Subculture: Rockabilly and American Alternatives in East Asia

Recognizing a subculture is easy when it reflects aspects of your own mainstream culture; defining rockabilly wouldn’t just be redundant, it would be a disservice to Americans who’ve heard any music released in the mid-twentieth century. Just as equally would be the predilection to interpret visual kei or gothic lolita to a country with the city of Shibuya, a sprawling metropolitan mecca of commerce and style. Either way, subcultures and countercultures are one of the more fascinating areas of study, particularly when they’re intricately connected to or directly descended from music culture. Dick Hebdige, one of the leading writers on subculture, examined punk rock in the 1970s through a distinctly subversive lens in the undergrad-staple Subculture: The Meaning of Style. But as countless critics of his work have later noted, the text was incredibly narrow in its scope and ignored numerous aspects that affect and contribute to the creation of subcultures, particularly the role of women. But rather than reexamine the text through a different lens (no need! already been done), I’d like to open discussion on another unique situation: distinctly American subcultures appropriated by Eastern teenagers.

If we define rockabilly as a unique combination of country, R&B, and rock and roll, we’re essentially recognizing its inherent American-ness. As the lyrics contain themes central to the American experience (both real and fabricated), it’s interesting to note that rockabilly has had a revival not just in the West, but in Asian countries who have at least managed to adopt the look and sound, even when they may not be able to authentically replicate the meaning (think hip hop, another subculture worth considering). Operating under the assumption that rockabilly is a nostalgic salute to a quaint slice of Americana fails to grasp both the appeal for contemporary individuals, as well as its appeal to cultures that at best, were content to cover “Jailhouse Rock” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in their native languages in order to put an appealing, recognizable face on a foreign entity. Still, the originals never went unacknowledged and the basic idea behind the cover would seem to expose the oft-made argument that everything from physical attributes to musical trends are coveted by foreigners. Ignoring the incredibly pervasive influence of any genre of the West on popular Eastern music is highly unlikely, though I’m hesitant to put such a bold face on the fact when my entire critical pursuit of Eastern music is to show just how remarkably fluid the influences are mixed with its own styles.

In addition, it’s easy to to wrap things up by justifying the existence of rockabilly in Japan simply for its aesthetic or aural appeal. Korea, too, has its first self-proclaimed rockabilly revival in The Rocktigers, who since 2006, have switched from a more punk sound to a full-fledged embrace of the Jerry Lee Lewis variety. But why does this particular subculture seem to resonate in this particular time and place? We can examine several factors, from the widespread influence of the Internet that nurtures the most niched interests and communication with others who share those interests, to the simple appeal of its message (whatever that is for its audience). For despite academic studies on consumers, people are still hard-pressed to explain exactly why they like something, particularly when it just happens to appeal to their emotional psyche. And since I’m no Hebdige, nor have access to a community who lives on the other side of the world to question, I have no neat answer. Nor is why necessarily the correct question to begin with.

But if Jennifer Greenburg is anywhere near succinct in her remark that rockabilly is “a subculture of people who mostly turn away from the horrors of contemporary American culture to focus on family, friends, music, and culture,” then perhaps the topic is worth further examination as it applies to a particular non-American culture (even beyond the idea that America’s influence is so expansive as to essentially make it everyone’s culture). Or perhaps as the subculture today is evoked by those too young to have ever experienced it itself, it appeals in the same way as it does for those who can’t count it as a national landmark: a distinct worldview that happens to coincide with personal ideals and taste. After all, who doesn’t like family, friends, music, and culture, terms so broad and generic as to strip it of any exclusive significance? Maybe the study of other Asian subcultures, such as ganguro and aristocrat fashion, and their influence by traditional American and European styles would make a compelling dissertation. After all, stumbling around theories is one thing, but physical interaction with a community is a whole other beast; in my post about Go Go 70s, I managed to look at the movie from an angle beside the “American music frees Koreans” angle, mostly because I’m not sure the type of music had any significance beyond the obvious idea of time period, but also because I have no way of knowing how people responded to the type of music at that time. In fact, soul could probably have been replaced by acid rock or disco when the whole point was that music, man, it’s pretty awesome.

Indeed, perhaps the logical conclusion at this moment is not to look at how much everyone wants to be American (which is condescending and not true), but how much musical styles and fashion are appropriated by all areas outside of the country because it happens to strike a particular audience at a particular time, whether or not the original intent behind the movement has any current relevance. Subcultures provide other options in places where the mainstream can become overwhelmingly homogeneous or unappealing. Perhaps rockabilly provides just that outlet with no connotations to the political or ideological atmosphere from which it stems: maybe it’s just because bands like The Rocktigers are incredibly talented individuals who provide an alternative to the omnipresent and inescapably commercial sound of Korean pop.


4 thoughts on “Subculture: Rockabilly and American Alternatives in East Asia

  1. cloudusa May 19, 2010 / 8:49 pm

    This article really made me think. I learned something new — I had no idea Rockabilly was in Asia, much less in Korea. And the thing of it is, I’m not sure why that is such a surprise to me when music has always had a way of easing into every nook and cranny of this planet.

    Thanks for introducing me to the Rock Tigers (it’s great listening to them as I browse, especially Leather Bike Jacketboy)…

    Thanks for sharing your views with us on this.


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