Ode to a Genre: K-Pop
Of all of the music genres I’ve ever come across, I think K-Pop might be the most unfairly maligned. For a genre that is essentially just beautiful Asian people dancing to pop songs, it sparks a remarkably divisive response. There was a time a few years ago where if you asked 100 people what they thought about K-Pop, 50 people would be viscerally annoyed with you and 49 people would be weirdly enthusiastic about it. Only 1 person would have a reasonably moderate response to it, like, “yeah, K-Pop is alright, I guess.”
It’s those 50 people that this article is for. K-Pop is good, actually—what people hate about it tends to be a misunderstanding, a misconception, or simply an inability to engage with it as its own genre. Just as an example, what we internationally consider K-Pop is actually called “idol music” in South Korea—that is, groups such as Blackpink, BTS, and Twice. By design, their music is meant to be fun, largely impersonal, and very straightforward in its messaging.
K-Pop Group Blackpink
There is something quite comforting about that, I think. I’ve been a fan of K-Pop music for a few years now, and what I love most about it is how bold it is in its shallowness. We are living in an era of music where every musician on the planet is outcompeting each other in increasingly convoluted and gauche ways to talk about how terrible and sad life is—everybody you date will cheat on you and leave you, happiness is overrated, and all of us have anxiety. In the face of all this, what stands out is the maximalism and the fun of K-Pop music. Every issue in a K-Pop song can be resolved within 4 minutes, and what a blissfully escapist 4 minutes they are. Blackpink sing about being lovesick (or are they sick of love?) to a backdrop of slipper synth beats. Itzy, with their sharply staccato yet undeniably exciting dance tracks, return over and over again to self-love. NCT do whatever the hell it is that they do and I go rabid for it each time.
K-Pop Group NCT
So it seems absurd to me that so many people complain about K-Pop feeling too manufactured, like it’s a bug and not a feature. If I wanted to have an existential crisis, I’d listen to Bon Iver, or something—K-Pop is music for you to dance to, for you to sing along in mangled Korean (alternatively, if you speak Korean, to laugh at people who can’t). It’s music that exists at the perfect medium of pop: trendy without being editorial, earnest without being heart-wrenching, and corny without being cringe-inducing.
That combination is what produces acts like Seventeen. Originating from a relatively small company in 2015, Seventeen is a 13-member boy group that writes, produces, and choreographs their own releases. I can fully admit that I am biased in saying this, but Seventeen is probably the best case scenario for all of modern K-Pop. Their bright, jazzy sound sets them apart from the rest of their contemporaries, but it also directly positions them for maximum trajectory. Every Seventeen comeback is jarringly pleasant and incredibly startling, like a tackle-hug from your best friend. Case in point: the sheer euphoria of Pretty U, from the cheeky choral line in the first five seconds of the track to the relentlessly catchy melody running through the whole thing. And their music has always had heart, without sacrificing the glossy sheen so characteristic and integral to K-Pop. Here, I think of Left & Right, which is all at once joyous and exciting and catchy and, funnily enough, timely. What better time than in the middle of a worldwide pandemic to release a song telling its audience to do your best but maybe not sometimes?
For me, what I take from K-Pop is that, more than anything else, there is value in shallow art, in art that is unabashedly produced for aesthetics and mass appeal. From that perspective, the divisive response to it is perhaps understandable—it’s equally easy to love low culture as it is to deride it for its perceived flaws. And obviously, K-Pop still won’t be for everybody, which is fine. But if you’re part of those 50 people, then I ask you to reconsider, and to try thinking about this in a new way.