“Well,” Andrea* told me, “me and Mae were planning on doing a dance for the talent show. Probably to that mix by DJ Earworm.”
These were my grade sixes, informing me and my mentor teacher of their entry for the upcoming talent show, which, as a slaving, bootlicking student-teacher, I would almost certainly be involved in to some degree. I discussed the song with them for a few minutes, to establish my cred, to fully exhibit my subversiveness and deeply rooted connections with modern happenings and the youth of today. For whatever reason, having an encyclopaedic command of popular culture has always been important to me. Maintaining my with-it-ness has always been somewhat crucial to my sense of self, the core of my personality just barely held together by a sticky web of Simpsons’ quotations, nerdy movie references, and unnecessarily bescarfed indie music superiority.
Moving to the other side of the planet can really throw a wrench into such a system.
Due to it already having its own bustling, glossy, unending stream of popular culture, Korea tends to allow the speed of cultural import to be pretty lax. When you already have a massive superstructure of incredibly successful pop automatons dominating all of Asia with their robotic gyrating ministrations, you don’t really need to worry about outsourcing. Certainly you will caption or dub the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but local K-film gets top billing and doesn’t require pesky reading, so a few weeks to a few months of delay is no big deal. The playlist at the club is already full of the latest music in a language that the people dancing to can actually understand, so why put on the pleasantly accompanied gobbledygook?
When the foreign culture does come, it is delayed by weeks, or months, or seemingly years. Scrolling down the local movie listings, I was bewildered to see that “The Box” would be coming to theatres in Korea later this summer. While usual foreign releases aren’t so extreme, it seems as though they do tend to get lost somewhere over the Pacific ocean, unearthed only months later whenever James Cameron discovers them on the ocean floor, or that everyone involved in subtitling or radio plays is just sort of sleepy and laissez-faire about the whole world culture business.
Music is by far the worst. Korea imports roughly 7-8 English songs per year, and then plays them roughly for the next three years on a loop. Occasionally one English song will be crowned with a great degree of popularity, and this song will be played everywhere, at all times, for years. With the speed at which pop culture moves, with the speed at which Korean pop culture moves, such stubborn, bewildering staying-power seems positively cataclysmic, a sudden wrenching of the space-time continuum to where music never, ever advances. These songs seem to issue forth out of months and years past in North America, a sort of archaic echo across the ocean from which we cannot escape. We No Speak Americano played at every bar and grocery store and elevator and wedding and funeral and telepathic connection I encountered in the first year in Korea, and was only wrestled into submission by Party Rock Anthem, which still remains horrifically, unsinkably popular to this day.
Of course, I am aware that the culture from which I derive so much of my identity marches on bravely despite my absence. New songs and artists grow popular and decline in favour in months and years which I never, ever find out about. Youtube sensations seize hold of the zeitgeist and fall deep into the sea of obscurity, on the whiffs and gusts of the great internet maelstrom. Movies dominate the box office, books line the walls of airport bookstores, television series reign Thursday-night Nielsen’s. But the specifics are vague and unremarkable, little details on ships sailing across some distant shore.
Information of these advances in the culture trickle forth through the internet, through various tiers of legality into my greedy, eager palms. I can still access music and movies and television, but even then the internet only moves so fast. The consumption, as well, takes some time, and I find the need to prioritize, to ween out the needless from the necessary. Even with the greatest of efforts, I often remain hours, days, weeks, and months behind the event horizon of popularity. My culture moves on, and I become more and more out of touch with it. My grasp on being hip begins to wane and slip.
When I talk with friends from home, I suddenly have to worry about their advanced exposure: hey, that movie doesn’t come out here until July of 2023, so please don’t talk about the Hunger Games. I have to memorize the schedules for broadcast television in different timezones across the globe, so that I can evade being spoiled on Mad Men or Game of Thrones. New music has no way to get to me but through my own desperate searches, as no radio or iPod commercial or viral video or bar speaker system will play anything more recent from the English-speaking world than at least 2 years ago. We might as well be listening to phonographs.
I start to feel like a cultural anachronism, an unfrozen caveman of the popular and cool. As much as I would like to pretend I am completely divorced from the cultural construction of the hip and the awesome, I like to be tuned in. I like to be aware. I like to know what a reasonably average human being would like. I like to know how excited I should be about cultural products, how willing I am to invest minutes and hours of my fragile, trembling human existence. And how can I be ironic and know what to hate if I have no idea what other people love?
But with the delay, I am always on catch up. I’m always a step or two behind. The me of today is still kind of cool, but cool circa last November or so.