K-pop and 1960’s Americana: More alike than you think
The way that western pop culture has influenced the world is indisputable, and nowhere more apparent than in popular music. K-pop’s roots are usually traced back to the iconic Seo Taiji & The Boys, who introduced a world of hip-hop, pop, and dance music not previously felt as strongly in South Korea. That was the early 90’s, and it’s obvious K-pop has been taking hints from western pop, R&B, and hip-hop music ever since.
If you introduce an unsuspecting citizen to the wonders of K-pop, chances are they will come to the same conclusion. Most popularly, the flashy boy and girl groups, synchronized choreography, and upbeat tunes will draw comparisons to the wave of late 90’s and early 2000’s groups and artists prevalent in the US. I’ve often heard this sometimes “dated” view of K-pop held up as a reason that some love it, and others could do without it.
However, if you know a thing or two about the history of pop music, you know that boybands and girl groups didn’t start with N*Sync and BSB, or even NKOTB and TLC. If you really want to take it back to the source of everything you see today in music, you have get familiar with names like The Osmonds, The Jackson 5, The Chordettes, and The Supremes.
I would go far as to say that K-pop, where it is at in 2013, has more in common with the early 1960’s of western pop music than it does with the 1990’s, or 2010’s.
Let’s break it down a bit.
We tend to view the past with a foggy sense of unknown nostalgia. Children born 30-50 years after an era will most likely be introduced to a world of greats. That is to say, only the things we deem worth remembering will be remembered. Frivolous, happy pop tunes will often pale in comparison to its more serious, progressive counterparts. Do you think 30 years from now people will recall Katy Perry in the same vein as, say, Mumford & Sons? Despite the fact both are immensely popular right now, the chances are no, not at all. Regardless of what you hear from music critics, this doesn’t necessarily make one better than the other (they are both essentially a part of pop music.) Yet, as a culture, we decide that one has elements worth remembering, while the other doesn’t.
This is often how we view the 1960’s and beyond now. The era brings about a familiarity with singer-songwriters or influential rock that was just starting to pick up a heavier feel. However, before the Vietnam War when things took on a more serious tone, especially music, we had a world of sounds dominated by the emotional currents of adolescents. Rock n’ Roll was still fresh, upbeat and rebellious, and teenagers wanted to hear music they could dance to. Dion & The Belmonts crooned melodies about the woes of being not quite a child and not quite an adult yet, and girl groups lamented over innocent crushes.
What does any of this have to do with Korean pop music? Well, that’s where the comparisons come in.
In this song by the Shangri-La’s, a young girl sings wistfully about the “cool boy” she loves to kiss. The other girls in the group inquire about her affections, and she explains them one by one. Sound familiar?
Even without the tried and true expressions of love through song, there is the well-known theme of nonsensicality in early 60’s music. Strange sounds, phrases or themes could be the blueprint to any hit song, making this really no different than this. This also goes into the territory of “novelty” which was a huge facet of music in the 1960’s. Without that sense of whimsy and ridiculousness, we wouldn’t have songs like “The Monster Mash” or “My Friend the Witch Doctor”. And like it or not, but EXO’s “Wolf” simply screams “novelty’ in a parallel vein, and that’s not a bad thing.
Even stripping away the music and lyrics itself, you get the next most important element: the style and performance. Though we may only recall a handful that held on through the years, finding rotation on oldies stations in this day in age, you couldn’t throw a rock in the 60’s less than a foot and not hit a perfectly uniform pop group. Music showcases are still all the rage in South Korea, letting you see your favourite performer’s top hit every single week, and anyone not a baby boomer probably can’t recall the last time we had a show like that in the US of A. Yet, they were all the rage in America too at one point, and it’s hard not to find the unique stage set ups, matching outfits, and intriguing choreo at least somewhat similar. I think it’s strikingly apparent that without American Bandstand or Soul Train, there would be no Music Bank or MNET Countdown.
A compilation of The Temptations on the Ed Sullivan show. Note the flashy, matching outfits, choreography, and set designs.
The methods for forming these uniformed groups are also not at all different than what is going on in SK these days. When Youtubers React recently did an episode on K-pop, ‘Chocolate Rain’ star Tay Zonday compared the Korean music industry machines to that of the golden age of Motown records. Often hailed as the epitome and beginnings of R&B in the mainstream, many wouldn’t think that most of their groups were actually formed expertly by record execs, with their image and sound finely molded. This by no means meant that the groups were fake or inauthentic, as all of the talent was really there. You could hear the same point being brought up in defense of K-pop on any internet forum.
They say there’s nothing new under the sun. This, however, doesn’t mean every tried and true method is not worth recognition. Where the South Korean music industry is at right now, drawing inspiration from a popular and fun-loving past may very well be one of the major reasons so many international fans have all but abandoned their own country’s media output in favour of something refreshing yet strangely familiar. It also further displays the cyclical nature of art and expression, and how through the years and at different moments in a culture’s history we find ourselves returning to certain avenues of enjoyment.
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