Inside the K-Pop World

Pre-Fieldwork Research by Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

As a music lover from Southeast Asia, I have been listening to South Korean pop music (K-pop) on-and-off for 10 years. However, it was only after my trip to Seoul last summer that I became interested in the impacts K-pop had on society – both locally and globally. image1-17So, I decided to write my 3rd year dissertation on this topic, linking it to anthropological theories I have learnt over my course (e.g. affect theory and digital infrastructures). My provisional title asks: How does Korean pop music as a local and global infrastructure affect social and political relationships? In order for me to explore relevant key ideas such as affective infrastructures, political censorship, and celebrity status, I plan to do fieldwork this July using a mixed methods of interviews and internet research. As such, I did some preliminary research and organized my pre-existing knowledge and sources into rough notes in preparation for my fieldwork.

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K-pop group VROMANCE promotional busking before debut in Hongdae

Following a month of learning Korean language and culture last summer, I gained most of my insight about the K-pop world through a program where I was trained as a K-pop idol at an entertainment company for 2 weeks. This led me into spending another week in Seoul last month to get a better sense of what types sources I can collect data from during my actual fieldwork in the summer. During the week, I met up with some of the friends and company staff I kept in touch with from last year’s events. Some of the points that came up in casual conversation appealed to me:

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My training schedule in the first week of my K-pop training experience at RBW

  • Social and cultural urban life:
    • Everyday social life and most working environments (including the entertainment industry) are dominated by hierarchies that put more emphasis on age rather than experience.
    • image3-21Local and foreign obsession with South Korean beauty and fashion is closely linked with fans looking up to K-pop idols as role models (e.g. many stores play K-pop music for customers’ shopping experience; shopping malls in Dongdaemun open 10am-4am).
    • Culturally distinct districts in Seoul reveal how different agents and activities related to K-pop are distributed. For instance, some of the ‘big-shot’ entertainment companies have their headquarters situated around Apgujeong and Gangnam. Hongdae and Edae are university hubs, where there are a lot of young buskers and dance groups performing covers of K-pop songs.
  • Political situation:
    • On the South Korean side of the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), K-pop music (with liberal messages embedded in the lyrics) is blasted through life-sized speakers towards North Korea.
    • Current political relationship with China has negative effects on K-pop marketing and the overall economy.

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Lyrics to K-pop song ‘Voice Mail’ by IU with detailed annotations for singing technique and emotion

The current state of my research shows that K-pop has a large influence on interactions of demographic and material factors with social and political infrastructures. Keeping this in mind, I feel that my next focus should be on constructing a structured but flexible plan for asking the right questions to the right people via the most appropriate format during my fieldwork. Looking forward to my next trip to Korea!

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