BY EMILY ALEQUIN, CLASS OF 2014 —
You turn on the radio, visit YouTube, click a link or turn on your phone or ipod to scroll through your music; then, a familiar beat of a certain catchy and currently famous song starts to play. The beat becomes louder, faster. In just a few more seconds you hear the iconic male voice proclaim “Oppan gangnam style!” Whichever way you’re listening to this song, theres no denying its effect on American music. Almost everyone’s heard of it; some hate it, some love it, and many more have been introduced into a style of music that has existed longer than PSY’s big hit “Gangnam Style”. The music is K-pop and it’s long since made its way into America, but now more people are starting to notice.
Korean Pop, or Korean ‘Popular’, is a genre of music from South Korea that mixes a variety of music such as R&B, Dance, Hip Hop and Electric. Groups usually vary between being all male or all female with some exceptions and there can be as many as 13 members in one group! (ex: Super Junior; though currently at 10 official members.)
As for its history, the term, or birth of ‘K-Pop’ can actually be traced as far back as the late 1920’s when there was a heavy influence of music from other countries such as Japan and later America. Through the decades, k-pop artists dove into new forms of music like folk pop or ballads but it wasn’t until the 90’s when the music made a turning point into Hip Hop, Rock, R&B and so on. From there, the term “Korean Wave” was born due to the widespread popularity that K-Pop groups, artists and Korean culture were beginning to get in outside countries in Asia, Europe and finally reaching farther west and into America.
As of 2012, there are more than 30 k-pop groups that have reached high levels of popularity here in the U.S and that number can be applied to countries outside the U.S. Groups that stand at the top of the lists include Girl’s Generation, 2NE1, SHINee, MBLAQ, BEAST and BIGBANG, just to name a few. Just as with American music, each group is able to offer variations of sound, personality and style that adds to their likeability.
Many wonder when and how this genre all started and how K-POP’s popularity spread in America. For one thing, not everyone can speak or understand Korean, or sing along to it, for that matter (at least not without constantly listening to a song and practicing with the lyrics). Availability to merchandise and all albums is often limited in American music stores unless you visit specialty stores that sell it and of course their music videos are not shown anywhere on television aside from Asian or Korean channels.
The answer lies within the fanbase; concerts, youtube channels and music videos, blog sites and large amounts of merchandise all help to spread this popularity in other countries, especially America where so many sites and videos hold seemingly endless amounts of footage of performances and appearances on Asian talk shows that feature the groups as guests. Songs are available for online purchase and even through iTunes and online shops are able to provide extra products like posters, albums, apparel and accessories.
Attraction is also quite strong for listeners who do not allow any language barriers to keep them from listening or enjoying it.
“Most of the k-pop groups I listen to have great music and beats to their songs and also how the Korean language just sounds pleasant versus other Asian languages with their tones and dialect,” said Steven Khov, a Junior, who listens to groups such as: B2ST(BEAST), 2NE1, MBLAQ, BAP, BIG BANG and D-UNIT.
“The group members are also an important part with their trendy fashion and their style. Also how they represent themselves in the group with their personality. I feel like most fans are attracted to groups physical appearance too,” said Steven.
Another student, Shelly Ho, a senior, addressed the popularity that Gangnam Style has reached here in the U.S.
“I think it’s great that Gangnam Style has reached this level of popularity. It’s a great song,” said Shelly and admitted that Gangnam style is what got her really interested in K-pop music after its release.
“I think it is possible that many people are getting ideas/opinions on k-pop from this one song just because it’s pretty much the only thing that people here in the U.S. listen to on the radio/tv. I find much of k-pop music pretty similar to this song, but I love this song just because of the subject behind the lyrics and how Psy looks.”
Shelly then explains her other reasons for enjoying the song and the hopes she has for the K-Pop genre in general.
“I am hoping for more artists like Psy because even though I enjoy the “pretty-looking” groups, I appreciate Psy for not looking the looks of a Korean pretty boy and creating an amazing song. I think this genre has potential to be big world-wide.” Said Shelly.
Shelly’s sister, Julie Ho, a sophomore, stated that she enjoys K-Pop for it’s feel-good vibe to many of the groups or artists songs.
“I think the music itself is very catchy and upbeat,” said Julie when asked what is was that attracts her to the genre. “I love the beat of the music and the electric synchronization of choruses. When I listen to K-Pop, I just so alive and energetic. Makes me want to get up and dance! I also love the girly cuteness of some groups and the tough, edgy-feels of others.
Two female groups that Julie mentioned listening to were Girl’s Generation (SNSD) and 2NE1; both with huge amounts of fans and success through the internet especially with their most known hit songs. After SNSD’s lead single “Gee” from an album in 2009 gained such huge success, the following lead single of their second studio album ‘Oh!’ was yet another hit and topped various music chart sites just 10 minutes after its release. Another large single that followed this was “Run, Devil, Run.” which was purchased after American Singer Ke$ha did not include it in an album release.
SNSD/Girl’s Generation: Oh!
SNSD/Girls’ Generation: Run Devil Run
Another group, 2NE1 offers the more tough and edgy feel that Julie mentioned. Compared to ‘Girl’s Generation’, 2NE1 is described as having a more hip-hop style to their music instead of the usual poppy style of other girl groups. In 2011, their music video “I am the Best” received 60 million views on Youtube and another song “Ugly” received high rankings for its lyrics that revealed levels of insecurities within the music industry. Representing a style of empowerment in their music, 2NE1 is recognized and appreciated for their mixed styles of music that also touch areas of electric and r&b.
2NE1 – I Am the Best
2NE1 – Ugly
In comparison, many male k-pop groups also deal with keeping up appearances and a certain style that they may heavily identify with. In 2008, SHINee, a five member group, captured audiences with their catchy music and ‘boyishly cute’ appearance. Youngest member, Taemin, was only 14 when he began training and was 15 when SHINee premiered. The group is even known to have started the “SHINee Trend” which involved dressing in the same styles the members did: high top sneakers with skinny jeans and baggy shirts with hoodies; all usually in bright or stand-out colors. Beginning singles like “Juliette” perfectly represented the combination of the boyish charms and styles while later songs such as “Ring Ding Dong” showed a more matured style of music for the group.
SHINee – Juliette
SHINee – Ring Ding Dong
Finally, BIGBANG, a group that has definitely seen heightened levels of popularity here in the U.S in the past months and with their recent worldwide concert tour. In the above photo, the members appear in order as: Daesung,G-Dragon (GD), Taeyang, Seungri and T.O.P. With a genre of music that is as diverse as the members themselves. As a group, they bring together variations of flare and personal style and focus heavily on the sound of their music. Top hits such as Fantastic Baby made it onto satellite radio here in the U.S and other songs such as ‘Tonight’ and ‘Badboy’ also hold high rankings in popularity due to the flow of lyrics and sound that not only make the music catchy but also memorable.
BIGBANG – Tonight
BIGBANG – Badboy
Loyal Fan and BIGBANG expert, Maxine Da Lena , explained the background of BIGBANG’s emergence into the K-Pop world and the steps they’ve taken thus far that have helped them to keep that success.
“They officially became BigBang in 2006. (Members) GD &Taeyang were childhood friends. TOP and GD as well. GD was the one who introduced TOP to YG (Entertainment company),” explained Maxine.
“GD and Taeyang had been trainees since they were 13 years old. They were to originally become a duo group, but the president of YG decided to make an idol group made up of GD, Taeyang, TOP, Daesung, and Seungri. Originally there were 6 members, but because of conflict, it was decided to only have the 5 boys.”
Maxine stated that BIGBANG actually wasn’t very popular when they first came out because of criticism over their appearances not being “pretty” or “attractive” enough for them to become an idol group. It wasn’t until their single “Lies” was released that they began to gain some recognition. The song was originally created by GD, their leader who writes and produces many of the group’s songs, as a solo song but was instead sung by the entire group.
“They gained a lot more respect, That was when their career took off,” said Maxine. BIGBANG has had 10 albums and 6 solo albums.
“What makes them a lot different from many idol groups is that their personalities are very different from one another, but they somehow sync well. Although they are so different, BIGBANG is very connected as a group. Also, their leader, GD, produces many of their songs. They often write the songs as a group, adding their own flavor to it. Although they dance to the songs, the choreography is very short because they focus more on the music.”
Flavor and style are something that BIGBANG is able to do very well. Separately, the members have released their own singles or collaborations with one another and other artists. Member Taeyang’s single ‘Wedding Dress’, the story of a man heartbroken over losing his love to another man, became so popular that there are many fan-made videos and english covers of the song and even though it was written in 2009 is still a top pick.
Taeyang – Wedding Dress
Leader G-Dragon (GD) has had two solo albums “Heartbreaker” and “One of a Kind.” Using emotion and desire to create songs that are memorable not just for their catchy chorus, GD strives to compose music that involves focus on both lyrics and a story while also adding certain changes or twists in the song itself. His solo album “One of a Kind” topped charts with immediate success for all seven songs. One single, also titled “One of a Kind” in the album was first released as a music video to open audiences to the album that was soon to come. GD had written and composed all the singles for the album and gave the same talents to BIGBANG which aided in their growing success.
GD – One of a Kind
“A big influence on their music is hip hop, which the group is currently focusing on at the moment. When they first debuted, they gave into the usual music involved with KPop because they wanted to gain popularity. Now, they want to go back to Hip hop, which all the members enjoy,” Said Maxine. “They also incorporate r&b into their music. The popular genres that Big Bang experiments in is R&B, Hip Hop, and Dance. Although, they have experimented in rock. Their current album is involving all sorts of genre due to their experimentation. They songs include ballads, electropop, disco, rock, and trot.”
“I think their music is very different from typical kpop. They dabble in every genre of music. What built their popularity is winning the worldwide act award at the MTV awards, which allowed them to be known to the world.”
It was this same achievement that added to their popularity and eventually led to the BIGBANG ‘Alive’ Tour; the concert tour of their most recent album ‘Alive’ which had charted in at #3 in the U.S when it was released on iTunes. The tour was the first worldwide tour and included stops in Japan, China, Peru, London and the United States. It began March 2nd and scheduled stops in 16 countries, 25 cities.
When the tour dates and location for the United States was finally release, thousands of fans turned to the group’s facebook page for extensive details on ticket sales, merchandise and show times. At first the group believed that they would not be able to fill an entire stadium or center but they were quickly proven wrong. The tour date for the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey sold out in just under two hours and an extra date had to be added to the tour for both the New Jersey and California stops.
During the performances, the center was full at all sides with audiences holding the band’s iconic crown light stick sold at concerts that illuminate the darkness and reveal just how many loyal fans are in the crowds. Favorite songs by the group and individual members filled the two-hour time slot followed by encores and plenty of moments of screaming and applauding fans.
“Someone will probably think K-POP is mostly pop or dance music, but it’s a lot more than that,” Maxine said. “It involves almost every genre of music which can definitely opens one’s eyes to different songs. Rather than focus on the looks of the singers, which many do, listen to songs first.”
There’s no telling just how far a group like BIGBANG can go. People are already calling for a second world tour and for many more visits to other countries like Mexico and Australia. It’s clear that the music and culture has reached farther than some may have imagined despite any doubtful opinions or criticism. While it’s not yet guaranteed that K-Pop will become a huge part of American culture, there is little to no doubt that this subculture is here to stay.