[Essay] Idol SB19, and The Rise of 'P-pop'

These examples of SB19 and fandom represent a turning point in the globalization of K-pop. In the case of SB19, the issue is not 'localization' but 'indigenization' of K-pop. Glocalization, a portmanteau of ....


Author: SHIN Jeongwon

Date : 2023.DEC

Outside of Korea, idol groups modeled after K-pop have begun to be produced. At first glance, their stages and music videos look similar to K-pop. However, they have no Korean members, are based in their own countries, and sing in their own languages. A particularly successful example is SB19 from the Philippines. SB19 is a five-member male idol group produced by the Philippine branch of Korean entertainment agency ShowBT Entertainment, which debuted in 2019 after receiving Korean-style training. They have a huge fan base on social media, and have gained popularity both in the Philippines and abroad.

However, SB19 refuses to be called "K-pop," instead referring to themselves as "P-pop" with a Filipino(Philipino) "P." SB19 clearly admits to using K-pop as a model and to using K-pop's know-how and systems. However, SB19 do not want to be just another K-pop group, but rather want to create a new music genre called P-pop by borrowing foreign elements from K-pop.

Amidst the suspicion that they are simply copying K-pop, SB19 are convincing people of the potential of this new music genre. In fact, following SB19's lead, several other idol groups have begun to embrace the genre, and it is now becoming a new movement in the Philippine music market. In this article, I draw on interviews with fans to reconstruct the process of creating an P-pop identity around SB19. This article is a revised and expanded version of Chapter 5 of my master's thesis, which I defended in March 2023 at the Department of Communication, Seoul National University.

The emergence of SB19

SB19 debuted on October 26, 2018 with the song "Tilaluha," but did not receive much attention. However, on September 2, 2019, a Filipino K-pop fan tweeted a video of SB19's "Go Up" dance practice, praising their music and dance. The tweet quickly went viral among Filipino K-pop fans on Twitter, and the video of SB19's dance practice literally went "viral," spreading to other social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube. The incident attracted a large influx of fans from the K-pop fandom in the Philippines, who still make up the majority of the fanbase.

Most of the fans we interviewed cited this event as the first time they heard about SB19. Their first impression of SB19 was that it was "just like K-pop". Their singing, dancing and fashion were so similar to K-pop that they thought they were a K-pop group until they realized that the lyrics were in Tagalog. As with SB19's critics, the phrase "K-pop-like" could be used to criticize the group for copying K-pop. However, in this case, the fans' "just like K-pop" is a compliment, meaning that they were just as good as the K-pop groups. Of course, the Philippines has had idol music and talented singers, but K-pop style idol music has never been successful. So, paradoxically, it was SB19's high level of copying the K-pop style that made them fans of SB19.

In their eyes, SB19 represented a different kind of singer from the existing Filipino pop music.
In particular, fans noticed that the members of SB19 danced in "kalgunmu" (synchronization), which is an essential element of K-pop where all members, regardless of their dance style, perform a unified choreography to the beat. According to an interview with a fan, unlike traditional Filipino idol groups, SB19 dances with a level of precision similar to that of K-pop idols, so it wasn't "cringy" for Filipino fans who were already familiar with K-pop. It was believed that this was possible because SB19 received Korean-style training from a Korean company. The K-pop trainee system ensured high standards and gave them confidence that they could compete with K-pop.

However, as SB19's popularity grew, so did the public's negative opinion of them. Although SB19 acknowledged their K-pop influences, they defined themselves as P-pop from the beginning of their debut, but the public was skeptical. To them, SB19 were just imitating K-pop without any originality. Even if they claimed to be a new genre, how could they be called p-pop if they were just copying K-pop? SB19 needed to create a differentiated identity for P-pop in response to the name they had given themselves.

SB19 is a five-member male idol group from the Philippines.
P-Pop is shaking up the Philippine pop music scene.

Creating a P-Pop Identity

Starting with the album "Pagsibol", SB19 began to showcase their Filipino identity. The title track "What?", which SB19 released on March 9, 2021, is derived from the Filipino word "watawat", which means "flag", and the song conveys the message of proudly flying one's flag no matter what. Taken together, the lyrics and music video are about overcoming public criticism and proudly proclaiming their P-pop identity. SB19 also actively used symbols representing the Philippines, such as the military uniforms worn by Filipino guerrillas during the Philippine-American War and the Murillo-Belarde map, the first map of the Philippines, to promote Filipino patriotism.

In addition, the song "MAPA" from the album "Pagsibol" is a ballad expressing love and gratitude to parents that follows the typical OPM style. Due to its familiar OPM style and family-oriented content, "MAPA" was very well received by the Filipino public, reinforcing SB19's image as musically belonging to OPM rather than K-pop. Starting with the "Pagsibol" album, SB19 have also emphasized that they are more involved in composing, lyric writing, choreographing and directing music videos than before. This reinforces the authenticity of P-Pop in that SB19 has gained autonomy from a Korean agency and is made by Filipinos themselves.

In this way, SB19's P-pop has secured its authenticity as Filipino music, and fans have welcomed SB19's change in identity. According to some fans, they still felt that their previous songs were similar to K-pop, but with "What?" SB19's music began to truly become P-pop. In particular, dedicated fans actively used K-pop-style fandom culture to express their support. Fans frequently streamed songs and music videos, and spontaneously organized streaming teams on social media to keep SB19's music high on the music charts. The same goes for online fan voting for local and international awards. The reason why fans are so involved is to promote SB19 to a wider audience, especially because they share SB19's goal of bringing P-pop to the world.

With the support of the fandom, SB19's popularity has grown significantly. "What?" became SB19's most viewed title track on YouTube and the music charts, and the group was nominated for Top Social Artist at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards alongside BTS, Blackpink, Seventeen, and Ariana Grande. The following year, the group expanded internationally, embarking on a world tour that took them to Dubai, New York, LA and Singapore. Recently, SB19 broke away from their Korean agency and formed their own agency, and their new song "Gento" broke the group's record once again.

Not only that, but with SB19 at the forefront, a movement called P-Pop is shaking up the Philippine pop music scene. Β In fact, since SB19, many idol groups have classified themselves as P-pop groups, including BGYO, ALAMAT, VXON, Press Hit Play, BINI and KAIA. Similar to KCON in South Korea, there was an event called PPOPCON, which combined a stage for p-pop singers with various activities for fans to participate in. Fans consider SB19 to be an important part of the movement. It was only when SB19 succeeded in convincing people of their identity that the term P-pop began to be used. Β 

Turning point for K-pop

These examples of SB19 and fandom represent a turning point in the globalization of K-pop. In the case of SB19, the issue is not 'localization' but 'indigenization' of K-pop. Glocalization, a portmanteau of "global localization," refers to the strategy of multinational corporations to localize their goods and services in order to enter local markets. Korean entertainment companies have also strategically localized K-pop to enter local markets. Examples include SM Entertainment's "three stages of Hallyu" theory and JYP Entertainment's "globalization through localization" strategy.

Indigenization, on the other hand, refers to the domestication of an unfamiliar and exotic foreign culture, especially on the part of the culture's adopters. Unlike the concept of localization, which has implications as a management strategy of multinational corporations, the concept of indigenization emphasizes the act of adapting and transforming a foreign culture into something local, as well as its agency and creativity. SB19 is an example of the indigenization of K-pop in that they are creating their own P-pop based on the influence of K-pop.

The case of SB19 shows that K-pop functions as a popular music model that can be referenced by other countries. As music critic Kim Young-dae puts it, K-pop itself has become a kind of industrial formula or template. K-pop, a hybrid culture that was formed by referencing Anglo-American and Japanese music as models, is now becoming a model for other hybrid cultures. In addition to SB19 in the Philippines, K-pop-influenced music has emerged and will continue to emerge throughout Asia, including XG in Japan, babyMINT in Taiwan, and 4EVE in Thailand.

These examples provide an opportunity to explore the impact of K-pop on the Asian music industry. What is the K-pop model they are referencing? In what ways are they appropriating the K-pop model and what are the implications? However, our attitude towards the phenomenon of "indigenization of K-pop" is not yet sufficient. At least in the case of SB19 and P-Pop, Korean media are either indifferent or using it as an example to show K-pop's global reach. It is time to move beyond the dichotomy of "K-pop or not K-pop" and ask new questions. To do this, we need to respect the unique context and voice of local music. (END)

Philippines representative idol group SG19, pictures from his Twitter @SB19_Official