“My Song Is My Power”: Postcolonial South Korean Popular Music (PhD Dissertation)

diss project cover

Ever since South Korea’s popular entertainment industry began to produce musical talents that appeared less than organic and self-made, questions about the legitimacy of those musicians have plagued the products, as they were, of the industry. Those questions concern less the mechanics of what constitutes a musician—a person who engages in music-making—and more the moral judgment that underlies music production, performance, and consumption, regarding what one should expect from a worthwhile musical act. The increasing exposure and popularity of a growing subset of Korean popular music branded as “K-pop” in the West invite the question: what drives so many musicians from South Korea to have constructed a musical tradition that so closely mirrors its Western counterpart yet seems different enough from the latter to attract curious foreign listeners?

Questions like this are worth asking because the structure of the post-1990s popular entertainment industry of South Korea, conglomeratized and micromanaged, effectively ensures that it produces nothing without first vetting and strategically crafting it. The outward-looking, arguably passive mode of reception and standard-setting, I theorize, largely stems from the country’s modern history of having foreign powers determine its political position and fate as a nation: first the Japanese during the colonial occupation that lasted from 1905 to 1945, then the American with their postwar military and cultural influx. This political and cultural climate forms a backdrop to the construction of Korean modernity as well as a Korean sonic national identity that musicians I discuss in this project construct.

In this project, I present ways in which different historical and stylistic moments in Korean popular music—the love song (turotu), rock of the 1970s onward, folk, and turn-of-the-century idol pop—exhibited what I call the foreign vogue, as well as how the television as the preferred medium for musical consumption reinforces its prevalence. Each instance shows musicians proactively engaging with expressive vocabulary available to them to construct a stylistic compendium and patchwork of meanings.

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