The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture – Book Review

Finding decent academic books about Korean pop culture until recently could be very difficult. Luckily, in the past few of months there are been a number of new releases which have really added to the breadth and depth of Hallyu analysis in English. One such book is The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture edited by Professor Yasue Kuwahara and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

9781137350275The Korean Wave is made up of a collection of chapters that deal with a range of subjects relating to Hallyu from the obvious – My Sassy Girl, Winter Sonata and Gangnam Style all make appearances – to the more obscure – there is an interesting chapter on Korean hip hop, space and identity. All the chapters are grouped into three parts which mark the journey from creator to audience: Production, Glocalization and Consumption.

First things first: this is not a book for the casual reader. Most if not all of the chapters are written in an academic style and require at least a basic understanding of Korean modern history, the origins of Hallyu and a little knowledge of media theory in order to fully be appreciated (Seriously, look up the word ‘glocalization’ before even trying to open it!). Having said that, if you are looking for a book to brush up on your Hallyu knowledge and increase your understanding of the academic debate surrounding Korean pop culture, this would be a good choice.

One of the best things about this book as a reader is the wide range of different approaches to Hallyu analysis that it takes. There are some interesting chapters about the political and economic motivations and implications of the Korean wave but, if that sounds a bit dry to you, there is also some really insightful analysis of race and gender in K-pop and how they are read differently by Korean, Asian and Western audiences.

There are a couple of chapters about Hallyu in Japan which bring up some interesting ideas about the relationships between formerly colonised countries and their colonisers and, although Yasue Kuwahara’s survey of Japanese and Korean students, which makes up the final chapter of the book, doesn’t really have an concrete conclusions, it does raise some interesting questions about just how big Hallyu in Japan really is compared to how it is perceived in Korea.

As a Hallyu blogger, it’s nice to see a few familiar names from around these parts of the internet including Professor Crystal S. Anderson and Sherri L. Ter Molen both of whose contributions were very insightful.

One of my personal favourite chapters was Chuyun Oh’s ‘The Politics of the Dancing Body: Racialized and Gendered Femininity in Korean Pop’ which brought in some really engaging ideas from the world of dance scholarship, something I barely even knew existed, media, race and gender studies to interrogate the motivations behind the styling and choreography of Girls’ Generation’s ‘The Boys’. At first ‘The Boys’ seemed an odd choice to me as a fairly mediocre hit for the group that failed to bring the American success they had hoped for but Oh’s analysis was really illuminating.

Her systematic deconstruction of gender, race and performance within the music video and how their meaning changes depending on the context of the performance and nationality of the audience is one of the most convincing arguments I’ve ever read for the benefits of K-pop’s increasing international presence. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the negative aspects of the K-pop industry but it is true that for an Asian performer to stand on stage in a western country and truly be the star is still a subversive but undoubtedly positive act within the context of our western and white-centric American-led global media culture.

The only chapter that was disappointing was the discussion about Gangnam Style which felt, at times, more like a list of Gangnam Style parodies and didn’t really shed any light on the phenomenon that was PSY in 2012. Putting that aside, the other chapters were consistently interesting so really the only other downside is the massive price tag. The book’s RRP is a whopping £60 in the UK and $95 in the US which puts it well out of the price range of the average young K-pop fan but it may be worth the investment for those serious about the academic study of Hallyu.

All-in-all, The Korean Wave is a fascinating read for those of us who are really interested in the serious academic study and analysis of the various facets of modern Korean pop culture. It is also a good starter for anyone looking to read more into this area as many of the chapters introduce important ideas from previous writing on the subject. A couple of the chapters left a bit to be desired but overall the standard of writing in this book is very high. The high price of the book may put it out of the reach of many readers but if you can get hold of a copy (perhaps through a university library) it is well worth your time. It is an absolute must-read for those wishing to write academically about Hallyu and an interesting peruse for anyone who are interested in exploring it in a more analytical fashion. Maybe just wait for the paperback release!

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