OK, Let’s Talk About K-pop

I spent the last months trying to wrap my head around K-pop. Not so you don’t have to but so that you might, actually, do?

May 27, 2020

I remember, back in 2014, seeing the name "2NE1" and thinking "damn, that's a cool name." Before I even knew it was a stylization of the word "21" (Try saying 2NE1 out loud and you'll see what I mean). Before I had listened to any of their music. And I listened to some of it, a bit, but none of it grabbed me. Instead, there was another song, around the same time, that did. It was so niche outside Korea it doesn't have an English name. It's just 전원일기. Or, literally, "Jeon Won Diary". I've kinda never been able to forget about this song since then. I remember the criminally catchy sax-accordion-y-whatever-sound, the oddly hypnotic chorus, and in general the flair of it all. The "I give no fucks" attitude of it. It was something else.

Both 2NE1 and T-ARA N4, who made 전원일기, are k-pop groups .
But what I heard of 2NE1 and other k-pop groups at the time made me stop paying attention. This was just a one-time fluke. A song I liked in a genre I didn't. But I wasn't able to articulate why. So, today, I'm gonna talk about k-pop. As a whole. Because I’ve spent some of the last two months trying to wrap my head around Korean popular music. And somehow it keeps coming back to that video. And somehow it doesn't. For one, to explore that juxtaposition I found there. If there was something I liked, and something I didn't, yet I couldn't tell it apart. And k-pop isn't getting any smaller, ya'll. K-pop has changed a lot since 2014. So I wanted to know what the talk was about. (Is there some through-line between me loving a Korean gameshow last year to this? Yeah. Probably, also that. But you're ruining my opening.)

I’m still an outsider to most of this, so I’m writing intentionally from an outside, white, Scandinavian dude’s perspective. I'm not an expert on why it's more interesting musically or more complex than you might think or why the fandoms are huge or why it's not as big as you may think or why it actually is. If any of what I’m writing is factually wrong, please state so!


Why K-pop?

So, the question I want to answer is… why k-pop? Isn’t it just loud, flashy, overproduced, catchy melodies without context? Isn’t it just hyper-stylished, ridiculously attractive people saying words I don’t even understand while cameras are swooping all around and kicks drop in danceable rhythms?

Well. Yes.
It is all of those things.

It’s pop.

Let’s just synchronize expectations here. This is not high fucking art. This is not jazz. This is not intricate, ambient IDM. This is not whatever genre you want to compare it to and say it’s worse than. It’s, first and foremost, popular music. It’s meant to be easy and approachable. It’s meant to be danceable and singable. If we start there, then we can talk about what this music does within that sphere, rather than dismissing it because of what it is. Okay?

First, to define it. K-pop is… not really a genre of music. It’s defined by the fact that it’s "popular music that’s made in Korea", not for how it sounds. And yes, there is overlap in styles, but it also uses all kinds of genres, from rock to hiphop to reggae to drum'n'bass. There’s a large focus on the visuals, choreography, style, concept and flavour of each release, not to mention all the social media aspects and general culture surrounding the idols themselves. It feels much more like a sub-culture than a music genre. It’s more similar to fanfiction than jazz. Yeah, I said it.

My, that's a lot of hair you have there. Sir? Are you--Oh you're gonna sing now? Well, be my guest. (Big Bang - Fantastic Baby)

So to answer the question of why with the easiest, most obvious answer I can come up with, it is this:

K-pop is just… fun.

It’s varied. It’s weird. It’s both so like any big mainstream thing you know and so unlike it too. Each k-pop video is wildly energetic and inventive and odd and colorful and expensive and produced and choreographed, so most of them are just fun to watch to see what they came up with this time. Each song is a trip, in the most literal of senses. Each song is layered by fifteen instruments, sounds, and motifs, most have 4-7 different people singing, who weave in and out, as musical styles of all kinds mix and meld and turn upside down, and the structure bops and bends in strange, pop-y ways, and yet always with subtle twists.

Let me provide an example you know. Gangnam Style, by Psy. Stay with me. Only the 7th most watched video on YouTube. First video to hit 1 billion views.
That’s a k-pop song if you didn’t realize. It’s also a bit of an outsider in the k-pop industry and a lot of k-pop fans don’t actually consider it a typical example of k-pop. Buuut... I don't care, it works for this example. And it's definitely k-pop.
Why was that song popular? Because it was musically the best? Because it was new? Because it was different? Well… ish to all of those. But not really.
No, because it was fun. It’s just a fun-ass song. There’s not that much to it. I get a smile on my face, still, every time I watch that video. The video’s fun, the song’s fun, and Psy is a master-act in how to deliver something goofy with gusto. It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the words. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the context. The fun gets across.

There's a rollercoaster around her face! The rest of the group is inside the rollercoaster! I don't know why! And it's not because the roller coaster's tiny, it's because she's huge! (Red Velvet - Zimzalabim)

And while most k-pop is definitely not as comedic or goofy as Psy gets here, I think it serves well as to what I mean when I say it’s just fun. It's not necessarily funny, but it's always entertaining.

Meaning in the Madness

And now that I’ve riled up both non-k-pop fans AND k-pop fans, let’s get gritty: Beyond the pure fun, there must be something else, too. Right? That can't be the only point, just for some frivolous entertainment. That gets tiring pretty quick. Why are the music videos SO expensive? Why do they need a new set of clothes every scene? Why make music cost this much?

I don’t know. I don’t know what half the songs are about.
I've watched some "This is Why We Like K-pop"-type videos and you won’t get far in those before they start enthusing about the power of the lyrics or the messages behind the songs and the deeper meanings behind it all.
And… I don't know. I’m not a lyric guy. I don’t really care about lyrics. So I’ve intentionally not looked them up, often. Some of them seem as basic as you’d expect. Some of them seem pretty good. Some of the “deep” lyrics seem just okay. Totally functional.

But. There is a caveat here. Because while I'm not equipped to talk about the quality of the texts, the actual intent is usually clear and obvious and non-subtle. And it works. I typically bore out of pop songs because literally any love song bores me. But a lot of, especially modern, k-pop seems to be specifically not rote romantic plots or basic “I want you” shit. But instead is about personal growth, about self-acceptance, self-empowerment, about mental issues, or wearing what you want to a party.

Which I can just respect a lot more. That’s something I'm okay with supporting regardless of the quality of the music.
ITZY’s songs are about being different and being okay with that. I’m not a huge fan of ITZY’s songs but it's so much easier to respect them, anyway. 2NE1 made a song called "I AM THE BEST" and I don't think you can hide a message inside that. BTS, the biggest k-pop group in the universe at the moment, made a series of albums called the "Love Yourself" series, which are about accepting yourself for your flaws, appreciating mistakes and… loving yourself. They've made songs criticizing the Korean school system, about not being broken by others' definitions of you.

That's a shark. I struggled a lot to pick a single screen-grab from this video. There's so many weird things in here. (BTS - IDOL)

“But, Bjarke, they're speaking Korean. You can’t understand what they’re saying, right?”
No. That’s a good thing. I don’t particularly like understanding the lyrics. If the lyrics are bad, I don’t have to bear them. If the lyrics are good, then great, even better, doesn’t mean I have to listen to them. Subtitles exist, if you care. It's not hard.
There are probably plenty kpop songs I would not like if they sung in English. (Like, “Ice Cream Cake” is a song about... Ice Cream Cake. And they say the English word in the chorus; I apparently just can't take that seriously.) The extra language barrier is a benefit, not a hindrance.
Also, Korean is just a great sounding language? It just sounds good. It's something to do with consonants or whatever. It just sounds good.

Liking the Popular

“But is it not produced? Is it not manufactured? Can they really be said to mean it when there is no much money thrown at the thing? Aren’t they just being told what to say?”

Okay, this is a bigger issue than just k-pop. But. I'll just say this. Of course it is manufactured. Of course it’s produced. But when you’re dismissing it because of that you’re disregarding any actual craft that goes into the production, or stating that just because it is manufactured, they cannot possibly mean it. Or that there is no one in any part of the chain that meant anything. Or that there is no skill in taking a message and making it your own. Or that there is no skill in making something popular. All of those are just wrong.

We can also flip it around and begin to appreciate the craft that went into this production. Begin to appreciate the work that went into it, and, while we accept that it’s made from a large machine, enjoy that rather than dismiss it. It's a really damn impressive machine, let me say that.

Dismissing something solely because it is manufactured is just such a boring take. You can be a little more critical, in some more interesting ways. (And there are plenty things in k-pop to be critical of, mind you. It is in no way a perfect machine.)

This was honestly a thing I struggled with for a while, too. The ability to like something popular feels sometimes grated out of us. Like we’re told that we have to like something because it’s deep or meaningful or changed our life. And if it hasn’t, it's just not good enough.
K-pop hasn’t. I still like it.

Yes, that Trombone just smashed down on that car in the background. What's up? (From: (G)I-DLE - Senorita. Not the greatest song, but if you want to see brass instruments on fire, it's got that?)

I'm also not trying to undersell that it has changed people's lives and that it can change yours! Like what you like, let it influence you for the better. As with any fandom, you can find plenty stories of how k-pop saved folk's lives, made them find something to be a part of, made them belong or have someone to look up to. That's not me (at the moment!), but more power to you.

I guess half of what I’m realizing through this is that I actually like pop music and that’s fine. I’m tired of acting like it’s cool to not. And what I then maybe am also saying is that you probably do too, if you are willing to let yourself like something for easy reasons, for a bit. And accept that it is what it is, and that that’s fine.
It’s not like my music tastes just changed overnight. This is still my favorite song of all time (and that song did change my life). And that’s about as diametrically opposite k-pop as I can imagine.

But, it’s fine to like something for no other reason than it’s good. That’s the point.
These people are fucking attractive, okay? It’s okay to just enjoy that.

And hey, this is good pop music. It’s bright, powerful, well produced, catchy, striking, evocative, memorable. It's maximalist and big and strange, it's got a lot of different melodies and rhythms and loves changing between them and subverting expectations. There's just a lot going on in each song. And they makes it work far more often than not.
That’s not a qualifier by the way. I’m not saying “it’s good for pop, I guess.” No, it’s good music, that is pop.
What is wants to be and what it is, is synced, and it succeeds in being really good popular music. Music that is made to be popular.
That’s my point. It’s good.

The Industry

Okay, I also can’t do this blog without talking about the big, capitalistic elephant in the room. If you’ve heard, even tentatively of k-pop, you may have heard some of the horror stories of its industry. Of young teenagers signed in 10-year slave contracts, of them being forced to overwork until they literally fall asleep on stage, of them not being allowed free time, any romantic relationships, any musical creativity, and a lot of other things.

I’m not an expert on this. My knowledge of the industry is pretty cursory. But, I have tried to understand, at least a little bit, how the industry works. And while it is probably not entirely unfair to say that some of that bad shit you saw up there has or is happening to some degree, or that the industry has clear problems outside of that, it is definitely also not fair to say that it is the entire, complete and total norm.

And suddenly, in this fun song, it intercuts to this ominous view of a skyline. (Stray Kids - Victory Song)

This video was very enlightening for me to understand that this is a lot more nuanced than we as westerners often are told.
And on top of everything he mentions in that video (seriously, go watch it, it's a great video essay. There's now a part 2 as well.) I think this common read of the industry comes down to a few common misunderstandings.

The trainee culture they have is very different than what we're used to. Instead of a musician "just doing music" and then getting picked up, trainees are picked out and trained from a very early age and "groomed" into being an idol, already then with a big corporate machine behind them.
That, at first glance, can easily sound really rotten. BUT. There's a lot of caveats here. And a lot of nuance that gets overlooked.

1: Korea, like most of Asia, has a completely different culture of work than any western country. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, just very different. So trying to map a lifestyle that we’re used to over here to what they’re doing is never going to be accurate or fair.

2: That idea of a western musician "just doing music" and then getting picked up by an agency to continue "just doing music", is also wrong. Behind every major western pop star is also a giant organization of managers, producers, song-writers, marketers, people who deal with clothes, brand deals, and whoever else is there to make sure someone can be on stage and perform. The machine is no smaller elsewhere. The difference is in how the machine is shaped, not in its existence.

3: The industry over there honestly seems a lot more transparent, or at least known, than here. Name me one major production label of modern, American pop music. I’m not big into western pop, but as much as I know Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, etc. I could not tell you who their production labels are. Or who is behind their songs (correct me if this is just because I don’t know western pop well enough, but I’ve never heard people talk about labels the way they do in k-pop).

I can, even after not paying much attention, tell you that BTS is run by Big Hit Entertainment, Blackpink by YG, Stray Kids by JYP and Red Velvet by SM. And so on.
This is just a far more known and accepted fact of being a fan of k-pop: You know who the big money-corporations are, and you know how they operate. (You know them now, too, I just said the names: YG, JYP, SM. Those are the big three groups of letters.)

This also means that it’s very easy for someone from the outside to immediately spot where the money comes from and see the industry. It looks way more corporate and controlled, and that’s very easy to criticize, as just a shallow industry.

But there's also the other major aspect of following this stuff, which is the idols themselves. Even in the companies that have large control over what their groups do and what their songs sound like, there’s a huge emphasis on following the idols on social media, where they share daily life and behind the scenes and them just having fun with each other, like this, or seeing them interact on a bunch of korean variety shows or, this ridiculous lockdown concert (G)I-DLE did. A huge part of being a k-pop idol is sharing your life with your fans.

And... I just can’t believe that’s staged. That they’re faking it. Just look at any of the examples.
The idols work a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Of course they do. Being a global superstar is a really fucking tough job. And there's definitely a huge degree of stress that the trainee programs exert upon them. They train like crazy because they have to be in really good shape and live and work in dorms and have super tight schedules and are given super high standards to live up to and travel all the time. And we can definitely discuss whether that's a good thing for a young person's mental health. But they also seem to have fun with it. A lot of them seem to really enjoy it. It’s not a binary.

Dreamcatcher has this high fantasy/rock opera thing going on and it's WILD. (Dreamcatcher - Deja Vu)

Oh, and on the idea that the idols never write their own music? First off, that is also a thing in other forms of pop, and not necessarily a problem by itself, since many pop artists focus more on performance than production, and there's nothing wrong with that. And in k-pop, too, the waters are just as muddy as everywhere else. (G)I-DLE, Seventeen, Stray Kids, Big Bang, Seo Taiji and Boys (by many attributed as the first ever k-pop group) and others, are all groups where the members have had some degree of creative control on their music, lyrics, themes, choreography, video, style, etc. Oh, and of course, motherfucking BTS, the current kings of k-pop. If you still don't know them, I'll just let Steve Colbert introduce them. A lot of their songs are written and/or produced by some of their members, their choreography designed by them, their themes and topics, styles and albums, influenced by them.

Actually, let's stay on BTS another paragraph. Because you know what? They’re good. Like, humanly good. During their first world tour, with an album about accepting yourself, one of the members, Jungkook had an accident and needed stitches on his heel. Right before their first ever concert in London, which was completely sold out. So they performed, with Jungkook sitting in a chair. Because it was more important to do what they could, rather than do the perfect show. They’re just earnest and kind and talented. They got a healthy degree of integrity and power, just watching them for a little bit makes you realize just how genuine and great these kids are. There are plenty of BTS songs I could take or leave, as songs. But every single one of them, I respect. They have an identity and a message they’re going for and owning and proud of. If there needs to be a band that’s the biggest in the world, writing music for everyone, I’m more than okay with it being BTS.

Jungkook in a chair, singing, as another member ran over to give him his hat.

Back on topic, even the groups that don’t do any of that cannot be ruled out. The thing about pop is it’s not just the song-writing. It’s the performance. It’s the dance (dancing is huge in k-pop, every song comes with its own super-detailed choreography. Like, look at this from back when BTS were rookies), it’s the clothing, the video, the editing, the stage performances, the social media presences, the personalities, the public view of the people. Being an idol is about much more than music. It always has been. All those things require talent, too, as much as we often dismiss it. As I said up top, this is a subculture, not a music genre.

None of this is to say that k-pop doesn't have problems. The industry has a ton of problems. But, they're far more complicated than just "k-pop big, scary machine = k-pop bad." And most people don't really go any further than that in their criticism. Again, I will recommend the essays I linked earlier for an overview.

No one says that a movie is made solely by the actors. Any entertainment product this big and this involved is never solely made by those whose faces you see. That's not a big secret! Or a scam! That's just a fact. But those whose faces you see still have an important job. I don’t think anyone would deny that. The performance, in all manners of the word, matters, and is a skill that these people all have worked hard to perfect.


So, let me end with a list of recommendations, if this has intrigued you. This is a bit of a list of songs I like, and I've tried to skew it slightly less obvious and popular (although this is still pop) and it’s intentionally varied, so hopefully you find something in there you like.
That said, I’m typically drawn to the badass styles, the dark, more driven, stuff, and less so the cutesy, upbeat stuff that’s definitely also a part of the culture. I will still say most k-pop songs I hear, I don't like. My disinclination towards lyrics naturally lean me away from ballads and slower songs that focus on lyrics. Give me some big synths or powerful snares and cool beats any day. But luckily, k-pop has that, too.

Go into these expecting fun-ass popular songs that have incredible style, sharp-as-fuck production and more money and time thrown against it than your entire music library. And go in with the hope to smile and maybe even dance a bit. You're good.

Stray Kids: MIROH. Stray Kids is my favourite boy group, I think? They make super energetic, serious and dark songs that just have a great ability to still seem fun and powerful. This is just a terrific party song. (Sidenote: This is also a great Beat Saber song. A lot of k-pop is, actually!)

(G)I-DLE: LION / Maybe. (G)I-DLE is my current favourite name, btw. Still love cool stylisation. They're sometimes known as Soyeon and the girls, which is not meant as a negative, because Soyeon is incredible and the other girls are no slouches either. (Soyeon is one with white short hair who raps in LION. She’s killer. She also produces and writes the majority of their songs. She's also Akali in this.) I included two songs because I can't choose. LION is their big, standout hit that really broke records for them and Maybe is an album song that's just, a flat out great piece of music.

iKON: LOVE SCENARIO. One of the only slower, ballad-y songs on this list (I know it's not a ballad). Not my usual jam, but this one just works, for some reason. It was also insanely popular, apparently. Like, they had to ban it from being sung at schools and stuff.

MAMAMOO: gogobebe. That’s a weird series of baby-sounds, you’re thinking. Well, that's MAMAMOO for you. MAMAMOO seems to be one of those groups where everyone who loves them, loves them A LOT. Like, intensely. And they're also very genuine and good and seem to really like what they're doing. I’m linking this song same way I was introduced to them, through this dance practice show-off video, which is honestly better than the music video.
Also, bonus, their live version of Destiny, which might be my favourite of their songs.

BTS: Not Today. What, was I not gonna include BTS here? This is not BTS’ most popular song but I think it's my favorite. It’s just got a drive and an energy to it. It’s just mean. This song is one I can just go crazy to. I guess go listen to Boy With Luv or DNA if you want what’s popular (neither of which are bad, mind you). They were on Jim Fallon’s show with their latest single ON if that means anything to you? (it doesn’t really to me but this version of ON made me like the song, so there's that.)

Girl’s Generation (SNSD): I Got a Boy. This is a bit of an older one, I'm including because it's... historically relevant. I’m not sure how to describe it. This song changes style and tempo at least 4 times, spanning 5 different genres, in 4 minutes. It’s one of the most ridiculous pop songs I’ve ever heard. But that’s also why it’s a great example of how k-pop can just be its very own thing sometimes. And this is not the only example of k-pop just making something musically weird. (Also, when they say “Let’s bring it back to 140”, they're referring to the BPM. That’s good!)

Blackpink: Kill This Love. Do I need to introduce Blackpink? Uhm, they have the two most watched k-pop videos on YouTube (behind Psy, but as mentioned, he is in own category). They're making a song with Lady Gaga, that's out this month. They played at Coachella 2019. They're, for many people, the current entryway into k-pop (myself included, I listened to them last year, which was part of what gave me the idea to do this), and they're the most internationally successful girl group. I include them here because they make very good, badass k-pop, and they got an obscene amount of charisma. This might very well be the first k-pop song you like.

Pentagon: Shine. I’m not sure this is a good song. Like, it isn’t really that... special. It's very basic. But this is the epitome of what I mean when I say k-pop is just fun. This video is just fun! Get to the chorus. LOOK AT THAT DANCE. How can you NOT SMILE?!? WHAT’S WRONG WITH Y--

Dreamcatcher: Scream / In the Frozen. Dreamcatcher is a different type of k-pop group. They had a rebrand into a rock-pop/fantasy-style that these two songs are not actually great example of because these are the least rock-y of their recent songs. But these two songs just stay there, in my head. Scream is their biggest hit, and In the Frozen is an album song I just really like because of the percussion.

That's about it! Don't want to overwhelm you, although I could continue for a bit.

If you know what’s up, you might notice some really big omissions, like TWICE (the biggest girl group at the moment) or Red Velvet or ITZY or any of the NCT’s or EXO or Big Bang or LOONA, and yeah, probably go check those out too, if none of the above appealed! Most of it’s not my style, though. Sorry! (ok, Bang Bang Bang is all right.)

Or do what I did and check out this and this video and this twitter thread, and you can start figuring out what you like. The first one is especially good because it adds some context for a lot of the songs, which helped me a lot. I watched those and just wrote down the names of the ones that appealed and went from there until I figured out what I liked and didn’t. Also, I have a spotify playlist? (the title is a joke)

And finally, I also want to recommend this YouTube channel, which I've used more than I thought I would. It's classical musician students and alumni reacting to k-pop. Which is interesting because they break down how the songs work musically, as they listen, which is fascinating.

So, what do I think about 전원일기, the first k-pop song I ever liked, today? The funny thing is, I haven't seen it mentioned a single time, by anyone, in all the research I've done. It's apparently, fairly niche. T-ARA doesn't exist anymore. But hey, the song's still great.

Also, I now discovered, they made a second music video of that same song, called the "Drama Version" because that's what k-pop do, and that one has a cut as someone says "YO" to cows.

Just some cows.

K-pop is all right, ya'll.

If you just scrolled through and only saw the images, you must be very confused right now. Those are indeed cows.