Photo illustration by Katie McBride, BTS photo CC by 4.0/Wikimedia Commons user Toomuch940912, television photo by iStockphoto.com/pxel66.

Seoul train

May 14, 2021

Arts

The global music phenomenon that is K-pop caught the eye of Crystal Anderson, W’92, an expert on Afro-Asian cultural interaction.
By Matthew Dewald

Crystal Anderson was barely exhaling after the publication of her first book when her mentor sprang an unexpected question: What’s your second book going to be about? “What second book?” Anderson replied. “That’s it. I’m a one-book person.”

Well, Anderson was wrong, and her mentor was right. But who can blame her? Like hundreds of millions of fans, Anderson just couldn’t resist the power of K-pop.

Anderson, who is affiliate faculty in Korean studies at George Mason University, is a scholar of East Asian culture. Her first book was about cultural and political exchanges between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Asians in recent decades.

She’s also a pop culture consumer. K-pop — as the mega-industry of Korean pop music is familiarly known — came into her life via a Netflix algorithm. It introduced her to a Korean drama, and a friend of a friend happened to mention that one of its lead actors was a K-pop star. That offhand comment sent her down a rabbit hole from which she still hasn’t emerged.

K-pop acts range from soul balladeers to rappers, their songs performed largely in Korean and exploring the teenage angst and love pangs of its artists and audiences of every age. Tightly choreographed boy and girl pop groups dominate the scene — think BTS, who have crossed over to the U.S. in recent years. The inspiration that K-pop draws from African American pop forms like R&B, funk, soul, and hip-hop suffuses the genre, from its vocals and instrumentation to its choreography and its artists’ sense of style.

Psy and MC Hammer perform at the 2012 AMA awards

So when Anderson saw K-pop superstar Psy segue from his global hit "Gangnam Style” into a duet of “2 Legit 2 Quit” alongside American rapper MC Hammer at the 2012 American Music Awards, it made perfect sense to her.

What surprised her was that no one in academic circles seemed to have noticed the cultural crossover. K-pop fans certainly had. Social media and websites were full of their chatter about various American influences from Michael Jackson to Aretha Franklin and Usher. Eventually, Anderson couldn’t take the knowledge gap, so she did what she said she wouldn’t. She wrote her second book — the one she had been waiting for someone else to write.

The result is Soul in Seoul, which examines how K-pop and Korean hip-hop draw on and expand African American pop music influences. She also provides a history of K-pop. For Americans, it might seem like the genre just dropped from the sky a few years ago with the arrival of BTS, but “BTS was 20-plus years in the making,” she said.

One of the things she left out — it’s a sense she has, not a fully formed academic argument — has to do with why African American music resonates with Koreans. She believes it stems from the country’s history of colonization by regional powers, the omnipresent influence of American foreign policy, and Koreans’ experiences in America, particularly during times such as the L.A. riot in 1992.

“There are a lot of similarities between the way Korean people feel and the emotional meaning you get out of a lot of R&B,” she said. Korean artists “draw on elements of Black popular culture but use them to address their own realities.”