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Andrew Mark Creighton | May 6, 2022

An interview with Eleni Alexandri

on K-Pop, pop culture, transmediality, and being an editor

Interviewee: Eleni Alexandri
Interviewer: Andrew Mark Creighton


The ninth issue of Hortus Semioticus, a special issue investigating the semiotics of pop culture, media, and transmediality, is underway and slated for release this spring. This number’s head editor, Eleni Alexandri, a PhD student in semiotics and culture studies at the semiotics department of the University of Tartu, takes a special interest in pop culture in her own work, focusing on the K-Pop phenomenon within its home country and on a global scale. To celebrate the coming issue, and to discover a little more about pop culture, I decided to hold a short interview with Eleni, in which she discusses her experiences editing this issue and working with Hortus Semioticus, the importance of studying pop culture, and about her own work with pop culture and K-Pop.  

Pop Culture and Transmediality

AMC: Pop culture as a term and concept seems to be rather vague or fuzzy in many usages, and even in the upcoming Hortus Semioticus issue, we’ve used a rather broad and encompassing definition. Why do you think this generality persists, and can you give your own preferred understanding of pop culture?

EA: Especially in today’s world, where “meaning can shift in just 15 seconds”[1][1], defining pop culture would be a very challenging endeavour. Pop culture, in my opinion, encompasses practically any event, artistic or otherwise, that defines a certain time period. It may be something that takes the breath away of a million people at once, or it could be something that develops into a sensation over time. The unit of pop culture is that which sticks in your memory and in the minds of so many others all across the world, forming a unique link, a common ground, and a common topic of conversation.

AMC: Do you believe a more general definition of pop culture allows for any methodological benefits? Are there negative aspects too?

EA: Because the particular pieces of pop culture may be so radically different, I feel that a broad definition would have little to no academic value. Apart from establishing a general framework, each aspect of popular culture requires a unique treatment and approach in order to be addressed and explored. Additionally, we generally avoid overstating topics that are considered common knowledge, and when something is truly part of pop culture, it should be self-evident that it belongs there. On the other hand, given how Douglas Kellner characterised mega-spectacles in the modern world, and how even terrorist actions, especially under the scope of media coverage, may be considered a spectacle, an established broad definition may be valuable. That said, I believe that any author who can defend his or her choice of terminology and articulate explicitly what he or she considers as pop culture may manoeuvre around the issue and successfully communicate with the reader.

AMC: I sometimes get the impression that pop culture media and products have issues in being considered legitimate areas and objects of study. Do you agree with this? If yes, why do you think so and how can we remedy this?

EA: I agree that studies of popular culture are sometimes dismissed as frivolous, illegitimate, or even humorous by certain academics. Obviously, I disagree strongly with that logic, as I am a firm believer that pop culture is not about fleeting trends or quickly forgotten stories. Pop culture analysis may really disclose a great deal about our society; to cite Kellner again, “media spectacles […] put on display the politics of representation, encoding current problematics of gender, race, and class”[2][2] Pop culture is an ideal environment for semiotic research, as the analyst may approach the case study from a variety of perspectives.  Additionally, pop culture may be employed as a model, providing an example of a concept that is otherwise difficult to understand. I recall using The Lion King to illustrate the term ‘landscapes of fear’ in ecosemiotics, and Annihilation to demonstrate ‘ecological codes and ecomones’. The one thing we as researchers can do to increase the validity of pop culture research is to minimize subjectivity, shallow analysis, excessive description and over-interpretation.


AMC: Your own research interests are focused on the semiotic and cultural sides of K-Pop music. Why does this genre interesting you so much? How relevant is K-Pop for semioticians and culture scholars?

EA: K-Pop provides a very immersive experience for its listener, since the music genre has incorporated a number of methods typically associated with the film industry. Additionally, music videos alone could provide an abundance of material for investigation, as they are frequently replete with visual metaphors and allegories, as well as a variety of symbolisms that are not exclusively derived from Korean traditions and Asian philosophy; the hybridity of the general aesthetics, as well as the sound of the music genre, is fascinating to analyse, and these are just a few examples while focusing exclusively on K-Pop as a final product. There are several other levels when one goes deeper into how the business is built and operates, how the genre affects the audience, how it gained worldwide acceptability, and how it also gained a strong social component that exceeds the narrow boundaries of a music genre.

AMC: What are some difficulties in studying pop culture, or even k-pop in particular? How do current research methodologies and models help to facilitate this research?

EA: I am particularly interested in incorporating classic ideas and notions into my study and finding a fresh way for them to be applied to such modern cases. In my MA thesis, I examined BTS’s poetic world through the lens of Alexander Zholkovsky’s ‘poetics of expressiveness’[3][3].  I believe that one impediment to studying pop culture or k-pop is a concentration on certain established methodologies and theories (e.g., the Greimasean square), as well as a lack of or even fear of experimenting. For me, the contrast between old-school and contemporary excites me and encourages me to try to thing outside of the box, but another element may serve as an inspiration for another researcher. Another issue, as previously noted, is scepticism over the validity or substance of research including K-Pop; nonetheless, I say, let’s transform the negative into a positive! Why not utilise a contemporary and widely recognised music genre to demonstrate how relevant, present, and powerful semiotics can be?

AMC: Transmediality and media are important concepts in current research on pop culture, and take special importance in this coming issue, can you explain the two concepts? How are they different and why are they important to scholarly research on pop culture?

EA: My primary experience and area of study is transmedial storytelling, and there are lists of essential elements for something to be considered a transmedial storytelling product. Of course, the go-to scholar for such a topic would be Henry Jenkins, but Jeff Gomez’s[4][4] list of eight defining qualities of transmedial production gives a very clear notion that, despite its 2007 publication date, I believe remains current. Numerous other academics have made substantial contributions to our knowledge of transmediality in general, and transmedial storytelling in particular, but for the sake of remaining concise and focused on your question, I will refrain from citing names.

With regards to media, I believe that most people believe it is straightforward to define what a medium is; however, when considering the plethora of studies, definitions, and various aspects or features of media that can be analysed, it is clear that the concept encompasses much more than what meets the eye.

To put it simply, a medium is a communication channel that has a particular materiality or technology and has unique modalities that the reader must react in order to ‘read the text.’ Transmediality, on the other hand, entails the fragmentation of the initial message and the distribution of its components to several media, taking into account their limitations and affordances; therefore, each medium has a unique piece that contributes something new to the larger image.

Understanding media and transmediality is critical for cultural studies, and especially for the study of popular culture. To go deeper into the mechanisms that generate meaning and to investigate how a system operates, it is necessary to comprehend its structure.

AMC: How does K-Pop fit into the transmedial frame? Can you give some examples?

EA: In my perspective, K-Pop is the quintessential example of transmediality. The usage of various media in the process of meaning production and communication with a global audience is excessive. In the case of prominent names within K-Pop, such as BTS or Stray Kids, we observe that the producers are employing tactics and approaches similar to those found in the film industry, as I previously stated. They develop transmedial storylines and assign roles to the idols to complement the artists’ bodies of work. The tale is told through a variety of mediums, and not only their music videos. There are hints to this narrative in official comics, short films, comeback trailers, mobile games, and even live stage performances.This nourishes and fosters participatory culture, and what Genette refers to as hypertexts’ creation. Hundreds of forum threads and explanation videos have been created by fans in an attempt to decrypt and interpret the indications gleaned from various media. We could say that the audience is being invited into a treasure hunt.  They are collaborating to get a better understanding of the plot and the connections between music videos, lyrics, and other media that contribute to the narrative’s progression. Every facet of K-Pop welcomes fans into a holistic, immersive experience, utilising every media and technology available. I have never experienced any phenomenon like this in mainstream popular culture before, with K-Pop’s worldwide success and acceptance.

AMC: Why has K-Pop become so famous and notable worldwide, is there something within the phenomenon that global audiences find relatable? Or do you think there is some sort of exoticism is at work? A little bit of both or something else entirely?

EA: Apart from what I’ve previously described as an immersive experience via transmediality that, in my opinion, significantly adds to K-Pop’s popularity, I feel the industry has other aces up its sleeve. One trait is that they rely heavily on groups. Solo performers are less likely to achieve the global fame that boy/girl bands have, with the exception of Psy, who has been instrumental in promoting K-Pop outside of Asia, with his viral hit ‘Gangnam Style’. I feel bands are more successful for two reasons. To begin, it appeals to the viewer’s emotional side, eliciting sympathy for a group of friends who have become family over years of training and are united in their pursuit of a common dream. Additionally, the spectator may develop a sense of belonging to the group, (which cultivates and in many times achieve parasocial behaviour). The other reason is that with groups, the labels provide the observer with a plethora of possibilities for identifying with or developing an affinity towards an idol. Not only by the variety of appearances and styles, but also by the variety of personalities (the leader, the timid boy, the cool guy, the immature one, the bad boy), the spectator is more likely to discover an artist who will capture his or her attention that will immerse him or her in the world of the particular band.

Another factor that I feel contributes to K-Pop’s popularity is found in the same logic of diversity, and it has to do with the hybridity of music and the several genres that are featured. The listener is certain to discover something he/she likes.

There are plenty of other facets, but I’d want to conclude with one that I haven’t researched well but intuitively understand: nostalgia. K-Pop is distinct yet reminiscent of the N’Sync and Backstreet Boys eras, as well as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. It’s everything my age group watched with open mouths on MTV, only tenfold (at least)


AMC: Changing focus, how have your experiences been as a lead editor for the current issue of Hortus Semioticus? Have there been any challenges, or any moments of insight and learning?

EA: My experience as a lead editor of the Hortus Semioticus special issue has been pretty unique. At times, the volume of tasks became overwhelming. However, it was an excellent method to delve immediately into uncharted seas and to absorb so much new information. As students and young academics, we each have a unique perspective on journals, their operation, and the shortcomings in their structure and work style, we express our dissatisfaction with the lack of a prompt response, and so on. Being on the other side taught me what it takes to publish an issue, and all the minor or large tasks that must be completed. I would probably drown if not for the assistance of the entire editing team (particularly you, Andrew!), and of course our mentors, Nelly Mäekivi and Katre Pärn. Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who contributed an article to this issue, as well as the reviewers for their invaluable assistance in evaluating and enhancing the writers’ work. By going through all the papers, I gained a fresh viewpoint by becoming acquainted with various approaches, theories, and concepts, as well as writing styles.

AMC: What goals do you want to reach with this issue?

EA: I would love to contribute to the establishment of a channel of communication between our university and academics worldwide. The ultimate objective is to establish Hortus Semioticus as a well-known journal, a haven for all semioticians internationally. This time, we distributed the call for papers to at least twenty different universities ranging from America to Korea, and we launched the establishment of this communication bridge. This is something I’d want to see continued in future issues. Additionally, by focusing on pop culture, media, and transmediality, this special issue aimed to offer a forum for everyone interested in studying these subjects and to contribute to establishing their research as legitimate, relevant, and scientific.

AMC: Before we end the interview, is there anything else you would like to discuss?

EA: I simply want to emphasise to everyone who is reading this that you should never allow someone to tell you your thoughts are stupid. Always be receptive to helpful criticism, but not to naysayers. If you have a subject that intrigues and inspires you, and you wish to study it in depth, this enthusiasm and commitment will feed your research and give you the extra power to continue. Additionally, life is lot simpler when you are working on something you enjoy rather than something you feel obligated to do or that others expect you to accomplish. Academia might be challenging and nerve-wracking, but all you might need is a ‘get psyched mix’! How can you be sad while listening to the music of your own triumph? And for anyone else reading this that needs to hear it, I believe in you!

[1] Alex Gordon discussing the importance of semiotics in marketing, pointed out that in a world where TikTok videos with duration of only 15 seconds can go viral and shift meaning and audience perception, semiotics is a much needed tool., 05.05.2022.

[2] Kellner, Douglas 2003. Media Spectacle. London ; New York : Routledge

[3] For reference, see Shcheglov, Yuri; Zholkovsky Alexander 1987. Poetics of Expressiveness: A Theory and Applications. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

[4] PGA NMC Blog: 8 Defining characteristics of trans-media production by Jeff Gomez., 05.05.2022.

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


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