Sunday Essay: Notes on a meal

·3 min read

This has not happened before. By “this” I mean two things. First is the news that a pop group can get so famous that they can compel the world’s largest fast food chain to name a special offering after them. Second is the fact that two of the world’s biggest musical acts now are made up entirely of Asians.

That’s just unprecedented, especially to someone from an older generation. When figuring out one’s musical tastes was a mostly analog experience, we collected physical objects: the familiar progression was from vinyl records to cassette tapes (and a pencil to untangle them with) to compact discs, and eventually boxed sets. As teenagers in the Eighties, we saved part of our allowances to buy posters and band shirts.

If there was a band big or pragmatic enough to go for a food tie-in, it has missed my attention. That’s another thing that’s different, too. Now that music is distributed as a digital product, it’s so much easier, in theory, to broaden one’s tastes. Whether the Korean boy band BTS succeeds in doing that with their ongoing McDonald’s tie-up is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that global brands are taking notice. Faces of the other wildly successful Korean act these days, BlackPink, adorn Pepsi cans in the Asia-Pacific market.

The success of BTS and BlackPink are, of course, just part of South Korea’s larger success: that of pitching cultural exports that keep feeding an interest in Korean food, destinations and beauty products. It just feels so much cooler to grow up Asian these days than it did when I was younger, when most of the popular content available to us celebrated how glorious it was to be Western, ideally white. Yes, we had access to anime (Voltes V and Mazinger Z) and a few Chinese martial arts movies on TV but practically all of the music that radio made available to us was American pop and soft rock. (Abba was the strange and wonderful exception.)

Before “the Korean wave” began, the most popular cultural export was the telenovela. Producers from Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela exported shows like “Marimar” and “Maria la del Barrio” and found massive success in several countries, including Russia, the United States and the Philippines. Maria’s barrio grew global, at least for a few years in the Nineties. Yet Latin American culture didn’t quite gain as broad and as impassioned a following as the Koreans are generating now.

Perhaps timing was what made the difference. Now that the entertainment industry is more digital, creators aren’t as dependent as the previous acts were on industry gatekeepers. For more than a decade now, direct access to one’s community — and the option to directly distribute one’s music, shows and merchandise — has changed the game for bands and other content creators, assuming they figured out what their communities would love.

I have yet to try the BTS meal and, without meaning any disrespect to their superfans, I am not particularly interested to do so. Their music, while catchy, doesn’t move me. I suppose there’s some truth to the view that after your early 20s, your musical tastes get entrenched. A colleague who is a big fan of theirs and young enough to be my daughter did try to explain their appeal to me: they sing about being true to yourself and taking care of your mental health and they dance very well. Other boy bands have found success with much less. And if this one makes today’s young Asians appreciate being Asian more than my generation did, then the best of luck to them.