The politics of pop!

In Local
March 31, 2024

I grew up on Hollywood films and MTV. English novels, from gothic romances to classic masterpieces. Disney cartoons and US comics. Yet, I grew up in Karachi and had never in my childhood set foot outside of Pakistan.

In my college years when I did find myself in small-town America among a group of born and bred Americans; they didn’t know what to make of my familiarity of US classic rock. Friends in Karachi were more used to my strange taste in alt rock than those Americans my age.

When I was learning guitar from an American boy I had a crush on, he laughed and said it was so funny that I knew Bob Marley songs. My 60-year-old professor strumming his guitar at a campfire was startled when I sang Simon and Garfunkel along with him – when the other American students didn’t know the lyrics.

However, no Pakistani would bat an eyelid if one of us got up and belted out a Taylor Swift or crooned a Springsteen number. We have all consumed the same imported diet for entertainment for our reading, watching and listening pleasure. Kids in Lyari could imitate Michael Jackson’s breakdance when he was alive as well as they can do Neymar’s stepover cut during FIFA season.

Western entertainment and art was more accessible to youth in Pakistan even before the internet. Now that’s a mind-boggling statement that ought to give pause when you’re thinking about the West’s use of soft diplomacy.

Cultural or soft power diplomacy involves influencing and winning hearts through cultural, intellectual, and emotional exchanges rather than through hard power tactics like military force or economic sanctions. A country utilises its cultural assets, values, and institutions to establish international relationships that can support political and economic interests and hence build trust.

Entertainment plays a significant role in soft diplomacy because movies, music, television shows, sports, and video games can cross borders effortlessly, carrying with them cultural values, languages, and lifestyles. This is what I absorbed as a child that created my impression of the world beyond Karachi. This is what shaped your likes and taste and hobbies.

These forms of entertainment create a favourable perception of a country. Evident now in massive brain drain from Pakistan and immigration to places in the West like Canada, US and Europe. Or nowadays, to any place in any direction from Pakistan.

Close to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is developing with renewed rigour a concrete site that employs cultural diplomacy and draws tourists. Mohammad bin Salman the Crown Prince has planned the city of Qiddiya to become in the near future the foremost global destination in the fields of entertainment, sports, and culture. It was revealed that the branding for Qiddiya will adopt the concept of “play” as its main motif. This is based on decades of research showing this to be vital for cognitive development, emotional expression, social skills, creativity and physical health.

The megaproject is expected to have a positive impact on the kingdom’s economy and its international standing, enhancing Riyadh’s strategic position and contributing to its economic growth.

MBS’s Saudi Vision 2030 aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy by creating new jobs and develop its youth population. For this goal, qualitative investment in the city of Qiddiya is a cornerstone for the crown prince’s plan.

The entertainment Qiddiya City is projected to draw 48 million visits annually with its state-of-the-art and avant-garde attractions and venues.

By attracting foreigners for entertainment events, countries boost their economy. Recent case in point is the controversial tactic employed by Singapore when Taylor Swift plays her first concert there early this month. After her famed Eras tour gave a bump to the US economy to the tune of at least five billion dollars in additional consumer spending her six soldout shows in Singapore were a pot of gold for the maritime Southeast Asian economy.

Thailand’s Prime Minister claimed earlier this month that Singapore paid concert organisers up to three million dollars per show under an exclusivity deal. “The Singaporean government is clever. They told [organisers] not to hold any other shows in [Southeast] Asia,” he said, according to The Guardian.

Philippines’ Joey Salceda, a legislator, called on his government to demand answers from the Singaporean government. In a statement, he said Singapore’s decision to freeze out its neighbours runs against the consensus-based approach of ASEAN, the regional bloc for Southeast Asia. Singapore’s deal with Swift is “not what good neighbours do,” he said.

It is, however, what clever neighbours do. And Singapore had its cake and ate it too. Tourism-related services make up about 10 percent of Singapore’s GDP. Concert economics is a potential growth driver for the country as predicted by HSBC.

In January, British band Coldplay performed six sold-out concerts. During that concert period, searches for accommodation in Singapore rose 8.7 times on the travel platform Agoda.

However, Swifties come in hordes larger than the Huns. For March 1 to 9, Singapore’s inbound flight bookings were 186% higher and hotel bookings 462% higher than for the March 15 to 23.

Similarly, Bruno Mars and South Korean pop star IU will perform in Singapore after Swift’s visit. And it’s not just concerts: The city will also host the World Aquatics Championship in 2025. It is also vying to be the host for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

In terms of soft diplomacy, nothing has hit the digital age world in as short a period of time than South Korea's "Korean Wave". K-pop and K-dramas have made waves by moving to mainstream media all over the world and in Pakistan. The boy band BTS has transcended borders of culture and language, and their country has placed them at its forefront in to enhance its soft power on the global stage.

Such is their meteoric rise and fame that in 2021 BTS even delivered a speech at the United Nations, a speech that received attention like no world leader can on the forum. The band promoted covid-19 vaccination, environmental consciousness and gender equality becoming spokespeople for the youth of the planet. . BTS's global success has not only contributed significantly to South Korea's economy but also exemplified the country's strategic use of the Korean cultural wave as a tool of soft diplomacy.

It is the entertainers that have put Seoul back on the map since it hosted the Olympics three decades ago. My Hollywood-indoctrinated brain too has rewired to consume more and more of the fare being produced in Korea and Japan be it dramas or films. The nuance that Koreans and Japanese actors can lend to romance and heartache is not found in other genres. In fact, a few years back Hollywood itself took a step back and presented an Oscar to a Korean director.

Though the Korean Wave clearly has benefitted South Korea the most, it has some positive impacts on other countries other than having an alternative to the previously Western-dominated media. The intrigue and interest that its dramas have created is such that fans from America to Pakistan aspire to see South Korea. This gives a great boost to the country’s tourism but it also opens up opportunities for work and education for foreigners. I’ve interviewed Pakistani K-pop dancers who are studying in Korea just because they feel they can express their passion there and have more space to be themselves. If they’re not in Korea yet, they plan to do so just like we planned to go to colleges in the UK, US and Canada.

The takeover of Turkish dramas in Pakistan beginning with Ishq-e-Mamnoon and peaking with Ertugrul made Pakistanis dabble with learning Turkish. With Korean music and shows, fans are inclined to learn the language even more. A member of BTS has famously learnt English by watching American sitcom Friends; in turn his foreign audiences are learning Korean through listening to his music.

Today, K-dramas have succeeded in defeating Chinese soap operas and Japanese dramas in the preferences of Asian, Middle Eastern and Central Asian audiences. In fact, half of the world’s audiences are watching K-dramas, and the international media have taken note. Netflix started including K-dramas in its list in 2008. A favourable step for the streaming service and for South Korea. The number of viewers of K-dramas increased worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic and series such as Crash Landing on You and Squid Game became household staples.

Japan on the other hand, has effectively utilised manga as a key element in its soft power strategy. The strategic use of pop culture, including manga and anime, has been a significant part of Japan's post-World War II foreign policy, to promote Japan’s global image. Along with video games, cartoons and comic books have retained Japan’s image as a modern and artistic country in the cultural zeitgeist for generations. It has also led to an increase in people studying the Japanese language and culture worldwide.

Manga has been an adaptable global popular cultural product. Its impact on readers and their worldview has been magnified by the fact that most are young and impressionable when they first encounter it. In European countries people take up reading manga before the age of 10. Nearly half of the teens would be familiar with what manga is and continue reading it in secondary school. This is a crucial time for identity formation. Its impact has in fact been documented among British teenagers.

Pakistan has been utilising cultural diplomacy as a crucial part of its soft power strategy to project a positive image internationally. One notable initiative is Coke Studio which showcases our rich musical heritage. It’s huge across the border. Indians love our music as much as we love their films. This exchange of culture fails to translate in political diplomacy. Yet it is a cherished bond in people-to-people interaction. Notwithstanding Javed Akhtar’s Lahore visits.

Tension between the two neighbours was high at the Line of Control even back when Zindagi channel was launched. The platform aired Pakistani soaps in India and attracted many viewers for popular serials like Humsafar. Of course, Indians enjoyed our dramas and were fascinated by cultural similarities and in our languages. However, instead of allowing positive cultural exchange to rub off on political pessimism, the opposite occurred and the channel was shut down. Years later collaboration of Pakistani and Indian stars was also ceased. If we continue to be bound by parameters of hate of course soft diplomacy is not a tool that will be of any use to us, perhaps in the interactions that matter the most.


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