The Problem With K-pop

BIGBANG. They rock.

Warning: written by a white guy that knows very little about Korean culture and even less Korean. As in, none at all. But he has no shortage of love!


Korean pop music is wonderful. Really. It can dominate a dance floor with unrivaled energy. It celebrates pop culture and extravagance without alluding to sexual violence. It fuses singing, dancing, and fashion into a beautiful torrent of color and rhythm. It's superb.

Even better: K-pop stars live like warrior monks -- in isolation and ceaseless training. Stars in the spotlight, beggars in the dark. They're miles away from the arrogance and destructive behavior of their western counterparts.

For anyone addicted to upbeat tunes, k-pop is a fantastic musical companion.

Tiffany. A Supreme Being.

It's not perfect, of course. Artist individuality is often forsaken for the overpowering direction of the label. And like many pop industries in the world, "the image" stalks behind every decision a company makes, sometimes at the expense of the music itself.

Take it with a grain of salt. It's pop. You can still dance your ass off to it, and swoon at every immaculately produced music video that hits YouTube. But one thing still bugs me. It's a problem I've seen in tons of k-pop groups ever since my addiction began with G-Dragon's Heartbreaker.

Consistency. Has no one in the Korean music industry heard of consistency?

The (Hot) Issue

In their defense, they're trying to move the art form forward with every track. It's admirable. But it seems as if the k-pop industry needs to reinvent itself with every single, including a complete visual overhaul of the group in question.

This baffles me. When you love something, you want more of it, or variations of it. But the core has to remain -- it's what you fell in love with. Daft Punk will, very likely, always produce rad electronic music. Stuff you can move to. They don't throw in Gregorian chants just to "mix it up." That would disrupt the tone of the album and their work.

And yet, how often do groups in Korea swerve radically from side to side, stumbling into different musical genres with precious little reason to do so?

Examples (BYO Headphones)

We need some examples! They improve any piece of writing.

Let's look at a group that I'm terribly fond of: Secret. These four women have all the talent and beauty you could ask for. Soon after they debuted, they rocked the stage with a jazzy, powerful number called "Magic." It was 2011. See below.

With this simple tune, Secret defined their identity as a delightfully aggressive pop group with jazz/swing undertones. They killed it. I love this track.

Now let's take a look at their latest single from 2013. A catastrophic disappointment conveniently titled "YooHoo."

What... what happened? Where are the fierce vocals? The groovy bass lines and guitar riffs? The horns? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, SECRET? YOU'RE A BEAUTIFUL MESS.

This group seems to undulate between the badass and the bubbly. They followed Magic with Madonna (an all-too-similar track to Magic, but it was like liquid James Bond so I can't complain), but then released Shy Boy and Starlight Moonlight in quick, heartbreaking succession. Thank goodness for Poison, which makes me melt just thinking about it. Hyosung in a blood-red dress? Yes please. All day, every day.

Now wait. No need to fetch the pitchforks and light the torches. Just because some of those tracks were disappointing doesn't mean they're bad, or that Secret didn't perform them well. They're just inconsistent with the group's original themes and strengths. They feel out of place.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Some groups (and their labels) find their groove and stick with it. The incredible ladies of f(x) do a marvelous job of staying in line with their core concept. Each of their singles maintains the same charm and energy, while exploring slightly different themes.

More examples! Let's look at f(x)'s very first music video, La Cha Ta, released back in 2009. Oh, memories.

A great start for these girls. Upbeat, strong, fun, memorable.

Now let's look at their latest single, released in 2012. Electric Shock.


Oh, sorry, is the music video over? I was distracted by Luna. Apologies.

Now that's more like it! A modern twist on the fun, poppy dance track that maintains the foundation that made f(x) charming in the first place. It's an easy song to get pumped up to, and you can still wholly identify the music with the group. It's a natural progression for them. It has eye-catching choreography, sizzling color, and that all-consuming hook.

And bad special effects. What's with those, anyway? Did they blow all the money on set design?

Go Away, Ballads

I'm jealous of him.

All my qualms over k-pop can be personified by the presence of the "ballad" on an obnoxious number of k-pop albums.

Imaginary Friend: Oh hey, I feel like some dance music. Is this album good?

Me: Oh, totally. Except tracks 4 and 7. Those are songs about heartache and ice cream.

If you listen to k-pop, this has happened to you. Or maybe I just don't like ballads on my pop albums. This could be a personal issue. But putting that gripe aside, it's painful to watch amazing groups of performers fluctuate between conflicting themes. Why abandon the source of the fun purely to try something new?

Pop music doesn't require constant innovation. K-pop groups needn't explore new genres with every single. That's absurd. No other type of music does this. Change requires time, and a healthy dose of subtlety.

These problems could reflect troubles inherent in the industry, as different producers and labels struggle to keep up with the competition and mimic the success of others. Or maybe ballads and radical comebacks are just an important part of the Korean music scene that I, as a westerner, am completely blind to.

But musical brilliance rarely comes from knee-jerk reactions, right? Sudden inspiration, certainly. But not a reaction to the charts.

Enough with the incessant rebranding, k-pop! Find something that works and stick with it! Grow it carefully over time! This is coming straight from someone who has no experience in the music industry, so I must know what I'm talking about.