The Unsung And The Unsaid In Kpop

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

Kpop is subject to a lot of criticism.  A LOT. The most repeated charge against Kpop is that it is manufactured.  But is that really true?  Usually when critics level this charge, they make sweeping generalizations about the whole landscape of pop.  In doing so, they perpetuate stereotypes about the lack of originality in Asian popular culture.

It seems almost obligatory for anyone writing about Kpop to describe it as manufactured. Critics frequently focus on Kpop idol artists, who, in addition to making music, participate in other forms of entertainment, including variety shows and Kdramas, fashion shoots, endorsements and commercial films. In some ways it make sense.  Idol artists dominate Hallyu, and tend to be the most visible to audiences outside of Korea.

But critics tend to describe all Kpop artists as manufactured.  In defining Kpop on About.com, Bill Lamb writes, “As Western influences grew in Korean pop, the concept of the manufactured pop band took root as well.”  Renie of Seoulbeats, in pondering whether or not K-pop is too perfect, writes:  “Of course this all goes back to how idols are trained and manufactured.”  Lucy Williamson of BBC News states: “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.”

These writers are not wholly wrong. Let’s be real. Given the number of Kpop groups in circulation and the kind of profits that can be made from even a moderately successful group, it is naive to believe their promotion is not deliberate. However, instead of qualifying their statements, critics suggest that it applies to every idol and all members of an idol group.  Critics rarely name the artists against whom they level the charge, thereby qualifying their statements.  As a result, calling all Kpop artists manufactured has resulted in negative connotations.  At the heart of Kpop beats an artificial heart. Because the description is repeated so often without any challenge, it has become accepted as fact.The widespread idea that all Kpop is manufactured is surely a case of wikiality, coined by Stephen Colbert as truth by consensus, where “all we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”

Just because everyone says that Kpop is manufactured does not make it true. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that all Kpop is not manufactured. What does “manufactured” mean, and what do people really mean when they say that Kpop is manufactured?  The Oxford English Dictionary, the grandaddy of dictionaries of the English language, defines it this way:

1. a. Of an article, goods, etc.: produced from raw material, esp. for sale or trade; b. Chiefly depreciative. Of a literary work, a speech, etc.: produced in a mechanical or formulaic way, with little or no creativity, imagination, or originality.

2. Of a story, statement, etc.: fraudulently invented or produced; deliberately fabricated, false.

When writers routinely describe Kpop as “manufactured,” they mean primarily two things: that Kpop idols lack talent, and that the process that creates Kpop is artificial and fake.

Wikiality “Fact” #1: Kpop idols lack talent.

To say that Kpop artists are manufactured suggests that the artists themselves lack talent, and in this way are “fraudulently invented or produced.” Renie suggests this when generalizing about idol trainees:  “Trainees go in as a blank slate but come out as a product that can sing, dance, and sometimes act.”  Similarly, Jangta makes a distinction between singers and entertainers using this spectre of fakeness:  “Many mainstream K-pop groups today are actually strong at only three things. . . Unfortunately, singing isn’t one of them.” (Full disclosure: I am an assistant chief editor and editorial writer for hellokpop. Hey Jangta! :))

But is this true?  Most people would agree that you cannot fake good singing. There is more than enough evidence to prove that many idols can, in fact, sing well. Because Korea still has a live radio culture, idols regularly sing on the radio, a place where they cannot rely on autotune or slick production tricks.  I would imagine folk would regularly call in to complain about an idol’s inability to sing on the radio.

These aren’t even the hardcore idols singers, like Junsu of JYJ (formerly of TVXQ!), Yesung of Super Junior and Heo Young Saeng of SS501, individuals known for their voices.  But wait, you may say, “Every group can luck up and have one person who can sing, but the others are just filler.”  Are they? What do we make of groups that can harmonize, which suggests that all of them can sing?

The point here is that the sweeping generalization that all Kpop idols lack talent is contradicted by the actual landscape of Kpop.

Wikiality “Fact” #2: The training and production process of Kpop creates fake music.

To say that Kpop is manufactured also suggests that the music and the process that creates it lack “creativity, imagination or originality” and is therefore “artificial.” Such music is created through a process that is “mechanical or formulaic” because it is “produced. . . for sale or trade.”   Renie writes, “It irks me that the industry thinks idols can be formulated as if they are some sort of math problem.”  In a review of a review of an article, IATFB suggests that the basis of the comparison of Kpop groups and American pop groups like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys rests on, “a corporate-vetted, manufactured sound.”   These statements suggest that the people who are involved in the production of Kpop are also talentless hacks who produce sucky music and janky dance routines.

But does a deliberate process of training individuals to sing and dance equal artificiality?  Let’s explore one of the first “manufactured” groups on the planet: The Monkees. In 1965, two producers wanted to capitalize on the popularity of The Beatles by creating a television series about a rock and roll group. When they couldn’t find a group to star in the series, they made one. They cast four guys: two musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork), a singer (Davy Jones) and a guitarist (Micky Dolenz).  However, in need a drummer, they trained Dolenz to play drums. While they played their instruments on tour, they did not play on the albums.

Sound familiar? Here’s the thing: these guys were not just picked for their good looks or their charisma. They had talent, but more importantly, the artistic team behind them, the writers and composers of their songs, also had talent.  Some of their biggest hits were written by people whose talent credentials were hard to question.  For example, Neil Diamond, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, wrote I’m A Believer. The people who played the instruments on their albums were veteran musicians. Just because the process by which a group is created is deliberately designed to be commercial does not mean that the actual music and those who create it are fake.

Similarly, the creative people behind Kpop idols are talented, even as they produce music made for commercial consumption (which is no different from any other pop music artist, I might add). While we were mesmerized by the members of Super Junior in the intro to the Mr. Simple video, has anyone wondered who sings that jazzy intro?  Because it’s not anyone in Super Junior:

That is Yoo Young Jin. Most people don’t know who he is, but he is the man responsible in some way for nearly every hit by artists of SM Entertainment, and, a talented singer in his own right.  Have you heard Young Jin sing? Would a person who can sing himself produce lots of people who can’t sing? Would he deliberately make his own albums suck? No, because that does not make sense.

What about the choreographers?  Jangta refers to the “easy-to-do” dance moves of Kpop artists.  This is not easy:

I can’t do this, and I’m willing to bet most of you can’t either. Ask a dance cover team if these are easy moves. These moves do not make themselves. They are the product of trained choreographers, and one of the best known is Rino Nakasone.  Nakasone, along with Shim Jaewon, are responsible for the choreography of both of these routines. Before choreographing for SME, Nakasone was a principal dancer working with Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani and a choreographer for Britney Spears.

Impact on Asian Popular Culture

So what?  Stating that Kpop is manufactured takes away agency from those who produce it (most of whom are Asian) and contributes to the larger misconception that Asian culture is mere an imitation of other (read Western) cultures.

Most people would have you believe that idols have no agency. Renie seems to believe they are automatons who just do what they are told. But let me get a little philosophical on you. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher, talks about hegemony, where dominance occurs as the result of consent, meaning that those who have less power are not just forced or coerced into their positions.  Just because you may not have a lot of power does not mean you don’t have any power. Your consent is needed by those who have more power than you.

In relation to Kpop idols, they give their consent by participating in the Kpop business, but they also get something out of it. They are not mindless automatons. For every story you hear about an idol suing their company, there are untold stories of idols traveling around the world, learning new languages, learning to write and produce music, receiving royalties from the songs they write and generally having experiences they would not otherwise have.  It is too simplistic to say that Kpop idols just do what they are told.

To repeatedly say that Kpop idols do not have agency participates in a long-standing discourse that says Asians do not have agency.  Any Chinese, Japanese or Korean history course can tell you about the repeated incursions by Western powers as well as other Asian powers, but I’ve found no better illustration of this than Bruce Lee‘s iconic scene in Fist of Fury, where he insists that China is not “the sick man of Asia.”

To repeatedly say that Kpop is mere imitation perpetuates the idea that any form of Asian popular culture, particularly those that are very successful, is merely imitative.   Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write that success among Asian cultures has been explained in negative terms before. Asians are described as “chameleons who, with no culture of their own, take on the cultural coloration of the society around them. . . . The negative aspect of this stereotype is not the purported adaptability, which could be considered a positive trait. Rather, it is the specific form of that adaptation, which is described as purely imitative with no creative component. . . . Asians. . . have similarly been described as imitative and without a culture of their own” (581-581).  When Nakasone is a principal dancer with Janet Jackson or Gwen Stefani, or choreographing for Britney Spears, it’s all cool, but when she choreographs Lucifer for SHINee or Keep Your Head Down for TVXQ!,  her moves suddenly become robotic.  Why? Because the dancers are Asian?

Kpop needs as much critical attention as it can get. But, it’s problematic when it comes in the form of generalized statements that perpetuate erroneous notions about Kpop in particular, and Asian popular culture in general. More nuanced critiques supported by concrete examples would go a long way to making the discussion more fruitful and enlarging the conversation on the impact of the success of Kpop on its quality.

Sources:
Renie, “Is K-pop Too Perfect?” seoulbeats.com
Lucy Williamson, “The Dark Side of South Korean Pop Music,” BBC News
Bill Lamb, “K-Pop,” about.com
Jangta, “How K-pop May Have Lowered Korean Music Standards,” hellokpop.com
IATFB, Critical Eye: Soompi’s Editorial On ‘Sick of K-pop Cult’ Article a Hypocritical Mess,” asianjunkie.com
Wikiality, Wikipedia in Culture, Wikipedia.com
The Monkees, Wikipedia.com
Dominic Mastroianni, Hegemony in Antonio Gramsci, emory.edu
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Google Books, 580-581.
Video Sources:
vivioncifer, Onew singing 다행이다 (It’s Fortunate) @ Ten Ten Club, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZihcUx_Te-c
mydeko, hyungjun sings love like this, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlR828XJqHA&feature=related
mugglestudio, SS501 Acapella in Japan 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_Las4JeRKY
SM Entertainment, Mr. Simple, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6TwzSGYycM
SM Entertainment, Lucifer Dance Version, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovztfpWPo5M
SM Entertainment, Keep Your Head Down Dance Version, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm490aUEAZ8
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11 thoughts on “The Unsung And The Unsaid In Kpop

  1. hmm though I do agree with all the exceptions that you have pointed out, I still believe kpop is very manufactured; perhaps not as an imitation of western pop, but as music, it is set to a strict formula that perhaps seems outdated when compared to western pop, and that is a fault of being manufactured, without having organic production, one cannot capture the trend as quickly so kpop always seems to lag behind the western productions. And it is in vogue for the West to be imitated, before it used to be the fashion to copy the French, the English, but now it has shifted to America.. so it’s not exactly fair to say that kpop exists in its own bubble, it draws a very great influence from the West. However, whether it is merely imitation or crafting of a new genre from materials it is presented with, is rather a difficult call to make..

    I don’t want others to make generalizations on kpop either, but sometimes these generalizations, are well, generally true. For example, for the last two years, SM has only bought singles from Western producers and has ceased producing of singles in-house, so what can you really say to that? It is clear Western influence.. they are aiming for a ‘global sound’ as Lee Sooman, the SM CEO has stated, and they recognize that the global sound nowadays is the Western sound.

    thank you for the insightful post!
    Michelle

    • Thanks Michelle for your comment!

      How about this: when people keep saying that it is manufactured without qualification, it makes it seem that Kpop is doing something different than companies, say in the U.S. US companies create images for their artists but people think that it is an organic process when in fact it really isn’t more organic than the Kpop industry. They craft how their artists are presented just as much as Korean agencies. They strategically place them in certain places with certain people. American music companies buy songs too, fail to credit them, etc. They make music based on a formula too (there is a reason why Lady Gaga brings to mind Madonna).Yes, SM buys its songs (what they did for that SHINee album was a travesty), but if you look closer, there is a method to their madness. They tend not to buy all songs for their hits, some of which they keep in house (see TVXQ). I’m not saying that these things are right or wrong, but they do happen in other music industries, but critics really harp on it in Kpop as if they are the only ones doing it. If you Google the American pop industry or its artists and manufactured, you don’t get nearly as many hits as you do when you search for Kpop and manufactured, and yet they engage in the same behavior.

      Here’s what I mean by qualifying statements. To say that Lee Soo Man’s global sound is Western is generalizing. What is a Western sound? The West is big and diverse. I know different genres and styles of American music; there are different types of music from South America. What I hear a lot from SM is R&B/dance music, and European-esque electronica, both of which are global musical styles because they have been adopted around the world, not because they are no longer recognizable. But they are nothing alike. I’m not saying that Kpop isn’t influenced by other music styles, but there is a difference between influence, and imitation, which is what Kpop gets accused of.

      Lastly, there are far more artists that are Kpop artists that aren’t idols, and thanks to the Internet and YouTube, people have access to them. Make no mistake, they are Kpop too. Are they manufactured also? That’s a harder argument to make, I would suggest, because they may not be as popular as their idol counterparts and Super Junior makes a more juicy target. If critics are going to level the charge, they should at least level it against the right people.

      Thanks for the comment! :D

  2. Maybe another wikiality = like other Asian cultural expressions, Kpop is one face, one voice, one stereotype–a dangerous idea in itself, suggesting that this one monolith can rise or fall like a toppled statue. Not so, rather, many faces, many voices, so many possibilities yet to come–! Hallyu’s global audience talks back, let the good times roll–!

    • Yay! Really though, that’s the point I’m trying to get across. It’s less about this particular charge and more about the fact that people make it, and others, with no support. Hallyu is growing up, and we have to think about who is speaking for whom, what they say and how they are forming their opinions. Because all the next writer for USA Today or Time is going to do when an editor assigns them to write on “that Kpop thing” is google Kpop, go with the first thing that pops up, and not delve any deeper. This we have already seen with that “Kpop is a cult” piece from Singapore. Did you see it?

  3. Well now, THAT was an interesting article ^_____^

    So While I won’t say kpop is entirely manufactured, I WILL state what has been increasingly bugging me lately about kpop and the reason I took almost a year break from it (at least from mainstream cause 95% of my entrie itunes library is Kpop/Jpop mixed so I can’t really escape it, plus i love it too much hahah). But I think it might be relevant to the topic of “manufactured”.

    Lately I have REALLY been getting tired of new groups coming out like rapid fire for two reasons:

    1,) It doesn’t give me enough time to get to know one band before another debuts! It get’s kind of frustrating and quite annoying actually when these bands keep coming out and it seems that they are competing for the spot light. Sadly it’s just an opportunity to get swallowed up by the other debuting artist who might outshine those who did not stand out enough

    2.) Not only does it seem like they’re pushing for a spot light, they seem to be competing on sound and style as well. Kpop tends to swing rather roughly back and forth between “Sweet” and “Sexy” between a debut or comeback. For example SNSD, you have “Gee” and then you have “Run Devil run” or after school you have “Ah” and then you have “Shampoo.” (I know these songs did not come out around the same time, they are just examples) It’s always sweet and sexy and never quite in between. and Then you have the style that several boy groups have debuted with or made a come back with which is that edgy punk/ Grafitti look with the loud splash of multi-colored outfits.

    I guess what i’m getting at with #2 is that honestly with so many groups out, many of them are losing their individuality. There’s a polarized look going on with all groups (male of female) where you are either badass (B.A.P) or sweet ( 4minute) and all the chorus’s are starting to either have the same jingle or is reflecting an old song the group previously produced. For example, Super Junior. Try listening to Sorry Sorry, Bonamana, Mr. Simple, and Opera all in a row and tell me you don’t get a headache. do they not all sound a like?!? it’s ridiculous! or sometimes one song from a group will sound similar to a group from another’s the way Exo’s latest song “What is love” seems all too similar in the little vocal ad-libs and even the rhythm to Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry r&b remix” and TVXQ’s “Before I let you go.”

    So while I can’t necessarily argue that kpop is fake and manufactured because it’s true, all music industries do the borrowing music and shaping of identities thing, since I don’t really listen to the radio or much American music (or English actually) all that much, my focus is DIRECTLY in kpop. No matter how much I adore the new debuts and songs, I still can’t help that in the back of my mind i’m a bit irked by how overproduced kpop is becoming. It’s all starting to feel a bit forced, a bit boxed it, and a bit genre biased.

    But despite all this criticism, at the end of the day I still fell for B.A.P’s “Warrior” and have Shinee’s “Sherlock” on infinite repeat at the moment. It’s just something I reflect on sometimes. I just take a deep breath, and step outside the Kpop bubble because sometimes it DOES blind you to the faults of kpop and makes you really REALLY biased so that you would argue for things that sometimes are blatantly untrue.

    Lastly, may I ask you: Are you a fan of Jpop and what are your opinions on the comparisons? I have made some interesting observations of the tension between kpop and jpop fans. I’m not sure if any of your articles have touched on it yet, but i’m curious to know whether or not you’re a fan of Jpop as well as kpop.

    Thank you!! And i’m book marking your blog for future references because I love what you guys are doing.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you are right about the number of new groups coming out. There are tons of new groups coming from a lot of agencies we’ve never heard of, who seem to want to get on the Kpop bandwagon, and who seem to think: “All we need is some attractive Koreans and a beat.” Also, some of the big three seem to have taken brief leave of their senses (SM-23 teasers?) I think like most music industries, those with something that resonate with the people will stay, and the vast majority will fall to the wayside. The more successful groups seem to understand that you have to build a fan base and create a style or something that people can identify as YOUR sound or style. True, most groups aren’t doing that, but then again, that’s kinda par for the course with a lot of pop music in general. And also, not all groups that are huge now had an instant following. I don’t think anyone thought TVXQ would be what they are based on Traingle. :/

      It’s funny that you mention Super Junior, because I’m one of the few people who didn’t like Bonamana, but I loved Sorry Sorry. They do not sound the same to me. Neither do Sorry Sorry remix and (did you mean Before You Go) by TVXQ? They certainly are the same style, but I think these perceptions are also related to the range of music individual people listen to; its one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. They sound like different kinds of R&B sounds to me, but R&B: is that because I listen to a lot of different kinds of R&B? IONO!

      I think there is a tendency for the sound to be overproduced currently, but I think the pendulum will swing back, because it always does. Someone will have a less produced sound and it will be hailed as new until everyone else starts to do it. Even with something like the song Sherlock, you also have an acoustic song like Honesty. I also wonder how people’s perceptions are shaped just by the title singles as opposed to the whole mini album or album and how that affects how they are judged. You know, some people don’t go beyond the singles. Hmm…..

      Kpop definitely has its flaws, but I think the way that some people talk about it, it makes it seem like it has MORE flaws, ie. is MORE produced or MORE image conscious or MORE business oriented than other music industries, and I think that sets up a faulty standard for measuring Kpop.

      We do have members of KPK who are into Jpop and I will pass on your thoughts; maybe someone will write a piece comparing the two.

      Thanks for bookmarking us! :D

  4. I’m leaving a comment here as a bookmark for a further response later, but thank you so much for taking these lazy and jaded allegations head-on! I always felt the same way and even had plans of my own to write a rebuttal (before life happened), but I honestly just feel more glad that someone else put it into a concrete post first. Will read and reply!

  5. Pingback: South Korean Boy Bands – Part Three | nippaku
  6. LOL this article is just pure crap, we all know kpop is a bad quality product designed for delisional girls

    • Thanks for your comment!

      There are a lot of people, fans and scholars included, who would disagree. Contrary to popular belief, K-pop is produced by talented individuals inside and outside of Korea. I would also point out that nearly every popular music tradition was decried by those who did not understand it, how it was produced and, most importantly, its impact on others. Moreover, research has shown that K-pop appeals to multiple generations beyond young women, and there is an increasing male K-pop fanbase. And even if it did only appeal to young women, it wouldn’t make it less important. Your comment reflects many of the misconceptions about K-pop that this article is meant to dispel.

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