Korean Pop, otherwise known as K-Pop, is a multi-billion-dollar industry and the hub of music in Korea. Given the nickname ‘Hallyu’, K-Pop as an industry is highly regarded as the ‘Hollywood’ of Asia. As a result of social media platforms, K-Pop and its artists have become household names within a widespread Korean diaspora. By being readily accessible on a number of platforms — most notably YouTube, K-Pop has successfully transgressed former boundaries and borders, reaching audiences on a large scale. It is often noted that the industry specifically tailors its music and artists to reach Western audiences, as Dr. Roald Maliangkay adds “marketing to non-Koreans” is a norm. The K-Pop genre is distinctly characterised by its embodiment of audiovisual elements and often incorporates several stylistic elements including that of dance-pop, electropop and R&B.
Sistar is a South Korean girl group established in 2010 under the management of Starship Entertainment and are known for their fun, playful music often reflecting influences from electro hip hop. The girls of Sistar are moreover recognised as one of K-Pop’s most sexy and flirtatious groups.
When watching the music video to their lead single for 2016, ‘I Like That’, the group’s unique style and the sexualised nature in which they were presented was something Linh and I picked up on. What we originally interpreted as ‘pretty’ and ‘cute’ was later interpreted as sultry and seductive as with further research we found that ‘I Like That’ tells the story of a woman emotionally torn due to a disloyal partner. The music is sassy and the girls are depicted as elegant and empowered, each having their own opportunity to shine. Billboard described this anthem-like song as Sistar’s “most impassioned song yet.”
Big Bang is a South Korean boy band created by Y.G Entertainment in 2006 and is regarded by the wider Korean community as the ‘Kings of K-Pop.’ The group is known for utilising current trends and emulates sounds similar to those of Diplo and Disclosure in their hit ‘Bang Bang Bang’.
Big Bang’s success as a boy band in Korea is immense with the group being the best-selling digital group of all-time in Asia. Their music has sold well over 115 million copies and the group’s involvement in the writing and producing process of their music has resulted in their respected stature in the K-Pop industry. The song ‘Bang Bang Bang’ was released in 2015 and won the boy band the Song of the Year at the 2015 Mnet Asian Music Awards. It also reached number one on Billboard’s US World Digital Songs list in 2015. The video can be described as “an over-the-top affair, with the guys rocking a slew of wild looks, hairdos and fashions in a neon-tinged world.”
With the popularity of K-Pop and the success of Big Bang came issues of copycatting. As Big Bang exceeded the success of pop groups in China, other groups began emulating their style and musical tastes. In particular, one Chinese group called OKBANG was heavily criticised for nearly plagiarising the K-Pop sensation.
Take a look at the following article by The Asian Entrepreneur. It shows just how closely OKBANG came to duping Big Bang.
Watching Bang Bang Bang, the first thing we noticed was the intricate detail each set had, and moreover how these sets or sequences seemed to reflect each group member uniquely. We also were able to identify small indicators of Western culture as an influence on the video, specifically with reference to the grills worn by one of the band members — a distinct acknowledgment on the impact of hip hop culture in Korean music. We both agreed that the song’s similarity to those heard on local radio stations within Australia was what made it so easy to listen to, making the influence of Western culture on our listening habits known. This allowed us to question our place in the world, and how this shapes the way in which we interpret or make sense of Asian pop as a cultural phenomenon.
Korean Hip Hop
Korean Hip- hop is a sub- genre of K-pop and is seen as the new trend in the Korean wave, reaching to wider international audiences that Korean pop might not satisfy. It’s become increasingly popular with apparent Rap based TV Shows in Korea as well as Hip- hop based K-pop groups. Emerging independent Korean hip hop labels such as AOMG and Illionaire records whom were previously underground are becoming mainstream and globally popular. Korean artist, CL even broke out of the Korean scene and debuted in the US with the song, ‘Doctor Pepper’ where she worked with Diplo and Riff Raff after signing with Scooter Braun’s label- home to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. Even so, K- hip hop it has its own unique sound and differentiates itself to American hip hop having Eastern influence.
Jay Park: Aqua Man
Jay Park is the founder of the label, AOMG. He was previously a leader of popular Korean Boy group, 2PM and was born and raised in Seattle, before moving to Korea after being scouted by a K-pop entertainment agency. Jay Park is known for a wider, international audience even previously having his own YouTube channel where he posted singing covers. His music is mainly R&B, Hip Hop and rap based and has released both Korean and English albums.
After watching his music video, Aqua Man, we were able to identify with the song as it was heavily Americanised and was completely in English. It was very different to the other Asian Pop music videos we watched- from the general beats to even the background and setting of the music video. We linked his appearance and dance style to various US artists such as Usher and Justin Bieber as we saw a US influence from his music style. But as we know, he was born and raised in the US then moved to Korea, thus his music influences are quite different from other Korean artists and K-pop groups in general.
Another difference to K-pop is that a lot of his songs and music videos are extremely sexualised and similar to American music. They are actually banned from playing on TV or radio in Korea due to explicit content and sexual imagery. Viewing his other music videos, although they were sexualised, we found a similarity to western music videos; thus didn’t see any overly explicit content. This demonstrates the culture differences between sexualised videos in what we are used to in our culture and what we find appropriate to Eastern cultures. We discussed that the music video was something that we could listen to and found it similar to various American R&B artists such as Trey Songz and Usher. It was more comfortable watching this music video and wasn’t too much of a culture shock due to the Americanised culture what we were used to.
Japanese Pop, or J-Pop was coined by media outlets as a way to identify and distinguish Japanese local music from international music in the 1990s. Since the end of the noughties, J-Pop has seen the emergence of idol groups, and it is groups like these which have been some of the most successful artists to come out of Japan. Idol groups are known to draw inspiration from Western celebrities and music icons and are moreover marketed as sexually enticing. It is believed that this form of marketing is what makes J-Pop groups successful within the industry and across transnational borders with many artists sharing fan-bases not just locally in Japan and Asia but also spanning across Western countries like Australia.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is an iconic Japanese singer renowned for her intently unique style and expression. Associated with Japan’s kawaisa and decora culture centered in the Harajuku neighbourhood of Tokyo, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been referred to as the ‘Harajuku Pop Princess’. Vogue’s Monica Kim described her as a viral candy-coloured sensation as “Kyary became the de facto queen of kawaii—pigtails, dripping in ribbons, and an endless array of Lolita dresses.”
‘PonPonPon’ was Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s debut single, released in 2011. It quickly became a viral internet sensation as a result of its quirkiness and psychedelic style. Influenced by Western artists like Katy Perry, ‘PonPonPon’ incorporates elements of 2D and 3D animation and has been dubbed as one of the craziest videos ever.
Watching ‘PonPonPon’ for the first time was certainly a weird experience. We saw Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in a coloured skirt dotted with eyes, a distracting backdrop and animated animals float by whilst the music played — both catchy and repetitive. Unknown to us was the fact that ‘PonPonPon’ was depicting two worlds, one reflecting the girly reality of growing up, the other revealing a more personal mental world — this was presented through Kyary’s pink and distorted face. Confused from the beginning of the music video, the microphone which appeared out of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s ear was revealed to imitate the image of Freddie Mercury, a Western influence which impacted upon the creation ‘PonPonPon’. We were both unaware of this at the time and thought it was just a weird and wacky quirk characteristic of kawaii culture in Japan. When watching ‘PonPonPon’ we also had speculated the age of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, wondering if she was as young as she was presented to be — the cutesy colours she was dressed in and child-like nature in which she danced suggested she was a teenager —, or if the air of innocence we were shown was implied. After researching further, we found that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was only eighteen at the time ‘PonPonPon’ was released in 2011.
Upon experiencing ‘PonPonPon’, we agreed that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu seemed untapped by Westernisation, with her music reflecting what could only be identified by us as Japan’s kawaisa culture. As a result, this cultural experience was not only intriguing but enlightening too.
E-girls: Dance with me now!
E-girls is a 20-member girl group from Japan. They are sorted in various subunits, Dream, Flower and Happiness as well as various trainees. They have a very unique member system called E-girls Pyramid where they currently categorise members according to their talents. If members need more training they get classified as Bunnies or Rabbits and return to training whilst the other remaining girls that are approved promote new singles. This strict, hardcore member system and large group is quite common in Japanese music idol groups with girl group, AKB48 originally having 48 members but now having, 130 members – including those that have left and joined overtime.
Dance with me Now! is a retro, club song and the music video was highly significant in having a uniformed dance sequence at the end which is very common in Asian Pop music videos. The outfits were all similar, and it was hard to differentiate each person, especially in group shots. We identified the music video to be fun, girly, innocent and simple with hardly any sexualisation. After looking up the lyrics it was generally about having fun, dancing. However, with more research, this innocent, girly image is more than intended. ‘J-pop idols, although they are mostly minors, are marketed as sex symbols. They target the desires of men who can’t maintain a relationship’ (Kincaid, 2016). They have a ‘dating ban’ written in their contracts where they must stay single so they don’t shatter the fantasies of fans that ultimately bring money into the company. ‘Their availability, is part of their marketability’ (Kincaid, 2016). In 2013, a girl group member who was 15 was seen entering a hotel with two men. She was fined later on for $5400 USD due to breaching her celibacy clause. Rather than worrying about her being underage and in contact with two men in a hotel, the financial damage and image of the group was more important. Boy groups however, don’t have a dating ban.
Read more: How a girl group member from AKB48 shaved her head off to apologise for dating
In western culture, there is definitely no dating ban against artists dating others. Rather it can be encouraged and sometimes seen as positive publicity. Although fans might not like the idea of their favourite artist dating, there is no legal fault and the image of the company isn’t badly affected but rather gives publicity to the artist for front page gossip. This difference between western music culture and the eastern music scene comes as a culture shock due to the strict and hardcore ‘robot’ like lives of these girl groups and idols that is just not evident in western culture.
The Asian Pop music industry is distinctively unique compared to what we are used to in Western culture. Korean artists are individually scouted as teenagers, from large entertainment companies where they train in singing, dancing, acting, modeling, language and even entertainment and talents and live in dormitories with other trainees for years waiting to debut as a group. Western artists are generally scouted or found through talent audition TV Shows and tend to debut straight away. This training culture is commonly evident in the Asian music industry and in Western culture can be seen quite intense, fake, strict and ‘robotic’. Rather from just pure talent, asian pop idols are scouted for their marketability.
Asian Pop artists aren’t like the general bands that play instruments but rather dancing, singing, performing machines that concentrate on connecting with audiences through love heart hand gestures and winks. A lot of the industry is based off physical appearances with many artists going through plastic surgery to get ‘double eyelids’, sculpted jaws and taller noses to look more western, satisfying the high standards of beauty. It is common for Korean girls and boys to get rewarded with plastic surgery after graduating high school, especially double eyelid surgery. Although this may be common in Eastern cultures, it’s quite unusual in Western cultures. Yes, changes in physical appearances is evident, through botox and plastic surgery, but it isn’t acknowledged and many celebrities tend to hide their fixtures.
Asian pop music videos are filmed over 2-3 days and are high budget videos. Music is mostly composed by others then given to the group, however due to the idea of being a musician rather than a produced, ‘idol’ this is transitioning to become more artist creative. Songs are generally about love, friendship and break ups rather than sex, drugs and alcohol, evident in Western music. K-pop can be said to be becoming more westernised as evident in Jay Park’s music videos whereas J-pop has stayed the same: innocence in terms of both dancing, lyrics and music videos.
Fans in eastern music culture demonstrates dedication and complete love to their artists. They shower them with gifts, fan chants and consistent support. Each fandom has it’s own unique name and colour with their own fan chants, lights and emblems. We found similarity to this through western music fandoms such as the popular, ‘Beliebers’ (Justin Bieber fandom) and ‘Directioners’ (One Direction fandom) that are renowned for being obsessive, emotional and very dedicated. Through this, evident in our cultures, we were able to understand the idea of idol fandoms in the Asian pop music industry.
Growing up listening to The Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls the idea of boy/ girl groups wasn’t uncommon. These groups are a representation of our current culture and our social values and norms are something which they portray throughout their music. Western aspects of culture and the traditions we have seen in groups like The Backstreet Boys, One Direction and the Spice Girls weren’t reflected in the Asian Pop groups we watched, as elements of Western culture were lost in translation. However, from our prior knowledge of such groups, we were able to fully appreciate the history Asian Pop as an industry.
In our attempts to discern unfamiliar cultural phenomenon, we have been able to expand on the knowledge we previously shared on the social values and norms presented in Asian pop music. By reflectively analysing our experiences of Asian pop we have been able to make sense of others and how culture has an influence on both cultural insiders and outsiders. Exploring Asian pop as a phenomenon has consequently changed and challenged our “assumptions of the world” (Ellis. (2011, pt.1).
Astar TV, ‘K-Pop Wallpaper,’ 2016, Accessed October 19 2016, <http://astar.tv/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/6903643-free-kpop-wallpaper.jpg>
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1
World Wide Colour Coded Lyrics, ‘Sistar Wallpaper,’ 2014, Accessed October 19 2016, <https://worldwidecolorcodedlyrics.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/hn9pcdv.jpg>
Unknown, ‘Korean Hip Hop’, 2015, Accessed October 19 2016, <https://i.ytimg.com/vi/gerqMRmtVGg/maxresdefault.jpg>
Unknown, ‘J-Pop Group,’ 2016, Accessed October 19 2016, <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/2d/84/78/2d8478351eeb060b826b0283ac8c5bd3.jpg>