In Defence of K-Pop; Or, Music We Can See


PSY in the video for Gangnam Style, 2012

by Joel Gn

Pop music is back in the spotlight again, but this time it isn’t just about Justin Bieber.

Instead, as the world flattens out and globalisation increases the communication of ideas across ethnic and national borders, the Occident is currently experiencing a massive import of hybridised cultural products from the Korean peninsula. This phenomenon, known as the Korean wave or hallyu, refers to the global rise of South Korean entertainment such as feature films and television shows.

The genre of Korean popular music, otherwise known as K-pop, is certainly no exception. Combining a variety of musical styles with attractive performers and glitzy music videos performed in different languages, K-pop has indeed garnered much praise from fans and criticism from skeptics. Prospects and potential pitfalls aside, it is hard to deny that K-pop at present, has become a highly profitable genre at a time when CD singles are in decline and free digital downloading has become a pervasive form of access to entertainment.

Last year, the industry achieved revenue of US $3.4 billion, and in contrast to their more conservative counterparts in Japan who have shown much more caution with social networking sites, Korean entertainment agencies have been quick to exploit the medium, by featuring their artists and music videos online (Naidu-Ghelani; St. Michel). One example of K-pop’s spectacular growth would be rap artiste PSY. His current single, ‘Gangnam Style’, has to date received more than 205 million YouTube views.

Detractors, however, have not hesitated to paint a darker picture. On the surface, K-pop has been criticised for being banal with little or no artistic value. Bound by excessive hooks and repetitious tunes, it also seems capable of nothing more than juvenile appeal. In this sense, K-pop is a genre engaged in cultural recycling, in which earlier or ‘obsolete cultural ingredients and signs’ are reanimated to produce novelty (Darley, 61).  At the same time, the methods in which performers are hired and trained are equally, if not more questionable.

As highlighted in a recent BBC report, a considerable number of artistes are tied to slave contracts ‘with little control or financial reward’. One representative from entertainment agency DSP media even admitted that while profits are shared, little is left for the performers after the company ‘recoups its costs’ (Williamson). This is because K-pop, with its Spartan training system and highly manufactured personalities, is expensive to produce. Prior to their debut, agencies have to bear the costs of training and providing for their employees, by using profits raked in by those active in the scene. Lee Soo Man, the founder of S.M Entertainment and creator of popular idol group Girls’ Generation, explains that the development of a pop idol is a form of ‘cultural technology’ that requires long-term investment and training (Chandler).

Girls’ Generation models for LG Cooky

It is worth considering Lee’s use of the term ‘technology’ and to examine the ways in which a defence of what many have come to consider as ‘bubble-gum pop’ would prove more sensible than redundant. Technology, as Martin Heidegger defines in The Question Concerning Technology, is both a means to an end and a human activity, for ‘to posit ends and procure and utilise the means to them is a human activity’ (4). Lee’s own formula for commercial success fits squarely with this definition. By developing, rather than discovering talent, the ‘cultural technology’ behind K-pop is in effect, the synthesis of an image for consumption. This synthesis would also, in Heidegger’s terms, denote a bringing-forth (poiēsis) or revealing.

In this particular instance, the technology of the pop idol is perceived to be oppressive and unsettling, for it not only reveals the human as a standing reserve or exploitable resource (hence the concretization of the term ‘human resource’) but also the masses as passive consumers who are duped into the superficiality of the spectacle. So as far as a consensus on ‘music’ in the industry is concerned, K-pop stands accused of two offenses. First, it negates the value of talent and creative work by fabricating them. For example, one does not need to be naturally endowed with pleasing vocals; a regimen of singing lessons will do. And second, it achieves this fabrication by concealing unequal social relations. Fans consume the glamourised image of the artiste, but this image makes no hint of slave contracts or employment issues.

But could not the same be said of all music? Perhaps the distinctions between genuine creativity and implicit plagiarism; natural talent and perfected skill; artistic freedom and commercial control are arguably more illusory than arbitrary.

For if music, in its essence, is a mode of revealing then the stakes are not about standards of ‘originality’ as it is the presence of originality, or an original sound, which is always assumed, but never found. Music, in any case, has to be played before it is heard. To play, in this sense, is not simply the transference of ideas into the use of an instrument, but denotes complicity with music as a language and its corresponding affective capacities. In other words, there is no sound that can be conceived outside its own play—a play of difference and repetition. One can even claim that music has to be toyed with, since toys are primarily sold and purchased as objects of amusement.

The unease that pop brings to the table is not its lack of originality, but the exposure of all music as essentially unoriginal and subjected to control. From the blending of genres to a bricolage of styles, music has always been a series of pleasurable remixes that undermines and nullifies its own categories at every turn. The music video is an example of how a transgression of music’s own limits takes place. Through a repetition and variation of forms, the music video does not synthesize an original object, but conveys an element of novelty coded by variation. It also introduces visualised musicality and puts into play a different register, or mode of consuming the work. Along with computerised enhancements and the disappearance of the instrumental accompaniment from the image, one can also claim that it is the ‘syntactic and ornamental rather than the semantic and referential’ that predominates in the music video (Darley 117).

As such, the transformation of a sound into a decorative image becomes an object of synaesthesia which is at once differed and repeated, for the business of pop is always about innovation, or the synthesis of something different by repeating what is tried and tested. This does not mean that the superficiality of pop would spell the end of the discerning listener, but it demonstrates by its affect that the listener is a body without organs. Pop therefore, does not separate the aural from the visual, neither does it disrupt the movement of pleasure between senses. Rather it heightens this pleasure by allowing it to be autonomous from the confines of what it objectively means to experience a colourful sound. In Parables of the Virtual, Brian Massumi accurately posits that situated perceptions including emotion are the ‘capture and closure of affect’; they are different from the participation of bodily senses when the body is said to be affected, or to feel. Perhaps, this notion of affect can account for the similarity between pop and fornication—a guilty pleasure.

This marks the function of pop as simulation. To those accustomed to the systemic structure of music, pop is an indeterminate and intrusive genre; it borrows from long-held establishments and trivialises them. And with the recent intervention of digital technology, pop is increasingly taking music out of its own structure, by becoming something to be seen, rather than to be heard. Pop is also not just a hybrid of all things musical (and more), it also falsifies everything musical, since to mimic and blend everything together would imply that the integrity of these distinctions were never immutable to begin with.

Apart from the relatively democratic label of ‘pop’ itself, it is actually futile to define, or even position pop within the spectrum of what can be subsumed under the category of ‘music’. To adopt Massumi’s argument, it is problematic to assume that the change in bodies can be adequately captured in a ‘cultural freeze-frame’, when such a change can only be perceived after a body has moved to that point. It is this determination of a position, Massumi adds, that is ‘an emergent quality of movement’. By its constant appeal to everyone (hence its relation to the popular), pop is the movement nullifying all essential differences. It is music in movement, in play.

On this note, it hardly makes sense for the conservative critic to vilify pop, for it is not pop that should be silenced in order for ‘real’ music to be heard, but music, by that definition, had to stop playing itself. A victim of narcissism, the category of music had forgotten that that there is no original sound and this absence is the reason music comes into play. The blatant transience of K-pop serves to remind all of this fact, that there is always more to be revealed the moment representation overtakes the medium; that bodies like music, are always stepping out of their own organs, their own demarcated differences.

Unlike the tape, music cannot be stopped. Play is always on repeat.

Works Cited:

Chandler, Michele. “Korean entertainment agency taking its acts globally.” 1 April 2011. Stanford Graduate School of Business – News. Web. 8 February 2012. <>.

Darley, Andrew. Visual digital culture: Surface play and spectacle in new media genres. London & New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology & Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Torchbooks, 1977. Print.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham & London: Duke University Press , 2002. Print.

Naidu-Ghelani, Rajeshni. “Move Over Bieber — Korean Pop Music Goes Global.” 16 July 2012. CNBC Asia Business News. Web. 4 August 2012.

St. Michel, Patrick. “How Korean Pop Conquered Japan.” 13 September 2011. The Atlantic. Web. 7 August 2012.

Williamson, Lucy. “The dark side of South Korean pop music.” 14 June 2011. BBC News – Asia Pacific. Web. 7 August 2012.

About the Author:

Joel Gn is a doctoral student at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space. Joel’s other research interests include Japanese popular culture, animation studies and critical theory.