By Elise Yoon
Elise Yoon is a senior Chemistry major at MSU and host of the Asian Music Show, Asian Invasion, on 89 FM The Impact every Monday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Star Chen and Elise Yoon in the studio at WDBM East Lansing (2014)
Star’s friend had just requested one of the latest singles by Girls Generation. “In China, guys call them ‘legs generation’” he told me. I laughed, thinking about the rumor I once heard that the girls had taken out insurance policies on their legs. Here we were, myself and two students from China, singing in Japanese along to the K-pop sensation Girls Generation. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this moment was the culmination of years of work, and ultimately what the Asian Invasion was all about: bridging cultures through a common love of music.
Music has always been a huge part of my life. My parents named me after the Beethoven piece “Für Elise”, and like any good Korean-American parents, they enrolled me in violin and piano lessons at a young age. In my angsty teenage years, I spent most of my free time with my friends at local shows in dive bars and dark basements, more than likely doing some damage to my hearing.
I grew up sitting next to an FM radio. I spent my youth singing along to the dance, R&B, and rock songs of the 90s, sometimes even gathering up enough courage to call up the DJ and request a song by Sarah McLachlan or Cake. I still remember declaring to my brothers that I had a favorite song for the first time. It was “Waterfalls” by TLC; even though I was ignorant to the story and message in the lyrics, I loved the way the song sounded. It didn’t matter that I was unaware of the mature themes of the 90s songs I was singing along to, because I loved the music, and I was able to do so without needing to know the meaning of the words.
I preferred punk rock shows to playing in an orchestra; although I did enjoy it, the violin isn’t exactly cool especially compared to an electric guitar or the drums. Being an Asian-American in a primarily white community also doesn’t seem cool when you’re a teenager, or any age in development, because you just want to fit in. As a child, I refused to go to Korean school, and not just because it was school on a Saturday morning. I didn’t want to learn how to speak Korean, because I was an American, living in America, speaking English with other Americans. I didn’t want to be different. Because I had grown up in a primarily white community, and had had US History drilled into my head so many times, I had this misconception that an “American” was a white person, and everyone else required a hyphenated name like African-American or Native-American or Korean-American. By that logic, I was only like, pseudo-American.
When my two older brothers went off to college, they started taking Korean language classes and even did study abroad programs in Seoul. Finally, learning Korean and being Korean was somewhat acceptable in my teenage mind, maybe even a little cool. If my cool older brothers were getting into Korean, maybe there was something to it.
Pretty soon after, I got my acceptance letter to Michigan State University, and in no time had applied to my favorite radio station: 88.9 The Impact. I started training to be a DJ, and after a short time on The Fix (our online-only training station), I was ecstatic to accept a spot as the Sunday night/Monday morning 2-6 AM DJ. The hours were hard, but I was hooked. I loved being able to share music with people, to tell listeners random facts about artists, upcoming concerts, and even identify songs for callers as previous Impact DJs had done for me and my friends when we were younger.
Pretty soon I was doing everything I possibly could at the radio station. Joining the promotional street team, writing reviews for new CDs each week, interviewing artists, and even getting into audio production. I changed my major from History to Telecommunications. At the same time, I was taking an introductory Korean language course. That summer I went to Korea to stay with my brother; while still in Seoul I knew I had to come back, and I applied to study abroad at an internet café in Seoul.
Baeknyeong Island off the coast of North Korea (2008)
Lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday celebration in Seoul, South Korea (2008)
Though I had visited Korea a couple of times as a child, it felt like I was discovering my parents’ homeland for the very first time. I wandered around the city, walked through random public parks, hiked up mountains, visited small art galleries, stumbled upon protests, ate in more than one restaurant that was actually some grandma’s living room, and I fell in love with Korea. When I was with my friends, many of whom were also Korean-Americans (or Korean-Canadians, or Korean-Australians), we came to know our parents’ land through its culture. We ate spicy food, we watched movies (though we didn’t always understand them), we learned drinking games from native Koreans, and of course, we spent countless hours singing karaoke in dark basement rooms.
Let me be clear about one thing: karaoke is not just something you do for fun in South Korea. Karaoke is a national pastime. Everywhere in Seoul, you see “노래방” which means norae-bang, Korean for “song room”, or karaoke. Alleys are lined with neon noraebang signs, and you can hear the latest pop songs blasting out of each establishment. When we had a family reunion, my uncle put on his glasses and studiously wrote down song names along with their five-digit codes before we left for the noraebang in order to maximize our time there. Like I said, Koreans are serious about karaoke.
In the spring of 2008, Big Bang was huge, and it was the song “Lies” that got me into K-pop. The song’s success lasted for a surprisingly long time considering how quickly K-pop moves, and how quickly an artist can become irrelevant. I absolutely loved K-pop, its dance beats and unique style of combining ballads with rap felt refreshing.
My first semester in Korea, I enrolled in a class on Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Hallyu is the term used to describe the recent phenomenon of Korean popular culture’s extreme success around the world, first starting in China and Japan, and now making its way around the world to places like Russia, South America, and even the Middle East. It was fun to watch movies in class and discuss their cultural impact, but I never thought Hallyu would have personal implications.
Local indie band Seogyo Group Sound performs at Club FF in Hongdae, Seoul, South Korea (2008)
In Seoul, there is a neighborhood called Hongdae, short for Hongik Dae-hakyo, or Hongik University, a small school known for its arts program. Hongdae is where punk music in Korea first emerged in the mid-90s, and where most live music in Korea has lived for the past two decades. I discovered Club FF when a guitarist invited my friend to see his band play. Walking down those dirty steps for the first time, I knew I was in the right place. It felt like it could have been any dive bar in America, and I immediately felt right at home. Finally Korea was providing me with a great live music experience, and I didn’t have to shell out a lot of money or sit quietly in an auditorium.
On Saturday nights, I’d throw on some sneakers and head to Club FF to check out live local bands. I was so excited to see Koreans playing rock, punk, and even ska music. I knew there was more to Korean music than just K-pop, but I was finally experiencing it. I eagerly bought CDs, either at live shows or from my favorite hole-in-the-wall store Hyang Music. When I temporarily left the radio station for my study abroad in Korea, music had been missing in my life, and now I felt like I had discovered a whole new world of it.
Elise with K-Pop group 2PM at KBS Music Bank in Seoul, South Korea (2009)
I was fortunate enough to get an internship with KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and to work with the weekly program Music Bank. Each week, the biggest K-pop stars would perform their latest hit live on stage in front of a live audience. Before my eyes, K-pop and K-dramas were quickly expanding in popularity into Southeast Asia, Europe, and even the Americas. I encouraged our show’s producer to create a Twitter account to interact with the many English-speaking fans – at the time, corporate businesses were just figuring out how to use Twitter – he told me I could do it, giving me the opportunity to wander around backstage and take somewhat candid shots of some of K-pop’s biggest stars (somewhat because agencies and managers can be super controlling about their artists’ images). In the Western world, fans loved Twitter because it allowed their favorite stars more freedom to be themselves; in the Eastern world, it made stars more human. Music Bank’s Twitter quickly took off, and has since helped the show do live productions around the world in places like Hong Kong, Indonesia, France, Chile, and Turkey.
When I came back to America, I was excited to share Korean music with my friends. Throughout my whole life, I’ve loved making mixtapes (or CDs, rather) for my friends. The radio station had an open specialty music show slot on Monday nights, and the timing felt right. As long as I had been at MSU, there was a large international community of students and faculty, including a decent-sized Korean student population. I wanted to create a show for both the international and domestic communities to enjoy; I wanted to share the joy of discovering new music. From my experience as an indie music fan and DJ at the radio station, I noticed that pretty much all of the artists we were playing were from America, Canada, Great Britain, or Scandinavia. From my experience in the basements of Hongdae, I realized there was great indie music being made in other places; it just had to be discovered.
I chose the name “Asian Invasion” because I didn’t want to limit the program to any one nation’s music. Anyway, a term like “K-pop” becomes more encompassing every day, with K-pop stars singing in English, Japanese, and Mandarin. “The Asian Invasion” was meant to be a playful take on the British Invasion, but for a new generation. When The Beatles came to America, girls screamed until they fainted. Similarly, when K-pop artists travel to different countries, they’re greeted by hordes of fans at the airport and arena, some having camped out for days just for the possibility of a glimpse of their favorite K-pop star. It was exciting to see more and more Americans around me discovering Korean culture through music or dramas, or even showing interest. It was as if Hallyru was quietly invading America and the Western world, just as Japanese culture did before it. The “Asian Invasion” meant more than a name for a program, it represented me taking back my Asian-ness and owning it; I realized I was now proud of my ethnicity and I didn’t have to apologize or be ashamed.
I went to the director staff with my proposal for a new type of specialty music show playing Asian music. I started with primarily Korean music, because that was what I knew, but also eagerly searched for any Asian music. Whether it’s a new K-pop group from Seoul, a Chinese punk band, death metal from Japan, or even a mixtape of Cambodian artists imitating 1960s American surf rock, I try to expose our listeners to a wide range of music; partly to illustrate that there is way more to Asian music than K-pop, but mostly to provide something fun and new to anyone with an open mind.
In a time when global dynamics are changing rapidly, it is exceedingly important to bridge cultures and realize that we are all human beings, and we have more in common than we think. One thing I hear the most is, “I didn’t know they sang in English.” K-pop songs have always included English, and takes many of its cues from American culture. These days, I feel that culture transcends national borders more than ever. Pretty much anyone with internet access can tell you who Psy is, and my cousin tells me that in Chicago, the Korean dramas have both English and Spanish subtitles.
Mayday Now Here World Tour at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago (2014)
I recently got to see Mayday in concert when they stopped in Chicago on their latest world tour. If you don’t know who Mayday (五月天 or Wǔ Yuè Tiān) is, they’re the “Chinese Beatles”, the first rock band out of Taiwan, and if you’re counting fans, they’re the biggest band in the world. Ask anyone who’s been to a Mayday concert what that experience is like, and the first reaction is speechlessness. A Mayday concert isn’t just a rock show; it’s an interactive experience like no other. Imagine thousands of screaming fans who know every word to every song – Mayday has nine studio albums to date – a sea of glow sticks that change color according to the mood of each song, a stage filled with talented and hardworking performers, and film-quality videos between the songs that tell the story of a dystopian, yet hopeful future. The NOWHERE World Tour isn’t just a series of songs performed live; it’s an incredible experience centered around the band’s most recent album The Second Round, with two versions and a clever play on words. The album contemplates the end of the world in both positive and negative ways, named Now Here and No Where.
One thing I’ve heard over and over is how dedicated Mayday is to their fans. The Chicago concert was evidence of this in itself. For a band that has the fan power to sell out 200,000 seats for two nights at Beijing’s Bird Nest Stadium, and considers 30,000 people to be a small concert, coming all the way to America to perform for several thousand fans seems like it’s not worth their time. Yet they made it to Chicago, and managed to make a hall with 6000 people seem like an intimate event. Something in Ashin’s voice is honest and eager, not to mention the thought and care behind every lyric. The band makes sure to bow and thank their fans at the end of the show. Despite only knowing a few words and phrases in Mandarin Chinese, I was able to enjoy the concert thoroughly, and I spied some of the theatre staff tapping their toes and nodding their heads to music they were hearing for the first time. It was more than singing along to the anthemic songs, or having this immediate connection with thousands of strangers that suddenly felt like close friends; Mayday puts their heart and soul into their art, and the result is something that can be seen, heard, and felt.
As I wrap up my studies, I am also slowly letting go of the show that I have hosted for the past four years. We are currently looking for new hosts. You certainly don’t need to be of any certain ethnicity or background to be apart of this. My previous co-host Danny grew up in Kuwait, but later became passionate about Japanese culture. My current co-host Star grew up in Southern China, and I grew up here in mid-Michigan. All that is required is a passion for music and a desire to learn new things.
If you are interested in working for Impact 89FM, we are always looking for more DJs, videographers, engineers, writers, music reviewers, news team members, sports reporters, producers, promoters, and more! You can apply online.
If your student group would like to partner with the Asian Invasion for announcements or events, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org