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.