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“It’s Better Than American Idol”: Korean Americans in K-Pop

Fri, March 27, 8:30 to 10:30am, Chicago Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Floor: Lobby, Level 3, Parlor D


This paper explores the presence of Korean Americans in Korean popular music in order to illustrate how Asian modernity in contemporary popular music has been closely intertwined with Asian transnational identity. This paper examines 1) how the Korean music industry has made a consistent effort to innovate its music by adopting the talent of Korean American musicians and 2) how Korean American musicians have constantly negotiated their dual identities to cultivate and maintain success in the K-pop industry. To elaborate this argument, I first contextualize the subject in the history of modern Korean popular music to observe how Korean Americans has contributed to establish the two most significant transition in the last two decades: the emulation of R&B and Hip-hop and the advent of Korean pop idol music. I argue that the “modern” sound of Korean Americans, epitomized by the “authentic” attributes such as English fluency and a distinctive quality in music and manners, has helped to transform Korean popular music into K-pop, a trendy, modern hybrid style of music modeled on globally popular African American genres such as Hip-hop and R&B. Also, drawing from an analysis of musical examples as well as my fieldwork interviews with Korean American musicians, I discuss how the liminal identity of Korean Americans has been negotiated as K-pop rises in the international market, and how K-pop industry has developed a different strategy to utilize Korean Americans as an integral component of “cultural technology,” a unique aesthetic and a strategy in K-pop production.