Is K-pop ‘real’ music?
Forbes’ Asia ‘30 under 30’ compiled a list of individuals in Asia, categorising them by their area of specialty: industry, manufacturing and energy, enterprise technology, big money, and so on.
Korean girl group Twice made it onto Forbes’ list under ‘Sports and Entertainment’. Can’t really say I’m surprised; Twice’s members’ appearances on variety shows often gain record viewerships, and their sponsorships and commercials (what Koreans term as ‘CF’) guarantee top sales that season. The girl group arguably owes much of its success to its strong fan-base, who propelled Twice’s music video views into the thousands within minutes of its release.
Forbes’ judging criteria for their 30 under 30 list are as follows:
‘This annual roster of young entrepreneurs and change makers packs a punch, with 300 bright and innovative leaders ready and equipped to adapt to whatever the future may hold. Selected from over 3,500 nominations, researched by a team of reporters and vetted by industry veterans, this group of relentless individuals is disrupting industries and tackling major global issues. Whether innovative AI, online funeral services or stylish pet products, their ideas and unstoppable determination to better the world is ample inspiration to stay hopeful.’Forbes 2020
To be inducted into Forbes’ list could be viewed as being a distinguished member of society. In essence, Twice has proven to add value to our world some way or another.
But even as K-pop has established East Asia’s dominance in the world, many continue to view K-pop as a lesser art. One of the reasons for this may be K-pop’s ‘Aegyo’ factor.
This concept of ‘aegyo‘, or ‘cuteness’, is deeply embedded into Korea’s cultural exports. Between 2000 and 2010, K-pop groups such as Super Junior and Girls Generation wore light makeup and cut bangs to emphasise on their youthfulness. For some upbeat love songs, K-pop idols may even hold ‘cute items’ (such as puppies, cake, flowers) in the music video.
One common direction for these music videos was also to stare straight at the camera, and puff up their cheeks – or do an incredibly rehearsed smile or wink to show off as much of that aegyo as possible.
K-pop’s aegyo in music videos are intended to evoke an unexplainable fuzzy feeling of adoration for the performer. Even though some people dislike K-pop precisely because of the aegyo, I’d argue that it was extremely successful. I mean, just think about the sheer number of die-hard fans K-pop claimed within a decade of Korea’s cultural wave.
Aegyo is an East Asian cultural product that has a distinguishing style and ‘look’ – one quite disparate from the image of Western artistes. For instance, Western artistes tend to have bolder eyeliners and dress in a more high fashion way. Korea had initially adapted that look as well. But K-pop idols today are commonly seen incorporating that glowy ‘no makeup’ look, and showcasing their aegyo instead.
As such, listeners who are more accustomed to the Western music scene may find it difficult to take K-pop’s soft visuals seriously.
At this point, maybe K-pop fans may argue: “Since the cute image bothers them, why not just listen purely to the song and judge it by its musical integrity?”
Honestly – that’s not possible!
Music of the 21st century is largely an audio-visual media. While the lyrics are still essential, music videos also supplement the song by giving meaning to the listening experience.
K-pop without visuals is like… Disney songs without the animation. I find it difficult to not picture the iconic scene of Elsa using her magic when I hear Frozen’s “Let It Go”. When I listen to the song, the swishing sound effects indicate that Elsa is using her magic. The piano and strings also staccato notes in a higher octave to convey the lightness and delicateness of Elsa’s powers. But you see, we wouldn’t fully understand why “Let It Go” is such a dramatic turning point for Elsa unless we saw this scene from the movie. Just as audio is used to heighten the fantasy as displayed on screen, visuals are essential to helping the viewer emote with added subtexts.
The bottomline is that while aegyo turns many ‘serious’ listeners away, it is a product of Korean culture that K-pop has used to market their music. No doubt, K-pop’s not for everyone, and watching K-pop idols aegyo on variety shows makes me cringe too (watch this at your own risk). But we also forget that there’s a reason why aegyo hasn’t died out yet. Beyond the aegyo are serious music producers who make music in a billion-dollar cultural industry.
So the next time you hear a K-pop song, maybe stop for a bit and look beyond its surface aesthetics!