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Sociologist examines origins of Korean pop music

| Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Saint Mary’s College Department of Global Studies enlightened students on the cultural phenomenon of “K-Pop” at a lecture by John Lie, the C.K. Cho Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, Thursday evening in Carroll Auditorium.

Lie’s lecture titled, “What is the K in K-Pop?” explored the identity and origins of K-Pop or Korean pop music and J-Pop, the Japanese equivalent, and how both have gained momentum internationally.

The genre is characterized by a Western sound, synchronized dance moves, and a repetitive melody, Lie said. While the genre gradually gained international popularity for about 10 years, the crossover year in the United States was 2012 when artist Psy released his single, “Gangnam Style,” Lie said.

Lie began his discussion with the concept behind the Japanese idol girl group AKB48, founded as a meet-and-greet musical performance on a regular basis, Lie said. Groups like AKB48 have crossed over to include sister groups in Japan, China and Indonesia, Lie said.

K-Pop artists commonly use universal and generic themes in their lyrics such as, “I need you,” or, “I love you” to appeal to global audiences, Lie said. English might be used in small portions for the same reason, though the rest of the song is sung in Japanese or Korean, Lie said.

“They release a Japanese version, a Chinese version, and an English version,” Lie said. “As far as I can make out, none of the AKB48 members speak another language fluently.”

Lie said these differences in music stems from the differences between nations.

“Any two countries are quite complex,” he said. “People are quite different in their cultures. People have different tastes in art, in food. And what is popular for teenagers is not necessarily popular for their parents.”

Lie introduced and explained the relatively new concept of popular music in popular culture, which was born from the folk and classical music of the late 19th century, he said.

“Traditionally there [was] what we would call folk music,” Lie said. “There was always kinds of classical music, but beginning in the late 19th century, there arose a new genre called popular music which wasn’t something people could just sing. They would buy it, hear it on the radio.”

Popular music became widely sung across Japan and Korea because of its western style, Lie said.

“In South Korea, popular music meant singing choral music and church songs,” Lie said. “In the case of Korea, these songs became some of the first popular music.”

Whether or not such a genre is considered an art form, Lie said he views the popular music as profit-driven.

“Culturally speaking, the reason is it is not made for the sake of art,” Lie said. “You don’t make it for the pure beauty of it, but rather for the money, and that’s what defines popular music in a way.”

In the cases of idol groups like AKB48, the first Japanese idol groups rose in the 1970s, and in South Korea in the 1980s when they had the means to enjoy popular music, Lie said.

“What’s interesting about idols is they are produced and consumed as transient goods, meaning they do not last forever,” Lie said. “This rapid turnover in stars is very obvious, but it’s also partially designed by the industry to keep people interested. One aspect of the idol concept is constant change. These idols were sacred.”

Nowadays, people tend to find music videos to be artificial, Lie said. The remedy is to make a more relatable series of idols less threatening in appearance and features.

“Related to shows like the ‘X-Factor’ and ‘American Idol,’ AKB48 tries to bring fans into the voting process,” Lie said. “Of course it’s not really a democracy in the case of AKB48, because you have to buy CD’s. If you just watch the music video of AKB48, it’s hard to see why they’re popular because they’re [not that good]. People find them less threatening.”

Lie believes artists create art for the sake of expressing something deeper within themselves, he said.

“You are constantly expressing artistic autonomy,” he said. “In the case of these Japanese or South Korean pop groups, this is not the case. Someone thought of the group. He did this not to say something about himself, music is widely different. This is the sort of music that he was promoting beforehand. The humor or the interest was in that.”

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