Why I like K-Pop

Yep, it’s out in the open.

And we might as well get the hipster stuff out of the way: I was, like, totally into it before Gangnam Style.

There comes a time in every person’s life, after the dramas of adolescence have been left behind, when he or she rediscovers things from his/her childhood that, once upon a time, seemed like the greatest thing in the world but eventually became “uncool” to like as a teenager. Without the self-conscious tinted glasses of that awkward period, the young adult is more able to appreciate those entertainment properties that, while aimed at kids, are actually put together well enough to warrant enjoyment once more.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is one explanation for the popularity of Disney movies, TV shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Adventure Time, as well as game series like Pokemon, among adult audiences.

While it isn’t directly analogous, a similar logic can be applied to explaining the relative Western popularity, or at least the inherent appeal, of a pop music phenomenon that is otherwise more than a little baffling. Of all non-English language musical outputs on the planet, none is enjoyed in quite as many countries as Korean pop or, as it is more commonly known, K-Pop.

Why? Well, for quite a few reasons, but few more prominent than the fact that at its core, it imitates a musical style that was popular when the young adults of today were kids.

Spice_brah

Man, I used to be obsessed with these girls.

Remember New Kids on the Block? Take That? Boyz II Men? The Backstreet Boys? N*Sync? Steps? The Spice Girls? S Club 7? God knows I do, and as it turns out, so does Korea. For some reason, after the early-to-mid ’90s had run their course and pop groups had fallen out of fashion in Britain and the United States, the fledgling Korean entertainment industry took their interpretation of the phenomenon and ran with it.

When my musical tastes changed through high school, it was a result of a desire to listen to what was cool, and to be honest I’m glad I went along with that because I discovered some rock bands and other artists that I still cherish to this day. But as I discovered partway into my young adult life, it turns out I was never really ready for boy/girl bands to go out of style. I’m a little hazy on when or why exactly people started fleeing from catchy music at the slightest hint of “simplicity”.

Anyway, it was around March this year that I first entered the world of K-Pop. Though one of my sisters had been into it for a few years and I had a bit of background on it that way, the turning point for me was when an editor on IGN.com, whose words on the likes of Final Fantasy I had read for a while, began promoting K-Pop group Girls’ Generation through a few offhand comments on one of the IGN podcasts. It wasn’t long until my interest was piqued. I was curious.

And once you’re curious, it’s hard not to get swept up in the wave.

They’re curious.

If K-Pop is defined by one thing, it is its shameless status as a product. Everything about it is manufactured and engineered to suit a purpose. Yet it also brings with it very little pretense. It knows what it is, it knows that its fans know what it is, and that is that. In my opinion, such an attitude is more than a little refreshing. In addition, not only is it easily accessible sound-wise by virtue of its style, it’s also plastered all over Youtube with very little concessions. K-Pop singles and their expensive music videos are just a click away for many citizens of the world.

I wouldn’t say that K-Pop does the whole boy band/girl band thing better than the Western groups I grew up listening to, but it arguably does it purer. The production values of the MVs are higher, the choreography is more complex, the execution of said choreography is more accurate (scarily so at times), and because most of Korea’s musical talent is funneled into one genre, the vocalists tend to have more range. There is also a youthful sense of energy pulsating through most everything K-Pop brings out.

Which isn’t to say that K-Pop is a one-note industry. In recent years in particular, the Korean music industry has embraced many sub-genres and has had some kind of success with each. Korean hip-hop has enjoyed plenty of growth of late (see Block B, Epik High), Korean bands with instruments are growing in popularity (see CNBlue, FT Island), dance sensibilities are pouring into plenty of recent outputs (see this year’s BigBang, TVXQ) and then it appears there’s always room for dubstep no matter where in the world you are (see pretty much anything released this year, but particularly Younique Unit).

The original female supergroup of Korean pop

The K-Pop machine churns music out with alarming frequency and, for every derivative and uninspired track released, there always seems to be someone trying new things. These can range from gimmicky to goosebumps-inducingly euphoric, which at the end of the day I guess is what pop music is all about. Some of these things can only be pulled off in the context of Korean culture (google Cooking? Cooking! by Super Junior), which keeps the industry grounded in its own identity. It’s also wonderfully novel to see music videos where crazy clothing and movement, rather than skin, are the focus (Brown Eyed Girls and Hyuna notwithstanding).

K-Pop has its dark side. The artists involved are often subjected to contracts that in any other context would appear unfairly one-sided, with long hours and obligations stretching as far as the eye can see. Creative control is (with a few notable exceptions) placed firmly in the hands of record labels, some of which rival electronics manufacturers for all their multi-national prestige. Plagiarism charges, while not too common, are certainly high-profile when they do pop up. Plastic surgery plagues the industry, in both allegation and actuality, and other body image controversies follow, ranging from questionable diets to the quest for pale white skin (I find it more than a little hilarious that the socially acceptable equivalent here in Australia is to turn oneself orange).

And then there are the fangirls/boys. Oh dear.

YG_SM_JYP

The “big three” Korean music corporations: YG, SM and JYP.

Yet I would argue that any music industry on the planet has just as many undesirable quirks, and just as much paparazzi-baiting controversy potential. Some things in life are just universal, no matter what form they take. Plus, let’s be honest, non-Korean fans of Korean music are naturally going to be a bit more disconnected from issues that are at the forefront of cultural relevance in their homeland.

I have a few dozen friends I know are into K-Pop, a decent chunk of whom were not at the start of 2012. Whatever the initial cause of their appreciation was, it’s evident that each one of them has found something slightly different in the genre that appeals to them. Some are in it for the fashion on display, some for the dance choreography, some for the way the Korean language sounds when sung, some for the “eye candy” (inevitable) and some for the window it provides into a foreign culture. But they all agree on one thing: K-Pop is hella catchy, its energy is infectious, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of those things. Give it a go, yeah?

Will I be reviewing K-Pop albums on Vagrant Rant? The short answer is no, because, well, I don’t speak the language, and they just release so many of them! But never say never.

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