Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An American In KPop: The Big Intro


Full Disclosure: If you read this blog somewhat regularly, you probably already know that 1) I am American, and 2) my musical taste tends to be centered upon American music, European/British music and occasionally some Australian music. Rarely have I forged ahead on music that is in languages other than English, with the exception of a handful of mentions by Latin artists. I don't like to label that as personal bias, I just personally feel that to truly connect to music, understanding the lyrics and emotions is usually very important. However, a few months back, I was tempted by several different blogger friends into perusing Korean Pop Music, in shorthand labeled as KPop, given my at times ridiculous love for flat out pop music.

Much of that temptation came from one of my closest/longest friends in the blogosphere, Nikki over at Pop Reviews Now, who has virtually transformed her blog into being one of the key places to read articulate analysis of KPop music. I've used her as a key correspondent to pick her brain of sorts regarding this genre, and encourage every one of you to check out her blog for more detailed and informed descriptions of the artists I will be discussing if you are interested.

Studying the pop music industry in Asia originally felt like jumping into a pool 15 feet deep headfirst. The sheer amount of different artists, sounds, labels and fandoms was overwhelming in itself -- and now several months later, it still kind of is. I felt like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz', when she walked into a technicolor dreamland and looked around for the first time.

KPop in particular is full of quality pop music, much of it bringing me back to my preteen/teenage years in terms of some artists unabashed bubblegum sound. So much of  what I've been hearing would make me so intrigued and excited at the general prospect of it breaking through internationally. I knew it was something I would like to talk about eventually, but the prospect of doing so was extensive, because there was so much I wanted to talk about. I can completely understand Nikki's feelings now of attempting to juggle Pop Reviews Now as a truly international blog, as she continues to post about not just KPop, but British, American and worldwide pop music on the whole. Therefore, this "special" will serve as an introduction of sorts to the type of KPop artists I'm particularly aware of, and who I'm most interested in, should they come up again on Melismatic (and they will). It'll also serve as a sort of Americanized crash course in a genre that flies relatively under the radar here in America and in many other parts of the world.

Before I continue however, there are some points I want to articulate that helps explain the genre to those who are not as familiar. That being said, as I've stated before -- I am American, and very few of these artists are relevant mainstream and chart-wise in my country. By writing this series of posts, I'm hoping to provide an entry point for those who have never truly taken the time to listen to this genre, while at the same time provide a different kind of perspective for those who are already familiar. It's scary territory for me, and I want to say now, for the record, the majority of what I write in these posts will be opinion, bolstered by assumed fact. Should I misinterpret anything or get my wires crossed, feel free to please correct me. I welcome constructive criticism and hope to become more educated in this genre as time goes on. As I mentioned before, so much thanks goes to Nikki for her putting up with my silly questions. With that said...

  • The majority of the musicians featured in KPop "groups" or "bands" are Korean (read: South Korea), although some were born/raised/spent time in other countries such as the USA. On occasion, some members will be from other countries in the Southeast Asian area, but for the most part, they are all Korean. The songs themselves are usually in the Korean language, while some songs are re-recorded in other languages conducive to that market area.

  • One of the main distractions for me is the fact that, given that I do not speak the languages sung and spoken, I don't know what the artists are saying. Behold the glory of the Internet -- as with just a little bit of Googling, I can find a relatively competent English translation. (So now there are few excuses!)

  • Several KPop songs do feature snippets of English in them. That was one of the reasons why I finally gave in to the hype, and took a listen. This can vary from slang to seemingly random words in the middle of a completely Korean verse. At first, I found this somewhat jarring, but now I welcome it, seeing as I do not speak the actual language of the song, so it gives me something to sing along to without worrying I'm pronouncing something wrong. ;) While some artists record whole songs in English, in most cases those songs are recorded in the hope that the artist will eventually break in the English-speaking music industry (ideally, America).

  • On the whole, popular KPop bands can evenly correlate to the teen pop music landscape here in America. The majority of these bands have ardent, young fanbases (with some, all over the world despite not marketing themselves in the truest of senses in some of those countries), and are occasionally described as "idol groups".

  • Many of the groups popular in KPop are put together by their label backers.

  • The songs that tend to generate the most buzz in my ears are songs that are very beat and production heavy. In this case, several of these songs feature many of the same production pyrotechnics that are popular here, but would be better associated with the "electropop" mentality that has been heralded in the UK, Sweden and Australia (and is only beginning to truly make its mark here in the US).

  • An artist's popularity is not based so much on charts and album sales, but more on fan enthusiasm and Internet interest.

  • Korea is often noted in America for its conservatism (a fact I find slightly hypocritical on our part, but that's another story). Groups often have to contend with complying with cultural standards of performance, dancing and image, sometimes leading to dramatic and scary consequences.

  • With that said, artist's overall image and style is very important to establish "character" for the group as a whole and each of its members. While we began to see a bit of Asian style influence (mostly at this point from Japan) brought on by the popularity of Hello Kitty beginning in the 1970's and the more recent surge of popularity of Harajuku style thanks to Gwen Stefani, its definitely a distinct look that has yet to be truly duplicated in America in a mainstream way.

  • The turnover of artists is mind-boggling. It is very common to see new artists come out of the woodwork at a rapid rate. Singles and albums also have a very short shelf life. Most albums do not spawn many singles, as long-play albums are not as common. Artists typically release "mini-albums", similiar to EPs, and re-release them with new songs every so often before moving on to new material, helping serve the hot demand for a buzzworthy artist, similar to this new found trend in America of re-releasing albums with a handful of new songs/remixes. Interestingly, several teen pop artists in America are now toying with the "mini-album" idea, as Miley Cyrus recently released The Time of Our Lives EP, backed by "Party In the USA", while Justin Bieber is releasing his debut set in two parts, the first being the already released My World this past November, and the second due for release in March. Whether or not this is a direct influence from the rise of KPop's popularity (commonly referred to as "The Korean Wave", or so I've read), I couldn't say, but if not, it's a striking coincidence.

  • While in America, a new artist of any genre has to go through great pains to grab their demographic's attention, in KPop, artists tend to formally "debut", and fans are well-aware of the band through "teasers" long before the group is ready to be introduced. For this reason, a group's official debut often garners a lot of excitement.

  • Few artists "tour" in our concept of the word. A tour usually consists of several television appearances on Korea's major networks, and a handful of live shows, in which the artist usually lipsynchs to track. While in America you typically already have success momentum going to appear on major television programs, in KPop, its more of a common platform for promotion at any state in your career.

  • A few KPop artists have already begun to infiltrate the American landscape, at various levels of success. I will be talking about them first, followed by a slew of others I am very interested in, who have yet to break in America.
Daunting, indeed. Stay tuned, fam.


Nikki said...

lol at 'music' on top. Hahah. Have I ever mentioned that I learned how to read Hangul one day out of the blue? lol.


Bring on everything else! lol.


good for you for branching out. asia is often ignored in the global pop scene.

Mel said...

Nikki - Thanks, but most of that is because of your help and expertise. :)

Will - Thanks! It's kind of bewildering how popular it is (even in North America) and yet still so under-the-radar.

Yuяi said...

This is a great intro to Kpop, Mel. I have almost no knowledge of it, and your post has piqued my interest. Imma have to check this out now!

Mel said...

Yuri - Thank you! If I can even encourage one person to just take a few listens, it's a victory! I appreciate your interest, as always! :)

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