Live…for One Night Only: The Synergy Between K-pop Pop Groups and Bands

Because writing about popular music seems to thrive on making distinctions between artists, genres and generations, it may be difficult to see the synergy between pop group and bands in K-pop.

When we look at K-pop as an umbrella, it makes sense that pop groups, the “idol” groups that sing and dance while also undertaking extra-musical activities, and bands, groups where the members play instruments, have a connection. In large Korean agencies, pop groups and bands often undergo similar training and engage in the same debut and promotional cycles. As a result, not only do the members know each other, but they know about the music and performances of each other. One characteristic of K-pop artists is that not only do they learn their own music and choreography, they know the music and choreography of other artists. This can be seen in the tendency they have to cover songs by other groups, within and outside their own agencies.

Nevertheless, pop groups and bands are often pitted against each other, with some arguing that bands are more “authentic” than pop acts, who are seen as manufactured. An “ELI5: The Difference Between Pop Music and Rock Music” reflects the common perceptions of the two traditions of music. One post says: “Most Pop artists are generic, as in they use the same chords and lyrically, they are very unintelligent. Rock has an overall better musical complexity and songwriting.” You can see how this would translate to K-pop, since many pop groups do not write their own material, while this is expected of bands. As a result, pop groups are seen as distinct, and often less than, bands.

However, it is a mistake to perpetuate this distinction based on the musicality of pop and rock groups. Musically, pop groups and rock bands in K-pop have a lot in common because they are drawing from the same genres: they just express it in different ways. Band covers of pop tracks demonstrate that the musicality of pop tracks supports rock covers. A cover uncovers the musical ink between the two and helps to complicate the authenticity argument. In the article, “In Defense of Cover Songs,” Don Cusic argues that linking a group’s legitimacy to songwriting is wrong because “it ignores the great singers and musicians who can ‘interpret’ a song” (172). Covers also benefit audiences because they introduce them to another type of music. It is also important for the original artist because it shows their influence (174). In the case of K-pop, it exposes fans to older artists, expanding their perception of K-pop. Such covers have always been a part of the K-pop music scene.

Lucifer: SHINee (ft. TRAX)

TRAX was a rock band on SM Entertainment’s label. In addition to producing the group’s own music, TRAX was often tapped to provide a rock edge to SM Entertainment’s pop groups, including TVXQ!’s “Tri-Angle” featuring Boa & Trax.” This song’s classical intro is soon interrupted by the heavy guitars of TRAX, which provides the foundation for the rest of the song as it moves to a more pop sound. So it surprised no one when TRAX was featured in band special performance on Music Bank with SHINee to perform “Lucifer.” The song’s original electronic intro is exchanged for a guitar solo. What is interesting is that these rock flourishes mesh perfectly with the song and SHINee’s choreography.

HIP: Mamamoo and ONEWE

Being on the same label can make such covers easier. This is the case with “HIP,” originally performed by Mamamoo, then taken up by labelmates ONEWE, a band under Rainbow Bridge World (RBW) agency. While Mamamoo’s original is upbeat and quirky, ONEWE’s version easily transforms it into a track driven my drums and guitar. The shift to male vocals also changes the tone of the track. Much like Cusic describes, ONEWE’s cover helps to introduce the group to newer fans by relying on the music of an established group.

Love Me Right: EXO and Xdinary Heroes

Xdinary Heroes is a newer band in K-pop from JYP Entertainment who chose to cover EXO‘s “Love Me Right.” EXO’s original has many of the hallmarks of SM Entertainment music production to create the track’s catchiness. Rather than starting with the instrumentals, Xdinary Heroes embraces the vocal underpinnings of the track with its intro before launching into guitar and synth instrumentation. The cover exhibits several rhythmic changes that alternatively showcases a heavy rock sound, sparse instrumentation and places where the vocals take center stage.

Instead of maintaining tenuous distinctions between pop acts and bands in K-pop, covers show that it is more fruitful to explore the connections between them.


Image by Theo Crazzolara from Pixabay

Don Cusic. “In Defense of Cover Songs.” Popular Music and Society. 28:2 (2005): 171-177. doi: 10.1080/03007760500045279.

Explain Like I’m Five. “The Difference Between Pop Music and Rock Music.” Reddit.

KPOP JAMM. “[Exclusive Stage/Next Generation] Xdinary Heroes – LOVE ME RIGHT (EXO Cover) l @JTBC K-909 220924.” YouTube. 24 Sept 2022.

Mamamoo. “[MV] MAMAMOO (마마무) – HIP.” YouTube. 14 Nov 2019.

ONEWE. “ONEWE(원위) ‘HIP’ COVER.” YouTube. 14 Feb 2020.

osinohd11. “[10.09.10] SHINee – Lucifer [ft. TRAX] [HD].” YouTube. 28 Sept 2011.

SMTOWN. “EXO 엑소 ‘LOVE ME RIGHT’ MV.” YouTube. 2 Jun 2015.

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Live…for One Night Only: The Synergy Between K-pop Pop Groups and Bands by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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