Jaipur: The rise of “new media” and the intermingling of cultures can be a few of the reasons behind the international appeal of Korean pop, or K-pop, according to Harvard literature professor Martin Puchner .
The academic cited the example of Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, which became a runaway hit in 2012 for its catchy tune, and dance choreography as well as for blending social satire and tongue-in-cheek vibe.
“Part of the K-pop story is the new media and its circulation, especially among young people. They are, of course, the K-pop audience,” he said.
“The video ‘Gangnam Style’ broke through all records when it was created, it was sort of tongue-in-cheek. But for me, it’s also a story of cultural mixing because there are many traditions that fed into K-pop and I think this is one of the reasons why it appeals to a global audience,” Puchner, author of “Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop”, told PTI on the sidelines of the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) here.
He further said the roots of K-pop’s popularity could be traced back to the fraternising of Korean and American cultures during the Korean War in the 1950s where the US backed South Korea against the China-supported North Korea.
“There’s one origin story that has to do with singing groups performing for the American army in the ’50s after the Korean War. There are certain jazz traditions that indirectly influenced K-pop dance and, of course, traditional Korean dance and traditions of song,” he said.
The K-pop phenomenon, Puchner said, would be incomplete without the support of the South Korean government.
“There’s also a story of the Korean government’s support of the arts. The South Korean government decided to invest in this as a kind of cultural industry,” he added.
Speaking with writer-scholar Anna Della Subin earlier at a session, Puchner also talked about Pompeii Lakshmi, an ivory figure which was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, a Roman city destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius volcano 79 CE.
According to the professor of English at Harvard University, the “small figurine from South Asia” was preserved like a “time capsule” in a villa in Pompeii.
There were two things — the borrowing of culture and how violent events like these inadvertently play a significant role in preservation — that fascinated him about the statue, he said.
“It shows the Roman trade with South Asia. The trade led to an incredible trade imbalance because Rome had to spend hard coins to acquire spices and hard, cold objects like this small figurine that they then imported. the borrowing of culture…
“And, it’s a real paradox… That these violent events, these distractions would be so important in preserving cultural moments like in Pompeii, or Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, who starts a new city (Amarna), which gets abandoned and therefore preserved,” he said.
Asked to comment on culture appropriation and restitution of cultural objects to places they were looted from before they ended up in western museums, Puchner said through his latest work he attempted to bring a “depth” to these debates rather than take any position.
“It’s true that cultures owned by the people who live them can be a powerful argument, especially when it comes to minority rights, or in the restitution debate. I am just really struck by the fact that cultures thrive through sharing and borrowing and it’s not always pretty. Cultural history precedes the background of war, invasion and violence and can’t be separated from it,” he said.
The author, who wrote his new book during the COVID-19 pandemic where the future “kind of disappeared”, said he often found himself being “torn” about his attitude being celebratory regarding cultural history.
“… When you take a long view of cultural history, you see just how much it’s been lost, abandoned or destroyed. And, so you cherish moments like the Indian statue in Pompeii when something has been preserved. But despite that enthusiasm, it’s always important to remember the dark side of cultural history as well,” he added.
Puchner also argued against falling into the “language of cultural purity” which stems from the fact that culture is an “important feature of identity”.
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“It can be very often embattled and be a source of resistance also. The only add-on perhaps is that all cultures are ultimately cobbled together from many different traditions, so as not to fall into the language of cultural purity that you sometimes hear.
“Once you speak the language of cultural purity, sometimes it can lead itself to acts of cultural vandalism, but it can also deprive you of the kinds of cultural resources that might be at your disposal,” he observed.
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