This week one of the biggest bands out of Korea, BigBang (no theory) are performing a couple of shows in Australia, no doubt to the cheers and cries of so many fangirls (and some guys). It is still somewhat of a niche genre, even after the monstrous viral hit of Gangnam Style, but over the past few years the Korean pop industry has been steadily making ground. BigBang aren’t the first to tour down here. A couple of months ago another one of K-pop’s hottest boy band acts in BTS made the trip down, and more and more Australia is looming as a market for other groups to try and claim. It’s part of a greater Korean wave of popular culture that’s been permeating the West over the past 5-10 years, much in the same way Japanese popular culture had done so before it.
So in lining up with the BigBang tour, I thought now would be a good time to look into K-pop. But instead of just approaching it from an outside-in perspective, I wanted to look at this topic more introspectively. Why? Well because quite frankly I’m a massive fan, and of all my pop culture interests, when I express my enjoyment of K-pop is when I tend to get the most odd looks. And yeah I understand why, I’m a big guy. I’m 6’5 and over 100kgs, so most people don’t necessarily expect the music to be playing in my car or in my headphones to be so cute and poppy. But it’s true, I love the K-pop scene, the music always brings a smile to my face and there’s a lot of good stuff out there. But if you were to ask me why? Well generally I’d just shrug and say “Why not?”. So I wanted to take a more casual approach to this week’s 1Up and try to break down what it is about this genre that I love.
My first interaction with the genre came a few years ago on New Years Eve. A small group of my friends had come together to ring in 2013, and once the clock ticked over someone switched the channel over to SBS2 and the anuual PopAsia marathon as something of a joke. I remember rolling my eyes at the decision, but going along with it because ‘why not?’, and within thirty minutes I was trying to hide the fact I was typing in three names into my phone to look up once I got home. I still remember the three groups that had caught my ear. EXO, 2NE1 and F(x).
That begun a slow burn interest in not only Korean pop music, but also Korean entertainment and Asian culture in general. Before then my interests rarely deviated from ‘Western’ media, and my naïve and quick-to-judge younger self had little time for anything that wasn’t in English. Asia was never on my radar. But since stumbling into the K-pop scene I’ve made my first international journey Japan for two separate university research trips, and have recently booked tickets to Hong Kong. Some of my favourite movies have comes from the East (just see last week’s column), my favourite television show is the Korean variety show Running Man, and their food across the board is just increidble. Oh how we change over the years.
Initially I gave those three bands a bit more of a listen on Youtube, slowly developing a bit more of an interest in the two girl groups mentioned above (because shock horror, good looking girls draw my attention better than good looking guys). It was a slow process mostly because I was in a bit of denial about the burgeoning interest. It wasn’t that I didn’t like some ‘pop music’, though my tastes had always been more rock/alternative to that point, but for a while it felt like beoming a fan of K-pop would be a step too far and make me iredeemable in the eyes of ‘cool’ or something. Clearly I’ve gotten over that, but in those initial months I would have been embarrassed to admit to liking that kind of thing. But it was also around that time that I started to become more comfortable with who I was, and with that I started to embrace this new genre. Now I couldn’t care less if people think it’s weird that I like what I like (clearly, since I’m writing about it…)
I think some of the appeal is in the lack of lyrical understanding. Part of why I’ve tended to shy away from pop music in the past was because of what they were singing about. While musically it’d be catchy, I’d cringe at what they were singing about. And while K-pop doesn’t break the mould at all in that regard, there’s an accepted ignorance to what the song’s about. Some Youtube channels that broadcast K-pop (like 1totheK) offer translated captions to the music, and it becomes clear the shallow and uninspiring lyrical content that lives in most Western pop music also exists in Korean pop. That’s not to say you can’t find deeper lyrics, but like out West it’s stuffed between the less inspiring. But I can turn a blind eye (deaf ear) to that and appreciate the music and vocal work. Their voices become just another instrument. Just like I don’t need to know the specific note played from a guitar to like its sound, and I don’t need to know what the songs mean. Again, it’s pop, so it is rarely all that complex anyway, but it is catchy.
It’s also incredibly fun. I tend to stick only with the boppier, more upbeat tracks. Some of the slower songs are really good, but nine times out of ten I’m going to pick the song with more energy. And I’m not the only one. Most of the K-pop songs that have enjoyed global success have been the bigger, faster tracks (according to Youtube views anyway). It makes sense: Generally a slower ballad song will have a bit more meaning in their words, and the song’s impact doesn’t translate as well from a strictly musical standpoint. But fast, or big (in the case of EXO’s Overdose), the beat and fun becomes more prominent.
It’s not just the music though. K-pop is a package deal. From the band’s concept, to a song’s dance choreography which has separate videos to show it off, to the music video’s themselves, which are often bombastic and visual feasts. Where the West has begun to put less emphasis on the music video as consumption has moves from the era of music television to the internet, the K-pop industry continues to up the ante, and it’s for the better. It’s all about maximising interest, and appealing to what is quite frankly an unbelieveably rabid fandom.
Seriously, if there’s an online poll for anything, ANYTHING, and a K-pop band is nominated, you better believe that fandom will mobilise and ensure victory. I could put up a poll and ask which band could make better cheese sandwiches, and if I include Girls’ Generation, chances are their fanbase (known as SONE’s) would find it and ensure they won. There was even an online fued between 1-Direction fans and T-ARA fans over a poll that had the two bands go head to head. For the record, T-ARA won, and the whole thing was hilarious.
It’s also worth stating, the Western influence in many K-pop acts isn’t hard to spot. While J-pop has developed within its own shell somewhat, Korean pop has taken aspects of the Western scene and co-opted it within its scene to create something that is both distinctly foreign (it’s in another language obviously, but also in vocal tone) but at the same time familiar. It eases the gap for Western audiences who might come across it for the first time, be it because of the necessary couple of lines in English or just the uncanny similarities in structure or sound.
There’s also a little bit of pride and excitement in discovering something for yourself. I’m by no means the first person I know to be a fan of K-pop, but I wasn’t linked to any clips or told to listen to any particular band. I delved into the world of K-pop myself and have developed my own interest in it separate from anyone else. There’s nothing wrong at all with coming to love something because it was suggested by a friend (sharing pop culture is part of the fun) but I like being able to look back and see the path I carved out myself, and offer suggestions to curious people from my own exploration.
K-pop marks a big change in who I am. I’ve matured in the years I stumbled across it and went from being overly self-conscious about my interests into someone unashamed about what someone might think. Yeah I like K-pop, it’s damn awesome, but that’s not what I could have said when I was younger. And because of that it’s easier to take a step back and understand why it appeals to me. At the end of the day, there is a sense of fun to the whole genre. Whether it’s the dance moves, the fun vibe to the song and video construction, the way the vocals sound compared to Western singers or even the concepts that are present between groups, everything just feels more dynamic. Music reaches beyond language, and considering thanks to my somewhat dodgy hearing I have trouble making out lyrics in English spoken songs, being able to understand the literal meaning has never been my strong point. I prefer to take in the feel instead. And that is where K-pop continues to shine.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, I’m beyond just listening to the girls now…