Korean pop music (best known as K-pop) is exactly what you think it is–pop music from South Korea. Except forget all you know about the pop musicians you’re used to hearing. Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber have nothing on K-pop; their Korean counterparts are on a whole other level. Similar to our American superstars, K-pop artists like Girls’ Generation, Big Bang, and EXO all boast upwards of three to ten million followers on Facebook.
They also just so happen to be considered role models for all of South Korea.
Their music comprises a mixture of all the popular music stylings in the country. As it turns out, there are a lot of different genres to be found. Electronic, hip-hop, R&B, rock, punk, and dance can all be heard during the course of a single song.
Their live performances are equally as scintillating. K-pop shows blur the lines between performance art and music, often including eccentric dance routines, special effects, pyrotechnics, and many other audiovisual components. Imagine a Taylor Swift show, combined with One Direction, KISS, The Misfits, and Frank Sinatra on the 4th of July.
Sounds pretty overwhelming.
Frankie DaPonte Jr. is a band member of EXP, a non-Korean K-pop band in New York City who are gearing up to release their first album on the 22nd. He explains that his first live K-pop experience was almost life-changing.
“It’s like American pop on 20 other levels, turned up to the max,” DaPonte tells BTR. “Between the lights, and the moving stages, and the dancing, and the fashion, and the fans, it’s just a whole other type of experience than American pop music.”
This type of music is obviously most popular in South Korea, consisting of Korean members who keep their tours centered around that part of the hemisphere. That being said, can a K-pop group still be considered K-pop if the members aren’t Korean? Would it be accepted?
With all of the musical genres K-pop encompasses, it is surprising that the booming industry hasn’t made its break into the U.S. market yet.
Bora Kim, a K-pop fan from Seoul, Korea, is the founder of EXP. She started the band in 2014 as part of an art project she calls “I’m Making A Boy Band” (#immabb) during her art studies at Columbia University School of The Arts. The original intent behind EXP was to spark a conversation about how the public consumes media, but now the band is touring, making albums, and creating waves in the K-pop community.
Courtesy of New Visual Collective.
Kim says that one of the biggest issues K-pop faces when trying to gain North American followers is the language barrier.
K-pop musicians sing mostly in Korean and, when it comes to exposure in the U.S., it is difficult or even near impossible to get a hit single that is not in English. A non-Korean K-pop group might be able to introduce more of the English language into their lyrics, which could possibly catch the attention of the U.S. market.
The closest America came to embracing K-pop was artist Psy’s ever-popular “Gangnam Style,” which broke the Internet back in 2012. Some K-pop groups tour North America, but none have stuck around, or been able to reach the level of popularity they maintain in Korea.
“K-pop has such a universal appeal, but the culture that is around K-pop the American mass public is not used to,” Kim says. “Boys wearing a lot of make-up and acting cute intentionally, those kind of things are very foreign.”
However, for non-Korean K-pop, it’s not only a question about how to break into the North American market, but also if they will be accepted in the Korean market.
K-pop fans are known to be very protective of their music and culture. DaPonte points out that when EXP first started they were getting a lot of negative comments and backlash. However, once the public learned the band was born out of the art world and academia, they started to come around.
“Now we definitely get a little bit more love from K-pop fans, because they understand what we’re trying to do and they’re way more intrigued and interested in it,” DaPonte says.
EXP isn’t the only band catching K-pop fans’ attention. There is the band Busker Busker that has a drummer from, of all places, Ohio. They gained fame in 2012 after guesting on the popular Korean TV show “Superstar K,” which is the Korean equivalent to “American Idol.” Though the group was not expecting instant stardom, their popularity blew up and their songs constantly hit #1 on the Korean pop music charts.
Bradley Moore originally moved to Korea to teach English, but soon found himself drumming in the K-pop group Busker Busker after being approached by two art students one fateful day. The music they play is slower and less flashy, relating more to the likes of The Beatles or Ed Sheeran.
Given K-pop’s uphill battle attracting North American markets, it would stand to reason that an unconventional K-pop group featuring an American member would share the very same difficulties of appeal. Surprisingly, however, Busker Busker went on to be one of Korea’s biggest pop groups; their first album sold over 13 million digital songs and 100,000 physical copies.
With Busker Busker’s fame and EXP’s growing popularity, it begs the question: is K-pop just popular music from Korea, or has it morphed into its very own genre of music?
Karin Kurota, an EXP creative team member, tells BTR that her team has pondered this question before and still can’t come to an agreement on the answer.
“Depending on where you are I think you might see K-pop as a genre just because it’s from another place, but once you start understanding more about it you find out the nuances and how K-pop has actually morphed so much over the years,” Kurota says. “Because it’s so flexible and takes in a lot of inspiration and creates a new genre within itself so well, that’s what makes it have a mass appeal.”
One thing is for certain; non-Korean K-pop bands are definitely entering an untapped realm. It’s new to both the K-pop world and the music industry at large, and only time will tell if this new style is destined to consume the media and steal the public’s attention.