[28 September 2004]
A group of celebrities fill the TV screen, five in a line. Behind them, slightly elevated, sit five more. Most are 20-year-olds, a few are in their 30s and 40s, fewer, still, in their 50s. There is a healthy gender mix, though more men than women. Their clothing styles are varied: from scooped neck chiffon to button down and tie to baggy blue jeans. Their hair and jewelry range from perms and diamond rings to shaggy dyed tresses and body piercings. Two hosts one male, one female sit to the right of the celebrities, angled to address both guests and audience. As the female host speaks, pink script spools across the screen. When the male host speaks, blue characters materialize in time with his words.
This should be Japanese television. All the hallmarks of ReDotPopTV are there: a gaggle of celebs; a range of couture choices; a shared forum for slightly racy confessions; the constant banter (one utterance prompting another with guffaws and shrieks galore); the subtitles (all gendered up in pink and blue); and a range of sound effects accentuating each punch line. Yes, every marker of Japanese TV is present all the well-developed tropes and time-tested formulae. It looks and sounds like Japanese TV, only . . . it’s not. This is Korean TV. Or, to be precise, SOUTH Korean TV. Japan’s little brother (depending on who you ask) to the west, or favorite abused neighbor (depending on who offers a rejoinder). South Korea, where I have been spending a few days conferencing, stretching my deadline for this column, but never far removed from my job: attending to popular culture and trying to make sense of what it means in the fabric of our lives.
And what it means for the moment is that I have apparently stumbled upon an interesting variant on my métier: something we might call ReDotBlueDotPop.
What ReDotBlueDotPop appears to be is ReDotPop with an accent. Other than the words (and, okay, the historical and cultural referents), Korea looks incredibly like Japan in its televisual communication style. And isn’t that grist for the globalization mill? I mean, after all, we all KNOW that all cultures are different, that no two societies are the same. Just as a for instance (as if proof were necessary), in my exploration of Seoul I found an International Herald Tribune which, upon reading, on my ascent out of Incheon informed me of the top 10 selling albums in various countries around the world. A simple scan of the lists told me all I needed to know about cultural difference. Tim McGraw, with Live Like You Were Dying, checks in at number two in the US, whereas that philosophy is nowhere to be heard on the UK, French (heaven forbid!), or Spanish charts. Another American export, though, R.E.M., manages to crack the final spot in Britain as a music download while Stipe and the gang are nowhere to be found in the US. Of course, this might be because the song being downloaded is called “Leaving New York”. Other Americans who make it abroad but not at home include jazzlibber extraordinaire Keith Jarrett, who checks in at number nine in France, but is unsurprisingly unconsumed in his native land, proving once again that the French just may know more about art than their oversea’s freres. And underscoring how neighbors can be worlds apart, the French estimate Bjork a number one (I suppose confirming the suspicion of just how quirky they can be), while the Spanish rate the Icelandic siren a 10.
Knowing all that, imagine my surprise to click on the telly and see that the Koreans have adopted the exact same approach to TV communication as the Japanese. Sure, these are countries with centuries of intermingling; the first Japanese emissaries traversed the Sea of Japan to “the three kingdoms” in the 4th Century. What they brought back were the potter’s wheel, methods of rice growing, and religion, most notably, along with recognition that there were some more sophisticated civilizations in the greater “out there”. After an epoch of political interaction, the debutante steadily gained confidence and, as tends to be the pattern in human psychology, “ascended” to a level of inverted snobbery. This inevitably resulted in numerous Japanese adventures across the straits: particularly during the six-year span between 1592 to 1598. Despite successful Korean rebuke then, the persistent Japanese ultimately succeeded in annexing the peninsula in 1910. The colonial rule that followed brought the Choson Dynasty to an end, a rule that had been continuous since 1392. Justlikethat, traditional Korea was expunged. In an effort to control the people, the Japanese forbid Koreans from speaking their own language, learning about their history, or continuing with their past ways of life. Subjugation was so complete that the grandparents of Koreans today can still sing many of the Japanese songs “taught” to them in their Japanese-run schools.
Needless to say, such a history of cultural “exchange” did not endear Japan to its good neighbors to the west. Instead, years of resentment resulted in official bans in the latter on the flow and distribution of goods of the former. These included cultural products movies, music, electronics goods toward which proscriptions have only recently begun to be relaxed. (Parenthetically, it should be mentioned that the last year or so has witnessed an explosion in the Japanese consumption of Korean pop: in particular, the songstress BoA (although she sings mainly in Japanese) and a slew of TV dramas, which have become runaway successes on TV and video rental in the ReDot realm. The bespectacled 30-something male, Bae Yong-Jun, (with a face and bearing somewhat suggestive of a mature Harry Potter) star of Winter Sonata, the weepy multi-part TV drama shown last year in Japan is now a most recognizable face in Japanese advertising. This may not be proof of conqueror’s guilt seeking expiation, but it surely is evidence that every dog has its day.
So, while Koreans may still not be overly-consuming Japan, the reverse is certainly true. But so, too, could it be said that although Koreans aren’t overtly consuming Japan, they certainly appear to be doing so in less conspicuous ways. It is, after all, only a two-hour hop by plane from Seoul to Tokyo. So short is the trip that certainly TV executives and producers from the country of kimchee, have made the trek once or twice in their lifetime. And when they clicked on a TV program from their hotel in monied Asakasa, or hip-hopping Roppongi, they certainly were not immune to the “A-ha” moment, the “Ah-sou, there’s-an-idea-or-three-for-me” light bulb clicking on and off over his or her head. Which most likely led just as quickly to a dash back to the airport, on to a plane, a quick ride back to Seoul, and a hasty scramble into the rewrite booth. And what they produced was what we, in the media studies business, call “infotainment”.
Infotainment is one of those porn things: can’t define it, but know it when you see it. Which doesn’t mean that many people haven’t tried . . . to define it, that is. Basically it is the blending of information and entertainment. Well . . . duh! Traditionally, though, this approach has only been seen in certain kinds of shows (what media researchers, who stick a label on everything, call “genres”). These include: quiz programs, docutainments, sports programs, competitions, talk-shows, how-to programs or, more recently, news/current affairs programs. In my recent work in this area I have tried to show that this approach to communication is a form of discourse (another fancy label, meaning a way of packaging, transmitted and decoding yet a third label! information). With me so far? Anyway, what happens when infotainment spans all genres or even consolidates them under its umbrella is to bring the entire audience together; into the fold as if we all were one family. This is less like other media (even PopMatters, no matter how devoted you are to its gospel!) because EVERYone in Japan watches TV: on average 3.5 hours a day. And this mode of sending and processing information is now pervasive across its channels. This ensures that the only way that audiences can input, make sense of, and act on the televisual world is via an infotainment frame.
Clinching it altogether, though, is something else probably missing from where you are currently sitting: Japan. Because Japan, according to scholarship left in magma to fossilize decades ago, is based on a binary of uchi/soto: an organization in which “you are either on the bus or off”. Or, in this case, inside or out. How it works, according to writer Dorinne Kondo, is this:
“depending on the context, uchi can be any in-group: company, school, club, nation . . . chi describes a located perspective: the in-group, the ‘us’ facing outward toward the world . . . (as a centre of) belonging and attachment . . . uchi defines who you are through shaping the language, the use of space, and social interaction . . . Uchi always exists together with the term, soto. In symbolic terms, soto means the public world, while uchi is the world of informality, casual behaviour, and relaxation . . . (In a word), uchi is not simply home or inside but a circle of attachment and a locus of identity.” (Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, University of Chicago Press, 1990).
What this means, in practical terms, is this. When the panel of guests on stage watch the videotape taken in Australia of the shark attacking the female swimmer in the surf along with the audience back home, they all in the tradition of Infotainment-casts begin working through their (generally stunned) impressions of the footage. And, as the camera pans in tight for reactions, one of the famous (attractive female) guests says “now I’m afraid to go into the water”. To which a famous (male) guest (know for his lecherous tendencies) retorts: “if you ever do go back in the water, I want to be the shark. To which the host promptly slams him in the head with his red plastic hammer. To which everyone guests on stage, audience in the studio, canned soundtrack, and, presumably, audience back at home all launch into thunderous applause and cacophonous laughter.
But, so too, is it how infotainment communicates with and helps form a televisual uchi. What results is an insulated space, a metaphysical but tangible locus in which the audience can come together with performers and TV content and engage in moments of intimacy with one another as members of a singular, televisual family. This solidifying of group and the designation of their special space is reinforced by appeals to the collective’s commonalities (such as their national identity, cultural history, and fundamental beliefs). Their interactions play to this, as Andrew Painter, a Japan-based academician, has observed: they are long on spontaneity and play, as a way of simulating a sense of intimacy. In a sense these production ploys trick viewers into wishing themselves to be part of the televisual group on-screen.
And because these performers are recycled from show-to-show, station-to-station, day-to-day, week-to-week (operating within the same general infotainment format), they carry that sense of intimate connection with them. And when viewers who surveille television constantly spy these performers the next time we are likely to make this affective connection once more.
Which is not to say that is how it operates in Korea. Hell, I know even less about that country than my ability to remember and perform the words “Kamsahamnida” to the bus driver who dumped me at the airport. Thus I can’t really vouch for the fact that Koreans have an “uchi” dynamic going in their ReDotBlueDot world. But in flipping channels the few days I was in Seoul, it would have required a blindfold and fugue state to miss the infotainment-intimacy angle. Which is kind of like this column when you think about it: a splash of information; a dash of entertainment; and a grasp for that ever-elusive affective link. If you are anything like me, you take your intimacies anywhere they happen to rush out and clutch at your limbic system . . . Even when they are delivered from a ReDotBlueDot sound stage.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden040929/