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[Korea Beyond Korea] Yale sociologist and BTS fan researches K-pop

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Nov. 7, 2023 - 08:20

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Professor Grace Kao of the department of sociology at Yale University (Kim So-hyun/ The Korea Herald) Professor Grace Kao of the department of sociology at Yale University (Kim So-hyun/ The Korea Herald)

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut -- Grace Kao got into BTS and K-pop by accident.

In April 2019, the sociology professor at Yale University was deeply impressed when she saw the Korean boy band on Saturday Night Live, a TV show that she had watched since she was a child.

“SNL was around from the ’70s. I always remembered the musical guests, and they never had Asians. I really enjoyed the performance by BTS, and Googled them a bit,” Kao said in an interview with The Korea Herald at her office in Yale University.

Being an Asian American herself, she said she realized how much she missed seeing people who look like her on TV.

The following year, she went to a conference -- the last one before COVID-19 lockdowns -- and met a graduate student of ethnomusicology, a study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. The graduate student had worked with popular Korean musicians such as Lee Hyo-ri and Busker Busker.

She exchanged information with the student, who later became her collaborator in her study of K-pop.

“Life is full of accidents. I was chair of our department then, and it was a very stressful time, and I was mostly at home. That’s when I started BTS videos,” she said.

“BTS is K-pop’s gateway drug for Americans. That’s how people start.”

She soon became a member of Army, the official fandom of BTS, and now studies the subgenres of K-pop and its cultural, sociological and political effects.

For instance, as a quantitative sociologist, Kao is working on a project with data scientists to look at data on X -- formerly known as Twitter -- related to a 2021 BTS post published about a week after a gunman in Atlanta murdered eight women, six of which were of Asian descent. The post, with #StopAsianHate or #StopAAPIHate, was the most shared of the year on the platform. Her team is looking at how the conversation about the shootings before and after BTS tweeted had changed.

In her seminar course for freshmen titled “Race and Place in British New Wave, K-pop, and Beyond,” which explores how some popular musical genres are tied to racial, regional and national identities, she assigns 25 to 30 songs each week for her students to listen to.

“They have to write short comments on the songs. Sometimes they comment on which songs stood out, what they liked most and least on the playlist. The songs also match some of their readings for the week," Kao said.

Her students are interested in the development of K-pop and how it could be exported to the rest of the world, and how much creative control idol group members have.

“Since they are young and thinking about their own careers, some of them are interested in how industry professionals entered this field,” she said.

“They are very surprised how powerful popular culture is in terms of the development of ‘soft power’ for South Korea.”

Last month, a seven-member K-pop boy band called Trendz spoke with Kao’s class on Zoom.

The students asked the septet questions on their music video filming process, the best and most challenging parts of being an idol, and who they would like to collaborate with.

Trendz also asked the students how much time they spent studying every day, to which the answers varied from six to 11 hours.

When asked about their dreams and hopes for the future, the students were very quiet, but Kao said her dream was to see Trendz perform at a concert in person.

“Korean Studies Beyond Korea” explores the current landscape of Korean studies through interviews, in-depth analyses and on-the-ground stories told from diverse world areas. Funded by the Korea Press Foundation, this series delves into the challenges and opportunities facing the field as Korea's rise as a cultural powerhouse has drawn interest from scholars, researchers and leaders from around the globe. – Ed.