Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Word on K-Pop

"K-Pop influences Korean society but Korean history and social development have influenced K-Pop" was Emilie Chu's opening line to her lecture entitled "K-pop Mirroring Korea or Korea Mirroring K-pop?" Although I am not personally interested in K-Pop, the write-up was another glimpse into the multi-facted social gem of Korea, and I felt I needed to delve into a new facet of Korea to broaden my own cultural horizons:

"Like the country itself, South Korean popular culture and music has grown to take on an international presence over the past ten to fifteen years. Cultural figures, from Seotaiji [a rapper who retired at the height of his popularity and then shockingly attempted, and did make a comeback, in rock music even though his rapping was not particularly out-of-date] to g.o.d. [still active in ballad style but 2001 saw them at the pinnacle of success] to TVBQ to Big Bang [particularly popular in 2005 with rapping, and with lyrics rather meaningless as their ultimate focus is for rhyme and rhythm] to BoA [who debutted with SM Entertainment, the biggest entertainment industry, and then marketed herself through a Japanese music entertainment company], have been making waves in steadily increasing extents, to the point of becoming a dominant force and current standard throughout Asia. Yet there are a number of lesser known factors behind the words they sing and the images they present, as well as the implications of such works. Thanks to Fulbright, this past year Emilie Chu has been able to study the relationship between Korean pop music and Korean culture through its history, society and industries by examining Korean songs within their local context, and has found some very interesting connections between cultural expression and representation."

To begin, Emilie stated that song and record need to be clearly defined as they are not synonymous and understanding their concepts within the Korean context is crucial to understanding their sociocultural significance. Therefore, a song is 'words + melody' and needs songwriters, lyricists and composers. The lyrics themselves should be more than just cliché, can comprise an element of language play with metaphor, can be "fun" or thought-provoking, or even can be experiential and having subtle biographical influences reflecting culture and social attitudes. Record, on the other hand, is a craft combining the skills of singers, musicians, arrangers, producers, recording engineers, among others, with the purpose of creating a powerful performance, an artist or group with a unique identity or sound, a great arrangement, or possibly even produced for business considerations such as timing or promotion.

K-Pop is not necessarily Hallyu (the Korean wave) although it can be. When Emilie showed the top 10 songs for each of the years in the past decade [except 2008 and 2009 as the music industry was undergoing change resulting in government marketing under the Ministry of Culture in order to standardize and centralize the ratings, sales, etc], rather consistently the top three songs in the list were little known in the room of expats, several of whom were K-Pop fans. According to Emilie, such anonymity of top songs among the K-Pop loving expats just goes to show that though many songs were wildly famous in Hallyu, not all the songs were known outside of Korea, but rather were so popular in Korea and marketed solely for Koreans that they were popularized alone by local sale.

Common Themes and Tropes

At the turn of the century, K-Pop focused on idealized (and rather tragic) love or parting, evoking a romantic concept intermixed with the Korean han (a cultural sorrow for what was and can never be again). Songs were idealistically focused on puppy love and the "cute concept", so evident in "pure and sweet" first date relationships, knick knacks and souvenirs, Hello Kitty popularity, and kitsch culture memorabilia. Songs also were on attraction, suggesting a "sexy concept", rather an ironic twist on the "pure and sweet". And many songs also were a type of confidence anthem, a new genre of song sung primarily by females who, I feel, are being emancipated in Korean society and now challenging, perhaps overturning, the stigma of "femininity" and attitude of being "substandard" to male-dominated society. What Emilie brilliantly pointed out is that the songs in the past decade were mostly about individualism, and rare were the songs about family, friendship or commentaries on life. [In writing this, these twenty-first century K-Pop songs can be likened to someone singing solely about a wedding, but not the marriage itself ... that is, they are a reflection of love but that which is unrequited, not experienced and which therefore has no future.]

K-Pop: The "Good" and the "Bad"

K-Pop, if evaluated for its positive or negative function within the Korean society, can be said to have four positive factors in its favor: (1) identity - it has given Koreans an identity in the international community that they as a collective nation can say is "successful", (2) international doorway - now that it is recognized as an international music genre, Korea hopes to gain more international acclaim, not necessarily through music, (3) community - as a nation grounded in Confucism, collectivism and community still have inherent values and although Korea is rapidly changing, K-Pop success and acceptance furthers confidence and elicits sentiments of comradery and togetherness, and (4)the "fun" factor - the wide variety of K-Pop singers and groups provides on-going entertainment for subway riders, commuters, music circles, beer halls ... and is just a fun form of entertainment, made easily accessible on the ubiquitous digital equipment in public or in pocket.

K-Pop, on the other hand, (1) lacks diversity - the music is all rather homogenous, just as the Korean people have claimed blood homogeniety, and as a result, variation is seriously lacking, (2) creativity/musicianship - singers are rarely composers, they are just that, "singers". One of the original g.o.d. singers invoked a Korean slang "lounge loser" for the type of singer who simply goes on tours, only sings and is a face for the music industry that does the writing, creating, etc. He broke away from g.o.d. to attempt a more creative approach to music. (3) personal identification and expression - related to creativity and musicianship, singers are not allowed any poetic license but must sing what the music industry decrees, and (4) objectification - singers are objectified, become objects to imitate, scorn, gossip abour, and who as a result lose any semblance of a "normal" life but must always be a "face" for the Korean market.

Wrapping Up

The Japanese market is the second biggest market for Korean K-Pop (with of course Korea being number 1). The reason for this is there isn't pirating (not much anyway) in Japan and the Japanese are big purchasers of physical albums rather than downloaders of the digitally available online albums and/or songs.

I gained a lot of insights on the K-Pop industry and although I'm still not an avid listener, at least now I feel slightly more informed on the development of the industry and the quick evolution of the songs in a mere decade. For more information on K-Pop view Emilie Chu's blog at


  1. Hi Cheryl! Just stumbled across this post you wrote, and I loved reading what you got out of the presentation as well as your own knowledgeable thoughts and insights. The different interplays of regional and international culture are fascinating to experience as well as to analyze. Hope all is well with you in Korea! -Emilie

    1. Thanks Emilie for your comments. I have to say I really disliked K-pop (or perhaps it was the fawned over industry that I really disliked) when I went to your lecture. When I left, however, I felt I finally had some understanding of what the movement was about and could appreciate why so many people were eating the stuff up. Teaching people or broadening their minds is what a good lecture is all about! So kudos! I came away with a newer perspective on a rich aspect of the Korean identity.