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.

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The Dark Side of Hallyu (Korean Wave)?

Today, the BBC posted an article entitled The Dark Side of Korean Pop Music. Interestingly, this is only a couple of months after the Guardian had an article on K-pop: how South Korea turned round its music scene (subtitled: Strict anti-piracy laws, pop production houses and clever marketing have helped this struggling market thrive once more).

So what is one of the most important negative (or positive, depending on the article!) aspects of Korean pop music? The highly manufactured aspect of K-pop. Aspiring performers are taken on by labels, as trainees, where over time, they hope to be added to a group.

K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.

Companies such as SM Entertainment and Play Cube Entertainment tapped into the 360 degree model way before the major labels – being independent record labels, talent agencies and publishers with their own academies where they groom young teenagers to be pop stars.

Or as Mark Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, puts it:

A big company like SM Entertainment (or JYP or whoever) will likely have 50 or 70 kids in training at any one time. That’s a lot of ramyeon noodles and dance instructors and real estate to pay for. The big companies especially need a steady revenue stream to pay for all of that. So it is no surprise the kids are treated like commodities, like links in the supply chain. After all, the supply of young hopefuls is endless. The number of successes available is very small.

But how is this really different than the manufactured pop anywhere else — with the exception that the timeframe for training before performance is extended? And this is pop taken to its most pop-py — as shown in these videos from SNSD/Girls Generation, Super Junior (yes, there were thirteen members of the group), SHINee, 2ne1, and 4 Minute (mentioned in the BBC article performing in malls).

One of the major differences between Kpop and music elsewhere is how much sales are dependent on appearances on music shows, similar to Top of the Pops and the former MTV live performance shows. The general lifespan for Kpop groups is not long, and there have even been stories about former Kpop singers going to law school in the states. Oddly enough, even in this highly manufactured world, there are more groups that have recognition than are found in U.S. music that seems to be only focused on A-list music. Can anyone honestly say that groups like Baroness, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Genghis Tron have even the chances for mainstream success that, bleh, nu metal had?

On the other hand, even within the music factory town of Korean pop, there are those that can find success. Most notably, in rap/hiphop, such as Drunken Tiger (and … his crew):

Hip hop is good example, as groups and performers like Epik High, Tasha (Yoon Mi-rye), and Drunken Tiger have escaped the management system and had great success on their own while (most importantly) making better music. With iTunes, Soundcloud and other online music portals, no band needs to be controlled by managers/labels anymore, like they were in the age of terrestrial TV dominance and record stores.

That isn’t to say there aren’t potential issues with Kpop, such as the pay for performers. Or how hard they are pushed by their labels to perform (as was recently questioned by many fans of Girls Generation during the recent Japanese tour and Paris concert). But many of the problems with the Korean music industry are true for the worldwide music industry, where audiences want new music, but not too different, and don’t want to pay (too much) to purchase it. But that is something that Korean pop — with its strong fanclubs — has an advantage, by supporting both live performances and tons and tons of merch.

Guide for the Perplexed: The Baddest Female Seoul City Ever Had: The Rise of Korean Rappers

Here in the U.S., it seems like there can only be one highly successful female rapper at a time — now Nicki Minaj (and hence the “Eve wants Lil Kim to settle her beef with Nicki”). But in Korea, mostly as part of pop groups, but also as individual artists, there are several popular female MCs.

For example, CL from 2ne1 (rapping above — self-proclaimed “baddest female”), HyunA from 4Minute (formerly from Wonder Girls), Yubin from Wonder Girls, Miryo from Brown Eyed Girls, and Amber from f(x) all are known as rappers within their girl groups. In addition, Tasha (AKA T, Yoon MiRae) has been a very successful rap solo artist. And as shown in the video below from an awards show, including a performance of Tasha’s Pay Day, they can share the stage.

And what is the reason for the lack of Highlander-ish “there can only be one” female rapper at the top of her game in Korea? Perhaps a large thanks goes to the highly manufactured aspect of most Korean pop. Because groups are put together by labels, usually after years of training, as long as having rappers in groups sells, then they will continue to be added to groups. And considering present Korean pop music seems to be very international pop with a light R&B twist plus rap, this likely won’t change.

But it is also because their styles vary — ranging from the gritty underground sound of Tasha, to the very pop-friendly raps from Yubin and HyunA, to the barely recognizable as rap from …, well, I’m just not going to name them. Another major influence is the U.S., where many Korean musical artists have lived for a while, and brought back these influences.

So if you haven’t already started listening to Kpop and Korean rap, you should consider it.

In this post, I’ve decided to mostly include live performance videos to show this isn’t studio-crafted perfection — these are all excellent live performers.