The Ninety One Series |||

Part 3: Idol Pop and the Languages of Love

How idol pop overcame pop music’s traditional dependence on English, and how we can tell Ninety One has something to say by the language they say it in.

Image from “E.Yeah” video

In the previous essay I explained how Ninety One has taken part in (and taken advantage of) the longstanding idol-pop tradition, which over the course of half a century migrated from the United Kingdom to the United States to Japan to Korea, of acting goofy on camera. And so when I first discovered the group it was partly through ephemeral pick-me-ups such as when the group played a game that involved stuffing their ears with cotton and then shouting at each other. Such videos can do a lot to make an idol group seem likeable, or fun for a few minutes. But in an industry where everybody puts out similar content, they don’t do a lot to make any particular group interesting.

Ninety One is actually quite interesting—their ear-stuffing game included; I’ll explain how in a bit—but I can understand if you don’t believe me when I say it. Most idol-pop songs are strictly limited to love, sexual attraction, and heartbreak; most idol-pop conversation never gets deeper than chatter about favorite food and MBTI self-identification. The Aiyptama EP, catchy as Aiyptama” was, was firmly in this predictable vein; it wouldn’t be until Ninety One’s first full album, 2017’s Qarangy Zharyq1, that they started being able to broach other topics.

But how can I show you this if neither of us can understand what they’re actually saying? For example, let’s start with the second single off Qarangy Zharyq, Yeski Taspa Bii’,” one of my favorites:

At first blush Yeski Taspa Bii’” appears to be a breakup song, with a run-of-the-mill idol-pop breakup video where one member of the group is designated to have the love scenes and the rest have to act upset, punching things and knocking over milk glasses and taking clothed baths. But the song is not run-of-the-mill. It starts out with synths burbling over emphasized piano chords, but then the piano falls out, and by the time we get to the chorus it’s pretty much all synths and Bala sounding like a robot on a crying jag, and then all that gives way to a solo by what seems to be an overgrown mutant kazoo. By two-thirds of the way through Alem, the group crooner, and Ace, its most conventional idol-pop singer, have dropped out and the rappers taken over, only AZ can’t even get through his lines without screaming and ZaQ is under about fifteen layers of processing—and then Yeski Taspa Bii’” ends, having forgotten what its original structure was. A sad, soothing breakup ballad this is not.

The lyrics—rather, the official translation of the lyrics—don’t help much. There’s an occasional mention of a you” to go with the narrator’s I,” but the references to the you” are scattershot and contradictory, and a lot more seems to be on the narrator’s mind. There’s also an inexplicable abyss (which further muddles the issue: if this were a standard heartbreak song, then the abyss would be a lot more explicable), and references to old records, and:

(ZaQ) All I need is old, ordinary ME
I go back, but what is the point?
Here only I am against the time, prepare the battlefield!

(AZ) The old record increasingly plays in my heart and does not let me escape,
I burn out from the inside when I see its dusty condition,
I want to wipe it, but the stains are not removed,
And why now should I carry the corpse of happiness?
I urgently need a time machine.

I submit that, one, there is a lot more going on here than the video suggests; two, Why now should I carry the corpse of happiness?” is a nicely goth line; and three, that line notwithstanding, Ninety One suffers in translation.

The group may not have had an experienced English translator available at the time Yeski Taspa Bii’” was released. I have a strong suspicion that the English subtitles, included when the video was uploaded to YouTube, are a lightly edited version of Google Translate’s efforts to render the Russian lyrics into English. (The Russian lyrics? Isn’t the song itself in Kazakh? Yes, and yes. Hold tight a minute.) It seems like too much of a coincidence that both Ninety One’s translator on duty and Google Translate take the Russian line Мне срочно нужна машина времени and return the English line I urgently need a time machine.”2

But even a skilled and certain translation may be too much weight for a mere pop song to carry. How much tolerance for incomprehension does the average non-Kazakh-speaking listener have? And why is Ninety One recording in Kazakh in the first place? They know as well as anyone else that the dominant language of pop is English. ZaQ is a huge Eminem fan; Ace was inspired to aspire to become a pop singer by Craig David’s 7 Days”; Alem, when he was a contestant on the Kazakhstani version of The Voice, performed English-language covers. Recording in English wouldn’t necessarily alienate their audience in Kazakhstan, but recording in Kazakh severely raised the risk that audiences outside Kazakhstan would dismiss them out of hand.

There is, it turns out, a purpose to this group’s carrying its corpses of happiness in Kazakh. But in order to understand it, we have to talk about why idol pop, despite having started with American and British artists and usually greatly resembling Western pop in its structures and scales, long ago stopped being an English-language phenomenon. It is possible that singing in Kazakh robs Ninety One of the ability to convert English-dominant audiences. It is also possible that idol pop is a powerful enough way to win affection that you can even use it to publicize an entire language.


Historically, English-speaking audiences have almost exclusively preferred their pop in English. In the entire history of the Billboard Hot 100, which has featured more than 4,800 songs to date, there have only been twenty non-English songs to sell (or stream) enough copies to crack the Top 10. Seven of those songs were in Spanish, including J Balvin’s Mi Gente” and the Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee juggernaut Despacito”; five were in Korean. (BTS has three; the other two are Gangnam Style” and PSYs follow-up, Gentleman.”) In the thirty years between Despacito” and the Los Lobos cover of La Bamba” (for the 1987 movie of the same name), only one non-English song topped the Hot 100, and that was Macarena.”3 Even in countries where English is not the dominant language, listeners have often taken their cues from American and British pop trends, so it’s far easier to trend an English-language song in a non-English-speaking country than it is to make a hit out of a non-English song in the United States. Even in Eurovision, that annual celebration of nationalist rivalry via goofy pop, many entries are in English.

You might expect music critics to make up for this by touting non-English music more frequently. They have incentives to listen to music outside the Top 100, after all, and also incentives to assert their intellectual heft and open-mindedness by publicizing music that their readers might be too provincial and English-bound to discover alone. But if you look at the rankings aggregated by the website Album of the Year, which draws from the most mainstream (Rolling Stone) and independent (Brooklyn Vegan, Slant, Gorilla vs. Bear) sources, there is precious little non-English music to be found. Every single album in the top 50 of the compiled best-rated albums of the decade is in English, as was every album in the aggregate top 50 for 2019, 2017, and 2016. (2018 had one album with non-English lyrics: Rosalía’s El Mal Querer.) Every song featured in the music issue of the New York Times Magazine for 2017, which is usually less about popularity and more about making larger sociological and political points, was in English; the 2018 and 2019 editions had one non-English song each. Or look at the prestigious 33 1/3 book series, in which each book focuses on a particular album of popular music: to date the series has published 149 books, many of them written by tenure-track professors. Of those, a grand total of two feature albums where the majority of the lyrics are not in English.4 Anyone who wants to write on albums produced outside the United States or United Kingdom might have better luck pitching to 33 1/3’s side list, 33 1/3 Global, assuming the music in question comes from Japan, Brazil, or Europe.5

In fairness, this critical neglect of non-English songs is not exclusively snobbery. First of all, it’s hard to really dig critically into a song without either a native-level knowledge of the song’s language or an exceptionally skilled translator, and most American music critics don’t have the former and most groups don’t have the latter. Second, many otherwise interested music critics might be less likely to champion a group about whose country, culture, or language they can’t speak knowledgeably. If they’re wrong they risk looking unsophisticated and self-absorbed; if they’re right they risk looking glib, even colonialist.6 On occasion the problem can be solved by hiring a critic of the right ethnic self-identification and language fluency to reassure readers (and fellow journalists) that talking about a foreign-language group is part of asserting ethnic-minority pride and cultural strength: thus Pitchforks guide to urbano music, published earlier this year, was put together by a team of writers with Latin American origins and published simultaneously in Spanish. But representing every possible combination of language and culture would be difficult even if we did live in the fantasy world where music publications had unlimited budgets.7

But idol pop never needed critical championship; idol pop has almost always run more or less in the face of critical championship. The Monkees were sneered at as the Pre-Fab Four.” No music writer in the 1970s, a time of relative opportunity for music writers, had time for the Bay City Rollers. Pitchfork didn’t start paying attention to One Direction until One Direction had splintered into a series of solo albums. Representation in the likes of Pitchfork or Brooklyn Vegan was never an idol-pop goal; it’s always been too nakedly commercial, too willing to pander to a larger audience. And, paradoxically, that willingness to pander might help explain why idol pop, as a global movement, stopped needing English quite so much.


With the exception of songs written or re-recorded specifically for the Japanese market (and BTSs Dynamite,” as obvious a lunge for the Billboard #1 spot as there has ever been), Korean idol pop is in Korean. Even songs specifically aimed at the American market, such as SuperM’s Jopping,” or Blackpink’s collaborations with Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, switch between English and Korean lyrics.8 At this point, fans of Korean idol pop, even non-Korean-speaking ones (raises hand), expect to hear song lyrics in Korean.

This flies in the face of pop history. There are other music scenes that have been able to sell on a global scale—Bollywood musicals and urbano, for two—but their success had more to do with the size of their respective diasporas than with an influx of fans who couldn’t understand the lyrics. Korean idol pop benefited by a series of unrelated circumstances, some of which had nothing to do with pop music.

The first circumstance is that Japan has one of the largest domestic musical-consumption markets on the planet. As of 2016 it still had 6,000 physical music stores; not until the last year or two has streaming began cannibalizing physical sales, and even in early 2020 CDs accounted for 70% of music sales.9 This has meant that groups that can do well in the Japanese market can pay the bills and then some; they don’t necessarily need to put in the extra effort, with its higher marginal costs, of trying to appeal to listeners outside of Japan.

The second is that everything that is true for Japan in the above paragraph has not been true for Korea: where Japanese music consumers and producers alike eschewed streaming for years, Korean music consumers—who, after all, got broadband en masse relatively early—embraced it, shrinking a domestic market that was much smaller than Japan’s to begin with. CD sales decreased accordingly: with the exception of BTS, no Korean artist has sold more than 2 million domestic copies of an album since 2000. As early as 2001, Korean idols such as BoA were promoting in Japan, since that’s where the best shot at good money was. So for the Korean idol-pop industry as a whole, the second language to focus on was Japanese and not English.

The third is two separate economic threads of the 2000s: one, southeast and east Asia as a whole recovered from the 1997 financial crisis, providing larger, and more accessible, nearby markets for Korean idol pop; and two, in approaching those markets idol-pop companies had the blessing and financial support of the Korean government. How that happened is a subject for the next essay in this series; but suffice to say idol-pop companies had sufficient motivation to sell their products abroad, and to sell them as Korean products, so except in China and Japan, Korean idol-pop groups did very little recording in their target countries’ languages.

And the fourth, and most important for how Korean idol pop got to Korean-ignorant English speakers like myself, was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed racist barriers to immigration from east Asia (among other places) to the United States. This allowed for the Korean population in the United States to rise from 11,000 in 1960 to 290,000 in 1980 to nearly a million in 2000. Another estimated 100,000 Americans were born in Korea but adopted by American couples between 1955 and 1998. One estimate now has the Korean diaspora in the United States at about 2 million, roughly half of whom were born in the United States.10

Why would this matter to idol pop? Well, consider what happened to the Korean families who settled in the United States. Many of them started businesses; many of them were able to take white-collar jobs.11 In many cases this meant a measure of middle-class security and flexibility for their families. Meanwhile, Korea itself democratized, so by the late 1980s emigrants who had fled the dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan could safely return to visit their familes. Falling transport and communication costs allowed Korean emigrants to keep their connections to Korea in ways that had not been possible for, say, Polish or Irish emigrants of a century earlier. So the new Korean-Americans had more incentives to continue speaking Korean—and to make sure their American-born children spoke Korean.

Now focus on the experience of those kids: they were more likely to grow up fluent in both English and Korean. They were more likely to have some experience traveling to Korea, even if their primary home was the United States. The rise of online shopping meant they could access Korean products more easily. The rise of Korean-American entrepreneurship allowed them to continue consuming Korean goods while still in the United States. Furthermore, they came of age at a time of greater ambivalence around the American ideal of assimilation”: there was a bit more room for them to embrace and take pride in Korean pop culture. My Singles Jukebox colleague Joshua Minsoo Kim, while reviewing the BTS single Fake Love,” once commented:

This past August, I eagerly assumed my role as the new sponsor for our high school’s Asian Pop Culture club. The name, as I had been informed, wasn’t entirely accurate: the group of students who met were primarily there because of a shared interest in K-pop. At the first meeting, I witnessed an ethnically diverse group of teenagers proficiently dancing to one of those K-pop Dance Game” videos on YouTube. I was immensely moved; I had seen it many times before online, but to see it in person felt like a strong affirmation of my Korean-American identity, especially since I never felt much of that throughout my own teenage years.

So at the same time that these Korean-Americans were in a greater position to appreciate Korean pop culture, Korean pop culture was increasingly an export-ready product. But the songs themselves were almost entirely in Korean, as were the accompanying variety shows shown on Korean television. How were Korean-American fans going to explain their new interest to their Korean-ignorant friends?

By translating.

Take any decently-well-known Korean idol group now working and you will find a dedicated sub team” that concentrates on translating the group’s content. The group BTS-Trans/Bangtan Subs, for example, has a staff (unpaid) of 25 people and 1.5 million followers on Twitter.12 But the phenomenon of fan-translating predates BTS by a decade. I’ve yet to find a definitive history of lyric translations, but at least one academic paper has dated the rise of Korean dramas with fan-written English subtitles to 2004. Every so often the Kpop subreddit will feature OG fans” reminiscing about having to download five-part subbed videos in the late 2000s. Soshified, the Girls’ Generation fan site that included lyrics translations and variety-show subbing, was started in February 2008.

At the same time that Korean-to-English fan-subbing efforts were becoming more widespread, no less dedicated sets of fan-subbers were translating Korean into French, Vietnamese, Arabic, Russian, Baha Indonesian, Filipino, Hebrew, and Spanish.13 But since English functions as the second language of so many people worldwide, the spread of Korean-to-English translation could act as a tool for fans who can translate from English, but not Korean, to their home language. One ARMY translator told Billboard:

…fans who don’t have English as their mother tongue also read my translation. Thus, when I translate for I-ARMYs, I tend to keep it easy and avoid complicated expressions or difficult vocabularies. Many of them will then re-translate my English translation into their native language. When articles and contents get translated into English, it spreads and gets translated into different languages as well, it’s amazing.14

The growth in interest in Korean idol pop has even meant a growth in interest in the Korean language itself, as evidenced by the rise in blogs, YouTube channels, and apps, using Korean idol pop songs and customs to teach Korean, or explaining how to write a fan letter in properly formal Korean. There are even fans who study dialects of Korean, thanks to Korean idol pop. The Modern Language Association’s most recent survey of formal undergraduate and graduate language study in the United States, in 2016, counted nearly 14,000 students enrolled in Korean courses. (In 1958, only five years after open fighting ceased in the Korean War, the total number of students taking Korean was 26.) Even BTS itself has gotten into the language-learning act, with Learn Korean with BTS!” videos and workbooks.

The leap from listening to lyrics (or variety-show banter) in a language you don’t understand to listening to the language itself is not large. The music might not a very efficient way to be introduced to the vocabulary and grammar of the language, but it normalizes your hearing of the language.15 It makes the language itself less alien. Knowing more about the language, even a small amount, in turn—여보세요? to answer the phone, 안녕하세요 to greet someone, 감사합니다 as a polite thank you—makes the people who speak it seem easier to recognize and empathize with.

Other idol-pop groups, observing all this, might well be taking notes. Especially idol-pop groups from other non-English-speaking countries. Especially an idol-pop group from a country where language, politics, history, recognition, and respect are even more inextricable than usual.


Approximately eighteen million people worldwide speak Kazakh.16 That includes 15.7 million within Kazakhstan itself, another million or so in western China, a half-million in Russia, and maybe another half-million scattered throughout central Asia and in countries with a Kazakh diaspora, such as Germany and Korea. Here’s the catch: the population of Kazakhstan is not 15.7 million but 19.1 million, and in that population, about 18 million people speak Russian. Kazakh is not the most widely-spoken language even within Kazakhstan.

How this came to be is a long story, simplified as: Russian was the dominant language of Soviet rule. Tolerance for home ethnic and linguistic expression in the Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia waxed and waned over the course of the USSRs history, but Russian remained the unifying language, the language most often taught in schools, the language ambitious people learned if they wanted to get ahead. By the time Kazakhstan became its own country in late 1991, only about a quarter of the population spoke Kazakh, as opposed to four-fifths speaking Russian. Mastering Russian was more than just a survival tool,” wrote Bhavna Dave, of the University of London, in the 2007 book Kazakhstan: Ethnicity, Language, and Power. It also became a source of personal and collective empowerment and an emblem of becoming cultured’ and civilised.’”17

The newly formed Republic of Kazakhstan thus had a dilemma on its hands. On the one hand, the Kazakh language was a large and symbolic way of establishing national sovereignty and, at least theoretically, bringing an understandably nervous18 population together. On the other hand, then-president and future Benevolent-Helmsman-for-Life Nursultan Nazarbayev had no desire to alienate either the millions of Russian speakers within Kazakhstan (some, though not all, of whom identified ethnically as Russian) or Russia itself by denigrating Russian as a language. Eventually Nazarbayev proposed a somewhat unwieldy compromise: Kazakh would be the official language of the country, taught in government schools and spoken in bureaucratic offices, but Russian was still a welcome language. It is written in our constitution that we speak two languages and we don’t discriminate,” he said in a 2013 address. To keep up with the times, we have to speak Russian in our country, as it is one of the six global languages. This will help our people prosper in the future.”

Even the president of Kazakhstan, even twelve years after independence, saw fit to link speaking Russian with prosperity. No amount of officialization of Kazakh was going to change that Russian remained the best language for accessing the greater Russian world, and the people, literature, culture, and scientific and technical advances that world had produced. The Russians brought schools, electricity, medicine,” an American-educated Kazakhstani in Almaty told Will Boast, as recounted in Boast’s excellent 2017 Virginia Quarterly Review essay on Kazakhstani traditions. My grandmother was born in a yurt! She lost ten children in a yurt! My wife and I are going to raise our children in the best apartment we can afford.” The Soviet insistence on Russian and repression of Kazakh is undeniable. But even if it had never happened, if Kazakhstan had been independent for the entirety of the twentieth century, Kazakh might still have ended up the language of the mambeti—Kazakh for hick,” basically—and Russian might still have become the primary language of those who wished to see themselves as urbane, intellectually curious, prosperous, modern.

Remember that ear-stuffing game I mentioned a while ago? There’s actually a moment, about midway through, that is simultaneously very silly and revealing of Kazakhstani language politics in action. Alem has written a word wrong, and ZaQ, the referee, makes a big show of docking a point for the error.

Animated image of ZaQ telling Alem, “You have to know the language that is Kazakh!”
“You have to know the language that is Kazakh!”
Animated image of ZaQ telling the camera, “If you don’t know Kazakh, you’re going to end up a mess like Batyrkhan over there”
“If you don’t know Kazakh, you’re going to end up a mess like Batyrkhan over there.”

The joke is partly an inside one, as it’s between two solidly bilingual members of Ninety One: ZaQ won a Russian-language competition while still in high school, and Alem may well have grown up learning Russian first and Kazakh second.19 But it’s also a joke on pompous, insecure lecturing known the world over—How are you going to get ahead?—only, about the wrong language. Learn Kazakh to get ahead? Sure, if your eventual goal is to work for the government or move to a rural area. But these are two ambitious young men working in entertainment in Almaty, which is not only Kazakhstan’s largest city and longstanding cultural center but the former capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. For most of Alem and ZaQ’s lives, the answer to How are you going to get ahead? would have been Russian.


The gap between Russian and Kazakh is not quite as wide as it used to be, in part because Kazakhstanis are now much more likely to speak Kazakh at school than they were during the Soviet era.20 But it still persists in, among other aspects of Kazakhstani life, popular music. Kazakh-language popular music is slower and more likely to feature traditional instruments such as the dombra. They also tend to perform not at concerts but at toi, the extravagant wedding celebrations popular throughout Central Asia. A good example of this would be the long-standing trio MuzART, whose single Ush konir” was co-written by none other than the dombra-playing president Nazarbayev his own self.

Kazakhstanis who wanted to pursue a less traditional, more pop sound have historically recorded in Russian, partly to reach the much larger Russian-fluent audience, partly because Kazakh was so strongly associated with songs like Ush komir.” Well, shit, at least they’re not all mambeti on the Russian radio,” an Almaty interviewee said to American journalist Valentina Michelotti while she was reporting on the Kazakhstani music scene for Muftah in 2016. Two of the most successful Kazakhstani musicians today, Jah Khalib and Skriptonit, both work primarily in Russian; neither makes a secret of his Kazakhstani origins, or sees an apparent contradiction between Kazakhstani background and Russian audience. But neither is going to perform at a toi any time soon, either. (Neither is Ninety One, but that’s a topic for later.)

So when a Kazakhstani musician adopts a less traditional sound, yet chooses to stay in Almaty and record in Kazakh, people take notice. At least that was true for Galymzhan Moldanazar, synth-pop artist, film-score composer, and the most successful independent musician in Kazakhstan working today. Merey Otan, an independent musician in her own right, featured Moldanazar in her master’s thesis on how popular musicians in Kazakhstan approach Kazakh, because, as the rare Kazakh-language artist who can avoid toi and make money from sole concerts, he may be singlehandedly responsible for the growth of an independent music scene in Almaty. Michelotti met him at the premier bar for Kazakhstan’s hipster elite” and reported, Galumzhan Moldanazar is not just making good pop music. He is helping move the Kazakh language away from presumptions about its cultural inferiority.” Moldanazar himself told Otan, Not long ago Kazakh youth rarely listened to Kazakh songs. Nowadays, young people listen to songs in Kazakh language a lot, they accept it, love it. They have a different view today. This is because of the young musicians, youngsters like them.”21

But the Almaty indie scene—assuming it manages to survive the damage done by the pandemic—apparently resembles other indie scenes in its emphasis on live music and intimacy. Even with Moldanazar’s example inspiring other Kazakh-language performers, that still left an opportunity for Kazakh-language pop that was definitely not indie, and not traditional either: loud, brash, hip-hop laden, more than a bit ridiculous. Idol pop, in other words.

And now you know why Yeski Taspa Bii’” and its corpse of happiness is in Kazakh. In Ninety One’s hands the idea of language promotion, a side effect in Korean idol pop, becomes explicit. At the beginning of 2019 the group appeared on the Korean show I Can See Your Voice, and after doing the obligatory Korean cover they performed Aiyptama” (minus the raps), because they wanted to be able to say they’d sung in Kazakh on Korean television.22 In 2018 AZ and ZaQ helped lead, and all of Ninety One appeared on, a rap-battle show called Qara beri (“Listen to Me”), aimed specifically at increasing the profile of Kazakh-language hip-hop. At one point the official Ninety One Twitter feed was doing double duty as a trilingual translation tool:

Portrait of Ninety One with caption of the word “tomorrow” in Kazakh, Russian, and English
From 2017; this was deleted when Ninety One moved to their current Twitter account, @xciofficial.

And if you still need evidence that these guys are emotionally invested in the propagation and continuation of the Kazakh language, just see how chuffed they get when hearing from non-Kazakh-speaking fans who have been inspired to give the language a try.

They could have chosen to record in Russian. Four of the five members speak Russian fluently (AZ didn’t speak it at all before coming to Almaty). Pay enough attention to their behind-the-scenes videos and you’ll hear them switching back and forth between Kazakh and Russian.23 Recording in Russian not only would have increased their access to the general Russian-speaking pop audience, but also would have won them a lot more potential translators into English. As it is, the translation infrastructure for Q-pop is much weaker than for its Korean counterpart. I can count the translators I can check regularly for Ninety One information on one hand: the ninetyonekz Tumblr; Didi on Instagram; Qpop Translations; and the fan-run Twitter feeds Ninety One France and Ninety One Global. All of these translators are volunteering their time, and they understandably have a limited amount of time to volunteer. So there ends up being quite a lot of content (this interview being a recent example) that doesn’t get subtitles soon after arrival, the way most K-pop content does.

Since Yeski Taspa Bii’” Juz Entertainment has taken a more proactive approach to in-house subtitling. Almost all of the episodes of Seasons 2 and 3 of 91 Space have English subtitles, as do official music videos; one-offs and behind-the-scenes videos are less likely to get them. But just their inability to consistently subtitle puts them at a disadvantage to Korean idol-pop groups, who are more likely to have fluent translators doing both official and volunteer fan work. The discrepancy underscores how difficult is it to be a pop group both globally focused and rooted in Kazakh. And yet that is Ninety One’s goal.

But why stop at a language? Why not advance an entire country? In the next essay, we’ll look at how Ninety One’s work helps make an underpublicized country visible, and how they are not the first to put idol pop in the service of nationalist goals. Also how Bala can have quite a lot of fun being a tyrannical brat when the camera demands it.

Animated image of Bala, in a crown, bashing a sleeping AZ over the head with an inflatable mallet


Back to Part 2: The Art of Adorkable

On to Part 4: Bring Them the Head of Kenesary Khan



  1. In English, қараңғы is dark” and жарық is light.” Also, taking the first two letters of the album title gives you QZ, for Qazaqstan. This is not going to be the last instance of either wordplay or patriotic self-assertion in this series.↩︎

  2. Whereas if you give Google Translate the Kazakh line AZ actually says, Дереу керек маған уақыт көлігі, you get I need a time car immediately.”↩︎

  3. See Xander Zeliner, From Volare’ to Mi Gente,’ Every Foreign-Language Top 10 Hit on the Billboard Top 100,” Billboard.com, October 13, 2017.↩︎

  4. Volume 70, on Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Facing Future, by Dan Kois; and Volume 87, on Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, by Darran Anderson.↩︎

  5. So far 21 books have been published through 33 1/3 Global since it was announced in 2017. But the Global books seem to take a back seat to the main line, in terms of prestige. The series blog, which announces new releases and runs interviews with and essays by 33 1/3 authors, as of this writing (October 2020) hasn’t featured a new Global book since mid-March. The 33 1/3 Twitter account, which includes retweets from press coverage and readers, hasn’t featured a Global book since early April.↩︎

  6. How this came about we’ll have to save for later in the series, but let me give you an example from memory: at the Singles Jukebox we occasionally run tributes to deceased musicians (for George Michael and Prince, for example), but when Juan Gabriel died in August 2016, he went untributed; he had the stature, the general consensus went, but not enough people were familiar enough with either his music or the context in which it was usually heard to feel comfortable putting forth an opinion.↩︎

  7. And this leaves aside the issue of how pretty much all non-American idol pop shows the influence of R&B, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, or all three, and thus promoting non-American performers of these styles could be cited as a way of working in the long tradition of promoting every artist working in black music traditions except black artists. I will freely admit to not dealing with that issue in particular in this series and will instead recommend (with regards to Korean idol pop in particular) Crystal Anderson’s work; she just published a book, Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (University of Mississippi Press, 2020).↩︎

  8. For more on how SM Entertainment specifically created the supergroup” SuperM to make inroads into the American market, see Katie Haliwell, SuperM and the Futility of Trying to Win Over K-pop Stans,” The Ringer, August 22, 2019.↩︎

  9. See Mun Keat Looi, Why Japan has more old-fashioned record stores than anywhere else in the world,” Quartz, August 19, 2016, and Rurika Imahashi, Japan’s music industry rises again in new age of discovery,’ Nikkei Asian Review, January 16, 2020.↩︎

  10. For statistics on the Korean-American population and Korean diaspora in the United States as a whole, see Allison O’Connor and Jeanne Batalova, Korean Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, April 10, 2019; for more on American adoption of Korean children, and subsequent objections to the practice (including by adoptees themselves), see Maggie Jones, Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea,” New York Times Magazine, January 14, 2015.↩︎

  11. According to a 1997 survey by the Census Bureau, for example, Korean-American-owned businesses generated a total of $45.9 billion in revenue and paid out $5.8 billion in wages ($70.5 billion and $9.3 billion, respectively, in 2020 dollars). Immigrants historically self-employ at higher rates than native-born Americans, and at the time Korean-Americans were self-employing at higher rates than immigrants as a whole. See Marcus Noland, The Impact of Korean Immigration on the US Economy,” in The Korean Diaspora in the World Economy, edited by C. Fred Bergsten and Inbom Choi, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2003.↩︎

  12. That statistic is from P. Claire Dodson, As BTSs Reach Expends, An Army of Dedicated K-Pop Translators Grows,” New York Times, July 4, 2019. See also Tamar Herman, The Unpaid Labor of K-pop Fan Translation Twitter,” Forbes, August 20, 2020.↩︎

  13. The Central and South American fanbases of long-standing group Super Junior have gotten so large that, in one of the more welcome developments of the past decade, the group has started openly pandering to its Spanish-speaking fans.↩︎

  14. English-speaking fans of non-English-speaking groups often distinguish between fans within and outside the group’s home country, the latter being known for the prefix I-,” short for international.” So a BTS fan (or ARMY) in the United States or Saudi Arabia or Brazil is an I-ARMY,” to be contrasted with K-ARMYs” in Korea.↩︎

  15. I only know of one app to date that explicitly uses popular music to teach a language: it’s called Lirica, and at present it’s limited to Spanish.↩︎

  16. Since self-plagiarism” is a thing, and a disapproved-of thing at that: some of this material previously appeared in my One Week One Band on Ninety One, written in 2017.↩︎

  17. Published by Routledge, which has made a copy of the first chapter available for download. The quotation is on pp. 1–2.↩︎

  18. We’re going to get to this later in more detail, but for now suffice to say that Kazakhstan’s first few post-independence years were very rough, especially economically.↩︎

  19. I don’t know this for certain; it’s a guess. Here’s why the guess: Alem was born in Uchkuduk, Uzbekistan, but grew up near Kostanai, in northern Kazakhstan. In the early years of the Republic of Kazakhstan the government was quite keen on encouraging ethnic Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan to move to Kazakhstan, in part because decades’ worth of Soviet-ordered population shuffling had left Kazakhs an ethnic minority within Kazakhstan. (To this day the Kazakhstani population is said to contain more than a hundred different ethnicities.) The term for these returnee ethnic Kazakhs was oralmandar. I’ve never read or heard Alem be described as any official source as oralman—the word apparently became an insult in Kazakhstan, to the point where the national government felt the need to replace it with a less loaded alternative—but it makes sense that a Kazakh family that began in Uzbekistan and then moved to northern Kazakhstan would find Russian handier than Kazakh on a day-to-day basis.↩︎

  20. Google Scholar is not coughing up a lot of recent scholarship on Russian versus Kazakh language use in Kazakhstan, but the rise of Kazakh in schools, especially outside major cities, is covered in William Fierman, Languge and Education in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan: Kazakh-Medium Instruction in Urban Schools,” The Russian Review, Volume 65, No. 1 (January 2006). See also Zinaida Sabitova and Akbota Alishariyeva, The Russian language in Kazakhstan: Status and functions,” Russian Journal of Communication, 2015.↩︎

  21. See also Sagida Serikbayeva’s 2018 master’s thesis, Influence of popular Kazakh music on students’ motivation to learn Kazakh language,” in which her Russian-speaking interviewees frequently cite Moldanazar’s work (and, less frequently, that of Ninety One and other Q-pop groups) as leading them to view the Kazakh language more favorably.↩︎

  22. See this interview, translated by Qpop Translations, in which Alem explains (at about 4:50), One of the tasks we’d planned for ourselves was to sing a song in Kazakh there.”↩︎

  23. For an example, see this footage from the making of the Why’m” music video: at around 1:40 Ace is speaking Russian, first to the camera and then with the director; at around 4:10 ZaQ is speaking Kazakh with Beka, a Juz Entertainment staffer who often is the one holding the camera for 91 Space episodes. Apparently switching between Russian and Kazakh in Almaty in particular is fairly common: the paper Language Choice among the Youth of Kazakhstan: English as a Self-Representation of Prestige,” by Damira Akynova, Sholpan Zharkynbekova, Atirkul Agmanova, Aliya Aimoldina, and Lyazzat Dalbergenova, in Procedia: Behavioral and Social Sciences, Volume 143 (August 2014), gives an example of a conversation between friends that is primarily in Kazakh but mixes in Russian and English words. This example rings true with everything I’ve heard about language use in Almaty so far, but treat it with caution: Procedia is a pay-to-play journal with a bad reputation.↩︎

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