* Originally published by Quint Magazine. I would have posted this when the whole Gangnam Style thing was still a hot topic, but I didn’t. Anyway, here it is, for anyone still amped on K-Pop.
In the last few months, journalists, music writers and bloggers have been frantically pushing the idea that the Korean Pop music wave has made the long journey across the ocean and is on our beaches, ready to invade and conquer. The internet is awash with writings of the next big acts that are sure to follow in the footsteps of PSY, the slightly chunky, imaginary horse-riding singer behind the internet supermeme “Gangnam Style”. While the likelihood is that online editors are just desperate to capitalize on the keywords associated with PSY and are instructing their writers to write anything they can about the genre, there is no doubt that the American public’s interest in the Hanryu wave (Korean Culture Wave) has been peaked. But what is K-Pop? And can we expect to see more typical Korean music acts capitalize on this current trend?
‘K-Pop’ has been around for about twenty years. Starting with the iconic dance group Seo Taijin & Boys, the rap, hip-hop and dance fusion was considered a symbol of sorts for a new Republic of Korea. The nation’s popular music started veering towards beat-driven, electronic sounds and represented a shift away from a traditional style that had its roots in folk music. These sounds were something entirely different that would define the new generation of Koreans growing up free from the hardships endured by almost every generation that preceded it. It was liberating music.
Over the two decades that followed the K-Pop industry developed into a pillar of the country’s economy, worth over $3 billion a year to the national GDP, and a huge source of national pride and international identity. But with that surge in popularity and rapid rate of growth came an insatiable thirst for new music, and artist management companies sought to bring the ethos of the factory to the creative process. SM Entertainment (Girl’s Generation, Super Junior), YG Entertainment (Big Bang, PSY) and JYP Entertainment (Rain, Wondergirls), known in Korea as the ‘Big Three’, started scouting for children between ten and twelve years old that sparkled with promise. The children would then be plucked from their regular world and taught to sing and dance in intense after-school programs until they were ready for the stage. This practice of farming identical pop ‘idols’ has been widely condemned within the Korean media, with many people highlighting the often neglected ethical requirements of entertainment companies.
The music itself is renowned for its catchiness. Slapping heavily programmed drum tracks under those buzz-saw melodies, Electro House and US RnB seems to have been the primary points of influence for this current crop of artists. Ten years ago the charts were awash with weeping piano ballads sung by dangerously handsome men in their late-twenties, and blaring Mariah Carey-esque karaoke classics that tested the the lung power of the nation. These days the tracks throb with thick bass hooks and pulse with clenched kick drums, and are designed to be listened to on in-ear headphones or on a House club’s speaker system. Their choruses are catchier than influenza and are sung by airbrushed young nymphets that tread the stereotypically Far Eastern line that loosely divides cute and sexy.
Critics of the genre however have been very quick to point out its stark similarities to western pop music, and that it lacks any sort of tangible personality, or any distinctly Korean elements beyond the language in which the songs are sung (and most of the choruses are in English nowadays). A lot of the hooks induce a crisp sense of deja vu, and several of the high-profile K-Pop artists have been put on the chopping block and forced to awkwardly explain their extremely liberal interpretations of plagiarism and intellectual copyright law.
* For further reading on the depths of K-Pop’s problems with plagiarism investigate Lee Hyori’s scandalous case with fraudulent Canadian rock obsessed songwriter Bahnus.
The current technological climate has also played a massive role in sculpting the K-Pop’s impeccable image. Streaming YouTube videos has put an even stronger emphasis on aesthetic and the typical K-Pop idol must be young and beautiful. They should be tall, slim and have ‘Western’ features (wider eyes, slimmer jaw lines, bridged nose). Many of the stars are also expected to drop their personalities in favor of generic two-dimensional characters (“I’m Ji-Yun and I’m the cute one!”) assigned to them by their management companies. They must be willing to rehearse for long periods without breaks and produce music and performances from within the straitjackets of a K-Pop recording contract, commonly referred to as ‘Slave Contracts’. The K-Pop idol follows an extremely worn and remarkably reliable path to success.
The hugely successful veteran K-Pop artist, famed for his bizarre dance routines and a chorus that sends tremors through your skull like a dentist drill, is the only Korean music artist that could genuinely be considered a household name internationally. Yet as many gushing K-Pop fans have pointed out, he is the antithesis of Hanryu. Aging, chubbing, laughing, flailing, he fits none of the rigorously enforced traits of the K-Pop star. But he is a massive success internationally, and the chances are that you’ve never heard of any of the nation’s more typical outputs that have had hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions (SM Entertainment spent almost $3 million dollars sourcing and developing one of the singers in supergroup Girl’s Generation), of dollars invested in them.
PSY was successful because he smashed that mold. Granted it was a mold that many in the west didn’t know existed, but to anyone that knew anything at all about K-Pop, it was obvious that he was different. His hit single ‘Gangnam Style’ is about the lavish and vain lifestyles of the people in the wealthy district of Gangnam, and specifically Apgujeong, in central Seoul. It takes aim at the area’s obsession with superficial value, and within that is a dig at the K-Pop culture. So has it accidentally transpired that we in the west have been given the satirical backlash directed at Hanryu before we even really knew what it was? And given that the lyrics were almost entirely in Korean, did we just like it because of the hilarious image of a slightly rotund Asian man pretending to ride a horse?
Since PSY’s burst onto the scene there have been hundreds of blog posts educating the western audience on the intricacies of K-Pop, as well as warning us with a megaphone on the shore that the Korean wave is coming. But personally, I don’t see it. K-Pop has no staying power. In an age defined by manufactured products that are built to break, the acts are adored for their youth, innocence and relative naivety, all of which are fast expiring commodities in the music business. And once those traits are gone, the group are gone, replaced by another identical group of beautiful, bland young prodigies.
And while the focus of this article has been predominantly on the actions of the performer, the audience must too be strongly considered. The American consumer is beside himself when treated to a novelty single from a foreign act every now and again. “The Macarena” by Los Del Rio was a great time, and he loved the Cuban groove of German Lothario Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5”. But these acts were unable to match the heights of the singles that made them famous. It has been universally accepted that PSY will join this group of one hit wonders, albeit with the highly sought after yet unofficial title of “King of YouTube” to his name. But many predict a similarly short, yet agonizingly less novel experience for the K-Pop acts attempting to capitalize on the curiosity that the chubby jockey with the imaginary horse spiked across the world.
The problems in the game plan are numerous, but the biggest problem of all is that aside from being Korean, these acts bring nothing to the table that we don’t already have.