Those who love K-Pop swear there’s nothing like it, and those who don’t—call it talentless garbage. As someone who doesn’t listen to K-Pop, I think both sides have a valid point. Apart from Japan and China, I am not aware of a country that is wholly dedicated to recruiting young talents—and by young, I mean students in elementary or middle school—to train them until they’re TV-ready. At the same time, the kind of music that is often labelled as “K-Pop” is founded on a checklist-based formula: a voice designed to hit a track’s high notes, substantial dancing skills and a pretty face to support it all. If a candidate falls short of these expectations, he or she simply doesn’t make it. What about character, you say? As the judges are human, they’ll let those with a quirky or charming personality slide by, but they are, of course, exceptions. Ultimately, what these label companies seek for in a potential member of a girl or boy group (or in Korean, an “idol group”) is a well-rounded person. They welcome a team member equipped a balanced combination of talent, amiability and an eagerness to learn, rather than a sole artist. It’s a hard concept to swallow as I believe stars are born as stars.
Before I go to reveal the subliminal message of K-Pop, I would like to clarify what K-Pop is often mistaken for. The term is misrepresented and misused. For the most part, it’s used to single out the heavily choreographed, and almost musical-like genre promoted by major label companies in South Korea. If not, it’s used as a label to stick on all Korean music available to the foreign market. If it’s singing in Korean, then it’s K-Pop. If it raps in Korean, that’s also K-Pop. If the artist is based in Korea—K-Pop it is. As K-Pop really means “all popular music within South Korea,” there is more to K-Pop than boy and girl group music. I mean, Koreans listen to other stuff, too.
I think of Korean music (or “gayo” in Korean) as a layer cake with room to cross over. Popular music in South Korea can be divided into two large sectors. One is “daejoong gayo,” which just means popular Korean music, and the other—there is no agreed name for it it, but I’d like to call it “the other popular music”. While daejoong gayo is led by celebrity-status musicians and performers who frequently appear on TV, the rest of popular music is produced by artists who tend to focus on live shows, rather than TV appearences. What about the rest of gayo? Music that isn’t well-known or sparsely popular is often generalized as alternative music. A lot of Korean hip-hop music fell into this category up until about four years ago, Show Me the Money popularized the idea of hip-hop on national television in the format of a talent audition. With no restrictions on trying contestants, the show welcomed new and old Korean hip-hop legends, as well as underground rookies and idol group rappers onto the stage. Hip-hop is everywhere in Korea now. It’s always on TV. It is the popular music of choice for Korean cafés and retail shops.
Korean hip-hop, at the moment, is the hottest trending keyword in South Korea. Many Korean hip-hop artists have trickled down from “alternative” to “popular" with the help of TV, but the boundaries aren’t always clear. There are idol groups who produce their own music, and quite ironically, there are times when an artist from the “alternative sector” starts to dilute his or her signature sound to appeal to the general audience. Whether it’s to become more likeable or stack more cash—or both—it doesn’t matter. It’s not only difficult but also futile to classify the levels of popular music in South Korea, as I’ve tried to do so far. Because at the end, if a tune is widely adored by fans across the country, it will most likely be accepted as K-Pop by people across the globe. See what Apple recommends for you based on your favorite Korean tracks, and you’ll see what I mean.
Why I stand to say that K-Pop isn’t what it looks like on the surface is to dissolve some negative views on the South Korean music industry. I know there are many foreign fans, but I also know there are a lot of people who aren't. Those who hate it perceive Korean idol groups as collections of slender girls and boys who look the same, dance the same and make faces that are too cute or innocent to digest. And most importantly, they cannot stand the fact that these boys and girls are not in charge of their own music. I am on a similar page. As I’ve said before, I am not really a fan of “K-Pop”—and by “K-Pop,” I mean music of idol groups. But as a Korean-Canadian living in America, I've always wanted to understand its points of charm. And maybe even like it, too. Touching the hearts of millions of fans worldwide, I wholeheartedly agree that “K-Pop” is tapping into a sort of universal sentiment that is friendly, admirable and likeable. But what is it exactly? Watching the last and running season of K-Pop Star, I’ll confess that the music still doesn’t resonate with me, but I’ve felt its underbelly. And that is what I want to share with you today. The underlying message of “K-Pop.”
Take an idol group you know, choose a member and take him or her off stage. Remove the stage makeup, the clothes handpicked by the stylist, the countless diets and the years of vocal and dance practice in an underground studio—and you get an average Korean adolescence. This person may not have what people call “it” to shine as a lone artist, but with plenty of potential, passion and perseverance—he or she can become an integral part of a star collective. 1/4, 1/7, or 1/12 of a star, depending on how many members are in the group. Although it may not be obvious, “K-Pop” is founded on a system that proves that anyone can be a star. It defies the search for pure talent and originality. It is not only an interesting concept, but also an aspirational one. The system gives hope to all the young people in Korea who dream to sing and dance on national television. The music might not be so great, but it’s an admirable system in theory. Teamwork over genius, practice over talent.