Dornsife and Annenberg panelists discuss the worldwide reach of K-pop

Graduate students and music industry professionals gathered as a part of USC’s K-Pop Festa to discuss the global impact of the music.

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K-Pop Festa, an all-day event hosted by Annenberg and Dornsife, kicked off Friday with a graduate student panel and an in-depth discussion of the recent globalization of K-pop.

Held at USC’s Wallis Annenberg Hall and hosted by Annenberg professor Henry Jenkins, the event aimed to examine “K-pop as a global cultural phenomenon.” The panel covered a wide range of subjects and perspectives, including K-Pop’s global appeal and the question of identity in K-pop.

The panel examined the structured intentionality behind the global reach of K-pop and even featured Dom Rodriguez, the head of SM Entertainment USA, a major K-pop label.

Hyejoo Lee, a panelist as well as a Ph.D. student in the department of East Asian languages & cultures, pointed out that the origins of K-Pop date back to the Korean War. Performers “would purposely emulate late popular American musical styles in order to cater for their audience,” she said.

The K-pop tradition of extending appeal beyond Korean audiences to international audiences has persisted, the panel said. Lee said that non-Korean creatives – songwriters and producers – are often employed by K-pop companies, and K-pop trainees are often expected to attend language classes to learn multiple languages.

Becky Pham, a panelist and Ph.D. student at Annenberg, drew attention to the expectation for K-pop idols and groups to garner fans across the world. She said that there is a pressure for K-pop idols to be “apolitical” in an attempt to appeal to the widest fanbase possible.

Pham referred to a 2015 scandal involving Tzuyu, a Taiwanese member of the K-pop group TWICE, who had to issue an apology to Chinese fans for waving a Taiwanese flag at a show while dancing.

She argued that the allure of K-pop is the fantasy it creates. However, Pham said the fanbase is not monolithic.

“These are real people, real lived experiences that we’re talking about that might not be exactly like the kind that you see on TV drama, with perfect skin,” she said. “As we were talking about how rigid and how strict the training system is, how is that really possible? How cosmopolitan, how international do you have to be in order to make it in the industry?”

Tiara Wilson, also a Ph.D. student in the department of East Asian languages and cultures, commented on colorism in K-pop.

“Beauty standards are another case of cross-cultural differences,” Wilson said. “Especially Black American K-pop fans have had an issue with the emphasis on whiteness or thinness in the K-pop industry.”

The topic of beauty standards in K-pop was discussed again during the Q&A. An audience member asked the panel if K-pop idols have a moral obligation to disclose their diets and cosmetic surgeries to fans. The answers were slightly mixed.

Several panelists pointed out that principles alone do not dictate whether an idol has the freedom to disclose such information publicly. Ray Kyooyung Ra, a Ph.D. student in cinematic arts, mentioned the cultural differences and taboos that exist in the K-pop community that can inhibit idols from speaking out on certain topics.

Tensions between international K-pop fans and Korean K-pop fans were also explored. Panelists discussed that there is a level of prestige associated with expanding to global audiences, yet domestic fans can feel neglected when having to share K-pop with international markets.

“Koreans are sometimes mad about idols going internationally for tours and never really coming back,” said Angie Chang, who is earning a master’s degree in music industry.

“They feel treated differently because companies are so focused on global popularity. There are a lot of tensions between national trends,” she said.

Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, describes the spread of South Korean popular culture across the world. Panelists delved into the evolving perception of Korean-ness in South Korea and abroad due to hallyu. In response to a question from an audience member asking about K-pop’s relation to Korean-ness as an identity, Lee said it was a complex topic with a wide spectrum of opinions.

“We’re all sort of seeing this tension between what is like this fantasy, the kind of glittering image of Asians, this brilliance that we see in K-pop or in media, versus like the disconnect between the actual lived experiences of Asians in America,” Lee said. “There are different groups and demographics of Asians involved in these two phenomena. Sometimes what you see in K-pop is not the Korean that you see.”

Maisy White contributed to this story.