Back in Canada, I generated a number of evasive techniques to avoid certain pop music that I hated. Not all of it, as I’m not going to try to claim that all pop music is worthless, but some songs and artists aggravated me, and thus I tried to keep them at bay. I never listened to radio. I’d always keep my iPod on my person to block out ear-offending beats with my own. I knew what to ignore on the internet. As an educator, especially of elementary students, you often come in close contact with children’s pop culture, and you have to fortify your pop defences. I half-jokingly banned students from singing certain songs around me in class, and would threaten them with my own horrible taste in music should they assault me with theirs. In Korea, all of these techniques are useless or moot.
Whereas at home, I am so familiar with my surroundings, or so comfortable with my English capabilities, that I can put in my earphones and zone out while wandering, I cannot do the same in Korea. I would get lost or stuck out in the middle of an intersection if I wasn’t focused, as it takes that much more effort to get around, to attempt to read the signs around me, to live. My ears and eyes always have to be open. My first layer of pop music buffers are useless, as I enter the world, earphoneless.
When you walk down busy streets, particularly in the busy Bupyeong area of Incheon, each store generally throws its doors open to invite customers. Also, to spread the power and reach of the K-pop blasting from within. K-pop is played on loops in supermarkets, and sometimes in subway stations. It is powerful and omnipresent.
I mean omnipresent literally. Some songs I hear everywhere I go, as though they are stalking me, watching me through my window. I feel like the country has speakers implanted in the walls, and that the music launches itself upon you as soon as you walk out of your apartment. If a car peels by with the windows down, I can recognize the song. If a bar starts to blast K-pop, chances are I’ll know the big ones in the rotation. If I walk past a store, a bar, a supermarket, a school, or a girl between the ages of 7 and 18, I will probably get at least a passing rush of pop. I know that I will hear “Good Girl, Bad Girl” invariably every day, possibly until the end of time.
Not that the oversaturation is that bad of a thing: K-pop is also one of the greatest ways I can figure out my students. While in Canada I had the means to communicate to my kids, to get to know what they like and dislike, here I don’t have the Korean communicative skills to achieve same. In Canada, I could put the kibosh on the kids singing Ke$ha to me, because I already knew plenty about them, and whether or not they could drone “Your Love is My Drug” was of minimal consequence. I knew what sports they played, what games and books they liked, their strengths and weaknesses in different subjects. I knew their families, their friends. I knew their names. I could banish the sludge they enjoyed listening to, because it was an insignificant portion compared to whole that I already knew.
Here, K-pop is one of the few mediums through which I can approach the students. I can’t speak to them, at least not fluently. Pop music, both the trashy, earwormy kinds that get stuck in my head and which I come to enjoy, and the gutter-swimming, insane dreck some of them listen to, is a language we can share. Taking my students in from outside, some of the girls began humming the song from above, blurting the English lyrics with élan. I began to hum along, and told them I knew Miss A, resulting in a storm of titters and giggles. Another day, a fleet of girls who clean the English zone assaulted my desk, asking if I knew their favourite bands. Some I did, some I didn’t, and I hit YouTube in front of them to put in the research. (K-pop is often a key for boys, although when that fails I’ll revert to StarCraft knowledge.) For some of these kids, pop music is the only way I can connect with them.
K-Pop even earns me points with Korean adults. Some of my co-teachers, being young as they are, unabashedly love some pop songs, and if I know the band, a twinkle appears in their eyes. Honky recognizes it? Yay! Elsewhere, it’s seen as some attempt to connect with the country. Anything one does to dive in to Korea is appreciated, and I guess national pride extends even to the popstars. Koreans appreciate any attempt you make, even ones as simple as absorbing their pop.
It’s also one of the few ways I can pierce the culture with my brain. Where other facets of Korea may seem arcane and inexplicable, pop is the vox populi. It’s a sonic infection that transcends language or place, and the catchiness of some music is undeniable, even if I only understand about 5% of the lyrics (and that 5% is not always the English, which is often hilariously ornamental). It’s a baser language that goes beyond phonetics, beyond morphemics and syntax. I can come tangential to the Korean zeitgeist, I can approach their consumption habits, if only in a superficial way. I can read a little bit of Korea, with K-Pop as my neon-framed lens.