China’s Gangnam Style & the K-Pop War Machine

After the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs a year ago today, some in China pondered the country’s failure to produce a similarly iconic business leader. The Ningbo city government even launched a program aimed at building “an army of Steve Jobs-style leaders“. Similar introspection has also arisen in the cultural sphere, where heavy-handed government interference is blamed for stifling writers, filmmakers and other artists. The latest trigger for such angst is the extraordinary global success of Korean rapper PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, which has topped Baidu’s MP3 chart and reached #2 on Sina Weibo’s trending topics list. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.

So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “[…] But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”

[…] In China, some artists have looked on enviously. In a comic strip highlighted by China Digital Times, the cartoonist known as Peaceful House Pearl Shimao envisioned a Chinese-style Gangnam phenomenon he called “Shanghai Style.” Instead of being celebrated for his madness, the dancer ends up being sent to a mental institution for “involvement in multiple activities,” “running crazily all over the place,” and being a pig.

PSY’s satirical counterpoint aside, K-pop is itself no beacon of free-wheeling nonconformity. Also at The New Yorker, John Seabrook explores the K-pop industry and its rigid “cultural technology” formulae, which cover everything from artists’ lifestyles and diet to the ideal chord progressions and make-up colours for different target markets. Foremost among these is China:

In its early years, the Korean Wave didn’t feel as imperialistic to other Asians as a Chinese wave might have. But more recently, in Japan and in some parts of China, there has been a backlash from a loud minority, which may be one reason that the agencies are promoting their groups more assiduously in the West. This year, China passed a law limiting the amount of foreign programming that can be shown on Chinese TV. Hallyu, far from seeming like a benign export from a nonthreatening country, is now commonly described as an “invasion,” as though it were a sort of mental Asian carp that is clogging up the minds of the young.

[…] Lee Soo-man, S.M.’s founder—people in the company refer to him as Chairman Lee—is K-pop’s master architect. Lee retired as the agency’s C.E.O. in 2010, but he still takes a hand in forming the trainees into idol groups, including S.M.’s newest one, EXO. The group has twelve boys, six of them Korean speakers who live in Seoul (EXO-K) and six Mandarin speakers, who live in China (EXO-M). The two “subgroups” release songs at the same time in their respective countries and languages, and promote them simultaneously, thereby achieving “perfect localization,” as Lee calls it. “It may be a Chinese artist or a Chinese company, but what matters in the end is the fact that it was made by our cultural technology,” he has said. “We are preparing for the next biggest market in the world, and the goal is to produce the biggest stars in the world [….]”

Seabrook also talked to The New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss about the K-pop machine, how PSY succeeded abroad where more conventional “idols” have failed, and how ‘Gangnam Style’ might undermine future plans for a K-pop invasion of America. But the real goal, he says again, is China:

I think that the large picture here is there’s a … the world’s biggest music market is coming down the road. And that’s China. Everybody knows it: one day China is going to be the world’s biggest music market …. And so, what kind of music are the Chinese people going to listen to? Are all of our Western artists going to have a new fantastic flowering of back catalogue and new songs, are The Beatles going to sell another three billion songs, is it going to be newer artists from Korea or other countries, or is it going to be Chinese artists? And that’s, like, the big question. And in some ways, K-pop, as successful as it is, is really only the canary in the coalmine for what that’s going to be like.

Finally, Seabrook has compiled an annotated playlist of K-pop YouTube videos, including Girls’ Generation’s ‘Gee’:


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