K-pop is evolving, writes Roald Maliangkaij—but you wouldn’t know if you listened
The term K-pop is one of the latest additions to the lexicon of global fads. Since the late 1990s, when Korean pop acts began to sell out stadiums across Northeast Asia, it has become a label for perfectly synced and well-behaved, fast R&B-based dance skits.
It certainly does not comprise Korean indie pop, but it will try to represent it all the same. Back in the 1990s, associated pop acts were the ideal sons and daughters-in-law: they personified true romance, virginity and a deep sense of loyalty. These days, K-pop idols may pack a little more street cred, but don’t let the bad-boy eyeliner and tats fool you; they’re merely following the instructions of their fashion designers.
Despite K-pop’s pervasive presence online, it is quite a challenge to stay abreast of its recent developments. Too often I’ve heard muffled giggles from my students not to add caveats to any of my ‘discoveries’. Several major groups may debut in the same month, one or more others may disband, and to cynics like me, their added value often lies in their novelty only, brand-marked by a new combination of mere letters and numbers.
But K-pop is evolving. Being hard to keep up with does not justify stubbornly holding on to hollow claims of homogeneity and complacency. As with traditional forms of entertainment, the value of analysis often lies in understanding why applications change.
For months on end, until her impeachment this month, massive protests against President Park Geun-hye became a regular occurrence on the streets of Seoul. The process of the demonstrations is interesting not only for political scientists, but also for those analysing popular culture. Once a genre of entertainment tailor-made for students in their early teens, K-pop is being embraced by people from all generations. Its lyrics and presentation may still be widely considered to lack social relevance, but activists have begun to reject the hegemony by reinterpreting songs to promote their own interests.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a protest song is ‘a song that expresses disapproval, usually about a political subject’. The definition suggests that the protest can be found within the song and that it is explicit about what it opposes.
While it is broad enough to allow the song’s elements—spoken words, lyrics, tune and beat—to play a role in articulating its purpose, they ultimately rely heavily on performance for meaning and will often preach to the converted rather than attempt to proselytise. Indeed, in their work Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Eyerman and Jamison note that rather than any song on its own, it is the context of a movement that allows participants to identify themselves through music. The ritualistic aspects usually trump the importance of a song’s literal message and can help promote the resolve and solidarity among activists.
The issue of embedding protest in pop music is well worth noting. What does it imply when a dissident voice chooses a popular form? And what can we learn from South Korea’s contemporary music scene, which is highly industrialised, marked by a near-negligible involvement of the performing artist, and a thriving but relatively small number of independent music acts?
Independent music that expresses discontent while emulating the style of K-pop in expressing protest is rare. The music industry’s extreme control of K-pop is well-known, and because its fan base is made up largely of young teenagers, pop acts that emulate its style in protest may not be taken seriously.
And yet it makes good sense for protest music to follow popular form, precisely because it could symbolise opposition to the hegemony, and invite participation.
Korea’s underground music scene may be thriving, but unless a performance follows the form of the mainstream, it is unlikely to be played repeatedly in public
The element of critique may, of course, constitute no more than ridicule in a K-pop idol package, much like the hit ‘Gangnam Style’, which singer Psy was asked to perform at Park’s inauguration ceremony, presumably to rally the crowds and summon nationalism.
A song that looks too much like a protest song is easily passed over. Korea’s underground music scene may be thriving, but unless a performance follows the form of the mainstream, it is unlikely to be played repeatedly in public. K-pop has not only considerable tonality and a strong association with physical expression, but by being fashionable, romantic and upbeat it can make both the protest message and its advocates appear more attractive to their target audiences. The synchronised dance that typifies the genre, in particular, can help activists appear unified and determined.
It will be a slow process, but K-pop has begun to replace the melancholic sound of singer–songwriters, who for decades helped set the tone of discontent. Performed with minor visual effects usually seated on a chair, their songs about the struggles of the common man were a strong symbol of opposition.
In recent months, however, their voices were increasingly drowned out by K-pop’s upbeat harmonies. Major hits like Big Bang’s ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and Girls’ Generation’s ‘Into the New World’ were reimagined and, with the help of giant speakers, redirected towards fellow protesters and the military police; they invigorated the activists and underscored their unity and determination.
When even slick, corporate K-pop is used as a political tool, it is a perfect time to start paying attention. Not so much to the music per se, but, rather, to its application.
A K-pop dance group performing for shoppers near Tongdaemun in central Seoul in October 2016. Photo: Roald Maliangkay