So you have a rough idea what KPop is. Maybe you have heard some already – now you are wondering – what makes KPop different from Western pop-music? This is supposed to be an enrichment to my life? How exactly?
Returning quickly to our definition of KPop before – the music we are about to discuss is the popular music in South Korea that is mainly produced for commercial reasons. As mentioned in Step 1, South Korea also has a thriving Indie scene – but what we want to talk about here is the music, generally known as “KPop“.
Enough with the theory. Let’s have a 1st taste of what KPop is (probably you have seen or heard KPop before, but anyway) – let’s watch a music video together:
What you have just seen is a music video by one of the most successful KPop girl groups of our time, “Girls’ Generation“. For some more comparison, here is a music video by a KPop boy group:
What you watched just now is a music video by KPop boy group “B.A.P” (an acronym for “Best Absolute Perfect” – daring, huh?), a group who debuted in 2012 and is already on world tour.
Maybe you have had a few WTF-moments while watching these two videos. Let me assure you – before we loose you here – there are many types of KPop videos. If this is not your style, there’s a lot more that is quite different. Speaking from experience – I would have not liked these videos myself, if you showed them to me (about 2,5 years ago), but now I love them. So – keep an open mind.
When you first get into KPop, it’s not so important to know who is who, but – do I like it? That’s a question that we will turn to in the due course of this 10 Step Guide, but 1st let’s do a quick comparison of some general rules that KPop songs and videos abide to – in contrast to those of the Western pop industry.
What’s the same
The people who are the faces for the music (which is of course, just like Western Pop, produced by a whole company of people – stylists, sound engineers, camera men, managers, etc.) are generally young, above-averagely attractive and can either sing, rap, dance or have a minimum amount of charisma. The same goes for KPop groups: Young individuals who decide they want to enter the music business, often giving up school or college for their dreams.
Maybe you belong to the group of people who have a problem with the modern idea of “star” (join the club): A person so high above all “normal individuals” they are truly “god-like” and “untouchable”. Of course lots of KPop idols are marketed the very same way. They are used as trend-setters, so that people will buy their EPs, merchandise & style their hair after the ever-changing trends. Who these young singers and dancers really are often get’s lost and they play a role for the camera.
When it comes to the music – it’s less for artistic purpose or emotional release of the song writer – it’s meant to sell. But just like in most cultures, the music reflects the hopes, dreams and problems of the younger generation of it’s people. The topics are of course romantic feelings, dreams, the search for meaning in life and the sadness over what’s wrong in one’s own life or the world. And yes, partying.
The melody, beat & vocals are all mixed to be ultimately catchy and like western pop-music – less avant-garde and more appealing to the mainstream. Most songs have sing-a-long-ability and rather than being an in-depth musical experience, they are commonly light-hearted and fun. A lot of pop music (no matter where it comes from) has been looked down upon by fans of other music genres and is nothing more than “guilty-pleasure” music for those listening to a range of music styles.
Most likely you have seen pop artists debut and your thoughts were basically: “Ahem, ok, Pop music is averagely pretty low standard, but this is so low that I don’t even know where to place it on the scale…” Without naming names, people with very little talent get produced in most countries (or the other way around – the person actually is talented, but their producer sucks and auto-tunes them anyway), and what’s even sadder – some of them become successful, teenage-heart-breaking mega stars. I’m not going to claim that this doesn’t happen in KPop, but KPop averagely has a higher standard of quality.
As the concept of “boy groups” and “girl groups” is all well and thriving in South Korea, solo artists present a minority in the face of pop groups with member sizes from 4 to 12. These young (wannabe-) stars start training, after having been accepted at a talent agency, in very harsh and intensive programs to perfect their dancing and singing skills and to generally prepare for the stressful and demanding life of a national star. This raises the bar, as although the industry is dominated by few big agencies, there is constant competition between already famous groups trying to stay at the top of the charts, before the younger rookies catch up and take over.
Most importantly of all: KPop was till rather recently (the last 2-3 years) majorly produced by Koreans for Koreans. Though some groups and solo singers produce English versions of their songs today, most of KPop is in Korean, sprinkled with bits of (not always correct) English. This is something to get used to – unless you know Korean, you will not understand 90% of the lyrics. Being a lyric-maniac myself, I found this bothersome for some time. But I’ve come to not only enjoy the sound of the foreign language that is Korean (to me) – I also appreciate the fact, that some songs as sweet/nice/cool as they sound, in fact have some really lame/stupid/cliche lyrics, which I can happily ignore and just appreciate for their sound – as I do not understand them.
Now to the content of KPop music videos, which are an important part of the experience. Although themes, costumes and lights change – there are certain patterns: A large portion of the video is spent showing the members dancing, another large part showing close-ups of the members faces or them interacting while singing/rapping and then some videos attempt to tell a story with a (not always coherent) plot.
As mentioned: Competition in the KPop industry is tough, this means that a lot of effort is put into producing music videos, which are aiming to be ultimately always newer, more interesting and more extravagant than before. And while – yes – we see approaches (like the two music videos above) very similar to Western pop music videos, you’ll also get to see some stuff you are not so likely to see on this scale in other country’s music scenes:
As you may have noticed – partially the KPop boys & girls look westernized, but then again – they don’t. Guys wearing eye liner? Yes. Eye liner. Plenty of it. In recent years South Korea has seen a trend which is known in the West as something called “Flower Boys”. Boys/Young men (& girls) don’t actually street-wear all the crazy outfits of KPop idols, but a certain androgynous look has taken over most of KPop male idols. This look is often described with the wise words “gayyyyy” by a number of Westerners, but it is simply a fashion trend, which can actually highlight and enhance the facial features of male individuals, as much as females.
Part of listening and watching KPop is to keep an open mind. Yes, it’s also a selling of close-to-impossible ideals about looks, coolness, sexiness and charisma, but it’s the approach of a culture so different from your own (yes, even if you are Chinese or Japanese – or especially then – you will know the Korean way of things is different (and highly diverse in itself)) you are guaranteed to be surprised, emotionally slapped in the face a couple of times and to learn how to be a lot more open minded about a lot of things.
Anything of what you have just read in this post can be phrased a little differently and will end up sounding like KPop isn’t really that much greater than Western Pop – maybe it isn’t, but it’s nevertheless something new and different for Western audiences. Some it may alienate, some may shake their heads and call it “a cheap rip-off of pop star XY”, but if you give yourself and the genre some time, you might just discover it to become the life-changing experience it can be.
PS: If at the end of this post you are rather sure that KPop is something that you don’t need in your life: Fly away and be free. But – if you are now rather sure, based on having seen (did you really watch them!?) 4 music videos, that you can judge a whole genre and have now formed you own opinion, concluding that it is in fact – crap – better watch out that CL doesn’t get to you in your sleep…
Not so interested in Step 3? Maybe you want to skip ahead and read:
- What does KPop sound like? What types of songs are there? Coming…
- Step 4: How is KPop? Idol groups & their structure
- Step 5: Who likes KPop? What is this fandom like and who is in it? Coming…
- KPop Terms – Words you need to know to understand KPoppers
Have you found a mistake in this article (content or grammar wise)? Feel free to correct us – but be aware that we have not deliberately left out vital information, but have tried to keep this article short and simple as an easy introduction for newbies to KPop. We are also not acclaimed experts in the field of music research and have taken our information from articles of other blogs, internet websites, as well as the best of our memory and our very own reason. Lastly this article was not written by native speakers of the English language.
The words and most of the phrasing in this mini-article has been formulated by one of our authors, but feel free to use any information or wording found here for your own blog (or presentation). We’d appreciate it if you state this website as source, but it is not legally required.