Is K-pop a genre? Yes. Yes it is.
As much respect as I have for the author, I have reservations about the arguments presented (which I am sure he won’t be surprised by as we’ve had this discussion before) which I wanted to articulate. More than that, it seems like a good opportunity to explore the term K-pop and its meanings and uses. This article, then, is the first of three which will discuss: K-pop as genre, K-pop as cultural technology and K-pop as marketing strategy.
First, onto whether K-pop is or is not a genre. Here’s what TK had to say:
“K-pop” is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than “popular music of Korea.” If you ever thought about the term “K-pop” rigorously, and thought hard about the kinds of music and the kinds of artists the term covers, you will find that it cannot possibly denote a genre or a style.
There is a very fundamental flaw in this argument. It assumes that other commonly used genre labels have clear, easily defined definitions. They don’t. You can make this very same argument about many of the world’s most commonly used genre descriptors. So let’s give it a go:
Pop is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than “popular music.” Except when it doesn’t. To some people it means “professional music made for consumption by teenagers”. In the 70s and 80s in particular “Pop” to some people also meant “singles-based music for consumers who aren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy rock music”. To the so-called poptimist music critics, it came to represent an music misunderstood by this “imperialist” outlook embodied by the “rockist” who “reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon”. To a lot of kids, it just means a way of finding music they might like on Spotify.
Yes, pop is notoriously difficult to define, particularly as our yardsticks for popularity change drastically with technology, and means something different to virtually everyone but if this is both the modern world’s most loved and most maligned genre and we don’t have a clear definition of what it actually is, it sort of points to the fact that, at least some, genre descriptors don’t actually mean that much. It also suggests that perhaps a genre which includes pop in its name shouldn’t be given too tough a ride.
The thing is – we only really understand a piece of music by listening to it. And we all understand it differently. All genres labels are doomed to woefully fail to encapsulate the entirety of the nuanced influences, structures, chord patterns, rhythms, cultural references, timbres, poetry, keys, melodies, harmonies et cetera et cetera of virtually all modern music.
Many genre descriptors do point fairly accurately to a particular set of conventions, or an origin in a particular location within a particular culture or community but many don’t and the nature of creative pursuit is that as soon as something becomes a convention someone will break it, the effect often then being of stretching the boundaries of whatever genre they are considered to be. The nature of modern technology also means that music is much less easily confined to a particular location or community. Much of Korean popular music relies on this often drawing from various and disparate influences from different geographies and conventions.
There are music psychologists who argue genres are entirely outdated and we could and should categorise music scientifically by the effect it has on the listener but that seems impractical. In practice, we use genre labels to 1) try to explain complex music in simple terms and 2) try to find new music we like. No one actually uses genres to make concrete, definitive lists of specific kinds of music. They’re relational terms we use so we can form an understanding of a piece of music (often before we have listened to it) in relation to our existing cultural reference points and further understand our and others’ enjoyment (or lack thereof).
K-pop, then, is: music coming from a pop tradition and sensibility (whatever those are); probably made at least partially in Korea; probably written at least partially in Korean; probably commercially available in Korea; likely coming from a tradition of manufactured idol groups (as this is the most popular form of Korean music outside of Korea and K-pop is a term used mostly within a non-Korean context) and therefore is possibly accompanied by intricate audiovisual elements and intricate choreographies.
This is not a very good description and much of the music classed as K-pop doesn’t fit very easily into it. But, without taking too much of a nosedive into postmodern philosophy, in general we categorise things by consensus and if we’ve decided an artist or piece of music is K-pop, there’s a fairly strong argument that that’s what it is. Or at least no weaker an argument than why we might call something pop or rock or indie. That doesn’t make it all that it is. (And that also makes Jambinai not what it is because no one except whoever made that SXSW line-up calls them K-pop.) It may also be pop and hip hop and R&B and rock and disco and a whole range of other genres. K-pop can also be more things than just a genre.
As a Korean learner, the K-pop category on whatever music platform I’m using is an easy way to find music in Korean. It might also be a good way to find music like that other group you like. On social media, the term K-pop is an easy way to find other people interested in a similar popular culture to you (and this really does mean a lot to many people, particularly teenagers, and shouldn’t be dismissed). Critics of Korean idol music may perhaps use “K-pop” as a term of derision. That’s really about it.
It’s unreasonable to expect a standard for K-pop as a category that no other genre is held to. And if we were to insist on using K-pop only to describe a specific style tied to a specific place, something specifically popular and specifically Korean, there’s a good argument all we would be left with is ppongjjak EDM and that is something not a single person on this planet wants.
Imagine if Spotify’s K-pop playlist was just this… on repeat.
Ultimately, having written a thousand impassioned words, my argument here is one of almost complete apathy. TK argues “K-pop” is a generic term that means absolutely nothing more than “popular music of Korea.” He’s right. And that makes it a genre.
Now let’s focus on where it does get interesting shall we?
In the time between writing and editing this piece Roboseyo has written an excellent blog post from a similar perspective that is well worth a read.