As another festival season concludes, it is evident that “poptimism” has comfortably retained its stranglehold on the music industry. Some of pop music’s brightest stars once again grabbed the coveted large fonts on summer bills without a peep from stuffy rock nerds. Nowadays, artists with supreme vocal talent, like Solange, or grandiose theatrical dance productions, like Lady Gaga, claim the spots once reserved for the biggest rock acts, and critics and fans are fully onboard. Pop music has never been more about the artistic identities and merits of the musicians, and that’s a good thing. The problem is, that same cosmopolitan attitude consistently disappears when it comes to the pop music not made in America or Western Europe. For Western audiences, ignorance is bliss.
Most glaringly, Western audiences are quick to mock the “idols,” as pop stars are called in Korea, for being lip-synching models with little to no artistic merit who are controlled by profit-hungry record labels. “I think when people look at the cohesiveness of the K-pop idols and how in sync they are with one another, people see something that is so choreographed and uniform,” said Grace Jeong, the editor-in-chief of Korean pop site Soompi. “When you put this on top of the fact that the music is foreign and the presentation is somewhat foreign too, they question how it can be a space for creativity.”
“Currently I’m working with a group who is mostly writing their own songs, and that is what the label is encouraging them to do,” said one producer. “Ten years ago I can’t imagine a label letting that happen.”
K-Pop, which often distills the familiar boy/girl-band formula down to its most prepackaged elements, has grown into one of the most commercially successful styles of music in the world. (In May, the group BTS beat out Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Shawn Mendes for the Top Social Artist prize at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards, earning 75 percent of the total tally.) But the culture shock of a first encounter is real. It can be natural for a listener to search for what is different and therefore unenjoyable about the music. The West undoubtedly loves artists who sing and dance, and PSY’s “Gagnam Style” was proof enough that a Korean artist can have a hit in America. The problem, some producers say, is the artificial imagery. “The memories of the corny and auto-tuned, cartoonish-looking girls or boys of the past still prevail in people’s minds when they imagine K-Pop or Asian pop in general,” said MRey, a producer behind massive hits for some of K-Pop’s biggest groups, like EXO and AOA.
But as Jeong pointed out, K-Pop has seen a dramatic change over the past five years. Just as American stars like Beyonce and Bruno Mars have raised the bar for artistic achievement in pop music, record labels in Korea are beginning to churn out more artists who are writing and producing their own songs, and playing instruments. Artist authenticity has never been higher in K-Pop, yet the genre’s stereotypes endure in the West.
“The early singles for new idols are always going to be produced by established producers,” said Jeong. “Then if the artists are successful for some time, the label will allow them to take a risk and maybe produce a single or two.”
This path to creative freedom has been walked by some of K-Pop’s biggest artists today, including ballad extraordinaire IU, consistent hit maker G-Dragon (pictured left), and the soulful Zion T, all of whom are known to produce tracks as well as collaborate with the songwriters at their labels. “You can probably expect to see more and more of that down the line,” said MRey, who produces Korean artists for the American-based Joombas Music Group label. “There has certainly been an increase in the number of artists who are getting more involved in the production aspect of their music over the past few years, especially considering that you can learn how to do almost anything online and have access to all the tools necessary to make music. Many more artists are becoming capable independent musicians.”
It would be misguided to say that artists who produce or write their own music are in demand in Korea, but it certainly presents a distinguishing selling point. “Labels love when artists can write their own melodies or produce,” said songwriter and producer Jin Suk Choi, the head of Asia at DSign, a production company based in Los Angeles, Seoul and Trondheim, Norway. “This gives the label a great opportunity to market the artist as songwriters.”
As this marketing strategy has become more common, the archetype of Korean pop acts as corporate commodities has begun to wane. “Currently I’m working with a group that is going to debut later this year, who is mostly writing their own songs, and that is what the label is encouraging them to do,” said Choi. “For an artist like that we take more of a support role. Ten years ago I can’t imagine a label letting that happen, but right now this label is willing to let this group of artists that they feel are talented really control their career. I think this is because it can lead to something very fresh and new.”
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Fueling the rise of more self-sustaining K-Pop artists is Korea’s burgeoning indie-rock scene, which is cracking through into the mainstream like never before. One of the bands at the forefront of this movement, HYUKOH (pictured at top), certainly wouldn’t be labeled “idols,” but they’re reaching commercial peaks typically only attained by idols in Korea. Lead singer/guitarist Hyuk attributes the band’s success to “good timing and good songs,” and downplays the intrinsic value of his approach and whether it creates more worthwhile music. “If there is no pop, there is no rock or indie,” he says.
Hyuk was also quick to credit “idols” in the studio, and believes their increased desire for creative control is a means of self-fulfillment. “Now is an era where songs can be created without a professional background in music,” he says. “It seems that producing and writing one’s own music is fulfilling in a way that was not satisfied when performing someone else’s song. Musicians want to have an ‘artistic’ image.”