Tete-a-tete Archives

An eclectic sampling of my award-winning humor columns. New columns can be read online at www.nashuatelegraph.com on the first Thursday of the month, with columns posted here later in the month.

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Tete-a-tete: Hoping Korean music can explode in the U.S. with a K-pop

While driving her to the mall a few weekends ago, Younger Sister gave me the shock of a lifetime. We were listening to one of my mix CDs, and she commented on the song that was playing.

“Oh, I love this song,” she said. “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”

It’s not that our taste in music is completely dissimilar – we both love fast-paced songs with strong beats. The surprise was that the song to which she was referring was “Fantastic Baby” by Big Bang – and it’s in Korean.

East Asian culture in general, pop culture in particular, has been a major interest of mine for nearly a decade and a half now. In my experience, most people aren’t as fascinated as I am by social problems in Japan or Jackie Chan’s martial arts comedy “The Legend of Drunken Master,” so I’m floored – and happily so – that Korean pop music has spread across the globe over the past few years.

And by Korean pop music, also known as K-pop, I mean South Korean pop music. Sadly, I doubt there’s much to sing about in North Korea.

I certainly never expected it to hit so close to home, however. Younger Sister’s playlist on her phone is built around the Billboard Top 5. Yet here she was in the car with me, cranking up the volume on “Fantastic Baby” until I thought the windows were going to explode with a big bang.

Once that track had ended, I decided to skip around the CD to see if there were any other K-pop songs she might like. I felt a little like Dr. Frankenstein must have after his monster came to life and sat up on the slab. Would this experiment be a success, or would I be cut down in a matter of seconds?

Younger Sister stunned me once again by proclaiming her approval of Block B’s “Nillili Mambo,” another song with driving beats and catchy hooks. We even took a few minutes in the parking lot to watch the music video on her phone.

Seeing the group members as very cool but very incompetent modern-day pirates who fail to steal a case of jewels made Younger Sister love the song even more. When we got back in the car, she turned on the CD player as soon as I started the ignition.

Many K-pop groups are intentionally targeting international audiences, and to my knowledge, there’s no group working harder at this than U-KISS. Their name says it all – it’s an acronym for Ubiquitous Korean International idol Super Star.

Two of the members, Kevin and Eli, are Korean-American, born and raised in the United States. They’re both fluent in English, as is AJ, who attended an international school in Korea. Eli and Dongho both speak Mandarin, and all seven members speak Korean (obviously) and some Japanese.

U-KISS has performed throughout Asia, as well as in France, Colombia, Peru and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. They don’t have quite as much recognition in Korea as some other groups, though it’s not for lack of trying, but they have a solid international fan base any musician would envy.

U-KISS is one of my favorite K-pop groups, in part because the members make such an effort to connect with audiences outside of Korea. The members are all on Twitter and tweet in English, Korean and Japanese – sometimes all in the same post. They’ve also collaborated with Eat Your Kimchi, a fabulous English language YouTube channel dedicated to Korean music and culture, for interviews and other features.

The other reason I enjoy the group so much is because of their songs, many of which include English lyrics. “0330” is hands-down the prettiest slow rap/ballad I’ve ever heard, and “Believe” is an excellent Eurodance-inspired track perfect for the morning commute.

I hope to see more K-pop groups, and indeed, musicians from other cultures, following U-KISS’s example. Musicians from the U.S. often tour internationally, providing they have the support of the audiences in those countries, and I’d love to see groups from other countries doing more of that as well.

In the meantime, Younger Sister and I will continue to rattle the car windows with the very best in K-pop every time we take a road trip. And if anyone wants to have a nice long chat about the short stories of Yasunari Kawabata or Korean dramas, you know how to get in touch with me.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published April 3, 2013.

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