As promised : I was in the toilet, from whence many of my best thoughts seem to emanate, and the phrase ‘cultural cargo cult‘ sprang, fully formed, into my mind. It was early in the morning, and I see no real connection with my dream about the Irish Monk who required that I bring him the largest lettuce leaf I could in order for him to fashion a cloak from it, for me. The leaf I managed somehow to unwrap from a perfectly normal head of lettuce was not only purple, but approximately the size of a bedsheet. After fastening it to a headpiece made from a piece of furry animal hide, I went to meet my destiny, which, it was understood, due to the enormous size of that lettuce leaf, was necessarily regal.
What was I talking about?
I’ve been struggling for months to come up with a way to describe the way that Korea, and to a much lesser extent these days, Japan, hijack those elements of western (tangentially, in other words, adolescent-targetted) popular culture, twist them just the amount that seems appropriate, and amplify to the point of parody, but with a straight face and boundless enthusiasm. At the same time, they either negligently or deliberately strip the imagery, sounds and ritual of any of the meaning, the historicity from which they originally sprang. It is a ‘cultural cargo cult’, where it is assumed that, for example, with the correct combination of haircut, clothing and sampled guitar riffs, a song so saccharine that Anne Murray would gag is transformed into an anthem bristling with street credibility.
Of course, you can’t blame the entertainment factories here. When manufactured entertainment like The Backstreet Boys or The Spice Girls or the latest soulless piece of cinematic sh-t by Jerry Bruckheimer sweeps the planet and takes the trailer parks by storm, dollarsigns sparkle in the eyes of greedy morons the world over. Korea is no different. The product is tailored to make the most money.
Perhaps it’s just that with examples like the three I mention above, I feel sure they know that what they’re doing is pointless, all-about-the-dollars pap, and that there is such a thing as pop-culture art, or at least authentic feeling and experience filtered though the lens of popular culture relics. Here, I can sense no such subtext. The latest Korean boy-group seems to be uncomplicatedly serious about their fame, and everyone takes them seriously. Art? Not even an issue. ‘They’re cute, they’re personable, they’re guaranteed drug-free, they sing well enough once you add enough digital processing in, that’s enough’
But they never seem to have made a deal with the devil, or feel that they’ve given up their integrity to sing cheesy pop songs to 13 year old girls, and no one seems to have considered that there might have been another path, a path that isn’t a ‘sell-out’. Integrity isn’t on the agenda, nor is (in this case) music’s role as catharsis.
And the thing that weirds me out is that Korean pop groups absolutely rule China and Japan and Taiwan. There are schools that teach Beijing hopefuls how to dance like Koreans! It’s puzzling, and a little depressing.
Am I being an elitist? Perhaps I need to think about this some more. There are some (very few) real rock groups here : The Yoon Do Hyun Band, for example.
As always, I welcome your comments. I’m trying to sort this out in my mind a bit….
What do you think?

Korea-related, Uncrappy