Anyone that knows me, knows I can talk endlessly about three subjects: Politics, Video Games and K-pop. Even people who barely know me probably know that. Politics and games people understand, but K-pop is this whole other world that a lot of people don’t get, or even really know what it is. Warning: There will be many youtube videos throughout to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
What is K-pop?
When people hear “K-Pop” they think “Korean pop music”, which is true, but it’s not the same as the Western idea of “pop music”. In Korea, what we generally call “K-pop” is called “Idol Music” -that’s the groups like BTS, EXO etc. A group of young men or women that are all ridiculously good looking, sing, dance and rap well. Which is different from just “pop” music, because we also include stuff like rock and pop rock in that, which exists, but is a different thing. Bands like Day 6 are Korean rock bands, but they’re not an Idol group. I’ll be talking about Idol groups and what makes them interesting and different.
The perception is that Idol groups are heavily manufactured music, with young men and women in exploitative contracts, little creative merit and that it’s all just a bunch of sugary, generic music used to appeal to teens with a constant stream of “Bieber fever” style commercialisation. This perception is not entirely untrue, but it’s also not the whole picture. It is predominantly aimed at youth, with a range of shows, advertising and general appeal to young adults and school aged kids. The government had to step in to regulate the industry to end the exploitative contracts, and much of the music IS sugary generic pop music that we would recognise as the most manufactured of music. For example:
So that exists. Sickly sweet poppy music that we would recognise as pure pop music. Totally fine if you’re into that sort of thing, totally fine if you’re not.
But there’s more to k-pop than that. It’s about more than just the music. It’s not just a genre of music, it’s a whole genre of performance. This is a concept that the Western music industry has also picked up on in the last decade or so, with the increasing challenge to profit off music sales, concerts became the next profit driver. Pop music has become about performance as much as it’s about music. K-pop has taken this concept to a whole other level. K-pop is about the whole performance, the song, the choreography, the music shows, the other shows they do and the fan engagements such as V Live livestreams and fan meets.
What makes it different?
Kpop blends pop and hip hop with strong visual concepts and complex choreography in a way that other music does not. In Western music, hip hop artists feature in the songs of pop artists, but in kpop these two groups are integrated, with both parties involved in the creative process throughout.
Kpop takes young, aspiring idols into training at a young age where they learn the performance skills they need. Once they’re ready and find a group they fit with, they start their preparations for a Debut. At this point most of the creative control is generally in the hands of management. For most successful groups, as they develop in their careers, they gain more creative control and are expected to participate in the creative process, writing lyrics, rap lines, produce their own music and sometimes their own choreography. Different companies have different attitudes and give their groups different levels of autonomy, but generally what can be said is that the industry puts groups under the guidance and mentorship of producers and songwriters and teaches them how to be better at those aspects as well as the performance skills they have already learned.
Take SHINee as an example. This year they are celebrating their tenth anniversary. They are a 5 member (4 since the death of Jonghyun in December 2017) group consisting of Jonghyun, Jinki (Onew), Minho, Kibum (Key) & Taemin, now considered industry leaders. Their debut song, Ring Ding Dong was released in 2009:
And in 2018 this is what they’re doing:
Taemin is considered one of the best dancers in Korea.
Key is one of the fashion directors at their company SM.
Jonghyun was considered one of the top songwriters in Korea.
On top of other pursuits such as acting and solo careers.
The point being that K-pop encourages development in their artists, helping them to grow. Not every artist is going to come out the other end a respected songwriter, producer or choreographer, but for those with the talent and commitment, the opportunities are there. That said, they’re also not afraid to have members that are there because they’re attractive. Idol groups have many positions; Leaders are the go between for the group and management, they’re responsible for organisation, not necessarily the person who gets all the camera time. Groups also have lead and sub rappers and vocalists, lead dancers, a centre, a face and sometimes, explicitly, a “Visual”. A Visual is literally there to look good There’s even a position for the youngest member of the group, the “Maknae”. These roles are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Roles do, however, allow them to properly deliniate responsibilities in performances and form sub groups. This allows them to have much larger coherent groups than we’d expect to find in the West. These sub groups can operate independently and as part of a larger group.
For example: Seventeen
Seventeen is a 13 member group with 3 main sub units, each with their own leaders.
The overall leader Sungcheol (S. Coups) is also the leader of the Hip Hop unit (4 members). The rappers write their own lyrics.
The Leader of the vocal unit (5 members) is Jihoon (Woozi). He also writes about 80% of the lyrics to their songs.
The leader of the Performance unit (4 members) is Soonyoung (Hoshi), who is also their main choreographer.
It also allows to create other sub units such as BSS (BooSeokSoon), which is made up of the three funniest members basically because they wanted to
But then they can come all together and do big things
So kpop allows for a wide range of performances in a wide range of styles and that can be quite important. Kpop is intense. Whenever a group produces new music, theres’s new appearances, new albums, new choreography, new performances, new fan chants (official fan chants are a thing). They’ll go on all the music shows to perform live in front of audiences, competing with other groups for votes. Each album tends to have a concept or theme. They’ll usually do all of this at least twice per year. There’s a constant stream of music from all your favorite artists and a constant stream of new performances. This is why I say it’s more than just about music, it’s a whole performance genre. Sure, not all of it is deep(and it CAN be deep), but it’s fun.
The advantage of having such a fast turn around and and focusing on concepts is that it also allows them to tell stories or explore concepts. BTS (because no discussion of Kpop would be complete without mentioning BTS) is exceptionally good at this. They have had stories and concepts running through their last four albums covering concepts of adolescence, growing up, different aspects and types of love, with a storyline running through the music videos. It’s a complicated thread to follow, generating multiple theories of the meaning behind it, coupled with songs exploring topics of temptation, grief, and often issues impacting on youth, such as the education system, pressures put on them from parents and society, or the challenges of even getting by in modern society. They even had a whole album inspired by the book “Damien” by Hermann Hesse. If you want kpop with subtext, BTS is a good place to start, there is a lot of depth and thought in their music, though some of it is lost in translation.
For example :Baepsae/Silver Spoon (closed captions (cc) available in english subtitles
A Baepsae is a small bird, in english called a crow tit. A Silver Spoon is a larger bird. There’s a saying that goes something like “if a crow tit tries to walk like a Silver spoon it will break its legs” so a “Baepsae” is a “try-hard”. So Baepsae is a song about the challenges youth face in modern society and the apathy of older generations to those struggles.
Whereas Spring Day is a song about grief and loss. It has been suggested that the song, music video and even the choreography are referencing the Sewol Ferry tragedy with subtle references, although this has never been officially confirmed, as it is a highly controversial political topic.
Subtitles also available:
BTS have heavy involvement in their own songwriting and production and are the only idol group under their label, Big Hit.
As I said, it’s not all deep, some of it is just fun, emphasising the performance or just high entertainment value of some concepts. Sometimes groups come out with things that are either just spectacular performances to watch, or songs that are just really fun bops. Sometimes both. For example, Mamamoo has a song about dad jokes and puns. The entire thing is lost in translation, so I won’t share it here, but it’s a really fun concept. The song is called “Aze Gag” if you want to check it out yourself.
Another example is BTS’s “21st Century Girls” a simple positive message to girls that they’re good enough and worthy of love. But the focus here is the playful choreography
Some groups focus much more on their performance than their songwriting and put on phenomenal shows with stunning visuals and choreography, which is a concept that has more difficulty gaining traction in Western media as the music industry is still about the music, even if they’re packaging it more as an experience. Korea is more used to the idea of a performance having its own merit. Criticisms of kpop, apart from the ones listed at the beginning, also include accusations such as them not being able to sing and just lip syncing. Lip syncing does happen. Some shows don’t even have enough mics for all members anyway, so some performances are lip syncs, but usually a performance is a combination of both. When you’re doing some of those dance moves it can be pretty difficult to hit some of those notes and remain in tune. Many of the groups actually CAN do it, but it’s more acceptable to be lip syncing in Korea so often they will sing parts, but with favor the backing track in parts where the choreography is more important. Sometimes you can’t tell, sometimes you can. Sometimes they sing the whole thing. If you watch a bunch of performances of the same song, you’ll soon find out who can sing, when they’re singing live and when they aren’t. I’m not aware of any singers who can not actually sing or rappers who can not actually rap. Of course, even their weakest dancers can still dance very well. If someone isn’t a very strong singer, what you’ll often find is they’ll be taking extra singing lessons to improve their technique and given less lines in a song compared to other members. Then suddenly you’ll find they’re belting out lyrics in the next comeback.
Some evidence that they can actually sing:
Another aspect that makes Kpop quite different is the way groups interact with fans and engage with the public. On top of all the music shows and variety shows they take part in to perform and entertain on, they tend to be very active on social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram as well as through sites such as V Live, which allows them to go live on a video stream with a chat room where fans can talk to them. This varies from group to group, as does how it is used. Some groups have much more controlled streams, where they always have managers watching them, but others, such as Monsta X and BTS tend to be much more laid back, with individual members streaming when they feel like it to talk to fans, fill them in or get some moral support. One such idol cheekily streamed a “join me in the shower” which was, of course, audio only, where as Monsta X’s Wonho once accidentally played a song from their next album. Through these interactions, a different sort of relationship is built between the idols and their fans, as their success is driven strongly by the dedication of their fanbase. Regularly songs are written thanking the fans, or written for the fans, which leads back to some of the fun performances.
On top of all this, many idol groups have their own variety/reality shows, usually putting the group through some trial or another. For example, in BTS’s “Run BTS”, the group is weekly put through a themed challenge. One week they’ll be in a zombie infested theme park looking for tickets for prizes, another week they’ll be playing the roles of various townsfolk trying to work out which one of them is the traitor. Monsta X’s “Monsta X-Ray” is in a similar vein, whereas Seventeen’s “One Fine Day” involved the group being sent to a small island town with nothing but a small survival bag and making them fend for themselves, with challenges and rules thrown in. Through these shows we get to see more of the members individual personalities, see how they interact with eachother, and get to know them better, usually with a lot of laughs.
There are expectations that come with all this. Fans are expected to be respectful, as are the Idols themselves. Fans are very disapproving of bad behaviour, which tends to keep the idols humble and polite. In turn, it is considered bad manners by the community to photograph the idols at airports if it’s personal travel, but acceptable if they re traveling officially and listed on the schedule. Posting pictures of them on private time is considered bad form.
Similarly at performances, there are official fan chants for songs which keeps the fans under control (and not all screaming the entire time) but also helps the idols to focus and reduce nerves. The fans in a way become part of the performance. Overall, the whole atmosphere means that when a scandal does break, to a western audience it tends to be a non-issue.
There are of course, problem elements in kpop that need to be addressed, and I think with the rising international interest, many of them will happen just from expectations from outside.
Misogyny and sexism is still a pretty big issue in Korea, and if you go back even a few years, you’ll find some pretty sexist and even aggressive attitudes towards women. Many videos depict behaviour that is harrassment. Many of these are already disappearing, with far fewer instances of these sorts of attitudes in music on display in the last 3 years. Some of these may be translation issues as well, but it does seem to be improving on this front.
The male groups seem to be given much more leeway in their behaviour and autonomy than most of the girl groups and are also allowed to explore a wider range of concepts, where the girl groups more often seem to be much more restricted in the styles and themes they are allowed to express. There are some notable exceptions, Mamamoo and BlackPink both having much more positive themes and attitudes towards women. It’s not that edgy, but they’re positive steps.
As a result, I follow less girl groups, but I think it’s getting better slowly.
The high pressure, particularly on mental health is another major issue. South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and a poor attitude towards mental health, seeing depression and anxiety as adolescent issues. Celebrities are beginning to speak of these issues more openly, but it is still difficult.
On a less intense note, another complaint people have is that the industry plays it very safe,the music is not what we would describe as edgy or controversial, but within Korea boundaries are being pushed, but not always in ways that are obvious to a western audience. With Taemin’s “Move” video, shown earlier, he says he wants to push the boundaries of what kpop is and that the industry has to push boundaries or it will stagnate, he discusses things such as the use of the head cover he uses in part of the video, which was him pushing against the idea that it should all be about looks. The dance is deliberately a mix of masculine and feminine movement, not a gendered dance and there’s not supposed to be any romantic/sexual overtones to the dance with other people, but rather a sharing of the dance. This may not seem like much, but Taemin is from one of the largest and most controlling companies in the industry. He’s also an industry leader. It’s progress, even if it doesn’t look like much.
What Kpop does differently is experiment more with performance and less with the music itself. Different ways of approaching storytelling are explored, different ways to do music videos or even, in the case of NCT, explorations of what a group is. Before I get on to NCT, I’ll make a brief detour to Triple H, a trio made up of HyunA and Pentagon’s Hui and E’Dawn, who are basically given free reign to experiment and play. To other audiences, it may not seem that edgy, but for kpop it’s subversive. Progress.
on the outliers we also have Holland, Korea’s first and only openly gay kpop idol. He’s not signed to any company, his videos are rated R in Korea for featuring same sex kisses, but he is gaining attention. At some point a company will be willing to take a risk on him and support him. Slow progress, but progress. Important and worth seeing.
Now onto NCT.
The reason I’ve singled out this group is because of their concept. NCT is a group with INFINITE members and subunits. Currently there are 3 sub units: NCT 127 (a unit with fixed membership), NCT Dream, which is for members under 19 years old (shown up top in Chewing Gum video) which also work as a rookies group and NCT U – a group where members are added or removed based on the concept. They pull from the full NCT roster, which currently stands at 18 members. They are supposedly expanding with a NCT China, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. The member roster for the group changes every year.
Full 2018 roster:
And NCT U
So if you’ve been watching them, you’ll see that what NCT does is very performance heavy. There’s a lot of complex choreography and flexibility in membership. As the roaster grows in diversity, this opens up many more options of concepts that can be explored and ways to perform. I think as a concept it is very forward thinking and progressive. It’ll push boundaries for performance. This is where Kpop’s strength really lies, in their performances.
This has been very long, so I’ll wrap it up here. If you’ve read and listened and watched this far, congratulations and thank you. My takeaway message is:
- There’s more to kpop than the superficial surface.
- It’s more of a performance art than a strictly musical art
- Artists are nurtured to gain new skills and autonomy
- It’s intensive, a lot of very hard work, but the results are amazing
- There are problems that have been addressed, others that need more work
- Music can be fun for fun’s sake
- The relationship between Idols and their fans is interesting and unusual
- Everyone is ridiculously pretty and talented
- It’s not to everyone’s taste, but there’s a lot of diverse styles in there
- Thank you for reading