In my eternal quest to shut up those people asking me to review shit all the time, here’s a review… of a book. Unlike song reviews, I figure that a book review might actually be vaguely useful to some of you. Sure, reviewing the latest written-while-taking-a-shit song from SM or YG might be good for web traffic and ego-stroking but what’s the point of me throwing down my worthless, annoying opinion on a song when you can just go to YouTube, listen to it yourself and make up your own mind? On the other hand, books are less of a try-before-you-buy proposition and you might actually want to know a bit about what’s in these fucks before you buy them, so in my mission to get k-pop fans to occasionally put down their iMaxipads and read a fucking book (those things with the pages, you’ve seen them, right?) I now bring to you this review. Please enjoy it. Or not.
Kpop Now – The Korean Music Revolution
Author: Mark James Russell
Tuttle Publishing, 128 pages, softback, 254mm x 191mm, colour
RRP: US $15.95 – AUS $17.99
I told myself quite firmly that I wasn’t going to buy this book when I first heard about it, because I read a particularly shitty review of it on Beyond Hallyu before it came out which seemed fairly legit, but then it turned up in my local bookstore so I thought “fuck it, I like to make up my own mind about shit anyway” and I figured you guys could use the entertainment so here it is.
The first thing I noticed about this book when I picked it up is the picture of f(x) in the bottom right corner of the front page – taken from f(x)’s “Rum Pum Pum Pum” promotions, it means that this book is less than a year old (late 2013). This is relevant because any book about k-pop is obviously fighting a battle of cultural relevancy as soon as it appears – the genre is just beyond its first major quality peak, and moving and developing so fast right now that anything written about it in printed format is going to be out of date almost the minute it leaves the printing press. The story of k-pop is a story that is very much still being written, and for the same reason that nobody could have ever penned the definitive book about heavy metal or rap in 1990, we’ll have to wait at least two decades before the definitive text of k-pop history and development appears. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with fairly lightweight snapshots, which is basically what this book is, and that’s not really the fault of the author – a snapshot is all that this can be, by definition. “K-pop Now” is therefore light on text, heavy on pictures, and someone reasonably literate will plow through it all in about an hour.
The book splits itself into several small chapters, here’s what they contain:
Introduction: The State of K-pop
Some general musings about the current state of play in k-pop. H.O.T. and S.E.S. are mentioned along with newer acts, the increasing amount of debuts, PSY (of course), online polling, the overseas activities of various groups and even the k-pop writing of Popdust rates a mention – but not Allkpop. Feel the burn, all those people on Allkpop who thought my interview with Popdust’s k-pop contributor Jacques wasn’t “relevant”.
Chapter 1: The Land Of K-pop
A boring tourist-focused travelogue style chapter which no k-pop fan will be able to read without their eyes glazing over and which completely fails to draw a convincing analogy between the development and cultural mix of South Korea and the city of Seoul and k-pop generally. Some crap about “constant reinvention” is the key analogy the author is trying to draw here but you’ll long for the author to stop wasting pages with this nonsense and start discussing what you bought the book for.
Chapter 2: What Is K-pop?
The meatiest text in the entire book is here, with the author discussing the evolution of the modern k-pop style from Seo Taiji & The Boys onward to the formation of SM, YG and JYP and beyond. The modern idol system is discussed including the audition process and the financing involved in mounting a successful idol group is also touched on. The unfairness and unequal income distribution of k-pop contracts is also hinted at, but only barely, and the author insists that “once a performer becomes a star, the balance of power completely changes”… which sounds like rose-coloured glasses to me. Yeah maybe it’s true if you’re in something as big as SNSD, otherwise not so much. Following this are some fairly lightweight interviews with Eat Your Kimchi, Kevin from ZE:A and Brian Joo from Fly To The Sky which have between four and six questions each. I know if I got some time with any of these people for Kpopalypse Interview I’d ask a damn lot more than six questions (that’s a hint, Martina).
Chapter 3: Boy Groups
Two to four-page spreads on the following groups: BigBang, Super Junior, TVXQ, 2AM, 2PM, B.A.P., Beast, Busker Busker, CNBlue, EXO, FTIsland, Infinite, MBLAQ, SHINee, ZE:A.
Chapter 4: Girl groups
Two to four-page spreads on the following groups: Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, 4Minute, After School, Brown Eyed Girls, Davichi, f(x), KARA, miss A, Secret, Sistar, T-ara.
Chapter 5: Solo artists
Two to four-page spreads on: PSY, BoA, Jay Park, Rain, Yoon Mi-rae, IU.
Chapter 6: K-pop’s Future
Short one-paragraph entries on History, VIXX, Boys Republic, Wonder Boyz, Lee Hi, 15&, Akdong Musicians (sic), Roy Kim, Crayon Pop.
After this is some short information on traveling to Korea (because one chapter of boring travelogue bullshit that you don’t care about and can find in any travel guide anywhere if you really want that kind of thing wasn’t enough) and some acknowledgements.
And that’s it, that’s all you get. The same author wrote the 2008 book “Pop Goes Korea“, and while I haven’t read that one, maybe he covered off more of the in-depth discussion in that book and didn’t want to revisit it too much because “Kpop Now” just doesn’t seem to have much to say – don’t come here if you want any searing insight into your favourite k-pop stars, because you won’t get it. Any in-depth discussion of musical content is generally side-stepped, instead we get fluffy stuff like
“k-pop is overwhelmingly genuine … when a singer loves, he loves completely. When he misses his love, it is a deep, soul-crushing ache”
Oh please. K-pop is more brazenly the opposite of “overwhelmingly genuine” than just about any musical style I can think of. If it’s genuine about only one thing, it’s only about how incredibly artificially constructed it all is. An author who looks even older (and balder) than me shouldn’t be writing like a 13 year old fangirl buying into the insipid lyrical bullshit, and yes his picture is on the inside rear dust cover. At least I have the decency to use pictures of Eunjung in my blog as a substitute for my own ugly bald head.
Other notable aspects of the book include:
- Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra” dance being used in PSY’s “Gentleman” is mentioned, and of course PSY is mentioned all over the place in every chapter of the book with a nauseating “golly gee whiz wasn’t he successful” tone, because there just isn’t enough writing about his videos’ YouTube performance out there.
- T-ara’s Hwayoung controversy is one of the only ones discussed in the entire book (albeit fairly rationally i.e “we’ll never know the truth but it’s a reminder that k-pop stars are human”). Meanwhile, the Open World Entertainment controversy passes by completely untouched – unforgivable, given that the book has a tone of “helping out the k-pop hopefuls” with its needless audition and travel information.
- The author obviously doesn’t give a shit about T-ara because the image captions laughably mistake Ahreum for Dani, but spare a thought for TVXQ fans who get an even rawer deal – nowhere in their own write-up does it mention their issues with SM Entertainment or even that they were once a five-member group! JYJ fans will probably suspect SM encouraged the author to not discuss the former members at all, and they may not even be wrong – SM Entertainment are listed in the acknowledgements as one of the companies “who participated in this book”, so who knows what that really means. EDIT: I called it correctly – SM’s shady influence is now confirmed by the author himself.
- KARA’s “butt dance” for “Mr.” rates a mention, I guess the author is a KARA fapper like the rest of us, also there’s a brief discussion of the KARA contract issue. The TVXQ controversy is referenced here but not explained, suggesting that perhaps it was in fact explained in further detail in an earlier draft of the book, before it was deemed “too hot to handle” and chopped out during book editing.
In summary, if you’re deep into k-pop, you’ll appreciate the pictures of your faves and the acknowledgement that an author bothering to publish a book like this provides to your interest in k-pop, but the inconsistencies in the text plus the general lightweight tone and boring fawning over PSY’s success will annoy you, plus you’ll learn almost nothing that you didn’t already know. On the other hand, if you’re completely new to k-pop this book is actually pretty cool, a quick primer that you can read in about an hour and come away with a generally good grasp on what the style is about. If you’re a k-pop obsessed teenager living at home with your parents there’s a good chance that if mom and dad see this book while out shopping they’ll buy it for you as a birthday or Christmas present, but to be honest it’s the kind of book that your parents would be better off reading themselves in order to understand you so perhaps if you’re in that situation you should buy it for them instead!
Final rating: 2 KARA butt dances out of 5 (3.5 if you’re new to k-pop)