Special K: The Troubled Nuances Behind The Term K-Pop
Hallyu Wave or Korean Wave - a term defining the increasing global popularity of Korean culture and entertainment - was coined as early as the 1990s. While Korean dramas, and brands began garnering attention in the Asian continent, Korean pop music or K-pop was not far behind.
Largely spearheaded by boy band H.O.T. and Korean star BoA, the genre began receiving adoration in Korea and Japan. Even as the 2000s rolled around with bands like SS501 and Super Junior becoming breakthrough artists who achieved “idol status” across Asia, K-pop remained a secret that was rooted in the Korean culture; meant only for the ears of those that understood the language.
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Things changed with the advent of social media and the smart phone, exposing music lovers around the world to the intriguing world of K-pop. In 2012, Psy’s viral hit ‘Gangnam Style’ brought K-pop to mainstream attention, as the world danced and sang along to a catchy song they didn’t understand.
This was only the beginning, as more and more people discovered the genre, attracted by energetic music and dance, colourful videos and charming personalities, the wave began shattering geographical boundaries. No longer exclusive to the Asian continent, bands and artists began touring internationally, and receiving invitations to attend Western award shows.
The now world-renowned BTS, made their first appearance at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017, with a nomination and subsequent win as the Top Social Artist of The Year, ushering in a new era for K-pop; one involving several historic achievements for the genre as more and more artists make their way Westward.
As the love for it for spreads far and wide, there is a question of whether Korean pop music really needs the tag of “Korean” preceding it? It the popularity of the genre matches that of the music delivered by the likes of Western artists - whose music is not preceded by ‘UK’ or ‘US’ – then what is the value of being referred to as “Korean” pop? The answer is pride and authenticity.
The beginning of the Hallyu wave can be traced to 1997, a period of financial crisis in South Korea, as the country’s Ministry of Culture embarked on a mission to strengthen the local culture within Korea and to build on local talents. So, the K-pop we all know simply as an entertaining genre of music, is a part of every Korean’s history; and removing the predecessor of ‘K’, no matter how commercial the industry may get, is akin to removing a part of their identity.
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Where the identity of Western artists and their music lies in the English language - an identity that doesn’t need to be tagged or explained - Korean artists use their music and language to tell the world the story of where they come from.
This pride is often clear in press interviews where these artists are faced with the question of ; “do you think you will make English music for your international fans?” Many artists are asked this well-meaning question meant to reflect the genre’s incredible impact on the music world, but the reply is often no.
This disinterest in making music in the English language doesn’t stem from a lack of love or appreciation for their fans across the world, it comes from their pride for the Korean music they make - and for good reason.
K-pop gained traction and fame for being exactly as it is. Commercial as it may be now, the songs are performed in Korean. K-pop music has always made use of a littering of English words particularly in the chorus - Super Junior’s 2010 hit ‘Sorry Sorry’ being a prime example - to great reception from fans.
But lyrics have - until recently - remained predominantly Korean. This is where the authenticity of the genre comes into play. Making music in a foreign language and managing to make lasting impression is commendable, and it is this authenticity that forms the cornerstone of why K-pop became popular in the first place. The authenticity of a K-pop artist lies in them being Korean and in their culture, and taking that away renders them unable to be themselves.
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In recent times, many K-pop bands have made a foray into fully-English music. From BTS’ ‘Waste It On Me’ ft Steve Aoki to the very recent English version of NCT 127’s ‘Highway to Heaven’, these tracks made as an ode to their loving fans spread across the world were unsurprisingly well-received by supporters and media alike, furthering the thought that maybe K-pop is commercially viable enough that it doesn’t even need Korean to work well and that maybe the term restricts the genre from growing further.
But, it can be argued that these English songs came from bands who are already popular enough that they can afford to experiment in a language they are unfamiliar with and get away with it. Would the same work if a growing K-pop artist - without an established fanbase - made their debut in English or even Korean without the tag of being a Korean pop artist? What would their niche be if K-pop no longer existed?
So even as the genre surges upward making itself an irreplaceable force within the music industry, rivalling pop in every other country and language, it should always be identified as Korean pop; even if it becomes a subset of pop music in the future.
K-pop is not just a meaningless name for a popular music genre - it comes with history, pride and the hope that you can succeed by being just who you are.
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Words: Malvika Padin // @malvika_padin26
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