Thursday, February 15, 2007

Black Rain's Gonna' Fall

So, Park Jin-young, the very talented singer/producer and founder/CEO of JYP Entertainment (and management company for the singer Rain), spoke at Harvard U., talking about the Korean Wave and how he would be much happier seeing less mindless nationalism in the media's coverage of the success of Korea music outside of Korea. Good for him. The Chosun published a brief precis of his speech here.

First of all, as a pretty strong anti-nationalist, I liked Park's basic position:
...[T]here was no Korea. Korea exists neither in my music nor in the hearts of the Americans who recognized me. They just liked my music and bought it. Is this the Korean Wave? Am I a patriot? I became confused. Is the duet by Korean singer Rain and American singer Omarion really Korean music? If Min succeeds in America, could we say the Korean Wave has now swept the U.S.? Or will I be derided as a singer who imitates American singers and a composer who imitates American music?
So far, so good. What does it mean to be Korean? What is imitating, and what is co-opting? Good questions. But then Park also said things like this:
I am, in fact, not a man who is making products that can be called Korean culture. Actually, I am making African-American music. I started liking it when I was seven and I have been engrossed in it all my life.

So, downplaying nationalism in his success abroad, good. But saying he has been making "African-American music"... That is not so impressive. First of all, "African American" is hardly a monolith. American blacks have been instrumental in forming a whole spectrum of music, not just R&B/hiphop. Frankie Knuckles and others were the founders of techno and house. Sure, it bounced off of Europe and Kraftwerk and whatever... but there is no denying the core role African Americans played in developing techno. And rock music. And other music forms (including classical).

As for soul and R&B and hiphop, all those genres have a great and wide array for sub-genres, and great underground scenes, just like "white" rock/alternative music.* Calling mainstream, poppy R&B/hiphop "African-American music" is pretty lame, imho. Usher? Kayne West? Ugh. There is so much better stuff than that.

Park is somewhat reminding me of the French-Canadians and French-French and others who have exoticized the sound and culture of the "ghetto" and the suffering the black man... While it is nice to know good music is being appreciated, it also seems to me to be somewhat condescending and stereotyped.

Anyhow, I guess my bigger point is that Park, like so many musicians in Korea in 2007, does not seem to be digging very deep in his exploration of world music. Still very much in the well. He is obviously very talented and smart and has a lot going for him. But there is a world of difference between being a first-rate follower and a leader. And leaders are what is needed to make a difference. JYP's singer Rain (or "Bi" or whatever we are calling him) is nice enough, but he is a follower of a follower. Which is the main reason he will never be a significant force in pop music/pop culture.

I wish Korea had more people trying to lead. To experiment. To try different things. There are a few, but they are not popular and they are very few and far between. And what is truly perverse, if you explore the history of Korean music, you will discover that Korean traditional music was in fact extremely diverse and free-form for hundreds of years, different from anything happening in the rest of East-Asia. Even in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there was so much amazing stuff going on. But the bureaucrats and mindless military leaders of the modern era deliberately and systematically tried to stamp out those styles, turning Korean music into enka and marching songs and pablum. Korean music for the last 20 years has nothing to do with Korea. Square pegs and round holes. Very frustrating.

* (Major apologies for all the quotations and slashes... And ellipses... Totally overdone, I know. But that's the way I roll... and punctuate).

** (Oh, a little gossip to end this mini-essay... Maybe everyone knows this already, but Rain's contract with JYP Entertainment is nearing its end. Just 2-3 months left. And right now most people think he will not resign with JYP. Which is why JYP is pushing so many new acts, like Wonder Girls.)


Charlie said...

I have no idea whether Rain will succeed or not in the American music market. Just being Asian seems to be something he would have to overcome in America. He does say that Asians will not succeed unless they bring their own particular kind of music instead of copying everything from western performers. I don't know if you have seen his I'm Coming world concert, but it is nothing like I have seen in America. When he did his concert in New York City early in 2006 the critics said there was nothing new he presented and perhaps he took it seriously.
Some people think he should distance himself from JYP Entertainment, but the personal ties may make it more difficult for him to do this unless JYP agrees he should.
Whatever Rain decides to do I know that he is a very strong-willed person and will weigh the consequences of what he does independently from anyone else's opinion.

Unknown said...

I have to agree with what you and the commentor above me has to say ^^

I hope you don't mind me reposting your blog cause it's a really interesting read:)

Anonymous said...

wow i really liked this post! thanks for all the good informations!!
in fact i liked it so much that i'm gonna use it in blog ;)
great job!!!!

Mark Russell said...

Hrm. A reader named "JaeJoon" left a nice message, but it seems to have been swallowed up by the Internet gods. Sorry about that JaeJoon. Here is what he wrote:
Great article!

I originally was just going to link to your write-up, but I ended up having some more thoughts of my own (that I posted on my own blog). Personally, as a black person, I can't even watch/listen to Korean pop music.

I think 이효리 is hot and all, but EVERY time (literally) I see a video of hers, I see some sort of racist portrayal of "my" people.

As for 비, I seriously doubt that he'll be able to find success in the states. Hip-Hop and Rap is all about image. Who wants to be a skinny Korean kid with bleached tips? Where are his 'tims and b*tches?

I think you get my point.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reposting that for me. :-)

Anonymous said...


Great Article!

What Jaejoon wrote, somehow reminds me of high school, a couple of years ago.

In high school, I would remember nearly every African kid or the Polynesians claiming that rnB, hip hop etc is 'African-American', 'black' or 'their' music and Alternative, Rock etc was 'white music'. The Anglo kids would say exactly the same.

This sucked because there was no point explaining to them all and personally, liking a lot of different genres of music I would often get teased. That saying, I was lucky compared to the other kids who suffered because they were supposed to be in the genre that the majority of their race was in, thus therefore those who ignored it and rebelled ended up being loners as both sides wouldn't accept them.

Well, everyone's explanation was then, 'look at the mtv music videos see who dominates in which genre! We were only meant to be in that genre!'

Then this question goes around to the Asians. Where do we belong in the music genres? Only in Kpop, Jpop, Cpop? Or classical music?

I mean really, when did music genres become a race/color issue or was I simply too ignorant? I thought it was all personal choice not by the color of our skin?

I wonder if JYP is hanging around with too many African-American producers to forget where it all comes from or is he just trying too hard to fit in?

P.s. Could you please please, do an article in regards to SM entertainment? Is all the rumors true or just plain false and do they actually make a profit?

Mark Russell said...

SM Entertainment is going to be a big part of my book. However I will be looking more at the history of what SME did and how. Not intending to get into "all the rumors."

Anonymous said...

^-to anonymous-^

I agree. Maybe I'm ignorant too, because lately I'm seriously beginning to consider that the fact that I listen to primarly obscure death and grindcore metal bands (as a black person) somehow affects the type of relationships I can have with people. (In my mind it shouldn't, but . . . )

But like I said earlier, all pop music is about "image" and race plays a huge factor in that. "Music" in it's pure form is color blind, of course, but Pop Music (as in music that is corporately produced) is about selling a sense of self and lifestyle.

If you notice, there's very little difference between a MTV music video and a commercial for NIKE of CALVIN KLEIN. 비's image is only marketable in Asia, which is why I can't see him being successful here in the States, no matter how "talented" he is.

Anonymous said...

I stumble your blog somehow at the same time I'm collecting news re. JYP as a speaker in Harvard.
I found your comment is very fascinating. Please feed us more insider stuff... :)
I love Rain but I'm not that impressed with JYP work cos I think he's just doing some cut and paste in his work. So, I'm very interested to see what Rain can do without JYP.
For him to crossover like latin movement few years ago, he/jyp just can't do it alone. Not just good music & looks needed, but others also has to do some movement so it can lead to a perfect momentum.. and definitely not in the near future...Still long long way to go...

btw, I add your article in my journal. Hope you don't mind. Here's the link

Anonymous said...

There are so many speculations that Rain could start his own company soon. Although the industry environment & personal backgrounds are different, even Edison Chen in Hong Kong has started his own - so why can't Rain:P

Your analysis has inspired me to check out older Korean pop, but is it easy to access/purchase from America?

For anyone familiar with their work, is Jaurim considered a follower or leader in Korea? There certainly are less subcultures enabling diverse, grassroots music in Korea compared to Japan.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article - stumbled upon yours while I'm searching for update on Rain.

Even though I'm a huge fan of Rain but I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical when it comes to his intention of crossing over to US. The general consensus agreed he lack in originality.. among others.

Perhaps the main obstacle in Rain possible success is whether he can survived being a performer alone. In the very competitive American music scene, many artist has been chastise when it comes to being a wholesome musician - their ability to write their own music, composed their own songs etc etc. Rain merely sing them, and dance to the tune. I agree to the earlier poster when he/she noted that some of Rain songs are copy and paste of JYP work with American artists.

English is another hurdle he needs to overcome - it's sad to note that he recycled his speech during his world tour concerts in South East Asia. It's disappointing too when he still gave interviews via a translator igniting disapproval and many to claim he was being uncooperative.

It'll be interesting to see if Rain will move on without JYP come May. However doubtful, I hope to see Rain under different and better management - oftentimes I felt the project Rain involved in felt rushed and last minute.

Anonymous said...

Probably the reason why JYP used the word 'African-American' to describe R&B and hiphop music is because the black people are the leading forces of hiphop and R&B today, so he assumed that African-American music = HipHop. Of course, they're also great jazz and techno contributers, but the main point on why he chose to use the term is because American music is too broad. Anyway, I don't think he ever meant to label hiphop as the only black music, though. After all, that's what he's trying to defy all along: calling objects a product of one's race, when in fact, everything is about culture sharing.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and about Rain making it to America.. well, I have my doubts as well, especially when it comes to him speaking English. As for him being 'a follower of a follower,' however, I believe otherwise. He has been trying to incorporate his own style even when he sings pop and R&B. Although Kpop music is but imitation to American music, his style is not American at all. As what JaeJoon says, he doesn't have his 'bitches' or blings with him; all he has is his dance moves, which as far as I'm concerned, is very, erm, girly at times, and original to say the least. The music might be imitation, but when you see him perform, you know he's a different entity. Maybe he changed after the MSG review? I don't know, but as I've said, the music may be R&B imitation, but the performance is unique.