Transnational audiences and Asian American performance in the musical KPOP

Miyoko Conley

University of California, Berkeley, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract This essay contends with the question of how K-pop, audience performance, and race are intertwined by examining the award-winning musical KPOP. Through its immersive multimedia structure, KPOP reveals how the complex and racialized intertwining of mediated idol and mediated audience complicates the performance of Asian and Asian American identity, and ultimately leads its audience to a different space than an us-versus-them binary.

[0.2] KeywordsIdentity; Idol; Multimedia; Race; Theater

Conley, Miyoko. 2019. "Transnational Audiences and Asian American Performance in the Musical KPOP." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As K-pop continues to gain attention in the US mainstream media, questions of how will always be posed. For US entertainment outlets, the dominant question is how something perceived as South Korean and Asian made headway in an industry notoriously difficult for Asian artists. For K-pop companies, how can they obtain and sustain transnational success? And for some, how will this affect Asian American artists—or not—as they are perpetually caught in between, being at once viewed as too foreign and not foreign enough in the United States?

[1.2] This essay looks at how one theater performance, aptly named KPOP, contends with these questions. KPOP is a musical by Jason Kim and was produced in 2017 by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, Woodshed Collective, and Ars Nova in New York City. The show is set up as an experiment for two fictional companies. The first one, JTM, is a Korean entertainment company that trains and produces idol groups. The second one, CROSSOVER, is headed by Jerry Kim, a Korean American who wants to help K-pop cross over into the American market. After an initial introduction, the audience is split into three groups and led through different rooms to experience three K-pop acts: Special K, a new girl group; F8 (Fate), an established boy band; and MwE, a superstar diva and industry veteran. Crucially, Jerry tells the audience they are a test audience, immediately putting focus on their reactions to the groups and industry practices illustrated in the show. In fact, as the show goes on, Jerry and the owners of JTM, Moon and Ruby, repeatedly emphasize how this whole setup is for us; the entire show is posed as an immersive experiment, constructed for an American audience, to ask us how K-pop can cross over into the United States.

[1.3] This question, however, feels more like one from 2009 (with the ultimately failed attempts of both solo singer BoA and girl group Wonder Girls to break into the US market); or 2011 (with the English-language release of "The Boys" for girl group SNSD); or even 2012, after the surprising success of Psy's "Gangnam Style." To me, a K-pop researcher and fan, this did not feel like a relevant question for 2017, when I was attending a sold-out K-pop concert the very next night, or when KCON, the world's biggest K-pop convention, was on its sixth year in the United States. It felt like K-pop, however circuitously and unexpectedly, had arrived in the United States in the hearts of at least 128,000 fans (note 1). This is not to dismiss arguments that it is still significant when there is major Asian and Asian American representation in US mainstream media, as was evident by the fervor around K-pop boy band BTS breaking US Billboard charts in 2018, but rather to suggest that the K-pop question was an already evolving conversation. However, what might be more important is how the show answers its own question. I suggest that through its immersive multimedia structure, the musical KPOP reveals the complex, racialized intertwining of mediated idol and mediated audience, complicates the performance of Asian and Asian American identity, and ultimately leads its audience to a different space than an us-versus-them binary.

2. K-pop as transmedia performance

[2.1] KPOP did not begin with the run of the show but rather with promotional materials that served as an introduction to the K-pop experience. When the Ma-Yi Theater Company sent promotional emails for KPOP, it included a segment called "KPOP-Pourri," which delivered the "weekly lowdown on KPOP." This segment introduced a real-life entertainment company, special K-pop terminology, and the world of K-pop fandom, with links to fans' YouTube videos. This primes the uninitiated for the K-pop experience, signaling that the industry is so vast that one needs guidance before even attending the show. However, it also sweeps the audience into K-pop's media sphere, showing how K-pop crosses not only geographical bounds but also media. Communications scholar Youna Kim calls K-pop a "total entertainment," meaning that K-pop encompasses all entertainment forms, such as music, dance, television, movies, and advertisements, with much of it happening through digital media (2013, 8). In fact, many Hallyu scholars (note 2) argue that the K-pop industry relies on its ability to harness digital media and spread transnationally; the current number of groups simply could not survive in the Korean market alone.

[2.2] Theater scholar Suk-Young Kim similarly calls K-pop a kaleidoscopic or multimedia performance that includes not only the aforementioned forms but also concerts, musicals, and those performances considered the realm of theater, drawing attention to how it combines the digital and the live (2018, 9). In this way, KPOP as a musical and its immersive, interactive experience fits perfectly with K-pop's vibrant media ecosystem. What is most significant for Kim, however, is how K-pop's transmedia experience enables a deep, affective relationship between idol and fan through multiple platforms, which KPOP-Pourri also emphasizes with its links to fan-made videos and glossaries of fan terminology. Through KPOP-Pourri, the show illustrates that in order to provide the audience an all-in K-pop experience, they need to be immersed digitally before the show begins (or rather, the show starts when the immersion experience begins), and they need to understand K-pop's online transnational fandom.

3. Interacting with the K-pop factory

[3.1] While fans do not feature as characters in the show itself, the audience takes their place as the ones interacting with K-pop, becoming as knowledgeable about and as attached to the idols. Perhaps the most stinging critique of how K-pop, media, and audiences relate is the section where the audience follows new girl group Special K through the K-pop factory. The word factory refers to the idol training system in South Korea, where young adults train for several years in singing, dancing, media, and foreign languages, with only a slim chance of debuting in an idol group. We wind through four main rooms: dance studio, vocal coach, media training, and plastic surgery. The dance studio shows a choreographer picking apart the six members' movements, making them dance the routine over and over. Once the members exit to various other rooms, the choreographer turns to the audience, defiantly, saying that she might be tough, but they will be perfect.

[3.2] However, this process is about not only singing and dancing but also the idol's ability to shift and perform for different audiences, and the Special K section is specifically designed, in theory, for an American audience. In the media training section, Jerry instructs two members on how to present for American media. He berates member Callie for having too thick of an accent. Jerry asks the audience, "Why hasn't K-pop succeeded in the US?" An audience member shouts "Racism!" Jerry agrees, but then he reframes racism as an accent problem, which justifies—in his mind—why he was so hard on Callie, as if her saying "my name is Callie" in a perfect American accent would make all the stereotypical associations with Asians go away. The issue of blending in rears its head again when Jerry does media training with member Tiny D, who is both Korean American and mixed race. She feels she does not look or act completely Korean or completely American and therefore cannot brand herself accordingly. This confusion continues into the plastic surgery room and manifests as a fear of the way she is racially perceived. Tiny D says she is 50–50 (as in, she looks 50 percent Korean and 50 percent something else unidentified), but she would prefer to look 70–30 or even 90–10. Eventually she becomes too uncomfortable, leaving the room before the surgeon can begin, still unsure of her identity.

[3.3] This complex section allows the audience to see the idols as mutable products, consumable objects, and hard workers, and also through its interactive elements creates an affective bond with the idol. As Callie pulls me into a room, just me and her, she asks, "which one sounds best?" She then precedes to say "My name is Callie" three different ways. I stumble; they all sound the same. I say, "Three, maybe?" for no reason, then revise: "I don't know, you sound fine. You sound good." Callie thanks me, relieved, happy maybe. As I exit the room, I think what I should have told her is to be herself, love herself, and not worry; why would I even give credence to Jerry's accent training? I realize that this section is about having the audience interact with not only the idols but also the system that creates the idols. It implicitly argues that we, the audience, cannot feel an affective connection to the idols through polished performance alone, but rather we have to understand the process they have gone through, and how we—as the entire reason they are going through it—are complicit.

4. Which audience is this, anyway? Asian Americans and K-pop

[4.1] When Jerry says that we are the test audience, that we hold the answer to whether K-pop can cross over, I wonder which audience is being framed in what way. The biggest question for me as an Asian American audience member is that when the show presumes Americans neither know nor will accept K-pop, is it presuming a non–Asian American audience? Though K-pop might be new to some Americans, because of its heavy circulation in Asia and through Asian diasporas, Asian Americans have been noted as some of its core transnational supporters, at least in earlier years (see Park 2008; Balance 2012; Ju and Lee 2015). Or are Asian Americans more aligned with the idols, as Tiny D's story might indicate, than with the American audience? Of course, not all Asian Americans have a familiarity with Asian pop culture products, as Jerry is quick to point out at the beginning of the show, bringing an Asian American experience into the equation from the start. When explaining why he wanted to partner with JTM, he calls himself a bad Korean and relates his own failed attempt at trying to be an actor in Korea, because he does not speak Korean or understand the culture very well—but all of this already indicates a much more complicated, emotional relationship to K-pop for Jerry than blank unknowing, as he has now made it his mission to get these particular parts of his identity to cross over, to sit more comfortably within himself.

[4.2] However, Asian American scholar Christine Bacareza Balance points to another connection between K-pop and Asian Americans—or rather, Asian American YouTube stars and their similar affective virtual networks. Balance notes the affective labor that popular YouTube stars like Ryan Higa (nigahiga), Kevin Wu (kevjumba), and Wong Fu Productions perform, "transforming alienation into humor, hate into love," and how the platform's penchant for both the intimate and the viral (spread) creates an affective Asian American community (2012, 149). Balance compares this to K-pop's transnational dissemination online, as an embodiment of the Korean diaspora, exemplifying the interplay between the virtual and the material (146). Hyejung Ju and Soobum Lee come to a similar conclusion in their article on Asian American K-pop consumption and how its flow creates a sense of pan-ethnic Asian identity for the fans they interviewed (2015, 334) (note 3). This is perhaps why when Ryan Higa created a parody K-pop group, which has released two singles thus far on YouTube, he called it BgA—Boys Generally Asian—drawing attention to both the fetishization of K-pop idols (as recognizably Asian and marketed as such) and the impossibility of clearly defining the geographical boundaries of K-pop groups (as the group is not fully Asian but "generally Asian"). BgA topped the iTunes charts and drew international attention with their second single "Who's It Gonna Be?," showing that the transnational digital networks associated with K-pop and these Asian American YouTube stars go hand in hand with the affective intimate connections fans have to them.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] At the end of the show, JTM CEO Moon announces to the audience, now all reconvened, that this experiment was a mistake. He apologizes to Jerry, then proclaims: "We don't need to cross over to you, you need to cross over to us." The audience cheers, as if this is answer enough, as if this accounts for tensions and contradictions brought up throughout the show. Beyond the theater space, the show was also hailed as a success, winning three Lucille Lortel awards (note 4). As Ashley Park said when she received her award for best actress: "I thought, you know it's never gonna happen because nobody in the American Theater is going to take the risk on a story about Korean Americans crossing over into mass media in America. And guess what? [They] did" (promotional email, May 10, 2018). The conflation of Korean Americans with the show's mostly Korean characters (and the idea that they, though American, still need to cross over) seems to reiterate the constant in-between space that Asian American performers hold in American media and that their success is dependent on the success of Asian performers.

[5.2] After Moon's proclamation, the show itself ends with a spectacular concert, complete with projections and confetti. As I look around the room at the audience members' excited faces, some people even shouting the idols' names as they come onstage, I believe the show has succeeded in making them K-pop fans, at least for the night. And maybe that is answer enough to demonstrate that Americans can accept K-pop; but I don't know where that leaves me, or Jerry, or Tiny D.

[5.3] This theme of crossing over is obviously more complicated than it seems, as the show has pointed out in numerous ways; from K-pop's transmedia crossings and transnational fan networks, to the ways in which K-pop idols transform themselves to suit a new album concept or audience, to how one subset of the audience—at least for the scope of this essay—is already familiar with a surprisingly similar negotiation, even as it plays out differently in individual circumstances. What does it mean when you have crossed multiple times, both physically and virtually? When those crossings are so intertwined that they bleed into each other, overlap, and were never that divided in the first place? Perhaps the crossing that KPOP talks about is not a matter of being stuck between two countries nor a matter of feeling not foreign enough or not American enough, but rather of being in a crossover state. This crossover state is not static but made up of the flow and movement of the numerous crosses we have taken, both virtual and physical. The moments of crossing in the show—from audience to fan, from medium to medium, and across the web of Asian diaspora—reflect a cross-section of relations with ourselves and each other, culminating in a moment when you look at K-pop idols and do not see a line to be crossed, but rather how they—their flows, their transformations, their movements—comprise where you already are.

6. Acknowledgment

[6.1] Thanks to Abigail De Kosnik, Kristina Busse, and Stephen Meyerink for their feedback and support.

7. Notes

1. This is the combined number of attendees for KCON LA and KCON NY in 2017. In 2018, this number jumped to 147,000.

2. "Hallyu," or the "Korean Wave," refers to the global increase in spread and popularity of South Korean culture and entertainment, such as movies, TV dramas, and music.

3. This sense of global Asian community through Asian pop culture is often seen as complicated by scholars, as it suggests a practice of community building through consumerism; see Cho (2017).

4. The Lucille Lortel awards are for excellence in off-Broadway productions. KPOP won for best musical, best actress, and best featured actor.

8. References

Balance, Christine Bacareza. 2012. "How It Feels to Be Viral Me: Affective Labor and Asian American YouTube Performance." Women's Studies Quarterly 40: (1–2): 138–52.

Cho, Michelle. 2017. "Pop Cosmopolitics and K-pop Video Culture." In Asian Video Cultures: In the Penumbra of the Global, edited by Joshua Neves and Bhaskar Sarkar, 240–65. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ju, Hyejung, and Soobum Lee. 2015. "The Korean Wave and Asian Americans: The Ethnic Meanings of Transnational Korean Pop Culture in the USA." Continuum 29 (3): 323–38.

Kim, Suk-Young. 2018. K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kim, Youna. 2013. "Introduction: Korean Media in a Digital Cosmopolitan World." In The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, 1–28. New York: Routledge.

Park, Jung-Sun. 2008. "Korean American Youth and Transnational Flows of Popular Culture across the Pacific." In Transpop: Korea Vietnam Remix, edited by Viet Le and Yong Soon Min. Seoul: Arko Art Center, Arts Council Korea. Exhibition catalog.