By Matthew Silkin
Remember “Gangnam Style”? Remember how utterly… baffled the West was at this odd slice of the South Korean music industry? Remember how it became the first video on YouTube to break 1 billion views?
That was in 2012.
Honestly, I’m surprised nobody saw this coming.
On April 12, 2019, another music industry record was broken, this time by South Korean boy band BTS, when their album Map of the Soul: Persona became their third that year to top the Billboard 200 — the first band to do so since The Beatles. A milestone for sure, but that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to all their other achievements — being the first Korean band to have an album certified as Platinum (meaning over one million units sold) by the RIAA, being the first Asian and first non-English speaking group to sell out Wembley Stadium in London, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, and receiving the Order of Cultural Merit from President Moon Jae-In of South Korea.
Take to any topic on Twitter — I’m not exaggerating when I say “any topic” — and chances are, in the replies to a popular tweet, you’ll see someone post a GIF of a BTS performance, or tell someone else to “stan” BTS (to “stan” meaning to be an intense fan of — see the eponymous 2000 single by Eminem). My 13-year-old cousin can name every member of BTS — both stage name and real name — and has all their birthdays, likes, dislikes, and appearances on South Korean TV programs memorized. This last point doesn’t necessarily apply exclusively to BTS, by the way. The success of “Gangnam Style” eight years ago has paved the way for a boom of Korean pop, also known as K-pop, across the world — especially in the United States.
Music isn’t the only industry that took a sudden interest in South Korea. Just a few months ago, Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy Parasite became the first foreign film ever to win the prestigious Academy Award for Best Picture, with Bong himself snagging the award for Best Director. Additionally, it won awards at the Golden Globes prior, the Palme d’Or at Cannes in France, as well as a myriad of other awards from various guilds and film communities.
I, for one, welcome this new foray into foreign pop culture. As someone who is already an avid consumer of foreign media, it’s a bit relieving to see my choices in entertainment being validated by Western society. But there are other reasons why this makes me happy.
Despite what literature professor Joseph Campbell might tell you, there are a lot of different stories out there. And even for you ardent fans of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, even if there is one story, there are a lot of different ways to tell it — Campbell himself even used the number “thousand” in his title. Exposure to other cultures through their artistic outlets — their stories, their music, etc. — is one of the easiest ways of becoming a more well-rounded human being.
This is doubly true if you lean towards a more creative personality because this exposure can lead you to adopt these methods for your own endeavors. After I read Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche — his harrowing interviews with the survivors (and in later editions, even perpetrators) of the 1996 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by Aum Shinrikyo — I realized that even non-fiction writing has certain artistic elements to it. I resolved to emulate Murakami’s patience and keen understanding of his subject in my own writing
Additionally, it shines a light on how much of our domestic media that we already consume originated in other cultures. I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender way before I knew what anime was; I have friends who were ardent childhood fans of Power Rangers who have no idea what the word “tokusatsu” is and have never seen an episode of Kamen Rider or Ultraman.
While my earlier examples have all been East Asian, one need not reach so far to find other pieces of foreign media to explore. I’ve been listening to French musician Stromae as of late, and have been checking off a list of Greek films from director Yorgos Lanthaimos. Even within our own Jewish bubble, there is some easily accessible foreign media. Ephraim Kishon’s hilarious 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati is a favorite of Hebrew teachers in my alma mater high school, as well as the high schools of other friends I’ve talked to, as an entry point to Hebrew language learning and Israeli culture.
True, foreign exposure is a slow process. Though it’s good to find inlets into these cultures, there are several hurdles over which one must jump in order to fully appreciate what they are watching or listening to, with language being the obvious one. Especially with regards to comedies, other countries and cultures have different senses of humor and methods of joke telling, at which point the comedy might feel stale and uninteresting to those outside the know. There also might be deeper references in the works themselves to pieces of history or mythology that might not be easily recognizable to those outside — for example, one of my favorite anime series, Hoozuki no Reitetsu (Japanese for “Hozuki’s Coolheadedness”), is set in the Japanese interpretation of Hell, and a lot of its jokes and references stem from this and other tangential mythological locations, as well as its denizens. While getting the hang of the mythology was challenging at the beginning, it was immensely more rewarding when I could rewatch the show, knowing with new context exactly what myths the show’s creators were pulling from for certain scenes.
Society’s current foreign media darling South Korea, whose examples were the springboard for this piece, is just a microcosm of where the world is going. I don’t think I can put it better than Bong Joon-Ho himself, who said at the Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I really hope everyone who reads this takes that to heart — if you haven’t already.