Guide for the Perplexed: Kpop, or how I learned to Stop Worrying about the Lyrics and Love Korean Pop

We write a lot about hallyu (exported Korean pop culture) on this blog, and K-pop has really started to hit the mainstream U.S. press this year, including a write-up in Pitchfork and two of Spin Magazine’s best of 2011 albums were by Korean artists (2ne1 & Girls Generation — despite the fact that the Girls Generation album was at the time a Japanese import only album!) — and an article in Harvard Business Review. And there were even showcase shows by some of the major Kpop labels in New York earlier this year — and 2ne1 won MTV Iggy’s “Best New Band in the World”.

So why listen to Kpop? If you remember a time where large groups with talent existed (the present lack in the U.S. decried in both The Atlantic and The Root), waiting for anticipation for both singles and entire albums, and exciting live performances, then Kpop is worthy of you giving it a shot.

The way the Korean pop industry works is very different than the U.S., with everything blatantly manufactured. Potential artists become trainees to usually one of the four major labels at a young age, and hopefully, after many years of training, are then selected to become members of a group. Often, groups have leaders (the go-between the management company and the group), those that are primarily singers, primarily dancers, and at least one rapper. The rate of new music for these artists is frequently at Rihanna-like rates, with at least a new single coming out every year.

With the release of every new marketing push, there is usually a new “concept” for the group and live performances on television shows — similar to American Bandstand, Soul Train, Top of the Pops, and MTV shows of yore. Unlike U.S. pop artists who are increasingly phoning in live performances,  K pop artists do it live — frequently changing up the arrangement, dance routine, and costumes. With. Every. Performance. As highly manufactured as all the music is, the performers are true professionals.

One advantage for newbies that Kpop has is that in the dizzying array all of the singles, double singles, EPs (they still exist in Korea), regular length albums, and then the reissues (oh, the reissues — usually albums that are reissued with one or two new songs and new inserts), is that frequently albums and videos name check themselves — 1st Album or 2nd Reissue — and include the name of the artist and song in English.

Before we get to the individual artists, the most comprehensive source of frequently posted well-written (in English) writing on Kpop with a critical eye is Seoulbeats — which rather than surface writing delves into thoughtful essays — and doesn’t shy away from mentions of racism and homophobia in Kpop. Other recommended sources are KoreAm magazine’s blog (for Kpop from a Korean-American perspective) and AllKpop (breathless updates with the feel of old school Metal Edge or Tiger Beat).

Below are some suggested Kpop artists to try out — ranging from underground hiphop to girl groups with attitude to aegyo (cuteness). For our earlier post on Korean female rappers, go here.

Warning — this recommended list is based on personal taste (’cause it’s not just a Kdrama), so it is very R&B heavy. Missing is rock (because it is *very* underground — for example, the Korean rock group Apollo 18). We have no interest in ballads, but if you are try IU. Whenever possible, the hangul (Korean) for the artist is included, because unfortunately, the legal English-language sources for purchasing downloads do a very poor job of cross-referencing Korean artists — for example, Tasha and Drunken Tiger are all over the place on iTunes.

My recommendations:


2Ne1 remind me of a girl group that never existed in the U.S., as strange as that sounds, somewhat like if TLC had been created now. They are a interesting melange that doesn’t seem like it would work — BOM, a singer best known for doing the chorus in other songs (AKA the Ashanti lady bridge in many GD songs); CL, a rapper with attitude; Minzy, a highly talented dancer/singer significantly younger than the others, and a singer that … I’m not sure what Dara does, but she fits. Latasha Peterson of Racialicious wrote about how Nicki Minaj opened the door for the acceptance of 2ne1 in the U.S.:

Both Minaj and 2NE1 are barrier breakers, crossing into pop music but bringing the swagger of rock and hip hop. For Minaj, she’s dominated the pop charts with rap ballads like “Super Bass,” and lent honeyed vocals and verses on Lil’ Wayne’s “Knockout”. 2NE1 is far, far more aggressive in appearance than more traditional pop groups like The Wonder Girls, which could have been a liability.

Honestly, with the exception of Tasha (below), I think that 2NE1 has the best chance of success of my recommended artists in an English speaking market — they all speak English and have already recorded in English with (blergh, sorry, personal moment).

BIGBANG (빅뱅) (plus GD & TOP / Taeyang (태양))

BIGBANG, like 2ne1 — their labelmates and frequent co-performers, are an amelglam of different types of performers — GD (G-Dragon), the leader and (different for K-pop) frequent songwriter; Taeyang, the Justin Timberlake; and T.O.P., who while not the leader, is the boss with two left feet. And there are two other guys. I don’t like their latest release, but their back catalog is chock full of listenable songs.

From GD&TOP’s collaboration:

And one song by Tae Yang:

Girls’ Generation (SNSD ; 소녀시대; Sonyeo Shidae)

Girls’ Generation is the gold standard for Kpop — all nine members are excellent singers and dancers, who move and sing with military-like precision. But one problem with having nine members is that it is hard for me to distinguish them without watching the video — beyond Sunny (who has the chirpiest voice), Jessica (who sings many of the main parts) and Hyoyeong (who sings at the dance breaks).

Super Junior (슈퍼주니어)

Super Junior’s Sorry Sorry is, not to be too Kanye, ONE OF THE BEST POP SONGS OF ALL TIME!!1!!1! And Super Junior improves on the usual boy band phenomenon by having up to thirteen members at one time (so that there really is a different one for every girl at a sleepover to like someone else — the pretty one, the one that looks like a girl, the one that looks twice as old as the other ones, the chubby one, the two that look the same, the objectively handsome one, the only one who can sing real good, the bad boy, the ugly one, and is that thirteen yet?)

SHINee (샤이니)

Put it simply, if you liked NSync, you’ll like SHINee!

4Minute (plus HyunA)

4Minute has been described as Ke$ha with talent — high energy pop with a slight edge. Also, HyunA, their rapper, has a controversial solo career.

Tasha  / T/ Yoon Mi Rae (윤미래) / Drunken Tiger (드렁큰 타이거)) / Tiger JK (타이거 JK)

Tasha and Tiger JK are highly talented rappers in their own right, but they have have started collaborating so much that the line between what is the project of one and the other, isn’t clear anymore. Tasha is a hard-hitting rapper in both Korean and English and also an excellent R&B singer; Tiger JK rap style is very West Coast. Their next release in whatever form it takes is highly anticipated: “there’s genuine excitement on my end to see two noteworthy artists truly come back after working hard on new material.” If you take nothing else from this post — listen to Tasha!

Below are their most recent collaboration — and individual separate songs. But their best performances are live (and unfortunately not for sale in the U.S./Canada), so I snuck one in at the end.


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