Thoughts on Theses: Tim Song

Tim Song is a neuroscience and music double major. His thesis looks at how K-pop affects mental health and Asian American identity. His thesis advisor is Professor of Music Jeffers Engelhardt.

Photo courtesy of Tim Song '22.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: My thesis is about how K-pop affects mental health. That's my general topic, and I'm still currently exploring what I want to do with it, but it originally stemmed from an idea in terms of how K-pop affects mental health and Asian Americans. Especially through the recent Korean Wave, there's been a lot more Korean media [and] K-pop in America, and the identity of the Asian American has also been a lot more prevalent in social media and in general. I wanted to see how the prevalence of both of these events — the rise of both the Asian American in society, as well as K-pop and Korean music — would affect mental health.

Q: What inspired you to pursue this topic?

A: Back in [my] second year, I had a pretty rough time with my own mental health. I had a pretty severe depressive episode in the fall of 2019 and through this time, I wasn't really able to rely on anything — I wasn't able to reach out to my friends, I wasn't able to reach [out to] family, [or at least] it didn't feel like I was able to. But one thing that did help me through this [time] was my reliance on K-pop, both as a genre and as an industry. Through fandoms and social media and just consuming culture, I was able to see myself and find serotonin and little things here and there. But also the music, both in terms of lyrical content and sonical elements — how the melody was structured and the instrumentalization of each piece — helped me to maintain my wellbeing.

With this personal experience of having gone through a crisis [and been helped by] K-pop, I also began to be more aware of how, at large, society is affected by K-pop as well. I often saw accounts on Twitter of different people being like, ‘Oh, I've been able to get through so-and-so situations because of K-pop.’ I saw a lot of my other friends as well were able to be sustained [by] K-pop through their own troubles, and I thought that this would be a really interesting phenomenon to look at through a more academic lens. I did my own research while studying for some of my music classes on where that intersectionality lies in terms of K-pop, Asian identity, American identity and mental health, and I found that there was almost no literature done on this topic. I feel like it's important, especially with the rise of popular culture in a more global sense, that this topic be looked at academically as well.

Q: Who are some of your favorite Korean artists, and did they shape your research at all?

A: Yes and no. My favorite Korean artist at the time was SEVENTEEN, which is a 13-member boy group that produces their own music. I think what initially drew me to them was that they made their own music. As a music major, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool that they do that.’ In fact, in the first music class that I took here, my first project was a song analysis of "Pretty U" by SEVENTEEN.

As I went through my troubles in 2019, SEVENTEEN also released tracks that focused more on health and well-being and loving yourself around early 2020. It was really interesting to see this shift from K-pop being a genre less about words and meaning to one that focuses on the individual and well-being. I was like, ‘This is a shift that I've never seen before, and [it’s] something that can be looked at.’ I think that, along with all my other interests, helped shape my path.

Q: What is your favorite part of the research process so far?

A: My favorite part so far has just been being able to bring the artists that I enjoy talking about and listening to, as well as my own experiences, into a more academic setting. Combining my non-academic, more musical, interests, along with what I've enjoyed doing in terms of the analysis of music, has been also a really enjoyable time, just being able to integrate all of that.

Q: What are some challenges that you've encountered in your research?

A: I'll mention two of my biggest issues that I'm facing right now. One would be the fact that there isn't an Asian American studies major on campus. That really makes things so much harder because I want my thesis to be able to focus on Asian American studies and how  mental health has been a theme that's been brought across from America to Asia and K-pop serves as the best vessel in terms of both sending the theme of mental health over to Korea, but also bringing it back to America as well. It's kind of being used to bring awareness to Korea of what mental health is. Because I don't have any guidance in terms of how to navigate that from an Asian American [studies] lens, it's been difficult. And because of that, my second worry [is] it's been hard to find what direction to approach this [from], whether it be a psychological approach where I look more at how the brain is shaped by music, or a more anthropological approach where we look at how culture and music shapes the self. So because I'm stuck at a point where [I’m not sure how] to even start dissecting these arguments, I think those are my two big issues.

Q: How have you been working to overcome these challenges?

A: I really think it's just continuing to let it brew, talking to a lot of people about it or reaching out to both my advisor and also other people in adjacent fields. I think that's the best way to get at it, honestly.

Q: Who is your thesis advisor, and how are they supporting you in this process?

A: My thesis advisor is Professor [of Music] Jeffers Engelhardt. Great man. I took two courses with him last year — one on methods of musical analysis [and] one on the anthropology of voice and music. Both classes prepared me to do the work that I'm doing right now in conducting sonical analyses and gathering data and looking at music from an ethnological — no, I don't like that word — a more cultural lens. It's been great, he's been very supportive. Like most thesis students, I meet with him once a week to talk, and we have fun deadlines.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your research?

A: I think the most rewarding part will be seeing all of this come to an end, seeing that I was able to come up with a research question that I care a lot about and that I relate to, and address it through my analyses and interviews.

Q: Does this thesis relate to what you will pursue in the future?

A: That's a great question. As of now, no. One of the reasons why I wanted to do a thesis was because I felt like I wouldn't have the chance to do an independent project like this about something that I'm passionate about within music. When I first came [to Amherst], up until sophomore year, I was dead set on not doing a thesis because I didn’t think I'd be able to do independent work [like that]. But I think both the push from my advisor, in terms of his own passions, as well as the passions of those around me who are also doing theses, as well as my own growth as a person and as a learner has been able to support me in actually doing this large project. It's daunting for sure, but I'm also really excited to see where it's gonna go.

Q: What advice would you give to a student who's considering writing a thesis in the future?

A: This is the same advice that was given to me by other previous alumni who have written theses: don't do a thesis just because you want it on your degree, and don't do one just because you think it'll help for grad school. I think you should do a thesis because you genuinely, genuinely care about what you do and because you enjoy the work that you're doing. It's definitely a push out of your comfort zone, and that's okay as long as you know that you have the drive to continue going. You don't want to start a thesis and then end up giving up halfway through because you realize you don't care about it anymore.

Q: Do you have any advice on doing a thesis in a subject area like yours that doesn’t have much prior literature?

A: Start early! All the advice that my upperclassmen also gave me was start early, start in the summer, start in the fall semester. I unfortunately did not follow their advice with the summer because I did not do any thesis work in the summer, but I think just starting early in order to get your background research set would be the best advice I can give. Even now, I'm thinking about what I originally wanted to do [with my thesis] and what I'm currently going to do, and they are a little bit different because of the restrictions that I face with time and resources. So just getting work done earlier would be my biggest advice. I know there are a lot of seniors who spent this past summer at Amherst [working on their] theses, and I know that, because of that, they've been able to get a head start. One of my friends has a draft of their [first] chapter done already. If you are really passionate, I think that's also something you could look into.