In general, it is easy to agree with the concept of cultural exception that France has for many years evoked. Such an approach is based on the idea that cultural goods are different from other commodity goods. This is all good, but have the related protectionist measures, such as content quotas, helped with improving Europe’s cultural industries vis-à-vis their international counterparts? What about the case of France’s own cultural industries? A very relevant example in this regard is Korea who used to follow the same approach as France, but in the last twenty years has changed its path toward cultural openness. Of course, this has created much fear among the Korean public about its impact, however the outcome has emerged very different from such expressed concerns.
The boyband BTS today is the prime example of Korean pop music or K-pop’s success. In 2018, BTS or Bangtan Boys broke Taylor Swift’s record for the most successful music video debut on YouTube and they have even topped the Billboard 200 twice within a year. They have sold over 9 million albums since their debut in 2013, have 16 million Twitter followers, and have topped the iTunes Charts in 73 countries. Crowning all of these achievements, they appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in October 2018. Furthermore, BTS established their international outreach when they delivered their message at the launch ceremony of UNICEF’s global partnership “Generation Unlimited” on September 25, 2018. These days, BTS are embarking on yet another tour of Europe, such is the demand for their shows.
Despite this success, many still continue to subscribe to the idea that the Korean government has actively pushed K-pop and the export of its products around the world through various supportive measures. Yet all of these claims have been provided without much concrete evidence. Business activities are, in fact, the core element for creating and enhancing competitiveness in the music industries by embracing globalization and digitization. Importantly, government protection plays no role in these efforts.
Reflecting such perceptions, a French journalist has recently described K-pop’s expansion to the world through militant words such as “soldiers,” “arms,” “conquer,” and “border.” Her view gives the impression that K-pop groups in their international activities are seeking to promote the brand of Korea and support the Korean government or vice versa. She further raises an issue about the cultural appropriation of K-pop, by highlighting the fact that there is significant input in its contents from a number of international talents such as Swedish songwriters and American and Japanese choreographers. Her conclusion then is that K-pop simply collects all of these elements and packages them together in the name of brand “Korea.” In other words, she associates culture closely with the nation-state. This, however, is based upon a misperception on the linkage between culture and the state.
It is well known that France often glamorizes its cultural expansion under the broad umbrella of mission civilisatrice or “civilizing mission” while disparaging similar behavior by other cultures, notably from America, which is often described as a form of “cultural invasion.” However, from the view of those who are neither French nor American, both are identical in their desire to “expand” cultural power. Given this prevailing attitude toward cultural expansion, the efforts of the French journalist mentioned previously who sought to cast negative viewpoints based on misunderstandings and prejudice, should come as no surprise.
Going back to what is happening in Seoul, the Korean music industry and K-pop should be seen as a small Louvre museum that collects competent talents from all over the world and synergistically puts them on display. This means that if K-pop has not used French talent so far, it may well be because France does not possess internationally attractive and competitive talent that K-pop would be interested in. It can be too early to generalize, but it is fairly evident that the tender care that French talent has benefited from has actually made it internationally uncompetitive. I hope moves toward protectionist measures does not become an epidemic all over Europe.
In this respect, one should not forget that there have been many successful foreign talents in France: Jacques Brel from Belgium and Célin Dion and Pierre Garand (Garou) from Canada, to quote a few. Instead of criticizing K-pop, it would be more beneficial to learn more from its strategy. If Korea can do it, so can everyone else. Allez la France (et l’Europe)!
This work was supported by Laboratory Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of Republic of Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2015-LAB-2250003).