An Honest Attempt to Define the Genre of Kpop
As Kpop grows in popularity, millions of potential new fans begin to ask the question, “What is Kpop?” The most common answer they receive, of course, is that it’s “Korean pop,” before they are shown a slew of their friends favorite videos. And while this may prove entertaining, it does not adequately answer the question they have asked. Kpop is more than a racial distinction, it is a genre. If the only way we can describe the genre of Kpop is through forcing someone to listen to every piece of music with that label, we have fundamentally failed to categorize our interest. In all the years I have been a Kpop fan, I have yet to see someone give an accurate definition of what Kpop actually is. This is an honest attempt to do so, and I welcome all feedback!
First and foremost, Kpop is pop music, making its definition both eclectic and somewhat self-referential. Pop music is whatever music is popular in the general culture. That means there is a certain amount of latitude when it comes to the "sound" of Kpop, because what is popular changes over time. It should be noted that Kpop would refer to what is popular in Korea (not in America and not in Hungary). So, for example, the early days of Kpop would have a heavy trot influence, whereas current Kpop does not.
Although it is important for the definition of Kpop to distinguish what is popular in Korea from what is popular in America, it is currently a trend for Korean music to borrow heavily from America. This has the effect of blurring the lines between Kpop and American pop, though not completely. Just as it is easy to distinguish a native speaker of a language from someone who has taken classes, Kpop borrows from America but it does not duplicate. There are certain styles and structures more commonly appropriated (for example, rap), and others which are largely ignored (for example, country). Note that both examples are of genres not classically considered "pop," but which often intersect with American pop. For this reason, it is easy for Kpop to either borrow or ignore. What can't be ignored is the main driving force behind American pop music, the song structure.
Kpop relies heavily upon the verse-chorus-bridge structure, common in American pop (specifically, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus). It is so common as to be near ubiquitous. This structure works especially well for pop music, allowing for a mix of both new information with the verses and a repeated chorus, or “hook,” possibly the most important part of any pop song. It is common for either the bridge or one of the verses to be rapped, either by a member of the group or by a featured artist. Songs are short to medium in length, and easily incorporate other styles.
As a basic definition, this is a good start, but this does not move us far past describing Kpop as “Korean pop.” There are several other elements which can help to classify all Kpop music.
For example, Kpop eschews live instrumentation. The typical Kpop song is composed on a computer, using electronic instruments and drum kits. Although this practice is common among many genres, Kpop extends its avoidance of live instrumentation into live performances as well. The focus, instead, is on image and dance. This heavy visual component also overshadows, to some degree, vocal performance. This is not to say that Kpop singers are lacking in ability, but that during live performances they tend to prioritize the spectacle of dance over vocals, with much choreography being too strenuous for a serious vocal showcase.
Kpop is also synonymous with the creation and adoration of idols. Yes, one could argue that any pop star becomes an idol by virtue of being popular, but with the term Kpop we are referring to a very specific system that trials, trains, and governs the men and women who become idols. Because of the specific focus we insinuate with the term Kpop, Redditor u/leopetri recommends that we use the Korean word, "gayo," to refer to idol-oriented Korean pop music. Since "Kpop" can be confused for all general Korean music that is popular, some of which is not produced by idols, this suggestion makes logical sense. However, for the admittedly few fans and critics of Korean music that bother to point out a distinction between idol- and non-idol-produced music, the majority use "Kpop" to refer to idol-produced music and use genre terms preceded by a prefix of "K" for the rest (e.g. Krock, Khiphop, K-indie, etc.). But are these alternative names really needed? Can't we just keep on calling everything Kpop? Redditor u/finchyjjigae notes that incorrectly labeling artists as "pop artists" can be both detrimental and insulting to the artist. It stands to reason that if an artist claims he or she creates rock music, for example, then "Krock" would be a much more appropriate and respectful term to employ.
As most Kpop fans are familiar with the idol system, this article will not go into great detail regarding the dynamics of how Korean entertainment companies function. Rather, the goal is to point out some of the more important ways in which the idol system affects the genre of Kpop.
First, it is nearly impossible for an ordinary person to become a Kpop star without first navigating through the trainee system. The Kpop music industry is heavily controlled by a few major companies that use their weight and resources to promote the would-be idols that have come through their internal training programs. There isn’t any chance for a few high school buddies jamming in someone’s garage to hit it big. Although there are indie and garage-rock scenes in Korea, they receive little attention from the Kpop world. There have been a few exceptions, mostly when an indie group or artist has appeared on a reality talent show (e.g. Busker Busker), thereby garnering enough attention to be picked up by one of the major labels. But this sort of “fairy-tale” approach is not the norm. How does this affect the genre?
The Kpop idol system expends a large amount of energy on training future stars, with trainees often spending between two and eight years before debuting. This results in even “rookie” groups displaying a high level of skill, belying their youth, but also a very consistent (maybe even boringly so) level of skill. The skills which the trainees are taught depends heavily on the previously mentioned focus on image, dance, and vocals (often in that order). So while we can predict the next batch of idols to be attractive, slick dancers, and decent-to-good vocalists, their skills in playing instruments, composing, or writing lyrics (things typically associated with creating music) are likely to be rudimentary or non-existent.
The idol system also affects the style and type of music which is released. The large majority of idols have a team of managers and producers who select which songs they release, and who choose what concept the idols will embody during the course of their promotion. There is very little freedom of expression for Kpop idols. We often use words like “factory” and “manufactured” to describe this system, words with a negative connotation. But perhaps a better metaphor would be that of a well-oiled machine. Kpop labels have become expert at releasing hit song after hit song. Expecting wild creativity out of Kpop may leave you disappointed, but expecting quality releases every time will not.
The lack of common creativity also means that any new direction in Kpop comes as a great leap, with each label jumping on the evolutionary bandwagon. As the labels copy the popular new sound of one innovator, this results in months or even years that can be defined by a single trend or style. We are likely to see phases such as “throwback to the ‘90s” or “dubstep dance breaks,” phases that last until a new trend is adopted.
Of course, there are some exceptions to the lack of individual expression in Kpop. Certain labels allow for a greater degree of input from their idols. We see this more often with solo idols, or with a single idol in a larger group, always dependent on that individual’s strength. As well as injecting more personality into the music, Kpop labels understand that they can market their idols’ strengths. In this way, for example, Zico of Block B, a young idol that showed a talent for producing, became talismanic of the group. With each credit Seven Seasons gave to Zico for producing Block B’s next hit song, they effectively marketed the group twice: once as performers, and once as creators. But again, this is only possible where talent allows. (As noted in the comments below by @mountaincow1, utilizing the unique talents of individual members is quickly becoming a trend among major groups, a trend that we will likely see continue in the future.)
One of the more difficult parts of understanding Kpop as a genre is how to include language in that definition. Because I am attempting to define this as a musical genre, I would ignore ethnicity or nationality as an indicator. (Yes, Kpop is overwhelmingly created by Koreans, but there are notable exceptions, such as Nichkhun and the many Chinese stars in groups such as Miss A, f(x), and Exo. Quite frankly, using race in our definition would be to suggest that any music created by a Korean would become Kpop by default, which is categorically wrong.) Language, however, is a notable characteristic of music, and the genre of Kpop can be described by its use of language.
A very large portion of Kpop music is sung in Korean, but it is not a requisite. The most common use of language in Kpop is for the verses to be sung mostly in Korean and for the chorus to contain very simple English. Although this blending might sound odd, there is a long history of using simple-English choruses in electronic music, especially in the genres popularized in Europe. The idea is that by creating a strong hook with lyrics that an international audience can understand (thus the need for simple English), the song will expand exponentially in popularity, spreading across linguistic borders. A portion of Kpop's success outside of Korea can be attributed to this use of simple-English choruses.
But Kpop has also shown a willingness to abandon Korean language in favor of the language of its fans. A group like Exo (which was originally composed of two sub-units, one for Korean language and one for Mandarin) is an excellent example of the international focus of the genre. Exo has consistently released their music in both Korean and Mandarin (without significantly changing the instrumentation), thereby gaining them a devoted Chinese fanbase on top of their already heavy Korean following. The ease with which Exo translates their music into another language is a good example of why language can be descriptive of Kpop, but cannot adequately define it. When Spica released an all-English single, "I Did It," the group did not identify a desire to cross over to American pop music, but, rather, wanted to engage with their American fans. As can be seen in these two examples, language does not define Kpop as a genre, but rather suggests which audience is being targeted (needless to say, the target audience does not define Kpop either). Kpop, as a genre, extends much further than the Korean language.
Finally, an important note. There will always be exceptions. Rather than relying on the old cliche, that the exception proves the rule, I would instead suggest that exceptions evidence potential shifts in the taste of popular Korean culture. Those shifts could be minor and temporary, or they could signal a radically new kind of pop music. Kpop is not static. It never will be. However, having a basic understanding of how the Kpop genre is defined is vital to our ability to listen to it critically, to talk about it intelligently, and to enjoy it wholeheartedly.
Is there something that you think I missed? Let me know in the comments!
[Editor's Note: I've determined to update this article to add some of the many thoughtful and incisive comments that have been shared with me. Since we're talking about popular music, it only seems fitting to allow for a more "popular" conception of how to define the genre. I will do my best to give credit for any ideas not my own.]
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.