Riding the waves of global cool: youth culture, soft power, and ‘nation branding’

The modem flows of media and culture, however, have never been free-floating and independent. Issues of power and control have always determined which cultures get circulated, the specific ways they are disseminated, and exactly how they are received and take root. Trans-global conglomerates have obviously wielded significant influence in this respect, but governments have also played a part. And the role of government policy in the global circulation of youth culture increased during the early twenty-first century as many countries attempted to use national popular culture as a ‘soft power’ that enhanced their international standing and influence.

The concept of ‘soft power’ was originally developed by the US diplomat and political scientist Joseph Nye. In his book Bound to Lead (1990), Nye distinguished between ‘hard’ forms of power associated with economic and military dominance, and the ‘soft’ power of persuasion and ‘setting the agenda and determining the framework of a debate’ (Nye, 1990: 32). According to Nye, soft power was a realm of influence rather than compulsion. It was, he argued, ‘the ability' to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments’ (Nye, 2004: x). In the exercise of soft power, Nye explained, ‘what the target thinks is particularly important, and the targets matter as much as the agents. Attraction and persuasion are socially constructed. Soft power is a dance that requires partners’ (Nye, 2011: 84). For Nye, soft power had three key pillars. Political values and foreign policies, he contended, were two important avenues through which countries could persuade others to see them as legitimate and as having moral authority. But boosting the reach and reputation of their national culture was also, Nye suggested, a crucial means through which countries could strengthen their leverage.

As Terry Flew (2016) notes, there are some striking parallels between Nye’s notion of soft power and the concept of cultural imperialism developed by theorists such as Herbert Schiller (see above). Both perspectives identify exposure to another country’s media content as serving to shape the values, beliefs, and ideas of people in the recipient culture. But, for the likes of Schiller, US cultural imperialism was a negative force that mitigated against more organic and locally based notions of cultural sovereignty. In contrast, Flew observes, Nye identifies exposure to the soft power of American culture as ‘a positive influence in world affairs’ (Flew, 2016: 286). Indeed, Nye originally formulated the concept of soft power as a response to fears that, during the 1990s, the US was declining as a world power. Primarily addressed to foreign policy decisionmakers, Nye’s ideas were intended to demonstrate routes through which America’s global influence could be maintained. And, subsequently, theconcept of soft power was taken up in discussions of the way a broad range of other countries were attempting to secure their national interests through promoting their media and cultural industries. In some of these strategies, youth culture and music figured prominently, as countries sought to ‘brand’ themselves as enviably ‘cool’.

Of course, in some senses, youth culture has long figured in the informal exercise of soft power. Most obviously, for instance, US and British music and style have exerted worldwide influence since the 1950s, Adrian Athique observing how the rise of rock ‘n’ roll ‘constitutes a classic case of American “soft power’” (2016: 137). But the place of youth culture in foreign policy has become more explicit as many countries become more conscious of their ‘brand’ image. Authors such as Melissa Aronczyk (2013) and Keith Dinnie (2016) have drawn attention to the way that, during the early twenty-first century, countries began to invest more time and energy in conscious processes of‘nation branding’. Much like commercial companies (see Chapter 3), countries have sought to gain market advantage by fostering symbolic associations between their ‘national brand’ and particular values and identities. And, in doing so, some countries have eschewed their traditional ‘folk’ cultures in favour of promoting their more commercially-oriented popular cultures. This, Katja Valaskiivi (2013; 2016) argues, is because the consumerist and youth-oriented associations of popular culture give it an enticing allure. In particular, Valaskiivi contends, popular culture lends itself to the cultivation of a sense of national ‘cool’ — the notion of ‘cool’ denoting the attractive (and eminently saleable) traits of ‘youthfulness, authenticity, trendiness, and creativity ... [along with] a rebellious attitude towards authorities’ (2013: 492). And, Valaskiivi suggests, Japan was a pioneer in this practice of ‘cool’ nation branding.

During the 1970s Japan was already developing strategies of cultural diplomacy. The country, for example, sought to enhance its international standing through educational exchange programmes and the promotion of traditional culture. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, it was the country’s popular culture — films, TV shows, animation, and pop music — that increasingly gained international appeal; first in neighbouring Asian countries, and then in the US (and, to a lesser extent, Europe). In 2002 the trend gained attention when American journalist Douglas McGray highlighted ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’ in an article for the journal Foreign Policy. Hailing the success of Japanese popular culture (manga comics, anime films, pop music, films, and so on), McGray argued that the trend not only created a new, ‘cool’ image for Japan but also brought the country economic and political gains. The lessons were not lost on the Japanese government who, Valaskiivi suggests, increasingly sought to capitalise on the ‘Cool Japan’ phenomenon as a form of soft power (2013: 488). These efforts, as Michal Daliot-Bul (2009) notes, were also partly inspired by the British government’s championing of ‘Cool Britannia’ during the 1990s (see Chapter 4). Encouraged by such ideas, Japan sought to develop its global interests through the promotion of its popular culture. Under the governments of Junichiro Koizumi (2001—2006), especially, the expression ‘Cool Japan’

Media, globalisation, and the youth market 149 gained currency for a variety of policies geared to developing the country’s media and cultural industries. An array of government ministries, for instance, were involved in promotional projects such as 2003’s J-Brand initiative, along with the creation of the Cool Japan Office in 2010 and the launch of the Council for the Promotion of Cool Japan in 2013. ‘Pop-culture diplomacy’, therefore, became a key feature of Japan’s approach to foreign relations as the country sought to extend its soft power through the appeal of its ‘cool’ media.

In South Korea similar strategies also developed. During the late 1990s the country emerged as a centre for the production of transnational media. This spread of Korean popular culture has been termed 'Hallyu or the ‘Korean Wave’ (a term coined by Chinese journalists to describe local youngsters’ sudden craze for Korean products), and its development was indebted to government policy. Between the 1960s and 1980s South Korea’s authoritarian military governments had promoted labour-intensive, low-cost, and low-wage manufacturing as the country’s economic mainstay. The media and creative industries, meanwhile, were strictly regulated and remained relatively undeveloped. But a series of large-scale pro-democracy protests brought an end to the military regime in 1993, and subsequent governments shifted South Korea’s economic direction. Facing stiff manufacturing competition from China, the South Korean government aggressively promoted its media and cultural industries as new drivers of economic growth. A deregulation of financial industries and trade also brought a flow of capital into South Korean media, and this was buttressed by government loans and investment funds. Moreover, as Seung Kwon and Joseph Kim (2014) show, this support for the culture industries was part of an integrated policy framework that also developed the country’s technological infrastructure, along with its electronics, mobile communication, and multimedia industries. The ensuing flood of new media products found a ready market among South Korea’s growing middle-class. But even greater success was scored in neighbouring East and Southeast Asian countries where, as Youna Kim argues, Korean Wave media targeted a growing ‘culturally cosmopolitan and technologically literate’ market composed of ‘younger generations under 30, “urban-middle, rural-rich classes’” (Kim, 2013: 5).

The Korean Wave initially broke during the late 1990s with the export of TV dramas to countries such as China, Japan, and Singapore. This was followed by successes for South Korean films, fashion, and pop music. But these moves were eclipsed by even greater success after 2008 as a ‘New Korean Wave’ gathered momentum. Whereas the original Korean Wave had been founded on technologies such as satellite broadcasting, what Dal Yong Jin (2016) dubs ‘Hallyu 2.0’ was more squarely based on Internet platforms, social media, and online marketing. Moreover, along with Asia, Hallyu 2.0 was also heavily pitched towards markets in the US and Europe. Indeed, a benchmark of its success was Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy, Parasite (2019), a box office hit that became the first non-English-language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. But, compared to the original Korean Wave, Hallyu 2.0 was also more specifically targeted at young audiences — with the lead taken by South

Korea’s games and pop music industries. And, whereas the games industries of Japan and the West had concentrated on consul-based games, South Korea’s companies focused on the development of online and mobile gaming, and this secured them a major slice of this developing global market. Meanwhile, the spread of social media sites and video platforms such as YouTube helped push К-Pop into an international spotlight, and brought major audiences for acts such as Rain (Bi), Super Junior, Girls Generation (Sonyosidae) and, of course, BTS.13

Along with Japan and South Korea, China has also been seen by some commentators as trying to extend its soft power by promoting its culture and media industries. The strategy has, for instance, seen China host major international events such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. China has also funded hundreds of Confucius Institutes in universities worldwide to promote Chinese languages and culture. The international reach of China Central Television (CCTV) has also been extended through the launch of foreign-language services, while the Chinese government has assisted the international co-production of films and TV series, and has supported the growth of entertainment media conglomerates such as Tencent. The authoritarian character of China’s government, however, can mitigate against the success of such initiatives. As Yanling Yang (2016) argues, China’s strict regulation of film content effectively undermines any desire the government may have to present China in a positive light in the country’s movies. International film audiences, Yang observes, will inevitably be wary of anything that hints at state propaganda. And, more generally, the Chinese government’s record of censorship, surveillance and brutal political repression would pose problems for any attempt at a worldwide promotion of ‘Chinese Cool’. In a global youth market that puts great store by myths of youthful individualism and independence, media products produced by a disciplinarian state would obviously struggle to find a foothold. As a consequence, it is perhaps understandable that, as Hesmond-halgh suggests, China’s bid for cultural soft power has been steadily superseded by an emphasis on its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), geared towards building a transport infrastructure linking China to Central Asia and Europe (2019: 407).

A global vogue for ‘Chinese Cool’, therefore, seems an unlikely prospect for the immediate future. But youth culture has clearly figured prominently in the attempts of countries such as Japan and South Korea to develop a ‘national brand’ and extend their soft power. Yet, for some theorists, the whole concept of ‘soft power’ is flawed. Terry Flew, for instance, points out that notions of soft power rest on ‘transmission-based’ accounts of the media and popular culture that ignore the active agency of audiences. The tendency, he argues, is ‘to view the transmission of such cultural forms into other countries as an end in itself, with far less attention being given to questions of engagement with these cultural forms in other countries’ (2016: 285). So, simply because local audiences enjoy manga comics or К-Pop, this is no guarantee they will enthuse over

Japan or Korea. Notwithstanding his undertones of Islamophobia, the argument is made pithily by the historian Niall Ferguson:

... the trouble with soft power is that it’s, well, soft. All over the Islamic world kids enjoy (or would like to enjoy) bottles of Coke, Big Macs, cds by Britney Spears and DVDs stalling Tom Cruise. Do any of these things make them love the United States more? Strangely not.

(Ferguson, 2009)

Notions of soft power, then, may be unduly naïve in their assumptions about the impact of media texts on their audiences. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that, for countries like South Korea, the worldwide promotion of their ‘cool’ popular culture has been an economic boon. Indeed, in 2012 the value of the Korean Wave was estimated to be around S10 billion, and was expected to grow to $57 billion in 2020 (Kim, 2013: 6).

Successes like BTS, moreover, demonstrate how the international circulation of media and culture is not simply a one-way barrage from ‘the West to the rest’, but is a complex set of multi-directional and interconnected flows. Within these currents of media and culture, moreover, issues of hybridity figure prominently. Woongjae Roo, for instance, shows how the initial success of the Korean Wave in Asia was partly indebted to the ‘in-between’ character of South Korea’s popular culture — its mix of cultural influences enabling it ‘to retain broader cultural affinities with China and other Asian countries while also being just Westernized enough to mediate information from [the] West to Asia’ (2009: 146). Roo also highlights the important processes of cultural hybridisation that occurred as Hallyu surged onto international shores, and South Korean film, TV and music became ‘resources through which local peoples construct their own cultural spaces’ (ibid). In these terms, Roo contends, the transnational appeal of the Korean Wave exemplifies the way ‘globalization, particularly in the realm of popular culture, engenders an unpredictable, fluid, and creative form of hybridization that works to sustain local identities in the global context’ (144, orig. emphasis). The next chapter focuses in more detail on these issues of identity and hybridity in the realm of youth cultures.


  • 1 Overviews of the history of globalising trends can be found in Holton (2005), Hopkins (ed.) (2002), Martell (2010: 41-66), and Osterhammel and Peterson (2005).
  • 2 More detailed surveys of the impact of neoliberalism and market de-regulation on the media industries can be found in Berry (2019) and Hesmondhalgh (2019: 133-166).
  • 3 Effective summaries of these developments also appear in Hardy (2014: 79-108) and Jin (2020: 72-86).
  • 4 Convergence was a key trend among communications companies during the early twenty-first century. For some commentators, however, a shift towards ‘de-convergence’ was also increasingly evidenced, with a splintering of companies through ‘spin-offs’ and ‘split-offs’. An example would be the CBS Corporation’s spin-off from Viacom in 2005. These developments, however, are usually seen as taking place in parallel to (rather than replacing) trends towards convergence. See Jin (2015) and Sparviero and Peil (eds) (2018).
  • 5 Accounts of what was sometimes dubbed the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ can be found in Martell (2010) and Moghadam (2009).
  • 6 Other notable contributions to the tradition came from the Belgian theorist Armand Mattelart and the Canadian scholar Dallas Smythe. A valuable review of theories of cultural imperialism is provided in Tomlinson (1991).
  • 7 Sigismondi (2012) highlights the growing role of glocalisation in the operation of modern media industries, while Roberts (ed.) (2016) furnishes a collection of studies considering the place of European media in processes of glocalisation.
  • 8 In doing so, T-Series toppled Swedish Internet celebrity PewDiePie’s five-year reign as owner of the most subscribed channel on YouTube (see Chapter 3).
  • 9 During the 1980s and 1990s there was a surge of interest in the history of swing youth, with the publication of a number of popular and academic accounts. See, for example, Beck (1985), Breyvogel (ed.) (1991), Polster (ed.) (1989), and Willett (1989). In 1992 there even appeared a movie produced by Disney - Swing Kids.
  • 10 Horn (2009) provides an overview of the influence of American popular culture on British youth during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • 11 Similar incidents were reported from as far afield as Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. Full accounts of the history of the zoot suit and the responses it elicited can be found in Alvarez (2008), Escobar (1996) and Peiss (2011).
  • 12 France has boasted an especially prolific hip-hop culture. French hip-hop first took root during the early 1980s, while the 1990s saw MC Solaar emerge as one of the country’s foremost rap pioneers — his debut album, Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo (1991), becoming one of the biggest-selling rap albums outside the US. During the 1990s, harder-edged artists such as NTM {Nique Ta Mère) and 1AM (Imperial Asiatic Men) also came to the fore. For accounts of the growth of French hip-hop, see Bocquet and Pierre-Adolphe (2017) and McCarren (2013).
  • 13 The importance of online media to the success of K-Pop was demonstrated in 2012 when 1.6 billion hits on YouTube turned South Korean singer Psy’s hit song ‘Gangnam Style’ (along with its horse-riding dance) into a global phenomenon.
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