With the rise of K-Pop fans turning into social commentators via video essays on YouTube, it has never been easier to find critical analyses and history of the genre, now spanning into three decades since its inception in the ‘90s. Although the fervor to deepen the equal parts love and criticism of K-Pop is hot amongst other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ and Black fans, there has been a particular voice missing: the diasporic Korean one.
LAist provided Vivian Yoon, an LA-based writer and actress, a platform to speak about her love and experience with the genre, dating back from the origin of K-Pop until today. “California Love” dropped its second season titled, “K-Pop Dreaming,” hosted by Yoon, which is part memoir, history lesson, and the good ‘ol pop culture analysis.
Cultural context has never been so important and vital when it comes to digesting the media of another culture with its own set of traditions and values. With Yoon having the connection between her homeland of South Korea and her home in Los Angeles, it provides an unexplainable depth and richness to her own account of Korean pop history that non-Korean oral historians don’t have. As a result, it feels deeply personal and intimate like reading someone’s diary.
“I thought if people knew I was listening to Korean music, then the carefully crafted American image I made for myself would shatter.”Vivian Yoon, “K-Pop Dreaming — Ep. 1: Secret Fan”
The show begins with Yoon admitting in a bashful manner that she liked K-Pop in her formative years, a sentiment that most Asian Americans, particularly Korean Americans, could relate to. During the ‘90s and into the new millennium, Asian media was seen as an embarrassing thing to be a fan of, a product seen as inferior to western Hollywood media. It was one of those things where a non K-Pop fan would watch a K-Pop music video or performance and immediately think of the Hollywood version of it, touting it as the original and the best, in which one would sink back into one’s shell.
There was also the internalized racism that took place, which Yoon mentions in the first episode in which she explains, “I thought if people knew I was listening to Korean music, then the carefully crafted American image I made for myself would shatter,” and by listening to non-Korean music, it would make her a bit more special compared to the other Korean American students at her school. It was the fear of not fitting in, similar to the experience of wanting packed American foods for lunch versus a fully ethnic meal that may not smell or look appealing to white noses and eyes.
So one could imagine the intense emotional whiplash that diaspora Koreans felt in seeing the exponential rise of K-Pop into the global stage with millions of fans from all different backgrounds supporting Korean people and culture to the point of having annual festivals around the world, artists appearing on late-night talk shows in the U.S., and seeing K-Pop acts being interviewed and beloved by big music publications, critics, and other western industry professionals. The genre has become a powerhouse for South Korea, generating billions of dollars for the country’s economy through soft power.
However, this isn’t the only thing that Yoon wanted to cover. After all, this is her own experience, a reclamation from the many, many non-Koreans who had covered the history of K-Pop.
She takes us down to her own memory lane in episode two, creating a little mixtape and introducing us to the first generation of K-Pop, an era in which most K-Pop fans of today don’t recall unless their group did a cover of “Candy” by H.O.T or “Dreams Come True” by S.E.S. She recounts the times she took the trip to the Korean video store to watch televised live performances on VHS because shows like that weren’t airing in the same way MTV aired its American counterparts, TRL or MTV Live. Music would be listened to illegally through Napster, Yoon mentions, or by purchasing the CD at the only Korean music store at Koreatown Plaza. This was a stark contrast to how incredibly accessible K-Pop has been with many official streaming services having extensive K-Pop catalogs predating the platforms themselves and albums being easily purchased through Amazon and Target.
Nostalgia was teeming in the second episode as Yoon reminisces about the H.O.T and Sechskies rivalry, down to the balloons and ponchos the fans would wear to show support for their own favorite bands, a precursor to fandom colors and eventually, lightsticks. Even from its humble beginnings, Yoon presents K-Pop as being diverse in sound and concepts, introducing 1TYM, a hip-hop-based idol group to Fly to the Sky, an R&B duo.
Yoon also presents the 2nd generation of K-Pop as “The Golden Era of K-Pop,” which happened during her high school years. She recounts meeting Han who introduced her to Korean hip-hop groups Dynamic Duo and Epik High, along with YouTube’s role in expanding the genre. This was where groups like Wonder Girls toured in the U.S., and “Gangnam Style” dominated the Billboard Hot 100, a sighting that isn’t too strange anymore over a decade later.
For newer fans entering the current and 4th generation of K-Pop, it feels as if K-Pop has always been big and palatable worldwide. However, as Yoon explored, it took three decades for the genre to arrive at the current stage of mainstream success and attention. K-Pop is constantly evolving, its wings always spreading wider and soaring to new heights. This could not be done without the support of the domestic and diaspora Korean communities and its rich musical history that Yoon will continue to dive into throughout this second season of “California Love.”
You can now listen to the first two episodes of “K-Pop Dreaming” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, and Stitcher. New episodes will be released weekly.
Vivian Yoon is a second-generation born Korean American actress, writer, and performer from Los Angeles. She has worked on several animation shows for Netflix and Amazon. Prior to “K-Pop Dreaming,” Yoon lent her voice to Disney’s animated film, “SPIES IN DISGUISE,” and the critically acclaimed 2019 podcast, “MOONFACE” directed by James Kim.