pH-1 (Park Jun-Won, also known as Harry Park) is a Korean-American rapper on H1GHER Music Records, which also houses GroovyRoom and G.Soul. While people want to make harsh distinctions between K-pop and K-hip-hop, I actually found out about pH-1 from the K-pop sub-Reddit. From the 2019 release Summer Episodes, this is one of those songs that you LOVE upon first hearing. It sounds like summer.
Mamamoo is a girl group well known for its vocal talent, but the members also show themselves to be musically versatile. The group performed “Destiny (우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지)” for its finale on the music competition show Queendom, and the track was later included on the 2019 album Reality in Black. Kpopmap notes that “It is hard to pinpoint a specific genre as the track seemed to have a mix of various tempos and rhythm, causing listeners to get surprised time to time.” Those unique elements include the prominent guitar and the staccato vocals during the repeated breakdown.
Mnet K-pop. “[ENG sub] [최종회] ♬ 우린 결국 다시 만날 운명이었지(Destiny) – 마마무 @ FINAL 경연 컴백전쟁 : 퀸덤 10화.” YouTube. 31 Oct 2019. https://youtu.be/i0bHc8k-FdM (24 Feb 2020).
K-pop is old enough for us to recognize that it has a bonafide history, and the way we divide up that history affects the way we see K-pop.
Some scholars place K-pop within a larger history of Korean popular music. In the article “Mapping K-pop Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange,” Keith Howard begins a theorization of the K-pop music industry with an overview that begins in Korea’s colonial period. Similarly, John Lie contextualizes the exploration of K-pop within the development of music stretching back to the Choson era. These moves provide some legitimacy to K-pop based on its proximity to what some may view as more substantial forms of culture found earlier in Korea’s history.
However, K-pop is a distinct mode of Korean popular music, distinct in its production, sound and global reach. Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim argue that “Despite the Western influences that have morphed Korean popular music into an expression unrecognizable from the standpoint of traditional music, K-pop has undeniably clear origins.” In addition, media have recognized that K-pop has gone through different phases throughout its almost 30-year (and counting) run. Their attempts to periodize K-pop suggests that it is worthy of a history of its own. At the same time, such attempts are also largely defined by “idol” groups, which skews our understanding of K-pop’s past when it fails to include other genres.
Nearly everyone agrees on first-generation K-pop, beginning with the debut of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992 and ending in 2002 with the disbandment of several of the first K-pop groups. Both a staff reporter for KPopStarz and TAKE-KR list Seo Taiji, H.O.T, Turbo, Sechs Kies, g.o.d. and Fly to the Sky as part of first-generation. TAKE-KR adds Shinhwa and KPoPStarz includes BoA. At the same time, both publications overlook several genres within early K-pop, including Korean hip-hop acts like 1TYM, R&B groups like 4MEN, bands such as Jaurim and Nell and solo artists like Park Hyo Shin, Wheesung and Rain. Such lists tend to be “idol”-centric, but in fact, there is much overlap and influence among these artists under the large K-pop umbrella.
There remains a level of consensus for second-generation K-pop, which runs from 2003 to 2009. Articles from KPopStarz and TAKE-KR both list TVXQ, BigBang, SS501, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, 2NE1, BEAST, f(x), UKISS, 2AM, 2PM as part of second-generation K-pop. KPopStarz includes Epik High and several girl groups, including TARA, KARA, After School, 4Minute, Brown Eyed Girls and Secret. TAKE-KR includes MBLAQ and the bands FT. Island and CN Blue. Second-generation K-pop did produce a different variety of “idol” groups. It also continued to produce solo artists, such as Lee Hyori, Kim Tae Woo and Se7en, as well as several significant hip-hop groups, including Dynamic Duo, Supreme Team and Mighty Mouth.
There is much dissent for subsequent generations of K-pop. TAKE-KR identifies two more generations: EXP Generation (2010-2014), which includes BTS, EXO, Miss A, GOT7, Red Velvet and Mamamoo, and the XFMR Generation (2015-present), which includes Day6, Ikon, Seventeen, Twice and BlackPink. KPopStarz counts EXO, BlackPink, BTS, GOT7, Red Velvet, Ikon and Winner as part of a third generation that runs from 2011-2018. Again, the periodization does not include other genres.
Why does it matter? It matters because how we talk about K-pop shapes the perception of K-pop. As a mode of popular music, K-pop already suffers from the perception that it is trendy, faddish and disposable. Despite many predictions of its demise, not only has K-pop remained, it has developed over time. When the media talks about K-pop, it tends to focus on the popular “idol” groups of the moment, rather than putting those groups in the context of K-pop history or putting them in relation to other contemporary groups in different genres. We can only understand K-pop if we contextualize it within a comprehensive history. That history does not have to go back to the beginning of recorded music or popular music in Korea in order to recognize that K-pop has a legitimate trajectory of development.
Howard, Keith. “Mapping K-pop’s Past and Present: Shifting the Modes of Exchange.” Korea Observer 45.3 (2014): 389-414.
Lie, John. “What is the K in K-pop?: South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer 43.3 (2012): 339-363.
Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010).” East Asia 2013,DOI 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.
It is notoriously difficult to find in-depth information about 015B in English. What Wikipedia and some other sites seem to agree on is that the group started out with four members and later became a duo, brothers Jeong Seok-won and Jang Ho-il. However, listening to several of their albums reveals that they are keen to try just about any genre under the sun, and they do it well. Case in point: “Lost Temporarily” featuring Shin Bo-kyung (also known as Boni) from the group’s 2006 album, Lucky 7. As Jung Bae points out, the track has “no frills on the arrangement, just a slow and soulful beat, and Shin sang the chorus with skill and conviction beyond her years.”
015B debuted in 1990, merely two years before the appearance of Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992. They avoid the kind of spotlight we see “idol” groups bask in, but the ease with which they play in multiple genres foreshadows the kind of mixing of genres that will become a staple in K-pop.
Media coverage and scholarly writing about K-pop often negatively characterizes it as a manufactured mode of music. However, there are other connotations of this term that more comprehensively address the process by which K-pop is made.
It is common for stories about “idol”-based K-pop (singers and groups who sing and dance, appear on television shows and engage in promotional activity) to characterize K-pop as manufactured, which is regarded as negative, not real, and disposable. This is common in stories that seek to expose the “seedy underbelly” of K-pop. For example, Kathy Benjamin writes: “And it might not even be their choice. K-Pop bands are highly manufactured, and if your manager says you need to go under the knife to be beautiful enough to be a star, you probably do it.” Benjamin links what she sees as the manufactured nature of K-pop to appearance, rather than the music. The unqualified assertion that K-pop is manufactured is echoed by Euny Hong: “Bands are treated like consumer products from the beginning. Producers design the band they want—down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign—before they even audition members.” Hong extends the description of K-pop as manufactured beyond appearance to the music, but with the same result. Both Benjamin and Hong assert that K-pop is manufactured in a way that makes creativity impossible.
The same approach can be found in scholarly writing. John Lie likens K-pop to a product, produced by “a business in which financial and other business concerns consistently trump musical or artistic considerations” (357). In other words, K-pop is a commodity, and as such, does not embody the creativity associated with other modes of music.
However, these negative characterizations are not the only way to view manufacturing in relation to K-pop. Manufacturing can embody creativity. Instead of being an esoteric, solely personal experience, Gil-Sung Park views the creativity in K-pop as a collaborative effort as part of “manufactured creativity,” which “signifies opening the entire global music industry to musical talents and audiences from all corners of the world, allowing them to participate in an endless interactive communication and discourse about music” (16). Negative characterizations perceive this musical interaction as coercive or manipulative, but Park sees them as creative.
Moreover, the results of such collaboration are truly innovative musical creations. Using SM Entertainment as an example, Park observes that “the internal modification process (or localization) requires a set of creative skills (i.e. tacit knowledge). . . . Production requires creativity and processes created by geniuses, but the SM style of localization also demands a steady supply of high-quality performers, which is the most important factor in local production of K-pop” (25). Unlike the product that Lie purports it to be, K-pop is the result of creative processes on the part of global and Korean music personnel making the music as well as the K-pop artists who perform it. Vocal ability and dance talent are indispensable to K-pop: “Understanding the K-pop phenomenon requires the knowledge of K-pop’s sustainable business model that is firmly based on musical talent and creativity” (16).
While the concept of manufacturing is often applied to K-pop, there are alternative uses of the term that recognize its creativity.
Much like the current tone of the Internet, wholly negative criticism threatens to skew our perceptions of K-pop.
On any given day, one can wander out on social media and witness what has become the all-too-common negative critique of K-pop. A recent Twitter thread began by Yim Hyun-su pointed out how media tends to write stories disproportionately on “the dark side of K-pop” to the exclusion of other types of stories. This trend is also at play in academic scholarship. In an article for The Point Magazine, Lisa Riddick observed a level of “meanness” associated with the current culture of scholarly critique: “Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation” (“When Nothing is Cool“).
K-pop is particularly susceptible to negative criticism because it belongs to two fields often negatively criticized: popular culture and fan studies. Popular culture falls on the low end of the culture hierarchy. Lawrence W. Levine locates the origins of the hierarchy in the United States at turn of the 20th century, with highbrow used “to describe intellectual or aesthetic superiority” and “lowbrow”used “to mean someone or something neither ‘highly intellectual’ or ‘aesthetically refined” (Highbrow Lowbrow, 221-2). K-pop is mass-produced and appeals to a wide audience, so writers assume that it could not have any aesthetic value.
Similarly, fans have long been negatively characterized. Matt Hills notes that “stereotypes of mass cultural consumption still hold that fans have an appetite for what seems to be trivia. . . . Fans are undiscriminating followers of mass culture. This locates fandom as a kind of tool of the media industry” (Understanding Fandom, 40). This line of thought assumes that fans have no taste and inherently follow unimportant things. This resonates with K-pop fandom, with its majority-female fan base, for female fans have been negatively characterized especially in relation to pop culture. Diane Railton observes:
A constant image of fans of this type of music is of a girl or young woman, screaming, out of control, totally absorbed in the bodily experience. And the image that is reproduced time and time gain is not usually of one girl but of a heaving, screaming ‘mass’ of femininity. ‘Pop’ music of this type is about losing control; surrendering the rational mind to the body and the emotions. it is here that we can get some clue as to the (horrified) fascination in which such music is held by the ‘serious’ music press. (328).
Such negative appraisals give the air of serious engagement, but the repetition of the same negative appraisals actually reflect a lack of true engagement with K-pop. It comes off as lazy and suggests that writers cannot be bothered to actually delve into K-pop because they feel it is superficial. This gets worse when we look at coverage by English-language media, especially those located in the West and the United States. When these entities write the same negative stories about K-pop, it comes off as cultural chauvinism. Moreover, individuals parrot the same superficial observations, solidifying them as the “true” characterization of K-pop. Treating K-pop as a legitimate phenomenon would go a long way to improving media coverage of K-pop.
Hills, Matt. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
KPK: Kpop Kollective, the oldest aca-fansite for K-pop, celebrates its 10-year anniversary on these K-pop streets!
BRIDES says that the traditional anniversary gift for the 10th anniversary is tin or aluminum, symbolizing flexibility and resiliency. It seems appropriate for KPK, because no matter if we are many or few, we are still here using our powers for good. But what is KPK? While we started out providing accurate information that fans want to know about their favorite artists, KPK has always taken K-pop seriously and worthy of study and attention. It has always been about providing the public with information and context for K-pop. That means all of K-pop, not just our favorite groups, because we believe that context is key to understanding. We believe you have to constantly balance K-pop’s history along with other forces that impact it today. For that reason, KPK has always been in it for the long haul, not just when it is popular. K-pop has changed a lot since we started, but at the same time, it remains important and significant.
Because of KPK’s public mission, we have also helped students, academics, media and industry professionals and basically anybody who has asked because we view ourselves as part of the K-pop community. As scholars, we are interested less in rumors and sensationalistic coverage of K-pop, and more about trying to interpret its complexity. At the same time, we are fans, so we also spend a lot (A LOT) of time experiencing K-pop on the ground (the ground often meaning social media).
We are celebrating our tenth anniversary all year long, looking back at some of most popular posts and continuing to provide unique insight into K-pop. We hope you will continue to join us on the journey.
Fun fact: Decennium is also the name of veteran K-pop duo Fly to the Sky’s 2009 album! Here’s Restriction, my favorite song from the album!
MBCkpop. “Fly To The Sky – Restriction, 플라이투더스카이 – 구속, Music Core 20090228.” YouTube. 7 Feb 2012. (Accessed 17 Jan 2020). https://youtu.be/PFn657LCBPk
Scholars frequently use the neoliberal capitalism frame to contextualize K-pop within the Korean wave, but the over-reliance on critiquing capitalist forces further silences the creative personnel of K-pop. If we approach K-pop using the “history from below” framework, we can reveal the perspectives of the individuals in the industry.
A number of scholarly articles that contextualize K-pop within Hallyu, or the Korean wave, invoke neoliberal capitalism as the interpretative frame for K-pop, a frame which focuses on political and economic conditions that surround K-pop. Hyewon Kim describes neoliberal capitalism as “a theory of practices that pursue the liberation of individual entrepreneurial freedoms through free market and trade” (422). The neoliberal capitalist frame makes sense, given that the rise of K-pop coincides with a particular mode of globalization. Cho Hae-Joang notes that the neoliberal perspective “highlights the cultural ‘industry'”:
The bulk of editorials and columns by news reporters, government officials, and people in the culture industry are concerned with how to advance and continue the promotion of the Korean Wave. Lamenting a lack of strategies, people in the forefront of cultural export institutions sought clever ways to crack open the enormous emerging Asian market. To them, the origin or quality of cultural products did not matter as much as the market and the bottom line. (159).
However, when K-pop is seen only as an industry, artists become mere cogs in a machine, the ensuing narrative is one of exploitation for how much profit they can generate, with little concern with what they actually produce or how they perceive themselves within the industry. In From Factory Girls to K-pop Idol Girls: Cultural Politics of Developmentalism, Patriarchy, and Neoliberalism in South Korea’s Popular Music Industry,Gooyoung Kim notes that “the management and production style of the K-pop industry is almost identical to that of the manufacturer industry”: “K-pop industry has rendered highly homogenized, predictable music commodities, female idols, whose only aim is to make viable financial profits” (9).
However, using the framework of “history from below” recognizes the people and their actions in the industry. The Institute of Historical Research‘s website Making History notes that “history from below” “seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrate on their experiences and perspectives, ” and “differed from traditional labour history in that its exponents were more interested in popular protest and culture than in the organisations of the working class.”
In his book, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, Robin D. G. Kelley explains how people, even under the most controlling labor conditions, can resist the forces around them. He recalls his own experience working at McDonald’s:
The terrain was often cultural, centering on identity, dignity, and fun. We tried to turn work into pleasure, to turn our bodies into instruments of pleasure. Generational and cultural specificity had a good deal to do with our unique forms of resistance, but a lot of our actions were linked directly to the labor process, gender conventions and our class status. (3).
Kelley adds that in studying the labor of people so often overlooked in favor of the mechanisms of labor, “we have to step into the complicated maze of experience that renders ‘ordinary’ folks so extraordinarily multifaceted, diverse, and complicated” (4). This is the thrust of much working-class scholarship, focusing on individuals overlooked in the focus on the industries that employ them, even if there is no formal labor movement.
If we apply “history from below” to K-pop rather than relying solely on the neoliberal capitalism frame, then we would focus on the stories and narratives of creative personnel of K-pop, including “idols,” as individuals, rather than always painting the agencies as entities that control every aspect of life. We would see the narrative of K-pop go beyond its “dark side” to fully encapsulate the experiences of those who work within the industry, and recognize their humanity even within capitalist forces. We would cease to erase the actual people who work in the industry.
Cho Hae-Joang. 2005. “Reading ‘The Korean Wave’ as a Sign of Global Shift.” Korea Journal 45 (5): 147-182.
Recent developments involving award and competition shows reveal the impact of mainstreaming on K-pop. As stakes increase for industry and media, accolades and competition are perceived as metrics for quality. However, they largely measure popularity, which is subject to manipulation.
While many K-pop acts are managed by an agency and undergo rigorous training that may span years, others result from competition shows developed by broadcast companies. These shows produce a temporary K-pop group that promotes during a fixed promotion period, and then often disbands. Such shows have proven popular, drawing on the increased global popularity of K-pop. For example, Produce 101, created by CJE&M, has produced K-pop groups I.O.I, Wanna One, IZ ONE, and X1 in four seasons.
Such shows have not been without controversy. While fans may express their displeasure when their favorites do not win, police in South Korea have found that results of the shows were manipulated. Writing for soompi, D.S. Kim reports: “According to the police, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s cyber investigation team found differences between the number of votes revealed on the final episodes and the raw data showing the actual votes that were sent in by viewers.”
Questions about vote manipulation are also leveled at accolades such as awards. Not very long ago, mainstream recognition was not an issue in K-pop because of its marginalized status. However, the mainstreaming of K-pop involves participation in award shows. When the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK recently won several People’s Choice Awards in November 2019, major American media outlets like Newsweek reported on the frustration of fans of BTS, who during the past couple of years had been the most recognizable K-pop group in the United States. Other media outlets revealed suspicions by BTS fans similar to those that sparked the Produce 101 investigation: “Others were confused at the group’s loss given how popular BTS is, with a few fans keeping tabs on fan voting for the People’s Choice Awards. ‘There is no possible way that blackpink beat BTS for this award,@peopleschoice you have some explaining to do,’ wrote @tae25 while tweeting out screenshots of Awards stats that show BTS leading in votes” (Ali).
While fans often lead the charge with accusations around manipulation, it is the personnel in the corporations that manage the competitions and awards. They encourage the use of popularity as a metric of quality. The Produce 101 competitions ultimately relied on fan votes that were based on the performances shown by the show itself, performances that generated profit for the companies when the shows aired. Similarly, awards like the People’s Choice Awards are popularity awards, popularity which results from exposure that the media helps to generate in the first place.
When accusations of manipulation are made, it is in part because of an environment that uses popularity as a metric for quality and benefits the very entities that create the competition. This is only possible when K-pop goes mainstream, generating a certain level of popularity.