What You Should Be Listening To is the TCS regular music update on the hottest genres of the moment. This week, Molly Bolding explores Kpop during her time in Japan. Contributing reporting by Kiah Tetley.
Korean Pop, or Kpop for short, has been a popular but slow burn genre since the 1990s that has exploded onto the Western music scene in the last few years. Catchy English hooks, fast-paced melodies that incorporate a range of musical styles and rich visuals have made it an addictive, multi-million dollar industry.
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‘Idol groups’, as they are known, are groups of between one and thirteen members.
Each member has a specific role within the group in terms of singing and dancing, and this role also usually dictates their appearance and clothing style. Since the birth of the genre, each group has usually had a leader, a lead singer, a lead rapper, a lead dancer and a member who serves as the main ‘eye-candy’, as well as a cutesy ‘baby’ member who’ll do high-pitched solos. These defined roles are usually accompanied by a chorus of other back-up singers and dancers.
However, this format has been slowly evolving, adding new roles or taking away out-dated ones to keep up with the demand for dynamic new sound. This is especially the case for breakaway artists: after finding success as a group, many lead singers or rappers will go on to have successful solo careers, like Jennie from BLACKPINK, or Baekhyun from EXO. The ability to do so is built of the back of years of cultivation of a personal brand, just as with Youtubers or Instagram models, which forms a huge part of the role of an ‘idol’. Millions of obsessive fans worldwide, often with a specific favourite ‘idol’ member, stand testament to that fact.
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Each group has a distinct image and sound, but this is usually created by incorporating dozens of different genres into each one so there is a huge diversity within the genre.
Not only this, but all Kpop groups at some level ascribe to the all-important inter-complimentary outfit rule, so the diversity of personalities within the group is matched by their similiar-but-different appearances.
In many ways, the visual aspect of Kpop is as important as their music; for both boy and girl groups alike. Some groups, like Red Velvet, score big with their matching ‘Lolita’ looks and pastel shades – BLACKPINK, by contrast, have a powerful and unconventional style, but with a sense of reassuringly mature sensuality. BTS recently perfected the enchanting pastel look for male idols in their video for ‘Boy with Luv’, while Produce X 101 and NCT 127 regularly run the gamut of monochrome shirt styles.
If you watch enough K-pop music videos, you will begin to notice the classic hallmarks of the style: co-ordinating but subtly different outfits, complimentary dye jobs, and dance routines that leave just enough room for individual flair while leaving an overall impression of practice and professionalism. It is easy to understand how many of these idol groups – themselves young and fresh out of ‘trainee’ status – become almost instantaneous successes.
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Despite its widespread and growing popularity, there are many misconceptions about this sometimes secretive industry.
Kpop has received a huge amount of criticism from Western media outlets: many accuse the huge conglomerate record labels, who recruit members from as young as ten or twelve, of forcing these young people to conform to strict roles and daily schedules in order to maintain their ‘idol’ saleability.
Competition to become a Kpop ‘idol’ is fierce, and the training is often physically and emotionally brutal, but the promise of fame and fortune attracts thousands of applicants to audition as ‘trainees’. They may never ‘debut’, or make it into a group, so the risk is high – but the potential pay-out is enormous. BTS, the Kpop mega-group storming Western Top 40s and music award nominations worldwide, earned over $71.1 million dollars last year alone.
Another major issue for many is the reality that the genre relies heavily on the undying relationship between pop-stardom and youth – particularly for women. The average age of a female K-pop idol last year was just 20, putting an enormous amount of pressure on established idol women to retain a ‘youthful’ appearance as they face the natural process of ageing. In keeping with a narrative that is equally familiar in the Western entertainment industry, male idols often continue to court adoration and success well into their thirties and see little of the same discrimination.
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The most recent issue in the world of Kpop was the addition of a ‘Best Kpop Song’ award category at the most recent VMAs; a move called exclusionary by fans of major nominees like BTS.
Many fans argued that BTS, and their hit music video for ‘Boy With Luv’, has had far greater success than many of the nominees for ‘Best Pop Song’ and that the decision to create a new category for the genre was a way to push Kpop and its burgeoning mainstream Western success away from the more conventional nominees.
This move has, of course, in no way stemmed their ever-more explosive growth in popularity, and it certainly serves to highlight the place Kpop is carving for itself on the global music stage. For fans like myself, it definitely suggests that the genre and its captivating creativity is nowhere near burning out yet.
Do you like Kpop? Did the VMAs made a good decision, or a big mistake? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject “Letter to the Editor”!