This essay was for a class in intercultural communication, for which I got good marks so I thought to share it. The following is a summary of the full essay. You can download the full essay in PDF at the bottom of the page.


Korean pop, also known as K-pop has become a phenomenon in the music industry. What started as the Korean Wave (or Hallyu) in the 1990’s, K-pop has “entered the lexicon of global popular cultures” (Choi and Maliangkay, 2014, p. 37). With the popularity of K-pop around the world, it is important to ask: what makes K-pop transcultural? In this essay, I explore the concepts of Iwabuchi’s (2002) mukokuseki and Jung’s (2011) mugukjeok by analysing BTS’ branding, songs, and music video.

In this essay, I will focus on BTS, one of the most successful K-pop groups outside of South Korea. BTS has sold-out concerts across continents and have their own fan base that calls themselves the “Army.” In 2018, BTS’s album “Love Yourself: Answer” became the number one album in the United States, according to the Billboard 200 charts.

BTS’ Love Yourself album was a hit across cuntries

The global success of BTS seems to be a combination of being a classic South Korean boyband but also being a new breed of boyband at the same time. According to Glasby (2018):

BTS’s music began as old-school R&B and hip-hop, but has since incorporated a myriad of genres, from EDM to South African house. The lyrics, too, have become increasingly complex, closer to prose than simple moon-June-soon pop. In many respects, BTS fit the mould of a classic boyband – they look and sound great – but they are also grown men who cry, embrace and expose their vulnerabilities and failings even as a culture of toxic masculinity thrives on- and offline. It strengthens their messages of strength, love, hope and acceptance beyond what boybands have offered before

Glasby, 2018

TRANSCULTURALISM

Transculturalism is a way of life where “some individuals find ways to transcend their initial culture, in order to explore, examine and infiltrate foreign cultures” (Grunitzky, 2004, p.25) and is a consequence of globalisation (Hepp, 2015).

Iwabuchi (2002) introduced the concept of mukokuseki in describing the popularity of Japanese culture abroad. Mukokuseki means products that are “culturally odourless” that helps them appeal to a global market. Kim (2017) used this term to describe K-pop groups.

Connecting to the concept of mukokuseki, Jung (2011) coined the term mugukjeok literally translated to “nationlessness”. Unlike mukokuseki where cultural products become “odourless,” the concept of mugukjeok argues that Korean texts retain their Koreanness, with enough elements that are recognised across cultures to facilitate global acceptance and reception. Its hybridity allows for relatability but at the same time, remains specific to the Korean culture.

K-POP

Why K-pop and what makes it popular? Lie (2012, p.355) says K-pop was able to “fill a niche that was relatively open for clean, well-crafted performers” and that it may have filled the gap left by “urbanised and sexualised American performers”:

K-pop exemplifies middle-class, urban and suburban values that seek to be acceptable at once to college-aspiring youths and their parents: a world that suggests nothing of inner-city poverty and violence, corporal or sexual radicalism, or social deviance and cultural alienation…

The oft-repeated claims about K-pop singers’ politeness — their clean-cut features as well as their genteel demeanors — is something of a nearly universal appeal, whether to Muslim Indonesians or Catholic Peruvians.

Lie, 2012
An all women K-pop group, Black Pink

Recent studies have also showed reasons behind Hallyu’s popularity: Asian mode of modernity (Kim, 2005) and South Korea’s soft power (Kim and Nye, 2013).

Jung (2011, p.3) argues that South Korean popular culture “is hybridised and influenced by various foreign cultures through transcultural flows largely facilitated by advanced media technology and globalisation.” Jung (2017, p.57) adds that hybridity in K-pop “creates complicated webs of transculturality, such as alternative forms of gender representation, cute culture, and honorific culture.

“IDOL” as a Transcultural song and video

“Idol” sounds like a combination of techno, hip-hop, and pop — something familiar with the Western music scene. It uses hip-hop beats with autotune, frequently used by Western artists. The background rhythm that goes with the song is also a popular beat that can be heard in almost all pop songs, the reason why pop songs sound the same.  Metzger (2017) calls it the “Millennial Whoop”, “a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale… A singer usually belts these notes with an ‘Oh’ phoneme, often in a ‘Wa-oh-wa-oh’ pattern.” The Millennial Whoop can be found in songs such as Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, Nicki Minaj’s “Check it Out”, Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young” and many others.

In “Idol”, BTS sings the oh-oh-oh-wa six times right after the chorus (1:26-1:31). Like other western pop songs, it’s easy to sing the lyrics “You can’t stop me loving myself” followed by the Millennial Whoop. It is an earworm for any listener, and can get stuck in one’s head.

Even in the Korean parts of the song, which is directed to the Korean audience, the song resonates the message of accepting who you are and being happy with yourself. For people who speak Korean and can’t understand English and vice versa, “Idol” has a universal message that is relevant for all audiences. In fact, because of the popularity of their song, they have been made a UNICEF ambassador for the “Love Myself” campaign and have been invited to speak at the UN General Assembly. The message in their speech is actually the same as what they sing about:

Maybe I made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s me is still me. Today, I am who I am with all of my faults and my mistakes. Tomorrow, I might be a tiny bit wiser, and that will be me too.

BTS

Korea, is the integration of Pansori elements in the song. Pansori is the traditional music of Korea that uses a specific drumbeat. This drumbeat can be heard at the background, throughout the song, together with the African beat. Additionally, Pansori cries such as “Ulsoo” and “Jeehwahjah” can be heard in the chorus. One of the members, RM (2018), however, said that this was unintentional but that having learned Pansori as a child, they just kept lingering in his ears.

These make “Idol” a song that is successful across cultures — the message of loving yourself, the combination of beats and rhythm, the use of the Milennial Whoop — all make it familiar to the ear, even for the Western audience.

The use of pansori beats with the usual “Korean pop” formula and the use of Korean language makes it sound still distinctly Korean music. It is not traditional Korean yet still distinctly K-pop. The song is therefore not “odourless” as Iwabuchi might say because it is distinguishable from pop music from other countries.

Opening image of BTS’ idol video shows a typical depiction of Africa, with the orange sky and a giraffe in the background

“Idol”, being an upbeat song, also has an upbeat music video. It uses bright colours throughout the video, either in the background or in the clothes worn by BTS. It can be categorised as a conceptual video, as there is no narrative nor is the group performing in a concert. In fact, the video may be too conceptual, and fans have been trying to “decode” what the music video means.

Throughout the video, these sequences interchange with one another and later on at 1:10, one can see the hint of East Asian with the Korean Pavilion (gyeonghoeru) showing in the background. One Twitter fan under the username @meovvtan (2018) interpreted the sign on top of the pagoda: “The sign above is ‘囍’, also known as ‘双喜’ (shuang xi) literally translated to ‘double happiness.’ I guess this specific architecture may represent true happiness for them?” Another fan from Aminoapps, with username Light, has interpreted the use of this image as “them accepting their Korean culture.”

BTS members dancing in a Korean Pavilion

There were other hints of Korean culture in the music video, including the word “Idol” appearing in the background, the word “love” in the Korean hangul, the tiger , and the rabbit and the moon.

What do these images mean and what are their cultural significance in South Korea? The word “Idol” is an important part of Korea’s pop culture. Idols are used to describe K-pop group members but can also connote celebrities who are “fake.” The tiger is an animal that is considered as a guardian against spirits and bad luck (Kalbi, 2018) and also appears in the Korean myth who gave birth to Dangun, the founder of Korea (ibid). Similarly, the rabbit in the moon is a Korean folktale (originating from China) where a god honored the rabbit’s virtue of charity by placing the rabbit on the moon. This legend is popular across other Asian countries and the reason behind the mid-autumn festival.

The word “idol” appearing in the background
A white tiger appears in the music video
The folklore of the rabbit and the moon also appears in the video

Additionally, while dancing in the pavilion, BTS members are seen dancing in Korean traditional clothes called durumagi. Durumagi is the overcoat of the hanbok. The durumagi however, was styled to look modern and stylish, pairing it with trousers and shirt.

BTS is seen dancing while wearing durumagi styled to look more modern

In the “Idol” music video, it seems that BTS have tried to incorporate music, performance, and visuals that are African and Asian, using more modern style of imagery such as animation and hip-hop dance moves. While there were many hints pertaining to the Korean culture, someone who is not Korean or East Asian would not immediately understand these references, but would immediately be taken by the striking colours and the well-polished dance performance by the members. This is most likely the reason why fans have tried to “decode” the meaning of the video. Notably, Suga (2018), in an interview with The Jakarta Post, said that the incorporation of Korean culture in the music video was not to promote Korean culture but rather a “musical experiment.”

Given that the song, as discussed earlier, has the message of self-love, the video is non-traditional in that it does not directly use the usual images of loving one’s self. Instead, it used Korean cultural references that can be a metaphor for loving their Korean heritage, whether or not this was intentionally done.

The use of African images, beats, and dance moves may have helped the music video in becoming more relatable to fans outside of Korea. The African drum beats and the gwara gwara dance moves have also become popular in the West. Shakira used the same elements for her music Waka Waka music video and which Rihanna performed at the 2018 Grammy’s Awards.

WHERE IS THE “KOREANNESS” IN BTS?

Given that there is an obvious hybridity in BTS’ branding, song, and music video, one may ask, is there still “Koreanness” in BTS?

Today, what is considered “Korean” contains elements borrowed from other cultures (Saeji, 2014) including material and non-material elements such as monuments, buildings, rituals, national holidays. Following Saeji’s (2014) definition, what is Korean is no longer just based on how Koreans view themselves, as what Korean scholars have largely written about in the past. For Saeji (2014), memory and tradition help keep this “Koreanness” and repetition helps keeps them alive. For example, presenting a traditional handicraft production in the same way creates memories of how Korean things are made, providing a link to the past and the nation.

What is the Korean identity?

Given this new definition of what is Korean, BTS’ song and music video definitely show “Koreanness.” As was presented earlier, elements of Korean traditional music and clothing, folklore and symbols, as well as traditional architecture was explicit in the music video. Having over 450 million views in YouTube, this has been played over and over again, allowing for that repetition and creation of memory that Saeji (2014) mentions. While BTS members have said that their video does not intentionally promote Korean culture, it does so. The song and the video both provide a link to their nation.

NEOLIBERALISM AND CAPITALISM: FORCE BEHIND BTS SUCCESS?

The Korean Wave, including K-pop was used by the government to brand South Korea and has made South Korea an “export nation” for pop culture products and formats (Lie, 2014). In fact, BTS itself is worth $5 billion to the South Korean economy, with about 800,000 tourists choosing South Korea for their destination in 2018 because of BTS (AFP, 2018).

South Korea has become one of the richest, most modern country in the world

South Korea, through its cultural products like BTS, have exerted “soft power” over countries. The government has recognised the importance of its cultural products. In 2001, then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung mentioned Hallyu as part of its economic policy who called it a “chimney-less industry” and subsequently made the goal of making South Korea one of the world’s top five content powers in 2010 (Suntikul, 2019).

CONCLUSION

BTS has become a global phenomenon and this cannot be denied. This essay wanted to answer the reason behind this — is BTS a mukokuseki or a mugukjeok? The answer, as I have demonstrated through my analysis, leans towards mugukjeok. BTS is a hybrid of different musical and aesthetic influences that makes them neither traditional Korean nor too foreign. This hybiridity allows them to connect and be accepted by their fans from different cultures. However, this hybridity doesn’t make them odourless, but rather creates a new musical genre and aesthetic that is distinctly K-pop.

What remains of their “Koreanness”? There surprisingly seems to be a lot, specifically in their music video “Idol.” While in their interviews BTS members have consistently denied that their music video “Idol” was about promoting South Korean culture, the use of traditional clothes, architecture, and folklore allow it to be linked to the country’s culture.

But BTS’ success does not exist in a vacuum. The international success they currently enjoy is linked to the country’s economic success and display of “soft power.”

Whether or not other K-pop groups will achieve the same level of success as BTS and whether or not BTS will continue in its success remains to be seen. What is clear is that with social media and the Internet, more people are exposed to different cultures, creating cultural hybrids that can be consumed beyond national and cultural borders.