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Five K-pop Tropes that Need to Go


By Jenna Gibson

I have a confession to make – I love k-pop. Ever since my first few weeks living in Korea, when my k-pop obsessed friends sat me down and made me watch all the great music videos back to back to back, I was hooked. I love the spectacle of a great concert and the pull of a beautiful, cheesy ballad (if you think k-pop is all neon and glitter, you haven’t delved into the wonderful world of k-pop ballads).

As a fan of anything, especially something like k-pop that’s still relatively niche in the United States, it can be very frustrating to read news articles about the genre. While some have done a great job of delving into some of the really cool and interesting aspects of the k-pop world, others have fallen into the trap of tired cliche. After a few particularly frustrating examples recently, I have gathered (with input from my fellow fangirls) five of the k-pop tropes that American media needs to put to rest once and for all.

1. K-pop? Gangnam Style!

I have to give Psy credit. Gangnam Style did a lot of great things for Korean pop culture – I will never forget the shock I felt hearing Korean rap on a top 40s station for the first time. But that was five years ago…it’s time to find a new point of reference. This is not to say that Psy should be banned from news articles point blank – if you’re writing about k-pop’s entry into the American market, of course you have to mention the explosive popularity of the quirky rapper. But if you’re writing about how several big boy bands are facing an uncertain future because of mandatory military service…I’m not sure how a solo rapper and his 2012 hit are relevant to your story.

2. The Korean [fill in American artist here].

It’s understandable to try and describe Korean artists in terms that American readers will understand. However, leaning on comparisons without in-depth reasons why the artists are comparable is not good writing, it’s also condescending to both the Korean artist in question and to the people reading the article.  If you compare Shinee to the Backstreet Boys for no other reason than the fact that they both have five members, you’re not trying hard enough. And no, mega-star Rain is not the Korean Usher. Or the Korean Justin Timberlake. Or, oddly, the Korean Gene Kelly. And can we stop with the Justin Bieber references yet?  Just because they share one or two traits, that doesn’t make them the same.

3. Robots in guyliner

Korea is “cranking out pop stars” and Korean entertainment companies “specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols.”  Yes, the k-pop scene moves fast. And yes, the fact that entertainment companies train kids for years before debuting them in well-thought-out groups is perhaps a bit unusual to the American eye. But it’s misleading to liken the idols to robots being spit out like cookie cutter copies of each other. This depiction ignores the autonomy of the boys and girls who work incredibly hard to get into a group and perfect their skills. It implies a uniformity that I certainly don’t see in the kpop scene today (anyone who wants kpop recommendations, I’m happy to provide a wide variety of styles to choose from!) And, finally, this depiction of Korean automatons on stage implies that the artists have no underlying talent beyond what the company has bestowed upon them despite the real talents they have.

4. The K-pop throne

One trope that is oddly common is calling certain groups the “kings,” “queens,” of k-pop. Now, you’re never going to be able to satisfy fans of every group out there, but by singling one out as the peak of the genre, you’re bound to get heated disagreements. At the very least, use statistics to justify including certain groups in an article – did they just sell out a world tour? Did they break a bunch of YouTube records? Did they break album sales records? Set a new record on the charts. Let’s be honest, you’ll still probably get some heated comments by ignoring certain groups. But at least a group’s claim to the k-pop throne will be justified.

5. K-pop is taking over the world!

This is not news. The New York Times reported on this theme as early as 2006. Time to find a new angle. Like the fact that a lot of the super famous 2nd/3rd generation k-pop groups are breaking up all around the same time – that’s an interesting article! (now, the author breaks pretty much all the other no-nos and then some, but that’s another story). Or how about this incredibly well-researched piece about how fans donate thousands of dollars to charity to boost their idol’s reputation? Now that’s an interesting story. Or, maybe why despite their success they haven’t conquered the United States yet. Generic stories about how Korean pop music is popular around the world? That’s so 2006.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Peter Kaminski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.