Explaining Explained: K-Pop
I clearly remember when Netflix’s Explained released their K-Pop episode. Some fans were very excited about finally having a popular, non-Asian streaming service like Netflix give K-Pop the time of day. Others weren’t as enthusiastic because of the large room for error the episode had: wrong explanations, poor portrayals of fandoms, and the music industry itself. Regardless, the episode was released and it started conversations.
Netflix did their research and produced a K-Pop 101 episode that, well, explained its origins. They had veterans of the industry not only mentioned in the show, but also interviewed. From executives to journalists to fans and artists, including familiar names such as Tamar Herman, Epik High, and Primary. It takes us back to Seo Taiji and Boys’s success and with it the birth of K-Pop, and pinpoints H.O.T as the beginning of its internationalization, so to say. Netflix explains that H.O.T was the first to have a globally accessible name, preceding groups such as VIXX, EXO, and BTS.
The episode also discusses hip-hop influences, the mixing of genres, choreography, and wardrobe. H.O.T’s “Candy” had everyone dancing to what is referred by Epik High as the “hammer” while, along with Seo Taiji and Boys, sporting ski clothing—never to forget the iconic gloves. Seo Taiji was iconic because they weren’t a patriotic singing act, they were a boy group b-boying while singing and rapping. They changed the game for Korean entertainment, and the industry has since then never been the same.
The mixing of genres is detailed through Girls’ Generation’s “I Got a Boy.” The 2013 title song is yet another addition to the girl group’s long list of iconic songs, but it was its inclusion of pop, EDM, pop punk, and a long variety of other music genres that really made it the hit it became—it had something for everyone. And that is K-Pop in a nutshell.
I have been the designated K-Pop friend for almost 10 years now so it’s safe to say I’ve gotten used to questions that can sometimes be insensitive. However, for the first time in a while, a friend approached me wanting to discuss K-Pop as an industry after watching the Explained episode. I was thrilled! I had been waiting for someone to approach me with educated questions and be willing to have a meaningful discussion about it. To my other friends, if you’re reading this: none of you have ever offended me or my “K-Pops,” as you all like to call them, but it does get frustrating when, even after all these years, no one has ever been willing to actually understand K-Pop. César, this one’s for you, thank you for asking and actually listening.
Now, here’s a little bit about César, to give context to our conversation. César is a 20-something-year-old from Salvador, in Brazil, where I grew up. He studies law, but he’s also a musician (they’re super good, by the way) so I knew that I could use other musical examples to really explain my take on K-Pop. He came to me asking specifically about the music videos and how I had found K-Pop and became interested in it. It warms my heart to say that he was watching BTS music videos while asking me these questions.
Explained does get into the music video aspect of K-Pop. They discuss its production value, how even small groups from small companies will most likely have a better music video than a popular Western artist. My answer to César was brief, and with a warning that, if he wanted to, we could go on for day. I explained that K-Pop takes advantage of plot lines and fan engagement in music videos and really takes the extra step in creating alternative universes for their groups when creating a new era.
As to how I got into K-Pop? Well, that question always gives me some anxiety. The short answer is, I don’t really know. I guess I found some music videos way back when, liked watching it, kept going, and here we are now. To be technical, I have always been a fan. More specifically, I have always been a fan of pop punk. Consider this me outing myself as an emo, and proud. My interest in music goes deep. I can’t handle just listening to a band, a genre even. Call me pretentious, but I immerse myself into it until I know every last bit of information I should.
Because of that, I’ve done my research on punk rock and pop punk. I lived that subculture religiously (still do, moderately). Because of that, I can confidently affirm that K-Pop is the new subculture on the rise. Emo is often referred to as the last subculture, the last music genre to have inspired a lifestyle and affect a generation. As part of that generation and still carrying that lifestyle close to my heart, I can easily agree. But it was only the last so that K-Pop can be the newest.
I have a 14-year-old sister, just a few years older than when I got into pop punk myself. I see her relationship with BTS and EXO mirror almost exactly my own relationship with Tokio Hotel and My Chemical Romance when I was her age. It’s a platonic love that drives you like a force field, affecting the way you talk, dress, the friends you have, the aesthetics you want for your room, how to organize your Instagram feed, etc. It’s a lifestyle. K-Pop cannot continue to be described as a music genre. It’s also far more than an industry. K-Pop is sparking fans’ interest in learning a new language, studying a new culture, and visiting a new country. Ask me if I took German classes online without my parents knowing so I could send Bill Kaulitz letters, I dare you. While K-Pop remains in close ties with capitalism and the nation that created it, it will never become a counterculture like emo was, but it sure is a subculture we will all be hearing so much about in the years to come.
This is why I’m thankful for Netflix for producing such a basic, completely introductory episode that explains K-Pop barely on its surface. It got people talking, it had people’s interests, and it made me, a long time K-Pop fan, re-evaluate what it means to me and the reasons why it became such an important part of my life, and now my little sister’s. K-Pop allowed me to discover a career path I now love and it is forming identities for teenagers who are just discovering who they want to be in the world. And if we truly will always be obsessed with the music we listened to as teens, my kids might be raised as headbangers in a mosh pit, but my nieces and nephews will have a mother exposing them to a culture that shaped her teenage years, even when it’s worlds away from our own.