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What's in a Name: The Illusiveness of K-pop and its Many Definitions

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Music plays an important role in many of our lives. No matter how we’ve listened throughout the years - walkmans, iPod Nanos, record players, iPhones - we stay connected to our own emotions and the pop-culture happenings of society through music. I feel like I’ve expanded my music library tenfold in just the last 12 months. Maybe I had too much time on my hands, but I’ve fully enjoyed finding new music and familiarizing myself with new artists and genres. Within this 12-month music exploration, a practice I got back in the habit of doing was listening to non-English speaking artists. I first started listening to foreign music in 2018 after a trip to Italy ignited my love for all things Italian. Italian pop, rap, and hip-hop made regular appearances on my playlists. After that, I got into a few French artists, started listening to reggae again (technically, it’s in English but still), and then, eventually found my way to Korean music (K-music).

In the lineup of K-music, I started listening to musicians that are often categorized as “K-pop.” To the western eyes, K-pop is commonly identifiable by groups with as many as 23 members, well-produced music videos, intense dance routines, rigorous training, “comebacks”, and finger hearts.

Surely, a whole realm of music cannot be summarized by just those words. There are so many Korean artists that to boil them down to those attributes would be simply incorrect. So what is K-pop exactly? As an English speaker in North America, I immediately thought that K-pop referred to pop music sung in Korean. With a little research, I’ve come to find that the term refers to Korean popular music, and to some, can be an overarching term to describe Korean rock, hip-hop, or electronic music, not just pop. Other voices call for distinction, claiming that categorizing all popular music from South Korea as “K-pop” does not sufficiently showcase the nuances between artists. I’ve done my investigations, and I have yet to see a consensus on the matter. Whether or not you’re willing to lump Korean rock music into the K-pop bucket, K-pop is undoubtedly influenced by other genres. Listen for yourself. If you listen to one K-pop artist’s entire discography, or even one single album, you are bound to hear a hybrid of sounds. The moral of the story, being categorized as K-pop really can mean several different things.

Another layer of complexity comes into play when you consider the usage of English in K-pop. What about Korean artists who sing in English? Are they K-pop? According to the music apps I use daily, they are. But I’ll be honest, I was a bit confused by this. Why is DPR IAN, a Korean-Australian who sings in English considered a K-pop artist? It would seem that singing in English does not separate a Korean artist from the K-pop label. Including English in a mostly Korean song is said to have been started by the Korean R&B duo Fly to the Sky, who wanted to showcase their English fluency. More recently in 2020, the extremely popular K-pop group BTS started releasing singles in English. Similarly, BLACKPINK member ROSÉ, a Korean-New Zealand singer, exclusively sings in English in her solo projects. There are many other artists who sing in both languages in a single track.

Though I’d listen whether in English or Korean, there is an advantage to having a bilingual song - it can attract a bigger audience. For example, the release of BTS’ “Dynamite” last year is the song responsible for making me an ARMY (BTS fan). At this point, I was already listening to some BTS as well as K-R&B but I wasn’t “all in”. I’m not sure what it was about "Dynamite" that reeled me in closer to the band of 7. Maybe it was the playful music video concept, the dance moves, or the beat? Or, perhaps it was the story behind its existence. Though the lyrics are simple compared to other BTS songs, "Dynamite" was created to uplift the world during times of hardship. Either way, this chart-topping, Grammy-nominated song did its job and found a true fan in me and many others in the western hemisphere. "Dynamite" became the most-viewed YouTube video in 24 hours with 101.1 million views, debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and made BTS the very first all-South Korean artist to top the Hot 100 chart.

The term “don’t judge a book by its cover” accurately describes my relationship with K-pop. BTS is the best example of this as they are so much more than just the biggest boy band in the world. They are a symbol of love and hope for millions of people around the world. They love their fans and it's apparent to see in literally everything they do.

So what does all of this mean? For me, I’m left with one question. Is there a need to identify a type of music by the ethnicity or language of the artist? I say no, we don’t. But that’s not the world we’re living in. Although the labels can be confusing at times, I’ve learned to ignore them and simply try new music without worrying about the language barrier or genre. There’s so much good music from around the world out there and life’s too short not to listen to it.

Edited by: Ariana Jenkins

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