STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Last year, the South Korean pop group BTS topped the U.S. charts with a blockbuster earworm called "Dynamite." Now they've got a new hit called "Butter."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER")
BTS: (Singing) Let's go. Side step, right, left to my beat - right, left to my beat.
THOMPSON: But the story of K-pop extends well beyond BTS, and it goes back decades with a huge array of styles and sounds. I'm Stephen Thompson. And today, we are offering up a brief guide to K-pop on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER")
BTS: (Singing) And you know we don't stop. Hot like summer, ain't no bummer - you be like, oh, my God.
THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us today from Seoul, South Korea is Haeryun Kang. She is a journalist and the creative director of MediaOri, a media incubator based in Seoul. Hi, Haeryun.
HAERYUN KANG, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. Good to meet you.
THOMPSON: It's great to meet you, too. So one of the huge stories in pop music the last few years is the rise of K-pop around the world, most notably the boy band BTS, which has broken a lot of barriers in the U.S. But we wanted to go beyond BTS a little bit and talk about some of the other artists who've contributed to K-pop's legacy and commercial strength. Now, this is obviously not meant to be comprehensive. We're just scratching the surface here. So, Haeryun, one thing you've written that really struck me when we're contextualizing K-pop, you describe K-pop not as a musical genre, but as a geographic destination. What do you mean by that?
KANG: So there's not one musical genre that ties K-pop together first of all. If you listen to all these different songs from hundreds of different groups that are all classified as K-pop globally, it's a cacophony of sounds. Sometimes within a single song, you would have different influences from Latin America, United States, Europe, where have you. And so musically, to call something K-pop really doesn't say a lot about what it actually sounds like. But also, when we look at artists that come out of Korea and who make it globally, like Psy or BTS or Girls' Generation, we just tend to clump them together as popular music that comes from Korea - K-pop.
So K-pop as a word became popularly used in the late 1990s as the Korean music industry started exporting itself globally. Most commonly, when people say K-pop, it refers to idol music, which is studio-produced artists from big entertainment agencies. So K-pop doesn't refer to any one musical sound, it's what we generalize as music that comes out of Korea that becomes globally successful.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Now, you brought five songs to try to capture some of the kind of history of K-pop. And just listening to these songs, even within a single song, you're hearing so many genres at once. And I think your first pick really captures that. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAN ARAYO")
SEO TAIJI AND BOYS: (Singing in non-English language).
THOMPSON: As you can hear from the song, 1992 is all over this song.
KANG: Yes (laughter).
THOMPSON: So, Haeryun, tell us about this song.
KANG: That was Seo Taiji and Boys' debut called "Nan Arayo." And this is most often seen as, like, the moment that Korean pop industry changed forever. But this was something that was unlike what most Korean people had heard before because the early '90s, late '80s was when Korea was changing very rapidly. The military dictatorship had just ended. Civil society was springing up and all sorts of activism and politics and arts and culture, even in music. So whereas before you had more reserved music, like, maybe slower ballads or a genre called Trot, which is a popular genre in the older generation. And then in the late '80s, you know, bands like Fire Truck or Kim Wan-sun start coming on with, like, much more visual and dynamic moves and dancing.
And then Seo Taiji comes on, and he's, like, full-on, we're influenced heavily by Black music and hip-hop, and they're rapping. And this is what they came up with. "Nan Arayo" was that debut moment when they introduced how dynamic music could be. Seo Taiji and the Boys, the way they transformed fandoms and the way they transformed people to think about music, they're seen as, like, the precursors to the K-pop idol industry.
THOMPSON: It's really interesting listening to this song because - we only can play a clip of it, but throughout the course of this song, you're hearing so much, like, new jack swing, which is very, very popular in the early '90s.
KANG: For sure.
THOMPSON: You're also hearing hip-hop and pop and, like, kind of boy band music. And then there are these kind of hair metal guitar riffs. And in a way, like, you can hear echoes of that genrelessness (ph) in a lot of very contemporary pop music where artists like Charli XCX or Poppy, who are kind of mashing a lot of sounds together into a single song that feels, actually, in some ways - as much as you can hear the early '90s in that song, you also hear a lot of very contemporary kind of mashing up of genres that I found really interesting.
KANG: Yeah. And I think that's really what pop music is, and especially K-pop. You just mix all of these different genres and different sounds together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
KANG: And it's funny that you said you hear the '90s in Seo Taiji music. And I think you're referring specifically to '90s U.S. music.
KANG: That makes a lot of sense because South Korea was - is and was influenced heavily by American music.
THOMPSON: Well, let's hear your next pick.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESCENT OF WARRIORS")
HOT: (Rapping in non-English language).
THOMPSON: All right. So this group is called H.O.T. Haeryun, tell us about it.
KANG: So H.O.T. is seen as the first K-pop idol group. They were the group that were planned in advance, produced. And they went through a training system. And they debuted into the world as a boy band. H.O.T. was produced by SM Entertainment, which is, like, one of the big three, four agencies in South Korea. The song that we heard just now is called "Descendants Of Warriors" (ph). And it's their debut single in 1996. And when K-pop fans usually reflect on H.O.T. nowadays, they think of very cutesy, bubbly songs like "CANDY." But this song is so different. And it really shows how big Black music was in K-pop and is in K-pop. And you heard this in Seo Taiji and Boys and H.O.T.
And, like, hip-hop, R&B, rap, like, this is huge in K-pop. I especially want to talk more about, like, Black music's influence on K-pop because, oftentimes, K-Pop is accused of disrespectfully appropriating Black culture or sometimes superficially just using elements of it. It's a very complicated subject. There's a lot of instances where I think K-pop still has a long way to go in really understanding what kind of sounds that they're using. But in a lot of instances, you see how deeply these artists respect the sounds that they hear growing up.
THOMPSON: It also - it just makes a lot of sense. You know, if you're just fed, like, a stream of music that is decontextualized from the world in which it was made, that's sort of bound to happen. And it's interesting listening to that H.O.T. and just trying to pin down exactly like, OK, that sounds like the Beastie Boys. That actually sounds like Onyx, you know (laughter)? Like, you can just start, like, listing off reference points that like - oh, they must have heard "Slam" by Onyx at some point when they were making this song.
KANG: And I think it's awesome. Like, you know, a lot of these mixtures end up with really unique, different sounds. Again, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Well, let's hear the next song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ID; PEACE B")
BOA: (Singing in non-English language).
THOMPSON: All right. So Haeryun, tell us about the artist BoA.
KANG: So that is BoA.
KANG: She is actually often called the queen of K-pop. So she debuted when she was 11. And I was, I think, 9 at the time, just two years younger than her. And she came out with the debut single called "ID; Peace B." And it's very fitting for that era, the early 2000s, when we're just starting to chat and use the Internet. And her single is about, you know, how she comes forward with this ID called Peace B.
KANG: And she wants to connect with people.
KANG: BoA is very important not only because she's such a long running artist with millions of fans and lots of artists that were influenced by her music and her dancing, but also because she really set the grounds for global expansion. She wasn't the first. There was H.O.T. and others before who tried to expand into Japan and China. But BoA made it huge in Japan. So BoA sang totally in Japanese. And a lot of Japanese fans didn't know until much later that she was Korean. She set the groundwork in the Japanese market, which is one of the biggest music markets in the world. And following her came younger stars, like TVXQ or KARA or Girls' Generation and so on and so forth. And maybe a lot of listeners don't know this. But before K-pop made it bigger in the U.S. and the European markets, the biggest markets were actually Southeast Asia, China and Japan. And BoA, really, was one of the pioneers.
THOMPSON: So when you talk about pioneers in this global spread of K-pop, it's hard to talk about pioneers in the global spread of K-pop without talking about our next artist. Let's hear this next song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRD")
PSY: (Singing in non-English language).
KANG: So that is Psy. And everyone probably knows "Gangnam Style." And when I say this name, people are already visualizing the horse dance.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) I'm actually doing the horse dance. People can't see it at home.
KANG: Oh, no (laughter). It's too bad we can't see it in person.
KANG: We can't talk about K-pop without talking about Psy, but I really didn't want to introduce "Gangnam Style" because it's such already a household name.
KANG: The song that we just heard is called "Bird," and it's the title track from Psy's debut album in 2001 called "Psy From The Psycho World," which had rated R songs in Korea and was very controversial at the time...
KANG: ...Because of its racy lyrics and K-pop idol artists even today typically wouldn't sing about. And Psy has an interesting musical world beyond "Gangnam Style." I think after he became successful in 2012 with "Gangnam Style," lots of the songs that he produced globally were quite similar as "Gangnam Style," like the catchy songs and the funny music videos and the funny dances and stuff like that. But if you listen to this debut album, you see how heavily he's influenced by K-pop.
But yeah, I find Psy an interesting figure not only because he's quite rare in the industry - that he composes most of his songs - but also, it shows how unpredictable success is. After BoA and H.O.T. and the mid-2000s, you had so many big-name agencies with huge capital investing in stars that were specifically targeting the global audience. So you had one K-pop act after another trying to make it, and nobody became a household name like Psy.
And Psy was just the furthest thing you could imagine from a K-pop idol poster boy. He's not conventionally attractive, nor is he skinny and fit like most of the K-pop acts are required to be. And he was known for songs like "Bird," which were racy and kind of risky to listen to, at least according to the Korean public standards.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, it's really interesting to look at Psy's career because I think most consumers of U.S. pop music know Psy from "Gangnam Style" and are unaware that that one song is this tiny little dot in a pointillist painting of a 20-year career that is really reaching in a lot of different directions. And, like, I think there are a lot of U.S. pop fans who think of Psy as a one-hit wonder even though obviously, like, this is a very large and expansive career. And it kind of speaks to what you were saying about so many of these acts are trying to reach the U.S. marketplace, but when you do, it can be a double-edged sword because there's very little awareness beyond this one song.
KANG: And that's why the next artist we're going to listen to is very important. Because until BTS, consistent success seemed elusive. Psy made it big, but it was "Gangnam Style" and then it kind of started fizzling out. BTS on the other hand, we don't know when it's going to go away.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) All right. Let's hear a little bit of "Fake Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAKE LOVE")
BTS: (Singing) I'm so sick of this fake love, fake love, fake love. I'm so sorry but it's fake love, fake love, fake love. I want to be a (singing in non-English language) just for you. (Singing in non-English language) just for you. (Singing in non-English language) just for you. Now I don't know me. Who are you?
KANG: So "Fake Love" is the lead single from BTS' third album called "Love Yourself: Tear" in 2018. It's a blend of, like, rock and hip-hop and electropop. And it's also the band's first Top 10 single on Billboard. And I could really do a number of songs from BTS because they have so many hits in the mainstream American market. You know, there's "DNA," which landed BTS in the Billboard's Top 100 in 2017 for the first time. And then there's "Dynamite," which hit No. 1 in Billboard, which is the first time ever for a Korean artist. It's not the first time that Korean artists have made it into the Billboard charts. There's been plenty before.
THOMPSON: So it's funny. Like, I watched, you know, the videos for a lot of the songs, Haeryun, that you brought to the show. And I was watching these videos from, like, 1992 and 1996 and 2000, and then watched the video for "Fake Love." And I was like, one frame from this video cost more than the budgets for all of these other videos (laughter).
KANG: (Laughter) It totally makes sense, right? Music, especially pop music, is becoming increasingly more visual.
THOMPSON: But it also speaks to something that you've said and written about before, which is that the independent music scene sometimes suffers by comparison to this idol scene where, like, BTS - I love BTS. BTS is very, very, very well-funded - and this kind of enormous budget that goes into everything that BTS does. And so it can be harder to kind of break in as an up-and-coming artist without this kind of machine behind you.
KANG: Well, before I answer, I'm curious. Why do you love BTS so much?
THOMPSON: I love just the sheer amount of energy. I think there is some real pop craft that goes into it - a song like "Dynamite," I mean, that is written by, like, hitmakers, you know? And so, like, everything about that song feels, like, just engineered to be enjoyable. And so, I mean, it's absolutely a pop song. It's not necessarily, like, tapping into my psyche in some new way. It's just a deeply enjoyable song. And I think there's an enormous amount of craft and work that goes into making songs and videos that are just fun and high spirited and really energetic while at the same time heartfelt.
KANG: I love that you phrased it like that, that it's engineered to be really enjoyable while being heartfelt. And I think that's what lots of K-pop acts are about.
KANG: You are talking about BTS and the amount of capital that there is in producing this band and branding this band. Actually BTS didn't start out that way. When BTS debuted in 2013, they weren't particularly famous in Korea. It took them some time to become a famous boy band domestically, but Big Hit, its agency, wasn't one of the big players like SM, YG or JYP. And so they didn't have the kind of capital that like Big Bang or 2NE1, Blackpink would. BTS' success to me is kind of like size in that, like, you don't know where the next big thing is going to come from. And BTS kind of exploded seemingly out of nowhere. Their consistent success enabled American mainstream audiences to really pay attention to K-pop.
K-pop is part of a larger national cultural export called the Korean Wave, which generates billions of dollars in revenue every year. And music is not even the biggest category. But within music, the majority of the profit comes from idol music. And this doesn't reflect how diverse the South Korean soundscape really is. And I'm not talking about diversity in terms of, like, what's popular. I mean diversity in terms of what even exists, like how many different experiments and interesting sounds exist that can't break into the mainstream music market internationally and domestically because the market is already structured around idols and these big studios with big capital. There are so many different types of sounds. And it's a pity that K-pop, which is actually such a vague general term, specifically refers to such a narrow part of the Korean soundscape.
THOMPSON: Yeah, and as you say, it's not a genre. It's a country.
THOMPSON: So, yeah, I mean, we've talked so much about kind of the history and the context surrounding Korean music. What is an artist that you recommend that you really want people to hear just to, like, broaden their perceptions of Korean music? Like, give us a recommendation.
KANG: One band that I would love to introduce is called Leenalchi. They are a fascinating mixture of so-called Western influences of music, including rock and pop. Also they fuse that with a kind of Korean music called pansori, which traditionally has one percussion and one vocal. So inspired by a pansori, which was popular in the 19th century in South Korea, they have four vocalists and, like, three percussionists. So it's a very interesting mixture. And if you listen to their sounds, it's strangely familiar but strange. And that's what makes music wonderful - right? - when it's, like, recognizable but very alien.
THOMPSON: Yeah. All right. Let's hear a little bit of Leenalchi. This is "Tiger Is Coming."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIGER IS COMING")
LEENALCHI: (Singing in Korean).
THOMPSON: So that's Leenalchi with "Tiger Is Coming." We want to know what your favorite K-pop songs are. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you want more song recommendations, make sure to check out some of the excellent podcasts from NPR music like Alt Latino and All Songs Considered. That brings us to the end of our show. Haeryun, thanks so much for being here.
KANG: Yeah, thank you for having me. This was fun.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you. We will see you all right back here next time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIGER IS COMING")
LEENALCHI: (Singing in Korean).
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