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).
Whether it’s excited yelling by fans or crying by K-pop artists, emotions run deep in K-pop. While some focus on obsessive emotional attachments and behaviors by fans, research shows that fans themselves describe a range of emotional responses to K-pop. 100 responses by 18- to 30-year-olds show that fans find K-pop to be a source of happiness, hope and motivation. These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at KPK: Kpop Kollective.
Some writers tend to characterize fan activities and emotional expressions in negative terms. Patricia of Seoulbeats describes emotional expressions of appreciation for K-pop as bordering on obsessive: “I think there’s something to be said about my stance on the emotional toll that idol fandom takes on its devotees. That’s why I become so alarmed when I see these SHINee fans writing these intense emotional outpourings about how SHINee has changed their lives, or how much SHINee means to them. It breaks my heart to hear fans say that they turn to K-pop as a distraction for real life because their friends and family can’t offer them the same comfort that K-pop idols do.”
Adeline Chia writes that such emotions translate into obsessive behaviors: “Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry. . . . K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate. Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals.”
To view entire “Can’t Stop Loving You” infographic, click here.
However, fans talk about the emotional appeal of K-pop in more positive terms. Some talk about overall emotions that go beyond the lyrics. One notes, “Kpop has the power to touch people even for those like me who don’t understand the lyrics. I think [it] is the r[h]ythm, the emotion in the voices, the dances. Kpop is like a best friend, it is here for you whenever you are happy or sad. Powerful stuff.” Another said: “The music is more touching and you can feel the emotions of the singers when they sing regardless of what genre.” Others link emotions to performances: “They sing and perform with passion and emotions, so even if you can’t really understand the lyrics you will get to know what it’s about by just listening. Kpop is not just another type of music it’s much more, that I can’t describe it with words” (Anderson).
These responses echo what scholars have discovered about emotional responses to music that transcend cultural differences. In a study with Western listeners listening to Hindustani ragas, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson find that it is possible for music to travel cross-culturally: “According to our model, this indicates that the psychophysical cues for joy, sadness, and anger were salient enough to enable listeners to overcome their unfamiliarity with culture-specific cues and to make an accurate assessment of the intended emotion. . . . That naive listeners demonstrated such a high level of agreement with expert listeners, who were deeply familiar with the culture-specific cues embedded in the music samples, is remarkable” (58). In other words, listeners from other cultures can identify emotionally with music of a different culture, and this may shed light on why global fans identify with K-pop emotionally.
This emotional response runs the gamut. Many respondents describe how they find K-pop to be fun and happy. One notes, “Cause the music is always so free and fun to dance to. It simply makes me happy.” Another adds, “The songs are really refreshing, and listening to it puts me in a happy mood because of their lyrics and beats.” Other respondents link the happiness they feel from K-pop to their lives in general: “It always puts me in a good mood and makes me feel energized. Kpop sometimes can make you feel like your part of something bigger. It’s hard to explain but the feeling it gives you is great” (Anderson).
Others related K-pop to more somber emotions. One respondent says, “Because it’s very different and the music touches something in me, I mean this is not superficial, there are feelings in every song, this could be happiness or some sad feelings.” Another notes, “When I listen to sad songs I find that it have feelings in it and it will touched me too.” One says, “There’s an upbeat to the music that sometimes make you want to dance other times depending on where you heard it from makes you sad” (Anderson).
Some fans talk about how K-pop helps them through hard times. One respondent notes, “It was introduced to me at a hard time in my life and it has been the only music I listened to help me get through it.” Another says, “Kpop appeared in my life all of a sudden. I was really depressed back then and it helped me get out of my miserable state, pulled me out of the worst” (Anderson). Music can have the therapeutic effect these respondents describe. Annemiek Vink explains therapy methods, such as Guided Imagery in Music, which is “based on the assumption that the most appropriate music can be selected for healing purposes.” She further finds that the choice of music impacts the therapeutic results of GIM: “In all aspects, carefully selected music based on the person’s preference and personal background was far more effective than standard relaxation music” (153, 154).
This range of fairly positive emotions challenges negative characterizations of their emotional expression. These responses come from adults rather than young teenagers, so it is less convincing to describe them as obsessive along the lines of Chia. She refers to incidents involving K-pop celebrities, but respondents speak about their emotions mostly in relation to the music. When they do comment on the artists, it is often in terms of the positive relationship they have with fans. One notes, “The singers are so dedicated to their music and their fans. They put their real emotion into every word” (Anderson).
This emotional connection that some K-pop fans feel also translates into a discourse of protection, the desire to protect their group or artist from mischaracterizations. The Triple S Pledge encourages fans of SS501 “To support and shield them through hard times…To ignore rumors.” The same sentiments can be seen in the “Prom15e to Bel13ve and 10ve” philosophy held by some fans of Super Junior, which acknowledges every member regardless of current status or sub-group membership.
These findings suggest that emotion plays a role in the attitudes and opinions of adult global K-pop fans, often in a positive way.
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.