This blog post is shamefully overdue. As many of you know, I immersed myself in the full Kpop experience for a week back in January. I boosted a band as they made their comeback—just to see what your average Kpop fan experiences. I didn't expect to fall as far down that rabbit hole as I did or to have so much difficulty crawling back out of it. Kpop is entertaining. Fan activities are rewarding. The community is demanding. My fanclub rep was a sadistic taskmaster. The whole Kpop fanclub experience hooked me so hard that I had trouble letting go and writing about it objectively. (I found myself using words like "legendary" unironically.) So I took a break while the sajaegi scandal played out and then got distracted by all the details of my move to Canada. And that's why it took so long to get here. I'm going to answer the Ask Anna questions very simply here, then give detailed answers in a series of posts about my Kpop experience. So if you have questions about Kpop, comment on this post, and I'll incorporate answers into my longer story.
If you have trouble with terminology, here's a helpful glossary.
Who is your all-time favorite k-pop band?
I got into Kpop for camp reasons: it was so bad it was good. And nobody hits that perfect combo of delicious good-badness for me quite like SS501. There are other K-groups whose music I genuinely appreciate, like Nell and W&Whale, but I love the bright colors, athletic choreography, and sheer spectacle of the Top 40 idol groups best.
Bonus points for naming your kpop bias?
Yeah, this isn't much of a secret. I have a soft spot for 동방신기 (aka DBSK/TVXQ/THSK), although more because of their story than their music. They helped define modern Kpop, and their story is really the story of the second hallyu wave. I have a lot more to say about these guys in my longer posts.
Within DBSK, my bias is 정윤호 (Jung Yunho).
What genre of music does Kpop tend to be categorized in? I know the word "pop" is used, but that seems so broad. Some of the Kpop songs I've heard don't really fit into the 'pop' musical genre--they're better described as something else: dance/EDM, techno, rock, synth, etc.
When people say Kpop, they mean the equivalent of American Top 40 music. The chart toppers. But you'll find every genre you mentioned under that Top 40 umbrella. What I love about Kpop is that it absorbs musical influences from around the world, puts a distinctive Korean spin on them, then blasts the result back at the world in a glorious, glittering display. Sometimes they mash genres together into an unholy chimera like SNSD's I Got A Boy. Sometimes they borrow bits from unexpected sources, like the pop-ified, sexified nursery rhyme in Fiestar's I Don't Know. And sometimes they absorb the culture along with the sound, like Rain's tribute to Los Angeles musical influences, LA Song. (More on that subject later.) What's interesting about Kpop is that the groups aren't necessarily defined by their sound. In fact, they are expected to change up their "concept" with each comeback. So it's not unusual to see successful groups switching from an edgy, dubstep-influenced sound to ballads to straight-up swing music. That being said, Kpop artists have a core trait they're known for: DBSK was famous for vocal harmony; Big Bang and 2NE1 are known for their hip-hop edge; Rain always has a gritty sensuality. And so on. True fans follow their groups through any and all incarnations.
When you think about the most successful Kpop artists--do they tend to be solo or groups? Male or female?
There is a strict gender divide in Kpop "idol" groups that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There are girl groups and boy bands, with the occasional solo artist scattered here and there, but coed groups are unusual enough that it's considered a marketing point. However, what I see a lot in Kpop that I don't see much of in the West are mega-bands and subunits. I believe that the best known mega-group in the West is Japan's AKB48 which had 89 members last time I checked. In South Korea, you have groups like After School, which currently has 8 members. The group was conceived as the Korean version of the Pussycat Dolls and has a very sexy core concept.
After School has three subunits: AS Red, AS Blue, and Orange Caramel. Each of the subunits has its own unique sound and style—and even its own fanbase. Occasionally, subunits can rival the original group in popularity, as is arguably the case with After School and Orange Caramel. Or Coed School and F-ve Dolls.
Is it common for songs to have accompanying dance moves/steps and for fans to learn them? Do you think this an important part of a successful song?
Yes. Kpop is absolutely a visual experience. You have to see the videos and watch the dance performances to get the full experience. I've lost track of how many times I've heard a Kpop song and thought, "Eh, it's okay." Then I watched the video and thought, "Actually, this song is pretty good." And the choreography is a critical part of any Kpop performance, with some songs having a "signature move." The chart below asks you to guess the Kpop group and dance based on a single dance move.
A signature dance isn't required for a song to be successful. Groups like Big Bang, FT Island, and CN Blue routinely top the charts without any sort of dance. And ballads with no dancing at all are always popular—especially if they're linked to a successful drama series.
What are live concerts like, compared to Western concerts? How does the crowd behave? Are there any things fans do at shows that is different from how fans act at Western shows?
I'm going to write a LOT more about this later, so I'll keep this brief. Yes, there are major differences between concerts in Asia and concerts here. One of the things that first attracted me to Kpop was the interactivity of live shows. Kpop fans don't passively sit there and let the experience wash over them. They have fan chants, signs, colors, props, choreography, and timed responses. They contribute to the show as much as the performers do. It's a responsibility fans take very seriously, and a source of great pride when they pull off a successful event. The amount of planning required to pull off some of the light shows and fan responses is staggering. But when it all comes together, it's spectacular.
So there you have the basics of Kpop. My next post will discuss the group I boosted for their comeback in January. If you have any questions you want me to answer in my next post, please toss them into the comments. I'll leave you with one last Kpop video that I'm convinced is about cannibalism. Enjoy!
Cannibalism is always so hilarious.
UPDATE: Apparently, Korean censors don't think cannibalism is as funny as I do. The Catallena video was deemed unsuitable for broadcast because it "made light of human life." Netizens were understandably confused that this silly video was banned when sexually explicit content gets the nod of approval. However, one commentor captured the essence of the problem when she said, "Think of it from a fish's point of view.."