Observations of a Newly Found K-pop Addict

Posted by Sandstorm in Music, Offbeat, Uncategorized on February 6th, 2013.
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K-pop. Since Psy took over the world with Gangnam Style everybody knows the genre once reserved to Asians and the odd Westerner. While the vast majority of the newly reached audience only enjoyed the biggest Youtube hit ever, some, including me, dove deeper into the wide world of Korean Pop and got hooked. This is my account of acquiring a new addiction.

Like most Westerners my first contact with Asian popular music came through the medium of anime. High profile Japanese bands like Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Orange Range and Maximum the Hormone provided the opening and ending songs of some of the most popular series (e.g. Naruto, Bleach, Full Metal Alchemist), so after being introduced to the exotic new culture of Japan by countless of episodes it was only natural that I looked up some of these bands. In my case this first contact occurred exactly at the time I first began listening to modern Pop and Rock music and even though I could only understand very small snippets of the lyrics I got hooked. In fact I believe that the absence of these “distracting” lyrics enabled me to focus more closely on the structure of the songs and the rhythm of the vocal lines which, as a novice listener of non-classical music, helped me greatly in understanding and appreciating the structure of Pop and Rock music. After a short period of very intense listening to J-Rock I moved on to its western counterpart (Muse being my all-time biggest revelation), Hip-Hop and recently Metal. In the process I stopped listening to nearly all Asian bands except for Asian Kung-Fu Generation.  K-pop actually never even popped up on my radar during that period, except for the rare occasion someone talked (or rather: raved) about it.That was until I experienced Gangnam Style.

During the climax of the Gangnam Style hype I was in Canada for an internship. As I just visited the Heavy T.O. festival where I experienced bands like Gojira, Periphery and The Dillinger Escape Plan live for the first time, the primary genre on my playlist was Metal. I was already familiar with the intriguingly complicated music of Periphery because of some fellow guitar players, but the dark and atmospheric Gojira was new to me and the sheer energy of The Dillinger Escape Plan (literally) blew me away. These bands convinced me that a combination of the energy of rock and metal combined with the complexity of jazz was the direction I wanted to take my own musical endeavours in. I began to bitch about “dumb” pop music even more than I already did and even listening to mainstream radio stations that played golden oldies became difficult. Can you imagine my surprise when I realized I genuinely loved Psy’s hit I saw the video once and laughed my ass off. I saw it twice and laughed even harder. I saw it thrice and I realized that I genuinely liked the song. In fact I liked it enough to delve deeper into the recommendation section that Youtube so kindly provides us with. There I found the song Bubble Pop by HyunA and I was shocked that I really liked that song as well. I delved even further and found the girl group she originated from, 4Minute, which wasn’t really my cup of tea. But then I struck gold: 2NE1. From the moment I saw their video for I am the Best I was hooked and began to look for more and more of their music. Heck, I even bought their live CD in a little shop in Korea Town on Bloor st., Toronto for a road trip through the state of New York. But why in the world would a Rock/Metal junkie with a taste for complexity and experimentation like K-pop? 


The Total Package

You might’ve looked up the other two examples of K-pop I mentioned earlier (HyunA and 2NE1) and figured you’ve got the answer to my question. I’m just going to admit it right now: Yes, the attractive ladies go a long way in helping you appreciate K-pop. While many western acts also feature this specific visual component, I believe that in K-pop others play just as big a role. While I primarily looked at upbeat music by girl groups and boy bands, their music videos contain huge amounts of choreographed dance (like Wonder Girl’s Like This and Girls’ Generation‘s Oh!) and very eccentric and/or colorful outfits (BIGBANG’s Fantastic Baby and 2NE1′s Follow Me).  Also, there are quite some TV-shows in the spirit of Top of the Pops that showcase new songs by big K-pop groups (Like this one). Since the demise of Top of the Pops the only program (that I know of…) that does something like this is Jools Holland, but the fact that Korea has 3 or 4 of these programs a week says something. Some of the groups even have their own "reality" TV-shows (2NE1 TV is a good example).

This focus on the visuals also extends greatly towards the packaging of the CDs and DVDs. While the current trend in CD packaging seems to be “less is more” in the west, with CDs most of the time only containing a simple lyric sheet and nothing more, Korean CDs come in strange square boxes, with a shitload of postcards, suede covering or even big photo-books featuring your favorite artist in all kinds of different outfits and poses. And no, those aren’t limited editions. No, this is the way the companies behind the acts want the customer to experience the entertainment they provide. Because K-pop isn’t music; it’s entertainment. The majority of the acts out there is trained and managed by the entertainment company that owns them. Trained as an entertainer or an idol and not as an artist.

 Just look at all the stuff you get!!!

Just look at all that stuff you get! 

What’s the exact difference? This is purely subjective of course, but to me musical artists are people who write and perform their own music and while image helps (without charisma an artist is dead in the water), they don’t have to be the most beautiful people out there and they certainly don’t need to be able to dance or have crazy amounts of media training. Idols however must have those skills if they want to sell their product. To do so they also invest much more time in creating the illusion of closeness to their fans than their western counterparts do. They are trained to be the total entertainment package. Probably most of them will never ever write a song in their carreer. They of course could, but it isn’t necessary for what they need to do: Entertain. To me artists are in no way superior to entertainers or idols. They’re just different and aimed at a different audience. Also, it’s clear from the millions of fanatic fans these idols have garnered around the world that they possess more than enough talent and charisma to sell their product. In fact acts like 2NE1, BIGBANG (jup, I’m a YG Entertainment fan) and Wonder Girls are composed out of pretty good vocalist that would only need the backing tracks they (unfortunately) use during the (impressive) dance sequences. They have some genuine talent, that’s for sure.

Musically speaking, K-pop isn’t that much different from western Pop. While K-pop certainly is more bubble gum, seems less serious and maybe (depends on the artist ofcourse) a bit more vocal centered (like this great track), for me personally the biggest reason why I can listen to K-pop but not it’s western counterpart is the language.  Everytime I hear an English, or Dutch for that matter, pop song, the clichés that are thrown in the mix are completely killing me. I certainly can respect great pop hooks and I understand that it takes specific talent to come up with catchy tunes, but some of the lyrics are just so plain stupid that I end up brain dead before I can actually enjoy the groove. I mean, just look at one of the current hits, Scream and Shout, by our big pals will.i.am and Britney Bitch… uh, I mean Spears.

“I wanna scream and shout and let it all out”

“I was feeling down, but now I’m feeling better”

I mean… Really? I don’t know if I should laugh or cry…

Now, probably K-pop suffers from some clichés and lyrical flaws of it’s own, but I don’t get distracted by them because I can’t understand the language. Just as in J-rock I can focus on the rhythm and melody of the songs and learn to appreciate the total package. The proof of this theory comes in the form of the various English versions of Korean songs. They just don’t do it for me. Those songs lack the genre’s biggest differentiator from western pop. /fanboy That’s why I sincerely hope that my personal favourites 2NE1 will refrain from releasing the rumored English songs they recorded with will.i.am. Jup, they are working with that lyrical genius. Sigh… ./fanboy


Plain Old Fun

While the majority of this piece is full of technical observations, my last point probably is the only valid reason why I like K-pop. I just do. There’s a time and place for everything and I firmly believe that everything includes all the different types of music. That doesn’t mean you should love ALL the music out there, but it does mean that liking seriously loud, complex music does not exclude loving jazz, classical music or K-pop. K-pop for me is just great genre to put on in the gym, to listen to when I want to relax or to take a look at when I just want to have some fun. Because that’s what it is; it’s some plain old fun.

I’m a still a K-pop noob, so if you think my analysis is flawed (which is very probable) or want to share some recommendations, leave a comment!

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