Exploring the alternative musical universe of K-Pop
In recent years the world has seen an explosion in the popularity of K-pop. There are K-pop fans all around the world, even in places like Eastern Europe, South America, and the Middle East. K-pop’s carefree dance and hip-hop songs provide this energy that transcends language and even cultures, and you can see this in the recent phenomenon of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” song and music video. It’s not uncommon for K-pop stars to sing in Japanese, English, and Mandarin Chinese, and some K-pop stars are not even Korean, like Nichkhun from 2PM who is a Thai-American, Amber from f(x) who is a Chinese-American, and on and on and on, and there are many Korean-Americans in the industry as well.
Modern K-pop as we know it now traces it roots back to the early 1990s. Since then artists have been reinventing their visual and stylistic concept with every new release. The concept can be anything from “hip-hop” to “rock ‘n roll” to “sexy” to “goth” to “country”, and while the overall sound of the music will probably stay pretty much the same from release to release, the concept determines the visual aspect, the overall look and feel of music videos and the outfits that the artists wear for their performances. In the world of K-pop, image is almost as important as sound and every big hit includes a memorable music video and a fun dance to go along with that super catchy chorus, which can also be seen in Psy’s “Gangnam Style” where you have the horse dance being just as popular as the song.
The term K-pop encompasses dance, hip-hop, rock, and ballad songs, but there are also artists like G-Dragon, 2NE1, and IU who don’t quite fit that mold, but deliver their own unique brand of K-pop.
Getting into music from the other side of the world might seem a little overwhelming, and to be honest at times it can be, so here are some of my recommendations on where to start when you want to listen to K-pop:
G-Dragon is the leader of the group Big Bang, and is also a musical genius with his own unique brand full of confidence, artistry, and swag. He summed it up perfectly in his song when he says: “yes sir, I’m One of A Kind”. G-Dragon has been writing hip-hop songs for the K-pop industry since he was literally a child, and continues to write and produce songs for himself as well as other artists. G-Dragon can sing, but his real specialty is rapping with a lot of energy, which includes his unique style, where you can almost hear his defiance to the establishment in his voice. You can this hear unique style really well in his song “One of A Kind”.
2NE1 or “To Anyone” originally debuted in 2009 as “the female version of Big Bang”, but since then have definitely secured their own identity separate from Big Bang. 2NE1 sets the standard of what a top-tier girl group should be: they’re fierce, talented, full of personality, and yet still down to earth despite consistently topping the charts with every new release, and being one of the most popular groups in the world. Their lyrics and image empower women while delivering a unique brand of hip-hop-influenced dance pop, and you can hear this in their most recent single “Come Back Home.”
Korean rappers Louie and Lil Boi make up the duo Geeks, and while their solo songs are not really for the mainstream K-pop audience, together they combine rap skills with pop appeal, seamlessly integrating rap into their songs in a really fun way, and at the same time making girls hearts flutter all across Korea and the world. You can hear all of these elements in their song “FLY.”
Ailee is a Korean-American singer who grew up in New Jersey and later moved to Korea to pursue her singing, which totally paid off, as her first single “Heaven” dominated the charts for weeks, which is completely unprecedented for a debut of a rookie singer. Ailee has this incredibly powerful and moving beautiful voice, which the veteran K-pop star Wheesung utilized when he wrote and produced her song “Heaven.”
Conclusion: If K-pop's catchy dance moves don't get you, then its infectious beats and talented singers definitely will. A word of warning though, once you start getting into K-pop, you will find that hours will disappear very quickly, you may develop a serious addiction to K-pop. Listen responsibly!
Written by Elise Yoon, host of the Impact89FM Asian music show.