-lightening cream. The worst part may be that both sometimes seem to deflect the colorist comments onto each other, showing the discomfort the comments cause. These examples and more show how big of a power player Western culture is in K-Pop's influences. Euro-centrism is a serious problem culturally because it takes its roots in European colonialism, and the exploitation various cultures have experienced at the hand of white colonialists. Flipping the side of the coin from "good" globalization, the question posed is this: does K-Pop bring new perspectives to music, or is it simply a reflection of how Americanized our world has become?

4MINUTE's "Crazy"

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation pertaining to K-Pop exists in two forms: that of pop idols, and that of the fans. As discussed, K-Pop does take much influence from American culture- namely, black culture. There seems to be a rap verse in almost every song, and every group has its own rapper. There is even a Korean music competition program that aims to find the next hot rapper, Unpretty Rapstar. Hip-hop is a very common theme in most groups, from BIGBANG's "BANG BANG BANG" to 4MINUTE's "Crazy". Black influence is not only heard through the sound, but seen through the fashion (bucket hats, chains, beanies, braids, sportswear) and dances. Not only do we see modern black culture, but other black-invented genres including disco, R+B, and funk. Just listen to EXO-CBX's, EXO's sub unit, latest mini-album. There are serious 70's, Studio 54, Jackson vibes going on there. Then, there is the disaster of EXO's Kai wearing braids in the dreadful "Wolf". The irony, and problematic, part in this is that there are various examples of the anti-blackness that is prevalent in Asia. A huge part of K-Pop has roots in black culture, yet there is apparent racism in colorist comments and other behaviors shown. Cultural appropriation is an issue because it essentially spits in the face of people's culture: you insult and degrade them, then steal their traditions as if it were an accessory and give no regards to its meaning. Then, typically, the appropriators get praised for doing something that was deemed "ghetto". They cherry-pick the aspects of culture they want to add in their aesthetically pleasing bubble showing how everyone wants to be black until it's time to be black.

Cultural appropriation is also seen on the other side of the spectrum, in the fans. Particularly international, particularly white. The consumption of non-American culture has paved way for some cases of disrespect. Koreaboos  who use a selection of words as slang in their everyday language (oppa, jagi, -ah, etc.), post and follow tutorials and how to look Korean, and make jokes about the country ("Hoping Trump can win so I can move to Korea!!!") are more than just a cringe-fest. They are spewing ignorance, and only pay attention to the favorable aspects of Korean culture. Non-Korean owned Tumblr blogs that discuss the most handsome member or best singer, but fail to bring to light some of the political and social problems not only their idols, but regular civilians face promote the idea that you can pick and choose what to consume. Not everyone lives in your Korea dreamland: they face problems of discrimination abroad and political instability in their home country. Although this type of fan is but an exception- and of lesser impact than the institutional appropriation the K-Pop industry perpetrates, it is important to use whatever position you can not only to advertise music and pretty faces, but to help solve some Korean issues.


Girl Groups

K-Pop girl groups have done much to propel the wave forward (2NE1 and Girl's Generation were one of the first acts to top international music charts), yet now more than ever they face much more hurdles compared to their male counterparts. Women idols face much more pressure from their audiences and companies to present the perfect image: chaste, yet sexy; bubbly, yet thoughtful; beautiful, yet natural. From the public, they are often the target of ridicule including slut shaming, shaming for plastic surgery (while getting pressured into doing so!), their dating lives, and body. Girl groups are also not charting as well as they are to newer boy bands like EXO, BTS, or SHINee. Not only do they have to deal with these personal attacks, but they are also severely under-invested upon from their companies. Comebacks are not as often: compare EXO's 2016 agenda to that of popular girl group f(x), both under the same label. We are also seeing a huge wave of disbanding acts like 4MINUTE, RAINBOW, and 2NE1. Women stars in K-Pop experience much more scrutiny and discrimination, when they were the artists that put K-Pop on the map.

This is not a call for everyone to ultimately stop supporting K-Pop, but a way to spread awareness so that someday you can make a difference. I know I missed some other essentials, like the grueling trainee system, or the restraint of companies; but I hoped I covered some important points. Thank you for reading, and I hoped you find this as fascinating as I do.

All in all, it is up to you to be a thoughtful consumer and take into consideration how problematic the things you listen to, watch, and read can be. Let me know what you think! What should our next "Under the Microscope" be on?

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