Is Pop Music Universal? KPOP Turns Our Gaze Inward

Photo by Ben Arons

To what extent is celebrity localized?

And, if fame functions as a status-level transaction (in that it can be bestowed and taken away), to what degree must our celebrities look, sound, and live lives enough like ours in order for us to fetishize becoming them?

Enter the sprawlingly immersive musical KPOP, presented by Ars Nova in association with Ma-Yi Theater and Woodshed Collective, which inhabits two theaters, several elevators, and most of a lobby at the new A.R.T./NY space on 53rd St and has been extended through October 21st (Tickets $25-$125).  KPOP poses a series of variations around this theme of celebrity and cross-over appeal in each of its many immersive settings, albeit in a less philosophical way. Their central question: Why isn’t Korean pop able to crossover into the American market? Or, put another way, how much should Korean pop music Americanize itself in hopes of crossing over?

This cross-over question, even in general terms, was not one that I had considered at any great length prior to attending the performance in question. There had been that one late-night Youtube plunge during which I, quite by accident, uncovered a Ukrainian singer named Alexander Rybak who plays the fiddle and mugs for the camera with equal skill (videos here – you’re welcome). I continue to check in on his career with some degree of morbid curiosity. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that there is something strange and enticing about discovering a celebrity you’ve never heard of.

At any rate – Crossing over from Eastern Europe to America would seem at least possible, if somewhat rare. That there is practically no precedent for Asian to American cross-over, particularly within the genre of K-pop (which in addition to being the title of the musical is also a musical genre featuring a certain kind of choreography-heavy pop that looks and sounds something like this) is the central issue around which this night’s adventure revolves.

Within the fabricated factory that KPOP guides us through, we’re typecast as an American audience being introduced to a Korean label’s musical line-up for the first time. We’re brought there to act as a test group – our task is to help the managers running the label to figure out how to best position their product (i.e., human beings who sing and dance with such precision it’s almost icky in that weird skin-prickly way you feel when something is too sweet or perfect or delightful) in order to be more successful in America. This positioning of audience is intelligent in the context of an immersive experience, because it makes our presence both purposeful (we know why we’re there) and unwanted (the pop stars are deeply cautious about how they interact with us). We are the privileged ones – they have the task of impressing us.  And so, when the musicians turn against their managers, we’re caught in the middle, again and again.  While these mini-revolts are repeated with a bit too much sameness throughout the guided first act, they do create an interesting space for inquiry, unique from other immersive shows I’ve had the chance to experience.  In one room’s experience, we’re literally asked to take sides in an argument between two singers over how Americanized a new track should be, with a chalk line drawn on the floor and everything.  The night I went, the audience members in the room split themselves down the middle, which was impressive, showcasing the show’s ability to ask a question with enough ambiguity that we couldn’t figure out the “right” answer.

That same question, though, is posed once more at the top of the second act. In one of the least satisfying exchanges of the evening, the manager-type guy named Jerry (who describes himself earlier in the piece as a “bad” Korean and has been tasked with the job of leading the effort to “cross us over”) apologizes for having failed at his mission, only to be corrected by the two co-founders of the factory, Ruby and President Moon. After trading heavy and heavier-handed anecdotes, the team reaches the conclusion that it’s not them who should cross over (i.e., Koreans being more American), it’s us who should cross over to them. This earns a smattering of applause, being as we are liberal New Yorkers in the audience, but doesn’t actually answer any of the questions posed in the first act, and as a dramatic solution comes off as more than a little easy. Equally contradictorily, what follows is a full-blown concert featuring the entire company, showing no remnents of their rebellious nature from the 1st act and singing with all-out abandon. When taken piece by piece, room by room, encounter by encounter, KPOP offers both entertainment and inquiry. When viewed as a whole, however, the narrative components fail to fully resonate in a coherent way.

For possibly a more consistent experience, one might focus on the literal fabrication of “celebrity” in play here. The stars of KPOP are New-York based actors but are presented here, with reenforcement by both design and performance, as legitimate aspiring young pop stars of Korea.  If you’re like me and don’t know anything about Korean pop, the scenario is enjoyably plausible.  This kids could be Korean superstars, for all we know (except we know, from their bios, that they’re not).  It’s the prickly knowledge that this is fiction, these groups aren’t real, coupled with the strange ease of believing in their innate specialness (complete with that mild sense of being starstruck that comes along with meeting someone who has been deemed by society as celebrity, even if that society is not your own), that allows for the second act – essentially a pop-up concert – to feel like the real thing.

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