An Open Letter To Michael Jackson and The Beatles

Dear Mr. Jackson and Messrs. McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison,

It’s impressive that through countless other videos and performances like the ones above, all of you have influenced K-Pop at its very core today. I highly doubt that any of you anticipated that your legacy would be permutated as such. Yet, Michael, many K-Pop stars owe their entire aesthetic to your influence and pioneering style of performing, as do many American artists. And, Beatles, that K-Pop companies owe their fervor to put out identical looking sets of performers to the havoc you wreaked in the 60s through Beatlemania.

I think it’s prudent to start with a paper that I read regarding first Messrs. Beatles and their legacy. Written by web-user virdant, his paper Now Twirl: A not-very-brief discussion on similarities and differences between boybands in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and The West opens up by discussing the Beatles and their primary influence on the Asiatic boyband scene. Although it discusses how you, The Beatles, revolutionized and repopularized the concept of original music (something rather far removed from K-Pop), as opposed to being manufactured, the key influences are still there. Four similarly good looking and talented individuals sell. However, there’s a bit more than that, I think.

During your Hamburg years, which Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers as being an outlandishly rigorous period of time essential to the perfection of your craft, you pushed your physical boundaries maybe not necessarily with a goal in mind, but because the music drove you and because it was work. I think that’s a sentiment many K-Pop stars share today, whether they’re in-training or in the twilight of their careers. Though certainly it didn’t originate solely with you, The Beatles, the fact that played a key role in your success cannot be overlooked.

In fact, John Seabrook wrote an excellent piece for the New Yorker about the entire K-Pop system as he encountered it, describing Tiffany and Jessica of SNSD in particular, the long hours and insane schedule they put themselves through to achieve stardom. While it perhaps cannot compare to the insane hours of actual performance and use of drugs to stay active and performing, one can’t help but identify the similarities in work ethic required to go to such extreme measures. Again, while morally questionable, there is in fact, no question that to reach stardom, one must work to extremes, and this is something that Messrs. McCartney, Lennon, Starr and Harrison have passed on in spades.

Next, Michael, your influence is undeniably widespread among K-Pop. Countless stars talk about your overwhelming influence on their careers and their work. And there’s no need to mention how revolutionary your popularizing of choreography + flawless singing is to pop music in general, let alone K-Pop. You’re the reason why such stars as SHINee’s Taemin, in your tradition of pursuing a solo career after the Jackson 5, created this:

Taemin’s “Ace”, which came out in mid 2014, even features the same kinds of cloning techniques as demonstrated in Jackson’s seminal hit, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

Much of the choreography in this video is inspired by your popping and locking, blended with a prolific use of crotch grabs, pelvic thrusts and other such bursts of energy in subtle and concentrated places. In fact, Lee Taemin says in an interview reposted by WordPress user Minewi Shinee, that he used to watch and attempt to follow along with you, Michael, in your music videos.

Taemin isn’t the only star you have a hold over. Scores of other stars attribute their work to your influence, such as BoA, in this piece from a press conference, and Taeyang, who quotes listening to Xscape as “[reminding] me once again that he is my greatest inspiration.” In fact, Seoulbeats featured a piece by user Laura where not only are you called the biggest idol amongst K-Pop stars, but you are linked to such successes as the inaugural Seo Taiji & Boys, Taemin’s “Danger”, and the choreographer who was responsible for hits like SHINee’s “Replay” and SNSD’s “Genie”.

It may seem, however, that your influence as the king of pop is only limited to dance and choreography, but so often is your performance caliber mistaken as a footnote to your dancing abilities, so too does your performance acumen come as a footnote to the dancing that makes K-Pop so appealing to the general public. Efforts like this:

result in K-Pop’s efforts like this:

where even just at the solo level, we can expect a high level caliber of performance. Michael, you’ve set that bar, and you’ve inspired so many stars in your wake that your influence is undeniable. And, definitely not to slight Messrs. Beatles, the audience’s openness to scream while the star is performing must be attributed properly to Beatlemania.

In fact, Michael, your influence is so intricate and convoluted, that you’ve influenced pop stars that have in turn influenced K-Pop, and themselves in turn have been influenced by K-Pop to some degree. Take Bruno Mars for example. The chain begins where you, Michael, put out the video “Rock With You”

No one would argue that the disco-transitional, Motown-to-80s-pop sound from this video is iconic. Though this aesthetic is spread in copious amounts through this song’s album, “Off The Wall”, it is still a hugely captivating sound, and as such, has influenced such acts as Bruno Mars to create steadily more and more Michael-esque, and then late Motown/Soul Train inspired hits, as “Treasure”:

Treasure, as a hit, is a sure sign that the active basslines and steady grooves of 70s and 80s American music are still very, very catchy today, and play a vital role in catapaulting contemporary acts. Everything about this video is inspired by you, Michael, from the gratuitously acid-trip-inspired slide transitions to groove to performance style of Bruno Mars. The whole thing reeks of 70s funk, despite the video coming out in 2013.

In turn, the solo debut of SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun featured the massive all-kill hit “Deja-Boo”, which despite its occasional K-Pop trope, is largely inspired by Bruno Mars’ performance of Treasure, or at the very least, shares similarities with it. The red jackets, the backup dancers, the active bassline and groove. All of this come from just that one innocent “Rock With You” video, and the entire “Motown transitional” sound of “Off The Wall”. Michael, your influence is felt even 2 or 3 degrees outward, something few other artists can safely claim.

Jonghyun’s solo debut was met with massive acclaim, even more than the aforementioned Lee Taemin’s debut was met with, purely out of the strength of Jonghyun’s songwriting, artistic confidence, and performance acumen put together. All of these attributes are influenced, both technically and artistically, by you, Michael, and that influence is inescapable. This level of artistic conviction and excellence is perhaps the reason why “Deja-Boo” is consistently on repeat wherever I go, from my iPhone.

It’s safe to say, Michael and Messrs. Beatles, that your influence is felt and reverberated throughout K-Pop today. If it wasn’t for your revolutionary successes, we wouldn’t have K-Pop in the way we know and love it, and for that reason alone, this project would not exist, where a 21 year old would want to dissect even the most obscure K-Pop groups for every last detail of influence from home.

Yours truly,

A fan who wants to know more.


SPOTLIGHT: Seminal Influence

Thriller (Michael Jackson) – Gikwang, Taemin, Wooyoung, Chansung, Minzy

Though the choreography is short in this video, and heavy artistic liberties were taken with the sampling of this song, there is no doubt about the power of Michael Jackson in the lives of these young performers, especially whatever motivated them to perform one of Michael’s greatest hits in the best selling album of all time, Thriller.

While this is not a traditional Spotlight feature, which I feel usually involves a music video released by any one of the groups owned by any one of the entertainment companies in South Korea, I feel it is necessary to use this video to represent just the artistic power that Michael Jackson has on today’s K-Pop stars. In fact, there was a forum on Soompi.com, all the way back in 2009, dedicated to K-Pop’s mourning of Michael Jackson’s death. The fact that this existed in 2009, barely after or before K-Pop’s huge boom worldwide, is a testament to how impacting Jackson’s work is in the K-Pop universe.

Without Jackson, we would have no choreography matched with singing. Without Jackson, the standard is much lower or at least much different from what we expect stage presence to mean. Even Moonrok’s history of K-Pop has mentioned that SM executive Lee Soo-man’s experience in America with the Michael Jackson era influences how he operates his company, and how he produces new groups.

It is due in large part to Lee Soo-man that K-Pop survives and uses western influence the way it does, but it is primarily because of Michael Jackson’s performing prowess that has led him to be one of K-Pop’s legendary influences that shapes the K-Pop we know and love today.

[GROUP FEATURE] SNSD: Bubblegum That Hasn’t Popped

So last entry we were able to touch on the 2nd generation of K-Pop, and how it was largely spurred by the explosion of interest following two videos. One of them was Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” and the other was SNSD’s “Gee”.

While the Wonder Girls’ video came first, many K-Pop fans that I know today cite SNSD as their gateway drug, and I thought it would be prudent to spend my first Group Feature discussing SM’s flagship girl group.

In these group features, I hope to give a quick synopsis of the group’s career and accomplishments, dissect several videos for their influences and motifs and hopefully learn something about why this group is so influential or so representative of the western artistic foothold in K-Pop. I’ll generally close off with the Spotlight video being from the group, either another dissection or just my personal favorite video from the group. Additionally, in this Internet-based era of K-Pop, a lot of groups’ careers are tracked by their digital releases and music videos on YouTube. As a result, most of the conversation in these features will be primarily discussing music videos of that group, as well as subgroups and solo acts.

A Career Illuminated

SNSD stands for So Nyeo Shi Dae or 소녀시대. Their Korean name is taken from a 1989 hit by Lee Seung-chul, and it is translated to mean “Era of Maidens”. SNSD’s English name Girls’ Generation, however, is much more representative of their overall aesthetic. Interestingly enough, most of SNSD’s members were born in 1989, when Lee’s single was released, but this could be a coincidence. The origin of SNSD’s name is explained at the end of an SNSD fansite, SNSD Korean, as well as SNSD’s pre-debut roster changes.

Though in the last entry we talked about SNSD as simply a catalyst to the Internet revolution for K-Pop through their video “Gee”, their career marks much more than that. By many they are considered to have been the most influential girl K-Pop group in the history of K-Pop, and rightly so. Their aesthetic and musical style have influenced multiple girl groups after them, most notably A-Pink, which the website KpopStarz is hailing as the heir to SNSD’s cute aesthetic.

SNSD debuted in Korea in 2007 with their track “Into The New World.” The video itself is rather unremarkable compared to their later successes, retaining all the features of mid-2000s K-Pop, and of pop music in general, and the rest of their pre-Gee releases are of the same mold. However, one can argue that their 2008 video “Kissing You” does very well in establishing SNSD’s early “cute” aesthetic, the exact Korean term for it being Aegyo. Aegyo is used to describe an exaggerated and bubbly cuteness, best represented in certain gestures of innocent affection. It is a mainstay of SNSD’s early aesthetic.

SNSD’s rather unassuming debut track “Into The New World” was an artistically safe entry into the K-Pop scene.

Since the release of “Gee” in 2009 however, each Korean single has hit 1 without fail on Korea’s Gaon Music Chart, Korea’s homegrown version of the Billboard and Oricon charts used in the United States and Japan respectively. Additionally, with the release of “Run Devil Run” and “Oh!” both in 2010, SNSD was able to use a “Dark SNSD” and “Light SNSD” concept by showing the group in both aesthetics cloned in the last scene of “Oh!” In retrospect this seems to mark a departure from a strict adherence to the bright, pink, aegyo aesthetic fully realized in videos like “Gee” and “Oh!”

With each release after “Run Devil Run”, SNSD has been more bold and overt in displaying different influences and aesthetics in each of their videos, becoming more forward thinking with each inevitable chart topper. Most recently, 2013’s “I Got A Boy” and 2014’s “Mr. Mr.” have been absolutely groundbreaking and texturally rich, showing a maturity in performance and effortless synthesis in styles expected of one of K-Pop’s now legendary groups.

SNSD’s most recent hit, “Mr. Mr.” blends an eyepopping pink grunge aesthetic with gratuitous heavy synth fills and drum patterns closely associated with EDM or Electronic Dance Music, a recently widespread phenomenon

Early Styles

SNSD’s 2008 video “Kissing You” Though when compared to SNSD’s later success, this video seems lackluster, the single actually hit number 2 on the Gaon music charts.

Aegyo. A core part of SNSD’s early and even continuing appeal is that as a young group, they’ve established an image of innocence and youth, which also helped their impact worldwide as Aegyo is hugely similar to the “kawaii” subculture in Japan. “Kissing You” is a littler known example of their early Aegyo example as it predates the impact of “Gee”, but it proves an equally, if not more illuminating, example than the 2009 viral video.

The music itself is very very upbeat, featuring a rhythm section and strings reminiscent of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and other such 70s hits, supplemented by the equally 70s opening I-Iaug-I6 (also used in the intro of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” and verse) opening cadence/progression in the chorus (0:44). In fact, “Mamma Mia”‘s influence spills over into “Kissing You”‘s lyrical content as well. Both talk about irresistible attraction when the love interest is seen:

Mamma Mia: “My my, how can I resist you?”
Kissing You (translated lyrics): “When I kiss you while closing my eyes / my cheeks turn red / I have already fallen for you”

Admittedly this is a common topic across almost all of American Pop as well as pop music in Korea of any era, but adhering to the lyrical theme of “Mamma Mia” seems to compound the stamp that ABBA has on this song. Additionally, though the filming is simple, there is a huge emphasis on the choreography, and because of that, the viewer sees the almost-entirely white set and white outfits quite often. The pure white aesthetic used for the choreography is also used in ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.” The color white is often associated purity and innocence, as that of sheep and sheep’s wool, which only adds to what appears now to be a masterful synthesis of a specific American influence to further establish the image that SNSD has parlayed into international stardom.

Of course, this is not the only iteration of SNSD’s “innocent” or aegyo aesthetic. Up to “Oh!”, SNSD’s image has been definitely that with variations distinct to each video. “Gee”‘s premise is in its use of shocking primary colors and the mannequin-girls’ obsession with the male employee (SHINee’s Choi Minho), and the way they go about their attraction is definitively aegyo. In almost stark contrast but certainly in continuity, the white backdrop plus white outfit choreography scenes seem almost out of place, but most definitely harken back to “Kissing You”‘s use of white to show innocence.

The 2009 hit single “Gee” catalyzed the explosion of the Hallyu Wave all across the world.

In fact, K-Pendium has done an incredibly precise and meticulous analysis of “Gee”‘s musical form analyzed from a Western musical tradition’s perspective, complete with musical and stylistic reductions to illustrate their point. You can find the article here, and I highly encourage anybody who’s interested in the success of “Gee” as well as exploring one reason it pulls in audiences.

Departures

However, like all aging youth, there comes a time when a K-Pop group, even one as illustrious as SNSD, must grow and adapt to changing times. At the head of the K-Pop global explosion, SNSD finds themselves at 2010 to 2011, caught amidst success and groups rapidly forming around them in response to the world turning their heads.

Emboldened by the success of “Gee” worldwide and also by the pop culture sensation “Genie” at home, SNSD became steadily more overt in referencing Western culture in their later and newer videos, amidst attempting new styles and aesthetics. “Genie” utilized military outfits as opposed to the pop-teenage outfits the public was used to seeing, although “Genie” retained a largely pink aesthetic, with intercalary scenes showcasing yet more aegyo. Even “Oh!”, while largely retaining the pink, aegyo aesthetic, show the girls as cheerleaders rather than lovestruck teenagers a la “Gee” and “Kissing You.”

Written by American songwriters and guide-recorded by Ke$ha, “Run Devil Run” is a deeply pop oriented song.

The first video that used a distinctly “Non-SNSD” theme would be “Run Devil Run”, released in 2010, the same year as “Oh!” It is one of the premier examples of American-Korean collaboration on a K-Pop track, as Run Devil Run was written by American songwriters. Ke$ha recorded a guide track before SNSD released their version, and it showcases the “schaffel beat” as described in Ian Martin’s piece for The Japan Times. It is a rhythmic device that has become a mainstay of American pop music over the last 50 years, characterized by stresses on the 1 and 3 of every bar, rather than 2 and 4, the latter idiom being derived from Jazz music.

The impact of the schaffel beat is immediate. Paying an homage to “Gee” levels of pop simplicity, the song is driving, and modern; a perfect fit for SNSD’s then “new” aesthetic. They continue to utilize the white dance sets, but now share that screentime with choreography performed in an all black set with black outfits. The song gives the group enough edge for them to finally explore a more mature and edgy style. Even though this song was a chart topper as much as any of SNSD’s video, it is also a valiant attempt to stay abreast of the times.

The significance of this song, however, is in its collaborative backstage details. The fact that this song was written by American songwriters and sung by Ke$ha, shows that SM constantly keeps an eye out for American audiences, and chances to make it big worldwide. In fact, something like “Run Devil Run” is probably what SM and K-Pop as a whole continually works towards; exploring and exhibiting new ways to integrate American influences and make something distinctly Korean.

“Run Devil Run” set the stage for SNSD’s license in overt usage of American idioms and styles in their music. “Hoot” may be the most notorious example of this, utilizing a 60s spy aesthetic in both composition and video production. Colors are dulled to replicate 60s television, and the song itself uses a minor diatonic ascension (going up the minor scale) to replicate the ever famous James Bond Theme. Additionally, the use of a faux-surfer guitar sound in the rhythm section of “Hoot” further accentuates this aesthetic without undermining SNSD’s pop roots. The dance sets are colorful and neon-heavy to at once show that it is a Korean production with American overtones, and the wardrobe reflects a similar ambition, using 60s American design tropes at modernized lengths and cuts.

“Hoot”, released in 2010, may be a prime example of K-Pop’s modern willingness to gratuitously use American cultural ideas in their videos.

Finally, SNSD released “Paparazzi” in 2012 exclusively in Japan, which again shows that willingness to use Western cultural hallmarks in production to achieve a surprisingly Korean feel. The video uses a 30s Hollywood wardrobe which includes a red-black ensemble reminiscent of cabaret wear, trenchcoats, and tuxedo-inspired outfits in the alternate dance sequences. The song is highly electro-pop, and it is perhaps the clash between the visual aesthetic and the music style that makes this video distinctly Korean. Additionally, the video opens with Ravel’s “Bolero”, and then Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ In The Rain” as the group members asssemble on stage. There isn’t an attempt to hide or mask the use of these two landmarks of Western music, they are just gratuitously pasted at the beginning of the video and have nothing stylistically to do with the rest of the video.

“Paparazzi” was released exclusively for Japanese audiences, but the use of American ideas is obvious.

So what is the point of SNSD’s steadily more gratuitous use of American ideas in their work? It shows that K-Pop can keep up, and that it has a worldwide audience in mind. Many people will have hummed at one point in their life “Singin’ In The Rain”, and it’s use, set in contrast to SNSD’s now heavily electro-pop style, makes the video all the more endearing. How do these videos retain their Korean-ness? Simply for the way and intention that these Western ideas are used. They are used as footnotes, to maybe put on airs that K-Pop has a chameleon method of reproducing pop ideas and tropes from American pop, a sort of artistic submission if you will. However, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a level of intentionality in how K-Pop chooses to include Western influence. There is enough to draw the viewer in, but not enough to take away from its ability to represent Korea today.


SPOTLIGHT: GROWING SOPHISTICATION

I Got A Boy – SNSD (2013)

I originally decided to have this as part of my dissections for SNSD, but I realize that the reason I’m interested in this video falls a bit short and goes way beyond, academic dissection. By many accounts, this video is highly ambitious. It seems to blend the hot pink aesthetic from “Oh!”, “Genie” and other videos of that period, and a gaudy urban wardrobe.

As Mark James Russell says in his book, K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution, “There is something distinct and special about K-Pop. It’s like everything just a little bit louder, the images brighter, the style flashier – it’s just more.” “I Got A Boy” is a very good example of this. Taken individually the outfits are outrageous, just a bit gaudy and would stand out on the street like a sore thumb, but here in a video, with 8 other equally jarring outfits, it becomes an exciting norm.

The edginess of the outfits combined with the vibrancy of the video are a culmination and an homage to SNSD’s success and various styles over the years. They have the bravado and the confidence to do edgy, and they have the aegyo history to make it pop and make it cute. “I Got A Boy” is all of these things visually, and that is only part of the reason it’s such an influential video.

Musically it’s ambitious. Most tracks attempt to blend tempo changes together, but “I Got A Boy” introduces them by stopping the music altogether and having a single voice introduce the next tempo (“Bring it back to 140”). Removed from the very real and true issue of K-Pop groups being professionally and artistically restrained, the effortless musical control amidst performance, as shown by many live versions, showcase SNSD’s incredible depth of performance facility and acumen.

Of course, many would agree with me on some points and delve into others in which they disagree with me. SNSD Korean, a dedicated SNSD website mentioned earlier in this entry, contains a piece written by WordPress user “dreadtech” that analyses “I Got A Boy”. It is a fantastic dissection in its own right, and just showcases how much artistry goes behind the creation of a great work of K-Pop.

What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 2, Changing With The Times

When someone asks me how I get my K-pop fix, my answer is either from YouTube videos, or from friends and family who send me YouTube videos. For many people outside of Korea, especially relative laymen like myself, this is the truth. Apart from news sites and forums and social media posts, YouTube makes up the majority of international K-Pop exposure, and for good reason. This is what contributes to things like this blowing up:

In fact, multimedia distribution has always been at the core of the success of modern K-Pop. Even dating back to the days of Seo Taiji and Boys, the primary means of distribution for modern K-Pop is not the radio or records, but by performances on TV. Methods of distribution and exposure have diversified since then; while groups still debut on TV (shows like Inkigayo which feature live performances of new songs and routines) and are subject to several music rank system (similar to America’s Billboard charts), YouTube and online music retail among others are hugely important to the modern distribution of K-Pop.

However, K-Pop’s internet presence didn’t come by chance. Rather, there were several events during the 2000s that helped shape the way K-Pop is distributed today. According to moonROK’s History of K-Pop Series, “By 2002, over 10 million households – roughly 70% of all households in Korea – had either DSL or cable Internet connections.” This is important because it helped spur the piracy of music in Korea, leading to a serious plunge in hard record sales. Long story short, new laws got passed and streaming services were introduced, changing monthly fees to stream music online.

This sudden switch of profits from hard album sales to digital sales caused two things: One, it became imperative for companies to use their idols to advertise to bring in revenue that could not be brought in from albums, and two, it set the stage for a wide array of alternate distribution and exposure channels for all of its stars. Mobile phone advertisements, ringtone sales, mass appearances on TV for an audience that is exponentially making it easier to access TV, variety shows and subsequently forays into acting all define the 2000s for K-Pop. It could be said that in order for K-Pop to have the influence and media savvy that it has on the world, it had to learn how to saturate media at home.

SHINee showcases their adaptable dancing skills on variety show Weekly Idol.

This all came at a time when K-Pop was beginning to reach other countries. As mentioned in the last article, BoA has had much to do with popularizing K-Pop outside of Korea, bringing it to Japan, China, and even cutting an English album. Though her success in the West has been lackluster, she is largely revered for her success in Japan and the significance it has had for Korean stars in Asia. She is hailed by numerous sources as the Queen of K-Pop or the Queen of Hallyu.

And rightly so. Many 2nd Generation K-Pop groups benefit from international exposure as a result of BoA’s success. Super Junior, TVXQ/DBSK, SNSD, 2PM and 2AM, BigBang, KARA and many, many other groups forming in the mid to late 2000s have found success in either China or Japan or both.

DBSK released Japanese exclusive tracks in the same fashion as BoA, though later groups seeking success in Japan often just re-released their Korean material in Japanese.

It’s additionally safe to say that 2nd generation K-Pop is tied closely to the Hallyu Wave, a term that is associated with the rush and influx of Korean culture that becomes popular in other countries. While this movement includes TV dramas, soaps and other media, K-Pop plays a pivotal role in shaping it. Beginning in East Asia around the early 2000s (of which BoA was a huge part), the spread was mostly contained to Japan, then steadily outward into the rest of the world starting around 2008 as K-Pop began using YouTube as a means of distribution.

Later groups from the 2nd Generation (that debuted around 2007 or slightly earlier) got to ride the wave as scores of people around the world began to hear and absorb K-Pop purely through the Internet, YouTube specifically. The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” and subsequently SNSD’s “Gee” took the internet by storm, and for many (including myself) were the first of many tastes of K-Pop for audiences abroad.

The Hallyu Wave, especially Hallyu 2.0, is crucial to understand K-Pop as it is now and as it was then because overwhelming international reception is causing companies and groups in Korea to consider the online and international demographics in new ways. Dal Yong Jin wrote a fantastic piece on Hallyu 2.0 for the International Institute Journal of the University of Michigan, found here. In it, Jin describes the crucial role that social media has played in advancing Korean culture worldwide, and at the forefront of this movement are massively popular online multiplayer games, and K-Pop.

SNSD’s Gee was, before Psy’s Gangnam Style, the most viewed K-Pop video on YouTube, fully representing the aesthetic of 2nd generation groups at the time, and the virality of Hallyu 2.0

So where are we now? At this point it makes a bit more sense to view Psy’s Gangnam style as a culmination of a whole decade’s worth of work by Korea’s music industry, rather than a the catalyst for K-Pop’s explosion on the internet, though Psy’s Gangnam style has its role. It brought K-Pop to the masses of the world, and it also coincided with a time when an explosion of new K-Pop groups in 2010 began making a name for themselves.

We are still, in 2015, living in the wake of the 3rd Generation of K-Pop, an era built completely in the influence of the Internet and of amplified global exposure. There are countless videos of Brazilians, Malaysians, Thai, not to mention Japanese and Americans dancing to videos that came out in the years after 2009, videos that they might not have otherwise seen because of the explosive popularity of “Nobody”, “Gee” or “Gangnam” style, and certainly would not have seen if it wasn’t for BoA’s pioneering efforts in the mid 2000s to help bring K-Pop to East Asia first.

We are living in a time where the 2nd generation of K-Pop are slowly dispersing and doing different things with their lives, while the 3rd generation of K-Pop groups are gaining more and more acclaim by the month. Jessica Jung, a core icon of SNSD (as all of them are), is no longer a part of the girl group, and is now working with her own fashion line, while EXO, a guy group debuting in 2012, is taking its place as SM’s flagship group, their videos raking in 30 to 40 to 50 to 60 million views each drop. Members of BigBang (from YG) and SHINee (from SM) have launched solo debuts in Korea to much acclaim, where A Pink, a girl group from A Cube Entertainment, have cleaned up awards over the last three years and are a sort of heir apparent to SNSD’s aesthetic.

As more and more online journalistic sources write about the 3rd generation of K-Pop at an excruciatingly detailed level, the world of K-Pop is wider than ever for everyone in the world to jump in and enjoy the best of the Hallyu Wave. The point of this blog is to understand the stylistic, aesthetic and cultural roots, specifically those of western origin, of these groups, but to talk about K-Pop without talking about its impact on the world, and its unique history will make it difficult down the road. The truth is, K-Pop has a huge influence on the world as it is, and it would be entirely plausible for American artists to take a huge aesthetic chunk out of the K-Pop phenomenon as K-Pop has done for itself. In the next entry, I hope to discuss one of the groups at the head of this globalizing movement, perhaps not in excruciating detail as I’ve done with this history, but in such a way as to highlight what makes up a K-Pop group, and what that means for the world.

K-Pop is by no means history, as these last two entries might also have implied. It is a changing scene, and while forums are arguing that it is coming to a close, its impact is undeniable. The world is different because of K-Pop, and I am going to attempt to understand why.

K-Pop comes full circle: Red Velvet, an SM girl group that only recently debuted, covers SM girl group S.E.S.’ “Be Natural”


SPOTLIGHT: WHAT STARTED IT ALL

Nobody – Wonder Girls (2009)

I still remember clearly when the lyrics to this and the lyrics to “Gee” echoed mercilessly in the halls of my high school. To be honest it was a toss up between featuring this video or “Gee” as both are milestones for the internet distribution of K-Pop, but Nobody has had the greater influence by far.

The Wonder Girls debuted the same year as SM’s SNSD, topping charts with the single “Tell Me” and then releasing this bombshell of a video. While the opening narrative/backstory is a bit strange, involving JYP’s preseident Park Jin Young being upstaged by his own girl group, it was the live version of this video that went viral first.

This video is mainly known by itself; it is known as the video that started K-Pop’s explosion over YouTube, and paved the way for SNSD’s success with “Gee” and Psy’s success with “Gangnam Style” though the latter was only released 3 years later. One could argue that the Wonder Girls are the internet counterparts to BoA in terms of influence and pioneering but the Wonder Girls have not had comparable success in America that BoA had in Japan (which in terms of opening the Internet and the world to K-Pop, America would be the field of success comparable to BoA’s influence in Japan).

Aesthetically this video borrows heavily from the 60s, something that isn’t found with the Wonder Girl’s debut single. 60s bobs, glitter dresses and circular frame ribbon microphones all dominate the video. The stage itself is reminiscent of show stages from Motown, where the band and backup singers are all on stage at the same time.

What’s interesting about this video however, is that they combined that aesthetic with an otherwise generic dance/bubblegum pop track. It has a grove, synth fills, and a very very memorable chorus (something my high school friends can attest to). It is pretty reminiscent of Britney Spears and other early 2000s bubblegum acts, a style which has been a mainstay of K-Pop influence since the 1st generation of K-Pop.

Perhaps the appeal (and virality) of Nobody can be explained simply by those two aspects coming together; the glam and nostalgia that comes from the 60s aesthetic, which is romanticized as K-Pop is wont to do, and the catchiness of bubblegum pop played next to it. That and the clever use of a simple and repetitive but memorable hook allows the song to stay stuck in one’s head for days at a time, adding to the video’s staying power. All of these ideas did originate from American pop innovations, though it took America 4 or so more decades to reach these understandings that it did for K-Pop to assimilate and then merge it into something that is uniquely theirs.

What Is K-Pop? A Short History: Pt. 1, Beginnings and Foundations

I’ve been listening to K-pop for something over a year now, and every time I see a new video, whether it’s from 2009 or from yesterday, I always wonder how we get from here:

to this.

Between these two videos there is a host of difference and a subtle kinship in terms of musical styles, aesthetic and cinematography (you might find that I will use these words plenty over the next two weeks).

At the bottom of my queries is that in the two or so decades K-Pop as we know it has been around, it has changed significantly without deviating from a core formula. I realize additionally that in order to make any sense of the musical culture we are about to delve into, we first have to have an idea of where everything came from.

K-Pop as we know it today first originated with Seo Taiji & Boys, a three-man boy group that includes the aforementioned Seo Taiji (born Jeong Hyoen-cheol), Lee Juno, and Yang Hyun-suk, the now-president of one of the big companies in K-Pop today, YG Entertainment. They were the first group in Korea to practice some of the key elements of K-Pop. Billboard wrote a feature that briefly but succinctly discussed Seo Taiji and Boys’ influence on the K-Pop world, as well as describing other groups and their influence on modern K-Pop, found here.

They first debuted in 1992 on television with their single “Nan Arayo” (난 알아요) or “I Know”. Far from the high-production, crisply choreographed and meticulously shot products of today, the trio’s appeal came largely from its blend of fresh American pop styles (specifically their New Jack Swing influences), hip-hop influenced choreography, put together for a Korean audience.

A lot of the mainstays of K-Pop today are seen in this video; alternating shots of choreography and gratuitous shots of the idols posing, solid vocals interspersed with rapping, wrapped in a diverse but unique wardrobe, and in fact, the video bears a lot of resemblance to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” Nan Arayo stayed on top of the charts for 4 and a half months, and their popularity paved the way for companies to begin to adopt to the idol group formula; SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment (started by Yang Hyun-suk of Seo Taiji and Boys), DSP and JYP Entertainment all followed suit and by the mid 1990s all had hugely successful groups of their own.

These groups aimed to do what Seo Taiji and Boys had already set out and done, and that was to take American pop music, and add the Korean idol group formula to it. Groups like SM Entertainment’s H.O.T and S.E.S, DSP’s Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L. and JYP’s g.o.d are all considered, along with Seo Taiji, to be part of the first generation of modern K-Pop idol groups, and many groups today are still influenced in all aspects and at all levels by these early groups.

Of these groups, H.O.T was the first largely successful boy group to use the full formula as we know it. MoonROK has an excellent series on the history of K-pop, and describes how Lee Soo Man, founder of SM Entertainment, at the time asked teens what they wanted of their idols, scoured the world for audition tapes, brought promising talent in, and then trained them in every last aspect of stardom possible, including how to act and how to look and how to handle the media.

Also under SM’s guidance, K-Pop’s first international star bolstered acclaim for the now proven SM idol formula. By the numbers, BoA was a much wilder success in 2002 on the release of her Japanese album, Listen to My Heart, and with it, SM Entertainment, as well as the rest of the Korean entertainment companies, could set their eyes worldwide to achieve success.

Because of BoA, many K-Pop groups and talents look to make it worldwide. SM Entertainment’s EXO is split into EXO-K and EXO-M with EXO-M focused on reaching Mandarin  markets, and Super Junior, ever famous for their subunits, has a similar Super Junior-M group built to reaching Mandarin audiences.

By the early to mid-2000s, the K-Pop idol group model had been tested and perfected; many second-generation groups that debuted around this time such as Super Junior, TVXQ, DBSK and etc benefited from the established model to explore new aesthetic and artistic choices, continually changing where American musical influences can meet Korean interpretation. In our next entry, we begin to explore the second and third generation of K-Pop groups, and begin to arrive at K-Pop as the international phenomenon we know today.

Mark James Russell’s book K-Pop Now!: The Korean Music Revolution aptly recalls a unique Korean term describing a mix of old and new. “That’s always been a defining part of Korea, the mix – combining new and old, fancy and simple, loud and quiet, cutting edge and retro. Koreans call it jjamppong, ‘all mixed up.'” (Russell) So too is K-Pop. It reflects that attitude of mixing it all up, and I hope that in these two weeks we can explore what that means.


SPOTLIGHT: MY NEWTONIAN APPLE

Love Like Oxygen  – SHINee (2008)

Since we talk a lot about firsts, I thought I would use this section to highlight a video that first made me realize that K-Pop was rife with western influence. Before I had first seen this video, I had already heard quite a bit about SHINee’s members being hugely influenced by Michael Jackson, particularly their youngest member and most popular dancer Lee Taemin.

This song just confirmed that for me. Musically there are many homages to Jackson’s musical style. The opening vocal part contains Jackson’s signature growl singing, and throughout the song there is a subtle guitar riff whose sound is found in early-to-mid 80s Jackson songs such as “Billie Jean” and anything from Jackson’s debut solo album “Off The Wall”. Furthermore, the rhythm section features the same quarter note pulse signature to many of Jackson’s tunes such as “Beat It”, “Smooth Criminal” and others.

The final nail in the proverbial coffin is probably the series of dance moves starting at 2:57, which include a hand-leg pop sequence in a semi-parody of Jackson’s immensely popular moonwalk (Also noticeable in that link is the uncanny resemblance between Jackson’s outfits and the outfits worn by SHINee at the 2:57 mark. Hmm). The moves following that, at around the 3:06 mark, are also reminiscent of Jackson’s effortless but rigid poses that involve the limbs in geometric formation, which are all also featured in “Billie Jean”.

Of course, Love Like Oxygen could just be a huge parody/homage to Michael Jackson in general, but it’s undeniable that, considering SHINee dances quite like this many of their other videos (which I’m sure I will discuss), that Michael Jackson is a huge influence on this group, and perhaps on many other groups as well.

Introductions and Purpose

Hey all,

Over the last two decades, K-Pop as we know it has grown considerably. It is a grab-all title referring to popular music in Korea, but it has a distinct worldwide image. One immediately associates the word “K-Pop” with highly stylized cinematography and visual aesthetics, coupled with a group of identical looking singer-dancers performing incredibly synchronized choreography. Korean Pop music is this and more, and above all it is an art form that is modern yet uniquely Korean. It draws heavily from Western influence while retaining a modernized, east Asian flavor, and it is the nature of this synthesis that draws audiences from around the world, both online and in person. K-Pop is talked about and absorbed at an alarming rate, and it is my humble desire to figure out some of the sources at work.

I am undertaking research on K-Pop as a final project in an undergraduate class at UC Davis concerned with East Asian musics, primarily from an ethnomusicological standpoint. Core to this study is the concept of intertextuality and globalization, specifically how Western music, dance and culture have influenced K-Pop, and also how K-Pop continues to influence the world as we know it. There is a unique and powerful interplay between K-Pop and the rest of the world, and I am anxious to get started digging in.

Over the span of the next two weeks, I’d like to cover a variety of topics, including but not limited to musical influences, dance influences, the history of K-Pop, worldwide influence, and media collaborations, highlighting the ways contemporary Western aesthetics have permeated the elements of K-Pop we know to day. At the end of each blog post, I will also do a spotlight feature on a group, a song, or a video that discusses some of the aforementioned subjects as a supplement.

As of now, I only know enough tidbits of information to make me insanely interested in what we’re about to study, but as the days move forward, I hope to grow in my knowledge and understanding of how everything we are now listening to and watching are linked in ways we are yet to discover.

Thanks!

Josiah