14 year-old me would likely arrange to have present-day me quietly thrown into a gorge. My brittle teenage mind that had just begun to cultivate a personality oscillating between discomfort and revulsion with American consumer culture as experienced by my fellow upper middle-classmates didn’t have the mental tools to process the idea of an adult me who would get true happiness from mass-produced consumer pop music. From Korea.
It took almost a year after my boyfriend first showed me a music video, “Nobody” by Wonder Girls, before I took the bait. I was a serious person, after all, with serious taste in designer earhole stimulants. Fast-forward to me trawling the Gaon top 30 every week and spreading the gospel of Girls Generation (make you feel the heat) to my friends. While I’ve been haunting the periphery of the American fandom devoted to Japanese comics, cartoons, food, history, toys, etc. I haven’t found a scene of any analogous size and scope for Korean culture. What a shame! I admit to a touch of troubling exoticism in my enthusiasm. When I use the power of the internet to ask them, plenty of Koreans have told me they find K-pop just as annoying as the Backstreet Boys. I am a white American fan who speaks maybe six words of Korean and can’t decipher Hangul yet, so I don’t understand any of the lyrics as they are sung to me (I’m also a death metal fan, so this is not unusual). I do get a funny feeling when I hear those ebullient diphthongs “niga dagaogi maneul barae / eoseo naege / wa nal deryeo ga jebal (wishing that you would come close / come to me now / please take me with you)*.”
To me, much of Kpop resembles an off-kilter version of music I rejected in the early 2000s, maybe what could have been. Korean music was mostly either traditional or Trot until 1992 when Seo Taiji Boys puzzled a panel of judges on a televised talent program with the concepts of hip hop and the boy band. Much of K-pop today is performed by large prefabricated groups of sometimes more than a dozen fussily styled members. Often one of them is designated to contribute various rap breakdowns scattered throughout each song. Difficult choreographed dancing is a really, really, big deal. Music videos always look very expensive and involve rapid costume changes in a weird empty white room, or rapid costume changes in a multi-colored Missy Elliot-style nightmarish puzzle dimension. Not every member is chosen for their singing ability, and people are refreshingly candid about this.
Like I said, this all sounds like a twisted throwback to the boy and girl groups no one in their heart of hearts truly misses. The thing is, Kpop is blowing up. It’s a global phenomenon, and Korean producers like JY Park (Wonder Girls, Miss A) are taking bold aim at insular American pop charts. The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” was the first Korean single to crack the Billboard top 100 ever, bolstered by their opening slot on a Jonas Bros. tour in 2009. They have their own made for TV movie on Teen Nick. Competing powerhouse Girls’ Generation, who have two American members, recently performed on Letterman promoting their new single with (asinine) English lyrics. There’s no telling whether American audiences will bite in large numbers.
In speculating about Korean music’s prospects in the US, I wrestle with my hip instinct to crow about how I knew about all of this K-pop business before it was on the tastemaker blogs’ radar. Also present and accounted for is the urge to contrast Korean aspirations with those of the Japanese, whose biggest hit in the American market was Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue O Muite Aruko” at a fluke #1 for three weeks in 1963. I’m not remotely qualified to comment with authority on any of the above. I will briefly note that Korean groups are working with Diplo (the producer miraculously capable of coaxing good music out of Usher), while a new sensation in Japan is Hatsune Miku, a holographic projection, which I should have seen coming a mile away (let’s be honest, I did see it coming. I first saw Macross Plus a decade ago, but that was cartoons, people). If different markets ask different things from their pop performers, or their pop moe holograms then it’s not my place to pass judgment.
Korean producers have proven rapidly adaptable in appropriating the bells and whistles of American and European pop music – autotune, dubstep-style bass drops, that stupid chirping square-wave noise LMFAO has been using – into their artists’ repertoire. The tone of the charts ricochets between hyper-cutesy bubblegum, hard-edge sex danger and syrupy ballads. Lots and lots and lots of goddamned ballads.
I’ve fallen hard for the boisterously feminine groove of Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” and the demented tonal shifts wedged into Davichi’s “8282” and “Time Please Stop.” IU is capable of twee grandeur. 2NE1 provided the anthem for my inner bad bitch. Boyfriend is cute. Super Junior is hot. Wonder Girls’ “Be my Baby” is pure, unrestrained bliss. The music triggers involuntary nostalgia and packages familiar hip hop and R&B melodies to a sophisticated, hopped-up electronic dance beat, but still the music is fresh, playful, at a slight remove from dreary American pop, which prattles on about the club, invoking an hour-long line for the washroom.
K-pop artists go through rigorous training for years while I mime along to the dancing at home in my spare time. The cadence of Korean is pleasant and unfamiliar, but most of all, so is the world of these confident, insanely stylish, physically fit performers. There is a transparent element of escapism in my appreciation for the dancing, which is more often than not stunning. Sometimes I want to watch a group dance, other times I want to be the one dancing like that. Am I going through some creepy quarter-life crisis, reliving my teen years as if I were worshiping Miss A instead of the devil? Loving K-pop is helping me sort out how I experience my own gender queering, and I’m healthier and happier now than I ever was before I tried the green eggs. It’s a dismal world that asks people to logically explain why a certain music makes them feel good. There’s just something special about it. Probably the visors.
*That translation/romanization comes from youtube users Ffusionnz and TheKpopSubber3.