A Dummy’s Guide to Korean Pop

Allen Huang / February 14, 2012
Image from kpopstarz.com

On the eve of January 31st, the nine-piece K-pop group Girls’ Generation made their national television debut as David Letterman’s musical guest. The studio’s stage could barely contain the group’s performance, which, by K-Pop’s standards, was light on spectacle. And though the physical size of the set was small, Girls’ Generation, and Korean Pop music in general, had never played a bigger stage.

The creeping influence of Korea’s Pop industry has been duly noted by journalists, fans, and artists. But, apart from the 1% of 1% of American fans who know what K-Pop is, GG’s performance presented the average American more questions than answers. Who are these girls, where did they come from and why should we care? Is K-Pop really something worth paying attention to? Where are “The Boys” and when will someone bring them out?

So while much better articles have been written about K-Pop and its cultural value, I want to present you with some answers to the most frequently asked questions about Korean Pop music. After that, it’s up to you to track down supplemental information, listen to some mixes, watch some MV’s, and join a fan group.

What is K-Pop?

Short answer: K-Pop is simply Korean Pop music. You know, like Lady Gaga or Ke$ha or Katy Perry or Madonna, but Korean.

K-Pop as a product is infinitely more interesting than K-Pop as a musical genre. But before we expand on that, let me explain what Hallyu is. Hallyu is the Korean Wave, the export of all things cultural from the South Korean nation. This includes film, music, television dramas, celebrities, and historical culture. The concept of Hallyu is heavily supported by the government, and for good reason; culture export brings in at least $1 billion to the country annually. The success of Hallyu is not only a source of pride and wealth for the artists who create culture, but also for the Korean people as a whole. It’s a team effort.

For a long time, Korean television dramas were the most lucrative piece of this pie. Korean dramas and television shows are immensely popular all over Asia, translated by the production companies themselves and broadcast in many countries. However, now it is the music, specifically the hyper-electro maximalist pop music performed by girl and boy bands, that has become the most profitable export of Hallyu. And in this wake of this success, the big talent agencies in Korea have grown exponentially to satisfy demand.

So why now?

There are multiple reasons for this, but I’ll point to two that stand out.

One: Korean Pop music aims to globalize.

As stated before, Korean media are regularly translated into multiple languages – not by import companies in America, Japan, or China, but by the production companies themselves (or at least via partnerships). Songs are written for mass appeal on a global scale, and aren’t inhibited by Korean cultural context. So it makes sense that Korea would look to the less homogenous West for musical inspiration.

In recent years, K-Pop has experienced an increasingly modernist, westernized turn in style. Many of the producers, performers and songwriters (such as 2NE1 collaborator Teddy Park, solo pop star Jay Park, and Girls’ Generation members Jessica and Tiffany) are Korean Americans who eventually made their way to South Korea to train for pop stardom. Teddy Riley, who produced and wrote songs like Wrex-N-Effex’s “Rumpshaker” collaborated with Girls’ Generation on their newest album. Nick Cannon recently produced a tween made-for-television movie starring Wonder Girls. Solely on the back of marketing dollars, K-Pop is shrinking the musical divide between Asia and America.

It is also interesting to note that this globalization of Korean Pop represents an internal socio-cultural shift. Korea is, like most Asian countries, an exceptionally socially conservative nation. So this movement to sell sex, image, and style in such gratuitous amounts, not to mention giving it the unofficial stamp of Hallyu approval, represents a huge change in perspective for the nation. Still, pundits talk negatively about racy outfits, netizens gossip frequently about potential relationships amongst K-Pop idols, and the most popular artists tend to be the ones who are the most “pure” and “innocent.” But it’s hard to argue with the numbers.

Two: The Korean Pop industry is technologically savvy.

Pop Music in Korea is not some novel concept. I remember watching music videos for H.O.T., the boy-band godfathers of modern day K-Pop, on a friend’s computer over a decade ago. But K-Pop’s new level of worldwide popularity isn’t due some grand conspiracy; K-Pop enjoys immense success simply because the Korean music industry has fully embraced the power of digital distribution and social networking.

Music videos are readily available and heavily promoted on YouTube and other streaming sites. Groups frequently post behind the scenes looks – dance practices, video blogs, etc.  – much to the delight of their fans. Covers and dance performances set to the music are not taken down for copyright reasons, but promoted by fans and labels alike. K-Pop celebrities regularly have hyper-active Twitter accounts. Fan pages maintained by labels are translated into over a dozen languages. If you want to watch it, if you want to listen to it, and if you want to read about it, K-Pop is readily available on the internet for everyone.

Who are these people? Why do they look like that?

Careful market research.

Most stars of K-Pop lie between the ages of 16 – 30. Young stars will spend sometimes up to 7 years “training” to become stars. Some will become singers, some will be dancers, some will be rappers, some will become the “face” and some the “energy.” Agencies such as SM Entertainment (Girls’ Generation, Super Junior), YG Entertainment (Big Bang, 2NE1), and JYP Entertainment (2PM, Wonder Girls, Miss A) will take the best and brightest stars, develop a concept for them, and introduce them to the world as a group.

Sometimes the groups are wildly successful and sometimes they fail right out the starting gate. Some stars will belong to several groups before they find success. Sometimes they quit early. The few who do make it will then go on a whirlwind schedule of tours and promotions, including talk shows, live performances, traveling to other countries, appearing on their own reality shows, acting in television dramas and movies. K-Pop is a very cutthroat, very demanding business.

Detractors of K-Pop will point to the long hours, the pressures on image, and the hectic scheduling and say that these kids are having their lives ruined by the K-Pop machine. And it’s true, there is a dark side to the industry. But this is hardly Foxconn; the most successful K-Pop stars have plenty to show for it financially. Groups have successfully sued their way out of contracts. Young stars quit all the time and return to school.

But yes, for those with weak stomachs about corporate music or questions of authenticity, you should probably stay away. There is probably nothing more transparently, honestly corporate than Korean Pop. But for me, that’s part of the appeal.

What’s so interesting about the music?

Contemporary K-Pop is a mishmash of current trends: electro, house, Euro pop, and hip-hop all come together to create these wonderfully elaborate pop songs. Because K-Pop is such a fast moving industry, producers are always trying to out-do each other, to find the next template, the next sound, to become the first early adopter. For instance, HyunA’s mega-hit “Bubble Pop” starts as an ode to the bright, sunny ’90s Jive Records pop. But then the song zags, throwing in an unexpected dubstep dance break before returning to the melody. And somehow it works.

There’s an absolute fearlessness embedded in the sound of K-Pop. It’s the sound of an entire industry of people willing to sacrifice everything for music’s Holy Grail: the timeless, perfect Pop Music moment. And despite (or perhaps because of) the transparent monetization of the industry, the mainstreamy-ness of K-Pop, the trophies still go to the catchiest songs. Money can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t buy you the perfect pop song.

What’s the difference between J-Pop and K-Pop?

Besides the obvious language differences, Japanese Pop tends to be a much more tailored product. In Japan, genre is very important to style and taste, rarely do you find artists with mass appeal. There will be groups that are tailored to the fashionable, there are the idols, there are the nerdy-otaku music groups, and there are the hard rockers. But since the mainstream Japanese market is so splintered, Japan has a RICH indie scene. There’s a lot of space for an indie outfit to eke out a large following.

As stated before, K-Pop is created for worldwide mass appeal. Korean producers and songwriters are keyed in to the ebb and flow of worldwide pop culture trends. And for the most part, they wildly succeed; K-Pop places high not only on Korean music charts but also Japan and Southeast Asia. Compared to K-Pop, J-Pop feels niche and culturally static. Take for instance colorful J-Pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Half of her appeal is that she is wildly, eccentrically Japanese. Her songs are about her being a Harajuku girl, and her style is most summarily Japanese. This type of stylistic profiling is the norm for a mainstream Japanese pop artist.

This was not always the case, however. Korea’s current Pop Music business model is heavily influenced by Japan’s, especially that of the idol business in the ’70s and ’80s. K-Pop stars are expected to be multi-dimensional: singing, dancing, acting, modeling, much like the biggest stars of Japan. But, while the J-Pop of then is a direct ancestor of the Hallyu wave of now, modern K-Pop and J-Pop could not be more different.

Do Asians call American top 40 A-pop?

Not explicitly. But they know that Pop music begins and ends with America. There is not a place on Earth where Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Britney would be considered niche. Not in the way we consider pop artists from other countries niche.

Something I learned when reading about Elite Gymnastics’ RUIN release:

What do the Korean characters mean and why did you choose Korean?

Oh well it’s a Korean pun. I’m sorta proud of it because Asian cultures are really into puns and not so much into western humor. In Japan, “American joke” is slang for pretty much any joke that is not funny. The Korean word on the cover, which is pronounced “yeonglag,” sort of means ruined or abject or degradation but it is pronounced the same as the word for American rock music, sort of an analogue to how we would call Japanese pop music j-pop or whatever.


Is there “Indie” K-Pop?

Maybe? I can’t say if there is or isn’t a rich river of girls and boys quietly getting together and writing their own songs and doing their own production and putting out their own K-Pop albums. But K-Pop is as much about the image and the promotion as it is about the music (in some cases, arguably more so), so it makes sense that most of the K-Pop acts are backed by large promotion companies. Not to mention that the Korean government is all about fostering Korean culture all over the world, eagerly funding major arts endeavors including K-Pop. Why “DIY” when the government is handing you free money?

Suffice it to say, identifying particulars to a Korean underground is not interesting/relevant to this discussion. Maybe someday! But not now.

How do I find K-Pop?

How does one NOT find K-Pop? The biggest K-Pop videos are all over the internet, rolling on Tumblrs, gathering millions of hits on YouTube, and in general being as loud as possible. All the largest groups have their own, dedicated fan bases. And sites like allkpop.com help to aggregate all the K-Pop news that’s fit to print.

But the best way is to just watch the videos on YouTube, and then click on anything related. If you like a song, check out the group, check out groups with a similar concept. Check out other groups under the same agency. Check out the producer, the songwriter, see if they’ve worked on other songs. The discovery is half the fun.

Some K-Pop articles:

Occupied Territories: We Need To Talk About K-Pop

Pitchfork: To Anyone: The Rise of the Korean Wave

Some K-Pop mixes:

Minneapolis house duo Elite Gymnastics make mixtapes that feature heavy amounts of K-Pop.

Shameless plug for my own stuff

Korean/Japanese pop night in Seattle

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