Taylor Swift ‘Blank Space’ director Joseph Kahn digs deep into Korean roots

November 24, 2014
"I don't listen to a lot of K-pop, but I'm aware of it," Kahn said. "I wouldn't mind working in it, it's a curious market. I'm pretty agnostic as to what genre of music I'm working in and I've worked with bands from Russia to Japan to Korea. As long as the song is right and the artist is right and they're going to get a return on investment through me, I'll take on the job." (Courtesy of Joseph Kahn)

Although Joseph Kahn only spent the first three years of his life in Busan, South Korea, he still distinctly remembers his time there primarily due to such stark cultural contrasts. (Yonhap)

By Brian Han

When you think about a wildly successful music video director who has worked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga — artists that continue to define American pop culture — the image in your mind probably doesn’t culminate in the form of a 1.5 generation Korean American.

Joseph Kahn, was born in Busan, South Korea and immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of three. His Korean name is Ahn Jun-hee, but he eventually added a ‘K’ in front of ‘Ahn’ to create a new last name for himself.

Although he was brought up with traditional Korean values, the 42-year-old director humorously admits that a language barrier exists across generational gaps.

“My grandma doesn’t speak a word of English and when she communicates with me, she thinks I speak Korean, but I really don’t,” Kahn said. “She’ll have full on conversations with me and I won’t understand a single word.”

Despite the linguistic disconnect, he credits the culture for much of his success.

“The discipline that Korean families have in terms of no tolerance for failure, that has definitely been ingrained in me and there’s a certain level of respect I have for elders that I don’t really see in Western culture,” he said.

Kahn is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that even though certain cultural expectations loomed over his head from a young age, he didn’t pursue a stereotypical career path. What makes it even more significant is that his decision to study photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts was made two decades ago — a time when career options were far more limited for Asian Americans.

Something had to have happened during his upbringing for him to exercise his creative freedom in lieu of subscribing to Korean cultural norms.

“My parents divorced when I was 12. My dad moved to Seattle and then my mom married a white guy,” Kahn said. “Honestly, if my mom didn’t marry a white guy, I would have never in a million years been able to do what I do. There’s no way two traditional Korean parents would have ever accepted it. Because I was in a broken family, I got away with a lot of things.”

Eventually, he had to drop out of college. Not because of failing grades or that he felt academia had nothing left to offer him, he simply couldn’t afford tuition.

Instead, he moved back to Houston and started working at a local movie theater. He gave up whatever money was left in his own tuition fund so that his younger sister could have the financial resources to get her law degree.

“You can imagine how terrible that was for my mom thinking that her first son had completely failed,” Kahn said. “The funny thing is, I didn’t think I had failed. I had deep convictions that I was going to make it anyways. To me, it was just a stepping stone. I told myself that I’d take a year to save some money, start my own company and make my way back into the business.”

There was never really a “big break” moment for Kahn. He kept his head down, charged forward and kept on pumping out music videos.

“I did about 30 rap videos in about a year and a half,” explains Kahn. “Then I moved to Los Angeles, and each video got bigger and bigger. My $5,000 video would turn into 10, 15, 20, $30,000 until I got to million dollar videos. It was very gradual.”

(Kahn got his career started directing rap videos and fittingly, he won his first Grammy for hip-hop icon Eminem’s “Without Me” in 2002.)

Aside from his proven creativity, it also took a sharp business mind to distinguish himself in the 1990s as an aspiring director — a time when the music industry was experiencing its very own golden age.

“My mom is somewhat of a hustler and it’s through her that I learned to be clever financially,” Kahn says with a grin. “I was the person who was willing to go into dangerous neighborhoods that other people wouldn’t go into and shoot videos there. I was providing a service that no one else could deliver on that level. It was definitely a bit of luck too. Rap started becoming huge while rock music was declining. That’s when I was able to transition to pop videos, which is what I really wanted to do.”

The timing was perfect. Money was still flowing freely through record labels at the turn of the century meaning that there was a lot of financial freedom for the artists involved. Eventually, Kahn directed one of the highest budgeted videos ever for Janet Jackson’s “Doesn’t Really Matter” in 2000 for an estimated $2.5 million.

Fast forward to today and you have a director who still finds the same level of success in an industry plagued by a business model that is too firmly rooted to the past.

“I pay full attention to what’s going on in my field, it’s my job,” Kahn said. “The music industry is really screwed right now. Music videos are the format that most people know me for, but these days I do more commercials. My video output these days is about 2-3 per year whereas a decade ago, I was closer to 20-30 per year. Now I’ll do 20 commercials and 2 videos.”

(Kahn directed a series of advertisements for a Nascar Fox campaign which won the prestigious Clio Award)

After winning a Grammy Award in 2002, Kahn transferred his talents seamlessly to the advertising sector, which eventually yielded the equally prestigious Clio Award — both symbols of his flexibility in a tumultuous professional environment.

The vast majority of directors are finished after 2-3 years,” explains Kahn. “I try to take a long term perspective and it’s just basic survival instincts. I keep an open mind. I’m always trying to understand the next generation and not look down on them, which I think people do as they age.”

This attitude is one of the many reasons he can stay one step ahead of his competition, which explains why after more than two decades in the business, the most universally renowned figures in contemporary pop continually seek him out for the visionary that he is.

Case in point, Kahn most recently directed Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” — a video that has garnered an overwhelmingly positive reception and racked up 90 million YouTube views in the 14 days since its release on Nov. 10.

Even so, the Korean American director never dwells on a finished project for too long and always has his sights on what’s ahead.

“I get bored,” he said. “Before the Taylor Swift video came out, I couldn’t talk about it publicly for about a month, so it was frustrating. Then when it was released, the internet blew up over it and I knew people were going to love it. So for a couple days, I was on a high seeing all this reaction. After a week, that high goes away. After all that euphoria, comes this depression when there’s no reason to be. Then it’s on to the next project.”

Within the next few weeks, Kahn will do exactly that and release a personal project on Vimeo in the form of a short film. He claims that “it might get taken down” possibly due to controversial content, so make sure to keep an eye out for it if you want a chance at seeing it at all.