Back in January, I wrote an essay entitled “Pop Utopianism,” which was accompanied by some further thoughts about K-pop and a mix of 23 K-pop songs. This week, it appears that someone has written a rebuttal to it, entitled “We Need To Talk About (The Intrinsic Fascism Of) Manufactured Pop Music.” I don’t find the arguments presented in this rebuttal convincing—they seem merely retread of the perspectives I was trying to argue against in my essay—but I’d like to address them as a way to clarify my own position.
1. First, the author writes that “Link… wishes to actually narrow what can be considered pop to the Top 40.” I don’t understand where exactly he’s getting this from, as my essay was not about defining what “pop” actually is, but yes, I do tend to focus on less prestigious, and often more “popular” (whatever that really means), music. If you ask me, though, pop is not at all defined by its position in the marketplace but rather by more innate qualities, and I would hardly want to concretize any definition (nor did I set out to limit what might be considered “pop”). If I do focus on chart-based pop, it’s precisely because there is a tacit assumption in, at the very least, North American culture that it’s okay to dismiss and ignore this type of music. Until that changes, I’ll continue to champion it, though wholly out of love and never out of mere contrarianism. So I’m not really sure about the author’s point here about narrowing “what can be considered pop.” Did anyone who read my essay feel that way? Did anyone mistakenly assume that I was making an argument that Top 40 pop is good inherently because of its presence on the Top 40? I find that kind of absurd.
2. In response to a statement that I made (“…faux-sophisticates position themselves above [pop music] because it cannot serve their fascistic, anti-social, and narcissistic (not to mention non-pleasurable) aims”), the author wants to interrogate my use of the word “fascistic” and what he sees as the “intrinsic fascism of manufactured pop.” Why did I use such “incendiary” language? Well, for a number of reasons. First, I tried to weave into my essay a number of ideas about the “politics” of taste and music (very little of which the author of this rebuttal engages), i.e. how rock can be linked to authoritarian ideologies (though, to clarify, I don’t mean to imply that this is necessarily so, merely that if we want to play around with these concepts, that’s definitely an argument that could be made). Second, and related to this, is my attempt to be a little flippant and provocative, because part of the problem with the discourse on music (or any form of art really), in my view, is that we take valuation and taste a little too seriously, so that it becomes dutiful and obligatory. Moreover, “serious” music (i.e. not pop) perpetuates its own superiority and centrality to cultural discourse by repeatedly underscoring how unserious it views pop. But we should take pop as seriously as any other music and we should also be able to casually dismiss these more conventionally “serious” forms of music, as fans of those forms of music so frequently dismiss pop.
Now, the author of this rebuttal wants to portray pop music as somewhat fundamentally fascistic. He objects to my use of the words “undeniable” and “commanding” to describe pop music. I used these terms for much the same reason that I used the term “fascistic.” First of all, I’m comfortable with saying that pop music’s appeal is often undeniable, not because it is necessarily true (obviously, many deny it) but because it accurately reflects how I view pop music, i.e. as being every bit aesthetically sacred as some people view, say, The Beatles. But it’s so much easier to champion The Beatles than a pop group like ABBA, and I just honestly find that really, really strange. (Obviously, The Beatles have at times functioned as a honest-to-goodness pop group, although none of their “rockist” fans will probably want to view them that way.) Second, I also say that the appeal of some K-pop songs as undeniable because I see them as quite literally overtaking us: good pop doesn’t really ask us to approve of it, because it is too busy swarming over and overwhelming us. Sometimes, this occurs in ways that might irritate us, as when a catchy song gets stuck in our heads even when we don’t want it to be there. Quite literally, we couldn’t deny some pop entrance into our heads even if we wanted to.
But he goes further and actually criticizes pop music as being somewhat inherently fascistic. For example, he writes that
pop music defined in this manner is that music which speaks directly to a some pure, untainted and authentic human nature, presumed to be shared by the mass of society. Those who lack this nature or would turn against the spirit of purely pleasurable music are perverted intellectuals. This music is in turn performed by pop singers who “are constructs pulling together material from a kind of collective unconscious, the actualization of social desire,” which would also function as a concise description of the theory behind the Führerprinzip.I’m willing to believe that the reference to “Führerprinzip” is somewhat facetious, but I find this way of thinking about pop, or really about anything, somewhat distasteful. The passage of mine that he quotes seems no different from a description of a lot of different forms of other social activity. The “actualization of social desire” is just as pertinent to religious ritual, I think, which is one reason why I see so many similarities between the church, on the one hand, and the dance floor, on the other hand (two spaces brought together in perfect harmony on one of 2011’s best pop albums, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way). The author here seems highly suspicious of anything that overturns individuality, but as someone whose formative academic period in life was spent researching indigenous cultures and religions, I find that suspicion itself somewhat offensive and, frankly, rather ethnocentric. In fact, I would say that ethnocentrism runs through the whole of this rebuttal, especially given that the author displays no real knowledge of what K-pop means in the Korean context or what makes K-pop different from other forms of pop music. He’s content to lump it all together, and I find this particularly uncurious. I’ll be the first to admit when I’m ignorant of the cultural knowledge that would better inform my appreciation of K-pop, but I’m also always trying to learn more and gather more information.
3. One of the reasons I find myself unable to really engage this rebuttal is the reductive and simplistic way the author describes pop music, using the term “manufactured pop music” and repeating it endlessly. This term is designed to turn us against pop music, because we are culturally inclined to view that which is “manufactured” as being less valuable than that which is “authentic” and handcrafted. But these terms are all meaningless, really. The author uses the term “manufactured” because of what he sees as the assembly-line process, creating objects that “function as interchangeable commercial commodity.” I have a number of problems with this. First, this is suspiciously similar to the language used to dismiss classical Hollywood (within which there really were what could be called “assembly lines”). But why should we view the creation of pop music as that much different from, say, the performance of a piece of classical composition by an orchestra. In that setting, individuals are amassed and each assigned roles that must be performed with precision at exactly the right moment in order to create the final product. At the head of this unit is the conductor, who like the factory foreman, sets the pace and tells his laborers when to start and stop. Of course, we could use metaphorical language like this to distort anything, but no one would think about classical music this way for two reasons: classical music is culturally held up as something highly valuable (even if most don’t listen to it or really give a damn about it), and classical music is associated with the upper classes, whereas pop (or country music, or dance music, etc.) is associated with the lower classes (the very same people who might spend their days working in a real assembly line).
But painting pop music as merely “manufactured” also obscures and erases the creativity that goes on in its production. If you use this word, you are essentially implying that every activity involved in the production of pop music is oriented towards sales. The author even invokes the concept of “efficiency”! But if you take a look at “2NE1 TV,” the K-pop group’s reality TV show, you will catch glimpses of Teddy Park or G-Dragon in the studio that belie this way of looking at pop. Teddy, for instance, takes great pride in his work, in one scene even showing us the beat he produced for “I Don’t Care” in all its intricacy. Watching this, I was in awe of his attention to detail, his creativity, and his passion for making music. He reportedly turned down an offer to work with Lady Gaga because, according to him, he only works with artists he knows well (because he writes songs with specific singers in mind). This hardly sounds like a man who’s merely part of an assembly line. In another episode, we see G-Dragon in the studio recording some vocals from Kim Gunmo for his debut solo album. We see the back-and-forth between them, Kim Gunmo asking G-Dragon if a take was good or not and then G-Dragon instructing him on how it should sound just a little bit different. Are we really to believe that purely commercial instincts guided this recording session? Critiques of “manufactured pop music” like this are highly simplistic and fail to understand how, within capitalism, people can function in multiple identities at the same time. Teddy Park can be a hit-maker for YG Entertainment, but he’s also purely an artist as well, no different from any other artist throughout history. (And if you ask me, he’s a really good one too.) The author’s description of “a new hit pumped out of YG Entertainment” strikes me as crude, a degrading way to describe what is a highly creative process.
This has also happened so often with classical Hollywood that it becomes tiresome to repeat. Directors often were able to undermine or reframe stories they were contracted to bring to the screen using their ingenuity, working personal and political themes into what might have been dull material. It’s hard to believe that this production system was somehow harmful to creativity when we have so many great examples of cinematic art at its finest from this era (just as we have so many examples of pompous and overblown dreck from contemporary writer/directors who retain complete creative control). A whole lot goes on inside the creative process, and I dare say that none of us really understand it. Characterizing any pop music as merely “manufactured,” with a goal of just selling records is harmfully reductive. In the same way, his characterization of how pop music works on us (“hookiness” and “forcefulness”) seems equally reductive. Notice how “hookiness” is played off as crude (i.e. it’s not that the music gives us pleasure, it’s merely that it sticks in us and keeps us coming back, perhaps against our will) and “forcefulness” as overly aggressive (i.e. pop music, the author seems to suggest, tells us how we should feel about it (that it’s catchy and fun) without us being allowed to develop our own opinions independently). And then there’s the canard of the loudness wars ruining music. The author is willing to concede that Motown made some great music (gasp!), even though they’ve already been (rightfully) canonized, but suggests that Motown was “different”: “the forcefulness of the music was not overloaded.” This is the kind of statement that everyone who’s already in agreement with you about how much pop sucks will nod along with, but it doesn’t actually mean anything substantial. And in the context of K-pop, it’s just strange.
4. When this rebuttal gets closer to actually engaging my arguments and speaking directly about K-pop, it gets worse. Consider this sentence: “I would find no need to label manufactured pop ‘intrinsically fascist’ if I didn’t find the experience of listening to much of it to be viscerally unpleasant.” How am I supposed to respond if I don’t find K-pop “viscerally unpleasant” but actually the opposite? He expresses surprises that he actually finds a couple of K-pop songs he can “even tolerate or enjoy,” songs that are “toned down just enough to be listenable,” implying that K-pop as a whole is largely unlistenable. Again, I find this rather offensive, mostly because it assumes that there might be some objective grounds on which he can write off and condescend to an entire nation’s pop industry. Personally, I could never imagine making such statements about any country’s musical output, even if I had little interest in it, because what I value as a music listener is the idea that there’s good music everywhere. Even worse, he compares the pleasurable aspects of pop music to the “huge amounts of high-fructose corn syrup in a soda assaults our receptors of sweetness.” I hate, hate, hate this facile comparison of pop music to junk food. It’s just silly and ungrounded, and again, it betrays another kind of class prejudice. But then consider how he describes K-pop music videos as being “even more overloaded than the songs that accompany them, and most of them are little more than a hyperactive succession of the alluring limitless number of colorful, shiny, and novel material objects that a commodity-producing world economy promises us.” He adds that the experience of watching them “could only be replicated by candy-flipping in a haute shopping center.” So yeah, I guess when this guy assumed I would see him as an “over-intellectual elitist,” he was probably on to something.
5. The author’s rather flimsy dismissal of the utopian potential of pop music, which can be boiled down to “pop music cannot be utopian because all it does is make us want to buy things, which serves capitalism,” fails to engage any of my larger points. But then he contrasts K-pop, which he mostly doesn’t approve of, with juke. Now, I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make here with this contrast. Surely, there are a lot of differences between the two, but I find both of them stimulating. DJ Nate’s Da Trak Genious is one of my favorite albums of the last five years, so I have no trouble accepting the assertion that juke is worth listening to. But if there’s one thing that really differentiates juke and K-pop, it’s the the former is more inward-facing, unlike the outward-facing K-pop. I could spend as much time researching juke as I have researching K-pop, and I don’t feel like I’d really “get it” on the same level of the people who make, listen to, and dance to it. There’s a lot that goes on in K-pop that I’m sure is uniquely Korean (and I dislike arguments that K-pop is somehow merely the parroting back to the West of their pop music), but K-pop presents itself more universally. If we’re going to talk about music as being potentially utopian, I find K-pop far more successful in this regard, precisely because its appeal is so broad and inclusive (without draining its artists, songwriters, and producers of their own personalities). This is one aspect of pop music which I find to be truly utopian: it’s the musical equivalent of Esperanto, though far more widely employed. The way different strands of pop music spread all over the world and mutate (hip hop, house music and disco, dance-pop) actually is indicative of the way it can create change in the world in a way that transcends national politics and even transnational capitalism.
Finally, throughout this rebuttal, I detect an implicit devaluation of pleasure. It could just be that the author doesn’t find pleasure in the types of music I take great pleasure from. But there’s also something “uptight” about his criticisms, an unwillingness to become lost in pop music’s more communal and ego-dissolving appeal. Particularly revealing is the fact that he leads with an intellectual argument for why he doesn’t find K-pop to be all that worthwhile, as an almost a priori confirmation of the suspicion that he shouldn’t bother with it. My essay emerged from my own experience of falling deeply in love with K-pop, and if I sometimes sound overeager, I do believe there’s a point to it all. I want to convey that this music brings me joy and pleasure, and I want to center my arguments on that experience, not on theoretical debates about whether we “should” like K-pop or not. The reason for this is that I want to hold up the valuation of pleasure as something fundamentally important that doesn’t really need external approval. As someone who suffers from depression, I don’t take the experience of pleasure lightly. Rather, I see it as something crucial, not at all to be dismissed. Happiness, for me, is not just a trivial concern but really a life-or-death matter, and my essay evolved out of the simple urge to convey that K-pop made me really, really happy. From my perspective, that’s kind of utopian in and of itself.