If Japan is called “The Land of the Rising Sun,” then South Korea should be called “The Land of the Rising Pop Star.” The influence of Korean pop music—or K-Pop for short—can be heard in America’s Top 40 list and seen in the wardrobes of suburban American teenagers. K-Pop’s upbeat, ultra-polished, dance-beat happy vibes seem like an unstoppable force in music culture. It’s time you got acquainted.
“This music can be flat, derivative, and sometimes really, really annoying,” writes James Brooks at the independent music gold-standard blog Pitchfork. “It can also deliver the kind of senses-shattering, hands-in-the-air euphoria that’s a defining marker of great pop.”
Korean pop is most visibly a YouTube-based phenomenon, with many of the genre’s most popular names blowing their American counterparts out of the water for total views. (For example “Gee” by idolized girl group Girls’ Generation racked up 56 million views—Lady Gaga, who blatantly appropriates K-Pop aesthetics, only garnered 44 million for her recent “The Edge of Glory.”) Although these infectious songs may seem like a viral anomaly, much of the success goes to a rigorous promotional machine. As Brooks describes it: “K-Pop groups are usually assembled, managed, produced, and even housed by all-inclusive record label/talent agencies that make Simon Cowell seem hands-off.”
Gaga aside, there is some indication that Korean music is being given the nod by more independent gatekeepers as well. Rakaa—one of the rappers from iconic group Dilated Peoples and an unofficial hip hop pater familias—included “Ambassador Slang” on his latest album, Crown of Thorns. The song features guest appearances from a large stable of Korean and Korean-American rappers, including Tablo, Dumbfoundead, and Mithra Jin. The chorus speaks to a new alliance:
Ambassador slang - International range
Build bridges while we clash and bang
Ambassador slang - You don’t have to ask the name
Global with the cash and fame
If you’re interested in this new wave of music culture, also be sure to check out this recent article on Grantland, as well as KoreAm Magazine’s ongoing coverage. Here are a few videos to whet your appetite.
Girls’ Generation, “The Boys”
Hyuna, “Bubble Pop!”
2NE1, “I am the Best”
Image from “Knock Out” by GD&TOP.