Music Monday: On Black music, KARA, & Why K-pop bands are so large…

Three things of interest I came across all in the space of this morning…

First up, a recent edition of the BBC4 podcast Thinking Allowed, which – paraphrasing slightly – discusses the contention of cultural critic Paul Gilroy that:

From Curtis Mayfield to 50 Cent, from Nina Simone to JayZ, black music has declined in its quality and lost its moral stance. Outlined in his essay “Troubadours, Warriors, and Diplomats” in his book Darker Than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (2010) , he joins host Laurie Taylor and music journalist Caspar Melville to discuss the counter-cultural stance that black popular music once had, and explore whether it really has been destroyed.

On the surface only tangentially-related to Korea, in that modern K-pop has strong hip-hop roots (in contrast to J-pop, which are more in rock), this 28 minute, very accessible synopsis it is still surely required listening for all those interested in music and cultural studies. And indeed, the second half of the discussion in which they talk more about the impact of technological developments on music, and especially the reality that precious few young people are prepared to pay for it anymore, is perhaps more pertinent to the Korean music industry than most.

Next, an Icelandic reader passed on a link (thanks!) to the journal article “Crazy About You: Reflections on the Meanings of Contemporary Teen Pop Music” in the Electronic Journal of Sociology (2002), by Phillip Vannini and Scott M. Myers, in which the highlighted part below immediately leaped out at me. With apologies for the long quote for the sake of context (actually, only 2/3rds of the paragraph!):

…Centralized corporate production insures continued consumption through pervasive distribution, vast output volume, and structured product obsolescence (Gitlin, 1981) while strategies of careful manufacturing of the image and sound of pop icons ascertain that audiences are treated as ‘targets’ and ‘market-segments’. Take for example the case of Britney Spears. Her image and sound had been first controlled by Disney as a pre-teen Britney worked as a host of the Mickey Mouse Club. Subsequently her schoolgirl image was spiced up to appeal to the 12-16 age group and her videos were made to occupy a steady spot in the rotation of Zoog ABC and the Disney Network. Now, with her continued biological growth her image has been recreated as sensual and provocative and formatted to meet the demands of MTV. As this takes place new ‘Britney’s’ mushroom on the market to appeal to different targets: Jessica Simpson to Christian teenagers, Mandy Moore to preteens, Jennifer Lopez to Latinas and older fans. Producers’ control extends from songwriting to image-packaging and personality development (Frith, 1978). Any boy-band act is put together to appeal to various personalities and life outlooks of fans as each band includes a member portrayed as cute and sweet, one funny, one good-looking and mysterious, one creative and goofy, one talented and motivated, one dark and tough, and such. Bands are created with the consumers’ demand in mind4, for example LFO target through MTV an older adolescent urban audience with their hip-hopish sound and sexual innuendos, while S Club 7 and Aaron Carter target preteens through Fox Family and ABC Family. This is an example of the diversification of products that allow producers the broadest appeal possible and the highest profit margin.

In passing, footnote 4 from that is also interesting:

4. The structure of consumer demand is an important concept to keep in mind. As Frith (1978) suggested producers’ ability to shape needs is limited. Why or when a style becomes popular or unpopular remains a conundrum for the music industry. It is much easier for any producer to stay with one genre or act after it has become popular and produce endless imitations than experiment with new formats or shape consumer demand. Record industries still find very few acts highly profitable, while the majority of albums produced and distributed hardly bring any profit at all (Burnett, 1996).

But the highlighted part caught my eye because of what I’d read in the post Thoughts on K-Pop Vol. 1: So Addictive at the blog Multi, which is definitely required reading for those interested in Korean music specifically:

Another important thing to note is that the Korean music industry is populated mainly by groups of at least five members. With a main audience of between 10 and 19, this is a brilliant idea because all the kids will have at least one person they like in every band, are enthralled by their personalities as seen on numerous TV shows, and will not hesitate to buy their albums and merchandise. This works for other industries as well, as phone, food and clothing companies almost solely hire celebrities to star in their commercials. They also record songs and shoot music videos (and short films) for these products and then endorse them on their numerous TV appearances. Basically, the celebrities become the only people you see on screen and in print. They become ridiculously popular really quickly, and then are sent around Asia to maximize their worth because all the other countries have succumbed to the “hallyu wave”.

Naively, I hadn’t been aware that the same logic also existed outside of East Asia. But having said that, it is still much more marked in K-pop. For not only it is exaggerated by the overwhelmingly celebrity-focused nature of advertising here, but that in turn is further exaggerated by the need to sell singers rather than their music per se,  for reasons mentioned earlier. And there’s less space for independent artists that don’t subscribe to that logic to emerge too.

Finally, all the photos of KARA (카라) in this post are from their performance at (unfortunately spelt) Wonkwang University (원광대학교)* last month, in which it started to rain halfway through their song but – seemingly without so much as batting an eye – they kept performing nonetheless (see video below).  Found via Omona They Didn’t!, admittedly I probably wouldn’t have given the photos a second glance if they had been of a boy-band instead, but once I had then I really responded to them, well-aware of how refreshing and especially liberating it can feel to continue exercising – or indeed, dancing – in a downpour.

More to the point though, not only are the photos themselves stunning, which this blog theme doesn’t really do justice to (click on the images themselves for more detail, or see Diabolique here and here for more), but in particular KARA happened to be performing Lupin (루팡), in which as Multi – who else? – puts it:

…From what I gleaned from Youtube translations of the songs, they sing about being confident (in love?) and not being afraid…as opposed to simply trying to get a guy’s attention in “Mister” (미스터); check here and here for respective lyrics, and it shows in their performances. They shine in “Lupin”, but bore with “Mister”. It might just be that “Lupin” is fresher, and they’re bored of performing Mister (side effect of weekly live performances, a.k.a overkill, of songs in k-pop) but I doubt it’s just that…

She tends to prefer performances to the music itself, and presumably to the music videos too, but for what it’s worth here they are to compare:

And finally a fan cam of the performance, although unfortunately it’s of very poor quality. The rain starts falling about at about 1:20:


p.s. I’d been under the impression for many years that the term “Black Music” wasn’t particularly PC, and consequently have sometimes discouraged my Korean students from using it, but the Thinking Allowed podcast made me realize I may have been mistaken. Was I, or is there perhaps a difference between American and British English?

* (Say “Won-Kwang”, not “Wonk Wang”!)


68 thoughts on “Music Monday: On Black music, KARA, & Why K-pop bands are so large…

  1. I’m obviously just echoing things that have been said numerous times before by people with more knowledge than me, but “black” really shouldn’t be considered a negative term, especially when coupled with things like music.

    In Britain we’re moving against the use of “African-____” because not all dark-skinned people are from Africa, and not all Africans are dark-skinned. “African-American” always made me wonder because I can’t imagine a white South African saying, “Hey, I’m African-American…” without drawing a few raised eyebrows.

    I think “Black Music” is a fair enough term, although I can see how it would be used by assholes to generalise and denigrate. (Maybe “denigrate” isn’t the right word…)


  2. Oh I had a big debate about the use of “black Music”. For me it’s about what “Black” music represents when being uttered. I posed the question as to whether people used Black music thinking of the goodies in our past like Franklin and Brown…Or were thinking Black music as 50 cent, gangsta rap, manufactured Rnb and hip hop such as Beyonce ect..

    I hate the use of “Black music” in mainstream society because the connotations it brings outside of those who actually care about music made pre-80’s is “shake your ass, auto tune, crappy “rap” with no meaning, ect ect”

    I’d have to listen to the radio show as to how htey see it but I’d rather diwown little Wayne and all the perputators of a negative look on Black music. It wasn’t a very good “research” but I jsut went to two well known Korean music shops and went to black Music. None of our greatest from the 40’s up to 70’s were there. Black music thankfully had Erykah Badu and then lots of gangsta rap and manufactured rnb/hip hop artists. The greatest were then filtered into Jazz, blues – WHICH THEY ARE, but they are the true founders of “Black music” in America being recognised and loved rather than scorned and hated. As for African music, a search on Naver will give you the authentic African music.

    As for the quotes in the ormer part of this, it basically describes Kpop. I got into Kpop through a variety show and even then I was really interested in when they were playing Two-Two and Turbo, as the eyars have been passing, Kpop is just more and more plagiarism masked as “inspiration” or “coincidence”.

    They were very fond of imitating the dance (above) in Xman

    Uhm Jung Hwa has to be one of my favourites, although she can’t sing like many, I love the songs, it’s a shame the person who had 90′ lives got suspended.

    There was always a eurodance influence in old skool kpop, rock and hip hop blended together(e.g. deux or seo taiji) which brang the sort of “K-pop” sound. The trademark higher pitched voices and such… I just feel it’s lost but of course there wouldn’t be much of a market if they kept this style of music. I just listen to K-pop remixes now. I wasn’t very hot on MBLAQ’s ‘Y’ but I have to say this remix, especially the chorus got me going.

    I really gotta say that JYP was really courageous to bring the other sounds of American rooted music into KPOP too. He may be “Gorilla” but he got some good tunes. That’s my inexperienced take on KPOP with probably many holes. I am just going to say I am thankful for getting into Kpop before 2008. That was the start of the end.


    1. I went to the loo and forgot to post my favourite picture displaying POPULAR “Black music” then and now. Not as a whole but the mainstream leaders


    2. Do you like Lee Jung Hyun? Her early songs are techno with what seems (to my limited knowledge, at least) to be a distinctly Korean flavour.

      In fact she’s bringing back that techo sound in spme of her latest songs.


      1. Was just in the process of fixing them for you: I don’t know about other blogging platforms, but on you just use “[” + “youtube=” +”the whole youtube link” +”]” (with no spaces between all those of course). But don’t worry, as I save people the hassle and always fix up any youtube links commenters put in myself these days!

        I did use to like Lee Jung Hyun via the songs below back in 2003, and noticed she’d just made a bit of a comeback or something recently. Will have to check her out again.


        1. Thanks, I’ll get it right now. :) I’m used to forums where you just use the video ID for YouTube embeds instead of the whole link.

          Anyway, my comment was really directed at Seri, because that Uhm Jung Hwa song reminded me rather of Lee Jung Hyun.


          1. I was going to mention bakkwo, I have actually karaoked that song (at home0 whilst being bored. I reallyliked her old stuff. Suspicious Man.. it’s aight it brings that old sound as you said. I’m glad she or her management have stayed true to the sound she did best. Whether they are scared she can’t do any ther or just because they believe this is the true sound of kpop.


  3. this is interesting. i honestly prefer KARA’s Mister to Lupin but i agree that Lupin is the more confident song. i’m more into the music than performances regardless i love the images of them performing the rain.


  4. Another advantage of ginormous groups ~ there’s always the possibility that one or two members will have enough talent to make it as solo artists! Lee Hyo-ri, for example, started out in a girl band (before they became monstrously large), leading me to believe that these massive groups also work as incubators for individual talents, and individuals who shine can be spun off into solo careers in music and entertainment. It’s like spinning off a TV series ~ take the most popular performer from a popular product, and build a new series/group/show around them


  5. On the flip side of Gomushin Girl’s argument, I always thought large groups also made it more difficult for one member to become Diana Ross and kill the group by leaving – large groups (I’m thinking Menudo, in a South American context) are more plug and play (I will not make any tastless jokes there about what was eventually revealed about Menudo and its manager).


    1. Good point . . .and all the stars I can think of who became solo artists mostly did so after the group had dissolved. And it clearly has allowed the groups to replace members with relative ease.


    2. Huh? What was revealed?

      All I remember was Menudo was advertised in comics when I was a kid, as being scheduled to appear on TV stations that didn’t air in Northern Saskatchewan, and I was all, “What is this stuff?”


  6. the main reason why k-pop is so large is because it is actually good music, both in it’s own right, and especially compared to what’s been coming out of USA lately.
    that’s exactly because k-pop sells (mostly) singers and not music. normally, you would think that this makes the music awful, but it actually gives those in charge of music and production more room for experiment and creativity (within certain boundaries of course), because, lets face it, fangirls will buy anything.
    this allows the group to appeal to their fanbase through their personalities and appearance, and also to make some aditional profit by actually making good music on top of it.

    take a standard k-pop band – it has everything – attractive idols for fans, nice dancing for those interested in that, and nice music for those like me, who have (mostly :P) owergrown the phase of idol-infatuation.
    it is what i’d call the “korean way” of doing things – doing your best in every department.

    sure, k-pop is a corporate product, but it’s one of those products that everyone likes, because it is actually good. k-pop shows that capitalism (by that i mean all those things about maximizing profits by providing the market with precisely calculated products) can actually be a good way to do things, when executed properly.

    leave it to koreans to teach the world another lesson about how to do business for the pleasure od both the company and consumers.


    1. LOL…

      K-pop is closer to Korean international “cuisine” than it is to Korean international goods and products…

      The rate at which they rip of shite western songs alone should be evidence of that..


  7. I think it is true that the K-pop industry sells singers and not songs, but I have to disagree with the above comment. K-pop songs, I have to say, have little to no musical value outside of being catchy. In my opinion, it’s just something for cute/hot girls to dance around to…


  8. Ha, I just read a great book earlier this year wherein Dizzy Gillespie paused about whether to call jazz “black music” until his bandmates told him it was an acceptable phrase. (“You can say ‘black,’ man,” was what he was told.)

    Of course, this was in the context of the State Dept. tours wherein jazz was being promoted internationally as a music of (ostensibly) racially-integrated democracy, a fundamentally “American” style, and not specifically or significantly “black.”

    Anyway, I tend to tell my students that in academic contexts, “African-American” is the preferred term, where “black” is usually more acceptable in informal contexts, with the exception that one can speak of notions of “blackness” in academic contexts.

    I add the caveat that they should be paying attention to if someone seems to find the term objectionable, and that using “African-American” and “black” interchangeably tends to signal that one doesn’t intend a racist overtone to the word.

    Of course, I was always told that “colored” was verboten, but it seems to have been remixed into the apparently acceptable PoC (People of Color), a very common acronym in literary and media SF circles online to signify non-whiteness (particularly in reference to fandom and to the whatever industry is being discussed — authors who are PoC, PoC fans, and PoC-friendly story markets, for example).

    There’s a sort of fashion to these things, I guess.

    I will say that some of my fellow Canadians would grumble about being called “African-American” when they’re Canadians, but maybe also point out that there is an international dimension wherein African-American music has affected (and been affected by) other musics in the African diaspora as well as across Africa. Perhaps the term intends some gesture towards that Afro-Diasporic interaction? Or maybe it really is a Britishism? Ellis Cashmore titled his book on the subject The Black Culture Industry — but I think he’s a Brit, too.

    (Incidentally, a very interesting book. The blurb on the Amazon page summarizes it, but it’s worth reading. But the price on it is just scary! I got mine for a few bucks — well, a few tens of thousands of rupiah — from a university bookstore bargain bin in Indonesia.)

    Incidentally, I once worked at Wonkwang University… when I first came to Korea. My memories of the one University Festival I was around for are more… er, rustic? Less leg, more dong-dong-ju. There was a big concert, but it was a rocker like Yoon Dohyun or something, I think.


  9. BTW Hellblade, not everyone likes K-pop. Talk to people into the indie scene and you’ll find most of them are there because it’s the only other game in town. K-Pop being the only generally accessible game in town unless you happen to want to schlep down to one neighborhood in the whole country every weekend. (There are a few bars in other cities, but that’s it — a few bars.)

    Saying it’s “good” is meaningless; you aren’t actually describing it, just announcing your own value judgment. In my taste, most K-Pop is not just unoriginal, but also badly structured, boring, and derivative. It’s effectively derivative, mind — one has the impression that the same evil spirits that possessed Americans in the last few decades (and guided them into turning a thousand years of amazing musical tradition — among the most complex musical traditions on Earth — into the most saccharine cotton candy imaginable, which then catabolized the rest of Western music) somehow made the leap across the Pacific to continue the project here.

    I’m exaggerating a bit — I like some popular music more than others. But I think you’re overlooking the homogenization of taste by big media, and of course by the artistic drought (caused by top-down silencing) that gripped this nation during the dictatorships… as well as the collapse of almost anything artistic that wasn’t also purely commercially marketable on a big scale in the wake of the financial crisis 13 years ago. To represent that situation as beneficial to “consumers,” well, that says it all. They’re not even audiences anymore… just consumers.


    1. let me clarify my opinion.
      although i understand what’s going on in general, and i agree to some of the issues presented by other commenters, when i listen to a song, i don’t care about any of that. it doesn’t matter who made the song, for what reason, or especially what happened 15 years ago. i had nothing to do with that.
      these are all valid points, don’t get me wrong, but become irrelevant when i turn on my stereo/mp3 player. at that point it is only the music that counts, at least that’s how it works for me.

      so with that in mind, i do believe k-pop is good music, for the most part. i realize the inherent subjectivity in the prase “good music”, but i also believe that even objectively, k-pop has musical value, of course within the boudaries, or should i say restrictions, of the pop genre.

      you said: “In my taste, most K-Pop is not just unoriginal, but also badly structured, boring, and derivative.” i must disagree completely with every word. the sucess of songs made by bravesound and epik high are an excelent example of quality pop/hip-hop production that is also comercially very sucessful, and internationaly acclaimed. also, the dbsk’s song tri-angle could hardly be described by any of the adjectives cited above. such a song could never be made in the USA. i could cite numerous examples, but i believe these are enough to prove my point.

      as for your comparison with american pop: k-pop was based on american pop, but in time developed into something distinctively korean, and much more creative. i agree with your description of the current state of american pop, but it just cannot be applied to k-pop as well. the leap across the pacific is happening but in the other way. k-pop groups are getting bigger in america, because they have something new to offer. i’d be more inclined to apply your citation above to current american music (lady gaga being an exception that proves the rule).

      do give k-pop a chance. if you dislike pop, of course you’ll dislike k-pop, but as far as pop music goes, you can hardly get something better than k-pop.


      1. I’ll let you and Seri hash it out in terms of comparing Korean pop music to pop music in Japan and America — that is, seeing the music from within the pop world.

        I don’t come from that world, don’t live in it, and don’t love it. And I know a good number of Koreans who don’t. They’re mostly the sort of people who actually have an interest in music. Most pop music is not for these people to begin with. They seek out specific music and they embrace it for being something other than the crap that’s celebrated by the mainstream, recycled, and recelebrated.

        I am one of those people too. To put it in perspective: I studied music for years, as a composer and jazz musician. I’m not saying this to claim some “special knowledge” but rather to show you where I get my perspective. The essential structures being used in all popular music now — and I am including a huge variety there, jazz, rock, blues, folk, country, pop etc — were worked out close to a thousand years ago, by some southern French songwriters know as the troubadours. Very few Western musicians aside from composers between about 1500-today have done much that diverts from those structures. If you want to talk about unique and innovative, let’s rewind to 1150 AD. (And these same songwriter/poets invented the whole discourse of love as a romantic, emotional experience disconnected from marriage in itself — they invented the modern Western conception of romantic love, essentially, while they were at it.)

        And they did it in courts, subsidized by rich people. This is how it worked for a long time. They had artistic limitations as a result, as did many composers, but you know what? They weren’t beholden to the masses, and didn’t have to compose stuff that appealed to the lowest common denominator.

        That’s how pop music works. It must — inherently — be a viable commercial product. This is why comparisons with food are so apt. If you’re starting a business, are you going to start selling (a) a kind of weird-smelling fish paste that makes people gag, but is “very healthy”, or (b) take the risk of trying to market some foreign foodstuff from Laos that people might like, or might not like in Korea, or (c) come out with Yet Another Flavor of Ramyeon?

        The honest truth is that (c) is the answer that is most commonly selected by pop music industry. This makes sense from a commercial standpoint. People already like ramyeon, so you don’t need to create a market. People “get” ramyeon, how it works, just as those “personality-set” groups of boy bands or girl groups work; people are willing to buy into ramyeon where the risk of buying (a) or (b) is higher.

        People will try (a) or (b), of course, and (a) or (b) might even hit the mainstream — witness the huge popularity of 장기하 와 얼굴들 last year:

        This was so mainstream that students who’d never gone to a live music club in Hongdae were able to sing the lyrics, and the straightest-laced of my students actually wrote a paper on the way that economic concerns had created a situation of right-place, right-time for the song to go mainstream and become a hit.

        Which is suggestive of my opinion. Which is that if you want to hear interesting Korean music, there are two places to go: Korean indie music (which is occasionally gobbled up by the mainstream) and older traditional Korean music.

        Hongdae, because of what you wrote here, hellblade:

        …variety shows, carefully selected idols, mandatory dance moves, flamboyant attires, huge fanclubs, trainees, “parent-figure” labels and general “quirkiness”, as you put it…

        You present these as if they’re positive things, but as far as I can see, these are simply the machinery of pop stardom in Korea, which is even more manufactured and shallow than in America (which is already very highly manufactured and shallow).

        Variety shows are the height of mediocrity, with not one virtuoso act and, I’m sorry, but the careful selection of idols guarantees that selection will be based on looks and dancing skills far more than something as unmarketable as musical vision, a great voice, or artistic integrity. Mandatory dance moves? Brother, please! It’s a litany of all the things that are bad enough about pop music everywhere, but are especially noxious (because especially dominant) in Korea poptrash.

        Wanna hear some really innovative, quirky Korean music? Here you go:

        or the UhUhBoo Project band:

        … or, one of my favorites:

        Kim Hyung Tae — the lead singer of the Hwang Shin Hye Band — has a gimp leg (so, yeah, no “mandatory dance moves” for him), started playing guitar in (IIRC) his 30s (no teenage idol stardom, shucks), and was told he would never make it precisely because so many people think that stuff you’re praising is the ONLY way to make music in Korea.

        Yet he’s still out there, still rocking. He gave the best live music show I ever saw in Korea (not the one in the video above, a show he played in Hongdae a while back), and I’ve seen a lot of live shows to compare it with. His career is a triumph over the crappiness that the world of business has, especially since 1997, forced upon Korean music generally.

        I am out of date, Jang Gi-ha being my most recent example, but I’m sure there’s still new stuff churning up. Sadly, or maybe thank goodness, these musicians aren’t trying to be idol stars, aren’t trying to do it “the normal way”… so, thankfully, everything doesn’t have to sound like the stuff that the masses seem to enjoy.

        Because, and if I remember right from many years ago I’m paraphrasing the jazz musician Branford Marsalis (who also played with Sting for a while), “There’s nothing wrong with having pop music, music that’s good to put on as background at a party and dance to. But there’s also music for listening to, for dancing with your mind, and some people don’t understand we need that too.”


        1. Ah, hell, one more, ’cause these guys are old friends:

          Beautiful, Yo La Tengo-influenced Korean folk-pop. More music and passion and beauty in 3 minutes of them than any whole album of a lot of musicians mentioned today… and they’re cool, sweet people without a single drop of that idol star pretension.

          And they didn’t need any rich guy’s permission. They got a guitar, a harmonic, a snare drum and some sticks, and started singing. Which is the main point, I think, to it. Truly beautiful, human music always starts that way… not in some marketing department.

          I’m tempted now to paraphrase something the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul said in a talk I happened into once — about the way that big stars and international fame are not the lifeblood of a nation’s culture, but rather the small local playhouses, the small local orchestras and blues bands and jazz clubs and so on are, and that they are what need support if a society is to keep its culture and imagination alive… and I could go on, but…

          Aw, whatever. Wasn’t it Louis Armstrong who said, “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know”?

          One more for the road, by a band that is completely diffrerent yet again… and even got onto TV doing this stuff, somehow:


          1. gordsellar, you’re preaching to the choir. i completely understand everything you said about the way pop music works. it’s a calculated product intended for a certain target demographic, whose purpose is to make money.

            the only difference between us is that you percieve this as inherently wrong and unacceptable, while i simply ignore it and focus on the music. i have no musical education, but my spectra of musical intersts is actually extremely wide, ranging from mozart to death metal (i know, k-pop and death metal, what the hell is wrong with me?), so i think i can recognize interesting music when i hear it, regardless of the genre. these videos that you posted definitely deserve consideration and further exploration, and i thank you for bringing them to my attention. i was actually looking for some korean music aside from k-pop, but it is hard to come by. i did find the band crying nut to be quite interesting, check them out if you haven’t already. but i digress…

            dismissing the entire pop genre just because you don’t like the corporatism of it, is like dismissing all korean food just because you dont like spiciness, to continue with food analogies.
            once you accept the inner workings of pop music as something that is simply given and isn’t going away, you can begin enjoying pop for the music itself. why bother with anything else? it makes an interesting story from a sociological and economic perspective, of course, but becomes irrelevant when you press “play”. i know that for someone of your background, pop can seem trivial, but without ANY intention of offending you, i find such opinions a bit snobbish. every music has it’s merits.

            you can’t expect pop to work like alternative or jazz music, because pop is pop and jazz is jazz, just like chocolate is chocolate and vanilla is vanilla. such expectations are unrealistic and serve no purpose, aside from unnecessarilly robbing yourself of some enjoyable tunes. i’m not trying to convert you or anything, i just think that you are wrong to completely dismiss the entire k-pop world as something unworty of attention.
            as someone who enjoys k-pop, and someone who kept their cool through some hard times thanks in no small part to the therapeutic effects of k-pop quirkiness, your stance in this issue saddens me.

            i hope you can at least try to put your, well… prejudice, aside and see k-pop for what it is – entertainment in the best sense of that word. not every song you hear has to be a meaningful masterpiece, right? how about some fun, just for the sake of fun itself? let your inner child go outside and play.


          2. I don’t think Gord is criticizing the music JUST for being corporate. It’s not that it’s determined by suits and JYP to suit the lowest common denominator, or that they’re blatently, utterly manufactured. What you’re missing here is that he doesn’t like it MUSICALLY. You do, and that’s a difference of opinion.

            But he’s also right in that there is a real difference in music created by individual musicians to suit a particular time, place, mood, emotion, etc., music that is produced organically. K-pop is not organic, it doesn’t flow from people trying to express themselves – it comes from “song factories” by and large, created people who are well aquainted with the idea of writing and producing music with a strong hook, a dance that can be converted into a trend, a melody that will appeal to the widest number of people. This isn’t saying its bad or wrong, but it is like comparing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from a box with homemade mac and cheese made by a gifted cook at home. Or a Michelin-star chef’s orrechiette with panchetta and local organic goat cheese. Saying K-pop is better than J-pop or American pop music essentially comes down to saying you like TGIF better than Bennigans or Outback – you’re still eating pre-packaged food meant to appeal to the broadest, least sophisticated palates. That isn’t to say you can’t like Kraft Mac’n Cheese or TGIF ~ but you can’t honestly say that its better than the work of an expert chef or a dedicated home cook working from fresh ingredients.


          3. Oops, saw this after, and yep, you pretty much got most of what I ended up trying to say. Right down to the food metaphor, though hell, I don’t need chef cooking, I’m happy even with a small restaurant owner in a run-down kitchen who takes his or her 닭도리탕 seriously. (Likewise, School Food Punishment or Hwang Shin Hye Band versus Girl’s Generation or similar products. One is about the music, the other is about product.)

            I think at bottom, when it comes to music (and many other things) there are two kinds of people in the world: those many who experience John Cage’s 4’33” as baffling, mockable silence, and those few who, sitting in that reverent silence, hear the thunderstorm outside, hear the clearing of throats and the shuffling papers and the snifflings and breathig of those around them, and experience it as a new window on sounds, aural ambience, and that the way they’ve always heard the world is not dysfunctional, but something valuable and beautiful… if only there were places of quiet reflection and of deep listening in our culture.

            As I say, I suspect this is linked to inborn temperament (and, to a certain degree, conditioning), but I’ll save that as I’m only starting to research that seriously. And I have other stuff to do.


          4. gord, i understand that you don’t like pop, and i’m not trying to force my taste on you. just to clarify, when i wrote that “everyone likes k-pop” i didn’t mean literally everyone, down to the last person, just that it is loved by a very very broad, even international audience.

            i agree with you that pop, and especially k-pop, is a lot more about the whole product, than the actual music, but that doesn’t mean the music is completely disregarded. a group has to be good in every department – music, looks, dancing. from what i learned about koreans, this is just how they do business. no weak links anywhere.
            i’d just like you to recognize the fact that there is some objective musical value in k-pop. of course it is not much compared to jazz or wagner, or some indie acts. you don’t have to enjoy it, but it’s still there. coexisting peacefully with everything else that defines k-pop.

            i must point out that there are so many types of music that i like. it is great to live in a time where all kinds of interesting music from every part of the world are just a few clicks away. it can be overwhelming at times, actually.
            from what you wrote so far, i believe we would agree about many things that are featured in our respective music collections. therefore, i would also like for us to at least partially agree on the subject of k-pop.


          5. Hellblade:

            Well, and I submit to you that it is a commonly acknowledged fact that when one is a jack of all trades, one is most often a master of none. I’m sorry, but I’m happier seeing someone who can sing amazingly, even if they can’t dance, than a mediocre singer (especially one doing mediocre dance moves which are de rigeur in K-pop). I have seen precisely one singer who could actually dance, in my whole life, where the dance didn’t seem like some crappy additive to help the audience from being bored by the singing. Her name was Angelique Kidjo, and her live show was basically breathtaking: she danced like a maniac, and sang like an angel the whole way through. And then Salif Keita played after her, and he stood still and sang, and guess what — just as breathtaking.

            When you say, “No weak links” what I hear is, “cookie-cutter formula” and I’ll be honest — the Korean rock bands that stand disturbingly still while playing have, at least, a little more credibility in my eyes.

            Now you’re probably all up in arms and ready to note how I likely can’t bust those moves like SNSD. Well, I’m not interested in doing so, and as a horn player, thank goodness, we’re usually left off to the side to actually play something without dancing around and screwing up our tone. But *were* I a skilled dancer, I suspect that I’d laugh at a lot of the “moves” popular in Korean pop performances. I ran across a bizarre video when searching to find out what the hell was this “Gee” song you all were talking about — I’d heard it before, but not known which one it was:

            The point of that video being that it looks utterly ridiculous, right? Guess what: that’s what the SNSD live performances look like to me. Sure, the guy is less coordinated than the girls, but it’s also how girly his moves are that look ridiculous. Sure, dance is one of those places where moves that flatter a woman’s body often won’t work for a man and vice-versa. But the saccharine femininity of a lot of the girl groups’ routines — with the obligatory infantilization included — especially rubs me the wrong way.

            (Again, this infantilization is almost surely in part because of marketing: you have to consider that a sizeable portion of the fanbase for groups like SNSD and Wonder Girls is middle-aged men. But I have to add more than one bicultural Korean woman has pointed out to me what elsewhere Brian in Jeollanamdo puts more bluntly somewhere or other: that Korean sexy dancing is really Korean attempted sexy dancing: it’s usually got this inexplicable hint of stiffness, of reticence to actually be sexy. I’ve seen only a few dancers here (in the media) who lack it.)

            I have a lot more to say about mechanization and girl groups, but I’ll save it for an essay or something.

            What you say makes no sense.

            I’ve already conceded there is an objective value to the music… as a saleable product.

            The rest is subjective, and you’re entitled to love this stuff. But where you see something uplifting and wonderful — which, again, is your right — I see a cancer that is filling young people’s heads with the bullshit idea that to make music, one must look a certain way, have plastic surgery, be able to dance, and must make music that sounds like X — which for a large chunk of what is promoted here, means all sounding basically the same. Not only that, but infantilized sexuality, youth, the karaoke-ization of all performance… sorry, but to me, the mainline of Kpop is really a cancer that threatens all other musical creativity here, to a degree not seen in other places for a number of different reasons.

            Which is not to be histrionic. I’m not declaring war on Kpop or something. I just think it’s bad for the artistic scene, and a particularly saddening element of the fallout from the fact that dictators Park and Chun prioritized economics above all other things… and beat the arts into submission in this society, almost they indeed beat the arts to death. Only in such a society could young people so universally say, “I’ve never seen a live music performance.” Hell, even in my cruddy little Canadian hometown of 350,000 people one could see live music by locals and visiting groups on a very regular basis — and it was weird never to have seen a live band.

            And since I think the arts are the soul of a people, the thing they lean on and the thing they reflect on to judge their lives, to find their inspiration, I am sad to see the majority of the music people are exposed to here is the equivalent of pen-sketches with highlighter markers. It’s not that there is highlighter marker pictures, or even that you like them… it’s that the availability of everything else is so relatively poor. That’s what saddens me… and worries me. I can’t help but feel that what a few of my older Korean friends who live abroad, or Westerners who lived here ages ago and left, say during visits — that things have changed here, to a much more cynical, money-oriented outlook — has everything to do with the wholesale destruction of the fine and performing arts, outside of anything that couldn’t be used for making huge piles of cash.

            And I’ll let you in on something: music making huge piles of cash is an historical oddity. It never did. It was an investment by religious groups and aristocrats because it was useful to another end — wowing parishoners — and as a mode of conspicuous consumption, but when that ended, the 19th century (sheet music) and 20th century (recordings) models were doomed from the start.

            As you yourself note: these entertainment companies don’t sell music, they sell celebrities. Or rather, celebrity, in its interchangeable forms. SNSD is so huge that surely one girl could die and be replaced by another, and most of the fans wouldn’t notice for a while, or might never notice if they picked the right girl and the camera angles were worked carefully enough.

            Well, I sincerely doubt that is going to happen, and I don’t see the point in acquiescing when, after all, we should be able to coexist with different opinions. I don’t see why we SHOULD have to agree on this. I’d rather discuss music we actually do both like. (Even if it has nothing to do with this topic.)

            In any case, I think I’ve had enough of hashing this out, thanks…


          6. Yeah, never actually heard of double <s I'm afraid, so I took them out of your comment but can't figure out what you were trying to do with them sorry. But I can fix it up (and delete your last comment and this one) if you let me know exactly what you were after.

            Regardless, thanks for all the work you've put into making this such an interesting discussion; had no idea when I wrote the post that it would end becoming the 2nd most commented one on the blog!


          7. James,

            Sure. I was just using them to mark what Hellblade had written. I suppose if you italicize the portions taken from his comments, that’d suffice.

            BTW I realize now that of course that messes up the HTML. Duh.

            James: Unfortunately this comment is at the end of limit of 10 threaded comments this theme has, so here’s a link to my reply below to make it easier to find.


          8. once again i agree with you, in a sense that k-pop has managed to reduce any other music in korea to “just a few gigs”, as you say, and keeps convincing impressionable korean youth that being pretty, with wons oozing out of your every pore is the only acceptable way to live. i am perfectly aware od this dark side of k-pop, but the thing is, i didn’t cause this, nor can i fix it. therefore, i have decided to ignore it, and keep my attention on the music exclusively, which i find to be quite enjoyable.

            i think it’s quite unfair to disregard the hard work some of the k-pop names put in their acts (yes they do), because their bosses are being what they are – businessmen. many of them are still in their teens, so it’s quite unrealistic to expect them to “fight the system” or something.

            if i keep actively avoiding everything that wasn’t made in the manner that i think it should have been, i’ll end up living naked on a tree.

            also, please don’t take SNSD as an example of what k-pop is. they are overhyped, forcefully aegyo, not very good at dancing and, as stated before, mostly a pretty picture for middle-aged men. i just learned that devil, the only SNSD song i like is not theirs, so there you have it.
            take SHINee, Rain, Big Bang or DBSK as an example of what k-pop can do right.


          9. Hellblade:

            Ha, well, it’s not that I think it’s “inherently bad” as I know that it’s inherently stultifying.

            You can think me snobbish, but remember, you’re the one walking around claiming that everyone loves or likes or can enjoy something. Think of it this way: there are foods that you don’t like. You just don’t like them. If you hear someone saying they’re the best foods in the world, and everyone loves them, you’re going to be puzzled. When you see arguments about this develop online, you’re going to weigh in saying, “Uh, no.”

            By the way, the whole class implication of “snobbish” is, in my experience, way off the mark. Most of the people I know who love really difficult music — who go gaga for Wagner or Webern, who dig Coltrane or even Bill Evans — tend to me to be temperamentally different, in ways that stuff I’m reading lately suggests is at least part (a significant part) inborn. My point being that I think a percentage of people are simply born to find simple music (which pop undeniably is, and that’s its charm to most people) unsatisfying. That’s no more snobby that being born unable to stand spicy food.

            Which is a poor analogy. Good, home-cooked food can be spicy. I’d say rejecting fast food is more of an analogy with not liking the more studio-centric forms of popular music; in both, there’s only a very thin satisfaction gained, because you’re buying a product designed with a limited shelf life, designed to taste mostly like every other burger from the same line you’ve bought. Sure, you know what you’re getting. But what you’re getting is, nutritionally, optimal for the company selling more, faster; it’s not optimal for your health, or for the cultivation of a diverse range of tastes.

            (The huge example of which is those people who, living in a world with an internet and access to all kinds of world cultures, say, “I love all kinds of music: rock, country, pop, even rap…” Er… Indonesian gamelan? Carnatic Classical? Hell, bossa nova? When your radar screen is an inch wide, you’re doomed to see almost nothing on it. Which is exactly what the music industry you’re talking about wants. And we’ve all seen what that kind of narrowing of tastes has done to, say, the brewing industry in the US and Korea alike.)

            Oh, and though I am guessing it may baffle you, the music I mention has served the same function for me that Kpop has for you — getting me through hard times, including times when I was surrounded by people who seemed of a different species than myself, unable to grasp why I might like the things I do, why I might find reading a book more enjoyable than getting hammered or yet another night gossiping at the bar.

            By the way, it amuses me that you seem to think I am uptight or something. I’m a professional science fiction writer, you know… which is about the poppiest of all literatures… meaning, I can throw around laser guns and aliens and I can blow up the world for fun… and then save it for even more fun. I make up alternate histories, I send jazz musicians on tours of the solar system on alien cruise ships. My inner child is doing just fine, thank you very much!


          10. By the way… I feel I should point out that it’s not like I’m bashing “popular music” in general. I linked a bunch of K-indie videos. I have had School Food Punishment (which I’d class as Japanese indie-pop) on loop this week. It’s part of that diverse range of pop acts that Seri mentioned Japan having, and Korea lacking. (I quite like Capsule too.)

            But “Gee”? There’s simply nothing there that interests me. And there’s no snobbery involved. It’s more like just tasting food and going, “Wow, this actually tastes like cardboard.” You can point at all the people at nearby tables who like it, and it’s not going to convince me the food doesn’t taste like cardboard. I recognize it’s subjective, and I’m not prescribing my tastes to anyone. But I can’t help but respond when someone takes it as self-evidence this does, or ought to, appeal to everyone.

            I could also point to the video for Gee — I was subjected to it a few moments ago, when I looked up the song — and say what Ellis Cashmore says about the way what he calls “black culture” has, in being hypercommercialized, played a negative role in the actual struggle for racial justice. The singers start out as mannequins in a window. If that’s not indicative of the place women have in this commercial process — product, not producer — then I don’t know what is. And to whatever degree the business and its contents reinforce gender inequality, I’m against it. (And all for a “girl group” like 적적해서 그런지… For whom I can’t seem to find any videos that don’t suck, sadly… they’re great fun live.)


          11. i don’t have time for a large comment right now, because there are some things i’d like to adress, so i’m just gonna make another food comparison. i know k-pop is just a bowl of ramen with a bunch of MSG and artificial flavours added, but it still makes an enjoyable snack. you shouldn’t live on it though.


          12. Thanks for all the links Gord, I’ll have to check them out at work tomorrow in my hours of mind numbing boredom. A full post on your site on this side of Korean music would be awesome as it is something I’d like to get into more so I can share it with my girlfriend and other Korean friends. It seemed to me there is a huge lack of counter culture in Korea, but I also have not really done my homework enough on the subject. Anyone ever tried introducing Tom Waits to a Korean person and not have them laugh at you? Hasn’t gone so well for me. : ) I had a great experience with one of my first korean buddies introducing him to some great music such as the delta blues and not. It made for a great friendship.


          13. Joey,

            You’re welcome, and by the way, there is a Korean indie singer comparable to Tom Waits — though I’ve heard he resents the comparison. He led the Uh Uh Boo Project Band, which seems now to be defunct. (His solo effort was so-so, but the Uh Uh Boo band stuff was stellar!)

            (My band was one of the “newbie” bands at the same festival where Uh Uh Boo seems to have played one of their last shows, sadly. Still have to find a way to pick up their albums in MP3 format or something… the couple of EPs I have are killer!)


          14. I love that website, they are the ones who have the Youtube channel OrienKorean. Anyone who wants to hear some more Korean rock, check out ‘cyrocksysop’ and for jazz/blues ‘clubevans’ both on youtube. =]


  10. @Hellblade I have to highly disagree with ‘everyone’ liking Kpop and it being “good” or “better” than the American scene.

    In the American scene the diversity is riveting in mainstream. If you don’t like lady gaga who is sliverng all over the place, you will still find a wide selection in the mainstream who are not manufactured war robots of denegration of music. Or you can easily do what you gotta do in terms of Korean “indie” – research.

    In K-Pop, there are several instances of plagiarism and “copy-what’s-popular-in-America” mind field – that’s even worse when the quality of American pop has been degrading rapidly. Lee Hyori is the great example of that. Many Korean netizens are angry at entertainment corps just copying popular American artists and now Hoyri has really hit the goldpot of “I do nothing but sing and dance what they give me” behaviour. Ten years into her “career” and she still contributes no way artistically to her promotions. It’s disgraceful and a joke.

    Believe this is Seo In Young below

    Of course this is the managements fault but seriously, why is there no fight from both artists and fans who practically ‘run this town’ to just stop?

    “However, if the plagiarism issue is not solved, the interest in Korean music will inevitably change to disappointment”

    I half agree with this statement. Just being a person who frequents a kpop forum, I can tell ya’ll at least that many international fans don’t give a damn because they want to “protect” and “support” their idols or just wanna “listen, let the law handle it”. Many are also not bothered because too many bogus claims come out.

    Part one

    I became disillusioned by Kpop probably mid-2008 after the excitement of watching all the old Korean variety shows ran out. I still listen but 99% of the time it’s remixes. When I became sick of Kpop I then tried to see what the true musicians who have been literally pushed out of the main stream do.

    I feel that Kpop is trying so hard to emulate American music culture that they haven’t had enough time to fundementally instill a “ahhh yes the time when Korean music was..” into the average Western persons conscious. You will always see Korean idols performing the same trot tracks over and over and over. Wash, repeat. Even in Thailand, Japan and China we will know “of” traditional songs, landscapes, foods…

    I’m too naive but I know that there’s a good amount of ‘native’ Koreans’ who dislike K-pop music. We all have our guilty pleasures though, not all pop music is down the dumps. I think.


    1. Just seen your new comment – I was doing other things before i finished hte prior.

      Bravesound is a redunant producer, it pains my soul to hear his “new” tracks. He even released a “new” song which was basically the carbon copy of his work with Big Bang. Everything was the same but singer and rapper. His songs produced for Ukiss have an inate similarity of structure with eachother. Basically he’s a “safe” producer who just sticks to the same stencil layout for his tracks.

      Epik High are part of popular culture once coming into the mainstream but to plop them into pop is a question. They haven’t identified themselves as a pop group but in fact hip-hop. The lyrical music and beats they have created in the past shows that they are not really “pop”. Although lately they have slowly been showing more attributes to the behaviours of pop music by making hteir music mainstream, for the masses, I wouldn’t include them as the spokesperson or example of K-Pop.

      I notice whenever someone slags off Kpop or just tells it as it is, people ALWAYS mention Epik High… “oh yeh but EPik high has…” “epik high this…” They are not the representations of Korean “Pop” music. Music by the likes of Bi, SNSD, & Wonder Girls are. Epik High are the representations of successful mainstream musicians in Korean Pop Culture. If you get me. It’s two different things.

      I do not believe Korean pop has gone to something of it’s own. It’s just gained enough recognition of it’s Korean “quirky” behaviour to mask it. There is a different way we see Korean idols performing to Americans… For us, whenever Miley Cyrus does anything exually provocative, people will scold. For Korean idols, they can call to their ahjussi fans to tell them their wishes – they’ll do *anything* you want them to.

      When an idol is singi-dancing horribly, we can just excuse it (“oh but the dancing is good” and not care. In the West, if you sound crap, you’re gonna get booed, whether you’re Ashley Simpson or Whitney Houston.

      American pop has seen decades of mint to be this disgraceful now, Korean Pop is too young to be already dishing this cardboard cafeteria mush filled with autotune, SILF (SYTHN PORN), electronical sounds with no hint of instrument but an opening or ending piano line.. uhm keyboard line MY BAD, playing somewhere.


      1. i was thinking wether i should include epik high or not, but i went for it, because they are still within the same “pop” circle. their videos are played alongside big bang and SNSD, they do interviews with the same programs etc. i do however consider them to be a step away from it all, and they are actually among my favourite korean groups.

        bravesound – i dont agree with you. their earlier old school works for u-kiss (before manmanhani) were very good. if u-kiss hadn’t changed their image to more modern style, they would probably have started some kind of (small-scale) ’90s revival in k-pop. i know revival isn’t really the pinnacle of creativity, but they invented something new in a genre that was pretty much written off. gotta give them credit for that. it’s still good music.
        as for their new stuff with u-kiss is concerned, it’s just one single and one album. of course there are similarities. i’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and wait to see what u-kiss will come out with next. also, the sound of u-kiss is still quite uniqe in k-pop, you must agree. they are my favorites for a reason, and i think big things are in their way, when they finaly find themselves.

        k-pop really is something unique, and i simply cannot compare it to american pop. the entire way that k-pop works (variety shows, carefully selected idols, mandatory dance moves, flamboyant attires, huge fanclubs, trainees, “parent-figure” labels and general “quirkiness”, as you put it) is just so much different from how things are done anywhere else in the world. it is really quite unique.

        i dont think that k-pop is in a bad state currently. if you filter out cardboard autotune mush (which is quite abundant, i agree), you are still left with a bunch of really nice music.

        also, i don’t think that there are any solo singers who are actually bad at singing.


        1. Epik High is running a idol pop group now called Infinite but you already know. (it has no snark tone but I cant think of a way to sound it less so – I assume ye know cause you like kpop)

          Bravesound once upon a time made fresh beats and tunes, most of the songs done for ANY artist has ended up sounding the same since last year. His latest “Push Push” by Sistar is finally a step away from the similar sounding stuff he’d been producing. Unfortunately the lyrics to the song were so “wtf… is this”. His productions could have been a story in his own CD but in the end when I listened I heard one old song he did for Big Bang and other songs that sounded the same as other productions.

          The cultural workings of Korea are different but in the end the music is not. It’s the same formulas and then the sheep follow because the boss said “do it”. Geee gee gee gee, bingeul bingeul, mazik mazik mazik, bonamanmamnmanna, sorry sorry shawty shawty sorry sorry, tell meee tell meeee t t t t t tell meeee, run run run run run run, hello hello hello hello hello, catch catch, hello hello, o o o ppa neomu saranghae ah ah ah ah ah aha hhhhh STOP!!! Even Beast whom I like for their good stage control and not actually for the songs has a song reoccuring formula – it’s basically what most people got annoyed with Linkin Park for doing. It’s not only kpop, it’s everywhere too of course.

          Yeah, variety shows got their flair and “older/parent figures”(which saw one idol being chastied for looking bored whilst some ahjussi rambled on about uninteresting stuff and many other idols being chastied and abused on their minihomphys for harmless remarks or facial expressions) due to the whole hierarchy thing but please just look at Japanese idols.

          They also have the same large fan clubs, the same audition/training – morning musume been around since the early 90’s come onnnn. Johnny’s Boys??? AKB48… Flamboyant costumes, jesus look at Miyavi or Gackt, Koda Kumi, Ayumi Hamasaki in her live performances. Glitz and glamour, rock & roll Japanse music industry, the biggest grossing market in music in Asia. Mandatory dance moves, the epitome is Perfume and once again Morning Musume. They and also Taiwan are big on their idol dramas. Taiwan is also big on their idol shows with the “quirkiness and flair”. Entertainment 100% – “have you fried the rice with a girl yet?” the infamous line Show Luo will ask idols who guest on the show. Try and guess what that crazy question is asking. Gaki no tsukai – one huge show running for over 10 years, it actually led me to the crazy ‘related video’ surfing to Xman. Put “gak” in your youtube and it’ll finish it for you. The phrase “only in Japan” isn’t there for no reason.

          “Only in Korea” is usually used when someone is making fun of how some ahjumma just stabbed them with their elbows or when some crazy netizen did something crazy again – to the outside world. Oh lest I forget someone has died or been killed because of online gaming. I mean, they sorta managed to get out of the “every one has cancer and is your half sibling in dramas” stereotype, now get on to the rest.

          princess Koda

          visual kei

          in plain jane clothes – The popular threat by minority K-netizens’ is “remember you’re an idol/remember your image”

          Watching live performances of DBSK in Korea vs Japan, they look more “alive” in Japan than in Korea. The trio who are currently at strain with SM will probably be your typical “yeah, I felt more at ease in Japan” people in a few decades time when an interview comes – if they can handle the backlash they’ll get. The ugly side of J-pop is the “borderline” (I think it just is) child porn, the down side to K-pop is the fan culture, the foundation of it’s backing. Japanese mainstream and popular music is far more diverse and unique in it’s findings than Korean mainstream pop culture which is paradinamic and stoic.

          This is probably the Epik High equivalent in terms of mainstream success in Japan(they are probably higher in success): The main MC is Korean ironically

          Here is BoA and Verbal doing their stuff

          another Korean (African Korean)

          nice lyrics. I’m sure this was very much stylized after Janet Jackson.

          After these pop acts, you got such a HUGE range. Korea has the chance, it’s got loads of artists who stick to gigging because of the attitude towards none idol music in the maisntream, if Korea wanted to, they could also have a diverse mainstream but they don’t. It’s all the same. Even the manufactured ballad/rnB singers. Wheesung and Big Mama contribute to and produce/write some of their songs, Lee Seung Gi doesn’t, Seo In Young (who does have ballads under her belt) doesn’t. To be a ballad or rnb singer… you can’t ‘not have’ some sort of invovlement, that’s silly, the meaning and feeling, where is it? Where? It’s like a giant contradiction crow cawwing in your face.

          Anyway, sorry I just think Kpop is a pot of evil right now. For me it can only go past guilty pleasure, not something I sit down and go “WOW, dat some awesome music right there, listen to that part when the autotune goes a bit more extreme than before…oh wow look at that lovely slow motion reel of a 16 year old member there, I sure wanna dance with her, it’s OK – SHE’S 18 IN KOREA *Wink* hmmm…the lyrics really make me wanna do something but when I figure out what they actually want and stop speaking fake english, I’ll do it for sure! Oh right, I wanna be. in. magazine. Omg, wow, the coincidence, so do I!”

          When SMAP member Tsuyoshi went out completely nekkid – it bore a funny t-shirt and fans mainly sympathised I tried really hard to find articles or blogs of him being bashed by netizens or fans being angry but I can’t find it – only the media was loving the bashing parade. It’s so easy to find Korean netizens and fans being angry all the time – unfair representation? I dunno.


          1. yet again, i am somewhat misunderstood… perhaps trying to learn korean has taken its toll on my command of the english language, which is also a second language to me.

            the way k-pop and j-pop work is similar, i agree. i was trying to point out the difference between american and korean pop. that’s what i meant by “distinctively korean”. poor choice of words, i now realize.
            thank you however for all the interesting music and new names to check out, i like j-pop as well, especially pizicatto strings and ootsuka ai, and capsule also gets my attention sometimes.

            i do agree with you that the fan culture of korea is insane. remember that time a crazy anti-fangirl gave yunho of dbsk a drink with goddamn superglue in it? that was seriously mental. not to mention the backslash when that guy left 2PM, and fans got an entire smear campaign against him going on, comparable to the worst campaings we saw in american politics. he must have felt really special…
            i believe this would actually be a good topic for a post on this blog. James T. i’d really like to read your opinion this very korean topic :)

            also, i always forget that brave brothers is actually just one guy…
            you gotta understand, he’s probably busy with u-kiss now, so his solo works suffer. i think were going to hear a lot more good stuff coming from bravesound in the future.

            as for the rest of k-pop:

            it is loaded with uninspired rehashes, yes. especially now that the market has reached a point of saturation. however, i don’t really listen to those artists. take SNSD for example. i don’t really like them that much, except for the song “run devil run” which is very uncharacteristic for them, proving my point actually. to me, they’re just a pretty picture for ajjoshis to ogle, a point that was actually made on this blog before.

            lee hyori – i agree, quite a boring performer. she had that one nice song, but it was due to leesang’s cooperation (i like leesang), and it is almost the only worthy song of the entire album, h-logic.

            however, SHINee are something else, a complete opposite.
            i have yet do find anything derivative or generic about them except that they’re pretty, just like everyone else. when it comes to their music, dancing and styling, theyre pretty much unique. it is this side of k-pop that i like so much. the possibillity of such a group becoming an item. i don’t believe that they could exist anywhere except in korea.
            the most “imaginative” thing that the USA came up with is that justin bieber catastrophe, and similar failed attempts that are doomed to be forgotten in a year or so.
            they just don’t have the imagination that koreans have.

            the current state of k-pop is far from perfect, i agree, but every system has its ups and downs. this situation will probably force the companies to produce something more diverse in the near future.


          2. American pop has a much longer history to be bringing up Beaverboy.


            My use of Japanese pop was to show you that Kpop doesn’t have any original “quirk” in variety show or music. Japan has been there, done that.

            U’kiss’ song ‘Bang bang bang’

            It’s just Asian boys and girls who have their ridiculous costumes and lip licking and such which would seem weird in Western society, that’s what creates the illusion of something unique. It’s just some of the cultural differences, nothing to do with quality of music really because a lot of songs are referenced from American songs. Please watch the PD video I linked up there, musicians, composers and academics all admit that fact in that 4 part video.

            I still listen to pop, it’s my guilty pleasure. <3


          3. when it comes to plagiarism, i’d go out on a limb, and regard it as a cultural difference. i think that koreans simply do not feel the same way about it as westerners do. after all, throughout the last few decades we were brainwashed by the RIAA to believe that a few similar-sounding notes are worth an equal number of millions in royalties and lawsuits, an idea that i always regarded as ridiculous. even most artists agree with that stance. they are actually not the one that file lawsuits, it’s the labels in search of easy money.

            also, there is a difference between plagiarism, hommage, referencing and inspiration. we should try to differentiate these concepts. taking a few beats and making a whole new song around them, as seen in the above example, is fundamentally different than just taking an entire song, without modification, and calling it yours. the difference may be somewhat murky, but it’s there.


          4. A number of Koreans I think, feel the same.(feel the same in love ohhhh)

            I don’t think the many Koreans who do not like Kpop think the huge companies attempts to hide their plagiarisms is a hommage, or inspiration. It may be “referencing” in some cases but yeah, that’s the biggest way to just hide your blatant stealing in contemporary factory-packaged music.

            What those songs in that video did wasn’t accidently having similar notes, it’s basically taking popular songs and ‘not so well known in mainstream songs’ and changing it enough to still be so catchy but “safe” from the law. It’s also just as bad as the money-hungry labels. In the programme, composers admitted to their bosses giving them songs to “referene” off of. Korean pop music is not original, it’s just carbon copies of American and European songs. If they do reference, they don’t even credit it or mention such referencing because of a image that must be upheld.

            I just think production of Korean pop is a rotten process full of stealing, much like the road American pop is on too – they go hand in hand. I’ll still listen to it. :) *spits on Top’s new “song”* ^^ That one I won’t be listening to.


          5. Forgot ta add. Old trot/Korean songs. They can have the decency to credit their references. Isn’t that being a good sport?


          6. TOP’s new song… hmm, i must admit, i like it. here’s why – the song is absoulutely american in essence, so i agree that the general idea is not original, BUT the song sounds so much better than any recent american song of the same style. that’s what i like about k-pop: it takes american music as a basis, yes, but manages to actually make something good out of it. if the americans can’t make good music anymore, why not let koreans fix it for them?

            another (very good) example:
            jay sean – deal with it vs. shinee – juliette.
            it’s the same song, written by jay sean, performed also by corbin bleu, and then bought by SMent for SHINee.

            corbin’s version:

            hear it and see it once, and forget about it. the production value is quite low, almost amateurish, and the dance moves are quite uninspired, especially compared to what SHINee are able to pull off.

            SHINee’s version:

            now this is something different… notice how many things are added to the sound, all carefully put together to complement the main theme. notice how the dance goes nicely wtih the music, and if you ask anyone who’s into it, they’ll tell you that the moves cannot really be pulled off by an amateur, especially while singing in the same time.
            btw, those are SNSD dancing with them at the end, please ignore them.

            so, you managed to convince me that much of k-pop has been borrowed, in one way or another, from the US. but it is what i like about k-pop – it is what the american music should have been in the first place. i enjoy pop music, i admit that, but until i learned about k-pop, i had a very tough time trying to find something i will actually like.

            yes, k-pop and US pop go hand in hand; US comes up with the general idea, k-pop actually makes something of it.

            that’s how koreans have managed to get where they are now. they didn’t invent the TV or the cellphone, but now, samsung and LG are the world’s largest producers of these. they didn’t invent the car, but now KIA and hyundai are the world largest car manufacturers. shipbuilding was always a european thing, but today 90% of the ships made worldwide are made by or for korean companies.
            they took what worked, and made it better and bigger. this is not plagiarism, it’s just hard work.


          7. While I agree that the RIAA and similar organizations are insane — mostly for their campaign of suing anyone that breathes, rather than facing the fact that the music industry will need to evolve — I disagree that it’s corporations in search of easy money. Rather, it’s corporations (desperately) in search of some way of protecting their turf. Which won’t work, frankly. Didn’t work for Boosey & Hawkes, won’t work for these guys.

            But that’s not to condone actual plagiarism. Yes, the attitude is different here — in that it’s much like it was in the West before we developed any sense of the ownership of intellectual property — but this is also a big problem in Korea for Koreans. It’s one reason education is in the state it’s in: if you go read PhD Theses at the best universities in the country, I’ve been assured by countless individuals, you find giant bundles of plagiarism. Advertising, pop music, magazines… the plagiarism is rife.

            But what I’m going to submit is that it’s a symptom of a bigger problem: when something isn’t intrinsically valued, that’s when plagiarism happens. A student who doesn’t care to learn plagiarizes. A performer who has nothing original to express, plagiarizes. A wanker who has no original academic thought to express, plagiarizes.

            It’s the undervaluing of intellectual work, of quality writing, of creativity, and of music itself of which all this plagiarism is a symptom. It can be distinguished from hommage by a very simple difference: someone is trying to do something new, or different, with the same materials, approach, style, or whatever. But when in doubt, look to the underlying attitude:

            “We don’t music: we make stars.”

            By the way — the culture argument is bunk, since the West was just like this, too… and much more recently than you might think.


  11. I only realsied how long that is.. sorry. In all and all I think Kpop is really unoriginal right now. JPOP has been doing what Kpop has for longer.


    1. Not at all, and sorry that many of your comments keep being sent for moderation Seri: it happens automatically to any comments with many links.

      Will try to contribute to this thread myself when I can, but alas, before then I have a power cut in my building from 8:30am – 7pm today, going to immigration to organize permanent residency, marking 6 exams, and finishing the post that was supposed to go up yesterday to deal with!^^


    1. Actually, I very much doubt that Paul Gilroy is implying that at all. However, the subject is Black music, so it’s not unreasonable that that’s the only kind of music that gets mentioned in a very brief synopsis of that chapter of his book.


  12. That’s true. What you say is very reasonable I guess. Oh, and there are quite a few differences between American and British English, starting with the spelling of words.


    1. I’m aware of that: after all, I have been an English teacher for 10 years. I meant that the connotations of the term “Black Music” may be different in each country, but other commenters have already answered that.


      1. Let me preface it by saying I love pop and think it can be as smart, innovative and fundamental as any other genre, even when at its most commercial. Indeed the nature of commercial pop is that it has to re-invent itself constantly to grab attention on the crowded airwaves, and it would be ignorant to assume that creativity of the most substantial order couldn’t arise from such a helter skelter work environment. They’ve got a lot fewer chances to remain stale and predictable, that’s for sure.

        Gee is an example of everything k-pop can do right, when it breaks free of formulaic, gritty, tuneless electro pop. It’s a rhythmical marvel in how it uses the korean language’s chewy consonants to dot the verse like a mogul slope — the words become unimportant and the vocals add to the beat instead of the melody. Breaking up the light nature of the song so that it’s never just cutesy are thrusts of the dirtiest synth line this side of ‘Single Ladies’. It cleverly breaks down the traditional structure, blending chorus and verse. I’ve listened to it maybe 400 times since it was released and it’s never grown old, because there are no cheap tricks here: Just a great song.


  13. James,

    I’d like to go back to your original question about the use of the term “black music.” As an African-American (by the way David, very interesting and thought-provoking comment about white South Africans), I do not like the use of this expression. I’m also not crazy about the use of the word “black.” It’s not necessarily offensive to me per se, it just seems a little general and ignorant. I remember back in the day buying cassettes and CDs at the local record store and usually finding what I wanted in the “black” section. Aside from a period in the late 80s/early 90s when the racial identity thing was somewhat in vogue in the United States (a la “Stay Black” baseball caps, “Too Black Too Strong” T-shirts, etc.) I wasn’t too comfortable with such a label. It seemed generic and almost exclusionary, as if to imply “those people’s music.”

    That said, in the context of speaking about a style of music produced and consumed primarily by African-Americans, and trying to find a simple expression that most people can understand, I can understand why people use it. In that context, I’ll occasionally use the expression myself to avoid confusion, especially when speaking to Koreans. Several people (Koreans and otherwise) use the same expression with me when discussing music. Although it does make me cringe a little bit, I understand the context and I know that it’s not the person’s intention to be offensive or non-PC. “Black” represents a lot of nations and cultures, as does “white,” but honestly most of us don’t think about it that way. However, I do try to avoid the “black music” label, preferring expressions like “R&B” or “hip hop.”

    On a different note, very interesting comments about marketing groups with multiple members to appeal to different demographics. I’m not a huge fan of Kpop artists and I tend to like individual songs as opposed to artists. However, one group that has stood out to me recently, more for their image than their music, is Big Bang. To me each one of these guys has a very distinct image and personality. I actually know each member’s individual name, and this is the only Korean group with which that is the case. I knew that a lot of these artists are marketed pretty carefully anyway, but it never occurred to me the extent of such.


    1. Marc,

      It’s good to hear an African-American’s perspective on this. Living outside the US (in a fairly white part of Canada by high school), I see so many people of African descent using “black” casually that I assumed it was commonly acceptable, so I have to ask — is it? It’s one of those complicated things where communities differ, and local variations will exist. I just remember talking to a Canadian Native woman and being very careful in my terminology at the time — I think the PC term was “First Nations” — and she laughed and said, “I ain’t no First Nations People. Call me what I call myself: Indian.”

      (Actually, she said Injun, which I couldn’t bring myself to say.)

      That isn’t an argument to against using respectful language, or against your personal preferences… I’m asking this somewhat out of the bewilderment a well-meaning white man can sometimes experience moving from one context to the other, especially when for his or her own group, labels seem to be less of an issue.

      (In English, mind. Living in Korea for a while, I can see how even if you don’t think the word is intended as anti-PC or non-PC, it could make you cringe. I feel that way about the freight bundled into the word “외국인” sometimes, and absent of a lot of historical shit loaded onto the term “black.”)

      Which made me wonder what would be the PC term for the kind of implication I suggested Cashmore might have been striving for — the music of the African diaspora generally, and of Africa? “Music of the Pan-African Cultural Sphere” just sounds so very Art Ensemble of Chicago… I’m wishing there was a good equivalent of the French term “Francophonie” (for the French-speaking world).

      That’s the weird thing about PC: finally, it all becomes a mouthful, and one feels very self-conscious using it. Well, and shitheads can (and do) use PC too, unfortunately — I’ve seen it time and time again. (Probably done it myself, on occasion, using PC in a shitheaded way I mean.)

      Then again, why racialize music? From a musicological perspective, American music is essentially a fusion of two cultures. Rock is essentially blues electrified, and gospel wouldn’t exist without European hymnals. There are debates about how much of a role traditional African musics actually played in the formation of the American idioms that served as precursors to popular music today, but as far as I know there’s no debate (among creditable thinkers) that some of those traditions played some role, and that the mixing of musical traditions, and the early African-American treatment of European musical structures was crucial. It’s all this glorious, rich, gorgeous mess of intertwined, tangled sources and roots, which is what makes it even more beautiful.

      Except that the deracialization of music is problematic too. It’s something even the American government tried to do in its State Dept. Tours with some of the greats of jazz, as I touched on here. Seems particularly significant when the first rapper my students can name, i general, is Eminem, followed at a far second by 50 Cent and a few others. (And in a place where so many of the jazz piano bars seem to be named after “Bill Evans” and not “McCoy Tyner” or “Thelonious Monk” or “Art Tatum” or any of the other great, non-white jazz pianists.)

      So a question, just of your opinion (and not asking you to speak for African Americans generally): does the term R’n’B contain within it some implication of, pardon the word, but “blackness” or “African-Americanness”? Should it?


  14. Ooops, it also occurs to me:

    K-Pop bands only seem large because everyone is front and center, dancing. In traditional bands (where they actually have musicians playing instruments), there are often four or five people… they’re just busy doing something. If you have the usual backing audio prerecorded (and for most tracks I’d guess that can often be done in an afternoon by someone who knows what he or she is doing).

    Which is interesting in that it suggests that economics may have something to do with it. After all, why pay musicians when it’s cheaper to just have backing tracks! (Sort of like how the small jazz quintet/quartet/trio appeared when, IIRC, economics, venue size, and lack of manpower during WWII conspired to made it really tough for all but the most popular big bands to tour and make a living.)


  15. Gordsellar, good question about the expression “R&B.” Everyone will have a different opinion about it. From my experience, I think that for many (if not most) people it does represent “blackness.”

    I remember back in my high school and college days that there was more of a sense of “blackness” associated with R&B. Certainly I felt it, and I think a lot of my peers did as well, although it was mostly an unspoken thing. Should it? Probably not. But realistically we (blacks) were the primary makers and consumers of that type of music. Most of the artists I listened to at that time never appeared on MTV or The Tonight Show, you’d only find them on BET, Soul Train, Arsenio Hall, etc. Many of my white college friends treated the music I listened to as a kind of exotic thing. So it’s hard to not make that kind of association.

    Today I’m not so sure because like I said, I’ve become a little bit removed from that genre. As far as I can tell, there are a few more prominent white R&B artists. Also, R&B and hip hop in general seem to have made their way into mainstream American culture in a way which, honestly, I could never have imagined 15 or 20 years ago.

    I haven’t listened to a lot of the more recent R&B out there, because the sexual content has gone way overboard for me and, as has been said by many people in many ways, the genre has become a little bit crappy. I prefer and listen to a lot of older stuff, thanks to iTunes and You Tube.

    I appreciate your efforts to try to use an appropriate expression for non-white people. Asking people invididually what they like to be called can be tedious, but that’s probably the best way to go. Some people overreact and to some extent there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m less sensitive about that kind of thing. Especially in Korea, where some of my Korean colleagues have made inappropriate remarks or generalizations about blacks…but it’s done so innocently that you can’t get mad. Similar to the “외국인” thing, which actually irks me a little more, but in the context of a homogenous culture that is still adjusting to the influx of exotic-looking outsiders, it’s not worth getting upset about.

    With regard to your remark about K-pop and economics, I agree. However, I also think that consumers just like eye candy. Try to imagine a musical performance by, say, Kara or Big Bang on instruments instead of choreography. Can you imagine how strange that would look? It wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion, but if I turned on Mnet and saw such a thing I’d probably fall out of my chair. :)


  16. Marc,

    Oh my God, Arsenio Hall. I forgot about him. Yeah, I know close to zero about R&B. I do know jazz seems to have a kind of dual identity — as “African American classical music” in the sphere of Wynton Marsalis’ influence, and as a “global music” outside of it. I’d be much more sympathetic to Marsalis’ view if he hadn’t been so much of a force for the museumization of jazz, and especially the marginalization of the radical side of the form.

    Ha, I wasn’t seeking appreciation so much as talking about it from the other side. I’ll be honest: after so long in Korea, and so much attention paid to one’s Koreanness or non-Koreanness, I find the racial label much less descriptive than a half a dozen others, ranging from a person’s politics or reading preferences to how he or she reacts to a news event. Maybe I’m speaking from the space of luxury in this, maybe not. But I do know that when someone asks me if my girlfriend is Korean or not, I usually say, “You know, she loves a, she hates b, she does c for a living, she reads books like d and e, her favorite music is f… all these things say a lot more about here that the racial thing you’re focusing on.” I agree Korean society is adjusting, and patience and understanding are important; but there remains a serious lack of intelligent people talking about this stuff in classrooms today. I’m assured by a professor I know, who has some serious connections, that people in high places are well aware of the shift in thinking that will be necessary to handle the demographic shift Korea’s undergoing now, and will continue to undergo. Yet I don’t see that reflecting much in policies on the ground.

    (Which isn’t to whine about how us Anglophone Westerners live here — I’m thinking more of the mail order brides and their mixed-race children now.)

    I find it all the more frustrating since the much-touted homogeneity of Korea is a well-nurtured myth, and not even a very old one… but one that is still being pushed in Korean public schools today.

    Ha, Big Bang on instruments. Well, it’s a lot harder to, er, fingersynch or drum synch, is a major reason it doesn’t happen. I dunno — I guess it’d be shocking, but I think the reason consumers like it is because it’s what they know. I took a class of mine to a club in Hongdae once to see an indie rock show (we were studying “indie” culture and its role as a kind of opposing force to mainstream commercial culture) and most of them had a blast, and were quite impressed seeing real, normal people tearing up the stage with live instruments. (I doubt many have gone back, but… well, inertia is inertia…)


  17. Jyp said it himself : he doesn’t sell music but stars.

    I wanted to make an article about this but well, don’t have a lot of things to say but I know that here…

    “With a main audience of between 10 and 19, this is a brilliant idea because all the kids will have at least one person they like in every band, are enthralled by their personalities as seen on numerous TV shows, and will not hesitate to buy their albums and merchandise.”

    The most flagrant non-Kpop example which came to my mind was the Spice Girl, I don’t know any other group which had a “Posh Girl”, a “Scary Spice”, a “Baby Spice”, a “Sporty Spice” and “Ginger Spice”. It did work and I liked them when I was 8…


    1. The Spice Girls is exactly what I thought of when I first saw The wonder Girls. It’s quite applicable.

      Also, that JYP video pretty much explains everything that I think is wrong with Kpop.


  18. Gord – re: your earlier comment about the formatting problems. Sorry, I’ve spent 15 mins or so rereading your comment and can’t really figure out which parts were directly from hellblade’s that you wanted to italicize. Sorry also that doesn’t allow you to edit comments after you post them too (blame my kids on my not going self-hosting: simply have no time for the hassle to be frank!) and for future reference on blogs (and perhaps also those that use, to quote someone you use “” + “whatever you want quoted” + “” (I know it’s a hassle learning different systems for different blogging platforms though).

    On the positive side, having to read your comment in so much detail did at least meant that I actually read it…not that I don’t normally read all of them religiously of course, but in this particular case only briefly because I have remained quite aloof from this thread. But I’m glad I was “forced” to reread it, because I found the video in particular interesting, or rather about the lack of interchangeability – due to socialization, the physiology of sex, or otherwise – between sexually attractive poses of men and women that you mentioned in passing, which I also discussed earlier this year in the context of soju advertisements. I’ll do a follow-up post based on the video (and the part of the book I quoted earlier today that you noticed come to think it) and the ideas your comment have given me now, so thanks.

    On a side note, I’m simply amazed, as ever, by your sheer intellectual fecundity, even in the midst of all your exam marking. Anyhow, mine will finally be over by tomorrow myself, then I’m free until August, so I’m hoping to finally have an opportunity to match your productivity, even if only briefly!


  19. Pogus Caesar – Muzik Kinda Sweet at Birmingham Book Festival 2010

    Foreword written by Paul Gilroy

    Muzik Kinda Sweet is an evocative and nostalgic look at iconic Black performers from the last 25 years. Candid snaps on city streets contrast with the vibrant energy at stageside, revealing the personalities behind an influential generation of music heroes. 
    Birmingham based photographer Pogus Caesar worked up close to his subjects with an early model Canon Sureshot camera, developing by hand. The results are very human portraits which counterpoint today’s digital photography. 

    This highly collectable Limited Edition book includes stunning black and white photographs of Stevie Wonder, Grace Jones, Jay-Z, Cameo, Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown, Lynden David Hall, MC Hammer, Augustus Pablo and many more. 

    Muzik Kinda Sweet exhibition at The British Music Experience at O2, London, UK

    Published by Punch and OOM Gallery. 


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