It’s 2020. Who still thinks K-Pop is cheap? Cheap, that is pertaining to taste, like in film or music. In Filipino terms, it means “buki,” “baduy,” or something that has “no class” or something that’s of “bad taste.” I recall a conversation with a friend in 2012 regarding K-pop, and how she is so annoyed by her little sister’s qualms on the now-defunct boy group 2pm. She can’t grasp how this genre has taken over her sister and her funds (yes, she paid for the concert tickets). And despite my being a big K-pop fan myself, she uttered these words in disgust, “K-pop is so cheap!”
Who wouldn’t think so? In the past years, especially in the 90s, most of the popular K-Pop or other international non-English language tracks, after being viral, would almost only make it to mainstream and novelty radio stations. Aside from that, it’s quite quirky and illogical, as what my parents would tell me even to this day, that I listen to music which lyrics I can’t understand. Yes, they have a point, but the language barrier wasn’t a hinder to K-Pop being a worldwide phenomenon.
Released in 2009, Wonder Girls’ Nobody is one of the, if not the first K-pop songs to hit the mainstream, the epitome of a Hallyu wave group and hit.
I have seen it all. Way before the term K-pop was even officially coined, I’ve witnessed how these hot, pretty, talented cuties have infiltrated the mainstream. It’s no secret to my friends and customers that I’m a crazy, K-pop lady, and one of the few people who started a K-pop shop in the Philippines (since 2010). There was a point when I got tired of the genre, but that’s because it has evolved so much, from the novelty-ridden “Nobody,” by Wonder Girls to the super hip non-radio-friendly (mainstream radio) hits of iKON or Loona.
2005 – 2015 The development of “K-pop” and the “Hallyu Wave”
The Hallyu wave refers to the entirety of the Korean Entertainment Industry, from K-pop idols, K-pop music, Korean actors, K-Drama, and Korean movies. The Korean government and the American government had a new and formidable partnership deal. The American government invested in the Korean music scene. Hence, many of the K-pop artists we have today are highly influenced by the “world-pop” or Top 40 hits of Billboard. Aside from that, Korean music agencies made it a point to diversify their groups’ members from pure Korean citizens to Korean-Americans or Korean-Australians, so that they would cater to a broader audience.
Before K-pop hit its tipping point today, it didn’t take a long time before a few Filipino and other Asian audiences have embraced this developing genre. In me and my friends’ case, we started to devour K-pop after seeing them in the first Korean English channel, Arirang. TVXQ is one of the top boy bands in Korea in the early 2000s, and they were able to gain many fans. These TVXQ fans are very loyal up to this day. They take pride in their fandom, as one of the first active K-pop fandoms outside of S.Korea and across Asia.
After TVXQ, several fandoms have emerged. Big Bang, Super Junior, SS501, FT Island, Girls Generation, SHINee, and 2pm are the bands that generated a lot of sales in my mini K-pop shop. Little by little, these groups were able to garner enough fans to organize concerts in Asia and even Europe and the USA successfully. However, this has not completely raised the bar of K-Pop’s worldwide influence.
2016 – Present: K-Pop is now hip and cool.
Fast forward to this day, K-pop is incessantly thriving, especially after groups like BTS and Blackpink rose to international fame. Both artists, along with some new ones (like SuperM) have already been ubiquitous in the Billboard charts, despite the fact that many people don’t understand the lyrics and have to google their translations. 1 out of 5 kids or even more would be a crazed fan of these new generation K-pop groups. But did you know that even older millennials and Gen Xers are not spared from this phenomenon?
Many people consider their K-Pop fandom as a guilty pleasure, but in these times, I think they shouldn’t be. That’s because more intelligent news and media organizations feature K-Pop groups all the time. They already acknowledge this ground-breaking music genre as it’s own (Yes, even if it’s still pop in general, it gets its own genre classified in Spotify and others), and as an omnipresence to the current pop culture scene.
New Generation K-Pop Groups
Every old K-Pop fan knows that it was BTS that paved the way for K-Pop to succeed in the international scene. They also made it a point to make their music look cool and not be called “cheap.” However, to be honest, I’m not a huge BTS fan. While I can attest to their charm, hard work, commitment [to their craft], which fans really find endearing, one thing that doesn’t sell me to the idea of being involved in their fandom is the music they make. I used to like their first few albums, especially the song Just One Day, but their most recent releases have been very confusing to me. I asked a friend about this, and he told me that the reason for this is that their music complies with the new era of pop, which I really can’t appreciate.
While I cannot understand many of the new K-pop hits, there’s one girl group that I am really a big fan of because of their music, and that is Red Velvet. Although this group is well-groomed by Sm Entertainment, one of the top 3 music agencies in South Korea, they are different from their peers. Their producers marketed them as the same old cute and sexy girl-group, but with soul and R&B sensibilities, which older millennials like me appreciate.
What makes a person a sexier? That’s when he can sing (with his voice and mouth), and more so when he can do something with his hands! Yummy! By playing their own songs and musical instruments, this K-pop group stands out. This is not a new formula, as older K-pop groups FT Island and Cnblue did this too. But what makes Day6 appeal to girls and younger audiences more? Well, aside from the fact that they debuted in the era when K-pop wasn’t a stigma anymore, their members are dressed to look like the hip and cool dancing idols.
Indie and experimental muse Grimes surprised us when she collaborated with K-Pop group Loona, but it is already no secret to her fans that she considers K-pop as one of the influences on her music. On the other hand, even before Loona X Grimes happened, Loona’s music is already considered quirky and experimental despite their cuteness.
What makes iKON my type is not because they look outright cool and “bad” guys, but that they write and produce their own songs, which are actually really good. You should check them out if you haven’t yet.
Blackpink, another girl group that’s very striking not because they’re the only girl group under YG, but because their music is deprived of the usual sweet, bubblegum popish, and ballad-y kind. Aside from that, they are the very first K-pop group to have performed in Coachella. Now beat the coolness out of that!
K-Pop Idols and Designer Brands
It isn’t only intelligent organizations that acknowledge these K-pop idols, but Designer brands as well. So for those of you who are still unconvinced that K-pop is cool, then check out these idols who have been invited to last year’s Paris Fashion Week, wearing designer brands.
Now, let me summarize the reasons why K-Pop cool and not “cheap” at all:
1. Most of the new K-Pop groups adhere to the New Pop, Contemporary R&B, and Soul, which are all considered as “cool” and “hip” genres.
2. Recent K-Pop songs are very timely and even tackle mental health effectively.
3. K-pop is already widely acknowledged by intelligent news and entertainment outlets like Time, Variety, Vulture, Rolling Stone, etc.
4. Experimental, rock and contemporary artists that we look up to, like Grimes, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Lorde, and even Lady Gaga love K-Pop!
5. K-Pop idols get endorsements, sponsorships and invites to International Fashion Weeks by big Designer brands
6. K-Pop is now also widely acknowledged by international music events like Coachella.
7. K-pop idols actually look and act really hip and cool, like your favorite international hip hop, rock, and pop artists.
8. K-pop artists and songs receive billions of streams on Spotify, and according to their data, K-Pop’s dominance is unstoppable.
Their flamboyance in nature is what makes these K-Pop stars tick, but the main factor is the hard work and dedication behind every group. And that’s what makes the K-Pop industry stand out from other countries. There’s no denying of Korean culture’s distribution and impact in our world today. So by now, I believe that you agree with me, K-Pop is so cool!
Art by Jim Morada