Is it still K-pop Without the K?

Is it still K-pop Without the K?


K-pop has come a long way from HOT and Shinhwa in the 1990s, to what it is today. Even though ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy broke records in 2012, true K-pop listeners will know that the K-invasion started long before. With the internet and social media, K-pop developed as a niche youth cyber-culture, where people from all over the world mass consumed mp3 downloads, subbed video clips and images. Websites and forums that are invested in K-pop have grown in the last 7 years, and have become platforms for fans to develop and showcase content of their own, such as art, literature, song and dance covers. Even Hollywood celebrities have acknowledged and recognized K-pop, such as producer Will.I.Am and actress Emma Stone.

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These international fans have evolved in recent years to produce original K-pop music of their own, such as Detroit singer David Lehre, aka Chad Future (see image above) and New York based idol group ExP (see title image). Despite not being Korean, and not singing in Korean, they are self-labelled as K-pop. They have received mostly negative criticism directed at the authenticity of the genre, as the most common comment goes along the lines of ‘this is not K-pop’. Considering that the music genre K-pop is an abbreviation of Korean-pop, is it still K-pop without the K?

Do the singers have to be Korean to qualify as a K-pop idol? Seeing as South Korea is a homogenous country with very little diversity (98% of the population being Korean), naturally most singers in Korea are Korean. However, having an international (non-Korean) member of an idol group is seen as an asset to the team because of their ability to speak Chinese, Japanese or English which opens up the opportunity to promote easily in other countries. The non-Korean member can even become the most popular of the group, for example 2PM’s Nichkun is Thai, and f(x)‘s Amber, who is Taiwanese has released a solo album this year. These idols show that one can succeed in the K-pop industry without being Korean, or having Korean heritage when functioning in a group, being a solo artist is different.

Non-Korean K-pop singers. Left: Idol singer Nichkun from Thailand. Centre: Idol singer Amber from Taiwan, Right: Idol singer Tao from China

Non-Korean K-pop singers. Left: Idol singer Nichkun from Thailand. Centre: Idol singer Amber from Taiwan, Right: Idol singer Tao from China

As of now, Korea does not have a successful non-Korean solo artist. However, there are popular Korean solo stars who are international Koreans, as they have been raised in other countries, such as the Korean-American rapper, Jay Park, and the Korean-Canadian female singer G.NA. Despite growing up in a different country, these solo-artists can speak fluent Korean and therefore compete in the industry by themselves. It is evident that language and appearance are important factors. Do the singers have to speak Korean? Yes, as the songs in Korea, must have Korean lyrics (albeit a few English words), and talking on entertainment shows play an important role in promoting music. Although speaking Korean is important, it does not always have to be at a high level in a group. International idols have expressed their inability to speak Korean fluently, such as f(x)’s Amber, however they are still adored by fans.

Gyopo celebrities. Left: Solo-singer G.NA, Centre: Solo-Rapper Jay Park, Right: Idol singer Tiffany

Gyopo celebrities. Left: Solo-singer G.NA, Centre: Solo-Rapper Jay Park, Right: Idol singer Tiffany

So if these young talents can’t speak Korean, how were they able to debut? As long as they are not speaking, the international idol can fit in seamlessly with the rest of the group as long as they danced, sang and looked the part. Appearance is important in the competitive entertainment industry, but even more so because of the Korean consumer culture. Good-looking Japanese and Chinese faces are acknowledged in Korea because of similar beauty standards, but more importantly, they don’t look strikingly different from the Korean face. In the process of turning a trainee into an idol the face is bound to change anyway, even the Korean trainees will be unrecognizable from their previous selves.

The 6 members of EXP were selected through auditions, and did not know what K-pop was before forming the group.

The 6 members of EXP were selected through auditions, and did not know what K-pop was before forming the group.

K-pop consumers have become accustomed to a certain ‘look’ of idol groups, therefore can be quick to judge and criticize non-Korean K-pop singers. The New York K-pop group ExP has 6 members (2 African-American, 3 Caucasian and 1 half Japanese) and none of them have roots in Korea. The majority of the backlash were voicing doubt, rather than racially charged, because the fans doubted that they could continue to call themselves K-pop when they don’t look like any idol group which exists in Korea. Considering that K-pop, as of now, does not have any Caucasian or African idols (as Brad from the drummer for indie-band Busker Busker), this group clearly differs a lot from mainstream K-pop.

If the main criticism that this group is facing is that they are not Korean, this would suggest that K-pop is defined as something only Koreans can do. In America, African-American rapper Azealia Banks, criticized Iggy Azalea (Caucasian American). According to Azealia Banks, Hip-Hop and Rap is ‘black culture’ and she was unhappy how a ‘white’ Iggy Azalea was being praised over other black artists. To this day, music is criticized for its cultural authenticity. Once one identifies and imitates elements of another culture (including music) many believe that this is cultural appropriation. So would ExP and Chad Future claiming to be K-pop, be cultural appropriation?

Genres of music, which have their roots in other countries are popular in Korea too. Left: Rap Dynamic Duo, Centre: Reggae Skull, Right: Hip-Hop/ Pop 2ne1

Genres of music, which have their roots in other countries are popular in Korea too. Left: Rap Dynamic Duo, Centre: Reggae Skull, Right: Hip-Hop/ Pop 2ne1

Hip-hop, Rap, Jazz, Reggae and many other musical genres exist in Korean music. K-pop hip-hop idol groups, Big Bang and 2ne1, are not accused of attempting to be African-American. K-pop has a recognizable upbeat electronic sound, which differs from pop music in other countries. If non-Koreans are attracted to that distinctive sound and wish to mimic the style, it should be seen as an artistic choice. Surely the spreading awareness of K-pop and the evolution of the Hallyu wave will positively impact Korea, but it is the cold response from K-pop fans which shows that this change will not be quickly embraced.

The main criticism that the K-pop industry receives, from fans and haters, both Korean and international, is that it is too manufactured. The companies control too much, and act as a sausage machine, with young children being fed tunes, choreography and make-up to create a perfect idol group. The fans have grown accustomed to a certain quality of sausage from the sausage machine. In that case, is a non-Korean K-pop group, a sausage with different ingredients? Even if the sausage looks different and tastes different, can it still be classified as a sausage? This topic will be continued next week with a look into reactions from Koreans, and understanding the haters.

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