FEBRUARY 28, 2008


Korean Wave a washout on Australian shores
Differences in culture, history, language and geography obstruct reception of Korean pop culture
In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 16th in a series of essays by a select group of foreign scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. — Ed.
Elizabeth Moorhead (left) and Caddie Brain
Caddie Brain and Elizabeth Moorhead are intern reporters at The Korea Herald from Australia. They are final-year students at the University of Sydney majoring in journalism. They can be reached at caddiebrain@gmail.com and emoo6463@usyd.edu.au By Caddie Brain and Elizabeth Moorhead

Asia?” “Well,” he replied, “I have shown you some video clips from Asia, don’t you remember?” Hesitantly she nodded. “I do. But wasn’t that just a local performance of global music, I mean, American music?” There are a number of troubling aspects to this story. More than ever, music is not what Lee calls a “single primary text” but a marriage of sound, words and images. This is particularly true of music television such as MTV. MTV Asia is somewhat of a Trojan horse that provides a very Euro-American keyhole through which cultural products are packaged and viewed. If MTV were a mathematician, it would be infamous, a genius even, renowned for producing some of the most successful cultural formulas of the 21st century. Successful, yes. Original, authentic, progressive? Perhaps not. Not anymore anyway. These formulas represent a culture that spits out new products designed to imitate products that were successful in the past. Perhaps the academic Gitlin got it right with his claim that “the safest, easiest formula is that nothing succeeds like success.” In this sense, it is easy to understand the confusion of Dr. Lee’s student. Australian audiences, though not by any means a unified entity, are that student in many ways. The “lucky country’s” cultural gaze is firmly set upon our colonizer, Britain, but more significantly the United States. Australians acutely and critically view Korean cultural products through these EuroAmerican frames. Korean-Australian Jenny Lee, a Korean pop fan, identifies this as the main reason the wave simply hasn’t impacted Australia in the way that it has its Asian neighbors. “The reason they (Korean artists) haven’t appealed to Westerners is because their style, mostly hip-hop and RNB influenced, is similar to singers already existing in American pop,” she said. This was never more apparent than upon Rain’s successful Rain’s Coming world tour last year. Rain declared a war of attrition on Korea’s neighbors and on both American and Australia as well. Yes, it “RAINed” in droughtstricken Australia last year. The Korean pop heartthrob arrived at Sydney’s international air-

Across Asia, and especially in Japan, the Korean Wave seems formidable. Korean popular culture has flooded international markets. The Korean Wave was so-named because of this widespread influence. In Australia, however, this influence didn’t have the same impact. Instead of flooding mainstream Australian culture, the Korean Wave adopted an alter-ego as kitsch, niche and underground. The risk of assessing the Korean Wave in Australia is that it lends itself to overstatement. With the proliferation of Samsung mobile phones and zippy Hyundai cars, it is hard to tell where mindless material consumption ends and the conscious adoption of Korean culture begins. Although not infiltrating the mainstream, the Korean Wave has not been without a home since crossing the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Communities of ethnic Koreans living in Australia have clutched at the veneer of their homeland. For these Korean-Australian diaspora communities, Hallyu is the proof that Korea is developing into a global and prosperous country, and it is enjoying the ride. The greatest obstacle for Korea’s cultural dispersion in Australia is, in crude terms, 8,000 kilometers. This plight of proximity is particularly Australian, as the country has no land borders for cultural osmosis. Different cultural and historical backgrounds compound with language barriers and geography to obstruct the reception of the Korean Wave in Australia. K-pop: A long way to the top Lecturer Dr. Hee-Eun Lee tells a story about a student in a media studies class he taught at the University of Iowa. A student was in the torment of trying to decide what topic to research for her final class assignment. She decided to write about MTV Asia. Lee suggested that this may be a good way to look at how indigenous music interacts with global repertoires. The student, puzzled, paused for a while then with an air of innocence asked, “But is there any indigenous popular music, rather than traditional music in

port to 150 screaming fans. At his Sydney press conference at the Stamford Plaza Hotel, Rain stood in front of a patchwork quit of logos and looked glamorous next to a live koala. A media monkey holding a live koala, it made the whole press conference look more like a zoo. This aside, 23-year-old Australian Senah Han was in the audience for his much-anticipated performance at Acer Arena in Sydney. He warmed the crowd with schooled English and provided a light show that made the aurora appear amateurish. “The concert was more performance-based. They used a lot of special stage effects such as lights, smoke, water and I know lots of people were very impressed by that,” she said. But Han wasn’t convinced. “I can’t say that I really got into it,” she continues. “But everyone in the audience was very mildly entertained, including myself.” Han wasn’t the only one “mildly entertained.” The Western press likened Rain to a

that the auditory experience is authenticated by live performance. The louder, wilder and bloodier the live show, the more authentic the group. For the author Martin Stokes, such an event “evokes and organizes collective memories and present experiences of place with an intensity, power and simplicity unmatched by any other social activity.” There is a lot of nostalgia concerning these mythologies of live music, particularly when conversing with any scruffy, long-haired, leathery skinned, has-been from the 1980s who likens the pub circuits to more of a battlefield. AC/DC, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, the darlings of the Australian pub rock scene, are the first to testify to this. An Adelaide hotel, The Largs Pier, was the battlefield where Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes cut his teeth with his band Cold Chisel. Stripper and bourbon references aside, Barnes claims, “It was like a wild west town. That was where we started, the

For now, it seems, Australia prefers the drought. Hallyu at home in some young Aussie hearts Although the Korean Wave hasn’t had the reaction in Australia that it has experienced on a large scale from its Asian neighbors, it has found homes in the hearts some young Australians. Senah Han, 23, has always called Sydney home, and in many ways she is the quintessential Aussie youth. But in many ways she isn’t. Before graduating from high school in 2002, Han enjoyed movies, music and television dramas with a Korean flavor. “I was always up to date and in with Korean pop culture but not as much anymore. I think it has to do with the people I hang around,” Han said. “The school I went to had many international Korean students. I got to learn from them.” It seems the Korean Wave entered the psyche of Australian youth hidden in the suitcases of international students. However, Han worries that Korean students can’t spread the culture on their own since the Korean communities she grew up near tend to keep their national culture to themselves. Strathfield, in the inner-west of Sydney, has a concentrated community of Koreans. Han went to school in Strathfield and still lives near the area. “Strathfield is a hotspot for Koreans, like a Korea Town. Strathfield has Korean grocers, video stores, hairdressers, music stores, book stores, comic books, PC rooms and more. It’s hard to miss (Korean culture) if you’re there,” she said. A self-confessed lover of Korean popular culture, Han has observed a gradual proliferation of the Korean Wave in Australia. But is the wave gaining momentum in Australia? “I think it is, the World Cup really helped. I think that the process is much slower than it should be because the Korean businesspeople in Australia only tend to target Korean groups,” Han said. Han has made it her mission to spread the word. “I have many friends and colleagues that were introduced to Korean food and movies by me and were surprised with how much they enjoyed Korean culture,” she said. “There are many nonKoreans that have really become educated about Korean pop culture but many still don’t have a clue what it’s all about.” The conventional channels through which culture filters into Australia do not run directly from Korea. There is no

It seems the Korean Wave entered the psyche of Australian youth hidden in the suitcases of international students.
Michael Jackson mimic in both style and costume. The New York Times conceded, “Rain seems like a nice guy, but he doesn’t have the tormented charisma of Jackson.” He simply did not generate any new trend that could upstage American performances. “Seeing him onstage was like watching old MTV videos dubbed into Korean,” the New York Times continued. It didn’t end there. They drove the knife in with: “Rain sounded like a nostalgia act,” a criticism targeting the absence of originality in his music style. At the heart of such criticism is something inherent to rock scholarship, that music is political, subversive and in the eyes of some, endangers moral order. Many of these ideas are born from that great German, Theodor M. Adorno, who made a distinction between good popular music that is authentic to “a person, an idea, a feeling, a shared experience,” and bad popular music that is unauthentic. “It expresses nothing,” Adorno claims. These notions of authenticity are deeply entrenched in Australian music culture. The Australian popular music scene still fails to escape the mythology of live music that reached its peak in the 1980s. These mythologies require crowd sort of adopted us, and the ones who made it through the night without getting killed came back the next night and brought their mates for protection.” In analyzing such phenomena, Dr. Shane Homan, an academic and drummer, argues that the live pub remained “the cornerstone of, and it was believed, the reason for, global attention and a source of national pride.” Although the nature of this live music mythology has amalgamated from its 1980s heyday, the main hangover of pub scene, and no doubt there were many, is a remaining sentiment requiring groups to prove, and indeed earn their worth, authenticity, and credibility. In some scenes this remains a precursor to global success. Indeed there is a sort of trench ideology at play too; that is, the bigger the sacrifice the bigger the glory. This is at the heart of the quintessential Aussie battler ideal, a fair go for all, and an authenticity that comes from being the underdog that is still deeply embedded in the Australian social psyche. Undoubtedly, this accounts for a deep cynicism within some Australian audiences in the reception of high-production super shows by Korean stars such as Rain.

Korean television content on Australian TVs. “Winter Sonata,” the 2002 KBS drama series heralded as the love child of Hallyu, is virtually unheard of in Australia. Language is the most obvious barrier between Australian and Korean television sets. But there are obstacles that subtitles or dubbing cannot overcome. The Confucian relationships between characters, the hierarchies and themes of filial piety do not easily translate for an Australian audience as with other nations in the region. Take a quick look at Australia’s most successful long-term television export, “Neighbours,” and the disparity is clear. Characters run away from home, discuss sex and contraception, ignore parental expectations, engage in homosexual relationships from time to time and true love is almost never forever. The British love “Neighbours” as if it is their own, but it is doubtful it would be a success in Korea. There is no Australian equivalent of “Winter Sonata” with its soft hues and melodramatic soundtrack. Australian narratives are not delivered with the sentimentality and romance found in Korean drama. Dr. Marc Brennan, a lecturer on media and communications at the University of Sydney, is less hasty to blame cultural difference for the absence of Korean dramas on Australian television. “Our historical alignment with the U.K. and the U.S. doesn’t so much mean that we aren’t interested in Asian culture, just that there aren’t as many opportunities for it to permeate into our media. The U.S. television industry, for example, has a strong hold on the networks here (in Australia),” Brennan said. The question of space for international content on Australian television sets is pertinent. American content is imported in “bundles.” One show is chosen for purchase and sold as a package of 10, crowding the airtime with American content. “This impinges on the possibility of importing content from other nations,” Brennan said. But missing out on “Winter Sonata” in Australia hasn’t dampened Han’s enthusiasm for Korean pop culture. Since graduating from high school she still enjoys some Korean pop culture. “I am aware of the new popular music through karaoke and occasionally I rent DVDs from the Korean DVD place. I watch either scary or funny Korean movies,” she said. Maybe onetime she’ll rent the DVD box set of “Winter Sonata.”

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