How I wish I could explain this better. But I will try.
I am an older American male videographer, web developer, and disc jockey. When I say older, I mean, fairly confidently, older than you. And certainly older than most people outside of East Asia that know as much as I do about Korean music. And after hiding this fact for a long time, a closet guilty pleasure, I finally came clean a few years ago. I love it. I do. It's something that's made me smile on some of my worst days, helped me focus when working on the most tedious assignments, and opened my eyes to different concepts about relationships, teamwork, and entertainment. It's become a bit of a passion. And for that passion, I have garnered whispers of ridicule, looks of derision, unanswered text messages and trips straight to voice mail.
Americans think they're open-minded. Do not believe them. Any of them.
But then again, I've never really been much for groupthink. I've suffered and been greatly rewarded for that most of my life. Most of the things I've learned to cherish the most, I've stumbled upon, often completely randomly. KPop (I really don't even like that word) is just the latest of them.
Here's how my decent started. I often fall asleep on the couch, in front of the television, after a day of work and a night of writing, programming, or creating artwork. I'm sure not unique in that regard. Either way, I often wake up there in the morning, never having made it to the comfort of my bed. And I almost always fall asleep watching television, often with the remote in my hand. And when it doesn't creep down deep between the cushions of my couch, which it does so much that I now just keep it there, I wake to find it leaving an imprint on my torso or thigh or other body part, often on a channel that I didn't know I had unconsciously tuned to.
I'm sure I'm not the only one.
But for that reason alone, the randomness of the clicker, I woke one day to find my television tuned to channel 339. First, I didn't even know there were free channels that far down on the tuner, let alone a Korean one, MNet America. As long as I have lived in my little whitebread tourist-trap seaside hometown, I've only met one actual Korean person, so why would the cable company even put it there?
Since it was my day off and I'm generally fascinated with geography, foreign cultures and love to study them, I rubbed the sand from my eyes, didn't bother moving and watched.
"Wow," I thought, "This is what the people that made my phone watch."
At the time, I had no idea that MNet America was a dismally stale channel that is still the showing same programs over and over and over again for years now, a hollow afterthought of its main, vibrant South Korean parent network, MNet. It was all new to me, and I found myself enjoying it. To a certain extent, anyway. There was one reality show, "Krystal and Jessica", that was the most bland reality show I've ever seen. I was never really interested in reality shows to begin with, so this was new to me anyway, but I had to imagine that reality shows had at least something to hold a viewer's attention. Two young women, apparently sisters, in an house in Seoul doing pretty much nothing but shopping, eating, and lolling around lazily. Their interactions were all entirely banal and pleasant with an absolute lack of drama. I had no idea at the time who they were and what humongous superstars they were, not only in Korea, but throughout East Asia.
(Years later, when I did know who they were, and actually had downloaded and listened to a lot of their music, I actually enjoyed the show a little more. And I could because it was still on, years later. Same time. Same channel. Same season. MNet America.)
Another show that I found much more compelling was MNet's amatuer talent show with the unfortunate name "SuperstarK." Good thing the "K" was capitalized. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see a completely different cultural approach to entertainment and what makes an entertainer popular or successful. I immediately learned that Koreans overtly place a high value on appearance.
The first episode I saw, I would later learn was generally consider one of the show's most epic, mostly due to the joining of contestants Kim Feel, Kwak Jin-eon, and the heavy-set Lim Do-Hyeok. The joking comments about the affable Mr. Lim's weight were a constant topic of focus throughout the program and when, in this stage of the contest, he was teamed up with the thinner, attractive Kim and Kwak, they would have to win their round, or all of them would be eliminated. To make matters worse, poor Do-Hyeok injured his ankle and was forced to compete in crutches. What ultimately happened was one of the greatest three minutes I've ever seen on television:
I was so taken by that warm, inspiring performance that I found it on YouTube and sent links to a couple of people I thought would enjoy it. I would find out later that neither of them bothered to watch the whole thing or at all. Three minutes and twenty-four seconds. I could chalk it up to the hidden but surprisingly prevalent anti-Asian xenophobia in a country that talks so much about diversity, or it just could be the fact that people generally don't bother to click links you send them regardless of what they are, just like they don't bother watching your Jib Jab cards. Cat videos, different story.
I would later learn, from YouTube, that Koreans have a passion for musical competition and that extends to programs featuring some of their biggest stars, competing mostly for bragging rights, it seems. It is almost like KPop is Korea's NFL. Each of the major networks in South Korea has their own live "chart show" in which pop stars perform and each week the song at the top of the chart would get a trophy. The chart would be a mixture of on-line and in-person voting, social media buzz, sales, and other things. MNet's version is called "M-Countdown" and it appears every Friday night on Channel 339, MNet America. It was one of the rare programs that MNet America seemed to update regularly and I found myself watching it late at night.
I found most of the music on "M-Countdown" to be generally cheesy, cheeky and, well, not that great, really. Almost entirely boy bands and girl groups performing to a constant string of screams, cheers and chanting along with the song. But I did find myself watching it, maybe due to its exotic uniqueness and the dross that was on every channel number less than 339. One of the things that instantly attracted me to it was its utter lack of pretentiousness. What it didn't lack was joy. As I watched, I started actually having favorites that I would look out for. So many times, I would be watching a performance and notice somewhere in the middle that I was sitting there with a big stupid grin. And for someone that has wrestled all his life with depression, that is absolutely priceless. I will never apologize for that.
And little by little, or jom jom, as they say, I began to understand the obsession with appearance, even if I didn't and don't always like it. This was entertainment, a musical genre made for TV at the dawn of a new millenium. The look, and not just the dancing, is as essential to the song as the notes and chords. If there's anything you should take away from this soliloquy, its that K-Pop is not just music. When I first saw After School's performance of "First Love" with its precisely syncopated gymnastics and smooth, sultry sound, I realized that I really did have a thing for this stuff. Yes, I found them attractive, especially Nana, and that certainly didn't hurt, but this was an artform unlike anything I'd seen in America. I "got" it. I wanted to share it with the world. The first person I showed it to, no Trump supporter, mind you, watched over my shoulder for a minute, muttered "they all look alike to me" and wandered off before the song even really hit its bridge. This reaction was fairly common as the days went by. I feel like the reaction would be different if I was touting something from Africa, Brazil, or the South of France on them. It would be cool, regardless of its artistic merit, however debatable. Wow, it's cool that you're into that, man. I would welcome a debate about its artistic merit. But, this is America. I keep forgetting. Asians are supposed to be into math, dumbass, not music and dance. I don't want to think that way, but I've seen differently.
Years ago, when I was the full-time disc jockey at a trendy radio station in the Five College Area, I would dish out cool stuff all day long, mostly for well-educated and generally upper middle class white people in their 20's, 30's and 40's. Nowadays, I'm sure all of them are now smugly listening to NPR instead. With increasing frequency, I found that the type of things I would listen to for myself, when not working and alone, was more of the top-forty kind of thing. I developed a taste for 80's and 90's disco, R&B, new jack swing and rap, and that was my jam, so to speak, when at home, working on other things besides radio. Though it can't be considered as such now, due to its staying power as an artform, it was, at the time, a "guilty pleasure." I loved dishing out the dB's, the Clash, John Lee Hooker, Joan Armatrading, Steel Pulse, Van Morrison, the Pixies, Graham Parker, etc., all day at work, but when I got into my car, I was deep into the Hall and Oates, Chic, Tony! Toni! Toné! and TLC. Even the Backstreet Boys, for God's sake. I stopped caring about the pithiness of the lyrics and all the pretentions of what the cool kids were jamming to, and began to crave a more repetitive and saccharine sound.
And really, how wonderfully artful are the lyrics of a rock and roll song anyway? A lot of them remind me of the pretentious bleatings of that kid from sophomore creative writing class who was too clever for his own good. Emily Dickinson or T. S. Eliot could write circles around them. I was always into music for the music. The words always seemed like a necessary evil. Having said that, it's probably no surprise that the lyrics of my favorite artists were either snarkily impenetrable (Steely Dan), shamelessly absurd (B-52's), childishly facetious (Talking Heads) or depressingly flippant (the Smiths). Who cares? If they were all in a foreign language, at least you could focus on the voice as just another instrument. And if the language itself has a aesthetically pleasing tonal or percussive quality to it, like Korean, surprisingly, all the better.
So, perhaps I've always been a sucker for KPop; it just hadn't been invented yet. I had heard of K-Pop before this point, just being into music in general, and had seen 2NE1 and Big Bang featured as a curiousity in some music show and knew that they were getting a larger following among American kids, but it was certainly nothing I would be interested in. I now know all their names. That's just what K-Pop does to you. It just keeps coming at you and as soon as you think you're going to go back to listening to Daft Punk or Sia or Skrillex or whatever else you like, the new Luna solo album is out and its on autorepeat. And it's damn good. Or you find yourself wondering why GFriend could be so damn popular and then realize that you can no longer live without them. The scariest thing is coming to work among people who don't know SHINee from Shinola and blurting out something about the highlight of your weekend being the new Mamamoo album. And remarking that Whee In's hairstyle was different. And you liked it. I might as well have texted "OMG!" with a dozen crying-smiling-wide-eyed emoticons like a pimply-faced teenage girl.
It happens. And you get used to blank stares. Whatev.
I've actually stopped getting texts from someone after wondering out loud if Jessica's solo album was going to do better than Tiffany's. I really hope I didn't add in the part about knowing that Taeyeon's will outsell both of them, but I don't remember. They all look alike to him anyway. And I know that the lovingly crafted CD of f(x) album cuts that I foisted on someone a while back has not and will never be listened to. That's alright. I had to do it anyway. That's part of what happens to you in KPop Purgatory.
I could say that since I've been such an obsessive musicologist and avid reader of liner notes all my life, having to know the name of each player and the genesis and influences of each and every band I played back in my radio days, that it's only natural that I know the names of every member of 2NE1 and Big Bang, since that's the music I'm into now. But I've found that all KPop fans are like that. I mean all of them. Some of them even know the names of the dancers that just show up to flesh out the choreography of smaller groups like Akdong Musician or the current string of SMTown's solo releases. I don't. But it's only a matter of time.
I saw a T-Shirt the other day on a rare American kindred spirit that read, "Don't ask me why I love KPop. I'm tired of explaining to you why your life sucks."
It really is hard to explain.