Between the East and West: Development of Traditional Eastern and Modern Western Symbols in Korean Pop Music

Authors: Michal Schwarz (Masaryk University, Czech Republic)
Speakers: Michal Schwarz
Strand: Text, Context, Entextualization
Session Type: General Session


This paper further develops the first online contribution “From oppression to freedom: changes in the use of Western symbols in K-pop and East Asia”. It analyzed semantic and pragmatic shift in the use of two Western symbols of train and apple adopted in Korean culture. While train became the symbol of modernity in Europe (Weber 1976), it was also a sign of progress in South Korea (Han Seung-Mi 2004), when diesel locomotives and their sound represented negative control of people (Han Youngsue 2020). But positive development at the end of the 20 th century caused change and now the same motif is for example a positive sign of shift to a better future (e.g. Twice: Likey + I can’t stop it) or symbolic gate to another space (BTS: Run). Similarly the Biblical parable of knowledge in the symbol of apple was adopted in modern Korean culture. And besides keeping original motif of punishment (Gain, Paradise Lost), the use of this symbol was changed in relation to East Asian feminine modernity (cf. Lin & Avin 2008), when knowledge is also equal to desire for a better future (e.g.: Twice: More & More). More cases of disconnection from original moral content (e.g. GFRIEND: Apple; Gain: Apple; Hyuna: Red) allow to conclude that this semantical shifts correlate with economic success of South Korea. Practical examples will be presented at the beginning of the in-person presentation.
Then the second in-person part will focus on another set of Eastern symbols. Although they were not widely used in the initial stage of this industry, the later development and online access to music videos caused change too. While there might be some kind of attractive orientalism or partial Central Asian origin of Koreans (see the motif of sacred light in the chronicles of Samguk Sagi and Secret History of the Mongols vs. the light inside the yurt in Mamamoo: Aya + KARD: Bomb Bomb), the variety of sacred animals (horse: Jackson Wang: Papillon; tiger: J. Wang: OKAY) and light illuminating the actors through symbolic patterns (Blackpink: Ddu Du Ddu Du; Girls generation: Lil Touch; BTS: Black Swan + Blood sweat and tears; Twice: More and More + TT) allow to observe, how expected subconscious reception of these symbols by Western consumers is used for higher attractivity of Korean music videos in international scope. Some music videos (Suga: August D; 우주힙쟁이 – 한량 (feat. 비비(BIBI)); Hwa Sa: I am a 빛 in both original performance versions) or even bands (KINGDOM: more MVs) connect modern Korea with traditional Korean culture and its effective international promotion. Presented Western and Eastern symbols in Korean pop music document a little bit undescribed shifts in modern Korean culture as well as sophisticated product placement of Korean pop-industry in contemporary globalized and digitalized world.

Keywords: Traditional Eastern, Modern Westers, Korean Pop Music, South Korea