Why K-pop groups are superior in dancing and East Asians in educational achievement

While being in the process of making final revisions on a peer-reviewed journal article on K-pop, I have looked into some K-pop-related scholarly works that I have not previously examined. Such as Wonho Jangs and Youngsun Kims article ‘Envisaging the Sociocultural Dynamics of K-pop: Time/Space Hybridity, Red Queen’s Race, and Cosmopolitan Striving’ (2013).

I will not make any subjective or personal assertions regarding the pros and cons with having a strong work ethic and highly competitive meritocratic education system and social culture. However, this is nevertheless one of the endogenous factors which seems to underlie both the high PISA scores and the hard-working K-pop stars. The quotes – and not the least the imbedded videos – below say something substantial about this general East Asian, yet particularly South Korean phenomenon (at least regarding pop music).

As one may notice, contemporary South Korean nationalism is intimately related to globalization and cosmopolitan striving. That is: to either succeed abroad, at an overseas high-ranked university (preferably in the US or UK), and hence to be acknowledged in South Korea, or to be globally famous within the frames of for example the South Korean entertainment industry (which simultaneously implies some degree of overseas fame, at least in East Asia and Southeast Asia).

One may also note that Jang and Kim emphasize Confucian elements with regard to the general K-pop talent trainee system, which, however, John Lie is skeptical about in his latest work on this subject. Since I have read both of these two contributions, as well as an earlier article on the same topic by Lie (2012), I do sort of take a middle position regarding this very particular subject; hence there is still some degree of Confucianism left in contemporary South Korea, and it seems to affect behavior among citizens such as family values, but it is no longer very distinctive and much of its former doctrines, practices and social structures have been lost in oblivion.

Additionally, since Jang and Kim regard high results and high-quality performances among (young) South Koreans in general as a part of the same socio-cultural phenomenon and dynamics, it should be emphasized that other (East Asian) countries and city regions, such as Shanghai, Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and Japan – and with Finland and Switzerland as prominent exceptions among European countries – have high PISA results while not being particularly successful when it comes to the production and distribution of pop music.

Thus, if the aim is to explain the relative regional and global success of the production, distribution and dissemination of South Korean pop music, i.e. K-pop, then one has to keep other endogenous and exogenous factors in mind too. (In my article I put emphasis upon some of these key factors, which scholars such as for instance Lie and Ingyu Oh have examined, and to whose works I have referred to.) Or rather, one may have to clearly differentiate between particular kinds of socio-economic and socio-cultural domains and activities – school performance is one thing, while pop performance is another (although these may overlap to some extent).

With regard to educational achievement in East Asia and Singapore – particularly test perfomance scores such as PISA (국제학생평가프로그램 in Korean) – and work ethics, Confucian or post-Confucian elements may be – combined with largely Western-influenced capitalism and meritocracy – part of the explanation, but then it is more about general regional characteristics than local endogenous factors. However, the largely export-oriented South Korean economy is definitely one key component in this respect; both in relationship to overall economic patterns and outcomes and pop cultural circulation, and clearly differs from the more insular Japanese economy. [1]

The tenative conclusion at this point is that there is not any single main factor that underlies neither educational achievement nor pop cultural success, but strong work ethics and a vast amount of practice or studies are unhesitatingy linked to all of these outcomes. Over the last ten years or so, K-pop has become the – at least commercially – the superior form of pop music in Asia, and to less extent the entire world, and once its talent system is put into place new stars will continue to be educated within its highly competitive frames. The reason for this may in turn partly be due to what is labeled as cosmopolitan striving.

[1] Apart from the first-mentioned article, among several studies of significance in this respect one may also mention John Lie’s K-pop (2014), Donald Baker’s Korean Spirituality (2008), and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011).

To reiterate, both the exogenous and endogenous features of a particular music genre or a particular group of singers must be discussed in order to explain such massive success. Many scholars have underestimated K-pop’s endogenous success factors, although they highlight the exogenous ones, such as globalization, regionalization, and the influence of J-pop and other Asian pop music on K-pop (Iwabuchi 2001; Chua 2004; Cho 2007; Allen and Sakamoto 2006). Even when endogenous factors were investigated, only the negative factors, such as the long-term contracts which were even referred to as “slave contracts,” were unnecessarily highlighted (Ho 2012), without addressing the validity of the harsh training system based on such long-term contracts. This system has only been effective in Korea and is seen as largely responsible for the global success of K-pop, particularly because such intense training and long-term contracts in other countries, such as Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, have not had any positive influence on singers in the long run. This section, then, attempts to shed light on the endogenous elements that are deemed germane in the formation of the global K-pop fandom. In order to do so, the reasons for K-pop’s success should first be discussed before examining the negative endogenous factors that may cause its possible future failure. We suggest three specific features of K-pop that have been pivotal in K-pop’s ascendance to its present global status: the contemporaneity of the uncontemporary, the synchronized dancing to melodic music (vis-à-vis beat music), and the multi-top dancing formation.

Boy and girl bands all over the world usually dance to beat music in a synchronized fashion. However, the preference of harmonized melodies over beats in synchronized group dancing is not common, as it is hard to dance to certain types of trendy beats, while singing a song that incorporates complex harmonies. A common claim regarding the reason K-pop bands are able to master synchronized group dancing while singing complex harmonies is that these singers were harshly disciplined and carefully controlled by their so-called “slave contracts.” For example, Nusrat Durrani of MTV World pointed out that the nine members of Girls’ Generation perform “every dance move in sync, every [melodic] note precisely hit.”

Cosmopolitan striving is a metaphor for a collective motivation toward upward mobility in a transitional society from Asian or developing economies to modern and Western economies (Park and Abelmann 2004). In Korea, it is widely thought that learning English, for example, is a quick way to become rich and powerful, as English is thought to provide one with new cosmopolitan opportunities, such as studying in the United States and the United Kingdom (Park and Abelmann 2004). Learning about Western culture is also considered to be an important stepping stone to advance one’s economic fate in society. Under this type of biased Western-centric, promodern social rubric, cosmopolitan striving motivates people to pursue what Oh (2009, 436) calls “forward learning.”




Jag håller för närvarande – parallellt med andra sysslor – på och reviderar en peer-review-granskad tidskriftsartikel om k-pop. Inte bara om denna företeelse i allmänhet utan om vissa särskilda aspekter av detta ämne.

I samband med denna process har jag även tagit del av ett antal studier som jag inte har läst tidigare, till exempel Wonho Jang och Youngsun Kims artikel ‘Envisaging the Sociocultural Dynamics of K-pop: Time/Space Hybridity, Red Queen’s Race, and Cosmopolitan Striving’ (2013).

Denna sätter till stor del fingret på unga nutida sydkoreaners höga utbildnings- och prestationsambitioner, och är i sin tur en av orsakerna till att k-popstjärnor och -grupper, som exempelvis TVXQ, Girls’ Generation och Super Junior, kan träna så pass enträget och frekvent att de klarar av att göra mer eller mindre perfekta synkroniserade dansformationer, både i flera av sina musikvideor och live (även om de ibland förenklar sina framträdanden, inte minst danskoreografin, i en del livesammanhang).

Snarlika typer av hårda och envetna tränings- eller studieprocesser tycks ligger till grund för sydkoreaners höga PISA-resultat, och benägenheten att vilja söka till utbildningsinstitutioner i andra länder, allra helst de högst rankade universiteten i USA och Storbritannien.

När det gäller åtminstone PISA-resultat kan man dock notera att andra (till stor del östasiatiska) länder och storstadsregioner som Shanghai, Singapore, Hongkong, Japan och Taiwan, samt vårt grannland Finland, också har mycket höga resultat inom matematik, naturvetenskap och läsförståelse. Därför måste man belysa även andra för Sydkorea typiska faktorer när man förklarar k-popartisternas högutvecklade förmågor. Dessutom är k-pop en transnationell företeelse, som över huvud taget inte kan förstås utan USA, Japan och i mindre utsträckning även andra länder, varför fokus delvis måste ligga på exogena faktorer.

Som ett flertal olika studier visar när det gäller många östasiatiska länders – inklusive Sydkorea – höga resultat kan säkerligen konfucianska element och värderingar spela en viss roll, men ännu viktigare är de västerländska influenserna som har kommit till och spridits inom denna region via framför allt USA och Japan. Den är i sin tur en historisk förutsättning för den kosmopolitiska strävan som finns bland en stor andel unga sydkoreaner. [1]


[1] Se till exempel John Lies K-pop (2014), Donald Bakers Korean Spirituality (2008), och Niall Fergusons Civilization (2011).

Lightly and meditation

The broader wellness concept does generally include a whole plethora of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory phenomena. Not only fitness – which itself is quite multifarious and includes everything from heavy-weight bodybuilding to cardiovascular activities among slim females – but also conventional medicine, and New Age ideas, and the latter may be partly related to both Buddhism (불교 in Korean) and Hinduism (힌두교 in Korean).

The Swedish meditation company Lightly, founded by the multi-skilled – vocalist in Yersinia, lecturer, writer and entrepreneur – Mattis Erngren from Uppsala appears to be one of the most interesting, substantial and relevant operators within the Swedish wellness industry. We got to know eacher while we were both studying religion in Uppsala back in early 2008, and like I Mattis did also write for Close-up Magazine.

Last year, I was also blessed by to have many e-mail interchanges of ideas with Mattis, and hence know how much evidence and sound reflections that this company’s theories and methods hinge upon. This is what they say themselves regarding the latter:

Meditation is a science-proven method to reduce stress, increase focus, boost emotional intelligence and much, much more. Utilized in a modern company, meditation will make your employees happier and more efficient.

If one, or perhaps rather one’s company and its co-workers, is interested to learn meditation (명상 in Korean), Lightly may be the proper choice in this respect.

Det bredare wellnesskonceptet inkluderar en mängd olika fenomen – alltifrån fitness, naturvetenskap och konventionella kostråd och mediciner, till New Age, och det senare kan i sin tur vara kopplat till både buddhism och hinduism. Man kan nästan tycka att det finns ett flertal inre motsägelser i fråga om de olika idéer som torgförs inom wellness, men blandningar av vitt skilda idéer och rön är hur som helst ganska vanligt förekommande.

Wellness kan även innefatta meditation, och i det avseendet är det svenska meditationsföretaget Lightly en av de mest intressanta, relevanta och teoretiskt och metodmässigt välunderbyggda aktörerna inom sitt område.

Dess grundare är den mångkunnige Uppsalabon Mattis Erngren – sångare i bandet Yersinia, föreläsare, skribent och entreprenör – och eftersom jag har haft ynnesten att få utbyta många idéer med vederbörande, särskilt i fjol, vet jag att det rör sig om ett substantiellt koncept, underbyggt av vetenskaplig bevisföring och genomtänkta reflektioner.

Är man som individ intresserad, och då kanske inte minst om man befinner sig på en position där man ansvarar för sina anställda på ett företag och vill förbättra deras välmående och prestationsförmåga, kan Lightly utgöra ett mycket lämpligt alternativ i detta avseende.

5 main authors to focus on

This blog’s main focus is related to a specific concept, body and brains, and hence to develop both physically and intellectually as a person. To develop physically does also imply and include phenomena such as fashion, and to develop intellectually is also related to for instance traveling, so these two main areas do partly overlap several subjects and domains and consist of a rather broad spectrum of dimensions and activities.

An additional aspect of relevance is what is sometimes called life-hacking. Life is full of choices, and therefore it is both hard and ineluctable to recurrently make choices related to how to invest and spend one’s particular time and money. So if one is striving for to develop intellectually, one must select a reasonable quantity of books, journals, blogs, documentaries and podcosts to read and/or to watch and listen to. The keywords in this respect are what can be labeled as smart selection.

Throughout the years, I have read a lot of books – both academic, fiction and other categories – and hence is able to give som proper guidance with regard to which authors and works that one may chose in this respect. However, in this case I will focus solely on novel authors and their fictional works.

I will do this by to exemplify five fantastic novel authors, and in connection with each one of these mention some of their masterpieces. It is quite subjective, of course, but I have considered many aspects while making my decision in this respect, such as that a quite broad age spectrum might be able to enjoy these. For instance, one relevant dimension that I have thought of, is that all of these authors and their respective works, are often easily accessible, and can be found in many libraries and/or in bookstores, and they are available in both English and Swedish editions (and well, Strindberg wrote primarily in Swedish, of course, but his works have in many cases been translated into English and other languages) and very often as audio books too. I hope that some may find these tips useful.


1. Yukio Mishima
I have briefly written about the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) in earlier posts, and in conjunction with this emphasized his interesting lifestyle (he was one of the early pioneers – particularly in East Asia – in bodybuilding, and one of the most talented authors of the whole 20th century: what a combination!).

Mishima produced quite many novels during his active years, but if I would only mention one piece of work it has to be The Sound of waves (1954). It is a fantastic novel about male bravery and love between a boy and girl. It is so well-written that almost every piece of word is like a small section of art. A definite must-read.


2. August Strindberg
Strindberg (1849-1912) is, as most real or potential readers already know, one of Sweden’s most famous authors, and like Mishima he produced a vast amount of different kinds of works – not only novels, but also plays, essays, poems and journalistic material, and he was also an Impressionist painter.

With regard to his fictional works – often influenced by his own life experiences – I would have to chose Inferno (published in French in 1898, and in English the first time in 1912) as one of his absolute masterpieces. If a person is interested in existential, scientific and religious topics, this splendid piece of work is the proper one to focus on.


3. Umberto Eco
The Italian semiologist, literary critic, essayist, medievalist, popular scientific and fictional author Umberto Eco (1932-), is one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th and 21th centuries, and possesses an extraordinary amount of knowledge about many different subjects, but medieval history and literary theory in particular.

This broad and deep knowledge is showcased in many of his fictional works, such as The Name of the rose (first published in Italian in 1980 and in English in 1983) and Foucault’s pendulum (first published in Italian in 1988 and in English in 1989). Read these two – you will definitely be a lot smarter afterwards, and their plots are quite thrilling and entertaining too. Eco is the predecessor of Dan Brown but only much better.


4. Haruki Murakami
The second Japanese author on the list is Haruki Murakami (1949-), one of the most best-selling contemporary authors on a global level, and behind critically-acclaimed works such as The Wind-up bird chronicle (1994) and less prominent but commercially successful pieces such as the 1Q84 trilogy (2009-2011). You can find his pocket books in virtually every book store in the developed parts of the world, I guess.

Since Murakami is one of my absolute favorites, it is hard pick only one or a few of his works. But I think that Kafka on the shore (2002) still has to be one in this regard. It is a phantasmagoric and multilayered novel, which contents – among other things – overlap psychoanalysis, Greek mythology and Japanese history, while mainly taking place in modern Japan and thus is a interesting reflection of this country’s many facets.


5. Michel Houellebecq
Houellebecq (1958-) is one of the most controversial but also acclaimed – at least in his native homeland France and other Western countries – authors in current times, and behind partly provoking novels such as The Elementary particles (originally published in 1998, and in English in 2002) and Platform (2002).

Although it is possible to find stylistic and other sorts of flaws in all of Houellebecq’s works, I do still insist on that one should read all or at least most of them, particularly his novel debut, translated into English as Whatever (1994), and The Elementary particles (in English in 1998).

Houellebecq’s works are at the same time funny, deeply serious and regardless of aspect relevant, and treat many topics and sub-topics such as the sexual market, prostitution, ageing, existential puzzlement, and some of the obstacles that charcterize the contemporary French society. It is not easy to figure out which side he is on so to speak – for instance, is he a misanthrope or not? – but that is partly why he is worth reading. You have to think for yourself and try to figure out what your own thoughts are regarding these contentious issues.

Under årens lopp har jag läst en stor mängd böcker – både akademiska, skönlitterära och andra slags kategorier – och kan därför ge en del vägledning gällande vilka författare och verk som man kan välja bland i detta avseende. Tiden är knapp och det är därför viktigt att göra smarta urval. I det här inlägget kommer jag dock endast att fokusera på romanförfattare och deras respektive fiktiva verk.

Jag kommer göra detta genom att lista fem stycken i mitt tycke fenomenala författare, och i samband med att var och en tas upp också nämna en eller ett par av deras bästa verk. Det är förstås till stor del subjektivt, men jag har ändå tänkt igenom detta ordentligt och det gäller även beträffande åldersspektrum; tanken är att alltifrån 20- till 70-åringar skulle kunna tänkas få ut någonting av samtliga dessa. Dessutom har jag lyft fram författare och verk som i de flesta fall är väldigt lätta att få tag på, både på bibliotek och i boklådor, både på svenska och/eller engelska, ja kanske även på koreanska.

1. Yukio Mishima
Jag har tidigare skrivit lite om den japanske författaren Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) och i samband med det tagit upp denne minst sagt intressante mans – han var bland annat en av pionjärerna inom bodybuilding, åtminstone i Östasien, och definitivt en av 1900-talets mest begåvade stilister – syn på olika samhällsfrågor. Om man endast ska nämna ett av hans verk, måste det bli Bruset av vågor (1954, utgiven på svenska 1965), en fantastisk kortroman om manligt mod och kärlek mellan en tjej och en kille. Oerhört välskriven, och man slipper politiskt innehåll.

2. August Strindberg
Strindberg (1849-1912) är, som de flesta läsare redan vet, en av Sveriges mest kända författare, och har dessutom skrivit pjäser, noveller, dikter och journalistiska texter, samt var även impressionistisk målare. Om man endast ska lyfta fram en av hans romaner får det lov att bli Inferno (utgiven på franska 1898 och något senare översatt till svenska), som behandlar en mängd existentiella, religiösa och vetenskapliga perspektiv och frågor, och är inte minst enastående formulerad. Särskilt skildringarna av Paris är fenomenala.

3. Umberto Eco
Den italienske semiologen, litteraturkritikern, essäisten, medeltidskännaren, populärvetenskapliga- och romanförfattaren Umberto Eco (1932-), är en av de ledande intellektuella under 1900- och 2000-talet, och han besitter onekligen ett enormt, både brett och djupt kunnande, om många olika ämnen.

Detta färgar också hans romaner, som Rosens namn (utgiven i svensk översättning 1983) och Foucaults pendel (utgiven på svenska för första gången 1988), som båda verkligen bör läsas. Som läsare kommer man garanterat att känna sig betydligt smartare efteråt. Eco är föregångaren till Dan Brown fast oerhört mycket bättre.

4. Haruki Murakami
Murakami (1949-) är den andra japanen på listan och utan tvekan en av de mest framgångsrika författarna – på global nivå – i dag; man hittar mängder av hans böcker i inte minst pocketinriktade butiker och på snart sagt varje svenskt bibliotek. Hans långa roman Fågeln som vrider upp världen (1995) är tämligen kritikerrosad, medan flera av hans lite senare verk – som i många fall blivit översatta till svenska under de senaste 10-15 åren, oavsett när de exakt har skrivits på originalspråk – har inte mottagits med samma entusiasm av kritikerkåren, men det varierar och är inget man behöver bry sig alltför mycket om.

Eftersom Murakami är en personlig favorit är det svårt att välja endast en bok, men det får likväl bli Kafka på stranden (i svensk översättning 2007). Det är en fantasieggande och väldigt mångbottnad roman, vars innehåll och teman överlappar bland annat psykoanalys, grekisk mytologi och japansk historia, samtidigt som handlingen primärt utspelar sig i ett nutida Japan med allt vad det innebär av långa bussresor, shintohelgedomar och västerländsk popmusik. Fantastisk och kan läsas flera gånger.

5. Michel Houellebecq
Houellebecq (1958-) är utan tvekan en av de mest kontroversiella nutida författarna, men det är också svårt att kategorisera denne och lista ut vad han så att säga egentligen tycker om sådant som den sexuella marknaden, prostitution och människan som biologisk varelse – läs därför denna utmärkta recension av romanen Refug för att få en bra inblick i hans tänkande och hur det tar sig uttryck i den litterära produktionen.

Trots att fransmannen Houellebecqs verk – för några han för övrigt fått motta prestigefyllda pris i hemlandet – har en hel del brister, vill jag dock påstå att man bör läsa nästan alla eller i alla fall de flesta av hans romaner, för så intressanta och underhållande är de.

Om man vill göra ett något snävare urval i det avseendet kan man dock kanske ta itu med den korta debuten Konkurrens till döds (i svensk översättning 2002), följt av Elementarpartiklarna (i svensk översättning 2000), Refug (i svensk översättning 2006), och Kartan och landskapet (på svenska 2011).

저는 특별한 소설 을 미시마 요키오 (특별한 ‘파도 소리’), 아우구스트 스트린드베리 (‘지옥’ 특별한 ), 움베르토 에코 (예를 들면 장미의 이름 ), 무라카미 하루키 (특별한  해변의 카프카), 하고 미셸 우엘벡 (예를 들면 소립자 ) 쓰으로  좋아해요. 그 소설 들을 다 읽어주세요.