When I first got into K-pop years ago, I was so bothered by criticisms from people who knew nothing about the industry. I can’t even tell you the amount of times I endured comments like “it’s so manufactured” or “it all sounds the same,” as if the basis of any country’s pop music is all that different when it comes down to it. And honestly, an industry that was regularly churning out tracks like The Chaser, Mama, I Am The Best and Sherlock hardly lacked inspiration or ambition. In fact, as Western pop music was moving toward a more generic template, K-pop continually pushed the envelope when it came to structure, sound and genre.
Despite what some might say, K-pop itself isn’t a genre. But, the world’s expectations seem to want it to become one. In the past few years – and especially in 2020 – it feels like K-pop has successfully been defined by a narrow collection of audio ingredients. Producers now have the foolproof recipe for making a “K-pop song,” and this has encouraged a huge influx of foreign creators to enter the industry carrying the exact same roadmap.
This formula has become increasingly easy to spot, involving trap breakdowns, moody pseudo-melody and angsty hip-hop for the boys and chirpy aegyo vocals, playground taunt choruses and girl crush posturing for the ladies. Listening to one example of this framework might prove exciting, but a steady stream of sound-alike songs does not make for an industry that’s functioning at its creative peak.
Now, as much as I love K-pop idols, in some respects they’re conduits for behind-the-scenes talent like producers. Even a year or two ago, I was able to look at a K-pop album tracklist and identify a handful of producer credits that gave me an idea of what a song might sound like or attempt to do. These days, tracklists read like a revolving door of composers and creators. Any industry improves from a wealth of diverse voices, but not if all of those voices are saying the same thing.
Past K-pop generations were bolstered by the singular vision of producers like Yoo Young-Jin, Sweetune, Brave Brothers and Shinsadong Tiger. You might not have enjoyed everything these teams created, but you can look back at their catalog of work and hear a personality and perspective. Apart from a few promising new talents, too many new-gen producers (both foreign and domestic) seem to lack their own musical identity. Or, maybe that identity is being stifled by agencies content to coast on proven formulas over ballsy innovation.
I think it’s a little of both. As K-pop has gained western prominence, expectations around the industry have changed. It’s no longer enough to cater to your own niche fanbase. Agencies’ ambitions are global. The net is cast wide and shallow, rather than narrow and deep.
Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of J-pop, and the contrast between the Japanese and Korean approaches has been even more striking than normal. By and large, J-pop relies on the “narrow and deep” approach, rarely making concessions to Western audiences (though that is changing somewhat). There’s a fair amount of crossover between these two industries when it comes to producers, yet lately J-pop is getting all the songs, while K-pop is essentially getting the same song over and over. You’d think a larger audience would necessitate more musical diversity, but the result has actually been the opposite.
None of this is particularly surprising. I’ve been tracing this general trend for years now, and have even tried to understand some of the reasons this shift might be happening. But, it feels like we’re at an inflection point.
This year has been unusual and unprecedented in a number of ways, and I hardly fault any creative industry for falling back on known successes at a time when the world is in such disarray. Hell, given the shutdowns all around the globe, I’m grateful that we’re getting new music at all! However, I can’t remember a year when K-pop has felt more underwhelming and – dare I say it? – boring. It’s time for another visionary. It’s time for the powers-that-be to realize that the same tricks aren’t going to work forever. Longevity demands innovation. Satisfying music demands a certain level of risk-taking.
I hate the word “authentic” when it comes to pop music, because it’s so often used to tear down the genre by “serious” music critics. But, I do like the word “identity.” I want to know that there’s a beating heart behind a song. I want to know that this piece of music was somebody’s baby that they can’t wait to share with the world, not the product of an assembly-line song camp forced to churn out a track that checks off certain trends. The transcendent joy that my very favorite K-pop songs give me feels very personal and unique to each one. That simply can’t be replicated from a guidebook or formula. It requires more. And at least so far, 2020 just hasn’t lived up to the promise of K-pop’s illustrious past.