Let me put this into perspective – I don’t look like your average k-pop fan. When strangers see me walk down the street with headphones on and judge purely by appearance they’re probably more likely to think that I’m listening to skinhead punk rock than anything like what you’re going to see in this blog. The fact that I like k-pop always catches my friends by surprise, even my own girlfriend was like “YOU? Like THIS? No way…” when she found out. So I thought I’d write this blog purely for my own benefit, so when people ask me about how and why I got into k-pop I can just lazily throw them a link to here rather than have the same conversation with each one of my friends and acquaintances about this, over and over. And of course if any of them or anyone else happens to be entertained by this post, then that’s also great. Conversely, if you don’t like it… I don’t know, you could always read something else, right? Just a thought.
So. Although I look like (and arguably am) a dirty aging punk rock scumbag who barely scraped through grade school, I’m actually very musically educated, probably far more so than whoever you are reading this right now, and that’s not even bragging, it’s just statistical truth. Over a decade ago, I went to university for years and studied music, and walked out with a degree. Then I went back in and did a graduate degree, plus a technical audio degree, just because I could do them. I passed everything with top marks and little effort. (Just stating facts once again. If I wasn’t going through relationship hell in the last half of my Uni degree I would have done even better and would probably be lecturing there by now. To this day I still get annoying spam mail from the university’s “Alumni association” asking me to be a part of their little hipster club just because I completed all of my degrees within the top 10% of graduates. I haven’t bothered to write them a letter back to tell them to go and fuck themselves yet, I guess I’m just too busy being a nice guy.) Anyway, while I was doing all this education, one of the many things that I studied was ethnomusicology – which is the study of music within culture.
The ethnomusicology lectures I attended weren’t that big, there were only half a dozen of us students. “Music as it applies to culture” at this high level isn’t a popular, trendy subject – most university music graduates aim for further studies in performance or other more glamorous fields. At one point each of us had to give a presentation to the group on an ethnomusicological topic. I honestly can’t remember what I chose to present to the group, but it was probably boring as batshit. I also can’t remember the name of the Korean girl in the group who chose to present a lecture to us all on k-pop.
Her English skills weren’t great, but they were good enough to get the job done, and when she started showing us video clips of the then-most-popular k-pop idol boy group H.O.T. it didn’t end up mattering. The videos spoke for themselves.
She talked mainly about H.O.T. (being clearly an obsessed fangirl and making absolutely no attempt to hide it) with a few references to other groups such as S.E.S. and then went on to talk about the insanity of the Korean education system and how this affects the music. She them proceeded to play a track with a heavy metal sound mixed in with the boy-group sound and said that most music with this kind of hybrid typically had lyrics dealing with either the problems in the Korean education system, or with the personal struggles of people going through that system.
I don’t know if this video here was the track she actually played, or if it was another one, but it’s certainly a good example of the kind of sound I’m talking about. This is going back nearly 15 years so it’s hard for me to remember exact details. To be honest, H.O.T.’s music didn’t impress me at the time – and still doesn’t. While I liked the ambition it showed, k-pop seemed very clearly at least half a decade if not more behind western groups in terms of sonic production, visual style and music choices overall (James Brown “Funky Drummer” samples in the late 90s – we’re talking seriously out of step here, folks). I was just intrigued that something like this existed at all, and since I’m a fan of all music generally I made a mental note that k-pop was a thing that existed and that I should really keep an eye on it just in case it starts getting better.
Fast forward a decade – I’m done with the education system and the band I’m in is on tour. I’m a fairly anti-social person on tour, I really don’t like to hang out with the other guys much except when we’re at the venue about to play a show, the rest of the time I do my own thing. It’s the way I prefer it, nothing against the other guys, I just like my space away from the madness. With a few hours to kill before the show, I always like to wander the local city districts looking for interesting shit, like good places to eat and buy music. In this particular case, I found a store dedicated to media from Asia (innovatively titled “Media Asia”) that had a ground floor full of DVDs and an upper level entirely dedicated to Asian popular music.
Going straight to the upper level of this building, I quickly encountered some ridiculously-packaged CDs, and walls adorned with several bigger-than-life-size posters of Girls’ Generation. I looked at the ultra-sleek airbrushed-to-perfection images of the girls and thought to myself “okay, I obviously have to buy some of whatever THIS group is doing and check it out, I sense I’m missing out on something here”. So I bought a DVD of collected Girls’ Generation stuff and some other stuff, and took it home. There it sat for a month before I really had time to look at it properly. But when I did… goddamn…
“Gee” was nothing new, I’d seen it before on some Internet forum where some guy was trying to weird some other guy out with something as cutesy as possible… and it wasn’t bad, but “Oh!” really sold me, and then there was the amazingly well crafted “Mr. Taxi”, “Visual Dreams” and “Chocolate Love”, all songs that made me think “this is as good as anything else out there in pop music… and a damn sight better than most of it… have I just discovered the ultimate musical utopia?” A quick search of YouTube verified that this was indeed the case, and led to even better groups…
Damn. This one was like La Roux’s “In For The Kill” but with better melody, better production and FAR more attractive performers. I love La Roux but stopped listening to them immediately after discovering T-ara and haven’t started back up again. Once you’ve had a six-course banquet it’s hard to go back to beans and rice every night, what can I say. To this day I can’t find any artist in k-pop or any other pop for that matter with songs that match T-ara for sheer consistency of quality, and remember this is a qualified music professional talking to you, not some fucking grade-school nugu, so before you say “you don’t know what you’re talking about” STFU because I most certainly fucking do. This song was my first confirmation that k-pop was not just keeping pace with but significantly ahead of the western world’s pop machine.
The Lady Gaga-ish vocal tone of CL in particular was an initial barrier to me liking 2NE1, but I got over it after a few listens. With an image like THAT there was no way I could continue to ignore them, and before I knew it I was singing along to every song in their catalogue. Eh eh eh eh eh (guess which one, ha).
Everywhere I looked in “What’s Related” on YouTube there were more great songs. In this example k-pop even turned made-for-TV Europop into something not only listenable but genuinely incredible, with only a few subtle changes, like an actual budget, more charisma, better production and removing the sleaze (and I’m a big fan of sleaze, so increasing the quality of anything by removing sleaze is like some kind of magician’s trick as far as I’m concerned). And to think this was the same company that brought out H.O.T…
Shit. K-pop just blew my mind.