K-Pop is Not a Genre

[Before we begin, a quick note. TK is so happy to be finished with writing about Korean politics for now. Let’s talk about more interesting things, like music! TK might just stick with writing about music for the next several months. Stay tuned…]

Poster from K-pop Night Out showcase
from SXSW 2014. Now hanging on my office wall.

The point of this post is simple: “K-pop” is neither a genre nor a style. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. The rest of this post will discuss why you’re wrong.
To be fair to you who think otherwise, I’ll say this: a lot of people think like you. Jaden Smith, for example, seems to think K-pop is a genre or a style.
And Yes I Will Be Dropping A K Pop Single In The Next 4 Months.

— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) April 20, 2017

But you are still wrong. “K-pop” is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than “popular music of Korea.” If you ever thought about the term “K-pop” rigorously, and thought hard about the kinds of music and the kinds of artists the term covers, you will find that it cannot possibly denote a genre or a style.

To start, the simplest overview of musical styles that fall under the label “K-pop” should make clear that “K-pop” does not refer to a musical genre. No one disputes that IU, BTS and FT Island are “K-pop artists,” but musically, they share nothing in common. IU sings mostly standard pop, BTS performs mostly hip hop numbers, and FT Island, light rock. The commonality among IU, BTS and FT Island is not, and cannot be, music. Their only commonality is that they all perform popular music of Korea.

Is “K-pop” a style then? A common alternative definition of K-pop goes roughly like this: “highly processed but easy-to-listen music, composed and choreographed by professional management companies, performed by beautiful young men or women groomed to become pop stars by the said management companies.” But this definition is also wrong.

Again, just a few moments of thought are all you need to see why this definition is wrong. First of all, the alternative definition does not actually define anything that did not exist previously. Identifying young talents and fastidiously grooming them to become pop stars have been one of the basic business strategies in pop music as long as there was such a thing as pop music. Motown in the 1960s was famous for it. The only possible distinction between the “K-pop” mode of production and “Motown” mode of production is… K-pop is from Korea. Once again, we return to the plain truth: the heart of the term “K-pop” is the fact that it is music of Korea.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

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In our current, “post-truth” world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say. “K-pop” plainly means “pop music of Korea,” because “K” obviously stands for “Korea,” and “pop” obviously stands for “pop music.” Q.E.D. And in fact, that is exactly how the term was used when it first entered the English language. Most English speakers–i.e., non-Koreans–encountered pop music from Korea for the first time in the early 2000s, and called such music “K-pop.” The term was essentially the equivalent of gayo [가요], the word Koreans use to denote popular music generally, without reference to any genre, style or era.

In the early 2000s, virtually all Korean pop music that was available internationally were highly processed music performed by beautiful young men and women–which is why the alternate, and wrong, definition lives on to this day. But it is important to understand that the term “K-pop” was never used with any rigor. We know “K-pop” cannot mean “idol pop”–which is the correct term for describing highly processed music performed by beautiful young people–because there has been absolutely no effort to police the boundaries and actually enforce the definition. Instead, each successive wave of pop music that came out of Korea was called “K-pop,” without any attempt to assess its musical style, or even production value.

Take, for example, the manner in which the history of K-pop is recited. The common narrative usually goes up to Seo Taiji and Boys who debuted in 1992. This is not the worst starting point in the world, given Seo Taiji’s massive influence over Korea’s pop music scene. But… Seo Taiji and Boys was self-produced. Seo Taiji, Yang Hyeon-seok and Lee Juno composed their own music, choreographed their own dances, and directed their own music videos.

If “K-pop” means “idol pop,” why would the standard history of K-pop trace up to Seo Taiji? Why wouldn’t it trace up to Kim Wan-seon, a super-duper star of the late 1980s (only female solo artist who sold more than a million copies of a single album) who was groomed to be a pop star since she was 14 years old? Why not Kim Jeong-mi, who joined the studio of the legendary Shin Jung-hyeon at age 17, and became one of the defining pop stars of the 1970s? Why not explore the popular music production system of the 1930s, which also identified young talents and nurtured them into stardom? Answer is simple: because the term “K-pop” has never been about the mode of production. “K-pop” was always about “popular music of Korea”–which is why Seo Taiji usually is the fountainhead figure.

(Aside: The real reason why the standard narrative of K-pop traces up to Seo Taiji is because, in the English speaking world, the history of K-pop is generally told by Korean Americans in their 20s whose memories of Korean pop culture trace only up to early 1990s. Overall, there are few English-speaking consumers of Korean pop culture who can remember the times beyond around 30 years ago and be bothered to tell the stories of the earlier times. This blog’s series on 50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists is my attempt to rectify that situation, and I have more coming–so stay tuned.)

For another example: observe the manner in which new pop music from Korea is received. Without fail, every popular music coming out of Korea is treated as “K-pop,” with no reference to genre or style or mode of production. This is why “K-pop” does not even mean “pop music of Korea,” in which “pop” refers to the genre of standard pop. Again, when people use the word “K-pop,” they make no attempt to actually identify the genre of the music they are listening to. Words like “K-rock” or “K-rap” do not exist. (And fortunately so.) The only thing that matters is that the music is of Korea.

The ultimate test, of course, was PSY’s Gangnam Style–the greatest K-pop hit of all time. Gangnam Style and PSY were nothing like the music and the performers that international fans of Korean pop music have seen before. PSY is a chubby man in his 30s, not a sleek and beautiful group of teenage boys. Although PSY formally belonged to YG Entertainment label, he produced his own music. Gangnam Style was funny and weird, rather than hip and sexy. And no one of any significance stepped up to claim Gangnam Style was not K-pop. No fan of Korean pop music expended any meaningful effort to separate Gangnam Style from the Korean pop music that they have been previously enjoying. Gangnam Style slipped seamlessly into the existing universe of K-pop music, and that was that.

Since Gangnam Style in 2012, even greater variety of Korean pop music became available internationally–and to date, there has not been a meaningful attempt to set the edges of the term “K-pop,” such that at least some popular music of Korea would fall outside of the scope of the term. For a quick example, check out the yearly lineup of “K-pop Night Out” showcase at SXSW since 2013 and the types of music each act played:

2013

f(x) – idol band
Galaxy Express – rock band
The Geeks – rock band
Gukkasten – rock band
Jeong Cha-sik – rock band
Yi Seung-yeol – light rock/fluxus
No Brain – rock band

2014

HyunA – solo idol, resulting from an idol band
Jay Park – solo idol, resulting from an idol band
Nell – light rock band
Crying Nut – rock band
Idiotape – electronic dance music band
Hollow Jan – rock/metal band
Jambinai – fusion rock/metal band

2015

Crayon Pop – idol band
Epik High – rap group
Asian Chairshot – rock band
EE – light rock band
Eastern Sidekick – rock band
Hitchhiker – rapper
The Barberettes – light rock band

2016

Zion.T – rapper
Mamamoo – idol band
Love X Stereo – rock band
Dean – R&B
Haihm – rock/electronica
Bye Bye Badman – light rock band
Victim Mentality – heavy metal band

2017

Big Phony – R&B
Galaxy Express – rock band
No Brain – rock band
MFBTY – rap group
Hyolyn – solo idol, resulting from an idol band
Red Velvet – idol band

You can see that each showcase usually features around six or seven acts. You can also see that, each of the showcases called “K-pop Night Out,” held in one of the foremost music festivals in the United States, has featured the maximum of two acts that could be considered idol band-related. Did anyone complain? Did SXSW ever say the showcase was incorrectly named, or the showcase needed more idol band acts? Did K-pop fans at SXSW claim they were misled into watching rock bands when they came for their oppas? The answer is no.

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Just a little bit of reflection is enough to reveal that K-pop is neither a genre nor a style. Instead, “K-pop” means exactly what it says: popular music of Korea. Like all definitions, this definition would have its bleeding edges. What does “of Korea” mean exactly? This was an easy question when all of Korean pop music was created by Korean composers and performed by Korean artists. But the question will become trickier as K-pop becomes more global, and more and more international talents stream into Korea to find their place in the K-pop industry. Soon, there will come a day where an artist or a group of artists emerges, and challenges the boundaries of how we understand the words “of Korea.”

But that day is not today, and that discussion is not the one we’re having here.

If you think of idol bands when you hear the term “K-pop,” it only means you don’t know enough about the popular music of Korea. Because popular music of Korea is not just this…

But includes this.

This too.

And this. It’s my personal favorite lately.

And you can’t miss this. Have you heard this one?

And this too. Yes, I’m serious.

And while facing all this great popular music of Korea, you restrict to mindless idol band music by continuing to insist that “K-pop” refers only to a single genre or style, you’re not just wrong–you are ignorant.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.