Some Thoughts on K-Pop as a Guilty Pleasure

This is a safe space. A space where we can be honest. So I’m going to say it straight: it’s not OK to like pop music or soap operas, especially not foreign ones. Or at least that’s the message I’m overwhelmingly getting from just about every direction. Let’s be real — they’re the media of despised demographics like tween and teen girls or old maids.

This bias is the flip side of the quest for that musical unicorn: the band of friends brought together by a deep love of music, whose passion and growing skills attract fans until they are propelled toward stardom, all the while combating the pernicious influences of money and fame. This image is closely associated with rock and roll, but is now applied as a standard of “real music” in many genres.

The Beatles are probably cast as the role model for this dream, with romanticized memories of their performances in Hamburg or the Cavern. If we think about it though, the Beatles took off after they had a producer and were immediately asked to change their line-up and their image. They covered American hits, initially presented a clean cut style, used simple repetitive lyrics in their own songs, appeared on a wide range of fan merchandise, and explored crossover projects in other mediums. Screaming, fainting girls are a major reason they succeeded to become the universally respectable legends we love to this day, yet these are aspects we still see played down. The kids who rise to stardom through a “passion + talent + effort vs. fame + money” dichotomy are basically a myth.

The accusations leveled at pop music, particularly K-pop, are grave indeed: “Idols are products manufactured by industrial machines that prioritize profits and beauty over musical talent and target young girls who are too stupid, tasteless, shallow, and emotionally overwrought to know better”. Which begs two fairly simple questions: Is that true? Does it even matter? Ishmael says no to both.

The first question is easier to answer. Idols are products, but although they are trained systematically, they retain personal agency to varying degrees. Particularly as their experience builds over time, idols are often given greater responsibility in composition, production, choreography, and fashion/visuals. Senior idols may also participate in training their juniors or scouting talent. This feature has been present for years and is only increasing over time. So yes, idols’ personas and group concepts are meticulously planned and performed, but it does not follow that they are entirely artificial or that they are segregated from the creative and productive side of the music industry. Different companies have different methods and strategies, within which idols are given varying degrees of artistic license.

Is beauty valued? Yes. More than talent? Sometimes. Of course, dancing and singing are not the only talents valued in an industry with so many crossovers. Further, there are many K-pop idols who are or were considered unattractive, provoking the initial (joking but not joking) assumption that they must be musical prodigies. Big Bang’s Daesung is a notable example of wit and voice surpassing beauty (he’s gotten better looking though!), and I could add that all of Big Bang was accused of being visually underwhelming when they debuted at the height of the Flower Boy era. Daesung said that he was attracted to YG Entertainment because of their claim to be a company that didn’t care about physical appearances. [1] Super Junior’s Shindong commiserated with Daesung on “Strong Heart.” Despite being in one of the most iconic flower boy bands, as the chubbiest idol in K-pop, Shindong’s contribution was not musical or visual, but instead arose from his dancing and humor.

K-pop is a very visual genre, defined as much by the dances, fashion, and sets/locations as by the music. To be fair, this is also true of hip-hop culture which recognizes b-boy/girl dancing, graffiti artists, and fashion alongside rap. So, is the real issue with pop music the physical attractiveness of the artists? My first response is that the degree to which good looks are emphasized and the preferred aesthetics are factors which change rapidly over time. Flower Boys were joined by “Beasts”, while many groups defied neat categorization. At the present moment, the introduction of more generic diversity in the mainstream and an increase in artists from competitive audition shows shifting emphasis away from personal appearance. Akdong Musicians or the rapper Swings are potential examples. I’d also add that there is more variety among male artists than female and attraction is subjective. Musical talent is sexy, often transferring from ears to eyes in the hearts of fans (though Ishmael accepts that the reverse is also possible).

The last accusations were aimed at the fans. Yes, pop music’s primary demographic is young women, though the “nuna” and “ajumma” fans are plentiful these days. However, to frame that as a flaw is to imply that there is something inherently wrong with being liked by girls. This is the real problem; not the music, but the perception of girls’ and women’s taste as lacking value. Pop is often styled as something to grow out of – something fun and self-aware then is demonized as vapid and shameful.

You know what? Pop is fun. It usually doesn’t take itself too seriously. It can be playful and experimental. It’s meant to be visual and put on a show. I love Bob Dylan’s songs, but I’d choose a K-pop concert (even a band I don’t like) over Dylan any day. The loss of pop, means leaving society prone to massive hipster-ism, in which people’s taste becomes something that is competitive, must be justified and proven, and exists in self-denial. Ironically, the music may matter less when “authenticity” is the goal. Authenticity is a false god. Who decides and how? At least pop’s mission is to make you feel good. That’s something rock and pop should agree on. [2]

Music can be enjoyed for a number of different reasons. Many genres are appreciated for their social commentary, which is still rare in K-pop, but by virtue of its very foreignness it can inspire reflection. Much of the joy of music comes not only from the emotional reaction immediately provoked, but the emotions that emerge from the memories and associations connected to a song or artist. It is in this area that pop, particularly K-pop, excels as companies deliberately seek to establish an affective network around their products. This ties into another component of enjoying music: the sense of belonging to or identifying with a particular group or lifestyle. True musical purists are rare. Most of us lack the expertise to evaluate what is “good music” based on its composition and/or the artists’ interpretation.

Finally, there is the frankly ridiculous assumption that those who love pop don’t or can’t appreciate other “good” music. I was raised on classical, old jazz, and classic rock (with a healthy side of 80s New Wave). The this day I feel a stronger musical affinity with Baby Boomers than Beliebers, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel an emotional high at a Taeyang concert or rock out to even SHINee — yes, SHINee — from time to time.


[1] This was in the documentary on the making of Big Bang, but the Strong Heart YG Family Special raised the issue again and concluded that YG stars were on the whole a good looking bunch, and so looks were a consideration, especially a good smile.

[2] Ishmael is aware that hip hop, however, was born under different circumstances and the role of social commentary changes the significance of claims to authenticity.

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