The very word “pop” divides opinion among music listeners. For some people, it conjures up concepts of artifice and shallowness, pretty boys and girls singing words written for them by a svengali who might as well be dictating the contents of a phone book for all the passion they evoke. For others, there is the argument that when they were around, the Beatles were considered a pop band. Heck, when Oasis, Blur and Pulp suddenly broke the barrier between indie and chart music, the entire movement was christened “Britpop”. But even if you come down on the latter side, many fans on the lookout for credible music balk at K-pop.
There are legitimate reasons to question the wholesomeness of this Korean phenomenon, and at its worst the industry can be brutal and exploitative. But there is no doubt that it’s a growing movement, and more and more people who cut their musical teeth on earnest guitar-based ditties are now falling for the musical compatriots of the equally powerful film and TV waves that are also beguiling Western viewers. So if you’re about to give K-pop a chance, you might as well do it properly. What do you need to know?
There isn’t a single type of K-pop song
It’s not unfair to suggest Perhaps because the surface-level exposure we get to music from the region, the assumption is that K-pop will be sugary, high-energy chaff. And sure, some of it is. But we’d dare anyone to traipse onto the best music torrent sites, have a listen to Dionysus by BTS, and call it disposable.
A four-minute rap-rock masterpiece – with a trap breakdown – comparing the creative process to the debauched life of the Greek god of wine? We’re a world away from One Direction here. And this is not uncommon in K-pop, either. Most of the artists continue education throughout their training process, so there’s an intellectual side to a lot of the music.
The cultural homogeneity is overplayed
There is a reputation that has become entangled with K-pop. An assumption that all the groups have to fit into a strict cultural uniformity. Maybe that was the case once. But in modern K-pop, most of the groups aren’t even uniformly Korean. Once you get into a chosen group, you’re liable to find that one or more members hails from China, Japan, Thailand… Or even the USA and Australia!
Those cultural influences fold into the sounds of each group. And while Korean society is generally conservative in many ways, the music often kicks against that. Often dealing with topics such as cultural expectations and anxiety in brutally honest ways.
Enjoy that group while you have them
This is not some comment on the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of pop. If you are into BTS, for example, you’ll currently be dealing with the fact that the group has gone on hiatus due to the mandatory military service all able-bodied Korean men must do. The same issue is affecting fans of another huge K-pop group, Exo. It is a fate that awaits any idol entering their late 20s.
There are always the girl bands, of course. And some of the new wave on that side are also breaking the expected strait-jacket of pretty pop. Le Sserafim’s Antifragile was one of last year’s breakout hits, and reads like a rejection of everything girly pop is supposed to be.
In short, if you’ve been looking for something new from your music, it might be time to cast off the cliched expectations and give some K-pop a listen. You might be horrified that you like it. But you will like some it, at least…