Of the several musical genres out there, one particular genre has recently emerged from the side-lines and captured the interest of many Stuyvesant students. That genre is Korean popular music, often abbreviated as K-pop. Sure, I’m used to the occasional K-pop reference, but lately it seems as if all my friends are falling under the influence. The interest in K-pop is contagious.
K-pop originated in South Korea in the 1930s, while the country was under Japanese rule. The Korean music at the time was heavily influenced by Japanese popular songs. Twenty years later, the genre further evolved, when American forces stationed in Korea put on concerts for the people. The Korean adaptation of the genre started out with a solo guitar player, strumming the strings of his guitar and singing in a simple vocal style. The idea of incorporating dances and visual effects into performances was popularized much later when U.S. pop groups began to perform in South Korea in the early 1990s. South Korean groups soon began to incorporate rap and techno styles into their music, as well as dance routines.
Today, K-pop songs have become a staple in many Stuyvesant playlists. The epidemic seems to spread by word of mouth. People gush about a particular song to their friends, who in turn listen to it and become hooked. “My friend got me to listen to one song. The music is just so cheerful, it becomes addicting,” said sophomore Nolana Wong.
People download the songs to their iPods, watch the music videos and learn the dance moves of their favorite group. K-pop has evolved from a simple music genre into a hobby, generating fan clubs in Stuyvesant like AMPO (Asian-Oriental Music Promotion Organization) and K-Loved.
I’ve always believed that music should only be about the music, not the way the music video is compiled, or the dance moves that go along with it. With K-pop, the song itself seems to take a backseat to the performance. K-pop bands don’t just sing—they put on a show, complete with dance routines, misty streets and sparkly glass backgrounds. By the 2000s, most American pop groups fell apart, leaving solo singers to take their place. The boy band, 98 Degrees, broke up in 2002. The Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block went on hiatus in the early 2000s and have only just started to emerge from it. Still, they are not nearly as popular as they were in the 1990s. On the other hand, their Korean counterparts have flourished and spread their influence far beyond their home country. K-pop is listened to all over the world, particularly in China, the Philippines, and in some areas of the U.S. The Wonder Girls-a five-member South Korean group- have recently joined the Jonas Brothers on tour and opened for them in concerts across America. 2PM – a Korean boy band- is also rumored to be coming to the U.S. this year.
One can’t get the whole experience of listening to K-pop music without watching the accompanying music video at the same time. Boy bands like 2PM and SHINee might give great performances, but they’re nothing special as singers. Most of the band members sound very similar to one another, singing in high-pitched, flat voices that can become a bit tiresome to listen to. The musicians’ personal lives also seem to be more important than their music. “K-pop’s big appeal is the celebrities themselves; not the music. That’s what really drives Korea’s music industry,” said sophomore Cecilia Kim. Kim adds that K-pop artists pay attention to their images as much as U.S. celebrities do, but that band members interact with their fans much more than American groups do. That close relationship between the musicians and the audience is an important part of Korean musical culture.
However, not all K-pop artists depend on performance over pure talent. Big Bang, for example, manages to deliver memorable melodies and solid vocals, without resorting to flashy performances. Their music video for “Haru Haru” features muted gray and beige tones. And while they do employ a bit of acting in the video, the emotions seem authentic and fit the tone of the song. Unfortunately, just as I begin to enjoy their melodious singing, it’s interrupted by a bout of rap (this is especially evident in their song “Let me Hear your Voice”). These interludes, often rapped in English, break the spell created by the band’s soft, but strong voices.
Listening to a song over and over again while not understanding a single word of the lyrics can be quite calming. Not knowing Korean makes me pay attention to the melody and the quality of the singers’ voices more than the lyrics. By learning not to focus on the words, I can enjoy the music without being distracted from whatever it is I’m doing.
Ultimately, whether you end up liking Korean pop or not depends on the first song you listen to. If you like it, you’ll be hooked. If it turns out to be one of those dance routines accompanied by pitchy vocals, you might just come to hate it with a passion. K-pop is catchy and perfect for studying, but it’s not something I will listen to everyday. The songs are fun, whimsical and catchy enough to keep people listening, even when they’re a bit skeptical to begin with. Despite its drawbacks, everyone should listen to at least one K-pop song, if only to understand what all the hype is about.