By Andrew Goddard (MA Music)
Being a fan of K-pop – that is, pop music from South Korea – I decided to present at the Postgraduate Forum the music video of GFRIEND’s song ‘Me Gustas Tu’ as an object of discussion. I shared GFRIEND’s video because it exemplifies the deeply politicised nature of K-pop.
Like many other K-pop songs, ‘Me Gustas Tu’ highlights issues concerning gender performativity, negotiations of national identity and Korean-ness, and positions itself as part of a dialogue with Anglo-American popular music. In brief, K-pop’s stylistic origins are rooted in American hip-hop and pop, Japanese idol music, and earlier traditions of Korean music (like ‘trot’). K-pop is influenced by globally popular tracks, and then consciously reinterprets (or mimics) these trends to a domestic Korean audience and international fans through digital media.
What is particularly interesting about ‘Me Gustas Tu’ is that it has been broadcast across the border between North and South Korea using walls of loudspeakers. All that separates the two states is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 4km wide strip of largely unoccupied land. Ongoing tensions between North and South Korea have existed since the Korean war in the 1950s. While this conflict is largely non-aggressive, both states have attempted to antagonise one another. Both Koreas have attempted to spread propaganda messages across this border using massive walls of speakers playing news reports and music.
This is particularly troubling for North Korea, as the authoritarian regime is dependent upon preventing foreign cultural products like K-pop from entering the country. Through these loudspeakers, North Korean citizens could be exposed to South Korean media. Therefore, it is in North Korea’s best interest to prevent loudspeaker transmissions from taking place. Both states agreed to cease loudspeaker transmissions in 2004. However, South Korea reinitiated broadcasting in January 2016 in retaliation to North Korea’s successful hydrogen bomb tests. One of the songs frequently transmitted across the border was GFRIEND’s ‘Me Gustas Tu’.
‘Me Gustas Tu’ has been selected among the K-pop repertoire as a tool of soft propaganda for two reasons. The first lies in its lyrical content. The song is about a girl struggling to reveal her romantic feelings to her crush. Individual lyrics are reinterpreted to addresses South Korea’s wish for peace between the two states. South Korea extends an invitation to the North to become closer, or to work towards peace: in the first verse, some lyrics translate to: “We’re both so shy, we can’t even say anything / But I wanna go closer to you.”
Another reason that GFRIEND’s song is broadcast across the border is that it challenges perceptions that North Koreans are fed to believe about life in South Korea. From what we know of North Korean media, it feeds its citizens the belief that they have the best quality of life in the world. This is done by denigrating the achievements of other nations, particularly South Korea. North Koreans are led to believe that South Korea is technologically inferior. Technology impacts musical production, so the music of South Korea should, by their understanding, sound dated. K-pop, however, is typified by high quality production values and technological spectacle. GFRIEND’s ‘Me Gustas Tu’ is no exception to this, as it is emblematic of the high quality of musical production in K-Pop.
It is hoped that upon this exposure, North Korean citizens may reconsider what else they have been fed by state media. Saying this, an interesting discussion about American interactions arose at the Postgraduate Forum – does K-pop also expose the products that South Koreans have been fed by the US? This is a delicate topic to navigate. The South Korean government heavily invests in K-pop, encouraging the expansion of South Korea’s ‘powerful’ soft culture on a global scale. But K-pop is, as mentioned earlier, reliant upon influences from American music industries. K-pop encodes certain American musical traits (e.g. vocal ad-libs derived from soul music, rap verses). Therefore, broadcasting K-pop across the Demilitarised Zone inadvertently spreads American ideals to North Korea.