Friday, March 7, 2014

K-Pop Now by Mark James Russell (2014)

::The Skinny::

Title:  K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution

Written by:  Mark James Russell

Language:  English

Publication year:  2014

Pages:  128 pages

Price:  $15.95 at

In less than 30 words:  Good introduction to the current state of Korea's idol pop music

Reading List category:  Pop culture

Keyword(s):  K-pop

Writing style:  Easygoing, familiar.

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

Note:  I received a review copy of this book from Tuttle Publishing and Mr. Russell.

K-pop is a phenomenon that is desperately in need of an able-handed chronicler. Despite its global success, there is a real dearth in the English-speaking world of people who can explain K-pop--what it is, where it came from, and how it is now. Although this void cannot be plugged by a single person, Mark James Russell shines a welcome light into it. Keen-eyed and resourceful, Russell has regularly provided valuable insight into today's Korean pop music that is both historical and comparative. Russell's celebration of K-pop is jubilant but sober. Because Russell understands that a cultural phenomenon does not just happen overnight, he pays proper homage to K-pop's history and the people who created it even though they may not be readily visible in the current K-pop trend.

One can catch a glimpse of Russell's perspective in his second book, K-Pop Now. The book begins with a brief introduction of Korea as a country, then provides several interviews with K-pop artists (Kevin Kim from Ze:A and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky) as well as K-pop "distributors" (Simon and Martina Stawski from Eat Your Kimchi). Then the book devotes its remaining pages to brief introduction of more than 30 major K-pop acts such as Big Bang and Girls' Generation.

K-Pop Now is not a treatise of everything there is to know about Korean pop music. Like the stars it covers, the book is glossy, thin and image-heavy. Russell's insight is more readily available in the introductory passages, as the later parts of the book are not much more than a series of quick presentations about K-pop artists. None of this is meant as a criticism. The book is properly understood as a breezy introduction to a slice of Korean pop music scene, which is hardly a reason to complain: everyone needs an introduction to a given topic before they explore further.

As someone who writes frequently about K-pop, I do have a couple of quibbles with this book. First, although Russell tips his hat toward the rich tradition of Korean pop music that dates back to the 1920s, the actual coverage of the book is almost entirely limited to what is more properly characterized as "idol pop" than "K-pop." Plainly, the word "K-pop" means "Korean pop music," and Russell agrees with this definition. But even as Russell states that "the term stands for much more than that," reading K-Pop Now leaves the impression that "K-pop" means much less than "Korean pop music." Although Korean pop music encompasses much more than the manufactured idol pop music, the book only covers three artists who are not peddlers of idol pop. Given this, the book's inclusion of CN Blue--a corporate band that was engineered to look like a faux indie act--is borderline insulting. Why not cover one more real Korean indie band in its stead?

Second, where is Lee Hyo-ri? Even one stays within the narrow definition of K-pop, the omission of the reigning queen of Korean pop music and one of the most influential female artists in the history of Korean pop music is a major oversight.

But again, there is no need to put too fine a point on these quibbles. As long as one understands K-Pop Now is an introduction and not the entire universe, it will be worth the reader's time.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to learn more about the current state of K-pop, without losing sight of the fact that there is more to Korean pop music than idol pop music.

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