Reflections on Fieldwork: A Recollection of My K-pop Experience

By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

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Post-it notes containing messages of affection to contestants in an idol competition left on the wall by K-pop fans in an underground train station in Seoul

Following my last article on the inspiration for my undergraduate dissertation, I would now like to present an updated account of my research after completing two months of fieldwork in South Korea. Shifting from my previous emphasis on infrastructures, I now turn to a new title: “How to produce a Pop Idol: the co-shaping of the K-pop body”, which focuses on the body. In other words, my project aims to find out how the bodies of K-pop (South Korean pop music) idols, their producers, and their fans shape each other through processes such as structured training, marketing strategies and fan activity.

July: Introduction to South Korean culture

Over the first month, I attended a summer program at Sogang University in Seoul to learn the Korean language and take a module on Korean culture. Although classroom-based learning does not count as fieldwork, I gained valuable insight into the historical context of South Korean politics and performing arts culture. Buzzwords such as ‘visuality’ and ‘aurality’ that are found in traditional Korean performance studies resonated with my investigation into K-pop. At the end of the program, there was a graduation ceremony where students performed various traditional and contemporary Korean performances that we learnt in the course. Whilst the traditional performances – pansori (판소리) and sogo drum dance (소고춤) – were course assignments, a few of us students took initiative to do a K-pop dance cover – we named our group ‘Sogang K-Bangerz’. Many credits to Noelle, my dancer classmate, for taking on the role of choreography director. Rehearsals involved learning the general dance moves of the songs and familiarising ourselves with our own parts. Practice took place in a large study room on campus and started at 9pm every other night, sometimes ending as late as 1:30am. Those of us who lived off-campus always bought ice-cream on the way back home (I typically ordered a large Americano on the way to class the next day every morning). While I was already aware of K-pop’s worldwide popularity, it felt somewhat surreal to actually meet fans from countries other than my own; China, Russia, Sweden, and the US, just to name a few.

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Sogang K-Bangerz rehearsing at night

August: Training as an idol and an anthropologist

After the summer program, I entered the entertainment company where I would spend the next month collecting most of my fieldwork data training as K-pop idol. Despite being reunited with some of the staff who recognised me from the previous year, it still felt alien as a researcher rather than a tourist this time. Firstly, being more spatially aware, I noticed things that I failed to before. For instance, the lack of windows in the practice rooms that warped my sense of time during training. Secondly, the need to maintain a reflexive mind-set (not just in training but in informal conversations or any potential source of data as well). This also applied to the interviews, especially with the trainees. It was obvious that most of their answers were prepared ahead of time, which interestingly shows how communication is highly managed in the company. I was given a name card attached to a lanyard hung around my neck, which I often removed during my training for practical reasons. However, I was told I had to wear it when going to the loo to avoid being suspected as a crazy-fan intruder (사생팬). Thirdly, I had a new dance trainer whose teaching methods were novel to me. She sat me down in the middle of a lesson, took a piece of scrap paper out and started drawing lines and numbers. Teaching me how to count beats 1 to 4, she explained, “you need to keep the audience guessing. Make them wonder what’s coming next. It’s not about being late for the beat though. Move your body at the end of 1, not after 1.” Thankful for my decent sense of musicality, I somewhat understood what she meant. Still, it was excruciatingly difficult adjusting my body to move accordingly by microseconds.

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Diagram drawn by my dance trainer on when to move within a beat

As the weeks went by, I became more self-conscious of my position as a researcher within the company. I stood out more than I expected (having overheard a lot of staff gossip), but this attitude towards me stemmed more from curiosity than hostility. The company employees were very keen in giving me many opportunities to get to know about their daily lives. Alas, every day was different and fast-paced. From getting food poisoning after a corporate dinner to drunkenly befriending the CEO’s right-hand man, language and cultural barriers were not a problem in bonding with the staff.

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Vitamin supplements taken in my 3rd week of training

Overall, my fieldwork in South Korea over the summer has raised a lot of interesting questions for my research. Linking to anthropological themes (e.g. phenomenology and technologies of enchantment); relationships between K-pop idols, producers and fans seem to be constantly co-produced through conceptual and performative activities. At the same time, the investigation teases out greater implications in the much wider context of making music ‘tangible’ for the training performer and the perceiving audience.

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