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an introduction to k-pop

Jaden Smith has become quite the philosopher. Or maybe, he’s like Yoda.

Within his stream of wisdom, one thing has always been consistent, he wants to be a K-Pop popstar. He made that clear right back in 2013 when some promotional work saw him meet the two biggest stars; G-Dragon and CL. Then his 2017 new year’s epiphany saw him vow to get there himself after tweeting odes to his favourites throughout 2016.

So last week when he tweeted the ever so blunt, ‘And Yes I Will Be Dropping A K Pop Single In The Next 4 Months.’, it wasn’t surprising.

K-pop is an abbreviation of Korean pop, for the genre of music; that largely infuses the sickly goodness of mainstream pop, with hip-hop beats and electronic production, as well as tinges of rock, is native to South Korea. First originating in the form that we recognise now in the late 80s/early 90s, by the 21st century K-pop was no longer a genre but a movement.

Incorporating the freedom of jazz and the riff-centric nu-metal, K-pop vibrantly exploded as Korean artists were able to stick to their traditional roots and add original modern flourishes. It marked a vision of modernisation, and incorporation of visual content became a defining stamp.

The accompanying video content allows expression for artists and has built a K-pop aesthetic. Sharp dance routines like those from TEENTOP, and I.O.I‘s cutesy synchronisation allows fans to show their participation, and copy the routines themselves. In a world of madness, K-pop can provide structure, and excitement. Bright outfits visualise trends, and young audiences are able to identify themselves; their tastes, desires, lust. K-pop allows them to both be part of a group, and lead their own revolution.

The question arises then, that despite K-pop’s roots, how does appropriation from Western cultures sit? Well, the genre itself is said to have actually started way back in 1885 when an American missionary began to teach folk music in a school, where the songs had Western melody but Korean lyrics. The songs were referred to as ‘changga’, and were adopted as a way for local people to express their oppression through music. These songs held dark lyrics sang to mainstream pop arrangements, with the most popular being known as ‘The Song of Hope’. Perhaps threatened, or maybe envious, the Japanese confiscated the music books containing the songs, and replaced them with publishing their own.

Yet, the presence of the U.S. military in the 1940s only fuelled South Korea’s intrigue and enthusiasm for Western culture. As American stars, like Marilyn Monroe, began to visit the soldiers, the local people grew highly intrigued and excited by their presence and it greatly impacted Korea’s entertainment culture. LPs and technological developments introduced them to new voices and inspirations, clubs began to open, and Beatlemania reached the shores. Tale tells that the first talent contests were being held at this point, and Add4 became the first K-pop band to pull from the rock influence.

Artists like The Kim Sisters and Patti Kim were the first to gain international success, performing in the US and Vietnam. Moving into the 1970s, South Korean young people took their predecessor’s war oppression and made it light-hearted, similar to the hippie movement across the pond. Han Dae-soo, otherwise known as the ‘Korean John Lennon’, led the movement in his daring experimentation, causing a moral panic and receiving fists in the air with power and celebration. The snappiness of the language means delivery is hyperactive and the hook infectious, as that’s what the songs are built around.

In k-pop, the artists are referred to lovingly as ‘idols’, and there are inner values that there’s usually a leader and the youngest group member is doted on as the ‘maknae’. K-pop encourages fandom behaviour and heavy involvement, which plays highly in the favour of chart positions, sell out shows, and used to advantage charity events.

As the 80s saw ballads, the 90s bought us to where we started, and the 21st century Korean Wave.  Referred to as the ‘Hallyu’, today the tables have turned, as k-Pop has become highly visible in other cultures. Social media has allowed young people around the world to benefit from the sweet serenity that comes from the dazzling music. Photographs has allowed the exuberant fashions to travel, and festivals are held in every corner of the world to celebrate the movement.

Perhaps we have Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ to blame for that. Seen as a bit of a novelty, the YouTube sensation was inescapable as the first to break over a billion views, providing light relief in the tiresome day. K-pop has been embraced as a South Korean Government tool; as they acknowledge the benefits in sustaining a culture and enticing tourism. They even have academies offering an intensive five to seven years of training in international languages, choreography, and videography.

K-pop has survived and adapted and evolved, providing generation after generation with freedom and fun during hardships and triumphs. It proves in itself that the music style is as ever popular today in South Korea and across the world. Although the music is formed on Western roots, it’s the traditions that have made it individual and powerful. If Jaden Smith wants to introduce more people to the fantastic world of opportunity, then so be it.

Words by Tanyel Gumushan

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