[Beyond Hallyu] “‘Cause you’re in my city”: Examining Seoul through K-pop (2014.7.31)
“‘Cause you’re in my city”: Examining Seoul through K-pop
I was walking down the streets of histories
I was weaving all the wasteful energies
I see a million different faces in my dreams
Can’t tell if it’s fake or reality
–Love X Stereo, Soul City
The enterprise of K-pop music is a highly geographical one: performers make their name through concentrated promotion in one of the world’s largest metropolises, Seoul. Although domestic and international K-pop fans make pilgrimages to Seoul in hopes of seeing in more concrete terms the world their idols see – and maybe catching those idols on the street – we seldom hear from K-pop performers themselves about their environment. For many idols (and their lyricists), the city is barely noticeable in its ubiquitousness; it is “just life,” too specific and too quotidian to appeal to an audience of millions. Yet, space and place play an important role in shaping all of our lived realities: the kinds of activities we do, the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others, the dreams we aspire to. “Perceptual, or socially constructed, models of the environment recognize that a consensus of individuals who perceive and characterize their environment constitutes a measure of environmental press or climate,” write Strange and Banning (2001, p. 85). “These perceived characteristics of the environment, in turn, exert a directional influence on behavior.” Here are four K-pop songs that use lyrics and visuals to represent Seoul’s environment through the respective lenses of their performers and to make an argument about the city’s impact on the speaker.
Love X Stereo – Soul City
Love X Stereo’s promotional video for Soul City begins in motion: we gaze out a car window as the city rushes past. We see the glamour of the river and buildings that sparkle in the sunlight, but we also see the plainness of the walls bordering the highway. The camera stays in motion throughout the video as we journey further into the city and to what appears to be a party at dusk. Lyrically and visually, Soul City presents us with a perceived, sometimes confusing reality full of contradictions: “wasteful energies” and “hopeful energies” pervade the atmosphere, and one must “take it slow this time,” but at the same time, the speaker bids the addressee to “hurry up, you can’t be lazy.” One must embrace the contradictions, “love the love and love the hate altogether.” The speaker describes Seoul as a place that belongs to her, yet “you can’t leave this town.” While the lyrics of Soul City are more abstract than those of the previous songs, they also capture more of what Seoul means to the speaker. In the end, she suggests, it is the city itself that grips the speaker; it is the place, with its contradictions and fantasies, that shapes and transforms her.
(Full lyrics here)
In examining these songs, we find that Seoul is not a single, unified concept. It may be a place where dreams come true, where all things are possible, as S.E.O.U.L. suggests, but B1A4 and 2000 Won show how it can also evoke loneliness and separate its inhabitants from meaning and fulfillment. Love X Stereo and Psy remind us that like any city, Seoul is full of surprises, illusions, and contradictions. In further probing the complexities of the environment in which the kpop industry creates its products, we can better understand the city’s influences on the performers we love – and we can reflect in turn on how our own environments shape us.