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.)