Okay…I won’t act like I am being forced to listen to K-pop. I am voluntarily participating in an experiment designed by my sister, a K-pop stan. She curated a playlist, an eleven song representation of the K-pop world for someone like me, who has never actively listened to Korean music. These are not her favorite songs, but are those which best capture the breadth of the 5.2 billion dollar industry. Here are her selections:
- “FAKE LOVE – Rocking Vibe Mix” by BTS
- “Lie” by BTS
- “Daechwita” by Agust D
- “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” by TOMORROW X TOGETHER feat. Seori
- “Red Lights (Bang Chan, Hyunjin)” by Stray Kids
- “CIRCUS” by Stray Kids
- “Attention, please!” by ENHYPEN
- “CRY FOR ME” by TWICE
- “Favorite (Vampire)” by NCT 127
- “Sorry” by The Rose
- “The Truth Untold” by BTS feat. Steve Aoki
The question of genre
My sister thought of the idea after I voiced skepticism of K-pop fanaticism. I don’t understand how someone can hold such an acute obsession over such a wide range of genre and style. It reminds me of people who describe themselves as Pixar fans. Pixar is not a genre. There are action, coming of age, romance, musical and racing films, all under the Pixar umbrella. I understand the hesitation to call Korean hip-hop “K-rap,” but I feel some distinction is necessary within such a large industry. After convincing me to give it a chance, my sister sent the playlist. I listened.
Of the eleven songs, seven sound similar to me. I don’t mean this as an insult, as each still maintains individual quality. Numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 have similar sounding production, with a healthy mix of electronic and traditional instrumentation. The influence of rock is heavily present in almost every song on the list, particularly in ENHYPEN’s “Attention, please!” This plus the tastefully autotuned, clear vocals make for a modern sound with a traditional foundation. It is easy to understand the appeal to music of this nature. It is professional and glossy, without a single detail out of place. I would think a machine or some AI produced the genre if not for the character and authenticity which is still present. The music is consistently exciting. It is youthful without feeling immature. Pop music is often labeled as cheap or shallow. This feels luxurious and purposeful.
K-pop as a genre
I feel I have a new understanding of where K-pop stands as a genre. An intentionality to the composition of each band and their music wrangles them into the genre. Six of the seven artists on the list are either boy bands or girl groups. Many K-pop solo acts, including “Daechwita” rapper Agust D (Suga), began their careers in these groups. The pop/rap hybrid is also a common trait across the genre, along with the scattering of English phrases among the otherwise Korean lyrics. I was wrong to assume that such a large body of music could not belong to the same genre. In fact, I find it impressive that each of these songs can hit the K-pop mark and still feel somewhat individual.
Assuming all of K-pop belongs to one genre creates an interesting dynamic between the artists and the music they produce. Based solely on my limited listening, I already feel that the music is somewhat fabricated to fit the idol mold, and wonder whether this diminishes the quality of the art. I have heard and read about the systematic training that potential stars undergo. The process of shaping an artist to fit a genre rather than letting art naturally find its place in the music world feels backward.
Individuality and variation still exist within the genre. Agust D’s “Daechwita” is three and a half minutes of rapping with very little traditional singing. “Sorry” by The Rose, although sounding slightly dated, is possibly the most unique song on the list. “The Truth Untold” shows BTS’ range, as its comparatively subdued tone foils that of “Lie” and “FAKE LOVE.”
Will I listen to K-pop in the future? I don’t feel I have been hooked by the style as so many are. Many are attracted to the visual component (idols, fashion, choreography), but I do not plan to find out whether or not I am. I will likely listen to “Attention, please!” again at some point, and will not skip “0X1=LOVESONG” or “Lie” if they play on my shuffle, but could take or leave the rest. I am more likely to play them because they remind me of my sister than for personal appeal. Considering I enjoyed about a quarter of the playlist, I am sure much more K-pop exists to my liking, and there may even be something out there for everyone.