The Rise of an unlikely Kpop Fan
I am one of KPop’s more unlikely fans. In the past my musical preferences cycled through heavy metal and grunge as an angst-y teen, classic rock during the hazy college years, and eventually found a comfort zone with alternative/indie rock mostly originating from the US and Europe. I never disparaged the ubiquitous top-40 radio that dominates the West, but for the most part just found it repetitive and uninteresting. Any song I found myself enjoying would inevitably be played plenty enough as ambient sounds in restaurants, malls, and bars to get my fill.
I don’t recall ever devoting even a passing thought to music outside of the US/European industry machine. If I had, I would have probably assumed that the rest of the world was probably just listening to the same T-Swift songs that plagued American radio, mixed in with some local music that mimicked the same Western style but sung in a language incomprehensible to me. Kpop was certainly a term I had heard, but as with most people, Gangnam Style was really my only exposure to the concept prior to making the move to Seoul.
As a part of my employment during my first year in Korea, I spent many hours in the car of a Korean Sales Rep who happened to be a fan of a myriad of KPop groups. On some of the longer drives he would set up his phone on the dash and stream music video playlists – a practice that appears to be common locally but I’m pretty sure is illegal in every country that takes the time to license drivers. My initial reaction to these videos was one of general apathy, but after hearing some songs a second or third time, I’ll be damned if there isn’t something about them that sticks with you. Over the period of a few weeks, I came to recognize certain songs and eventually the groups that perform them (I avoid using the term “band” or “artist” for reasons that will become obvious).
Do you know that feeling you get when a song is stuck in your head so deeply that it causes you pain until you are able to track it down and listen to it? It happens to me all the time. In the summer of 2014 it happened in my work cubicle in Yeouido. However, for the first time ever the song stuck in my head was a KPop song. Looking back, this was the precise moment I unknowingly crossed an invisible line into the realm of Kpop appreciation – since then I have grown into an unrepentant fan.
Objectively, KPop is possibly the most contrived and overproduced “art form” in the world. Two positive traits it does feature, however, are a lack of artistic pretention and a singular focus on what it is – entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The suits overseeing the KPop universe have unquestionably cracked the code for producing some of the world’s most perfect ear worms. KPop is more of a formula than anything approaching a creative expression, but it has mastered that formula to a degree that is startling to a new listener. Movies can be deep artistic expressions telling complicated stories with emotional conclusions. Movies can also be shit blowing up, pretty lights, and incoherent plot points sprinkled in only enough to fill the time between the next explosion or gratuitous shower scene. In the overall music landscape, KPop’s artistic place is as close to Radiohead as Transformers is to Citizen Kane on the moving pictures side. Finding the Transformers movie to be an entertaining way to spend a couple hours shouldn’t preclude you from enjoying more substantial film. Similarly, I don’t see why one shouldn’t be allowed to appreciate both the depth and structure of a Pink Floyd song one minute, and find their head unconsciously nodding along to an EXO or Girls Generation (probably the most popular groups currently) song the next.
It is well-known that the Korean government has been promoting the music industry for years in an effort to expand Korea’s cultural influence in the region and the world (known as Hallyu). In total, these efforts have been wildly successful in much of Asia, and inroads are now being made into the West as well. In general, the recipe for a successful KPop song is incredibly simple. Start with a catchy upbeat rhythm, add a couple (mostly) Korean verses, and sprinkle a tiny English hook in the chorus that you will seemingly recognize forever after hearing only one or two times. Repeat as necessary. The formula is just as much visual as it is auditory. Start with a choreographed dance (which ends up being as coupled to the song as any lyric or note), and build around it to produce a video featuring impossibly short skirts, androgynous young males, or both. Videos for ballads typically feature young people of the opposite sex glancing awkwardly at each other as if they are engaged in some sort of telepathic mating dance. Using these basic ingredients, KPop has found its own niche in music. Over time, they have perfected this craft in such a way that some of their triumphs should be widely taught as best practices other pop music cultures around the globe.
Lessons For Western Pop
If you only pay passing attention to KPop, you will quickly notice some stylistic contrasts from Western music. If you look into it a little more, you will find that the entire business of KPop holds the real differences and is as fascinating to an outsider as any particular song should be. Without question, I feel that KPop has really picked up on some of more annoying aspects of the Western music industry, and zeroed in on how to improve, if not completely fix, many of them. Even if you are never going to personally have an appreciation of KPop, here are a few lessons that I think KPop has to teach the rest of the music world:
1. Song Cycles and Timelines – In Western Pop music, albums and songs are released on a given date and slowly gain popularity through increased airplay. They will peak on the Billboard charts sometimes months after release, and then drop off with the excruciatingly slow pace of water torture. A song that you originally really liked in May will almost inevitably grow so stale by November that hearing the opening bar of the song on the radio will make your arm shoot out so fast to change the channel that your shoulder may pop (pun fully intended) out of its socket. KPop has condensed a song’s lifecycle to an astonishing degree. Songs are often teased with a small snippet before release, and upon release it hits heavy rotation virtually immediately. If a given song is going to top the Korean charts, it will probably happen within about 3 weeks. After two months, almost no matter how big of a song it was, it will basically be a distant memory as new songs are constantly released to take its place. Like most people, I found “Moves Like Jagger” to be clever and catchy enough tune to enjoy for a few weeks – if not a couple months. After nine months of hearing it twice an hour on American radio, the prospect of listening to it just one more time had all the appeal of putting a rabid badger in my shorts. The Kpop machine never lets a song get that stale.
2. The Fans – KPop fans are devoted and rabid, but on this devotion in strikingly different ways Western fans. Fan groups/clubs put together song-specific chants that are screamed out during performances with such synchronicity that you would think they were pre-rehearsed. These chants can be comprised of lyrics, member names, and sometimes even other songs. The precise genesis of the chants remains a mystery to me, but you can find the chanting guide to a song posted on WordPress (https://cheerpattern.wordpress.com/). These chants actually end up being a key part of an overall live music performance you either attend personally or see on video. They also add a level of participation that feels marginally more sophisticated than 15k mid-pubescent girls simultaneously screaming at the Biebs until they pass out. The fan loyalty is even put towards some constructive causes. It is standard practice to find posters outside a concert of a particular performer donated by a fan group (often from the other side of the planet), along with food donations in their name (known as Fan Rice). I know in the end this boils down to a petty competition of comparing who the “best” fan group is, but if the result is a significant donation to a worthy cause, it is hard to criticize too much.
3. KPop Festivals – The music promoters and masterminds behind the seemingly endless number of KPop festivals have found an ingenious way of pushing cross-promotion between the groups they manage. Except for the biggest of acts, the way you will likely see a group performing live will be at a festival. These festivals take 15 or more groups and have each of them perform 1-3 of their biggest songs and get the hell off the stage – long before anyone has a chance to even consider getting up and going to the bathroom. Since instruments are about as common to KPop performances as sober businessmen on the Seoul subway at 11:00PM, switching from one group to another involves all the complexity of turning a switch on the video backdrop. Eliminating the fluff/downtime between bands allows for an incredible number of acts to perform in the amount of time you may expect for a standard set break at an American concert. Overall, you may arrive at the show being interested in only 1-2 performers, but you’ll probably find it almost impossible to avoid walking away without at least being intrigued by 4-5 more. Furthermore, the price of attending these festivals seems to start at free, and often doesn’t advance too much beyond the price of a night at the movies.
4. Album Schedules and Length – KPop groups often release shorter albums, but a lot more of them and with a higher degree of regularity. To accomplish this, groups often release what are called “mini albums”, which have 4-6 songs. These are then released every 6 months or so. It is almost impossible to forget about a particular group when they have new material coming out constantly. When the group releases a new album, they play a “Comeback” show on the Korean TV countdown shows. At the end of the promotion period and tour for that album (4-5 months), they play a “Goodbye” show. They then disappear for what seems like twenty minutes to record the next album and start the cycle all over again.
5. Monetization and Brand Protection – Rather than closely protecting songs and albums, KPop has taken the strategy of building popularity by having the public drink from the content firehose. KPop bands monetize through selling collector-style versions of albums, fan signings, concerts, and Youtube. Between official videos, dance version videos, and (occasionally) foreign-language versions (such as Japanese), it is relatively common for the larger groups to get a combined 50 million views for just one song. Given Youtube’s payment rate, that’s over $150,000 USD just from online video views. This exposure also open the performers up to endorsement deals, acting gigs, and other side careers. While Western music is just now turning their aircraft carrier to adjust away from the “traditional” monetization methods, Kpop has shown the ability to pivot on a dime and as a result probably has a sunnier financial future.
6. It’s Just Entertainment – As you are surfing through the KPop library, there is quite literally no chance that you will have your political sensibilities offended. When I go to concerts in the West, I instantly cringe when a singer feels the need to climb up on a soapbox and espouse their political views to the crowd – whether I happen to agree with said views or not. For me, concerts are for entertainment and fun. If I am in the mood for political discourse, the world has a boundless number of outlets to engage in those discussions. While there have of course been some incredibly effective and important political songs in the history of music, none of them have come from KPop. In fact, the Korean groups avoid any controversial topics as if they were weeping bubos on a plague victim.
If you’ve never done it, I strongly encourage everyone to at least give KPop a shot. It is fluff, but well-orchestrated fluff. The best way to get started is just to find a video playlist on Youtube and let it run in the background while you do other things. From a wide-ranging appeal standpoint you may as well start with are essentially the elder statesfolk of contemporary KPop, which is Big Bang for boy bands and Girl’s Generation for girl groups. Both have been around for the better part of a decade, but from a popularity standpoint are still incredibly relevant. Once you’ve started one video playlist you can just go about your day until you have that one moment where you find yourself paying attention to a catchy hook. Enjoy the ride.