Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More K-Pop Musings

Channeling the Beatles... I like :)

I tried. I tried really, REALLY hard. But no luck. It's happened.

I have been outed as a k-pop fan in public.

It's TOTALLY not my fault though! I was tempted! My South Korean friends, along with my Japanese friend and her African-American boyfriend, were talking about it at a party this weekend. Despite my immediate urge to jump over and discuss the merits and demerits of Rain's new single and video (great song, hot bod, but unnecessary body rolling), I stayed on my side of the room, acting like I wasn't listening in on their conversation. I didn't even flinch when they started playing "I Don't Care" by 2NE1 (okay, maybe I discreetly did the finger waving dance when no-one was watching). But then they mentioned Taeyang, and I couldn't not talk about Taeyang! I LOVE TAEYANG!!! I was over there in a flash, trying and failing to replicate the dance from "Wedding Dress". Sigh. So much for self-control.

It was great though - we had so much fun doing dances from popular songs and reeling over Hyunah's age-INappropriate hip-thrusting. However, my one Korean American friend was not a fan of k-pop at all, and was really surprised that I liked it. She asked me, "So why do you like k-pop?" And I faltered. I panicked in my mind - "I need to come up with a rational, well-thought out reason for why I like this."* But I couldn't. I came out with, "Well, it's because I think it's genuine..." And she counters, "What?! It's like the most manufactured musical genre there is..." "That's not what I meant... umm... I don't really know how to explain it, I guess..." She concedes that it is catchy, then moves the conversation in another direction by asking me what I thought of Rain. We moved on, but the question stayed in my mind. So why do I like k-pop?

I blame my Jesuit education (and the Yale academic atmosphere) for my tendency to mull over things and try to figure out why and how things happen. I had already figured out "how" I had come to love k-pop (thanks, Eccentric! ^^) but I hadn't yet clarified "why". And I have to admit, I was curious about the answer too. I'm Nigerian, not Korean. Most of the music in my music library is hip-hop and R&B, mixed in with African music. I scoff at most American pop music, and read hipster music blogs like the Fader so that I can say that I know where to find "good" music. None of these things indicate that I would like k-pop.

However, there are some things that do. For instance, I like the Beatles. So does my dad. My dad, whenever he talks about the Beatles, always talks about how their songs are just simple melodies with simple, sweet lyrics to sing along to (in contrast to the crazy music kids listen to nowadays - he doesn't say this out loud but I know that's what he thinks). This, in my opinion, is the essence of popular music regardless of national origin.** And despite my desires to be a high ranking music critic who turns her nose up at commercially produced radio fodder, I can't help but like k-pop because it's so damn catchy.

Secondly, despite k-pop being extremely mass-produced, I find that most songs are carefully crafted and put together creatively. That is, they're not just fun and easy to sing along to, they're also quality tracks. I don't get the vibe I get from The-Song-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named***, which is "I put in as little effort as possible to make a song that sells millions. Eat that, mofos." I get this vibe from a lot of American pop music (and rap music, actually). It's not really about crafting a memorable song or a good album anymore. Instead, all they do is make that song interesting enough to get a ton of less discerning music consumers to buy it and put it in the iTunes Top 10. Then, the formerly unknown artist is immediately shot to stardom, everyone will buy their album which only has that ONE good track among 10 mediocre ones, and the big shots smile and rub their fat bellies. Or everyone just buys that single off iTunes, and the artists makes the rest of their money at concerts opening for other, more innovative artists. I find k-pop to be a refreshing change from this model, which I can only describe as "gimmicky". Yes, in the end the execs rub their fat bellies, but at least I don't feel like I'm being duped. Like, "haha, this song sucks but you'll still buy it". I think that k-pop is "good" pop, i.e. it's different and interesting and well put together. A lot of the time, I feel like the songwriters could have done more, but stopped at good enough (e.g. with 2PM's latest mini-album - every song follows the formula of "Heartbeat" but none of them are as intense or memorable) but I always appreciate the effort. And there are those k-pop songs that stop me in my tracks and I go, "wow, that was awesome". The one that comes to mind is SHINee's Jojo - it's a heartfelt song, well put together and completely non-formulaic. Love it.

Another example of where I see the creativity of k-pop songwriters and producers: I just discovered that two songs I really like use almost exactly the same instruments and have nearly the same bpm. But, I get completely different vibes from the two: In Go by F.Cuz, the guys sing about ending it with the girl who broke their hearts, and Gil Hak-Mi's Moving On is about... well, moving on... okay, maybe they aren't so different... but they sound really different, and I feel like Go has more of a frustrated, urgent, "you need to get out of my life" vibe, compared to the more laidback "nothing do me, time to party" attitude in "Moving On." The fact that two songwriters/producers can use the same instruments and beat and still come out with two very different songs astounds me. I really consider producers to be artists too, especially now when electronic music has become really popular, and producers have much more of an influence on the music they create.

So when I said k-pop was genuine, I really meant that someone was actually trying to make a good track - to create something new and different, and not just to sell CDs. I think of k-pop music the same way I think about British pop music - yes it's mass-produced, but I never feel like they're skimping on quality because of it. I haven't been following for a while, but hey, once Will Young puts out a new CD I'll be all over it. And, I still bump my Spice Girls and Sugababes with no shame. So next time I get asked why I like k-pop, I'll simply say, "It's good music. Mass produced, but good."

I feel that my tendency towards cultural products that do not come from the US also factors into my like for Korean over American pop music. Yes you can say that contemporary international pop music is just mimicking Western pop music, but you cannot say that the non-Western producers of this music do not exert any influence on the music or give it a non-Western feel. K-pop (and k-drama, which I'm just getting into) have a distinct emotional vibe that I just do not get from US music. I like music that tugs at the heartstrings, transports me to other places, and to create in my body a need to move. And my favorite songs, including k-pop songs, do that for me, while a lot of other music doesn't. And that's just it.

Okay done. Back to reading about Chinese food...

*This is a fear instilled in me by going to Yale. Everyone knows that you can't be caught looking dumb in front of your peers when asked a question - you need to prove that you're smart, you belong here and you can talk academically and casually about any topic that interests you. ... Or maybe that's just me and my insecurities. Hmm.

**I do acknowledge that there are huge international followings of of electronic and dance musics that do not fit this categorization, where the focus is on beats and rhythms rather than lyrics and melodies. However, I feel like "pop" music and "dance" music have evolved seperately so that they aren't even listened to in similar spheres, or competing with one another. I am focusing on "pop" music here, i.e. music that dominates radio and television, that almost everyone listens to without thinking about it, and that is allegedly produced for solely commercial purposes (though I contest that notion for reasons I will explain in another post).

*** WHY did they choose "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" as the name for Voldermort? God knows You-Know-Who is much shorter and to the point. smh


  1. Thanks for answering the question that has been on my mind ever since I decided to listen to 'Abracadabra' last year and subsequently got hooked on K-pop. my musical tastes are really really similar to yours. I'm a fan of international music and I used to look (American) pop with disdain. As you know some people could not understand why I got really into K-pop after going on about how I enjoyed music that moved me and so forth.

    I never credited my Jesuit education either, but when I couldn't come up with a suitable reason as to why I love K-pop I concluded that I liked it simply because it's catchy. Now, may I have your permission to use your
    "It's good music. Mass produced, but good."? You really broke it down.

    I had no idea 'Go' and 'Moving On' were that similar. I love both songs too.

    Oh and you're welcome ^^!

  2. I remember the very first K-pop song I ever listened to - 2NE1 and Big Bang's "Lollipop". I was on Youtube and, I mean, it sounds like I was a little kid, but the colorful theme of the music video sparked my interest. I honestly never imagined myself ever caring enough to look as deep as I have into Korean pop culture just from that video.

    I wasn't even sold the first few times. I recall thinking "This sounds so freaking bubblegum-pop, that it's making me sick - YET! I'm still listening?"

    After reading this (lovely) post, I had to agree with you 100%. Now I know why on earth I continued to listen to K-pop. It's because it is, indeed, 'good' pop music. It really is so freaking manufactured, but the difference between K-pop and American pop(?) is that the Korean music industry gives enough of a f**k about what they're mass producing that in some shape or form it's actually likable. And catchy. And good.

    ps. Where on earth has that F.Cuz song been all my life?! I apparently overlooked it, but you know what, It's kinda really good. :D

  3. @eccentric you have my full permission :) just quote me, LOL

    @mcroth that's exactly how i felt too! I was like, "what is this? no way i'm listening to this"... but it continued. my first ever k-pop song was Wonder Girls "Nobody" which I listened to in isolation. then Eccentric introduced me to "Mirotic" and "Abracadabra"... and it was over. you should read her blog, btw - she's also a k-pop culture fan :)

    as for the F.Cuz song, i had pretty much written them off after Jiggy, but when their No One EP came out, i decided to hazard a listen and found Go. it's currently one of my favorite k-pop tunes.

    thanks for the compliments guys!

  4. Britpop doesn't simply mean British pop; rather, it's the kind of music played by bands like Oasis.

  5. @davidfraser - ah, seen. thanks for pointing that out! i've made the correction

  6. hey multi
    my first influence of korean music was SES i'm your girl
    and back then i listened to pop as well as ballad, lee soo young especially and all those teary mv clips her company made
    heck i dont understand them but i like the music and when i listen to them singing, i think of it as listening to the opera people singing in italian
    i consider the singing part as a percussion or something or rather

    i think ive been caught out once with colleagues when i was reading kpop news at work
    she said why do you like korean music
    you dont even speak it
    all i said was its better music than what cpop and american pop is

    that made me wonder
    i like korean songs because of the hook and also the current industry reminds me of how the 90s were in america with britney, nsync, backstreetboys etc

    for a couple of years i was hiatus cos it was hard for a non korean to get music online cos i wasn't able to type korean so i left and came back when i found a friend who had the same interest in me, so we started sharing our korean music collection

    hey abracadabra, bo peep, wedding dress, heartbeats are memorable songs and hooky

    but i still love my ballads from such artist like lee soo young, j.ae, shin se _______, kangta etc etc

    anyway a good song at the moment is from 2nise, she said, listen to it, sounds great and different to all those current music we have and his vocals are good, though most of its is autotune

    and once you finish listening and see the clip

  7. @william interesting story! and I actually really like that 2NISE song! I haven't watched the music video yet, but I definitely don't mind the autotune as much on this song. there are plenty of k-pop songs out there that are much worse...