PAY ME TO REVIEW KPOP THE MUSICAL
Content warning: The footnotes to this mention suicide and sexual abuse without specifics. Thanks for reading, and take care ♡
KPOP is having its pre-Broadway tryout at Signature Theatre in Virginia this coming season. I would love, love to see it. Because its existence alone has my mind awhirl on a geopolitical level, never mind reviews and demos and trailers from 2018.
My gripes are thus:
I can think of a dozen new plays more constructive to Asians in America, but those probably include white people or other non-Asians, and that’s not a big enough pro-Asian virtue signal for the American theater in 2021.
If Jason Kim and Helen Park being born in South Korea makes them authorities on K-pop, I should call Loretta Lynn and tell her I’m the one to pull the Coal Miner’s Daughter biomusical out of development hell.
I am fucking haunted by this TheaterMania interview, where Jason Kim and Ashley Park both reach for vague childhood memories of Fin.K.L, a girl group who disbanded in 2005. Fin.K.L!! Not even 2NE1 or Girls’ Generation!!!!! The 90s!! Way to fucking date yourself!!! Might as well be boomer shit. I would rather see a trot musical. I do give a giant hat tip to Jason Tam, at the time a nascent Exo-L, Blink and Song Joong-ki simp. I only hope the writers and Teddy Bergman followed his lead between then and now.
If the 2018 Ars Nova premise stands, this thing takes place pre-“Dynamite”, pre-Blackpink at Coachella, when the thought of Asians succeeding in America is outlandish. But the Korean music industry is abundantly more interesting than its relationship to the U.S., and this “focus group” premise hinges on the utterly myopic idea that American consumer demand is somehow uniquely guilty for abuse and exploitation in K-pop when its most recent scandals1 and casualties2 have been entirely domestic, and K-pop’s first—and continued—successes abroad are much closer to home.
My K-pop fandom is a pretty new development—you clearly know me as first and foremost an ‘07 Swiftie—but my way in was drama. Before BTS, Hallyu was an East and Southeast Asian phenomenon. Like many Filipinos at home and overseas, my mom has inhaled dramas for years. I saw commercials for early 2000s K-dramas on the TV when I visited the Philippines as a child, and the current wave has wrought Tagalog remakes of My Love from the Star and Descendants of the Sun. Foreign girl group members my age like Blackpink’s Lisa and half of (G)I-dle first encountered Korea the same way. The first K-pop fans I met growing up were Filipino and Chinese Midwesterners. My favorite groups’ biggest concentrations of Spotify listeners are in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
I don’t know why (I know exactly why) we’re so bent on originality—“with original music,” “a new Broadway musical”—and fabulations for American audiences. No one internalized Bong Joon-ho’s “one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.” Are Americans so fucking stupid and self-centered we need to be spoonfed? As if actual K-pop idols are too foreign, or silenced/controlled by their agencies, that their autonomy can only exist in an American fiction? It’s the same bullshit as “give voice to the voiceless.” They speak plenty, and with better music, or at least music that doesn’t sound as old as Olivia Rodrigo.
As “self-composing and self-producing” artists like BTS and several signed to Cube Entertainment show, idols increasingly either participate in or are in control of their images and material in the singer-songwriter vein Americans take for granted. It wasn’t always so, and really not until the last decade. From my stupid ass armchair expertise, I guess this has to do with at least two things: the too-often fatal toll that rigor and restriction take on idols’ health, and studying Western pop music.
I don’t mean trying to crack the nut of the American market. I mean listening to and learning from American artists. Consider pre-Red Velvet debut Wendy covered “Speak Now” as an SM Rookie, (G)I-dle are Taylor Swift’s labelmates for U.S. distribution at Republic Records, Psy’s U.S. manager is Scooter Braun, and John Mayer just sent Rosé a pink version of his PRS signature guitar. Jeon Soyeon told GQ Korea in a 2019 interview:
전 칸예 웨스트 같은 뮤지션이 되고 싶어요. 최근엔 그가 대중적이지 않다고 생각할 수 있지만, 얼마 지나면 그게 대중적인 게 되어 있을 걸요. 그는 앞서가는 사람이니까.
I want to become a musician equal to Kanye West. He might not be considered popular lately, but as time goes by, he will be. Because he’s ahead.
This came months after Jesus is King and before Kanye’s presidential bid and divorce, and as Soyeon predicted, Donda’s slow release has people on tenterhooks. It’s pretty fucking insulting on our end that we can’t muster the same consumption and appreciation of South Korean music. Or you could flip this and say the premise of KPOP condescends to both subject and audience, assuming said audience needs K-pop imitated, mediated by millennial Asian-American BFAs when the youngest member of Blackpink is a 1997 Aries and groups debuting nowadays were born in this century.
But I suppose the American K-pop fans who got the BTS meal to McDonald’s do not see new musicals, and people who trust musicals to explain anything to them at all have much larger problems, epistemologically speaking.
If KPOP operates on the notion that K-pop is an import to be assessed at U.S. cultural borders, it’s woefully ignorant of the shape globalization takes in the entertainment industry and all others, which I guess is a symptom of its own gaze from the imperial core. This is globalization as in neo-imperialism, “capital-driven forces which seek to penetrate and colonize all spaces on earth with unchecked freedom.”3 I am talking about Mamamoo’s several anti-Black fuck-ups that they meant as tributes to Bruno Mars and Beyonce, and how I didn’t fully appreciate the licensing part of Taylor’s whole catalog battle until I Live Alone kept blindsiding me.
It isn’t that Korean artists are underdogs in American music, but that America has never been mysterious or impenetrable to South Korea or any of its imperial subjects. And I can’t help but see weirdo white K-pop stans cooing over their idols getting better at English, or a musical that seems disinterested K-pop from after 2010 or the thoughts, losses, and intellectual property of its actual idols, as anything but new orientalism.
I sure do have a watchlist in my head of shit anyone interested in or involved with KPOP can study for context, but. Hire me.
I am starting grad school (more on that soon) and while I am being very smart and borrowing e-textbooks I am still such a dumb bitch about to buy like 3 versions of the Bible: birth chart readings from $66, paypal.me/kdlrose, @kdlrose on Venmo, $kdlrose on CashApp.
********* FOOTNOTES *********
If you have the stomach, look into the 2019 Burning Sun nightclub scandal whose allegations and indictments spanned rape, hidden camera porn (몰카), sex trafficking and prostitution. Also I challenge you to find a story from an English outlet that doesn’t make some stupid ass Gangnam Style joke or say something weird like “cracked porcelain.”
For The Guardian, Kim Dae-o wrote a sensitive-ish overview of Korean celebrity suicides through 2019. This followed the deaths of Sulli from f(x) and Goo Hara from Kara. I qualifiy “-ish” because I feel weird about it still, but I think Kim is working through journalists’ guilt in this shit too.
Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization.