Jang Nara: A Cosmopolitan Artist in a Globalized World

Today’s Korean pop music scene is rich with new talents that bring entertainment to consumers and money to the music producers (Dorian et al.164). Korean pop, abbreviated as K-pop, has its own unique flavor that people from South Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and other countries in South East Asia absolutely love. K-pop also has a sizeable following in the West, especially the United States, home to many Korean-Americans. Out of the many Korean pop idols that burst out of the pop scene, Jang Nara is a standout.Jang Nara is a Korean actress and singer. Jang showed early interest in music and performance arts. She spent her childhood in Seoul, her birthplace. Her interest in music and performance arts was sparked when she acted with her father in a play of Les Miserables in primary school. Eventually, Jang became an advertisement model for CF commercials when she was just in high school. She went through formal training in the Department of Theater in Chungang University in March 2000.Jang broke into the music scene with “Burying My Face In Tears,” the title song of her first album (Hongbowon 34). The album sold an astounding 300,000 copies after its release. Fans and critics loved the song because of its harmonic native melody and Jang’s native vocals. The song was written by Won Tae-yeon, a poet, and it describes the heartache and pain felt after a romantic relationship fails.Another song from the album entitled “Confession and the April Story” achieved high ranks in a lot of music charts. The album itself artistically combines R&B with medium tempos with native Korean melody and some Spanish flavor. Jang’s popularity after these hit songs surged in South Korea, resulting in Jang landing a live music performance in the camp of MBC music. Despite Jang’s combination of native Korean music and R&B, her style as heard on her song, “Burying My Face In Tears” is still very much within the expected characteristics of K-pop hits. K-pop has many similarities to American pop music. Hit songs are usually dance, hip-hop, and R&B or a mixture of these genres (Mitchell 25). Jang’s hit album contained many such tracks which Korean people absolutely loved.The lyrics of Jang’s song are also similar to many mainstream songs. While the song was written by a poet, the lyrics are very much straight to the point and typical of romantic ballads or pop songs. For example, the lyrics of the song read, “Do it for me/Truly, I need you, but when I called you, you weren’t there/There are no tears, but the day I gave up, I cried.” These lyrics are easily interpreted by listeners so they easily get attached to them along with the song’s catchy beat. It is evident in this example that Jang’s hit, in terms of the message conveyed, is not that new and is in fact, expected by consumers. Romantic pop songs are the most profit-making products of K-pop and Jang contributes to this system by her hit album.Jang Nara, like many Korean pop artists, also has an acting career. With her cute image, personality and packaging, Nara landed a role in a TV sitcom entitled “New Nonstop.” She acted with Yang Dong Geun and Park Kyung-lim, young Korean stars that are famous in the film industry. Jang also appeared in a hit TV drama series with Jang Hyuk entitled “Successful Story of a Bright Girl.” The drama series hit record-breaking ratings and was popular all throughout South Korea (Hongbowon 36).“Successful Story of a Bright Girl” is a typical Korean romantic drama with bits of comedy here and there. In the story, Jang is a cute, naïve country girl who always daydreams of getting rescued by her prince. Jang Hyuk accidentally falls into Jang’s bathtub one day while she’s taking a bath. Both of them were angry about the matter and they started arguing and disliking each other.As the plot unfolds, it is revealed that Jang’s parents had huge debts, so she had to move into the city to work. Jang Hyuk hires her as a house servant and Jang begins to teach him some manners because he’s a spoiled brat. The comedy and drama in the series comes from the interaction of Jang’s down-to-earth character and Jang Hyuk’s arrogant and spoiled character. Jang Hyuk’s character is a very proud man who gets to inherit his father’s business. He is later betrayed by his uncle and cousin which almost ruined his life. Jang, being used to simple ways of life, is able to help Jang Hyuk get back on his feet and return to being successful.Jang Nara fits the role exactly because of her cute and simple looks. The character fits her packaging as a Korean artist with native sensibilities. The story however, is very typical of Korean romantic comedy drama series which usually has the male lead character representing wealth and success, but the lack of knowledge on the simple ways of life that goes with this lifestyle, and the female character representing poverty and unpleasant manners, but also the sensitivity to intangible virtues that this lifestyle brings (Erni and Chua 7). Audiences easily get attached to this typical Korean TV series plot because of the conflicting forces of urbanization and tradition in the country. South Korea’s economy has been the second-fastest growing economy in the world for more than four decades (Borer 83). The country’s GDP in 1957 was only comparable to Ghana, but by 2008, it was already seventeen times as large as Ghana’s. In fact, the swift transformation of South Korea’s economy is so remarkable that experts have called it “Han River’s Miracle” or the “Asian Tiger.” Today, developing countries all around the world are trying to follow South Korea’s strategies to also become developed and rich.This rapid increase in the country’s wealth, however, together with the booming local businesses and the incoming international investments have pushed the native way of life into the background. South Korea is heavily influenced by the West, particularly by the United States, and so tradition daily gets erased from the minds of the people. The simple ways of life are replaced by the ambition to make it big in the largest cities. Competitive attitudes replace traditional values in the minds of people and there’s a certain nostalgia for the time when living is so much simpler (Borer 85).Jang Nara with her packaging as a modern artist incorporating native sounds in her music is perfect to play sweet, naïve and traditional roles on screen. Her fans can associate her type of music to the role that she plays on screen which makes her identity consistent to the public. Jang Nara became an embodiment of the nostalgia for the simple South Korea of the past, and consumers are more willing to avail of products with her name on it.Jang’s popularity has also spread from South Korea to China. She stars in a Chnese drama series entitled “Bratty Princess.” Lots of Chinese-speaking fans admire Jang for her role as a playful, free-spirited lady. Once again, we can see here that Jang’s role is consistent with her presentation as a cute artist with a cosmopolitan appeal. Her character’s attitude in this drama series is also similar to her role in “Successful Story of a Bright Girl.”Perhaps what sets Jang Nara apart from other K-pop artists is that she has a huge following in China. Jang released has released CDs in Chinese language in the country. Her first album in the Chinese language was a hit in China. The album featured Korean songs that she released previously all translated into Chinese. Among the songs that became very popular in China were the Chinese versions of “It’s Probably Love,” “I’m After All A Woman (I’m a Woman Too),” and “Sweet Dream.” These songs have frequent and wide airplay in China, gathering more fans for Jang.It was easy for Jang to break into the Chinese pop music scene, also known as C-pop, because the Chinese pop music industry has many similarities to its Korean counterpart. C-pop is composed of a variety of musical styles, but mainly rock, hip-hop, ballad, and R&B. The big difference in K-pop and C-pop is probably the fact that rock bands are not popular in Korea while they have a fairly large following in China. C-pop R&B was mainly developed by the artist Alex To back in the 1990s and was later refined by Chinese artists such as Lee-Hom Wang, Khalil Fong, David Tao, and Jay Chou. Jang Nara’s R&B style with Korean lyrics translated into Chinese is not far from the works of these Chinese artists, so it was relatively easy for her to score hits.Many Chinese and Korean fans in China follow Jang Nara, which helped made her concerts in the country successful. She performs both Chinese and Korean songs in her concerts, which the diverse audience appreciates. She also released another album in the Chinese language entitled “Kung Fu.” Interestingly, the music video of this song featured Jang wearing a scarlet qipao, a Chinese traditional dress for women. The music video had her fighting various villains and dancing with a panda. Jang is so popular in China that she even sang with Chinese artists in the song “Beijing Welcomes You” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Hongbowon 36).Jang’s successful crossing into the Chinese pop music scene is a good example of how globalization has made the music industries of different nations able to connect with each other more easily. Although different cultures still prevent each music industry from completely merging with another, the familiar themes expressed in songs of different languages allow people of different ethnicities to better appreciate these products.It’s not that easy to merge one musical genre with another though, especially if the song or the artist is from a different country of origin. In Jang’s case, it is clear that her producers and managers tried their best to bridge the gap between Chinese audiences and Jang’s music. They did this by painstakingly translating Jang’s Korean songs to the Chinese language. It seems that they assumed that the messages in Jang’s songs are familiar enough to people, so they decided to use the original songs instead of making new Chinese songs. Jang’s R&B songs are mostly about romantic love, so audiences of different nationalities can easily relate with this universal theme (Mitchell 30).Another feat worth mentioning is Jang’s ability to sing in Chinese. Many K-pop artists only sing in Korean so they have a more restricted audience. Jang’s talent to sing in two Asian languages makes her more cosmopolitan. It also helps that she is already famous in Korea before she released her Chinese CDs. This way, Chinese audiences know that she is not a completely new artist with little experience in music. In other words, Jang has built herself a credible musical background in her homeland that Chinese and audiences of other nationalities can delve into if they want to know more about her.Perhaps the best example of the effort to sell Jang to the Chinese audience is the video of her song “Kung Fu.” Visual stimulation is generally stronger than auditory stimulation. Presenting Jang wearing a qipao in her video instantly establishes a connection between her and Chinese audiences. The qipao is a one-piece traditional Chinese dress that hugs the body. This dress was made fashionable in the city of Shanghai in the 1920s by upperclass and socialite women. Today, however, the qipao is a very recognizable Chinese dress that often appears in mass media, like movies and TV shows. Jang’s wearing of the qipao is like sending a message that she is not different from her audiences, and that her songs contain meanings that are relevant to Chinese people.Another factor that might have helped Jang in her success in China is her overall packaging as an artist. Jang is often depicted in the media as cute, sweet, and with native sensibilities. China itself is also a country that has been undergoing rapid economic development (Chow 181). Like Korea, old customs are being replaced by the capitalist virtues of competition and salesmanship. Jang’s Korean TV series also have some airplay in China, so some Chinese fans are already familiar with her sweet image. Her association with tradition and the simplicity of life through the shows she starred in has certainly helped her gain a wide audience in a rapidly developing Asian country like China.Today’s Korean artists are also subject to scrutiny of their personal lives by their fans. What makes Jang stand out as an artist is the consistency of her personal life with her image presented in her music and on her TV shows and movies. Jang does plenty of charity work, like sending powdered milk to North Korean children suffering from starvation and malnutrition. She is also collaborates with the FHI Charity organization to do more charity work. Through these personal efforts to provide solutions to basic human problems, Jang has solidified her trademark cute image with native sensibilities. She is seen as morally good by her fans not only through her music and shows but also through her personal life.Jang also combines her music with her personal charity work. Consistent with her good and popular image in China, she has held a fund-raising concert for young patients of leukemia in the country (Kellner 1). The Jang Foundation resulted from the money that was raised during a meeting of her fans’ club at her concert held in Beijing. The concert was held to mark the fifteenth year of diplomatic relations between China and Korea. About twelve hundred seats in concert were sold out and Jang entertained the huge crowd by singing her Korean and Chinese songs. Due to the success of the concert and the clear message of goodwill between the two nations sent, a large Chinese charity organization asked Jang to be their goodwill ambassador, which made her the first foreigner ever to receive such an honor.The success of Jang Nara as a Korean singer and actress is mainly due to the consistent presentation of her cosmopolitan image in the media. She is identified by people all over Asia as an artist who is cute, kind, and sensitive to her local tradition. Through her music that combined modern beats with native sounds, and her shows that presented her as a character who promotes the simple ways of life, Jang was able to capture the heart of a wide range of audiences. She is a flexible artist that is very appropriate for the globalized world, and she may yet achieve more things in the future. As long as she maintains her image in the media, she’ll continue to make money for the K-pop industry and entertain fans in Asia.