“K-Pop Dreaming,” a new podcast series by LAist Studios that explores the rise of K-pop and the Korean diaspora in Los Angeles, released its first two episodes on Thursday.
Listeners are guided by host, writer and actor Vivian Yoon, a second-generation Korean American immigrant who spent her formative years in the city’s Koreatown. Yoon’s personal narrative serves as a cornerstone memoir that blends the realms of pop culture and geopolitical history to form a profound love letter to the city of Los Angeles.
A mixtape and a secret
Episode 2, for instance, is framed around a mixtape that Yoon created with K-pop tracks ranging from artists such as SM Entertainment boy group H.O.T. – considered by many as the first K-pop idol group – to Psy and his seminal 2012 song “Gangnam Style.” Each selected track is both an informative historical artifact and a key to a pivotal moment in Yoon’s own life.
“That episode was so hard. That episode actually didn’t exist when we first came up with the outline for the series,” Yoon tells NextShark ahead of the “K-Pop Dreaming” premiere.
A challenge in the podcast was: how do we introduce all these concepts to listeners? In a way that’s not overwhelming. We wanted to introduce big K-pop ideas so that everybody starts at the same place, like whether you’re a super fan, or whether the only K-pop song you know is BTS’ ‘Dynamite.’ How do we get everybody caught up to speed? The idea for Episode 2 was like a quick overview of K-pop. From the ‘90s to the present day.
According to Yoon, Episode 2 took at least 10 different rewrites to appear more like a podcast episode and less like a lengthy article.
The quickest way to get away from boring is to just anchor it in something personal. I then figured, why don’t we just use the songs that informed my childhood and teen years to get us into these bigger concepts?
When it came to picking the songs, it was a no-brainer: here are all the songs that I know have been important to me. From there, it was a matter of mapping it with what I was going through during that time. It just happened that I made the soundtrack to my life in a way. There was a K-pop song present for every period of my life growing up.”
Even though K-pop was an ever-present force in Yoon’s life, the first episode of her podcast opens with her confessing that she kept her K-pop fandom a secret for years:
I don’t think anyone actually made fun of me for listening to Korean music. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my shame was completely internalized. … I thought if people knew I was listening to Korean music, then the carefully crafted American image I had made for myself would shatter.
I also felt like my tastes and music set me apart from the other Korean American kids at school. And that difference, that’s what I wanted. That’s what made me feel cool and special.
History and her story
Through creating “K-Pop Dreaming” – a process which took around one year of research – Yoon is now a different person. She admits she is not a K-pop expert, academic or historian, but she is now able to find power in sharing her own history and the history of the hometown that helped build her.
I had no choice but to listen to K-pop growing up because all the restaurants and shops in Koreatown played K-pop everywhere. It has been interesting to see people who don’t have those same connections that I do really falling in love with this genre and resonating with it so deeply. I think that’s something that I have realized through this journey, is just how real that love is, not just from the fans to the artists in the music, but also the people who were behind creating the music and behind creating the biggest groups that we all know.
In later podcast episodes, Yoon shares her discoveries of how K-pop is intertwined with the shaping of her own family tree.
It gave me a way to examine my entire life and see where I come from, see where my parents come from, where my grandma comes from, and see all these big global forces that shaped Korean history, those same forces shaped my grandparents and my parents. It’s the reason why my grandmother emigrated to California in the 1970s. And it’s the reason why my parents met in Taiwan. And it’s the reason why I grew up in L.A.
New dreams and NewJeans
Growing up watching children’s shows and listening to different bands and public radio, Yoon had trouble finding representation in what she loved.
This podcast made me realize [that] I don’t have to try to fit in the box of having a fully American identity, or being fully Korean, but occupying this third space as a Korean American person. Not just being OK with that but seeing the contributions that you can make and bringing all the different parts of your identity and who you are, bringing that to your work and letting that inform the way you see and interact with the world.
Now that “K-Pop Dreaming” is available for streaming, Yoon says she has a new dream.
The Asian American kid listening who has their own secret dreams, things that they feel like they desperately want, they want it so bad that they can’t even say it out loud. They can’t even admit it out loud. For them to feel like they have permission and the ability and the confidence to just go for it. That is my dream, for us to reach one person, whatever that person’s dream is.
As for what Yoon has on her not-so-secret K-pop playlist nowadays, it’s NewJeans. And when asked if she could pair one of her favorite non-K-pop artists with a K-pop group for a collaboration, Yoon pondered what Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo could do in the K-pop space.
More info about “K-Pop Dreaming,” can be found here.