Weapons of mass seduction

in Arts & Literature
Vida Gracias

Talk about “soft power” and nations are caught with their defenses down.

There is hardly a nation today that has not succumbed or been influenced or swayed by imperialism’s “soft power.” Achieved through persuasion rather than coercion, the culture here plays an important role. From the imperialist shores of the United States to various continents of the world, from metropolitan centers to agricultural societies, from white people to people of color, imperialism, without flexing its muscle, is setting the world’s everyday taste in music, film, television, food, fashion, beauty, lifestyle, etc., in scales unheard of.

With digital technology, imperialism’s cultural offensive has grown more massive it has broken down geographical barriers without using force or threats. Following a world of borderless economy, imperialism, true to its capitalist drive, has been trendspotting for a culture that sells in the race for new markets and global profit. It may be a culture pushed, acquired, appropriated, shaped, or adopted from any part of the world—the indigenous communities of Asia, the tribes of Africa, the legends of the West, the rich history of the East—so long as it brings enormous returns the source of culture becomes immaterial. What matters is a culture that can be turned into global merchandise and shorn of threats to imperialist hegemony.

Today the imperialist US still leads the rest of imperialist headquarters in establishing its global cultural influence. Its music, fashion, lifestyle, and way of thinking run amok at influencing trends in other countries while engaged in a friendly competition with fellow G7 rival imperialists. After all, their mindsets and way of doing business are the same. They commodify culture for profits and took pains to exercise social control.

Such also is the case of Hallyu, or the “Korean wave”, which in recent years saw its meteoric rise in Asia including the Philippines and other parts of the world. A boon to South Korea’s capitalist class, Hallyu has also become for imperialism, primarily the US, a profitable weapon to help maintain its dominance in the world. On the other hand, Hallyu’s worldwide success has been largely dependent on the global infrastructure of South Korea’s imperialist partners. Behind Hallyu’s glory is an intricate international network where business and culture converge to capture hearts and minds and, ultimately their pockets.

As South Korea emerges to become the world’s 11th industrial nation, it became known for its cars, shipping, electronic products such as cellphones, food, big brand names such as Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and Lotte. With the US as a defense “partner,” South Korea has been perpetually at war against North Korea. And so, aside from hosting US military bases, it also has its share of arms or “defense” technology and unremitting propaganda against a non-capitalist way of doing things. Much like its being a “partner” of imperialist US in big business, it also plays a key role in the proxy war led by the US against states that refuse to bend to imperialist hegemony. South Korea is on a war footing, it even requires its youth to render military service for some period when they come of age.

K-pop’s evolution

Like Filipinos, South Koreans are heavily influenced by American music which is marketed to dominate virtually in all nations. So what’s original in K-pop is the face and language of the yellow race (or a part of Asian) singing and dancing like in American MTVs.

Their music and flashy dance moves take after Black music that critics said the American music industry also appropriated, for example, rap and hip-hop. American soldiers stationed in US bases in South Korea also contributed to introducing hip-hop to the local scene. (The same thing was happening in the bars and clubs in the cities of Olongapo and Angeles which also hosted US military bases in the Philippines.) The British and US boybands also came ahead of the K-pop idols.

The popularity of karaoke, walkmans, and musicfests, later MTVs, allowed K-pop to develop its art form by fusing music and dance. The sound was Western but catering also to local sensibilities. The only difference, perhaps, is the idol system, which was developed to not just draw fans (consumers) to music and performances, but also to personalities that are carefully managed or protected by content creators. The idols were turned into role models. They are usually young, filial, and paragons of virtues—sporting genteel demeanor and clean-cut features that blended the beauty standards of the East and the West—quite a contrast to the rebellious youth. Thus, they are particularly appealing to the upper and middle classes, suburban youths, and their parents.

Carving such an image insidiously contrasted with rebellious youths that figured in the 80s and 90s and onward to the millennium, in a string of people power revolts in many countries including South Korea. Most known in South Korea is the Gwangju uprising, an armed rebellion of citizens against soldiers and police of the authoritarian government.
Pro-democracy movements would erupt now and then not just in South Korea but also in other countries like the Philippines, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar, etc. The youths came forward to battle dictatorships, coup d’etat, corruption as well as economic or financial crises fueled by imperialist globalization. Voices were calling for reforms or revolution.

Then, beyond 2000, came the Arab Spring of anti-government protests and rebellions that spread across the Arab World. The IMF-World Bank and the World Trade Organization also came under heavy fire as the youths in Europe and the Americas stormed or occupied the streets, blocked corporate offices, or shut down government operations. Not a few nation’s economies were on the verge of collapse—rising unemployment, lost jobs, debt crisis were becoming unbearable; and so were racism and environment degradation.

Much like how US imperialism has molded Hollywood and mass media to deliver its key messaging, it has seen in K-pop and K-drama another way to distract the people from the realities of social inequality, economic disparities, and the claws of US imperialism itself. Terror and repression alone have never stopped the youth from expressing themselves and aiming for social change. But the dominant culture can change their perspective and behavior. And so in the digitized world where music and entertainment are more easily accessible across time, place, or space, imperialism has found another weapon of mass destruction. Ideals were manipulated. Hero worship was turned into idols, dreams into stardom, organizing into fandoms, and battlegrounds into music charts and audience share.
The youth’s attention, energy, and resources were channeled away from social causes into an idealized world of escapism and endless entertainment. Even the few relatively brave cultural products that showcased Korean heroism subtly evaded the bigger enemies that are led by the US imperialists. The K-pop intelligently sells aspects of Korean history, yet, note that despite being under the US imperialist, it hardly has cultural products questioning or even depicting US imperialist hand in their country, and how it divides not just Korea but the rest of the world between so-called rogue states and “allies” in democracy.

The K-pop industry releases a constant stream of content around idols that hooked their audience, and somehow kept them captive. This is to indulge or keep the fans engaged. It becomes less now about the idols’ artistry or music than it is about their personalities. The fans are glued to what their idols eat, their pets, their quirks, habits, preferences, even the names of their family members. They are so invested in their idols’ lives that they lose sight of their selves. Anything and everything becomes a consumer interest. They are driven to buy a train of merchandise if only to identify themselves with their idols. But there is another side to it. The technology gives them a sense of connectivity and belonging talking about the same culture, excited by the same visuals, swaying to the same sounds, shrieking with the same fan chants, and voting in the same charts to break records. For that imperialism has used the idol system as a case of unity in diversity, but unity for escaping into a manufactured reality.

At some point, K-pop fans do get into civic, humanitarian, charity, volunteer, or self-help programs in the name of their idols or their anniversaries. What imperialism most fear, however, is for these fandoms to turn political. For example, in the Black Lives Matter movement, K-pop fans stood against racism and police brutality and flooded, downed or hacked internet sites of government and police stations with the memes and fancams of their idols. Such tactic was also used by K-pop fans to help disrupt and cause a low turnout in Trump’s rally. These actions, though, are still few and far in between.

Who gains more: Parasite’s multi-level foodchain

On the economic side, the profits are staggering. People have raved about the $4.5 billion contribution of BTS, currently the world’s most popular boyband, to the Korean economy. But that is nothing like what the world’s recording companies and streaming platforms earn from BTS music. The global phenomenon that is BTS is under the direction and control largely of the American music industry, which earned more than what BTS could probably imagine. Superstardom came only after the BTS Company BigHit made deals with the American giant recording industry, which took charge of BTS global distribution and marketing.

According to the Nielsen Sound Scan report of 2011, the world’s music recording industry is controlled by four players: Universal, Sony, Warner, and EMI Group. These four also control the world’s airwaves and dominate the music played in radio stations through payola (pay-for-play). While illegal, it is a “standard” practice. Sony alone owns the largest music catalog in the world. So the music heard on the radio is orchestrated by record labels and fed or forced on listeners, no matter if it’s junk. The industry’s network is unbelievably spread out into myriad offices, branches or subsidiaries all over the globe including the Philippines. The last three English songs of BTS were released internationally under Columbia Records, which is a subsidiary of Sony Music, and never left the charts. Recently BTS shifted to Universal for a better deal but has also reached out to other music conglomerates.

The website IFPI reported that in 2019, the global recording industry generated $20.2 billion in wholesale revenues, $21.6 billion in 2020, and is projected to earn $25.7 billion in 2021. While the global recording industry is doing astonishingly well, Youtube, the world’s largest video platform and acquired by Google, is reportedly eclipsing the recording industry in advertising revenues alone in the amount of U$ 29 to U$ 32 billion in 2021. BTS and other K-pop idols have generated billions of views for Youtube. It also has a local office in the Philippines along with the local offices of music streaming platforms Spotify and iTunes.

Simply unmatched is the power of these companies, with the US on the lead, to reach out to global audiences and rake in millions of profits. It can allegedly manipulate even the views and global charts to the point of keeping fan bases as a smokescreen. No wonder the dominance of K-pop. “World domination,” indeed, under the auspices of US imperialism.

Also interfering in the choice, production, and message of songs is nothing new to recording giants who are working on the premise of what sells. Except when they go independent or own major shares in their company, artists lose their creative freedom and they become simply performers. Earlier, some BTS songs had touched on or hinted about social issues but their latter songs were depleted of substance. Where before they were fully involved in writing their songs, BTS has now a retinue of English songwriters hired to come up with hit after hit for BTS.
It is a sad truth for all K-pop idols that in the end they are no longer treated as artists but as a product, a brand, or merchandise. A large part of their companies’ revenues does not come from the sale of their songs but from product endorsements and all sorts of merchandise around their image as idols that fans eagerly buy.

K-drama and global investors

Meanwhile, TV drama series called K-drama has also attracted global investors as its popularity grew even more among female millennials. It also has a cross-generational appeal with both men and women. Available on various streaming services, it is viewed in many countries and translated into multiple languages. Again, nothing gets to the global audience without a little help from big foreign capitalists who make a killing in this business. And with the US dominating the internet, there is no way anti-imperialist US sentiments can flourish in K-drama.

K-drama is designed for binge-watching with cliff-hangers ensuring audience following. Production is all-year-round, wide-ranging. These are richly awarded by domestic capitalists and the government to capture audiences and promote Korean products and tourism. Viewers spend an average of 54 hours per month, said DramaFever, a streaming site. The number of hours shot up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a mighty distraction from the world’s ills, hence Hallyu saved a lot of the ruling elites from attention and fury at their neglect, inefficiency, corruption.

Normally views are monetized through ads and paid subscriptions. But giants like Netflix and Disney+ went beyond streaming. They upscaled their game by producing original films that doubled or tripled their profits. Squid Game, the most viewed series by Netflix and watched by 111 million households around the world, cost only $24.1 million in production but already earned $891 million for Netflix.

The world would not have known K-drama had not streaming platforms like Netflix and Youtube helped to bring them to global audiences. Before this, South Korea had a domestic market that was too small and already crowded. A limited number of national broadcasters controlled South Korea’s TV industry. But they were eclipsed when the global streaming platforms came in, not just to market or distribute K-drama, but to provide financing for productions and target the international market. Hence local producers are up in arms as the streaming giants competed and set up their own local offices when K-drama was fast becoming popular in South Korea and parts of Asia.

K-drama has its share of large audiences that have long existed and are targeted to buy anything K-drama endorses. It was from the series that people learned to cook and eat South Korean cuisine, formed fan bases around Korean stars; dreamed of traveling to Korea and learning its history and language, etc. And as K-drama content went global and shot scenes in other countries, so did their reach and revenues. The cultural offensive has paved the way for Korean businesses to prosper globally.

Many have argued that not everything is lost in K-drama or Korean movies. Some bared the cracks and weaknesses of the capitalist system. These are the works of a few progressive or woke artists who persisted to defend their politics and craft. Some outstanding works have helped viewers reflect on current political and social conditions, though rarely inspiring people to action. In the movie Parasite, for example, the causes of poverty and inequality are hardly exposed and targeted, though lamented in an Oscar award-winning way. In the end, it is the poor and the worst victims who slugged it out and lost against each other.

Others would turn to K-drama to relieve them of temporary anxiety, to de-stress as they say, and thus, they come to it, as they do with other cultural products, with suspended disbelief. If one didn’t park his or her intelligence to watch and enjoy the likes of K-drama, no one would realize that however riveting it was, it still reflects the ruling class system and a purveyor of its values—promoting consumerism and individualism, on one hand, and romanticism or idealism, on the other hand. Class struggle as a recurring theme is usually brought down to the personal level devoid of collective or mass struggle. If at all, conflicts are resolved towards class reconciliation or compromises, passivity, exile, defeatism, denial, surrender, and, death or suicide. The braver ones resolve conflict through open struggle—but in the whole output, the enemy can only be the likes of the Japanese who colonized Korea last World War II and its local collaborators. The ruling classes of South Korea are considered as US imperialist’s junior partner.

The most insidious attack is reserved for North Korea as depicted in another popular series “Crash Landing on You.” Wrapped in a romantic comedy, the story took potshots at socialism by showing the technological advances of the capitalist system in the South over the seeming backward socialism in the North. It also depicted the masses in the North as either hard-boiled, drab, stupid, trivial, simpletons or sentimental fools. It pictured the military and the bureaucratic elite as corrupt, the thriving black market of far superior South Korean goods, and the ordinary soldiers pining and dreaming about the South. In short, it’s telling audiences that socialism is dead or a failure.

To penetrate the North’s defenses, South Korea has taken to flying hot-air balloons over to the North its CDs or USB drives containing K-drama and K-pop. Also, the trade between North Korea and China has opened the door wider to the smuggling of the same. Nationals of North Korea who have studied or traveled abroad and have been exposed to Western culture are said to bring home copies of K-drama and K-pop in secret. No wonder that state leader Kim Jong Un has called the invasion of South Korean pop culture a “vicious cancer” corrupting the country’s youth and could make North Korea “crumble like a damp wall.”

If that happens, it is the imperialist US, the global “police” for monopoly capitalism, who would laugh the loudest. Who knows how insidious the ultimate Parasite can be, that it can bankrupt you and make you feel sweet when it disarms you as it crash-landed on you over and over.

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