Postcolonial Production and Consumption of Global K-pop
University of British Columbia Okanagan
This is a pre-proof version of
Yoon, K. (2017). Chapter 6. Postcolonial Production and Consumption of Global K-pop. In Jin, D. and
Yoon, T-J. (eds.). The Korean Wave: Retrospect and Prospect, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &
The global circulation of K-pop beyond Asia is particularly intriguing for media studies as it
embodies ironies accompanied by globalization. As Ono and Kwon (2013) have pointed out, K-
pop’s recent global rise “seems almost ironic given Korea’s colonized position during much of
the twentieth century” (p. 199). In this respect, global K-pop can be considered a postcolonial
media phenomenon because its production and dissemination have emerged as a result of
Korea’s postcolonial struggle. Thus, global K-pop may not be fully analyzed without addressing
its postcolonial dimension, which may be insufficiently captured by Western-oriented media
theories. K-pop’s global flows mean more than its global reach or growing power in media
markets, as the flows reveal a complexity and inequality of media production and reception on a
global level. K-pop’s textual production might be a result of “mimicry” emerging from both the
postcolonial cultural histories of Korea (Lie, 2012) and the national media industry’s strategic
hybridization (Jin, 2016). K-pop’s reception process may reflect the disparity, rather than
uniformity, of global media audiencehood (Choi & Maliangkay, 2015). In this respect, the
production and consumption of global K-pop might be considered an example of “a postcolonial
interruption” of Western-oriented, universalized media analysis (Shome, 2016, p. 247).
In order to explore the “postcolonial interruption” of K-pop in media globalization, this
chapter analyzes how K-pop is produced and consumed in a transnational context. First, it
addresses the production of K-pop as a postcolonial process by exploring how the cultural form
has gone through particular historical and cultural moments. Second, it examines the
consumption of K-pop as a postcolonial process by exploring how it is re-signified in a
transnational context. In particular, to effectively illustrate the media experiences of subaltern
audiences in the West, the study addresses a minority group–Asian Canadian youth–that holds a
relatively marginal audience position.
The recent phenomenon of global K-pop may also offer an intriguing case for furthering
postcolonial media studies. Existing media studies have explored the globalization of media,
which “has inevitably always carried some postcolonial implications” (Merten & Kramer, 2016,
p. 13). However, global media studies has not sufficiently developed a postcolonial perspective
that challenges Western-oriented media analyses (Merten & Kramer, 2016; Shome, 2016). Not
unlike many other social scientific disciplines, media studies has maintained a highly Western-
oriented perspective, which “neglects how media functions in the Global South (including in the
‘developed’ South)” (Shome, 2016, p.246). Thus, while the application of postcolonial analysis
to media studies has been suggested for understanding the historical complexities and power
relations of mediated worlds (Cere, 2011, 2016; Fernández, 1999; Shome, 2016; Shome &
Hegde, 2002), the field of postcolonial media studies remains nascent. To move beyond the
pitfalls of media studies’ default framework, in which a postcolonial perspective is under-
explored, an investigation into multiple power relations in media practices is required.
A few recent efforts to facilitate a postcolonial perspective in media studies have
explored how such themes as colonizer-colonized relationships, hybridity, orientalism, and
subalternity are integrated into global and local media practices (Cere, 2011, 2016). By doing so,
media studies has gradually addressed colonial and non-Western media histories as well as the
geopolitics of media production and consumption (Merten & Kramer, 2016, p.13; See also
Shome, 2016). This chapter’s empirical analysis can deepen an understanding of the power
relations implicated in transnational media flows and provide preliminary insights for further
facilitating postcolonial media studies.
In Canada, a nation-state that was developed by immigration after settler colonialism,
Asian Canadians (Canadians whose ethnic origin is Asia) have occupied a visible community
that constitutes approximately 15% of the nation’s population as of 2011 (Statistics Canada,
2013). The significant proportion of the Asian population in Canada may explain why Canada
has recently been considered one of the major Western national markets for K-pop (Yoon & Jin,
2016). Canada is not only a market for K-pop but also a contributor to this emerging
phenomenon because of creative efforts by several Canadian-born and/or raised young talents,
such as Henry Lau (a member of Super Junior-M since 2008). While the Canadian music market
has been globally ranked 7th in size (Smirke, 2015), it has struggled with a lack of locally-
produced content and has relied largely on the American music industry. As of 2011,
international artists represented 76.5% of album sales and 85.6% of digital track sales in the
Canadian music market (CIMA, 2016). At this point, there is no accumulative data on K-pop’s
market share in the Canadian market, except for a few data charts, such as the Billboard
Canadian Album chart. In the Billboard Top 100 Canadian Album chart, only three K-pop
musicians have appeared (Benjamin, 2016): Psy for three songs (Gangnam Style at No. 1 for
seven weeks in 2012, Gentleman at No. 9 in 2013, and Daddy at No. 36 in 2015); Exo for Call
Me Baby (No. 98 in 2015); and BTS for Wings (No. 19 in 2016). Thus, it may be assumed that,
except for Psy’s global hits, K-pop’s sales in Canada are rather insignificant. However, despite
K-pop’s seemingly insignificant market shares, its territory is allegedly increasing amongst
young Canadians and in social media-driven environments, which might not be fully represented
by official market share reports (Yoon & Jin, 2016). Given this context, this chapter examines
the role of “global K-pop” as a form of pop culture product in national and transnational markets
and as cultural texts for marginalized groups of young people in Canada.
Producing Global K-pop
K-pop’s emergence as a key pop musical trend in Korea has been indebted largely to a
postcolonial complexity that comprises the country’s cultural struggle with the legacy of
colonizing forces - Western and Japanese influences. Western pop music styles performed at
music clubs on U.S. Army bases (i.e. the Eighth United States Army) and a radio channel
established for U.S. soldiers in Korea–AFKN (American Forces Korean Network, renamed AFN
Korea)–played key roles in training Korean musicians and audiences (Shin, 2013). Numerous
Korean pop musicians from the 1950s–1970s indeed began their music careers at clubs in the
U.S. Army bases. The American influence on Korean pop music did not decrease after the
1970s. Rather, it was rapid Westernization that potentially triggered the expansion of Korea’s
pop music industry during the 1990s. The sensational hip-hop band Seo Taiji and the Boys
(1991–1996) exemplifies how the Western hip-hop musical style was introduced and localized in
mainstream pop music markets in Korea. Interestingly, one of the main reasons for young
audiences’ enthusiasm and fandom for Seo Taiji’s music was that it “did not sound Korean” (Lie,
2012, p. 349).
Along with Western pop music, the Japanese media system has offered Korean music
producers and corporations an important reference point. Due to the colonial history and traumas
associated with Japan’s occupation and colonization of the Korean peninsula (1910–1945),
Japanese pop cultural commodities were banned until 1997 in Korea. Moreover, even after the
ban was lifted in 1997, numerous restrictions on the sale of Japanese pop cultural products in
Korean media markets have continued. However, despite the long restrictions on Japanese pop
culture, the Korean media industry has often been affected by its Japanese counterpart, J-pop, in
terms of show format, musical style, and promotion system. In particular, the Japanese “idol
(aidoru) system” (since the 1980s) has substantially affected the Korean idol (aidol) system
since the 2000s. Japan’s idol system, established during the country’s economically flourishing
“bubble era” of the 1980s, is characterized by the significant role of entertainment management
companies or agencies that maximize the commercial value of their own idols via multiple media
platforms and loyal fan-bases (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012). A major K-pop corporation, SM
Entertainment, has actively accommodated J-pop’s idol system as shown in the case of BoA,
who was trained through the J-pop system and enjoyed stardom in Korea and Japan.
Western and Japanese influences on the emergence of global K-pop offer an intriguing
case study for postcolonial media studies. Global K-pop might be an example of “mimicry,” the
concept that some postcolonial theorists, such as Bhabha, appropriate to explain the colonized
desire “for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same,
but not quite” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 86, emphasis in original). In postcolonial Korea, the traces of
two colonizing forces–Japanese and American powers–had to be denied, yet were already
inscribed in Korea’s media texts, industries, and audiences. In particular, American cultural texts
have been considered not only as high quality material but also as liberating and youthful
Since the legacy of colonizing powers has been so pervasive and persistent in the realms
of everyday life in Korea, it might not be surprising that Korean cultural attributes in K-pop have
remained ambiguous. Indeed, Fuhr (2015, p. 118) suggests that K-pop contains limited “images
for representing Korea’s identity” and instead adopts “American retro images” to “serve as
substitutes for Korea’s own power cultural repository.” In this respect, citing Fredric Jameson’s
theories on postmodernism, Fuhr (2015, p.118) even describes the “absence of K” in K-pop as a
symptom of “nostalgia for a historical past that never existed.”
However, postcolonial hybridity inscribed in K-pop does not simply mean the
disappearance or absence of Korean cultural attributes. On the contrary, the textual and
contextual aspects of K-pop may reveal Korea’s postcolonial desire for generating national
signifiers to ensure its identity as a nation-state that developed through struggles to overcome
colonial legacy. For example, despite the increasing recruitment of overseas talent, K-pop stars
have presented themselves (and have been represented by the media) as “national idols” by
emphasizing their role in enhancing national pride (Lee, 2012). For example, 2012’s YouTube
sensation Psy, the K-pop singer, shouted in Korean, "Daehanminguk Manse! (The Republic of
Korea, hurrah!)” during his appearance on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ (Shin, 2013, pp. 157–158).
Psy’s response may not only show his national pride but also how the Gangnam Style
phenomenon, and the global rise of K-pop in general, is consumed and signified amongst Korean
audiences and news media. That is, the global recognition of K-pop has triggered a nationalistic
response in the country of origin, where overseas consumption of Korean-made cultural products
is often attributed to the excellence and uniqueness of Korean culture.
The Korean national news media discourse of global K-pop within Korea has attempted
to essentialize its national culture as a key attraction in the global media market. For Koreans, the
global recognition of K-pop is utilized as a way to affirm its collective national identity and
nationalism. This recent pop cultural nationalism can be understood in the historical context of
Korean nationalism, which “was formed in response to Japanese colonial racism and assimilation
and later developed as the postcolonial national identity” (Kal, 2011, p. 122). In this respect, it is
not surprising that consecutive Korean governments have used K-pop as a symbolic tool to
reinforce the cultural hegemony of the ruling regimes on the one hand and as a national brand or
“soft power” to facilitate overseas recognition of Korean products and culture on the other. For
example, during several of her overseas trips, former President Park (2013–2017) met and
encouraged K-pop stars on their global tours, as she claimed to be dedicated to “cultural
diplomacy” (Kim & Jin, 2016).
In this manner, K-pop is an ambiguous yet highly exploited signifier for Koreans who
have struggled to generate a cultural identity after their colonial histories. However, K-pop’s
textual nature as a pastiche (if not parody) of Western and Japanese pop musical styles has been
a reason for some critics’ scepticism about the global penetration of K-pop (Fuhr, 2015).
However, from a postcolonial perspective, K-pop may imply the “excess or slippage produced
by the ambivalence of mimicry” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 123). In other words, although K-pop may
seem like sheer pastiche or imitation of Western and Japanese texts, its effects can subvert the
Western hegemony in global pop music industries and consumption. Indeed, a few scholars and
critics have claimed that K-pop can be seen as a signal of postcolonial subversion. For example,
Shim (2006, p. 40) defines the Korean media industry in the 21st century as “a sign of resilience
of the subaltern,” and Ono and Kwon (2013) see K-pop as a hybrid culture through which the
subaltern can speak and challenge Westernizing and colonizing forces. Indeed, as Ono and Kwon
(2013) suggest, the global distribution of K-pop can be seen as a signal of how a music form
from the non-West (if not the periphery) appropriates a global platform for challenging the
dominant flow of pop music distribution. Indeed, the Korean music industry has widely
exploited YouTube and other global social media platforms as an effective way to disseminate its
products and to increase its revenues (Jung, 2015).
The global circulation of K-pop may provide a case study to challenge the universalized
narrative in media studies in which the West is contrasted with the stereotyped rest and to show
the ongoing effects of colonial power in a global mediascape. However, despite recent attempts
to address postcolonial issues in Korean media (Choi & Maliangkay, 2015; Ono & Kwon, 2013;
Shim, 2006), there have been few studies that examine how the postcoloniality inscribed in K-
pop might be recognized and/or challenged by global audiences, and how global K-pop
audiences might embody postcolonial subjectivities in their particular locations of reception.
Moreover, the literature has not sufficiently addressed how K-pop can be re-signified in a non-
Korean context where the text’s postcoloniality may be dislocated. Thus, further empirical
analyses of the global audiencehood of K-pop are required.
Consuming Global K-pop
The family stays in close touch with relatives, mostly via Facebook. They know
that daily bombings continue in their neighbourhood from those updates, as well
as from the TV in their living room, which is usually set to an Arabic channel. For
now, this is the only media Mr. Jawish can consume, but with English classes, he
anticipates that will soon change. (…) When Mr. Jawish leaves the house at about
4:30 p.m. for a doctor’s appointment, Alysar [the daughter] is quick to grab the
TV remote to load up her favourite music video, No Other, by the Korean boy
band Super Junior. Her handle on English is still shaky, but she has memorized
the lyrics to several K-pop songs. (Bascaramurty & Kullab, 2015)
This recent Canadian newspaper’s coverage of a Syrian refugee family’s settlement in Canada
incidentally gives us a glimpse into the ways in which K-pop might be primarily consumed in the
West as well as who may be consuming it. Above all, the story of Alysar implies that diasporic
youth on the transnational move might become enthusiastic about K-pop without necessarily
being interested in Western pop culture. In addition, the story implies that K-pop has been
globalized through digital technology with which music is conveniently remediated as a visual
form. While global K-pop’s postcolonial traces may be inscribed in the histories of its
production and in the hybrid nature of its textual characteristics, the traces are also observed in
the ways that K-pop is consumed overseas. As briefly hinted at in Alysar’s story above, two
aspects of consumption may be noteworthy in discussing the postcolonial nature of global K-pop
circulation–audience groups’ subalternity and their re-appropriation of global technologies. That
is, the text of K-pop, which emerged from Korea’s postcolonial historical context, is re-signified
by the fans who assume such marginal subject positions as immigrants, refugees, diasporic
individuals, and/or ethnic minorities in a transnational context. In this process, a Western-
developed media platform (YouTube in particular) is appropriated to negotiate with the
hegemonic media system, in which mainstream Western pop music is prioritized over other
To explore the postcolonial traces in K-pop consumption, the remainder of this chapter
examines the narratives of young diasporic fans of K-pop in the Canadian context. As part of a
larger project on the K-pop phenomenon across Canada (2015–2016), the data of semi-structured
interviews with 20 young K-pop fans in Canada (excluding those of Korean heritage) were
analyzed. The interview participants, who were recruited via online advertisements and
snowballing in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, were all young Asian
Canadians under the age of 30 (19 female and one male) and identified themselves as dedicated
K-pop fans. They were university students except for one person who was in the workforce.
While some participants were locally grown K-pop fans who were introduced to K-pop during
their childhood in their current residence, others were international or internal migrants who had
been introduced to K-pop prior to coming to their current residence. Interestingly, many
participants had some form of internal and international migration experience for reasons such as
education and family business, and thus, it might be difficult to clearly pinpoint a receiving
location of a global fan’s experiences with K-pop.
Eleven participants were young people of East Asian heritage (Chinese, Hong Kong, and
Taiwanese Canadians), while nine participants had Southeast Asian or South Asian backgrounds
(Filipinos, Vietnamese, Bruneian, and Pakistani Canadians). The participants whose accounts are
directly quoted in this chapter are anonymized by using pseudonyms. In individual interviews,
which were conducted for approximately 60-120 minutes per person, participants was asked to
talk about several topics: how they were introduced to K-pop, what aspects of K-pop and K-pop
idols they liked or disliked, how they used social media for fan activities, and how they
perceived difference or similarities of K-pop and other pop music forms. Overall, despite their
own identification as “K-pop fans,” the participants showed diversities in fan activities. They
may not necessarily fit the profile of typical young pop culture fans who are “public, communal,
creative, communitarian and politically active” (Duffett, 2014, p. 5). Some young people were
more actively involved in participatory fan culture (such as K-pop cover dance clubs), whereas
several young people did not particularly engage with any visible group activities. Drawing on
the interview data, this chapter addresses K-pop fans’ subalternity and technology appropriation,
both of which may imply certain challenges to Western hegemony in global cultural flows.
Subaltern audiencehood. As the officially-used Canadian term “visible minorities”
(those who are neither Caucasian nor Aboriginal) implies (Statistics Canada, 2016), non-White
Canadians are identified as minorities who are subject to visible classification, often
accompanied by grouping and stereotypes, in opposition to White individuals (Karim, 1993).
According to the Asian Canadian fans in the study, K-pop’s performers—Korean idol stars—
were especially attractive. K-pop might be seen as an alternative to the hegemonic discourse of
Whiteness in Canadian media, where ethnic minorities remain marginalized (Mahtani, 2008).
Wendy, a 21 year-old woman of Chinese heritage, who was born and grew up in Canada noted:
(I like K-pop idols) because they are Asians. When I was growing up, whenever I
saw TV shows, if it had any Asian character, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s
Korean, Japanese, or Chinese. “Oh, that’s my favorite character! They are Asians!
(…) K-pop idols are singing, dancing, getting famous, and they are much more
In this manner, many respondents felt personally close to Asian personalities–K-pop idols, who
were different from White personalities often shown on mainstream TV. As pointed out by the
respondents, Asian personalities on Canadian TV seem to be under-represented or negatively
represented. The ongoing operation of the dominant White ideology implicated in national
policies and media (Mahtani, 2008) may work in parallel with the marginalization of people of
color in the global media system (Fleras, 2011).
It may not be a coincidence that relatively marginalized members of Western audiences
constitute an enthusiastic fandom of global K-pop. As suggested by recent empirical studies
(Choi & Maliangkay, 2015; Yoon & Jin, 2016), the global audience of K-pop may not be fully
addressed without discussing the role of the subaltern groups who struggle for cultural
recognition in the White dominant cultural landscape. In particular, Choi and Maliangkay (2015,
p.14) define global K-pop fans as “cultural subaltern” groups, who might share the “sentiments
of minority solidarity.” According to postcolonial media studies, the subaltern is defined as
subordinate social groups, such as ethnic minorities, whose agency is negated yet reclaimed in
the media (Cere, 2011, p. 10). Subaltern audiences are subject to the marginalization of their
cultural tastes and identities.
This subaltern aspect of media consumption was observed amongst the project’s research
participants. For example, Amy, a 17-year-old woman of Chinese heritage, felt that some of her
non-Asian peers did not respect her taste for K-pop: “Sometimes they’re just not that open
minded to receive new kinds of knowledge or information about different cultures. And
sometimes they stop me from talking to them (about K-pop)”. Similarly, Sarah, a 21-year-old
woman of Pakistani heritage, described how K-pop is reduced to a stereotype. She noted,
“[people think] ‘it’s just like a bunch of girly looking guys’ and then, ‘they’re just dancing
around and they have a lot of makeup and like, basically, yeah they were like copying the 90s
popular (American) boy bands.’” In this manner, as the research participants’ enthusiasm about
K-pop was often marginalized as an Asian ethnic taste, K-pop seemed to be considered as the
racialized Other of Western pop culture in Canada.
The marginalized status of K-pop might resonate with young Asian Canadians’ everyday
experiences as ethnic minorities. While young Asian Canadians may seek multiple senses of
belonging (Song, 2003), they tend to be othered by the White gaze. Unlike the White youth who
might be able to perform symbolic ethnicity, Asian youth may be unable to “slip in and out of
‘being ethnic’” (Kibria, 2002, p.101). Young Asian Canadian fans seemed to feel good about
themselves and their ethnic backgrounds by being connected with other Asian youth. A 29-year-
old woman of Filipino heritage recalled how K-pop facilitated her Asian peer networks:
I took my first trip without my family to Asia to stay with a friend that I met
through K-pop. And so, after that, I would travel around Asia more so, I started
meeting new people. (…) It would just happen that we’d meet at a hostel and we
would just talk about stuff and then be like “oh you like K-pop too” and then we
would become friends.
In this manner, K-pop might stimulate diasporic young Asians’ sense of a pan-Asian identity,
with which being, and being affiliated with, Asian or Asian Canadian becomes an important
component of selfhood (Kibria, 2002). Participation in K-pop fandom appeared to offer some
interviewees an enhanced cultural agency with which they could seek a positive self-identity.
Global K-pop performed by young Korean idols might offer the interviewees resources for
empowering their racialized body and identity.
Given that “visible minorities”–youth of Asian heritage in particular–appear to constitute
the center of K-pop’s fan base in Canada, it is necessary to discuss how and why K-pop is
particularly appealing to subaltern audiences. While the respondents in the present study
identified its hybrid nature as an enchanting factor of K-pop, they enjoyed K-pop as a form of
“doing” or practice. In particular, those who were involved in cover dance groups often praised
the verve of K-pop performance. “Their (K-pop bands’) choreography is always really difficult
and strong, so it just makes an impact. (…) they’re able to make a choreography for every song
and I feel like that’s a really hard thing to do, so it’s really, a praiseworthy thing,” noted Sarah,
who was a member of a K-pop cover dance team. The act of performing a K-pop cover dance
was described as a process through which the young Asian Canadians might positively engage
with their bodies and that might eventually lead to their self-expression in urban space.
In some cases, they digitally recorded their performances and/or competed with other
cover dance teams. Also, some respondents occasionally organized flash mobs or other offline
events. In doing so, they territorialized and re-appropriated urban space, which might otherwise
remain insignificant for the racialized youth. While consuming K-pop itself might not
necessarily “guarantee any form of resistance” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 64), the subaltern subjects’
appropriation of K-pop may enable the fan to symbolically resist the dominant social order and
to reimagine their own cultural identity. In the present study, young fans’ cultural consumption
as a process of negotiating their subaltern positions through re-appropriation of a transnational
cultural form can be seen as an implicit cultural resistance that contributes to creating “new
language, meanings, and vision of the future” (Duncome 2002, p. 8).
Western technology re-appropriation. The respondents’ narratives on their
consumption of K-pop revealed an extensive use of social media and an increasing tendency of
media convergence. In particular, social media appears to allow for playful, low-cost, and
socially networked processes of cultural consumption through which a particular cultural
economy of fandom is generated and maintained. An interviewee’s account shows how overseas
fans access and consume K-pop. Linh, a 18-year-old Vietnamese Canadian woman, explained,
“If I’m on Facebook, and Allkpop releases some news about a music release, I go to YouTube
and watch the music video, or listen to the song. And then I download it, off a blog. I don’t buy it
(laughs). I download it”. As illustrated in this account, the consumption of K-pop did not
necessarily involve purchasing materials but rather comprised digital navigating, sharing, and
downloading. For example, Sarah (21-year-old Pakistani Canadian) noted, “We do have a lot of
online Facebook groups that we are in. So, people share music videos and we’ll talk about them,
or they play these games like guess who’s this and whatever.” In this manner, K-pop music
videos were consumed via social media, through which information and emotion were playfully
shared. However, this global consumption pattern of K-pop has been considered a challenge for
K-pop industries because of the pervasive piracy and personal reproduction of original K-pop
products (Jin, 2015).
This digital sharing economy of K-pop fandom is heavily reliant on Western-dominant
new media platforms. Among other social media channels, the globally dominant digital
platform YouTube has played a particularly important role in circulating K-pop music videos
and boosting its global fan base. For many respondents, consuming K-pop meant not only
listening or viewing but also “doing” K-pop on YouTube. For example, Amy, who was a
member of a K-pop cover dance group, pointed out the importance of participating in K-pop and
reworking K-pop materials:
Whenever I see something I really like, I just want to create videos for them like
for me. I do dancing, I put dance covers, sometimes review videos, or music video
reactions, and stuff like that. So it’s kind of a skills challenge for me as well to
edit in such a short period of time and put it out there for other people to enjoy as
well. And, um, it’s kind of just K-pop is just my source of life to be cheesy
(laughs). It’s like… yeah it’s my daily activities that revolve around K-pop a lot.
(Amy: 17-year-old Chinese Canadian woman)
In Amy’s “doing” K-pop, YouTube, sometimes along with other social media platforms,
appeared to function as an effective means through which her fan activities were recorded,
reflected, and shared. Her account seems to resonate with Ono and Kwon’s (2013) study on the
role of YouTube in K-pop fan culture as a platform offering opportunities for postcolonial
subjects to facilitate multidirectional media flows through which the Western-dominant media
system can be reoriented. That is, YouTube, which is a dominant Western-produced media
platform, could paradoxically be appropriated as a means of challenging the Western-oriented
media markets. YouTube may show a new phase of media imperialism and has been considered
a primary component of “platform imperialism,” which refers to Western dominance in
technological development and the infrastructure of new media platforms (Jin, 2013). However,
Ono and Kwon (2013) argue that Western-owned and controlled media platforms can be utilized
by postcolonial media producers and audiences, and thus eventually be appropriated to strike
back at the Western hegemony.
K-pop fans’ re-appropriation of the Western media platform can be observed in reaction
videos and user-created content on YouTube. In the present study, several respondents often
uploaded their own reaction videos and/or cover-dance/cover-song videos on YouTube. As Sarah
(21-year-old Pakistani Canadian) noted, fans may generate or watch K-pop reaction videos
“because you wanna see if they had the same reaction as you did. So if they were also shocked or
they also like the music just as much as you did”. Reaction videos may be an extended mode of
the culture of commenting on or reviewing the original text. However, compared to other forms
of consumer review activities, reaction videos have unique features comprising a visual
performance and the appearance of commenters along with particular aesthetics–such as the
ordinary, natural, and self-immersed nature of video texts (Kim, 2015, p. 336). Also, reaction
videos tend to involve particular desires for, and sensibilities of, K-pop fandom, as they can
generate a sense of belonging beyond geographic or cultural distance. As Amy noted, reaction
videos might contribute to spreading K-pop to global Internet users, and to enhancing a sense of
an imagined community of K-pop fans:
When people make reaction videos, they have the video of themselves and a little
screen for the music video [that they react to]. So, it kind of promotes the music
video as well, if you haven’t watched the music video. And it also gives some
people the feeling of “Oh, they [i.e. reaction video uploaders] want to watch it
with someone, but they can’t really do so.” So, it’s like, having a sense of
belonging. So, they watch it to watch it indirectly with other people (Amy: 17-
year-old Chinese Canadian woman).
In this manner, the creators and viewers of reaction videos seem to participate in such activities
as promoting and talking about their favorite music videos and exploring how others think of the
video across different cultural and linguistic contexts. In so doing, they compare their own
interpretation with others’ reactions and seek a sense of belonging in an imaginary way.
The popular circulation of reaction videos may have implications for understanding the
consumption of global K-pop as a postcolonial process. Above all, fans’ playful participation in
reaction videos has facilitated the rise of K-pop as a set of non-Western cultural texts on a global
scale, moving beyond the typical national gatekeepers of transcultural cultural commodities such
as broadcast media (Kim, 2015). Moreover, in the K-pop culture of reaction videos, which
encourages playful re-engagement with the original text, grassroots translation of other cultures
becomes a main activity of cultural consumption. “Doing” K-pop via online platforms suggests
that the postcolonial hybridity inscribed in the text and traces of K-pop can be even further
hybridized by various participants who are networked via social media. The increasing process
of YouTube-mediated translation implies that K-pop fans do not simply receive and decode the
original text, but rather regenerate it from their own perspectives. As Fiske (1992) claimed, pop
cultural consumption to some extent resembles high-brow cultural consumption, which relies on
cultural hierarchies between haves and have-nots in terms of cultural capital. However, K-pop
fans’ participatory culture of reaction and grassroots translation might, in a way, dismantle the
cultural hierarchies within fan communities. Thus, by doing K-pop on YouTube, fans may
engage with a “subaltern standpoint,” which refers to the social position, experiences, and
viewpoints of peripheral groups (Go, 2016, p. 159). Indeed, as Kim (2015) implies, the
participatory culture of K-pop reaction videos might allow the reactors to question Western-
oriented norms and to be keenly aware of cultural diversity to some extent, while sharing and
viewing different reactions.
However, while YouTube and reaction videos play a significant role in the rise of global
K-pop fandom, this does not necessarily mean that K-pop fans always consider the increasing
number of reaction videos as a positive participatory culture. Several respondents, who were not
particularly interested in viewing or generating reaction videos, disdained the cultural ignorance
allegedly observed in K-pop reaction videos. These fans were particularly critical about younger
YouTubers who produced reaction videos and were seemingly ignorant about the cultural
context of K-pop. Natalie, a 20-year-old fan of Vietnamese heritage described, “There are a
bunch of Americans and people who weren’t used to K-pop. Their expression were ‘weird,
colourful’ or like ‘an explosion of randomness.’” Also, Linh, an 18-year-old Vietnamese
Canadian fan, described reaction video enthusiasts as “outsiders” while claiming that those
uploaders might not be sufficiently knowledgeable about K-pop: “I don’t like to watch reaction
videos. It’s because they’re obviously…most of these people are outsiders, right? Teens react,
for example, right? They say comments that I don’t like. I tend to avoid things like that.” In this
manner, some of this study’s fans, who considered themselves as highly dedicated fans, tended
to distinguish themselves from “outsiders” or K-pop novices, who make reaction videos. This
critical view, contrasted with the view suggested by the aforementioned reaction video
enthusiasts, implies that K-pop fans’ engagement with social media is not necessarily always
participatory, but rather diverse (or even contradictory). That is, some fans playfully use social
media to react to original texts as their practice of “doing K-pop,” while others disregarded
amateurish content generated by other fans. The fans’ different reactions to K-pop reaction
videos show how popular social media platforms, such as YouTube, can be appropriated for
different meanings—for example, the reproduction of the Western gaze and challenges to this
gaze. The contradictory re-appropriation of social media implies that its seemingly open
platform, which is typically provided to its users for free, is not necessarily a neutral space for
subaltern media audiences.
This chapter has discussed how a cultural form emerging from a postcolonial context can be re-
signified and re-appropriated as a means of cultural negotiation for subaltern groups. It has
analyzed global K-pop as a cultural practice that implies postcolonial legacies and struggles in
media production and consumption. On its production side, the Korean music industry as a semi-
peripheral export market in global capitalism has generated the “idol system,” in which Western
genre music is localized by young Korean performers and then globally distributed through
social media-driven fan bases. As an industrial endeavor of Korea, the Korean music industry
has increasingly assumed a semi-peripheral role in the global music industry system by
relentlessly attempting to export its products through Western-dominant media outlets (Oh,
2013). The idol system has reproduced copy-cat boy/girl groups, while embracing the Western
cultural paradigm (Unger, 2015, p. 25). The Korean music industry’s idol manufacturing system
has relied on the exploitation of (mostly local) labor powers including not only young idol stars
but also a large number of “trainees” and potential trainees (as industrial reserves), who struggle
with long work hours and highly intensive emotional labor. Given K-pop’s exploitative
production system and its semi-peripheral position in the global music industry, it might still be
too early to suggest that K-pop is generating an alternative media production system that
challenges global capitalism.
Meanwhile, K-pop is integrated into young fans’ daily contexts of “doing” pop music.
Young fans in this study–those who assume subaltern audience positions in the Canadian
mediascape–consumed K-pop via emerging media platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook.
K-pop fans’ extensive use of social media, such as YouTube, shows that Western-based
platforms are re-appropriated for the circulation of non-Western media content and the formation
of particular pop cultural capital. The playful participatory culture exercised especially by cover
dance groups and reaction video uploaders might imply a postcolonial moment, in which the
colonized perform their resistance and thus destabilize the colonizer’s authority. Indeed, “visible
minority” K-pop fans in the present study seemed to question the Western-oriented mediascape
to some extent, while primarily relying on the Western-based platform of YouTube for “doing”
By critically examining how the participatory culture of K-pop is facilitated by and
integrated into social media platforms, the social effects of “doing K-pop” can be further
explored. In the technological environment of participatory K-pop fandom, the fans’ cognitive or
immaterial labor is encouraged without any financial rewards, and as a consequence, platform
providers gain the profits through user-targeted advertisements and data collection in an attention
economy (Kim, 2015). In this regard, while “doing” K-pop might involve the cultural
expressions of subaltern audiences, the process might not be free from the cultural influence of
Western-based media platforms and the commodification of users’ behaviors accelerated by
By examining the production and consumption of global K-pop, this chapter has
presented a preliminary effort to explore the meaning of K-pop in media globalization from a
postcolonial perspective. Further studies are required to investigate the nature of postcoloniality
in K-pop as a media production system and as a mode of participatory consumption. While there
is a need for further studies and debates, the global circulation of K-pop suggests how the
Western-oriented history of media practices can be deconstructed and thus different histories can
be explored (Shome, 2016).
This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies Grant (AKS-2015-R03).
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