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.
Korean popular music includes many genres – Jazz, Hip-Hop, Rock, Rhythm & Blues – even Ska and Bossa Nova. One of the reasons Kpop is so addictive and has continued its growth globally is because, despite language differences, the music seems so familiar to its listeners, particularly for non-Asian audiences. Fuhr (2015) writes, “K-pop producers strongly follow the formulaic production standards set by Western mainstream pop songs…, but they combine all the well-known elements in a way that audiences in the East and West equally seem to receive as refreshingly new but also familiar.” (pp. 238-239)
Not only do Korean producers strive to mix (and remix) Eastern and Western musical elements, they work closely with Westernsinger/songwriters and producers or purchase western-based music tracks for use by Korean artists (Note: purchasing tracks is a popular practice in the global music industry. Demo tracks, guide vocals, backing vocals are some terms you can search to learn more).
KPK members have noted that Kpop fans may not be familiar with why many songs sound familiar to them. This realization was crystallized when TVXQ released their strong R&B ballad “Before U Go,” (2011) which includes a partial guitar riff from the Isley Brother’s song “Voyage to Atlantis” (1977) – many people, instead, could only reference Chris Brown’s song “Take You Down” (2008) – which still echoes the musical composition of the aforementioned Isley Brothers song. Moreover, recognition gaps go beyond music composition to include singing styles, choreography, and song instrumentation or arrangement. Additionally, we’ve found that such oversights are glaring in academic literature, which overwhelmingly focuses on K-pop music as a political tool or economic commodity (Lee 2008, Jang & Paik 2012, and see this bibliography).
The “Let KPK Introduce You To…” blogpost series hopes to help Kpop fans discover links between what they hear in Kpop songs (or see in Kpop promotions) and the recent history of American music and popular culture – from a particular song or a musician’s vocal runs to costuming, training, dancing, or overall presentation. The primarily audio/visual – and brief – blog posts will open with the K-pop artist song,concept, or performance and then readers will be introduced to the “why it sounds familiar” song, concept, or performance. The entry will end with brief biographical or explanatory text of the “original” artist, sound, idea, or concept. Simple right?
Part lay ethnomusicology and part historiography, the series offers a gateway for music enthusiasts to contextualize the foundation and development of Kpop music, and for critics to move beyond discussions of cultural appropriation in K-pop and toward the more likely premise of global creative collaboration.
If you’ve ever heard or seen a Kpop song, dance, styling, or presentation and and thought “that sounds like/looks like/feels like/reminds me of…,” this series is for you! Look forward to it.
Fuhr, Michael. Globalization and popular music in South Korea: Sounding out K-pop. New York: Routledge. (2015).
Jang, Gunjoo & Won K. Paik. Korean wave as tool for Korea’s new cultural diplomacy. Advances in Applied Sociology, 2(3): 196-202. (2012). http://file.scirp.org/Html/22229.html(16 June 2016).
Lee, Keehyeung. Mapping out the cultural politics of the “Korean Wave” in contemporary South Korea. In C.B. Huat and K. Iwabuchi (Eds.) East Asian Pop Culture: Analyzing the Korean Wave. pp. 175 – 189. Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press. (2008).