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Book review: Mark James Russell — K-POP Now!

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Mark James Russell: K-POP Now! – The Korean music revolution
Tuttle Publishing, 2014, 128pp

If the only thing you know about K-pop is Gangnam Style, this book is for you. And even for someone who knows a bit about the subject, this is a handy book to browse. For me, as an occasional lurker and puzzled observer in K-pop fan forums, there were several moments of minor revelation. Ah, so Dara is the same as Sandara Park of 2NE1. So, Jay Park used to be part of 2PM, and 2PM is different from 2AM – and similar snippets of information which helped assemble names randomly noticed over the years into some sort of order.

Mark Russell has been following the Korean entertainment industry for many years and writes with ease and enthusiasm. His first book, Pop Goes Korea (LKL review here), provided a fascinating overview of the film, TV drama and music world. It was not a book aimed at the fans, but with its accessible style many fans should have enjoyed it. With K-POP Now!, as the title suggests Russell focuses on the current state of K-pop. After a couple of introductory chapters looking at Korea’s recent history, and at the parts of Seoul with which Korea’s entertainment industry is most associated (yes, Gangnam gets a mention but Hongdae is not ignored either), Russell reviews the more recent history of K-pop before getting stuck in to a few interviews. It’s nice to see the Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi get featured, and we meet Kevin Kim from Ze:A and Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky, who talk about the audition process and their own particular routes into K-pop stardom. And then we launch in to a series of features on some of the top groups and solo acts of K-pop.

KPop NowThese are the chapters which were the most informative for this particular reader. Having long monitored Google search terms which bring people to this website I have often noticed strange names and wondered what they were. So now I know who Davichi, FT Island and After School are, who their members are, what they look like (yes, there are plenty of colour pics), and what singles or albums of theirs I should check out on YouTube. And I know what B.A.P. stands for.

I’m sure there will be some who will be disappointed that Russell did not find space to do a two-page feature on their own favourite band, but I can’t think of any major omissions in respect of bands who are active today, apart maybe from JYJ. And in a world where idols come and go so rapidly, this book is pretty up-to-date, noting for example the rise of Busker Busker and Crayon Pop.

There is a minor inconsistency in Russell’s overviews of the different bands. In general, he provides a welcome overview of their members, highlighting in particular where members have moved from one band to another – for example as Hyuna moved from Wonder Girls to 4Minute, or Doojoon who failed to get into 2PM or 2AM and joined B2ST instead. But with TVXQ!, who had one of the most public bust-ups in K-pop history, it’s as if they have always been a duo. The chapter airbrushes from history the three other original members of the band, who now make up JYJ. The omission of this significant detail creates a couple of head-scratching moments: the chapter talks about the TVXQ!’s early a capella singing – tricky if you’re a duo – and in discussing the problems Kara had with their management agency contract, almost splitting as a result, Russell says: “Fans were shocked and worried that this would turn into another TVXQ! and possibly end another promising K-pop group.” Readers who aren’t familiar with some of the background might have been puzzled by that comparison.

This minor omission notwithstanding, Russell doesn’t shrink from referencing some of the more controversial aspects of the K-pop industry – for example the long contracts through which the stars are bound to their management agencies. But this book is a celebration of K-pop, and not an expose.

It’s an enjoyable and informative read which strikes a good balance between out-and-out fandom and critique, and can be warmly recommended.

K-POP Now! is released in April 2014. It is available for preorder from at £11.90

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