Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on K-Pop Vol. 1: So Addictive

I've been thinking about K-pop a lot lately and have meaning to write a post about it, but have struggled to figure out where to start - there's so much to write about! I figured I'd post an edited version of a rambling post that I wrote a week ago - it's mad late but I need to get this conversation started so that I can commit to finishing it. So here goes...

I am ashamed to say that I am somewhat of a music snob - while I will listen to everything once, there are some songs/artists that I refuse to patronize solely on principle, such as Miley Cyrus, (Yes, even though I put my hands up when they're playing your song, I can only enjoy it after at least one drink.) and I usually move from one musical genre to another after a few months of immersion. However, I am well and truly addicted to this k-pop stuff. By now I should have phased out of this music and found something new, but I keep coming back. It's partially because no other genre is offering up anything new and exciting these days (waiting for Erykah Badu's new album - coming out next month!!!) but it's also because k-pop fascinates me - as a genre and as a business model. I keep wondering to myself why it's so addictive, and I've come up with a couple of ideas:

1. It's ridiculously catchy. Even though I don't speak a lick of Korean, I can't help but sing along and bob my head to the infectious hooks and beats of the music. There's really an art to matching words to music in a way that gets songs stuck in your head and makes you listen over and over again. This is a universal characteristic of pop music, and anyone who gives it a decent listen, no matter what language it's in, would agree (I hope). Example: Ring Ding Dong by Shinee

2. It's emotive. Koreans don't skimp on feelings. A love song is a LOVE song, not a flirt song, and a break up song is a break up song, and it's pretty easy to tell which is which. I've discovered that some chords or series of notes strike at the heart and evoke emotion without words to it, and Koreans use these to full effect. Emotion in music is what really gets me hooked to stuff, even if I have no idea what the hell they're saying. I'm sure there's some explanation of this in those cool musicology books I keep seeing in the bookstore, and I intend to go find out what it is. Koreans also play out the emotions with all seriousness in their music videos and live performances. Example: 2AM - Can't Let you Go Even If I Die.

Speaking of...

3. It's largely based on performance. I've often found that a lot of k-pop songs would not be as appealing to listeners if they were never performed. The music is made for performers, with beat switches and dance breaks and random pauses that are there solely for the artist to strike a "charismatic"* or sexy pose. If you listen to 2PM's Heartbeat, it probably wouldn't appeal to you as a listening song because it's short and it doesn't flow smoothly. It starts off slow and ominous, goes into a fast paced chorus, a slow verse followed by another fast paced chorus and a dance break to top it off. It doesn't make sense, until you watch the video (below) and realize that the song is made to be performed and watched, not sung and listened to.**

Also, the choreography to most songs will feature a simple dance move that can easily be imitated by fans. Most (in)famous are the Kara "butt dance" and the BEG Abracadabra hip-swaying dance, but there are myriad other instantly recognizable dances out there. The best analogy I can draw is that Korean pop music is like Broadway music or the soundtrack to a Bollywood movie - if you separate the music from the performance, you are only getting a part of the whole experience. It's a good analogy too because Broadway and Bollywood music is chock full of emotion.

4. It's quirky. What other country do you know has every major pop group doing reality/variety shows where they cross-dress, do limbo, try (and sometimes fail) to speak English, dance like "dorks", "marry" other celebrities, "adopt" a kid etc etc etc? It's crazy. And fascinating. If you want to see some of this madness, I suggest either watching clips of TV shows on, or going to this site and picking a random show to watch. Why aren't US reality shows like this? It would be HILARIOUS.

This brings me to my last and most important idea:

5. The Korean music industry is a well-oiled machine capable of selling you pretty much anything. The Korean entertainment industry is probably the most interesting example of successful marketing I have ever seen. Pop groups, actors and comedians saturate the airwaves, print media and internet in such a way that you HAVE to know who they are. It's not lost on most k-pop fans that the main reason we love these idols is that they are constantly in the public eye - it's like a perpetual performance where they're constantly playing at being themselves. They "perform" their personalities and often become known for a specific trait (e.g hot abs or unbelieveable cuteness or nice thighs. Yes, thighs.). This way we get emotionally attached to these people, and this often leads to unhealthy behavior (topic of an upcoming post: the madness of k-pop fans).

Another important thing to note is that the Korean music industry is populated mainly by groups of at least five members. With a main audience of between 10 and 19, this is a brilliant idea because all the kids will have at least one person they like in every band, are enthralled by their personalities as seen on numerous TV shows, and will not hesitate to buy their albums and merchandise. This works for other industries as well, as phone, food and clothing companies almost solely hire celebrities to star in their commercials. They also record songs and shoot music videos (and short films) for these products and then endorse them on their numerous TV appearances. Basically, the celebrities become the only people you see on screen and in print. They become ridiculously popular really quickly, and then are sent around Asia to maximize their worth because all the other countries have succumbed to the "hallyu wave".

The formation of groups is also very structured. Artists are "trainees" under one of a few large management companies for at least two years before joining a group or debuting solo. The training is rigorous, and the hours are long, even after they make it. Their appearance is strictly monitored, and you'll often see skinny dudes going from flab to fab in less than a year in order to appeal to squealing teenage girls, and girls getting plastic surgery (ranging from mild to extensive) to obtain the "aegyo" look. It's insane. But the management companies have a very good feel for what sells, and set very high standards for their artists so that they never fall short of their goal - WORLD DOMINATION. (I wish I was kidding about that last part, but I'm not.) This often becomes problematic when independent groups try to break onto the music scene. Since they're not hand picked for stardom based on their attractiveness or dancing skills, k-pop fans are often unimpressed, and even go so far as to say they are ugly and untalented***.

In the end, I think I can safely say that I, along with Eccentric and other international k-pop fans, have been captured by the power of the marketing juggernaut that is the Korean entertainment industry. And I'm not mad at it at all, because I actually like the music. It may not always be original or innovative, but it always makes me feel good listening to it. And in the end, that's what you buy music for, right?

Okay, end post. Next up: plagiarism, defining a k-pop genre, exporting genres and a defense of pop music all rolled into one. It's going to be a long one...

*"Charisma" is a favorite word among Koreans/k-poppers. I think what they mean is someone who is attractive and cool or suave or mysterious even (they use it a lot in a lot of different contexts so sometimes it gets confusing as to what they really mean, lol.). It's usually used when describing male idols.

**Heartbeat is my all-time favorite k-pop video - I love the zombie concept as a fresh take on heartbreak, and the video is AMAZING. Love it.

***On a post about a new Korean R&B/hip-hop band called One Way on allkpop, people commented that their members were ugly. I got so mad. They're actually pretty good looking guys when compared with the general populace, but because they're competing with people who look like models, they're being demeaned. I can't stand k-pop fans sometimes. Topic of another post.


  1. wow! i really enjoyed reading this post because you have put to words what i could not. you probably know i am (was?) a bit of a music snob as well but my k-pop addiction has changed EVERYTHING. like you i expected that i'd have 'grown out' of k-pop after a while but that hasn't happened. i mean after my internet broke down and i couldn't watch the videos you sent me on FB i thought it spelt the end of my k-pop addiction. however as soon as i was back online allkpop was one of the first sites i headed to in order to catch up and thanks to you as well, i'm back on track.

    before i've made very valid points and i agree with all of them esp the 3rd one. the reason i got hooked onto k-pop in the first place is thanks to BEG's Abracadabra. their performance cast a spell on me but it doesn't seem to work on other people. however with 2PM's 'Heartbeat' (a song i love to bits), i liked the song before i watched the video but it took a while as i hated it at first. indeed the mv may have had something to do with my love for 'Heartbeat'....

    another thing i never did before i got into k-pop was watch reality tv shows now i know my 'we got married'.

    i really look forward to reading more of your posts on k-pop. one final point, i agree with you re: One Way, they are certainly not ugly! in fact my friend got me to listen to them by saying that they were hot and when i told her that i found them good looking enough but not HOT, she said my standards were too high.

  2. thanks so much! glad you liked it. I'm going to wait a while to post the next one - this one took so long!

    and i love we got married! jokown+gain=love ^^ i am also kind of excited to watch the ones with the new couple, Seohyun (SNSD) + Yonghwa (CNBlue) because apparently Seohyun is a manhater, LOL

  3. This is a really nice post ~ I relate 100% with what the first commenter said : I went from being a music snob to being musically confused. @_@ I mean, I know what I like, but k-pop has taking things to a whole different level.
    At the beginning of my k-pop addiction, I fell to my knees at every single song that came out, but it's been about 8 months since then and I think I've mellowed out a bit. I've developed a taste for the kinds of Korean music I really enjoy and I've found a nice balance between k-pop and the original music I listened to.
    I'm interested to read your post on the crazies that lurk in the k-pop world. I was going to address netizens and even the whole Jaebum thing in a blog-post, but I realized that I was just too over the whole thing to even start~

  4. @mcroth yeah, i have yet to balance out my listening, but i already filter my downloads because i have a massive music library from the days when i didn't filter my downloads, and have learned my lesson, lol.

    eccentric actually wrote a post about the 2PM fan issue - check it out here! since she's written the main ideas that i wanted to address, i think i'll just write an addendum post - i'm kinda over it too, but this idea of the power that the internet gives people is fascinating to me. also because of the rumors that the Jay and Nichkhun were outcasts because they were foreign... aah, the drama

  5. I have an addiction to k-dramas and the dramas have a lot of catchy theme music. I must say the Ring Ding Ding was really good. Am off to find it on itunes.

  6. hey
    great writing you got there
    my first experience with korean pop culture was my sassy girl
    great movie
    and i guess i was only a few people at school who liked the music
    some people even said that i might marry one of them (korean)
    well i dont know about that
    ever since watching korean movies
    i then got thrown into korean music
    first ever music i was exposed to was SES IM YOUR GIRL
    great song, great catchy beats and the dance was hell easy to dance to
    korean music expresses alot more than american music
    most of the music i have are korean
    and when people come over to listen
    they say, where's the hip hop
    i like korean becos of the emotion, the beats, the hook and the dance
    all these were the american culture in the 90s with backstreet boys, mariah, britney, n*snyc etc

    now im watching korean dramas
    first ever drama was winter love story
    great story, cried abit and lost something of myself to it
    gave it to a girl to borrow and she watched non stop 12 hours
    thats dedication

    now im watching chuno, jejoongwon, obgyn, wgm and jo kwon and his ssantiness

    now my music collections consist of snsd, big bang, 2pm, 2am, t-ara, lee soo young, kangta ...
    as you can see i like my pop as well as strong ballads

    if you could, a suggestion for a future piece
    could u do something along the lines of the different music stages, i.e. music bank, music core and .... and also how their ranking systems work
    i hear the US style billboard charts will come to korea soon and how will this affect the above stations as well as various charts like different portals like daum, cyworld, bugs etc

  7. I just found your blog, you've got many interesting thoughts here :) And this is the one i totally agree with...Before I went to Korea I didn't like kpop at all, it sounded too shallow and boring. But when I spent some time there, kpop surrounding me everywhere, I started to like it, little by little. And now when I'm back home, I secretly listen to kpop charts every week...So addictive!