“They look like cheerleaders,” my twenty-one-year-old niece hissed over my shoulder one day as I was watching “Gee” again. “Uncle Pervy!”
No, it was nothing like that. For pervy, try the J-pop group AKB48, a Japanese girl ensemble, with scores of members, who, affecting a schoolgirls-in-lingerie look in their video “Heavy Rotation,” pillow-fight, kiss, and share heart-shaped cookies mouth to mouth. Girls’ Generation is a group of preppy-looking young women in skinny trousers. When they wear hot pants, it’s to display the gams, not the glutes.
Neither the boys’ nor the girls’ lyrics or Black Sites dating videos generally refer to sex, drinking, or clubbing-the great themes of Western hit-makers
“They take the love the fans feel for them, and they return it to the fans,” Toth told me. “When you see them onstage, it’s like they’ve come to see you.”
While the Korean singers and actors are young and the settings are often contemporary, their themes embody traditional values of family, friendship, and romantic love
“H_allyu”_ is the term that Asians use to describe the tsunami of South Korean culture that began flooding their countries at the turn of the twenty-first century. Korean TV dramas and, to a lesser extent, Korean films have, along with Korean pop music, become staples in markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong. According to the pop-culture scholar Sung Sang-yeon, Korean TV producers established themselves during the Asian economic crisis of the late nineties, offering programming that was cheaper than the shows being made in Japan and Hong Kong and of higher quality than most other Asian countries could produce themselves.
The Korean government has promoted hallyu, using it as a form of “soft power,” by making South Korea the Hollywood of Asia. Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to mini-series such as “Winter Sonata,” a 2002 romantic drama that was a huge hit throughout Asia, middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the “grass-eating”-that is, lacking in virility-males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy. At home, K-drama’s success has brought tourists from all over Asia to visit the sites depicted on the screen.
Like K-drama, K-pop is a blend not just of Western and traditional but of new and old. The music features lush soundscapes made with the latest synths and urban beats. The hooks are often sung in English, and sometimes suggest a dance move: steering in “Mr. Taxi”; butt-shaking in “Bubble Pop.” The videos feature extravagant sets and big production numbers reminiscent of early Madonna videos, while the music sometimes sounds like New Jack Swing-the late-eighties dance music created by the American producer and songwriter Teddy Riley and popularized by Michael and ong others. Indeed, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a state agency, endeavors to keep minors from hearing or seeing K-pop songs and videos that make reference to clubbing. I was in Seoul last spring when Lady Gaga performed at the Olympic Stadium, and kids under the age of eighteen were barred from the show. (Some artists push the envelope. For example, the K-pop idol Rain’s song “Rainism” detailed the activities of his “magic stick”; the song was later revised. Many artists censor themselves, in order to reach the broadest possible audience.)
In Seoul, you can feel K-pop all around you. There is the constant presence of the idols on billboards and in display ads. Life-size cutouts of idols greet you at the entrances of the big department stores. On the streets and in the subways you see echoes of the idols’ faces. (On one occasion, in a hotel lobby, I strode up to what I thought was a cutout of a K-pop idol, only to find that it was a real woman, who frowned and moved away.) In Gangnam, the ritzy shopping district on the south side of the Han River, the architecture is as showy as the idols themselves.