It’s 10 PM on Saturday in the bustling city of Seoul, Korea. As a gentle breeze swept through the capital, nightfall was well underway. One of the biggest K-pop concerts in the capital had just arrived at its finale
As thousands of screaming, cheery fans started their mass exodus from Olympic Park stadium to the nearby subways, I started to follow suit alongside the exiting press members. While nearly every fan left happy, with smiles and laughter abound, I was torn. “Korea’s #1 group” signs were flown earlier, while squeals of “SNSD is the best, most talented group in Korean music!” were heard in unison. Yet, I wondered how fans defined “best” and “most talented.”
While I do support K-pop, I was also disappointed at what I just witnessed at the concert. I may be hated by many for saying this, but has K-pop really distorted our musical tastes for the worse?
Last year, one of the largest concerts, the 2011 Girls Generation Tour, took place to the delight of many fans here in Korea. As one can imagine, the coverage of the concert was insane. From new stations covering the venue, nearly every Korean music site reporting on it, to even fans as far as France and the US flying in, the nine ladies were the object of everyone’s affection. It seemed the ladies that popularized the words “Gee”, “Hoot”, “Tell Me Your Wish”, and “Run Devil Run” into K-pop lexicon could do no wrong this night.
But there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind. The thoughts that many other, incredibly talented singers were being snuffed out by the idol pop machine. The feeling that the musical bar was set too low in recent years.
Was I the only one that saw the evolution of K-pop spiraling downward before my very eyes that night?
Mainstream vs. Indie Music
Mainstream Korean music, as a whole, has taken a wrong turn in the last couple years. While K-pop has undeniably put Korea on the map, it has also taken any musical genre not named pop or ballads off the radar. This, in turn, makes the average K-pop fan blind to Korea’s true musical talents.
The fact is every year Korea pumps out anywhere from 30 to 80 new rookie groups. Many of them debut on popular music shows, such as Inkigayo or Music Bank. Ranging from pop, rock, folk, hip-hop, and jazz, these new up-and-comers showcase a variety of musical genres on these shows. Yet, nearly all these same rookie groups go unheard of and are soon quickly forgotten after the debut. But why are these talented indie groups ignored?
The answer is simple: bubblegum pop is incredibly easy to manufacture.
The SM Entertainment machine in full force
The big three K-pop entertainment moguls: SM, JYP, and YG, knows that bubblegum pop sells. The mantra goes: produce a song that has a catchy hook, backed up with beautiful singers, and promote it like no tomorrow and the song will go viral in no time. In nearly every case, this belief holds true. Pop is the easiest way for music companies to make profit quickly, gain more exposure for their singers, easily sell to the public, and secure new countries to attract new customers. Thus, the big three, with their vast resources and networks, oversaturated the K-pop market with nothing but pop.
But the bubblegum pop phenomenon is not limited to the big three. Nearly every Korean music company – large or small – focuses on mainstream pop in the hopes of creating the next Girls Generation and cashing in big. As one noted K-pop music insider said, “Most companies purposely produce a handful of idol groups and hope one or two ends up paying off.&rdquo
Of course, creating a pop group as popular as the nine after-mentioned ladies, Big Bang, or 2NE1 is quite slim. Yet, even smaller pop groups are profitable, reinforcing the companies’ belief that pop is the way to go. The newer generation of pop groups: Spica, EXO, EXID, B1A4, and B.A.P. all have strong, rapid followings.
Many idol groups get the attention, but ultra-talented groups, like Urban Zakapa, have a difficult time getting mainstream exposure
Since the K-pop industry is flooded with the sugary tones of pop, I cannot blame K-pop fans for knowing anything but mainstream. Especially the foreign fans. While the native Koreans here in Seoul can explore the indie scene in Hongdae, are able to use the Korean search engine Naver, and read up on the Korean underground scene on Korean websites, foreigners don’t get that same exposure. Fans living overseas, by contrast, will only see the newest mainstream pop acts on KBS international channels, on Western-based K-pop sites, and Youtube. It’s no wonder the Korean indie scene is hidden from the public.
For now, it looks like the K-pop train won’t end soon. An incredible amount of money, numerous concert tours, heavy promotions, and massive advertisements are so focused among the mainstream groups that indie and underground singers get pushed to the side. Talents such as Urban Zakapa, J-Rabbit, Indian Palm, Soul Dive, Kebee, Soulman, Barbara, and Cassette Schwarzenegger – to name a few – will continue to get confused looks from nearly every K-pop listener outside of Korea. And that is a shame
Real Talent or Not?
Another big problem with the popularity of mainstream pop is rating musical talent. Namely, fans become blind when evaluating the singing talents of their favorite singers or groups. While fan groups are very important in the growth of K-pop, many of these same zealous supporters are also the main culprits of overrating singers’ abilities, while masking their weaknesses. This fad isn’t exactly new, as groups religiously defending their favorite groups existed since The Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Mariah Carey. The only difference is those singers could sing and sing well.
What’s the difference, you ask?
While, by definition, every singer is an entertainer, not every entertainer is a singer. Or at least, a good singer.
An entertainer is someone who wows the crowd through dance, song writing, instruments, acting, singing, stage presence, and good looks. They are, in a sense, the modern geisha
On the other hand, a singer is someone that is more specialized, solely depending on their vocal talents to see them through. Think open-mic night or the new K-pop singing reality shows – such as K-pop Star or Superstar K, where it’s only you and a microphone that determines your success.
The good thing about an entertainer is that they do not have to be good at everything. In fact, this is to be expected. Michael Jackson is one example that broke the mold; he was incredibly gifted in every aspect of being an entertainer – that’s why he’s a music icon after all. As long as the entertainer is good at one or two things, music companies can hide other deficiencies, including weak vocals and bad singing. And that they did.
Many mainstream K-pop groups today are actually strong at only three things: choreography, stage presence and good looks – via through plastic surgery or being born with them. Unfortunately, singing isn’t one of them. By creating slick, well-produced music videos and packaging them with easy-to-do dance moves and singers that just stepped out of Elle Magazine, it’s easy to ignore their singing, or lack thereof.
During the numerous concerts I’ve been to here in Korea, I have seen some K-pop “singers” literally phased out during the solo singing sections because they simply couldn’t hold a note for a couple seconds. I have also heard out-of-sync singing, weak vocals during the high point of a given song, and an overdependence of auto-tune or the background music itself to carry the song. I’ve always thought that a good singer should be memorable for their great singing and vocal control, not their catchy hooks or the background music.
Namely, the current evolution of K-pop I was so afraid of and mentioned at the beginning has finally come full circle. Namely, that bubblegum pop has now set the musical standard of excellence in Korea. The fact is that music with simple, catchy hooks backed up with beautiful singers is considered the Beethoven of Korean music to the majority of fans. Actual musical talent and composition be darned.
Calling K-pop singers entertainers is correct. Yet, calling a majority of them singers is not. After all, that would be inaccurate, especially when there are singers like Big Mama, Drunken Tiger, and Yoon Mi-rae (Tasha) that actually do use their vocal talents alone and do it well.
Attack of the K-pop Clones
Are the pop groups becoming the same? It sure feels that way. While the new generation of idol groups, such as T-ara, 4Minute, A Pink, Girl’s Day, and Chocolat, may have different names, it’s not a stretch to say there’s not a lot of difference between them. From their fashion style, pop singing, song lyrics, and catchy choreography are strikingly similar. But it’s not just me
I recently took a poll of nearly 300 people, asking Koreans to identify idol groups’ pictures. The average Korean did not know many of the groups, only knowing the extremely popular ones, like Girls Generation and Big Bang. As one surveyor commented, “I really don’t know these girl groups. What’s the difference between them?” To tell him the truth, I didn’t see any noticeable differences either. Many groups feel like their carbon copies of one another.
Very few mainstream groups stand out. Sistar stands out for their sexy concept image and powerful vocals. 2NE1 stands out for their fashion and tough-girl attitude. Big Bang is unique for their fashion, the rapping duo of TOP and G-Dragon, and their energy. After-mentioned Girls Generation brought the concept of nine ladies, beauty, and catchy hooks to the forefront.
KARA stands out for their Mister butt dance – although these days, they are more popular in Japan. These groups are the exception.
The new mainstream group that wants to stand out next year will need to be unique and have their own spin on pop. Otherwise, they will be labeled as “just another clone.”
The Younger Generation of Today
SES, FinkL, Baby VOX, HOT, GOD, Shinhwa, and Seo Taiji. Back then, when HD videos weren’t around and choreography was not as emphasized in K-pop, vocals, talent, and poppy beats were the main draws in Korean music. The general songwriting and songs themselves were quite high for its time.
These talented groups were Korea’s superstars in the 90s, paving the way for today’s generation of idol stars. But it wasn't just 90s pop idols getting into the act. Back then, hip-hop rapper, ballad singers, trot performers, New Jack Swing singers, and the legend himself, Seo Taiji, would set the model of today's Kpop craze.
Yet today, many of these singers are fading into obscurity.
As with each passing generation, this is to be expected. Singers are best remembered by the people growing up in that time era. Musical acts 20 or even 10 years in the past become harder to remember.
A quick look at American music trends in the past 50 years parallels this pattern. In the 60s, the Beatles and Elvis were the biggest craze. In the late 70s to early 90s, Michael Jackson was the rage. In the mid-90s to 2000s, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Enimem, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé took center stage. And today in the 2010s, Justin Bieber, One Direction, LMFAO, and PSY have taken the world by storm.
The same form of musical amnesia is happening to K-pop as well.
Ask many of Korea’s newer generation of elementary or even middle school students about last decade’s singers and one may be met with a short answer. Or even worse: a blank stare. “SES, aren’t they some really old group from a long time ago,” said one 3rd grade student when asked. While these kids have heard of the 90s groups before them, a vast majority of the students don’t know just how influential they were. The SES vs. FinKL rivalry, Seo Taiji’s legendary rise, the first MVs on grainy videos, and the eventual breakups of these 1st generation idol bands are largely forgotten.
The 90s stars (and late 80s) represented Korea’s talented, modern K-pop groups before they were deemed cool by today’s idol bands and “Gangnam Style”.
This amnesia quality isn’t just lost in Korea’s youth. Many K-pop fans outside Korea also suffer the same fate. Foreign fans may have heard of the older K-pop generation of yesteryear, but a lot of them have a hard time describing their legacy. However, there are some hardcore fans have taken it upon themselves to learn about K-pop’s 90s influence.
Since the K-pop industry machine back in the 90s and early 2000s was not as big as it is today, there were far fewer groups that debuted yearly.
Thus, this forced the industry’s hand to make the groups more memorable, more unique. When SES debuted in 1997, only a couple handful of groups came out that year. There were a lot less idol clones back then. The public recognized each group as being unique and special in their own way. Since SM Entertainment, YG, and JYP were much smaller companies back then, they had little room for error. They had to make sure their first groups were surefire, successful hits. And successful they were.
This is not to say that today’s groups are bad. To say K-pop now is not successful is a mere folly. Growing profits, the rise of Korean tourism, and “Gangnam Style” show its immense appeal. However, there’s always room to innovate, improve, and invigorate today’s K-pop. And to do that, perhaps the music companies should look to the K-pop’s past for inspiration.
Wrapping it Up
If there were more singers like the talented Ailee , then I'm all for it!
As I rode the subway back home from the Girls Generation concert that fateful night, I thought, “maybe I shouldn’t go against mainstream K-pop, but work with the fans, the music producers inside the industry to promote Korean music as a whole.” Korean music has come such a long way since I first discovered SES, FinkL, and HOT back in 1997.
As my subway stop approached and the doors opened, I smiled. It’s time to show people the other side of K-pop: the indie scene, good singing, and enjoying the Korean music scene with the fans.
For the record, I do enjoy mainstream K-pop. Like other fans, I like listening to the poppy beats put out by various idol groups every year. Mainstream groups are undeniably beautiful and handsome, entertaining, and catchy. It also puts Korea on the world stage. But there’s still work to be done in developing K-pop.
The US had a golden age of awesome music in the 80s and 90s. Will there be high standards for Korean music in the 2010s? If K-pop can evolve where any genre can thrive – regardless of having hot guys with 6-packs and girls with nice legs in a MV – and musical talent can be appreciated, then we will be seeing a new golden age in Asian music.
Interested in more K-pop articles?
Then check out these two articles:
Let’s Face It: 2012 Was Not Kpop’s Best Year Ever
Behind the K-pop Scenes: Part 3
Jason Yu (aka Jangta) has worked with BBC World, the Japan Times, the Yonhap News, various K-pop companies, and other publications. Currently working in the Korean media scene, his passion is to spread Asian pop culture to the world. On his time spare, he works on his Asian pop culture site called Green Tea Graffiti. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea.