Before PSY broke the unprecedented YouTube record of one billion views on the site with “Gangnam Style,” a legion of dedicated global fans were already supporting him and his K-pop peers. South Korea has 50 million people, but the videos from the country’s shiniest, glossiest pop stars, who sing mostly in Korean, were ranking millions of views past that on YouTube. It wasn’t just Koreans watching K-pop music videos — an international network of fans were watching and listening (and subsequently re-watching and re-listening) to a genre they had no access to other than via the Internet, and largely, YouTube.
A major indicator of how the genre has been able to cross into other cultures — ones extremely different from the Korean heritage — comes in the music itself. K-pop is a combination of different genres popular Western music. Everything from electro-pop to R&B to piano ballads to hip-hop to soul music can be heard in K-pop hits. But a major specialty of K-pop is in its ability to blend these into hybrid, pop confections completely in their own league.
Sound intimidating? Get an introduction to K-pop with five popular songs broken down to make any music fan understand the different elements at work. These artists, producers and songwriters obviously don’t jack the different sounds; there are just similarities that K-pop and Western fans can bond over in order to better understand each other’s musical language, even when their actual languages differ. K-pop expert Jeff Benjamin does the math.
|The beat in Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now”|
|+||Clunky, funky electro-pop production|
|+||Christina Aguilera-like vocal showcase sections|
|x||9 girls singing and rapping over one another|
|=||Girls’ Generation “I Got A Boy”|
The nine-member Girls’ Generation has conquered both South Korea and Japan in becoming what very well may currently be the biggest girl group in the world. Before PSY, the group held the record for the most-viewed K-pop video ever with their adorable 2009 single “Gee,” which currently has over 100 million views on YouTube. After more than a year focusing on promotions in Japan and the U.S. (they performed on both David Letterman and Live With Kelly!), the girls came back to their home country with “I Got A Boy” on New Year’s Day 2013. The song raced to No. 1 on the Billboard Korea K-Pop Hot 100 with the ninesome creating a hybrid of different pop sounds that perfectly portrays the forward-thinking K-pop mindset.
|Fuzzy, electro-pop production|
|+||The hook on the will.i.am’s “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)”|
|+||Rapping with more personality than even “Gangnam Style”|
|+||A bridge crafted around the catchphrase “boom-shaka-laka”|
|+||Teasing EDM lead-ups until the beat drops a la Afrojack|
|+||Anthemic, sing-along cheers|
|x||5 singer-rappers oozing with confidence|
|=||BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby”|
BIGBANG’s global popularity has translated into world tours (including four stops in America last year) and millions of views on YouTube (the BIGBANG channel has over half a billion). In 2012, the group made a long-awaited comeback with the Alive EP, which spawned singles like the old-school hip-hop of “Bad Boy,” the melancholic electronica of “Blue” and “Fantastic Baby,” the track most accessible to Western audiences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Fantastic Baby” is the most-viewed clip on BIGBANG’s YouTube channel. The song is the definition of a full-on banger that incorporates something for every type of music listener.
|Fuzzy, electro-pop production|
|+||The beat in the verses of Nicki Minaj’s “Pound the Alarm”|
|+||The whooshing synthesizers of Bassnectar’s remix of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”|
|+||A faint strumming guitar loop similar to “Moves Like Jagger”|
|+||A bridge sounding like a slowed-down version of the Pitbull/Shontelle collab “Take Ova”|
|x||4 girls excited about their new-found sexuality|
|=||“Expectation” by Girl’s Day|
Before “Expectation,” the four-member female quartet Girl’s Day were defined by their ultra-cute concepts. They had a big hit on their hands with hyper electro-pop track “Twinkle Twinkle,” which featured a tooth-achingly sweet video concept with the girls in costumes and making funny faces. It worked for the time, but the group’s subsequent singles failed to ignite the same type of chart success. That is, until “Expectation” came this year and the girls shocked the K-pop world with a sexy femme fatale edge. The song’s verses seem to be based around a beat similar to Nicki Minaj’s “Pound the Alarm,” which, for those who have seen the accompanying video, screams sex. The combination worked, giving the girls a new top 10 hit on the Billboard K-Pop Hot 100.
|Intense female rappers spitting pleading lyrics|
|+||Purposely auto-tuned vocals (a la Cher’s “Believe”)|
|+||Electro-pop dance chorus|
|x||7 harmonizing girls|
|=||“Because Of You” by After School|
While K-pop was in the midst of a dance craze in 2009, popular girl group After School offered a fresh take by mashing up both dance and ballad elements. On the track, the group showcased its many skills: members Kahi and Bekah took the rap sections, powerhouse vocalists Raina and Jung-Ah did the belting, and Juyeon, Nana and Uee integrated cool vocoder effects on their vocals. The concept was a win and a major hit for After School, the only girl group in K-pop with a graduation/admission concept (they’re currently up to eight members).
|Racing, cinematic violins and cellos|
|+||A pulsing beat|
|+||Actual kitten-like “meows”|
|+||Mariah Carey-esque belts and whistle notes on the bridge|
|x||4 fearless femme fatales with crazy vocal skills|
|=||“Sixth Sense” by Brown Eyed Girls|
Brown Eyed Girls are a unique K-pop outfit, rooted in showcasing their vocal talents. They’re one of the few acts to be created by themselves, whereas most are formed by entertainment agencies, who audition, train and officially debut the acts. Brown Eyed Girls had a major hit on their hands with the forward-thinking, Autotune-heavy electro-pop of 2009’s “Abracadabra,” which brought on a wave of similar-sounding hits from others. The influence of the song and its video is still felt today, as the choreography in PSY’s “Gentleman” video pays homage to the Brown Eyed Girls’ signature hip swing dance in the “Abracadabra” video, with Brown Eyed Girls member Ga appearing in the “Gentleman” video alongside PSY. But there was much anticipation (and concern) over how the group would top “Abracadabra,” which had become their signature hit. 2012’s “Sixth Sense” did that and then some with an epic mash-up of different sounds, vocal techniques and sentiments that could be likened to a film score condensed into an accessible pop song.
-Jeff Benjamin, Radio.com