Friday, December 20, 2019

Taking K-pop Seriously in the 2020s


Seo Taiji and Boys, c. 1993 (source)

I.


The 2010s is nearly over. What will the 2020s have in store for K-pop?

Modern K-pop began around the late 1980s, fresh off South Korea’s transition into democracy in 1987 and the successful 1988 Seoul Olympics. This means at the year’s end in 2019, modern K-pop is finishing its third decade. Each decade of modern K-pop carried its own characteristics that built up to the Korean pop music that we know today.

The first decade of modern K-pop began in the 1990s, with its bannerman Seo Taiji and Boys [서태지와 아이들] debuting in 1992. In what came to be known as the Golden Age of K-pop, the “New Generation” [신세대] of Koreans—richer, more sophisticated, and more international than ever—set off an explosion of pop culture, creating a pop music scene with a variety of genres and styles including rock ‘n roll, hip hop, R&B and electronica. The first decade of K-pop set the basic contours of K-pop’s artistic bent: a no-holds-barred mixture of genres and styles and emphasis on choreography. Emblematic of this period is Seo Taiji’s Hayeoga [하여가]: an avant-garde mixture of rap metal with guitar and taepyeongso [태평소, a high-pitched traditional woodwind] bridges, to which Seo Taiji and Boys danced.

The later part of this decade also saw the inchoate form of K-pop’s “industrial revolution”: production companies putting together “idol groups,” a highly curated group of good looking young men and women who underwent a rigorous training program to maximize their appeal. Emblematic of this trend was H.O.T., a mass-produced simulacrum of the Seo Taiji experience. Powerful production companies like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment that tightly controlled its trainees, churning out idol stars like Hyundai Motors produced automobiles. Meanwhile, the Hongdae indie scene began booming in Seoul, and underground hip hop groups like Garion was experimenting with rhymes in the Korean language.

The second decade, beginning around 2000s, was when the “industrialized” K-pop became international. In 2000, BoA debuted almost simultaneously in Korea and Japan, eventually topping the charts in both countries. Recruited at age 12 by SM Entertainment, BoA underwent rigorous training that included singing, dancing and language lessons, all geared toward making her blend naturally into both Japan and Korea. With stars like BoA and TVXQ (who replicated BoA’s model in China,) K-pop began to attract notice as an international phenomenon, although primarily centered in Asia.
(More after the jump.)

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



Girls’ Generation was the peak of the second decade, and ushered in K-pop’s third decade by making headway into the US market. The third decade also began with PSY’s Gangnam Style—the hyper-viral sensation and the first K-pop music to make a truly global imprint. As the 2010s progressed, K-pop went from being a primarily Asian phenomenon with some niche appeal in the West, to a full-blown mainstream trend everywhere in the world. In 2019, there is little question that BTS is at the top of the global pop music, creating a worldwide mania unseen since the days of Michael Jackson and the Beatles. International fans of K-pop also began to venture beyond the idol music fare, discovering Korea’s hip hop and indie artists who emerged outside of the production company model.

K-pop’s global success may be the most significant pop culture trend of the 21st century. In the modern world, it is unprecedented for artists from a non-Western country, singing in their own language, are leading the world’s taste in music. Many voluminous books could be written about how this could have happened, but to briefly offer some of my theories: the right mixture of proximity and distance from the US/UK pop music; music optimized for the internet age, with emphasis on addictiveness and virality; the shift of global economy away from the West, the rise of Asian middle class that could demand and even impose their own aesthetic preferences, the greater ability for ethnic minorities in the US to dictate the mainstream trend on music, and so on. 



II.


Album cover for BoA's Valenti, released in Japan c. 2004.
The album sold a million copies on the first day it went on sale. (source)

Art alone cannot make itself great. Good criticism is essential to contextualize the art and give it meaning. By placing an artistic piece of work in the flow of history for that art, and juxtaposed to other contemporaneous pieces of work, good criticism imbues the work with value and enables artists to explore new possibilities. In Korea, the Golden Age of K-pop in the 1990s was soon followed by the golden age of pop music criticism. Serious writers and academics like Park Jun-heum [박준흠], Shin Hyeon-jun [신현준] and Lee Yeong-mi [이영미] traced the history of Korean pop music, examined its development and documented many of the essential aspects in K-pop’s development – the artistic process of its most significant artists, the time, place and manner in which the Korean public enjoyed their music, pop music in Korea in relation to the world, and so on.

Through their work, we know that origin of Korean pop music can be traced to the late 19th century, when Western music was introduced to Korea. We see the tenacious appeal of the yona-nuki scale from the colonial era—most prevalent in the “trot” genre today—that survives in K-pop to this day. We visualize Shin Jung-hyeon [신중현], Korea’s Godfather of Rock, electrifying the American crowd at the US military base clubs in the 1960s. We feel the heat of the Club Moon Night from which legendary hip hop groups like Seo Taiji and Boys and Deux emerged in the 1990s. With historical criticism, we are able to see which popular K-pop acts of today are true groundbreakers, and which are merely finding popularity by following the path that others have opened.

As we are entering the fourth decade of modern K-pop, and the third decade of international K-pop, I am heartened to say the quality of English language K-pop criticism is increasing as well. As the first generation of English-speaking K-pop fans are reaching their 20s and 30s, they are producing well-informed pieces of criticism that are meaningfully advancing the discussion.

Unfortunately, however, those writers are still in the minority in terms of influence and reach. Even in times when BTS is the first artist to have three Billboard chart-topping albums in a calendar year since the Beatles, serious discussion about K-pop on major English language outlets are still few and far between. The coverage is tone-deaf even at entertainment-focused magazines like the Hollywood Reporter, which recently wasted precious access and word count on a writer who had little prior exposure to K-pop and no Korean language skill with which to converse with the band members. (Imagine covering the Beatles this way in 1964.) When the coverage is not tone-deaf, it is sensationalistic without depth. With the recent passing of superstars Sulli and Goo Hara, the articles purportedly exploring the “dark side of K-pop” are once again appearing on media outlets that never cared to cover K-pop stars when they are alive.

Underlying this shallow and sensationalistic treatment is a certain preconception about K-pop, which roughly goes like this. The term “K-pop” is co-extensive with Korea’s idol pop music. The idols are more of a manufactured product than artists. The Big Three production companies that dominate the scene—SM, YG, and JYP—carefully curate and groom their talents since very young age, in what essentially amounts to a child labor. The idols have no agency of their own, which leads to the “dark side of K-pop” such as slave-like contracts and suicides. The people who love K-pop are sheep-like idiots, reflexively responding to a product that was carefully engineered to appeal to their base instincts. In this massive game of puppetry involving live human beings, there is no artistry, nor is there any serious depth to explore.

There was not one moment in K-pop history when this preconception was true. Idol pop music is but one segment of the overall Korean pop music; in terms of musical output, its size is dwarfed by the other parts of Korean pop music including hip hop, indie, and adult contemporary. This non-idol music segment of K-pop, in turn, influenced the shape and manner of Korea's idol music industry. (For example, BTS's early offerings are directly influenced by Korea's hip hop community.) Even at the height of the idol pop era—around late 2000s, in the times of Girls’ Generation, TVXQ and Big Bang among others—the idols were real artists making meaningful input into their own music and performance. (If you are skeptical, check out the list of tracks that Big Bang’s G-Dragon composed and lyricized for the group.) 

While K-pop’s musical landscape is highly varied to a point that defies a catch-all description, the best of Korean pop is among the most progressive and complex pop music in the world, to a point that American R&B composers, left jobless in the US pop music that is getting ever more simplistic, flock to compose more serious music for K-pop stars. And ultimately, this is what fans of K-pop come for. They like their stars for the same reason anyone likes any pop music star: sometimes because of good looks and fine choreography, but mostly because of good music.

Yet the prejudice against K-pop persists in the English language media largely because it fits neatly with the Western world’s preconception about Asians. Because of course Asians are uncreative automatons. Because of course Asians are the shifty, calculating sort. Of course any “art” from Asia must be a result of a careful, devious strategy, executed by obediently unthinking robo-humans who are brainwashed since childhood, like those Asian math geniuses who seem more like a calculator than a person. Of course there is nothing to be said about K-pop’s artistry.

The hold of such racism-tinged view of K-pop is such that the conventional wisdom about K-pop in the English language discourse has no explanatory power. The preconception about K-pop fails to explain each new phase of K-pop's development for the past two decades because ultimately, its explanation for K-pop’s popularity was that K-pop fans were stupid, and at some point the K-pop production companies will run out of dumb people to dupe. I recall the sneers from 20 years ago, when K-pop first began its international foray: Korean pop music is nothing but an uncreative derivative of US and UK pop music, and the greatest K-pop artist Seo Taiji was no more than a serial plagiarist. When BoA and TVXQ began selling out stadiums in Japan and China, the sneerers retreated but did not stop: K-pop may be able to go abroad, they said, but its appeal is limited to Asia. They saw the success of Gangnam Style as a confirmation of their derision rather than a reality check: look—the only K-pop that can succeed in the US and the Western world is a big, fat musical joke.

Then came BTS, who eliminated any further room for a laughing retreat. Faced with the group’s remarkable success, the conventional wisdom about K-pop resorted to the final refuge of those in error: bald-faced denial of reality. Even as BTS was topping the charts all over the world, much of the English language discourse about K-pop never considered how a group of mostly Korean-speaking hip hop artists, who came out of a tiny production company that basically let them be themselves, challenged the yesteryear’s preconception about K-pop. Even while millions of fans around the world filled stadiums, flooded radio stations with request calls and organized themselves into arguably the most potent online force in internet history, the English language media simply refused to understand why. Instead, they continued to trot out a writer with little prior exposure to K-pop to cover the biggest K-pop star ever, or push sensationalistic stories about the “dark side of K-pop” that continued to lean on the idea of evil, micromanaging K-pop production companies.



III.


BTS addresses the United Nation, c. 2018 (source)

A defensible case can be made for the conventional wisdom about K-pop, if you squint hard enough. For a long time, I have said that the preconception about K-pop reflects but a single part of the Korean pop music landscape in the late 2000s—in other words, the time when the English speaking world first encountered K-pop, and the small cohort of idol groups it encountered. With appropriate qualifications, you can make a reasonable defense of the conventional wisdom about K-pop, like so: 
“The conventional wisdom of K-pop is not wrong, insofar as it is describing the part of K-pop that is relevant to the international fans. Granted, Korean pop music may be much bigger than what is visible to the international fans. But the international fans only interact with a limited part of K-pop, and the remainder of Korean pop music is not accessible to them. If the media outlet is primarily geared toward the non-Korean audience, there is nothing wrong with speaking about the only part of K-pop that the international audience will engage with.”
I have long disagreed with this argument. It requires pretending words don’t mean what they say, and arbitrarily restricting the meaning of the word “K-pop” to “a limited segment of Korean pop music with which the international audience is likely to interact.” But as a functional matter, the argument was defensible enough – at least until mid-2010s. Gangnam Style showed the cracks of this argument when a pudgy rapper in his 40sabsolutely nobody's idea of a finely curated pretty boybecame the greatest global K-pop star until that point. Then BTS hammered at those cracks to shatter the argument, to a point that there is little to be salvaged. As the peak of K-pop’s third decade in which K-pop emerged as the global pop music mainstream, BTS gestures at the coming trends in the 2020s, K-pop’s fourth decade.

It is time to retire the old talking points about production companies in K-pop once and for all. At no time did the production companies define Korean pop music, but as of late 2019, the K-pop production companies do not even define international Korean pop music. As the international K-pop fans are more broadly exposed to Korean pop music, they are rapidly expanding their horizons beyond the idol pop acts of the 2000s and into Korea’s hip hop and indie, where production companies do not play much of a role. Today, indie acts like Hyukoh and Bolbbalgan4 routinely break into Billboard charts, and the next decade will see even more Korean pop musicians who will gain international renown without going through any idol production system.

Also, as idol acts of the 2000s grow into mature artists, they are freer to explore their own musical art with little to no interference from their production companies. BoA, who was the epitome of the industrialized K-pop production, is now a 19-year veteran with nine studio albums under her belt. Although she still maintains her contract with SM Entertainment that discovered her talent as a 12 year old, SM is no longer in the position to tell BoA what to do. Same is true with IU, or Taeyeon from Girls’ Generation. (Indeed, same was true with Sulli from f(x) and Goo Hara from Kara, notwithstanding incessant talks of “K-pop’s dark side” relating to their untimely deaths.) In the 2020s, more of today's idol artists will graduate into mature solo performers, heeding no one's artistic direction other than their own.

Even within the idol pop segment where the production companies are more important, the landscape is shifting rapidly. The triopoly of SM, YG and JYP is no more, as the tiny outfit BigHit upended the idol scene with BTS and grew into a juggernaut. The success of BigHit’s model, which emphasized its artists’ authenticity and narrative journey, is inspiring other smaller production companies to enter the market and follow suit. Even the Big Three are changing their approach, getting their artists more involved in the creative process. 

Potentially more disruptive to the idol pop segment is the fact that the influence of traditional gatekeepers in Korea is decreasing by day. The old formula that a K-pop group must succeed in Korea first, then seek international fame—another relic of the 2000s—is no more. Today, K-pop groups appeal directly to the international fans through Youtube and social network, such that we are beginning to see a subtle divergence between the K-pop acts more popular within Korea, and K-pop acts more popular outside of it. BTS, in fact, is an early example of the phenomenon. While the group was fairly popular in Korea, BTS found greater success outside of their own country first, and saw its international success reverberate back to Korea. Recognizing this trend, US production companies are joining the fray, playing a more direct role in creating K-pop groups that appeal more specifically to the international market—such as SuperM, a joint project between SM Entertainment and Capitol Records whose debut EP immediately topped the US chart. With more players in the idol pop field offering different paths to stardom, the idea that K-pop production companies are creating fine-tuned product is far past its shelf life.

Of course, the production companies continue to exist in K-pop, and their influence is still significant. Some production companies do micromanage its talents sometimes. Some production companies do ruin the lives of its artists and those around them sometimes. It is completely fair and fine to discuss the good and bad aspects of K-pop production companies, as there is plenty to discuss. (For example, the involvement of YG Entertainment in the Burning Sun club scandal is still not discussed enough.) You only need to be clear about which part of K-pop you are discussing: a specific act by a specific person or a company, and not the entire edifice of Korean pop music. R. Kelly's persistent sexual abuse was not an indictment of the entire American music industry, nor was Amy Winehouse's suicide a wholesale condemnation of UK pop music scene. Why would Korean pop music be different?

If you wish to discuss the entire edifice of Korean pop music—and it would be a worthy effort to do so—I have but one suggestion: Take K-pop Seriously. Lose the idea that K-pop is fake and K-pop fans are dupes. Instead, seriously approach the history of Korean pop music, seriously examine the K-pop landscape that extends beyond idol pop, seriously consider how the current generation of artists are responding to their predecessors and their peers, and seriously engage with fans to understand why they like what they like. Because the turn-of-the-21st-century thought about K-pop is way outdated, and it will only get more outdated in the coming years.

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

8 comments:

  1. very well put. i loved what you said at the end, "R. Kelly's persistent sexual abuse was not an indictment of the entire American music industry, nor was Amy Winehouse's suicide a wholesale condemnation of UK pop music scene. Why would Korean pop music be different?" i thought it was such an apt comparison and i'd never really thought of it that way. i think i'm definitely going to use that argument the next time someone wants to talk about k-pop's "dark side" as its some monolithic thing. i really loved this article!

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  2. Personally my personal understanding of Korean pop music is not through boy and girl groups like BTS or Girl Generation but through solo artists like IU and AKMU. I even found a motivation to learn Korea because they wrote some beautiful lyrics, and I want to understand them in the original language, not English translation. I found the groups are pretty "manufactured" and artificial. As a result, I don't find BTS' music very fascinating, and the English-speaking world preference on KPop is way too limited. I really hope, as author stated above, people not to understand Korean music in a colonial way, and explore something outside of their perception.
    This article is well written, and thank you for giving a voice to those music outside of those boy and girl groups.
    (Personally love IU's «Above the Time» and AKMU's «How Can I Love the Heartbreak ...»)

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  4. Wholly agree with your article. Similar arguments and some additional information is given with this article in case anyone want to read more.
    https://www.helloasia.com.au/features/bts-are-the-worlds-most-revolutionary-artists-right-now-heres-why-its-making-people-uncomfortable/

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