Country Crushes

images by imp kerr

What makes the global culture industry fall for some countries and not others?

Every few years, a new country grips the public imagination, spawning a morass of food trends, fashion trends, and dance moves. We are seduced not just by bands or designers, but by entire foreign nations that rise out of obscurity into the forefront of popular culture.

Why are some countries more attractive than others — and how do they do it?  The ascent of Korea and Denmark — current darlings of the East and West — can give us some clues. Their rise onto the global stage may seem like happy accidents or good fortune, but like most “cool” things, were actually the results of concentrated, and very deliberate, efforts.

II. Everyone Is Eating Ash And Dancing To Psy

Danophilia and the Korean Wave are just the most recent versions of a persisting phenomenon that has existed ever since we’ve had the technology to learn about the “others” across the horizon. In the 19th century, European artists collectively creamed themselves over japonisme. And, as Tolstoy so effectively lampooned in his novels, aristocrats in Tsarist Russia just loved parler en français.

Today, the speed at which culture is propagated and consumed has increased dramatically: We consume more, connect more, and get bored of things more quickly. And, as the New Yorker — a leading propagator of country-crushes in the U.S. — documented last year, Denmark is quite literally the flavor of the month.

Ever since a group of Danish chefs drew up an influential New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, stating their mission of only using local ingredients in 2004, restaurants and some households all over the world have adopted the Nordic mantra of using local and seasonal ingredients, sometimes to an obsessive degree. But none have been able to surpass the world’s top-rated restaurant (at least according to Restaurant magazine) for three years in a row: Noma in Copenhagen, where foodies salivate over actual volcanic ash and moss. In some circles, the “I went foraging with René Redzepi!” story is akin to hanging out with Jesus.

Then there’s the Danish brand of noir-drenched TV shows like The Killing, which everyone, from British housewives to Turkish hipsters is hopelessly hooked on. Factor in the popularity of Denmark’s minimalist design, and it becomes clear that “Scandi-fever” is a global epidemic. Even its politics are in vogue. The Economist jumped on the super-fan bandwagon with a February feature on Denmark’s successful model of social democracy. It noted: “Development theorists have taken to calling successful modernization ‘getting to Denmark.’” The story went viral.

Meanwhile,   Korean culture’s sweeping popularity — or hallyu, as the locals call it — has been propelled throughout the Eastern hemisphere by the slick sweetness of Korean soap operas, movies, and pop music. These three industries have collectively boosted Korea’s reputation as Asia’s “it” country of the moment. Teenagers in Bangkok are ripping off their bedrooms’ posters of Tokyo’s shaggy-haired idols, replacing them with Seoul’s androgynous heartthrobs. Even my grandmother, who lives in Singapore, religiously tunes in every single afternoon to her favorite Korean drama — dubbed over in Cantonese.

Of course, Korea has already been on the global map thanks to the dominance of Korean tech brands like Samsung and LG. But it wasn’t until a certain galloping, pot-bellied K-pop star became 2012’s biggest meme that the world started falling for Korean pop culture’s sugar-coated charm. When I asked Monocle’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Tuck, if he thought Korea could break into the Western hemisphere, he told me, “Psy was just the tip of the iceberg.” I took that as a yes.

III. The Three Stages Of Popularity

Before examining how Korea and Denmark have been so effective at winning the public’s admiration, it’s important to note that their trendiness is not quite the same as “soft power” — a concept coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who defined it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction and not coercion.” This basically means flashing your boobs instead of punching someone in the face to get what you want — a relatively marginal strategy for the official American foreign policy establishment (the U.S. spends about 500 times more on its military that it does on public diplomacy efforts like broadcasting and exchange programs) but one that’s been at work for as long as America has been a country thanks to its pop-culture exports.

Countries with soft power have been able to channel their appeal into a more permanent type of clout; thus, trendiness is a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of amassing soft power, which then allows countries to go about spreading their ideology to the world. America’s soft power, for example, played an integral role during the Cold War, when Hollywood movies helped cast American values in a glamorous light — while hostile Martians and nuclear war-spawned monsters warned of communism’s dangers.

Today, America’s glossy, gum-smacking culture is hard to avoid abroad. If Korea and Denmark are like the cool indie band about to make it big, America is… well, Justin Bieber. Even McDonald’s is considered a “cool hangout” in some countries, simply by virtue of being American. Tokyo party girls don’t bat a crystal-encrusted eyelid over picking at McFlurries.

Soft power isn’t easy to measure, but every year, Monocle magazine tries to do exactly that. In 2012, Britain topped the list (much to the glee of the British media), thanks to a myriad of factors, from the London Olympics to Skyfall. Joining it at the apex were other giants like the U.S., France, Germany and Japan—who form a nice little circle of hegemony over the rest of the world’s cultural consumption. Denmark and Korea aren’t there yet. According to Tuck, the countries that topped the list have “soft powers that are deeply rooted, and it’ll be a long time before anyone overtakes them. It’s not a snapshot of hipness.”

But this “snapshot of hipness” opens up a third kind of cultural popularity that Monocle’s list ignores (but that the magazine itself indulges liberally.)  Call it niche appeal: This category belongs to the countries that grab international attention, but only briefly, among select groups of people. For example, if you’d asked your film buff friend what the coolest country in the world was in 2007, the answer would most likely be Romania — which swept the international film festival circuit in the mid-aughts with homegrown hits like Police, Adjective, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But the “Romanian New Wave” never spilled outside of the film industry, and the world remains just as ignorant about Romanian cuisine — which may or may not be a good thing.

A second example is Singapore. The “garden city” has been billed as the next Monaco — a paradisiacal wonderland for the ultrarich where nightclubs are packed with billionaires, skin-tight Herve Leger dresses are practically a uniform, and every other chair is swathed in ostrich skin.

But even though Singapore has been successful in attracting in a certain type of taxavoiding young billionaires, like Romania, it has (so far) failed to produce a seductive local culture that plays well on the global stage. The average American’s knee-jerk response when posed the question, “What do you think of Singapore?” is, “That’s the place where you can’t chew gum, right?” Ouch.

IV. How Denmark and Korea Did It

Despite the obvious differences between them, Denmark and Korea’s road to trendiness merge at several key points. Both countries began as underdogs; in fact, Denmark was barely a blip on Europe’s radar. In Britain—where the Danish delirium is now the strongest—“people’s perceptions of Denmark were quite limited and clichéd,” said Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley, author of How To Be Danish. “We saw Denmark as this vague place that had Vikings hiding there, Gunther, and… nice tables, probably,” he said, “And in the rest of Scandinavia, I’ve heard it joked that Danes are the slightly more oafish ones who don’t properly enunciate.” Fast forward a few years, and that “oafishness” is now perceived as “rustic charm” and a rugged form of authenticity—a counterpoint to the glossy trappings of our overcommercialized capitalism.

Korea’s relationship with its neighbors is more strained. Open wounds left behind by the Korean War, Japanese colonialism, and ongoing disputes over shared territory still sting. In Japan, where anti-Korean hostility is arguably the strongest, comic books with hateful portrayals of Koreans became bestsellers in 2005.

John Seabrook noted in the New Yorker, “hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life.” He continued, “Korean ancestry used to be a stigma… now it’s trendy.” While this might not be completely true (deep-seated mistrust and economic competition can’t be swept away by the flash of a pop star’s thighs), what is remarkable is how far Korea has risen on the cultural totem pole despite this ugly babel of hateful racism.

A second similarity lies in their finances: Both Seoul and Copenhagen are extremely well-developed cities — “small-scale, wealthy, wired, educated, high-output, secretly very competitive places,” as Robert Bound, the culture editor of Monocle put it when asked if he thought these two popular cities had a certain X-factor. Poor cities attract artists for the cheap rent — but rich cities have the right infrastructure to incubate artistic talent.

“There are at least 15 years of hard work behind their bright plumage,” Bound continued, “Not in a horrible twatty-banker way, but in the unfancy bedrock beneath the illuminated dance floors — investments in talent in music, art, fashion, film, and TV by which to proliferate it.”

It’s also worth noting that financial support of both Denmark and Korea’s biggest cultural industries comes from just a few giant organizations that profit handsomely from their countries’ appeal abroad   One of the biggest investors in Danish culture is a company called DR — a hugely influential public service broadcaster that’s the local equivalent of the BBC.

When Lauren Collins delved into its dayto-day operations for her New Yorker piece on Scandinavian TV’s widespread popularity, she found that DR’s centralization was key to its success, because it “allows its employees to exploit decades’ worth of accumulated institutional knowledge. A showrunner can float a plot point by a specialist on the news desk. A producer can get a backdrop made in minutes in the downstairs workshop.” It’s no coincidence that Borgen, The Bridge, and The Killing — all three of Denmark’s most popular TV programs — were created and produced in-house.

This “hit factory” system works just as well in Korea. Three music agencies, S.M., J.Y.P. and Y.G. (all named after their founders’ initials) dominate Korea’s music scene, and are responsible for churning out Korea’s flawless-trained and impeccably groomed idols year after year. Almost every hyper-polished Korean star goes through rigorous training before making their public debuts; this idolmaking process can take up to a decade, and each wannabe star is trained not only to sing and dance, but also to act, speak several foreign languages (Chinese and Japanese are key), and deal with the emotional pressure of intense media scrutiny.

These agencies control every aspect of their idols’ careers by simultaneously taking on the roles of manager, agent and promoter — and the rigor of their self-created system nullifies the likelihood of mistakes. Yes, Korea’s factory-made idol system may be a backbreaking process for all involved — but there’s no doubt that its success derives, in part, from its remarkably efficient centralization.

The success of Danish and Korean culture abroad, then, is not just a happy coincidence, but rather the effect of concentrated corporate efforts to develop, propagate, and monetize their products. Their governments’ roles in helping these efforts, as a form of good PR, should not be downplayed. The Islamic cartoons crisis of 2006 presented a spectacularly embarrassing debacle for Denmark, which it was eager to wash away. “After the crisis,” Kingsley said, “Denmark has made a point of trying to create a different image of itself, exporting its cultural capital to create a different kind of image.”

Similarly, when Korean culture started gaining traction in the early aughts, “fear that the Wave will fade like a fad inspired frequent discussions about the need for state support and appropriate state policies,” wrote Korean scholar Sue Jin Lee.

Mark Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, is staunchly opposed to giving the Korean government too much credit. “[It] likes to take credit for things, and detractors of Korean pop culture sometimes claim it is just a government-pushed PR mirage, but neither is remotely true…only after Korean music was established and significant did the government get interested.”

And yet, one cannot ignore the invisible helping hands of organizations like the government-sponsored Korean Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA), which was supplied with an annual budget of $90 million to do everything it could to support Korean culture’s global dissemination. To wit: In March of this year, KOCCA began paying for expenses like airfare and accommodations when top Korean artists perform in music festivals around the world.

When I asked Seabrook what distinguished K-pop from J-pop, its cultural predecessor, he replied, “Korean cultural products are made specifically for export, whereas Japanese cultural products only happened to become popular abroad…partly because their domestic market was large enough to absorb most of their cultural production. Not true in Korea.” Creating culture that can be marketed overseas was therefore part of the plan from the start.

V. We Want What We Don’t Have

Peeling back the curtain to examine the catalysts to Korea and Denmark’s meteoric rise reveals several key factors, none of which are particularly sexy. Behind the veneer of effortless cool, highly concerted financial assistance and well-thought-out strategizing by both corporate and government bodies have been instrumental to these two countries’ success.

While it is important to acknowledge the talent and hard work of their artists, it would also be naïve to think that Denmark and Korea’s cultural ascent was an entirely serendipitous, bottom-up movement. Certain key factors such as corporate centralization, economic stability, a sharp eye for marketability, and generous government assistance enriched the soil in which the seeds of talent could take root, and blossom into their fully realized potential.

However, fostering conditions for cultural growth is very different from a top-down approach of trying to squeeze out creativity. Obviously, a government cannot command its citizens to innovate any more than it can force them to have sex (although Singapore’s government has certainly tried, in many awkward and embarrassing ways). Providing structural and financial support without infringing on creative freedom is a tricky balancing act, and that is the linchpin for both Korea and Denmark’s success.

But one final factor, perhaps the most vital, remains: both of these cultures are especially seductive because they show us an alternative way of life that is somehow better than our own — but at the same time, familiar enough that we can envision a bridge between our world and this vision of utopia.

The forest-foraged mentality of Denmark’s culinary scene, the rugged pragmatism of their crime-solving TV shows (and their heroines’ home-spun sweaters), the large safety net of their politics: All of this looks extremely comforting from afar, a welcome respite from capitalism’s soulless gloss. In times of recession, the desire to return to our roots, to a simpler time when everything worked as it should, can be overwhelming.

On quite the opposite side of the spectrum, Korea’s air-brushed soap opera and pop music stars are ambassadors of the polished sophistication that its neighbors are striving to achieve. Confident, stylish and wired, these superstars reflect their home country’s successful modernization — but still retain their Confucian values. “You can wear Margiela and still be a good Korean daughter,” the dancing baby dolls of Girls Generation, Korea’s most successful pop group, seem to be saying. For countries like Vietnam and Thailand that are still trying to figure out how to reconcile the forces of westernization, modernity and tradition, this call is also impossible to resist.

Tapping into what others find strange yet familiar — exotic, yet accessible — seems to be a key ingredient in winning a country mass appeal. In the end, it’s not so different from any other commodity. The pleasure of pop is also the pleasure of recognition.