What is a “Roundtable”?
A rhizome consists of a multitude of interconnected nodes — and while those nodes might have more that connects than divides them, individual nodes don’t always agree. Learning means being in conversation with one another. Our perspectives are often shaped by our immediate networks and personal experiences, and it never hurts to take a step back and invite some voices to the table — especially those we might not otherwise hear, and those that bring wisdom, experience, and specialized knowledge into the conversation.
양극화 세상에서 가장 추한 꽃”– (Agust D, 2020)
“Polarization, the ugliest flower in the world”
We have all witnessed heated and emotionally charged debates ignited by particular topics, fueled by the anonymity and speed afforded by social media. Discussions can quickly become polarized, and when polarization begins to play, discourse often begins to falter. Slowing down, taking time to pause, engaging with the ideas of others, and listening are essential to growth and creating new knowledge.
The most famous roundtable is probably that of the legendary King Arthur, who insisted that his knights sit at a roundtable because such a table has no head — thus no designated leader. The purpose of a roundtable is to invite individuals into a space where the notion of “us” and “them” is temporarily dispelled, and each voice is given an equal platform to articulate itself. You may not agree with each and every perspective, but we invite you to listen — and learn!
As a journal, we have much to learn about the best way to conduct these conversations — so please afford us some grace on our first attempt. This group of participants was patient and persistent, and we are thankful to each and every one of them for the time they devoted to this discussion.
So . . . may the first nodes of the roundtable convene!
In early 2020, a conversation between nine self-identified ARMYs from six different countries took place via a Twitter group chat (the anonymized transcript for this conversation can be viewed here — all participants in the transcribed conversation consented to having it released). During this conversation, participants ruminated over the statement “BTS isn’t K-Pop” (a claim frequently asserted on social media within their networks). The discussion led them to asking a host of questions and a lively discussion ensued. Two of the overarching questions and themes from the discussion were:
- What exactly is K-pop?
- Why do some fans (several participants included) feel compelled to make a distinction between BTS and K-pop? And is this response warranted?
Ultimately, the participants chose to submit the transcript of their conversation to our Editorial Board because they wished to transition the discussion from a casual conversation to a constructive dialogue. With this in mind, our Editorial Board invited six individuals to our very first roundtable to discuss some of the topics raised in the aforementioned transcript. We hope you will join us in welcoming:
While we wanted this roundtable to engage with some of the issues raised in that chat, we also sought to have this be a space for panelists to engage with issues, theories, and perspectives that are meaningful to them given their backgrounds and interests. Our panelists have a wide range of experience and each is committed to this discussion as a means to encourage dialogue and critical thinking. To that end, we invited them to raise questions, wrestle with terms, and reflect on why this conversation matters to so many. We know that defining terms is an essential first step to engaged discourse. Why do these steps — defining and theorizing — matter? They matter because language matters. Words carry ideas and ideologies that are often rooted in tangled webs of power. The discussion we present in this roundtable takes a first step at demonstrating the histories, theories, ideology, and ultimately the influence that goes into defining K-Pop.
We invited participants based on experience, expertise, and their interest in the subject. Each was provided with a copy of the transcript and asked to respond to eight questions. Moderators read the responses and curated follow-up questions for discussion. Each participant then wrote a concluding statement.
Round II : Response
- Are there points raised by the participants that you strongly agree and/or disagree with? Why? Are there opinions expressed that are potentially the result of misinformation? If yes, what?
- Are there more productive modes for these types of conversations to take place? If so, where should these conversations occur? From your perspective, what type of discourse, if any, do you see having the potential to achieve a positive (growth-minded) outcome regarding this topic?
Round III : Conclusion
- To provide individuals wishing to learn more with reliable sources, please list 1-3 references that you would recommend.
- Concluding Statements
Why is the argument “BTS isn’t K-pop” being raised and who is raising it? To what degree is this argument “Western” in origin? What is the role of the media in this discussion?
Round II : Response
Are there points raised by the participants that you strongly agree and/or disagree with? Why? Are there opinions expressed that are potentially the result of misinformation? If yes, what?
Are there more productive modes for these types of conversations to take place? If so, where should these conversations occur?
From your perspective, what type of discourse, if any, do you see having the potential to achieve a positive (growth-minded) outcome regarding this topic?
Round III : Conclusion
To provide individuals wishing to learn more with reliable sources, please list 1-3 references that you would recommend.
Dialogue should be ongoing. While our participants have entered, listened, reflected, and shared their knowledge and experiences, we don’t believe this to be the end of the conversation. Defining K-Pop is a task that is historical, political, and connected to a myriad of cultural contexts and conventions. What we, as editors, hope readers will take from this is a moment to encounter, define, contextualize, unpack, and understand how terms never just exist on their own. Rather, words are part of complex systems and ideologies. These are necessary steps towards understanding how these terms circulate and impact the world. If BTS has taught us anything, it is the importance of engaging with the world and one another critically and respectfully. Our participants have modeled that throughout this conversation.
So, how do you end a conversation that isn’t done yet? We thought the best way was to highlight some of the new conversations that might be started. Below, we have selected a quote from each participant that we found thought provoking and worth considering. It’s up to you to keep the conversation going! If you would like to respond directly to points made by our participants, we encourage you to submit a Letter to the Editor. Or perhaps this has sparked an idea for an essay or article, in which case, please consider submitting to our Academic Articles.
Emphasis added by the editors, not the participants:
- “But what is “K-pop”? The term doesn’t merely refer to a type of musical production but entails the outsiders’ view that wishes to tie a certain group of people and production to the national identity (i.e., South Korea), which can have relational meanings to different groups of people around the world. Those cultural meanings, however, are often appropriated by the users of the term at their convenience, without fully contemplating what “Korean” means. How come American musicians’ nationality is readily neutralized in our conversation while their individualities are aptly secured? In contrast, how come Korean musicians’ individualities, musical activities, and cultural values are so easily subsumed under the rubric of “Korean”? Detaching BTS from K-pop may be part of an attempt to resist against this generalization, but instead of rescuing BTS from the K-pop box, I would suggest to problematize the box itself.” (Choi, Stephanie, Ph.D.)
- “In fact, recent media coverage of the BLM support by ARMY and other K-pop fans has already offered many chances to point out that K-pop is more complex and more positive than previous media coverage showed. That and similar actions, like donations for flood relief in India, have made non-fans stop and reconsider their assumptions about K-pop and K-pop fans. That is how you change the label “K-pop.”” (Saeji, CedarBough, Ph.D.)
- “This was an interesting situation — it suggested that culture-specific labels fail to describe any artist who transcends genres and industries. There’s a natural discomfort that fans might feel when the media limits an artist with a certain label that the artist has clearly surpassed. There is no doubt that Khan has done incredible work in Bollywood, but he has done much more. There is no doubt that BTS are rooted in the K-pop industry, but they have also transcended it. BTS, therefore, are not alone in this debate — and as entertainment becomes more globalized, it is quite likely that such a debate will occur again for different artists as well.” (alapadma2)
- “My goal is to find truths and share them in the best ways I can. As foreign as ARMY and BTS are made out to be, the idea of a journalist reporting on the arts having particular biases and even tight-knit associations with entities in the field is certainly not foreign at all. The best thing I can do is acknowledge my biases and continue to source whatever information I find accordingly — as should any journalist. More than anything, however, I feel increasingly distant with the title of “journalist” and more comfortable with “writer” — I write essays, whether they be used for YouTube videos or for text-based media publications. I also conduct interviews, particularly via a podcast I’ve begun through bby gang. Generally, I do what I enjoy doing — and I’m fortunate enough to enjoy doing a lot of things. When I do those things, my main responsibility is to tell the truth, or at least a truth, and hope that whatever content I create can be eye-opening and healing.” (Sang, Elliot)
- “Based on the transcript, it seems the “Is BTS K-pop or not” argument firstly and mostly came from the fans’ sincerity to protect the group from a xenophobic Western media and general public. . . . but intentionally separating BTS from K-pop is just a rhetorical ploy to detour the targeted racism, and also far from reality. Instead, recognizing BTS’s achievements of going beyond the boundary of K-pop while they still absorb and appreciate some of the crucial aspects of K-pop would be a more interesting topic to study.” (Suh, Randy)
- “While Korean domestic critical discourse has still maintained its disparaging view of K-pop culture as the epitome of consumer capitalism, on the other hand, there is a cultural and nationalistic view which remains content with the overseas acceptance of K-pop as part of Korean Wave. There’s a nationalist discourse that approaches pop culture as a new export commodity and an expansion of Korean cultural territory, along with the pride that its cultural products work in the world as well. This attitude has created a strange double standard where cultural disparagement and national pride coexist.” (Lee, Jeeheng Ph.D.)
Elliot Sang is a journalist, essayist, and musician based in New York City. He became a fan of BTS through his journey of writing about them for publications such as DJBooth and GENMag. His YouTube channel, bby gang, presents video essays tackling subjects related to BTS and K-pop, among other topics.
CedarBough T. Saeji has a master of arts degree in Korean studies from Yonsei University, and a PhD in culture and performance from UCLA. Saeji has taught Korean studies at the University of British Columbia, Korea University, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and is now a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Publications have appeared in edited volumes on women in traditional performing arts, Korean screen cultures, theatre in Asia, and intangible cultural heritage and journals including Journal of Korean Studies, Korea Journal, Acta Koreana, Pacific Affairs, Asia Theatre Journal, and Asia Pacific Journal.
Stephanie Choi is a recent Ethnomusicology PhD graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation “Gender, Labor, and the Commodification of Intimacy in K-pop” explores transactions of intimacy between K-pop idols and fans in digital media. Choi has interviewed more than sixty people in the K-pop world, including K-pop idols, idol managers, casting division directors, A&R directors, music video directors and staff, television show producers, news media reporters, and most importantly, fans. Her dissertation project is sponsored by the Korea Foundation, the UC Humanities Research Institute, and UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.
Lee Jeeheng is currently teaching film at Chung-Ang University and is a member of the Film Subcommittee for the Korea Media Rating Board. She received a bachelor of science degree at the Ewha Woman’s University, a master of fine arts with a focus on filmmaking at CalArts, and a PhD in film studies with a focus on film theory at the Graduate School for Art & Technology at Chung-Ang University. She was a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Cinematic Content at Dankook University, full lecturer in the multimedia department at Hannam University, and lecturer at Yonsei University. Her PhD thesis examined “Disaster and Film: The Emotional Structure of Disaster in 21st Century Film” (2015). Her research interests are posthumanism, relations between visual culture and modernity, and popular culture in new media.
@alapadma2 is a medical student in the U.S. She majored in music (with a focus in ethnomusicology) and biology, and minored in world musics and cultures. Most of her experience is in south Indian classical dance, Balinese music and dance, and taiko (Japanese drumming). She hopes to continue her studies in the field of medical ethnomusicology in the near future.
Randy Suh is an independent K-pop music critic and music writer. They have been writing for the Korean idol pop web magazine Idology (idology.kr) about K-pop music and the culture around it for a number of years. They are greatly interested in the boundary-blurring individuals of the scene, like pop artists pursuing authenticity or idols presenting themselves in gender nonconfirming manners. But their greatest interest will always be music itself. They recently launched a newsletter project called BulletproofDelivery, covering BTS’s music and other topics on them once a week. Archive blog is found at https://bulletproof-delivery.postype.com/.
alapadma2, Choi, S., Lee, J., Saeji, C., Sang, E. & Suh, R. (2020). Roundtable: K-Pop — What’s in a name? In Epps-Robertson, C. & Hulme, K. Academic Articles (Eds.). The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , (1). https://ther3journal.com/.
alapadma2, Choi, Stephanie, Lee, Jeeheng, Saeji, CedarBough, Sang, Elliot and Suh, Randy. “Roundtable: K-Pop — What’s in a Name?” Edited by Epps-Robertson, Candace and Hulme, Katie. The Rhizomatic Revolution Review , no.1, 2020. https://ther3journal.com/.
This work by The Rhizomatic Revolution Review  is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Illustration credit: Rachel Freeman @re_yichellart