Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Post for Ryan's Class on K-Pop

My friend Ryan sent me an email:
I have a question for you. I'm working on my world music exam (a syllabus), and I want to include K-Pop in a unit on recording industries (and I know nothing about it). Are you aware of any good articles/books on the subject that I might include and/or excerpt?

Also, off the top of your head, what are the five most important K-Pop groups I should include?

Dear Ryan,

I started out by answering you in an email, but then I realized that the email was going to take me (at least) a couple hours to write. So, might as well share with some others while I was at it. 

It is simultaneously easy to illustrate a presentation about recording industries with examples from K-pop, and hard. If it is your intention to show something about recording industries in general, K-pop is not your cup of tea. But to talk about the powers beyond the actual artists we see/hear, then K-pop is great, since the heavy involvement of the management companies is not hidden behind narratives about artistic freedom or inspiration. Although it is not an academic book, Mark James Russel has a book based on years as a reporter in Korea (working for Billboard and what not) called Pop Goes Korea. (Here's the official website for the book). Mark does a great job outlining the dominance of the management system (which really is manager, promoter, choreographer, costume designer, record label, recording studio and everything else all rolled into one), and explaining how this system came about. The system in other areas is somewhat similar (like in Japan where they also manufacture groups based on specific ideas of what will appeal, not based on the desire of group members to perform that type of music --they may be stuck doing slow songs when they want to do dance tracks-- or perform/train with people they can barely tolerate). Japanese, though, still legally buy music, so the ways the system works there is a little different than in Korea. Also, as you surely know, Korean pop has a larger than just cult following in other areas, unlike Japanese pop which despite a brief bloom more than a decade ago now seems relatively unknown anywhere but Japan. 

I'm starting with your request for five groups (although it's important to note that there are a few solo acts that are pretty important). This, on the surface, appears very easy. But since you don't know much about K-pop, I found it took much more time than I at first thought. I've also linked a few songs that I think are illustrative of the group in some way. As I was inserting the links I realized that my bias towards what is called "dance" (as opposed to "ballad") is very heavy, so this is a slightly skewed list. I can't help it. I find "ballad" (slow songs) to be pretty much crap unless the vocalist is out of this world, and vocals are not the first reason that K-pop groups/artists become big/influential. 

I think you have to include 2NE1 even though they are not representative of K-pop and what it looks/sounds like because 1) they are satisfying musically, visually, creatively, vocally, choreographically and in most other ways. If people dislike this group, it can't be because they're another cookie-cutter K-pop group they are 2) representative of what hugely produced –but creative- musical acts can be and still be popular in Korea. All of K-pop could be full of such interesting and exciting acts, but it's not. Many management companies play it safe, and not all groups include as much talent. That said... I know there is a lot of autotune. The group has four members, following a K-pop convention of lead singer, featured dancer, group leader, and rapper (that's only 3 of the members, but the fourth has a large personality). They conveniently came with bonuses such as foreign language ability (the personality was a TV star in the Philippines, the lead singer trained at Berklee College of Music). Managed by YG Entertainment.
"Can't Nobody"  (okay, I'm a fan, also this last song is my favorite)

Girls' Generation (also known as SNSD, an abbreviation of their Korean name)
I think you need this group because they are a perfect example of stereotypes about K-pop. When people roll their eyes and say that K-pop has a bunch of plastic looking people parading around in short skirts or short-shorts, they are talking about Girls' Generation or similar groups. They're managed by SM Entertainment (the big powerhouse company), and they've been around long enough that they are mentioned in a fair amount of academic literature. There are 9 members, including a couple Korean-Americans. I find their music occasionally fun, but mostly uninspired.

Seo Taiji and the Boys 
This group is what is considered the first official popular music group in Korea (long before the Chinese discovered K-pop). They are much closer to the American ideal of artist-driven music with musicians performing on stage. The group included songs with serious social-issue content, and introduced Koreans to a lot of new musical sounds/innovation that were mostly gleaned from American music. They are deservedly called trailblazers. And there is more literature on them/mentioning them than any other K-pop. Try in Keith Howard's edited book Korean Pop: Riding the Wave. As a side note, YG Entertainment is owned and run by one of the "boys" in this historic group.

I think that after those three groups, who to include is a toss up. You should probably include a "boy" group, because K-pop is certainly not dominated by women (at the moment there are more highly successful "girl" groups than "boy" groups, but it's not too imbalanced and at other times there have been more "boy" groups at the top of the charts.

"Boy" Groups:
The initials TVXQ correspond to how their Chinese character name is said in Japan, the Korean initials are DBSK. This group was absolutely huge for quite a few years, but then they imploded in a big contract dispute. Now two members continue to perform under this name, while all five are still popular (the other three perform as JYJ but their music seems to suck and there have been a lot of jokes in Korean about how the group is actually better now as a two member group than they were before the split. It seems the best talent is still with the group. They're managed by SM Entertainment.
"Keep your Head Down" (2 members)
"Mirotic" (5 members)

Big Bang 
I actually really like the music that Big Bang releases (most of the time). It's danceable, the videos are fun, and the production is pretty crazy. Big Bang is the male equivalent of 2NE1 (actually they debuted first, so 2NE1 is the female version of Big Bang and has been repeatedly billed that way). The five members in the group are all pretty talented, and that definitely helps. But I don't see them as representative of K-pop, I just see this as better music/more original production than most big hit groups. 

I have a friend who would never forgive me if I suggested various male groups important to a class or an exam on popular music, and didn't mention SHINee. The group has been around for awhile now, and they seem to have staying power. They are, in my opinion, representative of generic K-pop "boy" groups, not surprisingly, they're produced by SM Entertainment.

Male Solo Artists:
Drunken Tiger
This is Korean-American rap/hip-hop produced and performed in Korea. Actually, properly speaking this is not a solo artist. Drunken Tiger was a duo, made up of Tiger JK and DJ Shine, they've parted ways, but Tiger JK hasn't switched to performing as a solo artist, and continues to acknowledge the help of others in his musical creations, esp. his wife, who is a well-known singer. He is not in any way representative of K-pop, but he's quite popular, multiple releases (8 cds?), highly watched videos, etc. His label is Jungle Entertainment, he doesn't operate in the same system as all the others on this list.
"The Cure" (this song features his wife, Tasha) 

G-Dragon is the front man of Big Bang, and I actually like the solo releases of three members of Big Bang and like G-Dragon's personality a little less than two other members, yet his work really stands out in Korea. REALLY stands out. He's hyped as writing a lot of his own songs (how true?), and as a fashion icon (fashion is such a weird area!).  Naturally he's also managed by YG Entertainment when he's solo, as well.

More Women:
Brown Eyed Girls 
I'm a big fan of Brown Eyed Girls. Their music is good, but more than that, they push interesting boundaries, come out with really creative stuff, and do things like openly admit their plastic surgeries. (Most stars in Korea try to say they haven't done any work on their faces). They are managed by NEGA Entertainment.
"Plastic Face" (Korean Saturday Night Live skit featuring 3 of the 4 members)

Sistar (two woman sub-group Sistar 19)
This group is way oversexualized. Yet at the same time they have one member with amazing singing ability. So I am pretty torn. I own and listen to many of their songs, but watching their videos... well, let's just say I use them as an example when I talk about sexual objectification. Starship Entertainment.
"Alone" (Sistar)

Wonder Girls 
The Wonder Girls are a group produced/managed by JYP Entertainment, at one time the second biggest company, but in the last few years the company has had some bad luck and made some risky choices. One of those was to work very hard at having the Wonder Girls make it in the US market. They are fairly well known in America, I suppose, in comparison to other K-pop groups because they've played shows (as an opening act) in places other than large centers for overseas Koreans. But I find them boring at best.  One of JYP Entertainment's more recent girl groups, Miss A, is more interesting to me partially because two members are Chinese.
"Tell Me
"Nobody" (English version, the guy in the beginning is the head of the entertainment company)

Solo Female Acts:
I cannot in good conscience fail to mention BoA in a list on K-pop. BoA has been big since 2002, but she was born in '86, so if you're thinking that Miley Cyrus has nothing on this woman, you'd be right. Except that BoA will never be part of a controversy. And she first broke out in Japan. Has released albums in Japanese (I think more than in Korean), Chinese, and in 2009, in English (she also tried to make it in the American market and got some traction, briefly). I am much more impressed by her dancing than her vocals, but... no one is perfect. SM Entertainment.

Lee Hyori 
Hyori is another HUGE artist, but she's probably on her way out. I am skeptical about her ability to survive some of the various scandals, lower viewer ratings on a show, her increasing age, and keep on top in K-pop. She originally debuted with a group called FinKL in the late 90s, and is really talented—I love a lot of her music, esp. the album before last (H-Logic)—but then it turned out that almost everything there was plagiarized or ripped off in some way or another, without compensation, and she got in a lot of hot water, although she claimed not to know (she was not credited as the songwriter, the major issue was songs all from a single songwriter, who appears to have no idea what fair use actually is). She's with MNet Media, now.
"Swing" (sorry, no link available b/c of copyright claims, all the links are muted)

It is worth mentioning that all of the performers on this entire list are heavily involved in TV (reality shows, talk shows, variety shows, dramas (often as the main star), and even at times movies. They also do all sorts of advertising. In Korean music more money is made from those activities than from selling MP3 downloads (by far). 

Surely some other blog visitors will eventually point out that I have neglected to tell you about some hugely important acts. H.O.T. (the first big export act), or Sechkies, or SES or Baby Vox, or in fact hundreds of others that are currently performing like T-Ara, KARA, After School, 2PM, 2AM, 4 Minute, Super Junior, Shinhwa (they're all out of the military now!), B2ST, DTMN or the independent(ish) acts-- many of them much more creative than what I've listed on here. Yet when I made this list I was also thinking about when you teach this class. If you teach the class in a year, or six months, or even three years from now I think the names on this list will still be relevant. If you check on Youtube you'll probably find more recent releases (K-pop acts tend to release new mini-albums or full-length albums at most two years apart but usually closer to once every nine months). 

And I'll email you more about readings you can assign. 

[UPDATE] This well-written article about the phenomenon Busker, Busker is instructive about some of the ways the popular music circuit works in Korea, if primarily because the trio didn't do what they were supposed to do. 

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