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.
Hallyu Harmony: A Cultural History of Kpop is a digital humanities project that traces connections among the artists and groups across genres, generations and geographies through visuals, music and choreography. The first exhibit, Seo Taiji: President of Culture, explores the reasons why Seo Taiji is considered the pioneer of contemporary K-pop. The current exhibit under construction, Move the Crowd: Choreography and K-pop, explores an other key aspect of K-pop: dance. APeace is the first page in the first section of this exhibit, Star Array: Dance and the Large K-pop Group. With 21 members, APeace is one of the largest K-pop groups. See how they use their numbers in choreography here.
Academic research suggests adults like K-pop for a variety of reasons, the chief of which is music. These findings complicate assumptions about the identity of international K-pop fans and their preferences. According to 638 responses among 18- to 30-year-olds from around the world, other top reasons include choreography and idols.
Youth is a major lens through which many view K-pop. Not only do commentators focus on the age of the performers, they also assume that all fans of K-pop are teenagers. The Wikipedia entry states that K-pop “has grown into a popular subculture among teenagers and young adults around the world.” Commentators like Kim Ji-myung often begin media stories about K-pop with an observation about the age of its fans: “I find it surprising and also fun to see so many European and American youngsters dance and sing in unison with Korean tunes (in Korean!) on the streets and in parks” (italics mine).
Scholars echo this focus on K-pop’s younger fans. In the edited collection Hallyu: Influence of Korean Popular Culture in Asia and Beyond, Do Kyun Kim and Se-jin Kim assume that Asian youths make up the primary audience for K-pop: “Korean pop music has emerged as a predominant trend among young Asians over the last decade. Its strong beats mixed with unique rhythms have appealed greatly to numerous teenagers in China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries” (italics mine, 28).
While teenagers may be the most visible fans, adult fans are part of the international K-pop fandom. K-pop appeals to them for a variety of reasons. Most respondents list multiple reasons for their preference for K-pop: “Addictive music, perfect dancing, unique dance routine, unique style, idols with great personalities.” Even so, the analysis of these responses reveals several recurrent themes in the preferences of adult fans of K-pop. [See Note 1]
The Music Matters
One of the common critiques of K-pop involves the music, as Fatouma, a writer for seoulbeats, shows: “Manufactured music soon become the norm and with the inclusion of teen idols, entertainment companies could now make music and sell it as a commodity. . . . the Korean music scene would be predominantly void of original material.” However, music emerges as the top reason cited by adults for their preference for K-pop. Instead of describing the music as formulaic and manufactured, adult fans indicate a variety of aspects of K-pop that speak to the quality and creativity of the music.
Some respondents describe the music as “catchy” and “fun.” Others cite specific elements of the music itself, including songs, lyrics and beats. One respondent writes, “KPop has very addictive beats with simple melodies that make it easy to enjoy music.” Another notes: “The music and beats are similar, but, instead of the lyrics being perverse and violent (like music is in the U.S.), the lyrics are often about love, friendship, or happiness.”
Still others compare K-pop to other musical genres to reveal its quality and creativity: “The beats and rhythms of the music have an old school R&B feel to them with a modern twist.” Another comments: “I really love group harmonies and while Kpop is mostly pop, my favorite groups collaborate on a range of genres, from funk, soul, and R&B. The lyrics are often more poetical with great imagery, and the music more complex than American pop.”
These comments also suggest that adult fans find the blending of American musical genres such as American pop, R&B and soul with Korean culture in the form of lyrics appealing. This hybridity is a hallmark of K-pop in the Hallyu era, and can be seen in Park Hyo Shin‘s performance of Sting‘s Shape of My Heart and Maroon Five‘s This Love:
Park Hyo Shin demonstrates the same level of performance in his own work, Standing There (그곳에 서서):
In addition to aspects of the music itself, other individuals explain that they like K-pop because it is different from the music in their country or other forms of popular music. Several subjects indicate that K-pop is different from the popular music in Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Others write that K-pop is different in regions as varied as Europe and South America.
Some point to the content of K-pop as being less sexual and materialistic than modern pop music, as these series of responses show:
I’ve gotten tired of American music, the lyrics are always about partying, sex, cars, drugs, and money.
I feel like kpop is a safe, comfortable, fun environment that’s cute and silly and ever so slightly sexy without usually making me question whether it’s appropriate.
It doesn’t contain any sexual references or bad words like those in english pop.
There’s a variety, and it’s not about sex, money, or drugs. I come from America where most songs are about those three things.
These set of responses suggest that adult fans find K-pop appealing because they find it unique. They point to another key difference, namely, the near absence of what some see as offensive content in contemporary pop music.
Will You Dance With Me?
Some critics describe K-pop choreography in negative terms. Adeline Chia includes choreography in a litany of negative characterizations of K-pop, and later suggests that the “synchronized dance moves” are just part of a formula for success.
However, many respondents indicate that choreography plays a large role in the appeal of K-pop. Frequently, the dances complement the music, and adult fans like that they can do some of the dances themselves: “The songs are great to listen to and I love to dance so since most Kpop songs have their own choreography, I frequently try to learn the moves and dance to the songs for fun.” This interest in performing the dances is reflected in fan activity. While many of the cover dances that grace YouTube feature teenagers, this video featuring the members of the ZN Dance School Mother’s Class dancing to BigBang‘s Fantastic Baby shows that adult fans also like to perform the dances:
Other respondents are impressed by the level and quality of the choreography: “As a dancer, I really appreciate and marvel at KPOP’s talent as musicians, performers, and dancers. Their (KPOP performers) talent, precision, and effort put into dance is outstanding. It makes me excited to see such a popular unit of entertainment giving such a focus to dance.”
K-pop is very visually oriented, especially with idols, who are K-pop artists who engage in activities beyond music performance, including modeling, hosting television programs, endorsing products and acting in Kdramas. In a recent article, Jeff Yang describes K-pop idols based on their appearance, including “curvaceous crooners like Lee Hyori or BoA” and “floppy-haired dreamboats like Rain or Kim Hyun Joong.”
Adult fans often comment on the attractiveness of the idols; however, it is rarely the sole reason for the appeal of K-pop. Several respondents indicate that the variety and reality shows on which idols appear contribute to the way they perceive idols and their personalities. One respondent notes: “Kpop idol got many abilities..they act, they do musical[s], they host show (MC), they modelling (sp) and [have] many others talent..some of them can speak many languages and [are] good in lots of things such as martial arts..they [are] also good in variety show[s]..they are funny..they knows how to make you laugh.” In addition to being attractive, others find idols to be multi-talented and have appealing personalities: “The fact that many idols are multitalented (sp) also help to prove that they have the skill to back up their looks, unlike many other artists.”
Overall, adult fans see the idol persona in a positive light.
It may be that in kpop you still have girl bands and boy bands which is something we no longer seem to prize in the American music industry (individualism) but with kpop and their groups you get to see a collective identity.
Plus, aside from being extremely good-looking and talented, Kpop idols were also been asked to show and set a good example to the fans.They were trained for quite a long time and some Kpop idols were actually trained to polished their skills in singing, dancing and acting since they were in middle – and even elementary school! That’s why I salute them. They put so much effort and determination in each and every work they are doing.
Some scholars suggest that the appearance of idols on such shows only contributes to what they describe as the manufactured nature of K-pop. Sun Jung suggests that appearing on such shows “is considered crucial for rookie idol groups because it enables them to reveal their seemingly genuine selves to the audiences, which greatly enhances the connections between viewers and the idol groups.” She cites media critics who see this as a form of manipulation: “The images displayed in reality shows are nothing but the fabricated popular products empowered by the capitalist desires of their management companies” (168).
Such characterizations by media critics fail to recognize how audiences construct their own meanings out of such images in ways that management companies cannot predict or control. Scholars of audience theory, like David Morley, suggest that previously, “audiences were considered as passive consumers. . . . it was then discovered that this was an inaccurate picture because, in fact, these people were out there. . . being active in all kinds of ways–making critical/oppositional readings of dominant cultural forms, perceiving ideological messages selectively/subversively, and so on.” Now, media studies scholarship assumes “that the audience is always active” and “media content is always polysemic, or open to interpretation” (13). In other words, while corporate entities may promote such shows for a certain effect, fans make their own meaning out of them.
These responses show that adult fans like the television show appearances because they reveal a different side of the idols personality, not necessarily a more “real” aspect of their personality. More often, adult fans saw the shows as an opportunity to see other aspects of idols, such as talent and work ethic: “All the groups are TALENTED and well-trained. You can see it from their performance. They gave first class performance. ” Another notes: “Every detail is paid attention to, to the point that idols work very hard, despite losing time for rest and relaxation. One can see the effort and energy the idols have placed in releasing an album, single, digital-released song, etc.” These observations suggest that adult fans find the shows appealing because they show other dimensions of the idols.
Overall, these findings suggest that adult fans find K-pop appealing in ways that complicate assumptions about the international K-pop fandom. Because music is the top reason for the appeal of K-pop to adults, commentators and scholars may want to pay more attention to the musical production of K-pop. The findings challenge repeated charges that K-pop is manufactured, fake, formulaic and appeals only to teenagers. They also reveal a degree of agency in the way adult fans construct meaning in relation to K-pop culture, which often may be different from the way agencies intend for them to engage with K-pop.
Written by Crystal S. Anderson, (PhD, Associate Professor, Elon University, NC, U.S.), who continues to gather data as part of an IRB-approved five-year research study on international fans of K-pop. For more information and to participate, visit Kpop Kollective.
1. This data is part of an IRB-approved five-year study on international fans of K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson (PhD). Responses were collected between April 29, 2011 and April 15, 2012. Subjects were asked the open-ended question: “Why do you like K-pop?” The responses were coded to reveal themes among the responses, and then analyzed using discourse analysis. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers describes coding, a qualitative research method, as the process of assigning a code, or “a word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a . . . attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data” (3). Researchers then analyze the codes because “one of the coder’s primary goals is to find these repetitive patterns of action and consistencies in human affairs as documented in the data” (5). These patterns then form themes. In this study the themes are then analyzed using discourse analysis, often used in visual and cultural studies. Gillian Rose describes such analysis as the examination of “connections between and among key words and key images” and asking such questions as: “How are particular words or images given specific meaning? Are there meaningful clusters of words and images? What associations are established within such clusters? What connections are there between such clusters?”
Kim, Do Kyun and Kim Se-Jin. “Hallyu from its Origin to Present: A Historical Overview.” 13-34. In Hallyu: Influence of Korean Popular Culture in Asian and Beyond. Ed. Do Kyun Kim and Min-Sun Kim. Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2011.