What is K-POP?
K-pop is an abbreviation for Korean pop, which has a massive backing in South Korea and most recently the west. Some of the best-known groups who have made it into western favour are BTS, Red Velvet, TWICE and Blackpink. BTS proved this when they had their American show debut on Ellen DeGeneres, welcomed by a screaming crowd of teenagers and young adult women.
However K-pop is not new to Korea, there it is just pop. It is the UK and US who have only recently embraced Asian pop culture, with Latin American/Hispanic music being the dominant choice and widely available through collaborations with influential artists. These include, Liam Payne and J Balvin, Daddy Yankee with Justin Bieber, and Demi Lovato with Luis Fonsi.
What are the dangers when introducing other cultures in western pop?
It is important to not think of K-pop as a recent phenomenon that was discovered by the UK or US — even though it’s true that many performers want to ‘make it’ in the States because of its sheer size, wealth and available opportunities. Make no mistake, K-pop performers are already famous and have already ‘made it’ in Korea.
Secondly it is important to not culturally appropriate. Cultural appropriation is when people from a dominant culture adopt parts from a minority culture. Enjoying K-pop isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s important for different cultures to expose themselves to other cultures, becoming more open-minded and diverse as a result.
Can K-pop be guilty of cultural appropriation?
K-pop has been accused of culturally appropriating black and white culture, potentially in the hope that it will draw a larger audience. In doing this, there is the danger that as K-pop strives for global popularity, it will lose its distinctive Korean voice and culture. This is already evident in the lyrics of some of the songs, with paragraphs or phrases now sung entirely in English — for an example see, ‘Cookie Jar’ by Red Velvet. Even though most Koreans under 60 can read English, only about 10 per cent speak it, so has their audience changed?
K-pop has many strengths of its own that differ from western pop. For example, each video has a theme which the outfits, lyrics and dance moves reflect. There are also less solo artists and more groups in K-pop which has served to showcase the wealth of dance potential in Korea. Monumentally, unlike many western genres such as Country, Rock, Dance, and Drum & Bass, K-pop has created its own genre of dance, with intricate hand movements and slow-motion drops to the floor — not to mention the flexible arm and leg contortions.
It could be argued that K-pop is leading the way for a more inclusive, diversified and amalgamated pop culture; one that allows for the infusing of different cultures to create art. Perhaps, in our globalised and media-governed world, it could even be viewed as a natural evolution; a by-product that will make it harder to distinguish one group from another as we move forward. However, any culture ought to be cautious about exchanging its identity for western fame and fortune. Specifically, Korean artists must consider and reflect upon the concept of cultural appropriation: How much is too much? What is their message? What is their voice? What is their identity? And who are their primary audience?
Having left this article and come back, I must say I now rather disagree with the above. How many western artists have to think about the weight of the English or American voice when they write a song? How many western artists have to consider the responsibility of representing their whole country? It is not possible for one person or group to speak for an entire population. Ed Sheeran does not reflect the whole of the UK and the US cannot be represented by Taylor Swift alone (who incidentally, left her original genre of country music and evolved into pop and rap). The responsibility of cultural transmission cannot be placed into the hands of music artists without limiting their creativity.
So though cultural appropriation and K-pop are interesting debates, I do not agree that K-pop artists should have to think about the Korean people’s voice or limit themselves to their primary ‘audience’.
We need to stop placing people under a cultural microscope which sees them as a mass instead of the individuals they are.