Can K-pop Be White? EXP Edition and the Questions They’re Making Us Ask

When I first heard of EXP Edition last April, I thought it was an insensitive joke. I honestly did. I heard that a bunch of white guys had made what they called a K-pop song, and I thought it was a parody, something akin to what Ryan Higa and his friends did when they made Boys Generally Asian but not funny because the people who made it aren’t Asian. It turned out, it wasn’t a joke—at least, not in the intentional sense. Three Caucasian men and one half-Caucasian, half-Asian man had formed a group and released a single in Korea, a single that was sung in Korean, choreographed, and performed on South Korean music shows. This month, they released another single, accompanied by a mini-album. They say that the music they’re making is K-pop.

Is it K-pop?

Bottom line, there’s no answer to that question, and there may never be. Before I get into my opinion on the issue, I’ll explain why that is. The problem here is that we’ve never defined K-pop. Without an accepted definition for the term, it’s impossible to determine whether or not something that blurs the lines, such as EXP Edition, counts.

EXP Edition’s debut single, Feel Like This, was released on April 16, 2017.

Let’s start at the closest thing to a definition of K-pop that we have. If someone asks you, “What’s K-pop?” you’ll tell them, “It’s Korean pop.” But what does that mean? What makes pop Korean? People, places, and words, for example, can easily be described as Korean or not Korean—but pop? What are the requirements for pop that’s Korean?

Well, again, it’s impossible to know. Consider what it means when someone says “American pop.” That typically describes pop performed by an American citizen, right? What about “British pop”? Again, easy—the speaker is referring to pop performed by a Brit. But what if I were to call something “English pop”? Would that refer to pop from England, or pop sung in English? It could be either. The issue with the phrase “Korean pop” is the same: since the word “Korean” can refer either to a nationality or to a language, its meaning when it modifies some nouns—such as “pop”—can be ambiguous.

Say, then, that we wanted to build a better definition of K-pop from the bottom up. What would we have to include? Let’s take a look at what we know about K-pop. Until EXP Edition, K-pop groups have always contained mostly Korean members, and a totality of all-Asian or part-Asian members. (Okay, well, there have been a few outliers, but their careers as idols never worked out, so we can’t take them into account or we’re back where we started.) That is to say, all K-pop idols have always been of Asian descent—whether they were born in Korea, Thailand, Australia, or the United States. They’ve always sung most of their songs in Korean, and aimed their music at a mostly Korean audience.

Already, our conditions for what K-pop is are falling apart. How much does “mostly” have to be? Two thirds? Ninety percent? When a Korean idol releases a song in Korea that’s completely in English, we still consider that K-pop, right? What about an idol like CL, who debuted in the Western market by releasing music in English in the United States? Is that K-pop? I’d probably say no, but if CL, a Korean woman whose native language is Korean, can make American pop by singing in English and releasing it in America, then by that logic—yep—EXP Edition can make a K-pop song by singing in Korean and releasing it in Korea.

CL debuted with the English language Lifted in America on August 18, 2016.

You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, but American pop and Korean pop are so different, and the industries are so different, you can’t compare them that way.” Of course, you’re right. K-pop has other important characteristics, ones that aren’t as quantifiable as the traits we listed earlier but are just as crucial to how the industry functions. All K-pop idols train rigorously under their agencies for months—most, for years—before debuting. K-pop is also unique for, among other things, its wildly elaborate music videos, precise choreography, and relationship-based fan culture, none of which can be seen in mainstream pop music anywhere else in the world. So where do we draw the line? How many of the characteristics we’ve enumerated are typical but flexible features of K-pop, and how many are requirements?

Here’s the thing. Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe we don’t have to answer all those questions. There’s one key fact about EXP Edition that seems to have escaped K-pop stans’ notice in the midst of all this outrage and controversy: These guys didn’t get together on their own and decide to become a K-pop group. They were originally assembled by Bora Kim as a project for an MFA at Columbia University, who “was thinking about cultural flow, originality, hybridity and appropriation” when she decided to “see what would happen if [she] made American boys into K-pop performers, by teaching them how to sing in Korean and act like Korean boys.”1,2

So EXP Edition are not some group of guys trying to break into the K-pop market (or at least, they didn’t start out that way). They’re a social experiment, and the founders of the project wanted to make us ask these questions, particularly how we define K-pop in terms of culture and race. That buzzword “appropriation” came up in Kim’s description of the idea’s inception. Is what EXP Edition doing appropriation? Yet again, it’s hard to tell because definitions of the term vary. Wikipedia says that cultural appropriation is “the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture”—check—and that it is “distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.” Imbalance of power—check. But a colonial element? The West has never attempted to colonize Korea, so we’re on shakier footing there. How about the Cambridge Dictionary definition, which calls cultural appropriation “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Still, we’re shaky. Have EXP Edition shown that they understand and respect Korean and K-pop culture?

EXP Edition covered Super Junior’s U on variety show I Can See Your Voice in April, 2017.

Some would say yes and some would say no. EXP Edition have been clear that they’re working hard all day, every day to learn more about Korea, Korean language, and Korean culture. Even so, many people find what they’re doing completely disrespectful. Some are angry above all that this emulation of K-pop is—I’ll just say it—bad. It’s not just a bad imitation, but the music itself is bad. On top of that, EXP Edition does not dance as well as K-pop idols are typically required to do, and nor is their Korean pronunciation up to snuff. Some K-pop fans have also found it disrespectful that EXP Edition skipped the years of training that all other idols go through before debut. But many are just mad that EXP Edition aren’t Asian. Even if the group did everything right—if they had trained, if they had great choreography, if their Korean pronunciation were perfect—K-pop fans would still be angry. To some, this may sound like pure racism. But for me, these fans have every right to be angry simply because EXP Edition are white.

If right now you’re asking, “But why does it have to be all about race when there are so many other elements involved?” Remember when we were discussing whether the phrase “Korean pop” should mean Korean-language pop, or pop performed by Koreans? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, because we have always accepted any Asian idol as a K-pop idol. (I’m speaking generally here—yes, foreigners have been known to receive some level of hate from the fringe, but on the whole, the community doesn’t have a problem with, for example, SEVENTEEN’s Vernon, a half-white, half-Asian idol from the United States, or NCT’s Winwin, a Chinese idol who spoke little Korean when he debuted and is still learning the language now.) And remember when we were listing the things we think we know about K-pop groups’ Koreanness? The only stipulation that didn’t have to be qualified with the word “mostly” is that all K-pop idols are always of Asian descent. So, yes, it does all come down to race.

The first verse of SEVENTEEN’s Don’t Wanna Cry starts off with half-American, half-Korean member Vernon at center.

Why isn’t it okay for whites to come into an Asian-dominated culture? Bear with me here. Ideally, it should be okay. Race shouldn’t matter in music. In a perfect world, whites, Asians, and everyone else should be able to participate in any industry they like. But this is not a perfect world, and not every minority can participate in any industry they like. Why didn’t your favorite Asian-American idol who was born in the States just go for it in the States? After all, the Western pop market is much bigger, and besides, idols in the K-pop industry are famously overtrained, overworked, and over-micromanaged. So why would anyone up and go to Korea to become a pop star? It’s because in the Western pop industry, Asians don’t make it. There’s virtually no Asian representation in Western pop. If you’re doubting this, try to think of one American or British pop star you know who is Asian. You can’t, because there aren’t any.

K-pop, then, is becoming an essential platform for Asian representation in global entertainment. Especially in music. In fact, EXP Edition’s only Asian member—half-German, half-Japanese Texan Koki Tomlinson—commented on this very issue when he acknowledged, “There are no Asian pop icons in America, in acting or music or anything like that…So this was an opportunity for me to do pop, because the chance is not available in the States right now.”1 While the US pop market remains closed to Asians, maybe the Korean pop market should remain closed to whites. No, race shouldn’t have to matter. But right now, at this moment in history, it does, and we have to take that into account.

So is EXP Edition K-pop? Depends on what your priorities are when you’re viewing the situation. For me, the answer is no. Furthermore, K-pop should remain Asian—at least, perhaps, for the time being, or until Asian representation in global music is greatly improved. Maybe, when Asians are globally visible in music and have been as fully accepted in the industry as other races are, we can reconsider this situation. But until that day, no, K-pop can’t be white.

 

How do you feel about EXP Edition? Do you think non-Asians should be able to enter the K-pop industry? Why? Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments, as I’m always eager to hear different opinions.


References:

1 Liu, Marian. “Do you need to be Korean to be K-pop?” CNN. 13 Jun. 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/12/asia/exp-edition-non-korean-k-pop-band/index.html

2 O’Connor, Roisin. “EXP Edition: American ‘Kpop’ group raise eyebrows in Korea.” Independent. 18 April 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/exp-edition-feel-like-this-video-kpop-group-american-south-korea-bora-kim-art-project-a7688286.html

4 comments

  1. An ideal world would consist of being able to enter any field regardless of race. However, I feel that you are looking at it from a Western perspective, instead of the perspective many Koreans tend to take on the matter. We need to look at what is culturally and societally acceptable from a Korean standpoint, since this is bound to differ. Many Koreans are flattered by the fact that Americans want to be part of something that is “Korean,” and are curious as to why they even want to participate. The idea of Westerners coming over and participating in something that is Korean-made or Korean-born is generally favored and often is surprising, and many consider this as an effect of the global “Hallyu Wave.” By and large, Koreans do not seem to have much of a problem with EXP EDITION, though I cannot speak for every person as a whole.

    Most K-Pop fans who take issue to this group are international fans, and for the most part I can understand the frustrations. Cultural acceptability from an international perspective does not exist for Asians to be part of Western pop culture. Many feel that K-Pop (and, by an extent, other forms of Asian pop) are a ‘refuge’ for Asians to be able to participate in pop culture, and Whites should not infringe on this refuge. Is it culturally acceptable from a Western, international standpoint for a group of White men to partake in K-Pop? Most people answer this with not just a “no,” but with much heat, fire, and passion. Despite the many times EXP EDITION has tried to assimilate, learn, and respect Korean culture, and try to do everything correctly, they cannot “undo” the act of infringing on the Asian refuge that is K-Pop. The one question I ask is, if it’s never okay for them to participate due to their skin, then what’s the point? Why bother learning the language, why bother learning the culture, why bother making Korean music if something that cannot be physically changed is always going to hold them back? Might as well ship them back to America, right?

    I think the answer isn’t to point fingers at EXP EDITION, Korea, K-Pop, or fans with divisive opinions. They are a very controversial group, and they are much more talented and more serious than previous attempts, of which have been made out to be jokes (i.e. Chad Future). I believe they can make it pretty well in K-Pop, not just because of who they are, but because of their merit as a talented group. How do we solve the issues then? There isn’t any one particular answer. I believe the answer is to look into why it’s not acceptable for Asians to be in Western pop to begin with. It will likely take many years and hard work, and a lot of pressure on Western cultures to accept Asians. Until Asians have firm representation in Western pop culture, EXP EDITION will likely never be accepted by the majority international fandom. This is a hard reality for them, and it’s something that not everyone agrees with.

    Do I believe EXP EDITION is K-Pop? I tend to line up with the definition that, like how K-Pop idols can create J-Pop music and American music, K-Pop is a language and cultural based genre of music, so I believe they can be called “K-Pop” if all the right conditions are met. But I understand that many do not feel the same way, due to factors that surround the idea of privilege, race, and appropriation. Like you mentioned, it would have to be in an ideal world, but we are far from it. I’m rooting for them, and I feel for them, because they have a very difficult road ahead, and it’s not a road that can be easily crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very good point–I should have mentioned that I’ve only considered international K-pop fans’ reactions for the purpose of this piece, because I’ve read that in Korea, people haven’t taken much notice of them, and that if they do, reactions aren’t usually so negative, like you said.
      You asked what’s the point of learning about the language and the culture if their skin will never let them fully participate. For me, you’re right–they might as well head back to the States. Of course, international fans like me certainly do not have a role to play in the Korean public’s decision about whether they’re going to accept these guys as K-pop. And yes, the Korean public’s decision should be the final word. Still, I think it’s understandable that international K-pop fans may never feel comfortable accepting EXP Edition as K-pop.
      I agree–let’s skip all this and get to that perfect world where none of it matters, and anyone can participate in any industry regardless of race. And thank you for your thoughtful comment!

      Like

  2. I love love love this! I’m definitely not in the position to write a thoughtful post about them because all I can think about them is “Why are these white boys stepping into Korean territory?” but I appreciate you laying out everything so eloquently. This was a fantastic read!

    Liked by 1 person

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