In many ways, the Hallyu phenomenon in America is deeply rooted in financial and economic matters. While the Hallyu effect throughout Asia has come to hold both economic and social implications, the spread of Korean culture in America is not magnanimous enough to affect American social values. Currently, K-pop’s biggest strides into the American market are largely focused on economics and business: the Wonder Girls are collabing with Nick Cannon, one of the biggest names in tween entertainment, and SNSD was signed onto Interscope Records, one of America’s largest music labels. Of course, many acknowledge that the idea of having Asian entertainers in an entertainment market saturated with non-Asians is interesting, at best. But largely speaking, it’s far from being a principal concern.
However, one cannot deny that there’s something quite staggering about the idea of Asian entertainers taking such a brazen approach to the American entertainment market. For years, Asian-American entertainers have struggled to break into an entertainment scene that has proven itself to be prejudiced towards racial minorities, particularly Asians. Currently, many Asian-American entertainers have taken to social media platforms such as Youtube to show off their craft. But despite the flood of Asian-American “celebs” on Youtube, racial imbalance and prejudice in American entertainment still make themselves known.
These prejudices are all the more highlighted when looking at America’s current pop music scene. And yes, while Far East Movement made a huge splash on the American pop scene with “Like A G6” last year, not a lot of strides towards Asian-American acceptance in the music industry have been made since then. While many Americans now admit (some begrudgingly) that Asians can rap, what about the Asians who can sing and dance and work a stage just as well as Beyonce or Lady Gaga? For many Americans, the idea of an Asian Beyonce is nearly unthinkable. Despite the progress made by Asian-Americans who have found success in the entertainment industry, the American perception of Asians on the pop scene is still very skewed, and by relation, the negative stereotypes of Asians within American society continue to persist.
K-pop is an unlikely solution to this problem, and one that would be almost inconceivable several years ago. But as the musical aesthetic of K-pop begins to resemble American pop more and more, the idea of K-pop being “American-pop-with-Korean-lyrics” is becoming a less bizarre idea. Granted, there’s a visual component about K-pop that is unique to itself, and it’s obvious American pop has long graduated from the boyband trend to which K-pop seems to still be so attached. But apart from structural and promotional differences, the gap in musical aesthetics between American pop and Korean pop is shrinking. The only notable difference? Korean pop is performed by a cast of all-Asian faces.
For many Asian-American pop star hopefuls, debuting as a K-pop singer might mean more than having the chance to stand on a stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. In a sense, K-pop has become one of the few opportunities for Asian-Americans to have a fair shot at achieving stardom. The presence of “global auditions” in America and Canada have helped to bring the dream one step closer for many Asian-Americans. And while many non-Asian fans bemoan the so-called “prejudice” of having a preference for Asian-American auditionees, one must consider that, for many Asian-Americans, the Western entertainment world has become prejudicially off-limits, and that these global auditions may be their sole path to stardom.
In light of SNSD’s upcoming appearance on The David Letterman Show and Live with Kelly, it’s interesting to note that Korean-American members Jessica and Tiffany are finally making their mainstream American “debut,” albeit in a remarkably roundabout manner. What is even more interesting is the fact that Tiffany was initially discovered when she auditioned for Kollaboration back in 2004. Kollaboration is an annual talent show that is held in several cities throughout America, and serves to showcase Asian-American talent in light of the lack of an Asian presence in the American entertainment scene. In many ways, Kollaboration is a political statement, and the fact that Tiffany was discovered via Kollaboration and is now making an American debut through K-pop is very interesting. On more than one occasion, Tiffany has said that her ultimate dream is to return to America and sing on an American stage. At the surface, SNSD’s American debut seems to bring Tiffany a big step closer to that dream. But now that Tiffany’s achieved K-pop stardom, does that actually block off any real opportunity for her to become an American star as well?
While the musical aesthetics of K-pop and American pop are similar, the two nonetheless exist as separate entities. This particularly pertains to America, home to a culture that has somehow grown to ostracize and reject anything deemed as “foreign.” It’s an unlikely response, considering America’s reputation as being the world’s “melting pot,” but just take a look at the infamous “Kids React to K-pop” video and you’ve got a pretty good explanation. It seems to me that many Americans instinctually regard Asian pop acts as a cheap “knock-off” of a non-Asian, popular American pop act. How many times has 2NE1 been regarded as the Asian Lady Gaga? Taeyang as the Asian Chris Brown? SHINee as a troupe of Asian Justin Biebers? Why must Asian pop artists almost always be contextualized by a non-Asian look-a-like, and why are they almost always seen as being somewhat inferior to the so-called “original”? There is a good reason why K-pop won’t make it in America, and it lies in the fact that the American view of anything “foreign” is still one laced with negativity and judgment.
So is K-pop a good thing for Asian-America? Not really — K-pop has the potential to unintentionally create new stereotypes about Asians, while doing nothing to create greater dimensionality and exposure for the Asian-American music community. But for Asian-Americans whose only aspirations are manifested in the dream of holding a mic and standing on a stage and have nothing to do with the goal of giving Asian-Americans a louder voice in the American pop scene, K-pop holds a world of opportunity. It’s somewhat sad that the only way in which Asian-Americans can have a fair shot at being a pop artist is available only outside of America. As an Asian-American myself with an invested interest in both domestic and international pop music scenes, I feel somewhat conflicted about the relationship between Asian-America and K-pop. While I wish that the flashyness and shine of K-pop would help to break negative stereotypes about Asian-Americans, the chances of this actually happening (or rather, not backfiring) are nonetheless slim.