Editorial: I love K-pop… Sort of

Have I mentioned how much I love Big Bang?!
Have I mentioned how much I love Big Bang?!

Wait, don’t attack me yet… ^^ Let me explain.

I used to say I love K-pop and meant it without reservation. But I’ve noticed more & more that K-pop means different things to different people. When I used K-pop in the past, I used it to refer to all Korean music. And I do love a lot of different Korean musicians and groups… that hasn’t changed. In fact, I like and listen to MORE Korean music now because I’m always discovering new music to listen to. But “K-pop” as a label isn’t entirely accurate so… I now say I love Korean music.

What’s the difference?

Remember I said K-pop means different things to different people? Well, it’s true. Some people use it as a genre – Korean pop music – so that it’s only a subset of all the fabulous music that Korea offers. Some people use it to mean the “popular” music from Korea – basically, the music from the three big Korean music labels (YG, SM and JYP). And some people use it as an umbrella term for all Korean music. And this can cause confusion… if I was to say I like K-pop, what kind of music would you think I like? I think for most people they use it to mean either Korean pop music or the music from the big 3 Korean music labels. But… that’s not always true.

No Brain at the Seoulsonic Showcase at CMW
No Brain at the Seoulsonic Showcase at CMW

For example, a few weeks before this year’s Canadian Music Week (CMW), the CMW organizers sent out an open letter/email to K-pop fans in Canada (on Facebook) saying basically that they were sorry but they weren’t able to bring any K-pop groups/artists to the 2013 CMW. They used K-pop as a genre (Korean pop music). Unfortunately, some fans took this to mean there would be NO KOREAN MUSIC (K-pop as an umbrella term) and were surprised/dismayed when they found out that there were Korean bands performing and they missed the chance to see them. Confused yet?

And for research, I often visit a couple of Facebook groups and online communities to see what the fans are saying. Most of them are dominated by fans of K-pop as a genre, it’s true, but there are lots of fans like me that like a wider variety of Korean music. However, some get annoyed if you post anything that’s not about the popular groups (K-pop as the top 3 entertainment companies).

To further complicate things, some groups could fall under more than one category. Clazziquai Project or Nell spring to mind. And some groups/singers who are firmly in one category might do a song that could be classified differently. “Oh My Friend” by Big Bang & No Brain certainly bridges the gap. Plus, there are groups that are signed under the big three labels but aren’t pop musicians.

Why do we need a label?

Apollo 18 in Toronto
Apollo 18 in Toronto

Well, I don’t. Seriously, look at my music library and you’ll find pretty much every genre/category in at least four languages – English, Korean, French and Spanish – from several countries. Except opera (sorry, not a fan). I don’t care what label my music has, as long as it’s music I like. Sure, I’m much more likely to buy a new CD (or more commonly nowadays, the digital version from iTunes) or buy tickets to a concert if I already like the group/artist/band. I’m not going to buy a K-pop CD just because it’s a K-pop CD.

Side note: Going to concerts, festivals or reviewing music as media is different from my personal purchases. I will go to see, promote, and review any Korean musician who comes to Toronto as media because that’s my job. But I still strive to give you my honest opinion (with research if I’m not familiar with the group/artist) and the crowd’s reaction.

But we do need a standard meaning for the term.

There’s a huge difference between using K-pop to be a single genre and for using it to mean all of the music coming from Korea. I think for most – but not all – fans they use K-pop to mean the genre. However, I know some people in the Korean music industry use it to mean all the Korean modern music (but not traditional music) and I know from interviews, some groups/artists don’t like labels at all.

Plus, when talking about Korean music many Western journalists seem to only see two distinctions – K-pop and Indie. Okay, some might refer to three genres – K-pop, Korean hip hop and Korean Indie music but take a moment and think how many genres there are in reference to Western music – iTunes has dozens! It’s limiting.

I’m not saying I know the answer – I don’t – but as K-pop (or Korean music if you prefer) continues to grow in popularity, I wonder if it’s an issue that might be addressed. Or perhaps I’m just making things up. I just want to make sure that when the next Korean groups/artists come here, everyone finds out and I think clarity in the terminology will help.

Brian Joo at 2K12 Korea Night
Brian Joo at 2K12 Korea Night

Looking at my Korean music collection, I have artists as varied as Big Bang, MC Sniper, No Brain, Nell, Apollo 18, CN Blue, Clazziquai Project, Jay Park, Dynamic Duo, Yellow Monsters, Brian Joo, and Galaxy Express… just to name a few. How can they all be one genre?

And what about Korean-American or Korean-Canadian musicians – like say Jay Park? Are they K-pop musicians? Only if they sing in Korean most of the time? Only if they perform/release music in Korea?

What do you mean when you talk about K-pop? Do you say you like K-pop or do you say you like Korean music? Should we use more genres/labels when talking about Korean music? I want to hear your thoughts!!

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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