Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the N-word. Niga (니가) in Korean literally means ‘you.’ More specifically, 니 (ni) means ‘you’; 가 (ga) is a particle that indicates the noun attached to it is the subject of the sentence.
K-pop, which stands for Korean popular music, is an increasingly global phenomenon. Even before Psy’s “Gangnam Style” properly put K-pop on the map (for Western audiences), artists had been trying to tap into the international market since the early 2000s. Artists like BoA have been huge in Japan even in those early days (now there are a lot more K-pop artists making their mark in Japan). Long before Psy in 2012, K-pop had developed a huge following in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
So K-pop’s international expansion isn’t exactly new; what’s new is how visible it’s becoming in the Western market. The U.S. and Europe have traditionally been very tough nuts to crack for Korean (and more broadly Asian) musicians, as seen in the early failures of Se7en, Wonder Girls, and BoA.
So what exactly is K-pop? Is it even a proper musical genre? Why do people like it? Why do people hate it? What are some common problems plaguing the industry?
This is our introductory guide to the world of K-pop.
What is K-pop?
Literally, K-pop means popular Korean music. It’s hard to find a common musical characteristic that ties all of K-pop together as a genre — there are critics who argue that it isn’t one, and those who argue that it is.
Often, what brings together the wide range of musicians lumped under the K-pop category is their nationality: That’s why a band like Jambinai, which infuses heavy metal with traditional Korean instruments, gets called K-pop at SXSW, much as female solo artists IU and CL are classified (even though these two musicians use very different sounds).
An interesting sociological experiment is EXP, an all-boy band that identifies itself as K-pop without having any of its members come from Korea, or speak Korean. Creator Bora Kim, formerly an MFA student at Columbia, says she wanted to explore the boundaries of what K-pop could be — can K-pop be K-pop without the Koreans? If it isn’t essentially defined by its nationality, can non-Koreans emulate the fashion common in idol groups, their choreography, their beats, and be accepted into this world?
EXP’s experiment is currently ongoing; suffice to say, there’s a lot of criticism about cultural appropriation — which itself is something that EXP wants to play around with, because does a ‘pure’ musical genre ever exist? Isn’t K-pop itself a result of appropriation, emulation and imitation?
It’s good to remember that the label ‘K-pop’ is most commonly used in a non-Korean context, by and/or for outsiders. South Koreans will make clear distinctions between, say, Jambinai, Psy and IU. K-pop isn’t really a label that Koreans use to describe their music among themselves; it’s an easily digestible package presented to outsiders for the sake of promoting an illusive idea of ‘Korean music.’
That’s why it’s hard to pinpoint the origins of K-pop. The common narrative directs us to Seotaiji and the Boys, a popular boy band that swept South Korea’s mainstream music scene in the 1990s. They carried the elements easily recognizable in today’s idol acts commonly labelled as ‘K-pop’ — aggressive dance moves, hip hop influences (rap is used decoratively in many K-pop songs), and a systematically organized fandom. But there are also plenty of differences: For example, Seotaiji and Boys composed their own music and weren’t controlled strictly by entertainment agencies, like many K-pop groups are today.
But K-pop could have just as well originated from other artists — depending on how you define it. If it’s defined as the groomed, immaculately manufactured “idol pop,” K-pop could have originated even before Seotaiji, with Kim Wan-seon, who debuted in the late 1980s and was trained to perform since she was a teenager.
Why do people hate it?
Despite the lack of a rigorous definition, the word ‘K-pop’ still manages to stir up some commonly recurring images: a well-choreographed band, most of whose members are beautiful and well-groomed, and obsessively managed by their agencies.
(There are plenty of exceptions to these images. Psy, for one, works with YG, one of South Korea’s most prominent agencies, but his popularity is not dependent on being attractive, and he often produces/composes his own music.)
Some critics of K-pop say the music often sounds manufactured and shallow, a bad imitation of preexisting Western pop music. One blog entry encapsulated this sentiment: After watching Girls’ Generation perform on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2012 — the very first time Korean musicians made an appearance on this influential American TV talk show, the blogger (who remains anonymous) wrote: “Let’s just suppose we can imagine a world in which the first Korean musical act to perform on Letterman weren’t a bunch of barely-distinguishable doumi dancers.”
Suffice to say, the ‘K-pop stigma’ exists. Many Western followers become “closet K-pop fans,” ashamed to publicly associate themselves with music that’s commonly perceived as plain bad (though one might argue that perception is changing in the age of BTS).
This is a great piece on Kpop fan behavior from @KoreaExpose so take a read, but I also wanted to share it bc of this quote. I kept Kpop to myself for years & I really applaud everyone who is open w/ their love. Hopefully we can do away with this stigma. https://t.co/GXZgiun7MU pic.twitter.com/BIPNHNbSUH
— Tamar Herman (@TamarWrites) November 28, 2017
Why do people love it?
There must be a multitude of different reasons — the fans find the artists charismatic, the visuals beautiful, and yes, the sounds attractive.
One reason brought up by many K-pop fans is the tight-knit sense of community in their respective fandoms. Not only do they feel a sense of belonging with the artists, they feel connected to each other. Fans of many K-pop artists are notable for their devoted organization — donating to charity under the artists’ names, even planting plots in a rainforest — to promote their beloved musicians and also foster familiarity with each other.
Problems of K-pop
K-pop is now a massive industry — and a cultural phenomenon. According to Bloomberg, K-pop may be “South Korea’s best-known export after smartphones and cars.” In 2016, overseas revenue from CDs, concert tickets, etc. reached a record 5.3 trillion won ($4.7 billion). K-pop isn’t just a musical (non-)genre; it’s a national product.
K-pop is intimately tied to the brand of South Korea as a whole; you don’t even need to know the statistics to get a sense of this intimate relationship. Just take a stroll down Myeongdong, a bustling tourist neighborhood in central Seoul, and see how often K-pop artists are used to advertise the beauty of South Korea as a tourist destination (not to mention the effectiveness of South Korean cosmetic products).
This makes it harder for journalists to dig behind the beautiful facade — so many interests are intertwined in the bid to make K-pop succeed, including the interests of the artists themselves, most of whom wouldn’t speak on the record about the dark sides of K-pop.
But stories do leak out. And they’re often not pretty. The most common stories concern that of labor exploitation; how artists endure inhumane work hours, without guarantee of success. Musicians have come out to criticize agencies for unfair contracts — notably the 13-year “slave contract” that popular boy band TVXQ publicized in 2008 — but more often than not, the injustices get silenced.
K-pop — like pop culture in many other countries — also sends implicit and explicit messages about a standardized, rather unhealthy barometer of what’s beautiful. Women are particularly pressured to stay skinny; plastic surgery is the norm, not an exception.
While that pressure to be beautiful may apply to both women and men (Rain, once a mega star musician in South Korea, said in an interview that he was told by industry insiders to get double-eyelid surgery before his debut because his eyes looked too small), female musicians often conform to double stereotypes of beauty and femininity, and those who fail can find themselves on the receiving end of ridicule. (Amber Liu, a Taiwanese-American member of the popular girl group f(x), resorted to making a sarcastic video titled “Where Is My Chest” in response to trolls who relentlessly criticize her ‘tomboy’ appearance.)
Last but not least, K-pop creates an imbalanced music ecosystem within South Korea, in favor of the massively wealthy entertainment agencies and the artists associated with them. For example, it’s much harder for a brilliant, rogue musician to be commercially successful than a mediocre performer backed by SM, YG or JYP. The result of this imbalance is detrimental to artistic creativity. The sounds of mainstream music become increasingly homogenized — dictated by the styles of the biggest stars and agencies — and those outside the K-pop industry, like indie-musicians, find it difficult to sustain themselves through their craft.
Haeryun Kang authored this article.
Cover image: Big Bang, a beloved K-pop group. (Source: Koreanet via Wikipedia, CC BY SA-2.0)