Let’s Call This Song Exactly What It Is: Defining K-pop

Crystal S. Anderson, PhD

Elon University

Everybody uses the term.  Some folks proudly embrace it; others run from it like the plague. But what is K-pop, and why is defining it important?

Today, I share my definition that informs my research on K-pop.  K-pop is a type of post-1990 South Korean popular music that fuses Korean and global musical styles, particularly American, and redirects that hybrid music back onto the global stage.  The transnational nature of K-pop manifests itself a variety of ways, including actively seeking global popularity, using the Internet and social media to target and engage global audiences and participating in other cultural production with global appeal.  This does not mean that Korean popular music did not exist before 1990, but the term Kpop refers specifically to this unprecedented cultural fusion in post-1990 Korean popular music.  

To define Kpop based on its hybridity and transnationalism, or global engagement, allows us to recognize the different genres of Kpop, as the Wikipedia entry for K-pop does. It bases its definition, in part, on a citation from the Doosan Encyclopedia:

K-pop is supposed to be included all the genres of “popular music” within South Korea, outside of the country, the term is more commonly used for songs sung usually by Korean teen idols, which covers mostly dance, electronic, rap, hip-hop, and R&B genres.[14] Starting in 1992, dance and rap music started to become popular due to the popularity of Seo Tai-ji & Boys. It is seen by many as the start of K-pop and ever since then it replaced the whole Korean music scene with the genre.

In Musical Terms Worldwide: A Companion for the Musical ExplorerJan Laurens Hartong notes the impact of a variety of music genres on K-pop:  “Since the 1990s popular genres like rap, rock and techno house have ben incorporated into Korean popular music, setting the trend for the present generation of K-pop, which often emulates American models” (15). 

K-pop covers all major genres of music, especially R&B/soul, hip hop, techno, dance, electronica and rock.  K-pop itself is not a genre because a genre links together forms of art based on a shared set of stylistic characteristics.  Stylistically speaking, there is little that links Super Junior and Tiger JK.  However, both reflect hybridity in their use of American musical traditions (R&B and pop on Super Junior’s part, hip hop on Tiger JK’s part).  The Internet has had a significant impact on the development of global audiences for both.

Defining K-pop in this way encourages less restricted approaches to its study.  It brings the music center stage. At the end of day, we are talking about music, which drives the videos, reality shows, promotions and endorsements.   And there are people responsible for the music as well.  Those involved in its production and popularity include artists and groups, producers, stylists, marketing personnel, executives, government officials and fans.

Defining K-pop based on its transnationalism and hybridity also gets us away from stereotyping K-pop.  It has been subject to definitions that assume a certain degree of superficiality. For example, Jeff Benjamin describes K-pop as “a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop (J-Pop), which preys on listeners’ heads with repeated hooks, sometimes in English.”  Terms like “trendy” suggest impermanency, and verbs like “preys” suggest something sinister. Together with a phrase like “repeated hooks,” the overall description does little to suggest K-pop as a kind of music worthy of study or serious consideration.

K-pop’s “manufactured” nature is the critique most often leveled.  Such charges assume that K-pop is also inauthentic, fake, but this is problematic.  In Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity, John L. Jackson talks about the limits of authenticity in terms of race.  He references Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s notion of “scripts,” or “narratives that people use in shaping their life plans and in telling their life stories.”  The charge that K-pop is manufactured is the script in this case.  The problem with such narratives is that they can be reductive: “These scripts provide guidelines for proper and improper behavior, for legitimate and illegitimate group membership, for social inclusion or ostracism” (13).  

When individuals describe K-pop as superficial, it becomes excluded from “legitimate” conversations about music and culture. It becomes distorted when individuals talk about some of its aspects and ignore others. Who is qualified to declare something “real?” By pigeon-holing K-pop as “manufactured,” individuals ignore the rich interplay between Korean and other global cultures as well as the traditions of Korean R&B, soul and hip hop. However, by focusing on its use of multiple music traditions and its global impact, we can get to more important questions about its meaning. Defining K-pop using its transnational and hybrid categories avoids the authenticity trap.

Authenticity leads to another charge, that of mimicry.  However, there is no pure cultural production under the sun. A closer look at the hybrid nature of K-pop reveals complex combinations of Korean and global cultures.  If we stick to trying to decide what is “real” or not, we miss the development of R&B/soul, hip hop and pop traditions in K-pop.

Finally, my definition of K-pop recognizes one of the most important elements of K-pop: the audience.  Because of its use of the Internet, K-pop represents a cultural export from South Korea that has found a following among a widely diverse audience: across races, genders, generations and geographies. While the audience for K-pop is predominately female, assumptions about the age and racial make-up of international fans are misleading.  

Scholarly treatments of K-pop’s global appeal tend to focus on fans in East Asia or Asian fans throughout the world.  While Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi‘s edited collection, East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave focuses on Korean drama, it also focuses exclusively on Asian audiences.  The chapter devoted to Rain in Sun Jung‘s Korean Masculinities and Transnational Consumption draws on analysis of “focus group interviews, survey questionnaires, and participant observation of an official fan club website, RainSingapore.com” as well as interviews with five members of Rain’s Singaporean fan club (31).  

This focus on Asian fans of K-pop obscures the international appeal of the music form.  How can we begin to ask questions about the popularity of K-pop in Saudi Arabia if we do not recognize Saudi Arabian fans?  Given the infusion of multiple global cultures in K-pop, why are we surprised that the fandom looks like this in the United States?


Moreover, almost no one questions the assumption that K-pop caters exclusively to the young.  In his review of the 2011 SM Town concert in New York City, Jon Caramanica emphasizes youth:  “American teen-pop at its peak has never been this productive. K-pop — short for Korean pop — is an environment of relentless newness, both in participants and in style; even its veteran acts are still relatively young, and they make young music.” This characterization ignores the fact that K-pop is twenty years old, and its veteran fans have kids that they gleefully take to fan-meetings.  It ignores how non-teenagers, who often have a more developed sense of music, approach K-pop. It overlooks the fact that adults make and produce the music. Such descriptions skew our understanding of one of the key components in the spread of K-pop globally.

I hope adjusting our focus on K-pop can lead to more fruitful and rich discussions about the cultural production leading the Korean Wave.

Sources:

K-pop, Wikipedia

Jan Laurens Hartong, Musical Terms Worldwide: A Companion for the Musical Explorer. Semar Publishers, 2007.

Jeff Benjamin, The 10 K-pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America, Rolling Stone

John L. Jackson Jr., Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Chua Beng Huat and Koichi Iwabuch, eds., East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave.  Hong Kong University Press, 2008.

Sun Jung, Korean Maculinities and Transnational Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols. Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

Jon Caramanica, SHINee and South Korean K-pop Groups at Madison Square Garden, The New York Times

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Call This Song Exactly What It Is: Defining K-pop

    • Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, there are male fans of K-pop. However, the vast majority of K-pop fans are women, something that I’ve seen in my own research, and that is clear from the audiences for fan meetings and concerts as well as individuals who run web sites.

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