By Jack Cooper
Trying to describe K-Pop to the uninitiated is like trying to describe colour to the blind. They may be able to grasp the concept, but until they’ve experienced it for themselves there can be no true understanding. Put simply, K-Pop is Korean pop music. Which is about as helpful as telling the aforementioned blind that green is what you get when you mix blue and yellow together. Yes, K-Pop is Korean pop music, but it is so much more.
K-Pop is an international phenomenon. Korean artists have found wild success across the whole of Asia, and indeed, have built dedicated fanbases across the world, because K-Pop is a perfect storm of performance, personality, and marketing. The industry is extremely rigorous, their performers often put into decades-long contracts from as young as 11 years old, and trained for years to ensure a successful debut. At times the Korean music scene can seem to be entirely populated by triple threats, such is the efficiency of this system.
Combine this manufactured perfection with an industry-wide drive for innovative sound, and striking visuals, and you have a hit on your hands. It certainly helps that Korean labels always keep international markets in mind, often ensuring that their artists are at least bilingual in order to maximise their appeal abroad. Take 2NE1, one of Korea’s most successful exports. Between them, the 4 members speak Korean, Japanese, English, French, Tagalog, and Mandarin Chinese. This obviously has huge advantages for their brand, allowing them to communicate directly with millions more fans than if they had been monolingual. It is this deliberate international approach that has made K-Pop the sensation it is today.
K-Pop is certainly beginning to infiltrate the West, and there is no shortage of celebrities willing to sing the genre’s praises. Musical collaborations are coming thick and fast, with Diplo, Skrillex, Missy Elliot, Snoop Dogg, and will.i.am but a few. The Korean artists themselves are even making ripples in the fashion world. 2NE1’s leader Lee Chaerin (a.k.a. CL), darling of Jeremy Scott and Karl Lagerfeld, was recently declared by Vogue to be the “Next Big Pop Supernova”, and other artists can frequently be found gracing the front row of renowned fashion shows.
But as I said before, describing K-Pop could never capture its essence. Explore it for yourself, starting with my five essential selections.
Red Velvet – Dumb Dumb
Dumb Dumb is a K-Pop microcosm. Almost exhaustingly high energy, the five girls of Red Velvet rap Michael Jackson song titles, wreck Cheetos-based havoc, and perform what can only be described as the ‘loose screw’ robot. Ignoring the slightly dodgy breakdown, this song is unbridled pop pleasure, and the hook will be echoing in your mind for days to come.
Gain – Paradise Lost
Gain is a stand-out. Through her music, she confronts issues that other Korean artists wouldn’t dare touch. Korea is a fairly conservative nation when it comes to sex, religion, and the role of women, and Gain has tackled all this and more throughout her career. Paradise Lost explores the Biblical portrayal of Eve, and her expulsion from the Garden of Eden after she succumbed to the serpent’s temptation. Gain merges symbols of the snake, and of Eve, re-interpreting Eve as a woman of strength and not weakness, a woman who would reject heaven in order to follow her own path.
Exo – Growl
Exo is a very interesting example of how inventive South Korean labels can be at promoting their music in international territories. K-Pop has long had a sizeable audience in China, and although many Korean artists have released a Mandarin Chinese single or two, before Exo there hadn’t been much of a concerted effort. Exo is split into two sub-groups, Exo-K and Exo-M, which release Korean and Mandarin language music simultaneously, and strategy which has paid off immensely; Exo being the best-selling Korean artist of recent times.
Girls Generation – Run Devil Run
Girls’ Generation has the right to call themselves national treasures. The 9-member pop powerhouse first asserted themselves as Korea’s dominant girl group in 2009, with their record-breaking single Gee, which topped the charts for 9 weeks. Since then the members have infiltrated every level of entertainment, from radio to the stage, while maintaining a steady output of one album a year. Run Devil Run marked their first attempt to move towards a more mature image, and was the very song that drew me into the genre.
Orange Caramel – Catellena
Catellena is perhaps the strangest controversy to arise from the K-Pop scene. The video was declared to be inappropriate for broadcasting by KBS, a television channel, for depicting a “disregard for human life” – i.e. the members dressed up as pieces of sushi, which were placed on sale and eaten. Ignoring this unusual piece of censorship, Catellena is a delight, with pan-Asian influences and sampling of a Punjabi wedding folk song.