Once Again: K-pop is Not a Genre

TK is happy to report that nearly all of the people who engage K-pop seriously–such as writers and journalists about the topic–generally agreed with my post that argued K-pop is not a genre. (There was one exception, whose objections I will address below.) But there were a number of silly responses about this point, so here is another try.
A different way to framed this debate is: is the term “k-pop” a descriptor or a term of art? In my view, “k-pop” is a descriptor, while a number of people insist “k-pop” is a term of art that denotes a concept. And they are wrong.
A descriptor accepts the plain meaning of the word. For example, unless there is additional context (more on this later,) the words “a brown dog” are a descriptor, indicating a canine that is brown in color. If a person told you (again, without additional context) that “I just saw a brown dog,” something along the lines of the following images should pop up in your mind:
On the other hand, if this kind of image pops in your head…
… then, there is something wrong with you, because this is an image of a white cat. No matter how you wish it to be, “brown” does not mean “white,” and “dog” does not mean “cat.”

This is not a trivial point. In the previous post, I wrote: “In our current, “post-truth” world, it is more important than ever to insist that words must mean what they say.” I did not write those words as a gag; it is my sincerely, fervently held belief that words must mean what they say, because the easiest way to lie is to pretend words mean something other than what they say. This kind of lie corrupts our thought process and pushes us into taking actions that we otherwise would not take. This is the central insight of George Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

This insight was what drove Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, set in a world in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and two plus two is five. A world not unlike our current world, in which the head of the state of the United States of America would blatantly lies about what is plainly untrue–such as the crowd size for his inauguration–and his followers buy into this bullshit rather than believing their own eyes.
So. The word “K-pop” must mean what it says. “K” obviously stands for “Korea,” and “pop” obviously stands for “pop music.” This meaning must hold, unless… “k-pop” is a term of art, rather than a descriptor. And my point is: “K-pop” cannot be anything other than “popular music of Korea,” because it is not a term of art.

(More after the jump.)

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How do we know the term “K-pop” is not a term of art? Because a term of art has boundaries. Each term of art–if it truly is a term of art–denotes a specific concept. When people use a term of art, they are drawing mental boundaries, such that if a thing falls within the boundary, the term of art describes that thing. And if a thing falls outside of the boundary, the term of art cannot describe that thing.
People usually draw these boundaries in some combination of the following three ways:  (1) identifying the key characteristics of the concept; (2) identifying archetypical examples of the things that fall into the concept, and; (3) identifying archetypical examples of things that seem close enough to the concept, but fall outside of it. In fact, this is how we mentally categorize anything. A “brown dog” is not a “white cat” because “brown” is not “white,” nor “dog” a “cat.”
The boundary, of course, is not a hard-and-fast thing, as it only exists in people’s mind. The edges of a concept always bleed into another concept that is similar, but different in a meaningful way. But it is a mistake to say the boundary does not exist. If there is no boundary, the term of art cannot point to anything. 
Here’s an example. In a case called White City Shopping Center v. PR Restaurant, a Massachusetts court had to decide an unusual question: what is a “sandwich”? The operator of Panera Bread restaurants had an agreement with a shopping center that the shopping center would not host another store that sold sandwiches. When the shopping center began negotiating a lease for Qdoba, a Mexican restaurant, Panera restaurants sued the shopping center under the theory that burritos, tacos and quesadillas can be considered a sandwich.
So: are burritos, tacos, or quesadillas sandwich? The court decided no, but this question riveted America’s top legal minds. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Richard Posner, two of the greatest titans of law in the United States, bitterly fought over this topic. Obviously not, Scalia said–because the dictionary says a “sandwich” is “two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them.” Posner retorted: ““A sandwich does not have to have two slices of bread; it can have more than two (a club sandwich) and it can have just one (an open-faced sandwich). The slices of bread do not have to be thin, and the layer between them does not have to be thin either. The slices do not have to be slices of bread: a hamburger is regarded as a sandwich, and also a hot dog—and some people regard tacos and burritos as sandwiches, and a quesadilla is even more sandwich-like.”
Regardless of the severe disagreement between two of the greatest legal minds, however, there is no question that there exists such a concept as “a sandwich.” Yes, it may be difficult to draw the precise line between “sandwich” and “not sandwich.” Even very smart people can disagree as to where the line falls exactly. But fuzziness of the line does not mean there is no such thing as a sandwich, or it is impossible to determine whether something is a sandwich. 
It may be unclear whether a hot dog or a quesadilla counts as a “sandwich.” (In my view, they both are sandwiches.) But people can still employ the three strategies of boundary-drawing to determine what a sandwich is. Key characteristics of a concept called “sandwich” involve layered foodstuff, with the outer layer typically being made up of some type of carbohydrates, designed to be lifted off the plate and eaten with bare hands. An archetypical example of a sandwich is two slices of Wonder Bread, with peanut butter spread between the two; no one disputes that this is a sandwich. 
To determine whether a certain food item (for example, a quesadilla,) should be considered a “sandwich,” we think about what characteristics the food item shares with something like a peanut butter sandwich, whose “sandwich-ness” is undisputed. Although the precise line may be difficult to draw, we all know that there must be a line somewhere, because there are certain things in the world that we will never call a “sandwich” even if those things might come fairly close. There must be a line, because we know it is possible to cross the line. For example, no one claims that lasagna is a sandwich, although it is also layered foodstuff–presumably because it is not intended to be eaten with bare hands. 
This is how we approach any concept. Coming back to “K-pop”:  I will acknowledge that “K-pop” is a genre or a style–a defined concept–if anyone can show me: (1) the key characteristics that run across most pieces of music that people call “K-pop”; (2) archetypical examples of “K-pop”; (3) archetypical examples of Korean popular music that is not considered “K-pop.”
You cannot do that. So the natural conclusion: K-pop is not a genre, and the term “K-pop” must be understood to mean the combined meaning of the constituent words.
Compare this to, say, “Britpop.” Britpop is a favorite counterpoint to my argument, probably because it is another portmanteau that combines “pop” with a name of a country. “If ‘K-pop’ must mean ‘all kinds of popular music of Korea,’ must ‘Britpop’ mean ‘all kinds of popular music of Britain’?”–so argue the people who never thought very deeply about how concepts work.

Apply the three strategies of identifying a concept to Britpop. (1) Are there key characteristics that run across the music that people call “Britpop”? Yes–the music comes from United Kingdom, mostly in the 1990s, in the genre of alternative rock with an emphasis on British cultural themes. (2) What are the archetypical examples of “Britpop”? Music by Blur, Suede and Oasis. (3) What are archetypical examples of British music that is not considered “Britpop”? Music by Spice Girls, even though Spice Girls was also a British band of the 1990s. Using these three strategies, one can roughly identify what “Britpop” is, decide what British popular music falls and what doesn’t fall under the label of “Britpop,” and the trace the history and development of the genre.
Can you do the same with “K-pop”? No. Because what are the key characteristics that run across the music that people call “K-pop”? If you answer “highly processed music performed by beautiful people who were groomed by management agencies,” you cannot explain why Gangnam Style is considered K-pop, nor can you explain why Seo Taiji and Boys is considered the fountainhead of K-pop, nor can you explain why Kim Wan-seon is never included in the canon of K-pop history. (I explained this in more detail in the previous post, so I won’t dig deeper here.) “Britpop” is a term of art with boundaries drawn more narrowly than the meaning of its constituent words; “K-pop” is not. One could try to argue that the term “K-pop” has conceptual boundaries, but the boundaries fall apart at the slightest examination.
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Nearly every serious observers of Korean popular music that read my previous article generally agreed with my argument, with one exception–Jon Dunbar, who raised a solid objection: many Korean bands do not consider themselves to be “K-pop” band, because they are not part of the idol group ecosystem. Jambinai, for example, is a fusion band that plays rock music on Korean traditional instruments. Lee Il-woo of Jambinai has said in an interview: “We are not hallyu. The Korean government supports K-pop or Korean dramas and these are hallyu. The government is investing a lot of money into it so many people overseas will know hallyu. But we have to promote us by ourselves with our money or less money from the government.” 
I think Jon makes an important point regarding the indispensable role of the Korean government in the international promotion of a certain type of Korean pop music–the type I call “idol pop.” But when it comes to the definition of the term “K-pop,” he is wrong. 
Jon’s error comes from the fact that he is based in Korea and is enmeshed with Korea’s underground rock scene. Korean musicians in that scene say they are not “K-pop,” because they are responding to their perception of how international fans use the term “K-pop.” This is evident from Jambinai’s interview also: “European or overseas listeners think Jambinai is just Jambinai, not the K-band Jambinai or K-whatever. They think K-pop and hallyu is “Gangnam Style” and idol music. But that’s not us.”
This, in fact, is a familiar phenomenon. First, non-Koreans outside of Korea are exposed to a tiny sliver of Korean culture, and call that tiny piece “Korean.” Then, some Koreans within Korea, including misguided bureaucrats who want to promote Korean culture, see the usage of term “Korean” by those non-Koreans and produce awful “Korean” stuff. Then, to distance themselves from those awful products that are misleadingly labeled “Korean,” other Koreans in Korea begin walking away from the word “Korean” altogether. This is exactly what happened to the godawful attempts to promote “Korean” food under the Lee Myung-bak administration. This is also what George Orwell warned: pollution of a word by distorting its meaning to serve a political end.
The disconnect that leads to Jon’s error is the one between Koreans’ perception of how non-Koreans use the term “K-pop”, and the actual usage of the term “K-pop” by non-Koreans. Yes, non-Koreans have used the term “K-pop” to denote mostly idol pop, because idol pop has been the only type of Korean popular music to which they have been exposed. But when one observes the actual usage of the term “K-pop” by non-Koreans, it is abundantly clear that the term is not the same thing as “idol pop.” When the international fans encountered Korean popular music that was clearly not idol pop–such as Gangnam Style–there was no effort to enforce the conceptual boundaries of “K-pop” to exclude Korean popular music that was not idol pop. When the international fans recount the history of “K-pop,” there is no effort to trace the development of idol pop as a distinct strand of style that exists within the broader universe of Korean popular music. (The Wikipedia page for “K-pop,” for example, traces the history of K-pop all the way up to the introduction of Western music in Korea in the late 19th century. Can you imagine how ridiculous you’d sound if you talked about the history of Britpop by starting from the broadside ballads?)
But Korean musicians in Korea couldn’t care less about close examination of the term “K-pop.” They are artists, not critics; it is not their job to carefully consider how international fans use the term “K-pop.” The non-idol pop musicians in Korea rarely interact with international fans at any rate. On the other hand, production companies for idol pop happily peddle the word “K-pop,” because to them “K-pop” means nothing more than “Korean popular music that sells internationally,” which usually is idol pop music. So in Korea, a functional definition of the word “K-pop” emerged to mean “idol pop”–and Korea is the only place in the world in which the conceptual boundaries of this term is actually enforced in some meaningful way. Meanwhile, the people who actually use the term “K-pop” on a day-to-day basis–i.e. international fans–never actually set up any kind of conceptual boundaries.
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Admittedly, “K-pop” is a marker with low information value. It’s like saying “French wine”–a term, to me, means nearly nothing, because I see the word “French” and only understand it to mean “of France.” Because that’s what the word “French” means. The word “French” in “French wine” tells me nothing about the wine’s quality, flavor or characteristic. It doesn’t even tell me if the wine is red or white. 
I do know of people who use the term “French wine” to refer to “high quality wine”; such people, I found, have never thought very deeply about wines, nor have they experienced enough French wine to realize that shitty French wine is as shitty as wine from any other country. I found that the same is true with those who insist “K-pop” must mean “idol pop.” Generally, though with certain exceptions as discussed above, I found those people have never thought very deeply about Korean popular music, nor have they carefully explored the boundaries of what “K-pop” means in their minds. 
And that’s fine! I fully understand music is no more than a hobby for most people. I am not here to pass judgment on the numerous people couldn’t care less about genre or style of the music to which they listen. Please, do go listen to whatever you like, and be happy.
My point is only this: we all could stand to be a little sharper, a little more rigorous about the way we use terms and concepts, because meaning of words matters. Whenever we can, we must insist that words must mean what they say. That is the most fundamental way to keep one’s mind clear in this cynical, post-truth world.
Having said that, here are some more Korean popular music that I like–because good music needs to be shared widely.

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