America, the Promised Land: Seoul Drive as a Metaphor for the Kpop Invasion

I’m twiddling my thumbs in a Korean bar on the north side of Chicago. I sip a beer I’ve never tried that came packaged like a two-liter bottle of soda. I try to take stock of where I am, but the characters on the sign outside were unhelpful, and I highly doubt they translate to the Latinate “Dan-cen.” I’m not even sure what that would mean. Dancing? The bar certainly displays no sign that dancing is a frequent activity. It’s empty inside, dark.

My Korean friend has abandoned me for a trip to the bathroom. Looking around nervously, I try in vain to make conversation with the bartender preparing spicy chicken on a kabob. “What is that?” I say, pointing to an ornamental pitcher on another table. He looks at me sidelong, then flips the skewers. “That," he says, "is water." I have disgraced myself in record time. The only noise aside from my idiotic questions and the sizzle of chicken is the dull drone of ESPN News on the single television.

I try one more time to engage the young man by suggesting we change the channel. It’s only us in here, after all. He gives me another glance and asks what channel. I know what it is I want, but not how to ask for it. The bar is on the far edge of what would have been considered Korea Town had a 1993 ordinance not been forcefully opposed by many residents of the area. What I want to watch is Kpop, Korean pop music. I want to see Sistar performing on the television while I drink unfamiliar beer and eat unfamiliar bar snacks. I want an experience, but I’m too embarrassed to ask.

A party of four enters and takes a table not far from my perch, a merciful distraction. They greet the bartender in Korean and share what I assume are the usual platitudes. “How are you? Chicago weather, eh?” My friend returns from the bathroom and I share my unfortunate attempts at conversation. He laughs good-naturedly, but tells me he’s heard they frequently do put Kpop on in this bar. And I realize that my interactions with the bartender are not as embarrassing as they first seemed. Our disconnect is a result of a poor understanding of one another’s culture, and assumptions made by both parties. My assumption that Korean culture would be so different and sensational that I couldn’t recognize a glass of water. His assumption that a white American would have no interest in Korean pop music. Both of us were short-sighted. And if cultural critics are right, some of those assumptions might soon be a thing of the past.

* * *

For years people have been predicting the inevitable success of Korean pop artists in America. It’s only a matter of time, they say, before we’re all listening to transnational pop music. The extreme lack of examples of this success, however, suggests otherwise. There is a notable disconnect between what we expect from Kpop, and what we have so far received.

The truth is that the transference of Korean music to America (known as Hallyu, Korean Wave, Kpop Invasion) represents a major social and cultural movement that extends far beyond taste in music. Beyonce, for example, is more than a singer. Jay-Z is more than a rapper. Together they’re practically royalty and probably one of the biggest cultural forces in America, far more important than simple songs on a radio. When we consider the true impact of pop music, an “invasion” by Korean artists is better explained as a paradigm shift that would alter the fabric of America. But few have considered what a cultural exchange would require, of just what would be necessary for a paradigm shift to take place.

* * *

I have spent the last four years in Chicago living one block away from Honorary Seoul Drive, more commonly known as Lawrence Avenue. I had always assumed the honorary name was a simple nod to the diversity of my Albany Park neighborhood, which features a large number of Korean-owned businesses. But the history is much more complex, and may even provide us with an apt metaphor for the trials and tribulations of Kpop coming to America.

The history of Albany Park begins with ethnically owned small business. In 1930, it was Jewish-owned business. Census data shows 99.9% of the 50,000+ neighborhood was white, and by 1960, the homogeneity had changed little (99.6% white). But there was a significant change being experienced. The Jewish business owners had begun a migration out of Albany Park and into the northern suburbs. Some shops stayed open, but many were closed. Lawrence Avenue, the main thoroughfare, became a ghost-town, a wreck of what it had once been.

The neighborhood began changing rapidly. In the vacuum created by the recent lack of small business, a whole new social strata began to develop. Rapidly, fantastically, Albany Park became a destination for immigrants hopeful of experiencing the American Dream. A period of heavy immigration of all ethnicities began, Korean being one of the biggest. In 1990, though the total population of Albany Park had changed little, the census classified 24.2% of residents as coming from Asian descent.

The incredible shift in neighborhood diversity, however, was not the biggest change that immigrants brought. What they brought was a fresh entrepreneurial spirit. Koreans in particular began opening small businesses all along Lawrence Avenue, revitalizing a street that had become unwanted territory. Their contribution to Albany Park was so significant that in late 1992, three Aldermen (local politicians) revealed a plan to honor Koreans by giving Lawrence Avenue the honorary name of Seoul Drive, and by renaming a large swath of Albany Park as Korea Town.

* * *

Part of the reason for so many articles about the Korean Wave is simple: hype. The Kpop artists frequently mentioned have already had wild success in Asia, one of the fastest growing markets in the world. Their success has made their labels rich, rich enough to promote in America and to get the attention of music journalists.

Hype is also self-generated by the artists themselves. Korean pop artists understand that their success is partially dependent on how well they can infiltrate the culture of the masses. They act in movies and television dramas, appear on variety shows and reality shows, and constantly perform. Whereas American artists take frequent hiatuses from music, Korean artists stay in the limelight by releasing shorter albums more frequently. They form large groups with many members, then break off for solo and collaborative work when the group is inactive. What this means is that the major Kpop groups, the ones who do it right, are never absent from Korean culture. No one familiar with Kpop need ever ask, What ever happened to Girls’ Generation? Where did 2NE1 disappear to?

But there’s a more important reason behind the hype that precedes Kpop. These are talented artists who have garnered massive fan bases through their music. In this case, the hype is well-deserved, and comes on the heels of success, rather than the other way around. Those who are listening to Kpop and predicting its success in America are doing so because they believe it can make an impact. While twenty years ago, Kpop may have sounded like it was well short of American standards, that era is long-past. Kpop is just as innovative as American music. Maybe even more so.

Beyond the hype, it may be that a Kpop Invasion would be good for America. I doubt I am alone in noticing a general malaise in the American pop scene. It’s rare to hear something new; the biggest advances in music seem to be coming from Rap and Indie artists, especially those who are small enough to escape media attention. American pop feels stagnant. The vibrancy of Kpop might be just what is needed. Much like the Korean merchants immigrated to Albany Park and revitalized a neighborhood, Kpop could have the same effect on American pop music. Kpop is a genre and a style that is thriving at a time when most headlines in America are claiming music industries to be dead, when we’re begging for a new formula. But how do we get them here?

* * *

On April 28, 1993, signs proclaiming Lawrence Avenue as Honorary Seoul Drive were installed. On April 29, they were taken down.

The Chicago City Council unanimously approved the motion in late 1992 to designate Lawrence Avenue, from Western to Pulaski, as Seoul Drive, and the half-mile radius around Lawrence and Kedzie as Korea Town. The ordinances were the brain child of three area Aldermen, who elected not to hold a public forum regarding the commemorative names. Their inability to predict the harshly opposed community reaction can perhaps be forgiven. Chicago Aldermen, after all, frequently apply ethnically-inspired commemorative names to the streets in their district. Currently there are over one thousand honorary street names in the city, ranging from Golda Meir Boulevard to Sheikh Mujib Way. Very few have ever been seriously contested. And probably none as heavily as in Albany Park.

Seoul Drive and Korea Town sparked the ire of community members, many of whom believed the names unfairly represented one ethnic group at the expense of the others. In the ‘90s, Asians accounted for close to a quarter of Albany Park residents, but Koreans alone, only 7%. Nearly a third of residents were of Hispanic descent, and almost 40% were whites. Naming the area after a minority ethnic group, albeit one that had done much to revitalize the neighborhood, was confusing to some, and upsetting to others.

The area Aldermen responded by shortening the length of Seoul Drive, and eventually rescinding the Korea Town designation altogether. After much delay and one false-start, the Seoul Drive signs were installed (again) on May 18, 1993, and have stayed up ever since. The community response remains of interest, especially in what it can tell us about American attitudes toward Koreans as a cultural force of change.

It is important to note, for example, that racial antagonism was not a feature before or after the commemorative titles. A 1992 study put hate crimes in Albany Park at 4 per 10,000 people, a relatively low number for Chicago. And judging by community interviews at the time, the issue was not a simple one of racism or antagonism against one group, but rather an issue of community identity.

One of the most notable organizations that opposed the Seoul Drive honorific was the Citizens for a Democratic and Diverse Albany Park. The title alone suggests much of what any Albany Park resident could tell you, that the neighborhood is diverse enough that a person of any ethnicity would feel welcome. It also suggests what Albany Park residents believed was at stake: their identity as a diverse community. In a 1993 Chicago Tribune interview, Elaine Tuennerman, leader of the Citizens for a Democratic and Diverse Albany Park, described Albany Park as a “gateway community,” and worried that the Seoul Drive signs would “close the gate to everybody but Korean-Americans.” Honoring only one ethnic group, many believed, would have the effect of “othering” that group, and would destroy the balance of diversity that many in the neighborhood so appreciated.

The Seoul Drive signs went up. But what we can learn from this is that it was not Koreans that Albany Park residents feared. Not diversity either. It was their own loss of identity that they were concerned with.

* * *

If Kpop is so great, if it really is the future of pop music, why hasn’t it made an impact yet? Why is PSY the only Korean artist that anyone in America has heard of? The unfortunate answer has to do with an industry that is extremely homogenous, ethnically white, and slow to accept change. It’s an industry that frequently “others” artists of Korean and Asian descent. We can better understand this by looking at three such examples: BoA, Rain, and PSY.

Female artist BoA was first marketed as both Dragon Lady and China Doll in her 2008 single, “Eat You Up.” The choice to market her as such may be surprising, but keep in mind that there was no precedent for an Asian pop star in America at the time. BoA’s label placed her into a category that a Western audience could easily digest. The plan backfired, however. Instead of accepting BoA as a stereotype, she was seen as an “other” and largely ignored. It mattered not that she could sing, dance, and perform as well as any American pop star, or that her song was every bit as catchy. What American audiences saw were the stereotypes. What they didn’t want to see was the performer. Things have not changed in the intervening years. BoA most recently appeared in the Duane Adler film, Make Your Move, where she played a Japanese woman. It was not BoA the artist, but BoA the Asian that was cast for this role. However well she performed is insignificant, because the Western audience could not be convinced to watch the film.

Consider, conversely, the male Kpop artist, Rain, who was marketed against the typical stereotypes of Asian males as being weak, effeminate, and impotent. In “Rainism,” he defeats males of every ethnicity with the power of his music. Rain performs powerfully and aggressively. He gets the girl (the white girl). He does everything which a Western audience would not be ready for, something that ethnomusicologist Eun-Young Jung sees as attempting to explode the popular stereotype. Though he approached it completely opposite, like BoA, Rain’s attempt to make it in America failed. There simply wasn’t any category to put Rain in, and so he was made an “other” in a different way. Rain wasn’t the other because he was weak or effeminate, but because American audiences didn’t know what to do with him.

So if Asian artists cannot make it in America if they play to the stereotypes, and if they cannot make it if they go against them, what is left? How did PSY garner over two billion views for “Gangnam Style” and countless invitations to appear on variety shows and advertisements? Irony, of course. If you can’t join them, and if you can’t beat them, give them irony.

PSY is not a typical music artist. It would be wrong to categorize him as such without firmly understanding that his real business is parody. PSY created his image by taking pop music and adding an off-color humor. It’s just this humor which made it okay for American audiences to like him, to emulate him, even. They weren’t accepting an Asian man, they were accepting an idea of image as a construct. They were accepting an ironic association between the glamorous pop star and an overweight Asian male, and making fun of themselves in the process.

A hole has been poked in the fabric of mainstream pop music. It is a small hole, still, but it will grow larger over time. There are other non-white artists in the business. If America can learn to accept two men in robot suits that do not speak, they can learn to accept Asians without need for irony. They can learn to get past stereotype and image, past Kpop as a genre of “others.” Once they do, there is no doubt that PSY will be seen as just the tip of a very large iceberg.

* * *

The story of Albany Park does not end with the installation of a sign to designate Lawrence Avenue as honorary Seoul Drive. A neighborhood, much like a genre of music, is constantly evolving. And recently, Albany Park has witnessed an exodus of Koreans.

In 2000, the census data showed a sharp decline in residents of Asian heritage, down to only 17%. Koreans, in particular, made up less than 3% of the population. By 2010, Albany Park was only home to 14% Asians and just 1.3% Koreans. There are still a large number of Korean-owned small businesses in the area, but the merchants, it seems, are leaving for greener pastures, much like the Jewish storeowners did in the 1960s. This exodus may be why Lawrence Avenue has lost some of its shine of late. There is no doubt about what Korean business did for the area, but is it a lasting effect?

Though I am bullish about the future of Kpop in America, I also realize that the American Dream is not an equal-access one. It will be an uphill battle for Asian artists, but diversity in the pop scene has a real chance to revitalize a stagnant genre. At least for a time. I only hope that once Korean artists find success in America, that they can be convinced to stay.

I have returned several times to Dan-cen, the Korean bar in Chicago, in what was almost designated Korea Town, just off the street that almost did not become Seoul Drive. I do not point and ask questions so much anymore. I do the same as I would in any bar. I order a pitcher and raise my glass, and I drink to the future, to what I hope the future will be.

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Share This Page

Listen to the Podcast