“You’re following behind me but I’m only running forward / I’ll jump on top of the table you’re sitting at, I don’t care…” – 2NE1, “I’m the Best”
Working in a teenager-infested environment for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, I’m learning more about the pop culture landscape of Korea than I could have ever imagined. Korean celebrity gossip, smart phone case fashion, what it takes to be a high school girl’s “dream guy,” and of course: everything K-Pop. When I first arrived, I found this new genre of music to be obnoxious, repetitive, corny, and lacking substance. It reminded me of music I hear in bars or out at clubs, not something I would ever listen to during my precious moments of solitude.
It’s the kind of stuff you hear 5 times a day (at least), in the grocery store, and then again in the cell phone store, and then again from someone’s ringtone walking down the street. K-Pop is like the air we breath: it’s ubiquitous. So I thought to myself, if it’s so appealing to these girls, I should probably give it a second chance. And now I’m drunk on the soju of pop music.
Yes, it’s auto-tuned. Yes, 99% of K-Pop stars have had some form of plastic surgery. Yes, I still hear the same songs everywhere I go. But I’ve come to appreciate many of these tracks. The beats are seriously awesome, rhythmic, and dynamic. The message of many songs’ lyrics is quite powerful. The music videos are fantastic…I find myself watching music videos in my spare time again, something I haven’t done since the days of TRL and Carson Daly. (Remember rushing home after school to watch the top 10 countdown?) To be completely honest, listening to K-Pop and watching the videos is pretty much the best way to understand Korean popular culture, and to understand my 500 new best friends.
(Above: 2NE1, “I’m the Best” – these girls are bad ASS. Watch the whole thing, the end of the video is insane.)
(Above: Super Junior, “Mr. Simple – sorry in advance, this will be in your head all day.)
What strikes me as the biggest contrast between K-Pop groups and the American pop acts that I’ve grown up surrounded by, is the concept of diversity in the groups. I’m not talking about the diversity in musical arrangements or varying types of instruments, or the incorporation of several genres into one song. Because this is a homogenous country, the pop culture reflects that in it’s movies, books, TV shows, and music. The K-Pop groups are, of course, all Korean, flaunt matching outfits, and have hyper-stylized, perfectly coordinated group dance routines. They also tend to emphasize the group mentality, rather than single out one specific star. When I think about American pop today, or even bands from the past, diversity was key. And there’s always one shining star of the group. Take the Black Eyed Peas for example. I know this is an extreme case; a band with a white female (the shining star), two black males, and one half-Hispanic, half-native American member who most people think is Asian. (Google the SNL skits making fun of the Black Eyed Peas, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) They are immensely popular and have some of the catchiest pop songs around, and people love them for their eclectic feel. And think about bands from the early 2000’s, like *Nsync or the Backstreet Boys. While these bands are made up of 5 white guys with nice voices, they were marketed as being a group of 5 different guys, each with his own trademark. In *Nsync, Justin Timberlake was the cute one (the shining star), JC was the other cute one, Joey Fatone was the old one, Chris was the crazy one, and Lance was…the boring one? Or how about the most famous music group in history!? John, Paul, George and Ringo definitely each touted their own style, personality, and message to fans. A British group, I know, but you get the point.
And this is something I seriously love about K-Pop – they’re true groups. Examining the pop culture and the K-Pop scene helps me come just a little bit closer to understanding the group mentality that lies beneath the average Korean. I could even go so far as to relate this idea to Confusianism. But…I think I’ll save that for another post.
PS: Even the hipsters are getting into K-Pop. Check out this article from the music blog Pitchfork about the “Korean Wave.” It has lots of other sweet K-Pop videos, too.