Inquiring minds wish to know the differences between Korean pop and pop from other countries. What are the differences? How much has one influenced the other? Is it true that one is superior? Why haven’t I posted any images of T-ara girls in tightly-fitting school uniforms lately?
I keep getting asked about this type of shit so here’s another one of those posts where I wrap some vaguely educational information up in my usual snarky blogging style and shovel it down the throats of a bunch of drooling, shambling Koreaboos. Please enjoy.*
I’m writing about this only because I get asked about it all the time. I get a lot of questions like these:
I wouldn’t want any of you folks to fail your school and uni assignments, so remember this; one of the favourite pastimes of teachers and markers everywhere is to find the most well-written chunks of your essays and feed them verbatim into search engines to see if you’ve stolen them from anywhere. To that end, I’ll fill this post with enough typical Kpopalypse-grade humour that you’re going to have to paraphrase my text anyway if you want to copy any of it and don’t want to be expelled when it hits the principal’s desk. Here we go, cunts.
THE BIRTH OF THE IDOL
The concept of the modern k-pop idol group is not a Korean invention, but an imported idea from western groups. The first true “idol” pop stars in the sense that we now know them today achieved their first peak cultural relevance to very young people in western countries in the 1950s. These “idols” fell into two broad categories:
- Solo vocalists, with a backing band (Elvis Presley is a good example)
- Groups of vocalists, with or without a backing band (the “doo-wop” movement)
The rise of television into a ubiquitous family lounge-room fixture shortly after World War II meant that extremely young people now had easy access to audiovisual entertainment, and could ogle their idols up close for the first time. The ease of emotional attachment that the new technology provided to very young people lacking in discernment and the ability to separate fantasy from reality meant that this was also the time that the first “deludu fangirls” made an appearance. Of course, music fans existed before this time, but the crazy fever pitch zerg-rush of 1950s pop fangirls were a new breed that society was unprepared for.
The “self-contained” pop/rock group that played their own instruments (or appeared to, but that’s a subject for another post) came later in the early 1960s thanks to the popularity of The Beatles and similar “Merseybeat” acts. Although The Beatles got the idol treatment and slotted right into idol infrastructure, at heart they weren’t an idol group and after only a few short years of promotion, they’d had a gutful of this type of fucking shit everywhere they went:
“Fuck these fucking fans – we’re growing our hair, getting ugly and never touring ever again“, they said. Although this decision helped the gradually-imploding Beatles kick on for a few more years, it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme – by this time a veritable army of record label rubber-stamped Beatles-inspired clone groups picked up the slack and fangirls just transferred their insanity over to these new groups, diffusing the mental retardation across the entire spectrum of pop music. The market saw the increasing demand, responded with more and more teen-friendly sugar-pop and the “pop idol system” gradually developed into what it is today.
The stylistic elements of k-pop also go way back. Far closer to the current spirit of idol pop than doo-wop, The Beatles, Elvis or any of the imitators they spawned was the American Motown record label. Formed in 1959, Motown were the first record label with overt “factory” aspirations and a mission statement to transform their working-class black performers into “royalty” – people that you would (hopefully) find charming and relateable and fetishise and drool over and plaster your bedroom walls with posters of, regardless of class or racial barriers. Motown specifically groomed, charm-schooled and choreographed their younger artists for maximum public appeal and success just like k-pop agencies do now and to this end they were the spiritual precursor to the k-pop labels of today. Motown had teams of in-house songwriters cranking out the hits and even had their own SM Town-style packaged concerts. Their strategies worked, with their first big payoff coming with mega-hit girl group The Supremes.
Many of the key elements that we love about today’s Korean idol groups were present in a more basic form in The Supremes. In “Stop In The Name Of Love” we can see synchronised choreography, sexy (for the time) fashions and styling, and even the first ever “girl idol hand-dance”.
This iconic hand gesture as well as the general look and feel of The Supremes was given the high-glitz modern k-pop makeover in Wonder Girls’ “Nobody”:
The Supremes also weren’t short on that other common element of idol pop – bitchy in-fighting. Years after the group broke up and the members went to separate solo projects, Supreme Mary Wilson released the tell-all book “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” where she spends many pages gleefully outing groupmate Diana Ross as a complete prima-donna cunthole. Legitimate grievance or petty jealousy? Like all the best k-pop scandals, only industry insiders will ever know the truth, but it’s certainly entertaining to read Mary’s bitter jealousy-infused version of events.
The other big act on Motown were boy group The Jackson Five, who signed to the label in 1969, when the youngest member Michael Jackson was only 11 years old. Motown’s PR department then lied about his age, saying he was even younger, to make him look like even more of a child prodigy than he really was for publicity purposes – lying bullshit press releases, another thing k-pop labels didn’t invent. Michael’s later solo career doesn’t need recounting here but his influence on the dance routines (and maybe also the plastic surgery routines) of k-pop boy groups should be obvious enough to anybody. It’s certainly obvious enough to the k-pop groups themselves.
Back in the early 60s before The Beatles grew their hair, got into transcendental meditation and released shit music that nobody except pretentious music journalists cared about, if you were a Beatles fan you weren’t just a fan of the group as a whole – you were either a John, Paul, George or Ringo fangirl. All Beatles fangirls had their “favourite Beatle”, but life was hard for Ringo fangirls because Ringo was the drummer so you didn’t get much of a good look at him, the limelight would constantly be hogged by the other three. It took them a few decades of market research (the music industry moves slowly sometimes), but labels marketing pop music eventually decided that it would probably be better marketing from a teenage fangirl perspective if all the members of a group sung a bit so there was no one “lead singer”, that way they all got a little bit of time on the microphone and with the camera pointed at them so fangirls could develop the appropriate crushes. Even better if they could also dance. And if they were all attractive. And if they all had slightly different looks, so you could identify with each one depending on what sort of guys you were into, whether you preferred the “clean cut” type, the “bad boy”, the “80s mullet casual dude”, the “slightly geeky but still cute” one etc.
New Kids On The Block (hereafter referred to as NKOTB to save me typing) had five guys, all who had a slightly different look. Every male k-pop group that ever existed is conceptually trying to copy this formula that was initially laid down by whatever marketing gurus were behind NKOTB…. but with the dancing of Michael Jackson, instead of the lame-ass dancing you see in the video above.
Someone figured out that this approach would probably work for girl groups too, and the earliest attempt at this as far as influencing Asia was concerned may have been Australia’s “Girlfriend” who were groomed by their label at the time to be Australia and Asia’s #1 girl group. Girlfriend mined similar territory to the UK’s The Spice Girls, who copied Girlfriend’s image and concept almost exactly, right down to the cringeworthy feminist-lite “girl power” catchphrases, but predated them by a number of years. Girlfriend made zero impact globally in other western countries in terms of sales (this was back in the days when music sales still fucking meant something) but charted decently in Australia and mounted a successful Asian tour. In another first for idol pop, Girlfriend even had their own fully endorsed fashion line and even tried to make large flower-hats a branded fashion thing, which makes sense given the climates of the places where they were most popular.
Compare Girlfriend’s debut song to this early k-pop idol song, and play spot the similarity.
Girlfriend were the first conceptually successful girl-iteration of idol pop in terms of transferring the visual style of the NKOTB formula directly over to females… and any territory they didn’t cover, America’s TLC scooped up a year later… but of course it was The Spice Girls that gave these ideas global penetration in every market. The Spice Girls were (and probably will remain) the most successful idol girl group in world history (much to the pain of vocalfags everywhere).
The entire concept of the k-pop idol group is just NKOTB, The Spice Girls, TLC and Girlfriend cloned by Asia instead of imported… but Koreans did being something different to the table – they made the style stricter and more rigid. Choreography that was previously semi-improvised in places (because it was designed with the stage and crowd response in mind) became strict routines that members had to follow step-by-step (or else). The routines also became a lot more physical and athletic. Fashion and visual design also became meticulously planned. The Korean industry did something new by turning idol pop into a tough, regimented university… but it was still the university of “how to be as much like western idol pop as possible”.
But what about overall k-pop concepts in the sense that k-pop fans think of the term “concept” – as a visual hook? The constant image-changing of k-pop groups every damn time an MV comes out is something unique to k-pop, right?
Well, no. Any concept that exists in k-pop, if the above groups haven’t already scooped it up, the original pop idol concept chameleon Madonna has probably already done it, or something like it.
- Generic sexy underwear-fetish fap concept? Done.
- “Classy-sexy”, whatever the fuck that means this week? Done.
- Exotic fucking whatevers in some other country? Okay, then.
- Cutesy and retro concepts? Got it covered.
- Some getting wet at the beach bullshit? Done.
- Moody gothic dark shit? Been there, done that.
- Deep and meaningful tearjerker drama MVs? Done.
- Inscrutable bewildering YG-style fucking wank? Nothing new.
- Male drag and pissweak female-empowerment-lite? Check.
- Military shit? Done.
- Written-while-taking-a-big-smelly-dump OST ballads? Done.
- Retro big-band burlesque style? Yeah, yeah.
- T-ara style disco queen shit? Done it already.
- Some fucking crazy shit nobody would wear in public? Not just for Orange Caramel.
- Trashy 80’s dancing and fashion? Madonna invented that shit.
So in summary, k-pop is Michael Jackson’s dancing with an overall group concept like NKOTB or The Spice Girls, using the visual ideas of Madonna.
MELODIC AND HARMONIC ELEMENTS
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MUUUUUUUUSIC” I heard you all cry, “isn’t k-pop different musically? Isn’t it all ‘Asian’ and stuff?” Well, okay… time to get a little technical.
Most readers over the age of 15 years will know 6th Century BC Greek mathematician Pythagoras as “that guy with the rule about triangles“, having been no doubt drilled with endless pages of “calculate these fucking triangles before recess” exercises in maths class. However Pythagoras had other claims to fame – he was not only that annoying triangle guy, but he also was a religious cult leader and on top of that he experimented scientifically with sound (and maybe other things too – but definitely at least with sound).
Pythagoras’ initial experiments involved observing a plucked string, and then cutting off the vibration of the string at various points. It was noted that stopping the vibration at varied mathematical points produced higher notes. These notes will be familiar to stringed instrument players as “harmonics”.
By continuing this series of harmonic reproduction by cycling through fifths and fourths until seven distinct tonalities were obtained, Pythagoras was able to conceptualise an early form of the seven-note or “dia-tonic” harmony upon which all western music is now based. Clicking on the harmonic series of notes below will take you to a post which explains the maths behind the Pythagorean diatonic scale, just in case you give a fuck.
Meanwhile in China, some clever and anonymous Chinese inventors had also figured out this shit. However, the Chinese had an important difference of opinion to Pythagoras – they didn’t think that the last couple of notes in his diatonic series sounded any good, they felt that these last two notes were cosmically incorrect or something, probably because they noticed that once you get past the first five notes, the maths gets a bit fucking shaky. It probably wouldn’t bother a wacky cult leader who told his followers not to touch beans or white cocks, but it bothered the Chinese. As a result, the Chinese stopped their musical scale at five distinct pitches.
Therein lies the key difference between traditional Eastern and Western melody and harmony – five-note (aka “pentatonic”) versus seven-note or diatonic musical scales. If you’ve ever jumped on a piano, played around with only the black keys and noticed that the result somehow sounds “oriental”, it’s because you’re playing a pentatonic scale (probably F# pentatonic major). On the other hand if you play only the white notes on the piano and notice that it sounds like a western nursery rhyme or folk tune, that’s because you’re playing a western diatonic scale (probably C major).
This difference is why Asian music “sounds Asian”. So that’s why k-pop sounds different, right? Well, nope… 99.99% of k-pop just uses western scales instead, either the diatonic major and minor scales (initially from the western classical music tradition and in almost all pop music) or the “blues scale” which is the minor pentatonic plus an extra note, the tritone/flat 5th/blue note (initially from American blues music, and which is in almost all the rest of pop music). I’m sure however that you’d like to hear an example of the 0.01% so here you go, introducing the only k-pop song ever* that is completely built on the major pentatonic scale:
If you were of the opinion that this song sounded a bit twee, cheesy and fuckin’ stupid, well now you know why you probably felt that way (although I liked it – but then I also liked Wassup’s debut song so maybe you shouldn’t take my opinion of the quality of music as gospel truth, hey). You can legitimately say that miss A’s “I Don’t Need A Man” is one of the very, VERY few Asian-influenced songs in k-pop, melodically… but it’s still fucking got a RAP VERSE in it, which is an American thing (or at least popularised in America, rap was actually imported to American cities from Jamaica but let’s leave the rap history lesson for another post). And that’s about as oriental as k-pop gets from a strictly melodic/harmonic point of view. Please don’t flood my ask.fm with “but is this song Asian?” questions because they’ll get deleted without an answer – if you are even thinking about doing this, you’re missing the point of this paragraph and you need to fucking go back and read it again… and don’t get me started on trot music, that’s all western melody and harmony too.
SOUND DESIGN ELEMENTS
Of course, pop music is as much about rhythm, sonic production and audio engineering as it is about melody and harmony. In this area k-pop directly copies the west in every way imaginable, and always has. Many of the early k-pop producers went overseas to western countries to study sound design and brought the knowledge of pop production back with them to Korea. Of course the first results were primitive and dismal compared to what other countries were producing at the time.
H.O.T. were the biggest fucking group (at the time) on the biggest label in Korea and their engineer can’t even get something super-basic like volume compression correct, which is why different elements of the mix on all SM’s early material vary in volume so much. No wonder nobody outside Korea gave a shit back then – there was just nothing here to see.
Korea caught up fast though (with a bit of international help) – these days Korea’s audio engineering is just as good as anywhere else, and maybe a little better in some cases because they throw more money at in-housing engineers. The sonic choices have always been a little bit behind though, and still are. There’s a running joke with some of my friends that k-pop always runs with trends that were popular in the west about five years ago but have since fallen heavily out of fashion, and that’s why we see:
- Selective hard Autotune in 2009, many years after most western artists stopped using it
- James Brown style drum breaks from 1989 and 1992’s “Diggety” rap fad in the late 90s
- Dubstep in 2013 – nobody in the west outside the actual dubstep scene wanted to hear fucking dubstep in 2013
K-pop’s latest obsession is with “trap”, those horrible languid slow excuses for actual rap beats which have been polluting the hip-hop world over the last decade and making everything shit and boring – it’s the main reason why rap music sucks so much now compared to the style’s 80s and 90s golden ages. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, “trap” style is what’s going on in this song from 1:23.
The hip-hop world is gradually realising that this sound fucking sucks penis and they are sloooowly moving on, and it’s always just when the west is starting to move on from a musical trend that k-pop (on average) grabs it and runs with it. That’s because k-pop is sonically a copyist form, and you can’t copy something until it exists, so k-pop waits to see what works in western pop and then they grab it and use it, hoping it will work in Korea as well. The Korean industry is naturally conservative and doesn’t like to take chances. Of course, by the time k-pop comes up with its own clone versions, western pop has usually moved onto something else. Due to the increasing cross-pollenation between western and Korean producers the cycles are starting to get shorter (while the hip-hop world has used “trap” for a decade it’s only really become a big thing in pop music about two years ago) but it’s unquestionably still a copy.
K-pop is taking western music, combining it with western concepts, western production, western sonic trends and western psychological fangirl-baiting to create a popular culture trend based 100% entirely on western culture. There are no fucking differences. The only thing Korean about it is that it’s happening in Korea, which means that the competition is tougher – they’re all trying harder than everyone else to create the perfect pop product because they’re culturally perfectionist “keeping up with the Joneses” workaholics who run on two hours sleep. Except Sulli.
Sulli is taking a break from all that fucking bullshit. That’s because Sulli is awesome, and because she can. You would too, if you were a heterosexual female k-pop idol in her shoes and there was a waiting tropical island and an erect dick to hop on. Get that Choiza dick, girl. Support freedom – support Sulli.