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The K-Pop Cringe: Is the Korean Wave Living Up to the Hype?

Six high schools in three countries in three years. That was me from 1989 to 1992. Considering how awkward it is for a teenager to change schools even once, you can just imagine how I felt.

Still, I like to think the experience helped me see the similarities and differences between England, Australia, and New Zealand a little more clearly than the natives sometimes. Add 13 years here as an adult, and now I include Korea on that list too.

So please hear me out when I say that one big similarity between Korea and England’s former colonies is the cultural cringe. Which, simply put, refers to an internalized inferiority complex whereby people inflate another country’s culture over their own. The literary critic Clive James describes this phenomenon in an old New Yorker article titled A Death in the Life, which focused on Robert Hughes’ book A Fatal Shore. In his essay, James talks about Australia’s cultural cringe and how, in the 1970s, the country overcame its stigma as a brutal penal colony. During that time period, Australia focused on self-appraising the creative output of its cultural creators — writers, painters, actors, directors and singers — turning that previous shame into a revitalized confidence that resulted in the country over-hyping itself. Diffidence had turned to self-assertion, James writes. The cringe became a snarl.

In modern times however, Washington and Hollywood have largely replaced the London metropole. In the case of Korea, its millennia-long, often vassal-state relationship with the Middle Kingdom is also a good example—but not its colonial experience under the Japanese, when Korean culture and even the language were treasured symbols of nationalist resistance. Instead, its modern-day cultural cringe is largely towards the US.

When self-congratulatory narratives about the Korean Wave begin to sabotage its continued success though, a reality check is sorely needed. Massively inflated descriptions of its popularity with western audiences lead to equally inflated expectations.

Questions of America’s alleged (neo)colonialism in postwar South Korea aside, no one can deny Korea’s wholesale embrace of some of the best and the worst of US culture, from hip-hop and democratic ideals to circumcision and White-privilege. What’s more, while economic success has meant that the cringe has waned in recent decades, and Korea’s current relationship with the US is a love-hate affair at best, ironically its cringe is most evident in one of Korea’s proudest, most recent achievements: the Korean Wave.

One manifestation of it lies in what can only be described as government propaganda about its popularity and success, echoed by the triumphalist Korean media. Granted, on the surface, that is anything but evidence of an inferiority complex. Yet the corollary of having a cringe is a tendency to grossly exaggerate a country’s achievements, and/or give them undue attention. In New Zealand, it comes in the form of a sports mania, with levels of public enthusiasm for often obscure, otherwise unknown events (anyone heard of the America’s Cup yacht race?) that are comparable only to Koreans during the soccer World Cup. Add the constant media coverage of cricket and rugby in a country with a national population only slightly larger than that of Busan, and frankly the only escape route I could find led to Korea.

Noting a similarity is not to deny the Koreans their day in the sun however, nor to berate them for their natural pride. I don’t mean to insinuate that the Korean Wave isn’t massively popular either, or that there wasn’t a lot of hard work involved behind its success. Indeed, learning from the experience of a similar, smaller Japanese wave in the 1990s, it can and has been argued that the first Korean wave of dramas and movies, and the second of K-pop, were both somewhat inevitable once the respective Korean industries reached a certain level of sophistication and technical know-how (albeit heavily aided by the arrival of torrents and YouTube).


When self-congratulatory narratives about the Korean Wave begin to sabotage its continued success though, a reality check is sorely needed. Because massively inflated descriptions of its popularity with western audiences lead to equally inflated expectations. Combined with the cringe, it has led to US popularity becoming the holy grail of the Wave’s validation and legitimacy, despite constant failed attempts and the vast bulk of its fans and profits logically coming from culturally-similar Asian countries.

One early failure was BoA’s debut with Eat You Up in October 2008. While its lyrics were certainly a step in the right direction, presenting a sexually-assertive female protagonist that is still quite rare in K-pop (see last Winter’s Haps), the director of the US version of the music video, Diane Martel, warped this into a vulnerable, submissive Asian woman stereotype. By the time SM Entertainment realized its mistake, the damage had already been done. Or, more recently and notoriously, CCM Entertainment’s much-vaunted collaboration with Chris Brown ended with flagship girl-group T-ara making their American debut at a Las-Vegas pool-party, only to be cut-off midway by the DJ, responding to a bewildered, booing audience. At about the same time, JYP Entertainment announced that it had closed down its profitless American division, in an admission that The Wonder Girls never really made it in the US—despite being such icons of the Wave back home.

That is not to deny that there have been some modest Korean successes in the US. K-pop has a sizeable and growing fanbase in cities with large Asian-American populations especially, and not all Korea-US collaborations are doomed to failure. However, the track record of the latter is spotty at best, and begs the question of why Korean management companies seem to have blinders on when they choose US partners.

Another good question is, if Girls’ Generation performing on the Late Show with David Letterman last January was indeed a breakthrough as claimed, why Americans would react with a collective Who?? when Korean and other Asian fans voted the group into winning the YouTube Music Awards this November. Unfortunately for them, the popularity of Psy’s Gangnam Style was based on its own merits, not a sudden widespread interest in and acknowledgement of the alleged high quality of K-pop as a whole. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the Korean government and media have failed to realize that the same applies to a fledgling third wave of Korean food.

Instead, Korean management companies should continue to focus on the second largest market for K-pop: Japan, where, crucially, people still buy CDs. Also the rest of East Asia, where Korean popular culture has long been considered a bulwark against Westernization and less politically sensitive than its Japanese counterpart. Nevertheless, the Wave’s successes here seem undervalued and taken for granted— if not actively disdained—by the Korean media. Here’s hoping that that mindset soon changes, and likewise that there will be more Korean BBQ Taco trucks in Western cities in the future. Not what the Korean government, buoyed by the success of makkoli, thinks Westerners want to eat!

Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at:

Further reading: ‘Korean Waving…‘ (The Metropolitician)





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