On 8 November, the fourth lecture of the 20th ASEAN Lecture Series under the theme, ‘Asian Pop from the Margin to the World’ was held at the ASEAN Hall of the ASEAN-Korea Centre (AKC). The invited guest speaker was Mr. Lee Kee-woong, HK Research Professor, at Institute for East Asian Studies, Sungkonghoe University. He opened his lecture with a short story of Thai music band who visited Korea in November 2016. The Thai musicians said that “we were very pleased to come to Korea for our music concert and meet many Korean fans here. We are very well aware of Korean culture but how many of you guys are familiar with our Thai culture?” Professor Lee doubted that how many attendees at the event could have said that they were acquainted with the Thai culture in full confidence?
Professor Lee supposed that “Korean Wave in Asia is real and Korean public culture was accepted and became popular 20 years ago. However, a reverse question may be asked as to whether Korean people are interested in or even conscious of ASEAN culture. From my perspective, most Korean people do not have knowledge of or not interested at all. I was trying to make a book publication, containing ASEAN topics, but sometimes my publication was rejected. I was being told off and feedback on my publication was that articles or books on Anglo-American culture could have been helpful”.
The perception that the Asian music is countrified or old-fashioned is one reason that Korean people may find no appealing factors. Asian pop music is out of trend is not entirely true. One example is a band group Mayday’s music concert, which sold out all the tickets. The group is a very well-received music band and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Taiwanese Beatles’. The concert attracted around 300-400 audiences and it was aired on 44 TV programmes in the five countries. Likewise Asian music bands at the Zandari Festival attracted many Korean fans as well. This is an optimistic sign that Korea is slowly opening its door to other cultures. It is a little change but a clear indication of being more tolerant of different cultures, in which will bring positive impact on Korean society.
It is noted that a dichotomy between the Western pop and Asian pop was used in the times gone by. Although such dissection of the music kinds has become obsolete, nowadays Korean society has moved on to create the atmosphere of treating cultures on equal footing. At one time, some famous vocalists opined that there is a diverse range of Asian pop music but no such collective reference as ‘Asian pop’ exists. Nonetheless, Korean pop became liked and the popularity of Korean wave demonstrated that the dissemination of culture is not limited to one geographic country, and Asian pop can grow depending on the cultural needs of the public. .
One thing to note is that ‘Is K-pop understood as Asian pop? K-pop is growing popular outside the Asia. Can we say that the popular Asian pop outside is Asian pop? In fact, the precise delineation of the Asian pop is hard to determine. Asia is a very inclusive concept and its meaning can become blurred once the geographical demarcation of the continent disappears. The level of diversity is high according to the regions. There are no commonalities to generalise what constitute ‘being Asian’. Within Asia, there are countries that colonised other nations, the developed and the developing nations. Amongst these diverse features of Asia, one common factor is being at the ‘margin’. Japan and China are the strong nations but their music is not widely known compared to the Western pop culture on the other side of the world. In that sense, Asian music shares a common characteristic of being at the margin.
Then where Asian’s margionalism derived from in the first place? Professor Lee showed a picture of Japanese woman with a Thai soldier. During the Pacific War, many Japanese people lived in Thailand and some of the Japanese residents fell in love with Thai people. Some times later, a combination of Japanese and Hong Kong or Korean films was released at the cinema. Even before that time, cultural exchange in Asia was widespread and a hybrid nature of cultures could also be found. There were Seoul International Music Festival and Manila Music Festival, and the mainstream music networks were very active back in the day. Pax Musica had a festival under the slogan ‘Asian We Are One’. Although such music exchanges existed in previous days in Asia, they was very limited to the countries in the geographic close vicinity.
Just like human society advances, musical sentiment always evolves alongside the human history. The starting point of Asian pop is the 1960s. In particular, Rock & Roll represents the youth culture. However, being at the margin is a handicap given to Asian music unlike the Western music. At first, Rock & Roll was introduced as music for the US soldiers stationed in Asia. It was not music for domestic people, but a strong demand for US popular music to be performed at the military bases. In fact, most pop performances at the time of high popularity of pop music were mainly forms of imitation of mainstream American pop music culture. Asian musicians started losing their creativity to compose and to develop new musical tones. In the end, the domestic music industry lost its momentum to create new musical pieces. Furthermore, Thailand, Myanmar, Korea and other Asian countries experienced similar consequences of losing musical inspiration. During the same period, Rock & Roll gained its reputation in the UK and a world famous band group ‘The Beatles’ emerged. While those Asian musicians who copied the mainstream music culture became human jukebox, lost its musical innovativeness, resulting in distinguished music groups and prominent Asian music could not develop.
After 1960, the Asian pop music became naturalised in the 1970 and 1980. Professor Lee said that “Asian pop was suppressed under the dictatorial regime. A musician who played Beatles’ music was arrested and imprisoned. In Cambodia, top celebrities disappeared all of a sudden and was executed on a unprecedented scale, resulting in the total withering of budding musicians. From this time, protest songs and grass-roots activist songs started to emerge in 1980. Korean’s most representative protest song is ‘Marching for Our Beloved’ was remade and sung in Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese, Taiwanese, Cambodian protest sites. Indeed, this is a part of sad history of Asian music.
After the end of authoritarianism in the late 1980, Asian pop music became mature. Korean songs were very well made in comparison to the Western music, and Korean pop music became increasingly attractive over the time. The spread of common emotional sentiment and proper international sound equipment standard have all contributed to the growth of fame of Korean pop music. After the Japanese pop was commercially proven to be competitive, it was actively performed just like the Western pop. Asian musicians and singers chose to immigrate to the US and settled in to avoid the oppression from the dictatorial government and the eradication of roots of music industry. In particular, many immigrants went to Long Beach in Los Angeles and tried to preserve the engulfed home music culture. Once they retained the home music, they went back with their musical legacies when their country became politically, economically and socially stabilised.
Asian pop understood as global pop has been through a long journey of colony, dictatorship, poverty and discrimination to be present now. How far Asian pop has grown can easily be felt by going to Asian pop concerts. The strong indicator of evolution and global competitiveness of Asian pop culture. The reason that many people gather to see the concerts proves that the element of being at the margin from the mainstream music has become outmoded and the Asian music industry is gaining its advantage through online social connectivity networks.
Most people are aware that we have had successful international one-off events, Gangnam Style, for its creativity and originality. Bangtan Boys (BTS) displayed different aspects of success with the quality of music. This is evidence that how people in other countries perceive Korea have also been changed. If the same music was released ten or twenty years ago, Asian music would have remained as being at the margin and international recognition could have been a story of other countries with famous pop music groups. In addition, there are also famous YouTube stars. YouTube provides obstacle-free platforms for cultural exchange irrespective of skin colour. Professor Lee made a positive expectation that if we can reassess well-known music from each country and pay homage to its notable cultural importance, the world music industry will command a variety of music portfolios.
In a Q&A session, the first question concerned how a retaliatory policy imposed by the foreign government, such as THAAD revenge, could affect the level of cultural connectivity. Professor Lee said that K-pop fans use a large-scale social network to enjoy or share musical activities. The physical blockade is actually not feasible in modern society. One method of controlling the spread of Korean culture was placing mosaics on Korean celebrities’ face or impose bans on Korean products. Nonetheless, the extensive cultural connectivity on the Internet is unlikely to be shut off the ongoing cultural exchanges completely.
In the next question, whether is it adequate that we call K-pop as Asian pop, Professor Lee answered that academics should be mindful of defining what the precise meaning of K-pop is. We may have to respect the choices and opportunities for those who enjoy or make the music. The time for the provision of explicit definition of Asian pop by policy makers or scholars at university have become archaic. Music culture is for the people who enjoy and sing rather than being capped by the literal dictionary annotations. What makes K-pop widely acknowledged is not only attributable to Korean citizens. Within the realm of musical sentiment, everyone feels a sense of ownership and it is an act of dispersing their own personal characteristics for musical taste. In that sense, music loved by Asian people will become Asian pop. On the other hand, music originated from other culture and became known worldwide, then it is converted to the world pop music loved by international music community. It would be more pertinent to call ‘pop culture’ that we cherish rather than naming it as ‘Asian pop’ in general.