October 8, 2008
Kpop goes global: notes from the SM Global Auditions (part 1)

Since much of C3's research this year, as well as my individual work, seeks to examine how the principles of cultural convergence and media spreadability play out on a global scale, it was with great enthusiasm that I set out to do ethnographic fieldwork at this year's SM Global Auditions in New York (Flushing, Queens, to be exact).

SM Entertainment is one of the biggest and most elite talent stables in Korea and, thanks to growing prominence of "the Korean Wave," across much of Asia. Known for their pop music talent, in particular well-groomed and intensely professional girl groups and boybands with up to over a dozen members per group. Their strategy, like many successful talent agencies throughout Asia, is to recruit extremely young, usually pre-teens and teenagers, and then put their recruits through extensive training and often, not insignificant amounts of plastic surgery, before choosing the most promising ones to "debut," or launch officially, as "idols." Once most of these "trainees" debut, the press accepts them directly as celebrities, and fans are often carried over based on the SM Entertainment name, as opposed to the group's individual talents.

Their Global Auditions, according to SM's website, are an effort to discover talent that can "stand on the stages of Asia and the world." Despite the name, the auditions were only held in the US and Canada, in 8 major cities, like New York, SF, LA, and Toronto, that are known to be centers of the East Asian diaspora. News of the auditions were spread online, via blogs, message boards, and SM's own website. SM also made recruitment videos featuring all their biggest acts, which got uploaded onto Youtube, Veoh, Dailymotion, Crunchyroll, and a number of video-sharing sites. These circulated mostly amongst fans of the groups, acting both as recruitment and promotional footage for SM Entertainment, but it also ensured that a significant portion of the people at the auditions were fans, rather than people seeking to seriously pursue entertainment careers.

As such, the auditions were an interesting site in which certain tensions between concepts of global and national, fan and "professional" surfaced. This first part will discuss the tensions of national origin and "global" media reach, while part 2 will deal with the auditions as simultaneously a site of professional development, but also fan participation.

One of the major recurring issues at the audition cropped up immediately on the registration forms themselves. There were two versions, one in Korean and English, and the other in Chinese and English. While the auditions were said to be open to anyone of Asian descent, regardless of nationality (that in itself being an interesting requirement for the recruitment of "global" talent), the forms asked that the auditioners indicate if they were Korean, Chinese, Japanese, or "etc.," relegating all other ethnicities not even into a catch-all, but nevertheless distinct and bounded category of "other," but dismissing them into a sort of ephemeral "and so forth."

Despite the insistence that everyone I interviewed, including the staff, that talent mattered over national origin, and a repeated belief that SM was looking for "global" talents that could work outside of Korea, there was strong awareness of SM's Korean origins. When asked why she chose a Korean song to audition with, one informant said simply "well, I'm Korean, so . . . " as if that was explanation enough. Those who were not Korean brought up their ties to Korea. One half-Japanese informant, repeatedly referred to her time spent in Korea. The staff member that I interviewed spoke to everyone who approached the registration table first in Korean, switching to english only if they indicated not to understand. When asked if he believed a majority of the people auditioning were Korean, he answered "Korean, American, both," strangely collapsing the range of nationalities represented at the event into a binary of Korean and not Korean Asians who were "American." He then followed by adding a third category: "White people."

I would not want to suggest from this alone that Korean ethnic ties were being privileged explicitly, nor to condemn SM's decision -- as a Korean company seeking to promote primarily in Korean and East Asia -- to cater towards their demographic. Rather, I want mainly here to highlight the complexity of the negotiation of the "global stage" not as something that has done away with national affiliations, but as something very closely bound to them. As we speak of the digital, global world, too often do we incorrectly assume the disappearance of borders simply because information moves more easily across them.

The question of "global" media then is not simply one of doing away with the barriers between markets, of selling the same things the world over. It is a process of media circulation which takes places through many official and unofficial channels, with varying policies and stakes in the articulation of both what it means to be "global."