That Thing Called Kpop (& What Everyone Thinks of It)


Emily Duong, Contributor

(Note: This is an OPINION article. Any words said by the author of this article and the people quoted do not actually reflect on their actual personalities. Thank you.)

Ah yes, the wonderful, complex genre known as kpop. Korean pop, which originated in South Korea, incorporates various styles and genres, from pop to R&B to EDM, into its own unique sounds. Kpop is less of a certain sound and more of a category for most Korean-spoken music. And many people have their own views on it, whether they like it or not. This includes me, a flaming kpop listener that likes way too many groups, soloists, and more, and has loved this genre since September 2018. So, here are some wonderful kpop opinions from students at Bob Jones and my commentary on them, tame and wild, popular and unpopular.

Cadence Mooring: “…I know many kpop groups have songs in English/partial songs in English but I just never listen to music when I can’t understand the lyrics or sing along.”

Dylan Johannes: “I can’t understand the words?”

So a lot of people said this in many forms. Funny story: this was the main reason I was tentative to get into kpop because why listen when you can’t understand? And this, my friends, is most likely the biggest, and most ironic, roadblock to Western people getting into kpop. Why ironic, you ask? Remember “Despacito”, that one mainly-Spanish song that absolutely blew up when it came out in 2017? So many people were jamming to that song, yet when they hear one lick of kpop, they judge because it’s in a foreign language. Sophomore Faith Williams stated, “​​It’s fun, it’s poppy, and Korean itself is a beautiful language. I don’t really understand the haters? Like hating on it is the same as hating German pop music for no reason whatsoever.” So here are some solutions and ways I have enjoyed kpop even with a language barrier. 1) For not knowing the song’s meaning, find translations. Websites like Genius and ColorCodedLyrics do many kpop lyric translations that are fairly accurate, and I think that you don’t need to know every single line (some people on the radio I can barely understand, and that’s English you guys), but rather, knowing a gist of the music’s message leaves a bigger impact. Almost all music videos in kpop also have English subtitles. 2) For the part where it would be hard to sing along to a foreign language, I think, in the end, you end up just singing what you hear, even if it’s entirely off. As long as you are vibing with the tunes, do you have to be accurate? Are you singing along to sing exactly right, or to pour out your enjoyment of the music? 3) For not listening since you don’t know the lyrics, once again, translations. No, it is not too much work. Also, I feel like most people gravitate toward melody over words in music, so… (not saying people listen to music with meaningless lyrics; they can leave a bigger impact. In these instances, because lyrics almost always correlate with a fitting melody, it is almost satisfying to listen to a song that gives you a certain feeling, then it touches you even more after looking up the lyrics [for me at least].)

Max McGee: “…the people who listen to it are usually really weird.”

Amy Athing: “Fans are annoying, pushy, and just generally the worst. They ruin the genre…”

Quinn Powell: “While it’s not all of them, the fans can get way too intense…don’t want to get involved with the fans.”

Hannah Southward: “I think the fanbase can be pretty toxic.”

Danica Vu: “…fans are just stupid crazy for no reason and it freaks me out.”

Christine Pham: “I hate the fans and they can ruin the experience for everyone, and this is why kpop is universally hated before outside people can even give it a listen outside of BTS’s ‘Dynamite’.”

Another common opinion (you can definitely see), by both fans and non-fans, which is not surprising to me. I actually agree with everyone here, but there’s more to it. Let us talk about the loud minority versus the silent majority, coined by Richard Nixon in 1969. This means that the perception of a certain group, idea, etc, is seen a certain way because the “loud minority” of their supporters, or the smaller percent of them, are much more vocal in their opinions of said group, compared to the “silent majority” that is much more subdued. Most kpop fans are quite chill and don’t shove their fandom in your face, but the weird, irritating, and lowkey creepy ones that become the common stereotype of kpop fanbases are a small minority that is just louder than the better rest of us. It’s the few bad apples that spoil the enormous basket of good apples, but if you look past the negative, then there is so much more positivity in this genre. So please, please do not see us kpop fans in such a negative light just because of how we are perceived on the internet and the actions of the more annoying fans.

Brandon Smith: “Very American-influenced and little variety in the mainstream genre.”

I definitely agree with the Western influence that is very prominent in much of kpop. However, I think there is a ton of variety in the mainstream, much more than any other genre I’ve listened to. Senior Leondra Hutton put it pretty well by saying, “I believe kpop is generally far more creative than western music.” Here’s one example. Let’s take “Deja Vu” and “Eternal Sunshine”, both by ATEEZ, two very different love songs. The first is sexy, sultry, and dark, while the second is summery, bubbly, and fun. They are both off the same album and are both title tracks for the 2021 album Zero: Fever Part.3. How about these two songs off the same album (Crazy in Love from 2021): ITZY’s “Loco”, which is an energetic dance-driven track (this song is insane, I like it a lot), versus “Swipe”, a funky, rebellious song about not conforming to social standards. I also love songs more when the artist is involved in writing and producing their songs, which is quite prominent in kpop. One of senior Christine Pham’s favorite groups is GOT7 because “they felt different for their time. I really liked how they had a lot of diversity within the group regarding background, and how each member had distinct personalities that made them stand out…I appreciate their music a lot because they started off as your typical, “manufactured” kpop group at the time, but they slowly became more and more involved in the production, to the point where every single member was involved with songwriting and producing…showing how dedicated to music and finding their image they are.” Speaking of GOT7, let’s compare my two favorite b-sides off their 2019 album SpinningTop : Between Security & Insecurity, both love songs. “끝 (The End)”, is vocal-based, upbeat, yet wistful, while “PAGE” is a fun, catchy bop that makes you want to dance. The thing about kpop is that you can make out certain sounds from different genres, yet they’re all combined into their own melody that doesn’t conform to just a singular genre, besides being kpop since it’s in Korean. You can find bubblegum pop notes, like Red Velvet’s “Russian Roulette” (the message is just a bit darker though) or Tomorrow X Together’s “CROWN“, more rock influences such as “Sweet Chaos” or “Shoot Me“, both by Day6, heavier rap like “Agust D” by, well, Agust D, aka Suga of BTS, smooth ballads like “Starry Night” from Mamamoo or “I Wish” by Seventeen, and much more, and those are just the surface. And maybe instead of just melodies, let’s look at concepts. Want powerful and unique? Try ATEEZ’s “Wonderland”, with its pirate-esque “Symphony No.9 ‘From the Wonderland’ remix with samplings from the classical piece “Symphony No. 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’, Op. 95, B. 178” by Antonín Dvořák. Stray Kids just love to play around with their sound, just hear the difference between their new title track, “MANIAC”, and their previous one “소리꾼(Thunderous)”. NCT are the epitome of experimental sounds, such as NCT 127’s “Sticker” and NCT Dream’s “Glitch Mode“. These two can also do more fun, poppy songs, such as 127 in “Love Me Now” and Dream in “We Go Up“. All and all, before this paragraph gets too long, kpop’s got a load of variety. Check it out.

Amy Athing: “Convinced that kpop is a money-laundering scheme to make music empires. Conspiracy: kpop is satanism. [pls don’t take that seriously 🙂 ]”

Okay, as wonderful kpop is, some things are incredibly expensive. Kpop drains your money. Firstly, the albums. I like the concept, as it’s not just a CD like most albums, but also with so many add-ons, from posters to photobooks, and photocards, a randomly selected selfie of one of the group’s members. However, the cost is high. They average about $20 to $50, with most I’ve seen being about the $15 to $30 range. Not to mention possible shipping if you buy it online. Some stores carry kpop albums, many more in recent years (Target so far has been my go-to since it usually has more variety), but I saw that an album with five songs was a few dollars more expensive than one with 12! It’s nuts! Also, people will pay hundreds for those photocards, like those things can be $5 apiece! I haven’t bought them individually, but some do, and it’s crazy. Concerts are, of course, lots of money, especially since bigger artists will perform in stadiums and stuff. Also, lightsticks are a huge money-drainer. These things light up and are waved by fans in the crowd at concerts, giving the crowd a glow, and are specific to the group, so the more groups you like, the more that you feel obligated to buy. Woohoo, my wallet is dead.

Christine Pham: “…there is definitely an emphasis on looks over talent, or even music 90% of the time, and also an emphasis on quantity over quality with some exceptions….A lot of it is still VERY manufactured, which has gotten much much better in the recent decade, but it is still very manufactured. A lot of kpop songs are also very disposable, and get old very fast.”

Looks are definitely a huge aspect of groups. They even have members who hold the role of “visual” to be a face of the group to see them as attractive. Seeing all the groups I know, there is a lot of styling, makeup, etc, done to idols for that good-looking persona they have to keep on, and they have to have a certain shape, too. Though in recent years it has gotten better, these standards are still heavily visible in kpop. Next, the music. Unlike Western artists, who would usually release a full album about every year, kpop artists average about three albums a year, known as comebacks. And it’s not just music. They perform their title track(s) for weeks on end on different programs, they go on various variety shows, they do fansigns, they do livestreams, and much more. It’s a package deal, but it’s also strenuous and usually monitored by their companies. And after a few months, another album comes with its package, and the previous one is now just floating in their ocean of other previous comebacks. So yes, some songs get forgotten, even if they’re amazing. In the music itself, not every artist gets a say in their songs’ creation. This is much better nowadays, such as with Stray Kids and their producing members 3RACHA or Hongjoong in ATEEZ, but the companies that the artists are under still control a lot of the music that comes out. GOT7, for instance, had many songs produced by member JAYB, who was JB at the time, but the company not only roadblock a lot of them to be released, but also did not listen to the members’ desire for one of JB’s songs to be a title track (by the way, it was “PAGE”), opting for a different one of their choice (“Eclipse”). I hope that companies let the artists have more musical freedom, as that is their truer color.

Leondra Hutton: “I think that while it’s an amazing concept the environment can be very toxic and needs to be changed so artists aren’t kept on such strict rules about looks and diet.”

Yeah, the idol life is really strenuous, which plays into the “manufactured” part of kpop commentated above. Some things are incredibly messed up. I can talk about the fan-to-artist relations part of it, but that’s a bit further down. When a person wants to be a kpop idol, they must first audition for a company. If they pass, they are plopped into training with other fellow people who passed auditions and are strained to their limit to learn how to keep that good idol image. This period could be less than a year or a decade. They could be let go by the company if they don’t see potential in them. It’s almost a competition to the better trainee to make sure the company keeps them. And even after debuting, that idol image must be maintained through diet, exercise, dance practice, and many other rigorous tasks. Idols get dangerously skinny and unhealthy, stressed and tired, depressed and anxious, some even committing suicide due to their conditions or leaving the industry for good. This is especially prevalent with female idols, as they have a more constrained standard for them to be all pretty, skinny, and wonderful. It’s toxic. Truly. And though the industry is being more vocal about this and things are being reformed, it’s gonna take a while. It’s not good.

Gavin Alger: “BTS is overrated though. I like their older songs.”

Keegan Vest: “BTS is good, but I prefer some of their older songs…”

I agree strongly. Now let me defend myself. Do not attack me yet. BTS was my first group and the ones that got me into kpop (“IDOL ft. Nicki Minaj”), so they have a very special place in my heart, but I barely listen to them nowadays, and when I do, it’s their older songs before 2020. I think that all their songs after the Love Yourself trilogy (mainly after Love Yourself: Her in 2017), have gotten more and more generic, which is especially prominent in their title tracks, and their English songs literally scream “This was made almost entirely to target the Western audience.” Now, BTS is not the first kpop artist to release all-English songs (or English versions of Korean songs, for that matter), but I think there is a separation between English songs that still retain the overall uniqueness of Korean music, and those that are made to be more listenable to those in the West, so to speak. BTS’s songs just seem to be getting more and more Westernized, their older sound being forgotten, and since I’ve liked them for a while and the reason I got into kpop was its uniqueness, it just drew me away. Of course, this could just be a personal taste thing, but this is my take on the current biggest boy band in the world, and why I no longer listen to them.

Lydia Isom: “Kpop idols don’t owe their fans every aspect of their lives and fans that think so are entitled and rude. Dating scandals are dumb, and why is it anyone’s business as to who a celebrity dates? It’s their life.”

Aja Black: “Female and male idols have the right to be friends without their fandoms sending them threats and thinking they are dating.”

THIS. I would say that this is a much bigger deal in South Korea and its culture, but can still be found with fans internationally. So, first, let’s backtrack. So in kpop, it’s not just about the music, but also about being presentable, pleasant, and friendly with friends in every which way. They’re marketing themselves to the fans, to put it absolutely as blunt as possible. They perform their title track(s) for weeks on end, broadcasted on many different programs. They do fansigns, fans talking to their favorite group only separated by a table. Livestreams happen left and right, idols close and intimate with fans through a screen. The members interact so, so much with fans on social media, from photos to conversations. In short, the group makes you feel special by spoonfeeding you content, and though I think that being this passionate with fans is quite nice and gives a more friendly, close bond that gives almost a comfort zone to fans, this can backfire if a fan gets just a tad bit unrealistic. The starkest example is a good ol’ dating scandal. Korean fans really hate their favorite group members dating another, making them feel like they aren’t the artist’s first priority anymore. Which is stupid. Some fans imagine their favorite member as their freaking lover! Like what?! The parasocial relationship between fans and artists can get toxic real fast if the fans do not have the common sense that famous people can be in love, get a girl/guy, get married, and have kids. Kinda a common life thing. Also, they can have friends of the opposite gender and not be dating them. Friends are friends, y’all. This is, once again, common sense that some people need to filter into their skulls.

Faith Williams: “As far as I can tell they pretty much just dislike it because the target demographic that is the ever-elusive “teenage girl” likes it. And naturally, anything that teenage girls like is juvenile and stupid 😛 😛 (sarcasm).”

Jax Strickland: “It’s solid music, definitely over-hated.”

Say it louder for the people in the back. That’s all I have to say. Everything above covered everything. I know that the internet has warped perceptions of this genre, but if you just give it a chance and have an open mind, it can be quite amazing. Music should not have an age or be avoided due to what it seems to be without actually checking it out.

There is this one response that I think many people need to read from Leondra: “…if you keep your mind open and look past the not-so-good reputation that kpop and its fans have, you can find something that you like no matter what music taste you have. There are plenty of groups and idols that have so many different genres of music under their belt that I feel it’s impossible to not find something you’d be interested in. I think what stops a lot of people from exploring it is the fact that it’s Korean and the stigma that a lot of problematic fans have left on social media and in people’s minds. When you mention kpop people immediately think of koreaboos, cringey, over-obsessed fans, and BTS…but that’s not all there is. There is so much more to it than that and I think it’s a pretty good introduction to the westernized and traditional culture of Korea.”

Everyone has differing opinions, yet we should respect what we like, and hopefully, this article could give some retrospect on the complexity surrounding this genre. As Cadence puts it: “Because I’m not a huge fan of pop in general, it would take quite a lot for me to get into it, and I don’t quite get the obsession, but I don’t judge other people or care if they listen to it. Still, kpop’s influence in media is noteworthy and the fanbase is definitely something to be respected.”