Part 1 from an interview conducted with UC Berkeley Professor Darren Zook, concentrated around “Gangnam Style” and social critique in Kpop.
Professor Darren Zook of University of California, Berkeley, has a unique outlook and perspective on Gangnam Fever. “This is not a revolution” he says. He isn’t talking about Gangnam Style‘s massive viral explosion, Psy’s current presence across US and other international media landscapes, or about the rising awareness of Korea as a producer of quality cultural goods. This is about social critique in Korean pop music, and how Psy is sadly not sufficient to furthering its presence in the Korean pop culture media landscape.
Professor Zook is a highly popular lecturer at UC Berkeley. I knew of him well before meeting him for the first time. When I stopped by the last few minutes of his office hours to schedule an interview, there were still 4 students outside waiting to speak with him.
Professor Zook teaches courses in Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and International and Area Studies (IAS), and is well known amongst undergraduate students for his work in Southeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula. One student waiting outside the office said only Zook would be ‘legit’ enough to teach the introductory course to PACS.
When I came to interview Professor Zook at the end of his office hours there were yet again 3 or 4 students waiting to see him. I was directed by my instructor to speak to Professor Zook about Gangnam Style because of an offhand comment he made about how interesting the Gangnam phenomenon was. Many of my friends have been excited to hear that I’m posting and interview with him, and the all the hype around him is not misleading. What he had to say about Gangnam Style, Korean pop culture, Korean society and his ease at working with students lived up to the reputation.
I know that you do a lot of work involving North and South Korea, and I was wondering how and when your interest in Korean pop culture began?
Well, I’ve always been interested in pop culture in terms of how formal politics interplays with pop culture. When I look at the political process I tend to look at multiple layers of politics. The fact is most politicians are very boring people, very few people sit around and listen to political speeches. But they love to listen to carefully crafted entertainment versions of politics. Its why most people hear about sound bites in American politics by watching things like the daily show, because the daily show is a great way to understand how screwed up things are around you. So my interest in pop culture is not just in Korea, but in every country I study and I tend to look at how everything gets brought down to the people, and what do people do with the intentions of political messages, and how do they rework them for themselves.
Why do you think “Gangnam Style“ is so popular abroad?
The funny thing is part of it I think is an awareness of Kpop. If it were not for Kpop, “Gangnam Style“ would actually be popular for the wrong reasons; it would be popular because it was just this weird freakish Korean thing of some guy in a tuxedo dancing around. The fact is people know and a lot of people are becoming very aware of Kpop, which gives it a context, ‘wow this is something new coming out of Korea’, which is interesting because it isn’t Kpop. Most of (the popularity) is both the kind of silliness of Psy, its funny to watch, and the fact that it’s a good dance song. Everyone knows the song and if you ask people about it, they don’t know what it all means but just that it’s really fun. So it isn’t a bad thing, but its popularity has little to do with an awareness of its content.
Why do you think “Gangnam Style” is so popular in Korea where there is an awareness of the content?
This is actually a far more interesting question. I think in one of the great ironies of “Gangnam Style” in Korea is that it’s either people aren’t getting the message or they like it because they know it’s popular abroad. You know, Kpop is really defined by nationalism. It’s driven by this pride that the whole world knows about Kpop. If you listen to Kpop, you know it’s mostly garbage. So to be honest, had it not become a hit internationally, it might have been pushed to the side. You know people are like “Who is this new guy?” He’s had six albums. If you never heard of him before, it’s because it’s not Kpop. It’s not mainstream stuff. In fact there used to be Korean hip hop that was borderline Kpop, but that kind of stuff is disappearing rapidly, like Buga Kingz. It was seen as either too American or too edgy. Whether it is social pressure or political pressure I’ve heard rumors of it did seem to just disappear.
Stay tuned over the next week for further installments of my interview with Professor Zook, and why not enjoy some Buga Kingz?
Professor Darren Zook instructs in International and Area Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at UC Berkeley. His work focuses on human rights, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. Photo credit to Peg Skorpinski.