By the time Sam Kim released Sun and Moon (2018), he had already established a reputation for mellow tracks with singles like “Don’t Worry Mama” and “Seattle,” both of which appear on his 2016 release, I Am Sam. Sun and Moon continues his signature style.
Kim’s voice complements the acoustic and sparse instrumentation that frequently accompany his tracks. The use of featured artists, often singers who have R&B and hip-hop reputations, allows a contrast to his vocals. While “It’s You” (ft. Zico) uses a common structure that places the rap verse near the middle of the song, “Make Up” (ft. Crush) uses Crush’s rap and singing vocals to contrast with Kim’s plaintive vocal. The track is also punctuated with a recurrent, driving electric guitar riff that provides a bit of flair. As the promotional tracks for the album, they also feature music videos. “It’s You” makes use of a colorful palette and deconstructed living room, which underscores the track’s upbeat feel. “Make Up” follows Kim’s emotional spiral that eventually lands him in the back of a police car for graffiti.
While instrumentation in Kim’s music evokes a chill atmosphere, it also draws on elements from several genres. “The One,” written by Kim and composed by Kim and frequent collaborators Hong So Jin and Jeog Jai, strategically introduces horns on the chorus and throughout the verses. As the song continues, they gradually swell in a way that intensives the jazz feel of the track, providing for a nice extended outro. “Would You Believe,” written and composed by Kim, starts out as a piano-based ballad. Gospel choir-like backing vocals support Kim’s expressive and emotional voice, filling out the choruses in contrast to the more stark verses. The instrumentation becomes more complex as well, with an electric guitar complementing the initially plaintive piano, bringing with it a gospel cadence.
Spotify has become a benchmark for measuring K-pop success, but it limits the growth of the K-pop listening audience. Despite changes in its algorithm, YouTube remains the place to develop and grow as a K-pop listener because of the input of other K-pop fans.
Spotify is recognized for spearheading the music streaming revolution, changing the music distribution model that gave music away for little to nothing to the public and profited from artists in other ways, as Michael Hann explains: “[Spotify’s] main business is not helping listeners discover new music (something it’s not very good at), but collecting information about listeners in order to sell its audiences to advertisers.”
When Spotify began to feature K-pop, it was seen as a win for global K-pop fans. Finally, they had a (legal!), reliable site to access their favorite groups. For some, it was an opportunity to draw attention to their faves with high streaming counts. Kate Whitehead credits the increased global spread of K-pop to Spotify: “In 2014, Spotify launched its K-pop flagship playlist K-pop Daebak, which now has more than 2.4 million followers. Between January 2014 and January this year, K-pop streams increased more than 1,800 per cent and during the same period users listened to more than 134 billion minutes of K-pop on Spotify.” For many K-pop fans, it has become the primary source of K-pop.
However, that access comes at a cost in terms of the variety of K-pop to which fans are exposed, a variety that is vital in creating a listening audience with diverse tastes. Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes argue: “Spotify prides itself on its personalised recommendations, which work by connecting dots between ‘data points’ assigned to songs (from rap, indie, and so on, to infinite micro-genre permutations) to determine new music you might like. Its model doesn’t code for surprise, but perpetuates “lean-back” passivity.” Using data to curate the listener’s experience, Spotify de-emphasizes the discovery of new music that may be far afield of a listener’s preferences.
This is contrast to other ways that global fans develop their K-pop preferences in the past. My own research reveals that K-pop fans have a tendency to seek out new groups and artists after their initial exposure to K-pop. This branching is guided by recommendations from friends as well as YouTube playlists and recommendations. YouTube represents a fundamentally different way of accessing music, one that gives a larger role to the human component in the form of other fans. For example, listeners can access playlists compiled by fans that include entries based on their likes.
The presence of simply more music outside the bounds of those determined by data shapes our conception of the music in general. I compiled a playlist a YouTube playlist for my book, Soul in Seoul: African American Music and K-pop. For example, I was able to find examples by R&B artists who incorporate a monologue at the beginning of their songs, like the Chi-Lites‘ “Have You Seen Her,” the same kind of monologue that K-pop group Shinhwa incorporates into their 2004 track “Crazy.”
When I went to create my playlist on Spotify, Shinhwa’s album Brand New was missing from the artist listing, which is a serious omission. Brand New was Shinhwa’s first album after their departure from SM Entertainment, the company with which the group debuted. Not only is it incredibly significant in terms of the development of the group’s sound, it features several hit songs, including “Crazy” and “Brand New.” But a Spotify listener would not know this. In this way, Spotify shapes the listening experience of an individual in a way that omits significant parts of an artist’s musical trajectory.
What does this mean for K-pop? The inability to encounter music outside of a data-driven model means that K-pop listeners are limited if they largely access their K-pop from streaming sites that use such a model, which can skew their overall perception of K-pop.
Numerical data dominates the discourse around K-pop. In order to get a fuller view, we need to contextualize those numbers with other kinds of information in order to understand K-pop’s worldwide appeal.
With the focus on awards, streams, views and tweets, numbers lead the way we talk about K-pop. 2020 has seen K-pop venture into new territory, with high appearances on Billboard charts, high-profile performances and unprecedented winning of awards. K-pop fans urge others to view and stream to increase the visibility of their favorite groups. Scholars also use numerical data to study the use of social media and understand the spread of K-pop globally. Some see research based on numerical data as the gold standard: “Quantitative research is more preferred over qualitative research because it is more scientific, objective, fast, focused and acceptable” (Formplus Blog).
However, the hyperfocus on numerical data can skew our understanding of K-pop. Numbers are not as objective as many think. Data can be manipulated and misrepresented. Even when the data is valid, it only presents part of the story. Harry Gough notes: “Sometimes we are so hypnotized by data, we gaze past our own humanity. To get the whole picture, you need the story behind the data – the ‘so what?’, otherwise all you have is data. Which is why qualitative data can be so valuable.”
Twitter data featured in Tamar Herman‘s “10 Years On, Twitter is Shaping the Spread of K-pop,” shows the strengths of numerical data, but also the need for additional perspectives to understand the whole story of K-pop’s global spread through social media. Twitter Korea “tracked data from the past year between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020” and “added it to its analysis of the past decade’s growth,” which includes data from Twitter usage from 2010-2020 (Herman). The long-term Twitter usage data reveals a pattern of increase in Twitter conversations related to K-pop. Such conversations show the domination of boy groups, the increase of usage of Twitter by K-pop artists and the prominence of certain artists in certain countries (Herman).
At the same time, the data has limits, meaning there are things it does not take into account. This data covers only Twitter. While it is a major social media platform, there are many K-pop fans on Twitter who never participate in conversations. Other K-pop fans intentionally avoid Twitter in favor of other social media platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and private Facebook groups. These K-pop fans are not captured in this data, so what it tells us pertains only to a certain segment of K-pop fans. If we take its conclusions as representative of most or all K-pop fans, we could be misrepresenting the data and what it actually tells us.
Moreover, this data does not tell us why boy groups dominate or why certain artists are popular in certain countries. We need non-numerical data, which could add to the numerical data by understanding “underlying reasons, opinions and motivations” (Gough). Mentions are just that: mentions. They do not tell us why something is being mentioned. Asking individuals about the motivations behind their actions, their attitudes and opinions may not be generalizable, but it helps to explain the numbers.
With the rise of research in K-pop, we need multiple methods to comprehensively understand it.
In order to comprehensively examine the hybrid nature of music and performance in the Korean wave, we should recognize the multiple meanings embedded in these cultural modes that transcend language.
This cultural translation is clearly illustrated in Lia Kim‘s choreography for Earth, Wind and Fire‘s “September,” a single released by the iconic R&B group in 1978. Kim is known for her choreography for K-pop artists, including the girl group Mamamoo. Uploaded to 1MILLION Dance Studio’s YouTube channel in February 2020, the dance video for “September” translates the exuberance of the song, an exuberance that transcends language. The choreography uses dynamic handwork and travels through the dance space with sharp body moves that highlight the distinctive horns of the song. The energy the dancers is matched by yells from the audience.
While the song’s lyrics tell a story, Jefferey Peretz also points to the groove in the track itself: “There’s four chords in the chorus that keep moving forward and never seem to land anywhere–much like the four seasons. . . . It’s the end of summer, it’s the beginning of fall, it’s that Indian summertime; it’s the transition from warm to cool” (Charnas). Israel Daramola says, “The reason ‘September’ is iconic has little to do with its lyrics–as White would tell you–but instead its majesty and intricate musicality. It is funk and disco and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, all at once, designed to get you moving and smiling.” Both Peretz and Daramola point to the embedded meanings in the music itself.
Kim’s choreography for the track also reflects a hybridity that transcend language because African American cultural production contain meanings that transcend language. In A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America,Craig Werner notes that that genres such as hip-hop, gospel, soul, funk, reggae and disco are not just “a black thing”:
While those strategies are grounded in the specific history of blacks in what Bob Marley called ‘Babylon,’ they’re available to anyone who doesn’t call Babylon home. (xiii)
Music, visuals and performance transcend language because they draw on experiences that people share. Daramola cites major genres of black popular music, which carry what Werner calls “impulses” that draw on black experiences. Such impulses are embedded in the music and are accessible to anyone who can recognize them. For example, Werner describes the record label Philadelphia International Records, a major figure in the soul sound, as creating “a socially uplifting music that would appeal to everyone in the black community and as many as possible on the other side of the rapidly re-forming racial line” (197).
If the cultural flows that produce the hybrid music and performance of the Korean wave ripple across national and linguistic boundaries, then our examination of it should also. The embedded meaning is the reason why people who don’t speak the language respond to it. It is also the reason why we can study the cultural production of Hallyu without knowing the language. While language is important, it’s not the only important vehicle for the transmission of meaning.
1MILLION Dance Studio. “Earth, Wind & Fire – September/Lia Kim Choreography.” YouTube. 14 Feb 2020. https://youtu.be/6mb76aRJxaw (Accessed 28 Aug 2020).
Craig Werner. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. Plume, 1998.
Samuel Seo (Seo Donh-hyeon) released his first album in 2015. His 2018 album Unity features the track “Keep It Simple,” composed by Seo and arranged by Sung Ki-moon, Joseph Choi, Jaeho Kim and Jun Beck. Featuring jazz pianist, the track sports a sparse arrangement that allows the twinkling jazz piano and soft percussion to complement Seo’s always stellar vocals. As Seo’s vocals increase in intensity, so too does the improvisation on the piano and the prominence of the drums. For someone often associated with hip-hop, this track showcases the versatility of Seo’s style by delving into jazz.
Whether K-pop fans are praised political activists or denigrated as delusional enthusiasts, both characterizations reduce K-pop fans, especially Black fans, and fail to recognize their value beyond politics.
Up until recently, K-pop fans had a questionable reputation. On March 19, 2020, I did a search for K-pop fans, and these are the search terms Google offered:
This is what today’s search (June 24) for K-pop fan brings:
In the span of a few months, the perception of K-pop fans has changed, largely due to several events with political ramifications, including overwhelming the Dallas police iWatch Dallas app, taking over the #whitelivesmatter hashtag, and most recently, disrupting President Trump’s Oklahoma rally. Coverage by mainstream media outlets have praised these actions, suggesting that K-pop fans now have value because they are politically active.
However, others are pointing out that calling K-pop the newest wave of political activists is not as positive as it seems. Abby Ohlheiser does a really great job of explaining the complexity surrounding K-pop fandom and why the sudden characterization of K-pop fans as activists is problematic:
Some stans, and the academics who study them, say that while it’s great to see fans use these platforms for good, the rapid veneration is overshadowing the more complex dynamics underlying K-pop fandom. And, they say, the newfound reputation for anti-racist heroism largely ignores the voices of black K-pop fans, who have struggled with racism and harassment within the community.
The K-pop fan-as-activist is the other side of the K-pop-fan-as-crazy coin. Both are imposed by the media and narrowly construe K-pop fandom. K-pop fan activity did not suddenly become important or significant just because it intersects with the political arena or because major outlets say so. Fans were always important and significant, in and of themselves. K-pop fans’ ability to organize and mobilize for a cause can be seen as early as 2012, when fans of Seo Taiji, often credited with being the first major figure in K-pop, fundraised to create the “SeoTaiji Forest” in Brazil to support conservation. It’s the same organizing used to support groups when they promote. But it’s also scores of smaller, collaborative projects that collect information in informal archive projects. K-pop fans have always been proactive in producing culture around K-pop.
This has a particular impact for Black K-pop fans. While Black K-pop fans have been part of K-pop fandom since its early days, they are increasingly being brought to the fore solely within the context of K-pop activism around Black Lives Matter, or increasingly, to articulate their negative experiences within the fandom. While both are important in understanding the experiences of Black fans, they are not the only way to understand those experiences. Raising Black K-pop fan voices only to tell stories of racism and discrimination suggests that Black fans cannot talk about just being a fan, who they like and why. It excludes Black fans from having a voice on any other aspect of K-pop and silences them under the auspices of giving them a voice.
Black fans, and Black people in general, have a complex experience one that includes joy. Imani Perry recently wrote for The Atlantic: “My elders taught me that I belonged to a tradition of resilience, of music that resonates across the globe, of spoken and written language that sings. . . . The injustice is inescapable. So yes, I want the world to recognize our suffering. But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.” Calling on Black voices only confirm their negative experience with ignoring their opinion on everything else in the fandom excludes them from being fans in the truest sense of the word. If the only way the public sees Black fan is as a tragic victim, we reduce the Black fan.
K-pop fans in general, and Black K-pop fans in particular, are having characterizations imposed on them by entities that do not have the best track record on K-pop coverage. This narrative of activism is being generated by mainstream media outlets rather than the fans themselves. As a result, it continues the age-old tendency of the media reducing K-pop fans to the simplest of terms.
Veteran “idol” group g.o.d (Groove Overdose) is the first K-pop artist explored in-depth in Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop. When writing the book, I always knew that g.o.d formed the foundation of understanding the use of R&B rhythm and vocals for later “idol” groups. Their consistent use of funk rhythms and vocals, especially gospel-inflected vocals over their decades-long career allows for an exploration of their sound over time, which remains remarkably consistent. The group’s engagement with black popular music ranges from soul ballads to upbeat dance tracks. Below find a collection of the best examples of g.o.d’s engagement with black popular music. (*Tracks marked with an * are explored further in the book).
Observation, Chapter 1 (1999)* | 2. So You Can Come Back to Me, Chapter 1 (1999) | 3. With Little Men, Chapter 1 (1999) | 4. Promise, Chapter 1 (1999) | 5. Love and Remember, Chapter 2 (1999) | 6. Dance All Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 7. Friday Night, Chapter 2 (1999) | 8. Five Men’s Story, Chapter 2 (1999) | 9. 21C Our Hope, Chapter 2 (1999) | 10. One Candle, Chapter 3 (2000)* | 11. Need You, Chapter 3 (2000) | 12. Lie, Chapter 3 (2000) | 13. Dance With Me, Chapter 3 (2000) | 14. Road, Chapter 4 (2001) | 15. The Place You Where You Should Be, Chapter 4 (2001) | 16. Let’s Go, Chapter 4 (2001) | 17. Report to the Dance Floor, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 18. Lately, Chapter 5: Letter (2002) | 19. The Reason Why Opposites Attract (Bandaega Kkeulrineun Iyu), Ordinary Day (2004) | 20. I Don’t Know Your Heart (Ni Mameul Molla), Into the Sky (2005) | 21. It’s Alright (ft. G-Soul), Into the Sky (2005) | 22. Crime (Mujoe), Into the Sky (2005) | 23. Change, Into the Sky (2005) | 24. Sky Blue Promise, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 25. Stand Up, Chapter 8 (2014) | 26. Saturday Night, Chapter 8 (2014)* | 27. G’swag, Chapter 8 (2014)
“Change” is from g.o.d’s (Groove Overdose) 2005 album Into the Sky. It combines rap with the distinct soul vocals of Kim Tae Woo. The track’s lyrics were written by Park Jin Young, the CEO of JYP Entertainment also known as The Asiansoul, while the composition and arrangement is credited to Mad Soul Child.
Online platforms have been a major force propelling the spread of K-pop globally, but are shifts in how they are deployed contributing to a more insular fandom?
When you ask K-pop fans about their journey into K-pop, YouTube usually features prominently. Over the last few years, K-pop fans have been treated to content by companies and artists who recognize the platform as a significant way to get content to fans. However, Jeff Benjamin reports a new trend that sees companies shifting their focus from the easily accessed platforms like Youtube (depending on your country of residence) to more proprietary platforms that promise more direct interaction with K-pop artists and more profit for companies: “The apps will enable K-pop companies to retain all of the ad revenue generated by the content they post. YouTube’s revenue-sharing model only gives 55% to channel owners, which can get more complicated when international viewership is involved.”
While access to such proprietary platforms such as WeVerse and Lysn are free, revenue is generated from fees to access more premium content with artists. Fans could pay $30 for a global fan membership or $20 to view the individual fourth season of BTS’s Bon Voyage, while an individual membership for a subscription to SM Entertainment’s personalized message system “Dear U” costs $3.45 per month for an individual member, and a subscription for all 14 members of NCT could run about $40 (Benjamin 2020).
What are the implications for K-pop fandom, which for years was sustained by free content on platforms like YouTube? On one hand, this move could limit access for fans who choose to not pay for such services, and they may lose interest in K-pop. On the other hand, fans have been circulating artist-related material for decades, keeping interest going for K-pop long before the companies started to look to proprietary platforms for revenue.
There would be a particular dilemma for the multi-fan of groups who may end of on several different proprietary platforms. Moreover, it could contribute to the continued balkanization of K-pop fandom, with fans becoming even more territorial and defensive about their groups. Channeling fans to proprietary sites may translate to even less exposure to other K-pop groups as well as the larger K-pop industry.
Such a move could also make fandom less visible. Because of its ease of access, YouTube is not only a platform for artist content, but for fan content as well. This put fan activity on global display. If interaction between artists and fans move to more proprietary platforms, such fan activity becomes less visible. Which stricter rules on sharing, it could also have a negative impact on the visibility of fan-artist interaction, which began on very visible social media platforms in the first place.
Survey responses suggest that American female fans of K-pop girl groups simultaneously critique Korean society and music industry and recognize the impact of their position as foreign fans on their perceptions of representations of empowerment in K-pop. These are findings from the U Go Girl: The K-pop Girl Group Fan Study and are based on 129 responses from female fans who identified their country of residency as the United States.
Transcultural fandom, when fans admire something outside of their culture, often revolves around nationalism. Koichi Iwabuchi talks about “brand nationalism,” or a “nationalist strategy of disseminating culture for national interests” (90). However, brand nationalism focuses on the interests of the country creating the culture rather than how fans outside of the country make sense of it. The field of fan studies tends to focus on the way fans admire culture, but what about when they critique it? When asked about their attitudes towards concepts/images of K-pop girl groups in relation to empowerment and agency for women, some American female fans of K-pop girl groups articulate a critique of gender dynamics in Korean society, while others recognize the impact of their American identity on their perspectives of female empowerment in Korea. Both show how an American perspective can influences the discourses around K-pop.
Critique of Korea
Several respondents criticize Korean culture and society for a lack of representation of empowerment by K-pop girl groups. One respondent notes: “I think Korea has a huge issue with misogyny that is reflected in K-pop and that women are forced to be boxed in to one ‘type’ or another in order to appeal to men and to be socially acceptable to both men and women.” Another respondent says: “A lot of times they are held back due to Korea still holding sexist attitudes so I think there is more potential but it will all slowly become better.” How much do the respondents know about the history of Korean culture? Do they form such opinions based on Western media, which has been known to skew representations of foreign culture? Is “Korea’s issue with misogyny” or its “sexist attitudes” different than those within the United States?
Recognition of American Subjectivity
At the same time, other respondents recognize their perspective as American fans of a foreign popular culture. One respondent notes: “We have to remember as foreign fans, the concepts, images and sonic soundscapes that we hear/see in K-pop are coming from a unique place and culture. That means we are not always going to immediately understand it. . . . . We all have different experiences and thus different frameworks. Foreign Kpop fans need to remember this.” Another respondent notes: “This is a tricky question, because I’m a white American woman speaking on gender politics in Korea, a country I have no relation to and have never lived in. . . . At the end of the day, I’m not a defining voice on the subject, all I am is someone trying to find grey area in music and entertainment from a country that isn’t my own. I still am friends with quite a few Korean-Americans so I hear what they think on certain concepts, and that contributes a lot to my hesitancy to place my Western ideals on another country dismissively.” These fans recognize that their perceptions of Korean culture are filtered through their experiences as fans outside of the country. What kind of knowledge would a fan have to gain to make a valid critique of representations of empowerment? Do their perspectives not count because they are foreign fans? Do ideas about empowerment change as they cross national boundaries?
Such divergent responses suggest that perceptions by American fans may be influenced by American culture in general. The impact of nationalism has been explored in fan studies. Kyong Yoon’s study of K-pop fans in Vancouver included Canadians of East Asian descent, white Canadians and one Canadian of mixed race. Yoon noted: “Some fans of Asian descent engaged with K-pop in relation to their Asian Canadian subject positions, while White Canadian fans emphasized their individual and alternative cultural tastes that do not belong to mainstream culture” (185). Yoon suggests that a Canadian context informs the way these fans interact with K-pop.
The United States represents a unique context informed by a history of the interplay among gender, ethnicity and nationality. As a nation developed by a variety of immigrant groups and a major site for women’s rights, the United States also elides those very varied experiences in favor of one dominant narrative on empowerment, currently often represented as fierce, outspoken and brash. Images and concepts not in keeping with this narrative might be construed as not empowering. This suggests that a distinct and particular American cultural lens can have an impact on the way fans read empowerment in Korean girl groups.
Iwabuchi, Koichi.”Undoing Inter‐national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism’. Mechademia 5 (2010): . 87‐96.
Yoon, Kyong. “Transnational Fandom in the Making: K-pop Fans in Vancouver.” the International Communication Gazette vol 81, no. 2 (2018): 176-192. DOI: 10.1177/1748048518802964.