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Cheesy 'B-class culture' sweeps Korea

A scene from MBC’s 'Infinite Challenge'. (Photo courtesy of MBC)

Publication Date : 08-10-2012


This man is no Prince Charming.

He’s a rather chubby man with a sneaky grin and whose shirt buttons seem about to pop. He is attired in a full suit with dress shoes and stands next to a fancy car. His shades are too small to cover his eyes and he doesn’t mold all of his hair with pomade.

He boasts that he can win any girl he likes and that he prefers women who understand class. But in reality, all he can do is hit on any girl while looking at their legs and dancing on an imaginary horse. The girls that hang out with him are grannies in a tour bus and when he’s tired he wraps a towel around this waist and relaxes at a sauna.

But he still doesn’t lose his confidence. He is the “man of men” and “knows how to play”. He even teaches his “loser” friends how to dance to pursue sexy ladies.

Oddly enough, the less-than-ordinary-looking guy has captivated pop lovers around the globe. He is Psy, of course, a maverick singer who named himself a psycho.

The singer and producer once explained that his milestone song “Gangnam Style” was all about the “B-class culture”, somewhere between the mainstream and a cult. The phenomenal success he currently enjoys demonstrates has sometimes, vulgar, cheesy, quirky and corny elements that work magic.

“I wanted to go back to my roots, the ‘thug’ spirit,” Psy said before the release of the song. After his triumphant return to Seoul from the US on September 26, he said, “I love being an underdog. I was born an underdog and whenever I come up with cheesy music, it gives me the goose bumps.”

And thanks to the “Psy phenomenon,” people are rethinking “B-class culture” and its spirit.

“‘B-class culture’ is used as a general term depicting something outside the major trend mixed with satire, retro, criticism, alternative suggestions and others,” said Jang Seok-yong, head of the Korean Art Critics’ Association.

“B-class culture is not about quality of the art itself. It is the direction and aim of the culture. Therefore, it doesn’t seek to make it to the mainstream.

“For instance, the rebellious underground theatrical play of Pumba or modernised version of Korean traditional percussion music, ‘samulnori’, has become classic of B-class culture because they have those factors,” he said.

And at the moment, Koreans are enjoying every bit of it.

Rebellion against mainstream

In its early days, B-class culture here was more of a “two-for-one”, stressing the low budget aspect and the “hungry spirit,” or a strong drive to succeed. Later on, it began to be recognized as an independent area for art. Still, it never reached mainstream status.

“I believe it derived from post World War II German film directors who self-deprecatingly called themselves B-class compared to the lavishing Hollywood production system. But now it depicts all fields of art or culture that has a low budget and is relatively free-spirited, with a little cynical point of view,” Jang said.

Professor Lim Hong-sun of Seo Kyeong University said that Koreans becoming more individualistic has propelled the B-class culture.

“In traditional Korean society everyone was highly conscious of what others thought of him or her. But today, not many care. They feel free to speak up about what they think and what they want.

“For a long time being different or unique was perceived as a negative thing. But today, it is something to celebrate,” he said.

“It is now cool,” Jang said.

‘Don’t try to be mainstream’

The essence of B-class culture is being “unperturbed by others”. If you feel like changing your direction, admit it quickly rather than make stupid excuses. Don’t ever try to be mainstream or crave it, it shouts.

Seven entertainers of MBC’s Saturday show Muhandojeon (Infinite Challenge) struggle to complete for some of the most miscellaneous goals every week. Looking chic or cool is not an option. They dare to cross-dress, run after each other doing slapstick gestures, desperately striving to “make the audience laugh”.

They are all at the top of their fields, they always call themselves losers and happily agree to make fun of themselves.

Maeumeui Sori (Voice Within the Mind), one of the most-viewed webtoons, speaks about trivial matters in life. The pictures aren’t pretty and the topics are so trivial that very few people would have even thought about them before.

“The most shocking thing of the year was ―” one of the characters said in one of the episodes “― was when I learned what seesaw was,” insinuating that he had always thought the term was Korean. People commented, “I have never thought about that either!” The cartoon has run 665 episodes so far.

“I love people undermining my cartoon saying, ‘It’s for kids,’” Cho Seok, the cartoonist said in an interview.

“B-class culture touches and explores the basic instinct and desire of ordinary people, without the pressure of having to look classy,” said Lee Dong-yeun, a professor at Korea National University of Arts.

Don’t be serious

Psy told an American TV presenter that his motto is “Dress classy, dance cheesy.”

B-class is all about being fun, having fun ― even when people are in the midst of their deepest despair or at a classy occasion. Acoustic band Chang Ki Ha & the Faces sings about how a jobless young man could spend a day meaninglessly ― drinking a leftover cup of coffee, scratching up his bedroom floor, brushing his teeth so hard his gums bleed. The lyrics and expressionless, flat voice of the singer spares little room for the listeners to detect the singer’s frustration but in the end, yes, many people get it.

Hyeongdoni wa Hangjuni and several other pop groups are composed of comedians and serious musicians. The odd combination inspire each other, allowing musicians emancipation or deviation from their serious music while letting comedians make a soft landing in the new field with the help of professional musicians.

Their song, Anjoeulttae Deuleumyeon Deo Anjeoeun Norae (The Song that Makes you Feel Worse When you Feel Bad) sprinkles salt on the wounded hearts of broken love. The duo, which dresses in tight T-shirts and gold chains like low-class thugs, mumbling imprecise pronunciation that makes it difficult even for Koreans to understand the lines, topped the chart earlier this year.


But whether B-class culture can root itself in mass culture scene is questionable.

Lee says it is highly unlikely that the Korean public will enjoy it as a regular flank of art and culture. “Let’s take Psy as an example: People were stressed and the horseback-riding choreography was easy to dance to and gave a few giggles. But that’s the end. I think Koreans are yet too conservative to retain the flame,” he said.

“Of course B-class culture will remain. And every now and then when the stress level reaches its peak, we will turn around and seek fun. But it will never become mainstream,” he said.

Lim said once B-class becomes part of popular culture, it loses its charm. “The reason you enjoyed the subculture is because you perceived it as something extraordinary, something unrefined. But when you are ‘overexposed,’ I think the freshness and everything you loved about it will disappear,” he said.

Of course, from time to time we see some B-culture widely loved for a long period of time ― look at more than half the women on the streets with pierced ears, people dancing to reggae music calling for Jamaican liberty and others. They were once a minor fraction of culture but are now part of our everyday lives.


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