[Column] The Meaning of 'K' in K-pop: What is K-ness?

Despite the global universality that K-pop possesses as a type of pop music, the fact that K-pop is referred to not only as pop but as a genre that combines the adjective "K," which reveals national/regional identity, is due to the inherent characteristics of K-pop that originated from Korean music.


Author: LEE, Gyu Tag | Β George Mason University Korea

Date : 2022.MAY

Recently, in contrast to the domestic trend of attaching the prefix "K-" to various Korean cultures, K-pop seems to be distancing itself from the traditional meaning of "K." However, this is rooted in the attribute of "hybridity" inherent in the "K" of K-pop. K-pop is a genre name that combines regional specificity, symbolized by 'K', with global universality, centered on the Anglo-American world, symbolized by 'pop'. Here, the regional specificity or 'Korean-ness' represented by 'K' is formed through various cultural hybrids. These hybrids are manifested in musical styles, performances, business models, fan culture, etc., and K-pop can be seen as an all-encompassing gift set that strives for global universality. While the scope of "Korean-ness" under "K" has recently expanded significantly, K-pop will continue to construct its identity through the ongoing negotiation and conflict between universality and specificity.


The 'K' of a New Generation

It was exactly a decade ago that Psy's "Gangnam Style" achieved significant success on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and garnered immense YouTube views, becoming a global hit in 2012. Fast forward to 2022, and the global success and popularity of K-pop is no longer surprising. When "Gangnam Style" first hit, the entire nation celebrated, and five years later, in 2017, when BTS won the "Top Social Artist" award at the Billboard Music Awards, many were stunned. Another three years later, in 2020, BTS, who have consistently topped the Billboard 200 albums chart, scored their first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping single with "Dynamite," creating excitement once again. However, even when a K-pop artist reaches the top of the Billboard albums or singles charts, it doesn't generate as much buzz as it used to. In fact, on the day that "Dynamite" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, I was inundated with interview requests from numerous journalists, making it difficult to manage my work from before 7am until late at night. However, these days, when other K-pop artists have achieved notable success on the Billboard charts, the phone calls don't come in like they used to. This is probably because such events have become somewhat commonplace.

Meanwhile, K-pop has entered a new era, a new phase. Especially in the turbulent times caused by COVID-19, when the whole world was in chaos, even after the unprecedented success of groups such as BTS, BLACKPINK and TWICE, the emerging junior groups continued to gain steady popularity among international fans in 2020-2021. This period, which is considered the transition from the typically labeled 3rd generation to the 4th generation of K-pop, is seen as a significant shift (Kim Yoon-ha, 2020). Historically, the transition of Hallyu (Korean Wave) generations has closely followed that of K-pop, and especially since the 2nd generation, when the focus of Hallyu shifted from dramas to K-pop, changes in K-pop have mirrored changes in Hallyu (Park Dae-min and Lee Gyu-tak, 2022). Therefore, as K-pop moves into the 4th generation, it can be seen as a time when Hallyu is also moving into 4.0.

In the flow of K-pop's 4th generation, a notable point is that despite the tendency in South Korea to indiscriminately attach the prefix "K-" to various types of Korean culture, the "K" in K-pop itself paradoxically seems to be distancing itself from the traditional meaning of Korean-ness. This does not mean that K-pop is no longer Korean. Whether it's K-pop or Hallyu, the 'K' in it remains distinctly Korean. However, the adjective 'Korean' used here does not match the common understanding of 'being Korean'. For example, if one were to define the "Korean-ness" of K-pop by saying, "Psy's 'Gangnam Style' has a Korean style, so K-pop is Korean," it would create a discrepancy between reality and perception.

Blackpink's approach contrasts with BTS, emphasizing global universality over regional specificity. Despite their global success, Blackpink is still recognized as a representative of "K-pop," showcasing the expanding scope of Korean identity within the genre.

The fusion of 'K' and 'Pop

K-pop is a genre that combines the widely available genre of 'pop' music with the specific national/regional identifier 'K' for Korea. In the global music industry, there are similar genre names created in this way, such as Britpop, Swedish pop, J-pop, Latin pop, and Canto pop. All of these genres commonly use the nationality of the music as a defining element. Therefore, unlike genres defined by musical characteristics such as rock, jazz, hip-hop, or electronic music, these genres typically exhibit a diversity that is difficult to describe with a single musical style. Through factors such as region of origin, musical style, and various other elements, audiences perceive K-pop as an independent musical genre that is distinct from other musical styles.

Similar to most popular music worldwide, Korean popular music is not entirely free from the overwhelming influence of Anglo-American popular music. It has also been greatly influenced by Japanese popular music. Even the genre known as "trot," which is often referred to as traditional Korean pop music, is rooted more in Anglo-American and Japanese popular music influences than in traditional Korean music (Son Minjeong, 2009).

Especially since the late 1990s, when South Korea simultaneously experienced economic growth, democratization, the development and popularization of the Internet, and the entry of the global media industry into Korea, the spatial "time difference(μ‹œμ°¨)" that existed between Korea and the global music industry has almost disappeared. K-pop can be seen as a genre that represents this trend. In this context, K-pop has been created and developed on the basis of global universality, which is more directly influenced by Anglo-American popular music than traditional Korean music such as classical or folk songs. Although the influence of Japanese popular music cannot be ignored, it can be seen as part of the international or global domain rather than reflecting specific Korean characteristics.

Furthermore, since the late 1990s, when K-pop began to develop more substantially, the influence of Anglo-American popular music, especially R&B and hip-hop, has become prominent (Anderson, 2020). This represents another universal trend in the field of global popular music.

Despite the global universality that K-pop possesses as a type of pop music, the fact that K-pop is referred to not only as pop but as a genre that combines the adjective "K," which reveals national/regional identity, is due to the inherent characteristics of K-pop that originated from Korean music. This is rooted in the fact that K-pop, starting as regional music from Korea, is produced, distributed, and consumed in the context of Korean identity within East Asia, a non-English-speaking and non-Western region. Therefore, while the "pop" in K-pop symbolizes global universality, the "K" symbolizes regional specificity. Through this combination, we can understand that K-pop has gained popularity among global audiences by presenting itself as "similar yet different" from Western pop. Especially since K-pop has been perceived as part of the Hallyu wave, it has consistently emphasized the Korean identity represented by the 'K' while internally striving for global universality. As a result, K-pop prominently presents its Korean identity as something exotic and different to global audiences, distinguishing itself from genres such as Swedish pop that emphasize universality without emphasizing a distinctive national identity.

Hybridity-based 'K' in K-pop

The "K" in K-pop, representing Korean identity, is manifested through various musical and stylistic elements both internally and externally. As Hebdige (1979) noted, the convergence of these various musical and stylistic expressions forms the basis for K-pop to transcend a singular musical genre and become a cultural phenomenon on a broader scale. So how does K-pop express the "K" or Korean identity it seeks? First and foremost, music that actively incorporates global sensibilities and follows the latest trends are the basic elements of K-pop music. However, it is characterized by the continuous combination of various genres, including electronic music, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and even trot, through addictive choruses, commonly known as "hooks.

In addition, lyrics that freely mix Korean with languages such as English, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, especially Hangul, help to give a Korean identity to the musical composition of K-pop. This openness in the lyrics, which mix different languages, is a distinctive feature of K-pop, characterizing it as a hybrid genre that seamlessly blends different cultural elements. This approach, which does not adhere to global universality but emphasizes the "K," is considered representative of Korean identity.

In K-pop, the concept of performance is as important, if not more so, than its musical characteristics. While performance typically refers to the intense and challenging choreography, often referred to as "choreo," performed by group members on stage, performance in K-pop goes beyond dance. It includes vibrant and coordinated costumes, unique makeup and hairstyles, distinctive color schemes, narrative-driven music videos, and a variety of aspects of daily life displayed through social media or Internet broadcasts. In addition, K-pop's unique business model, which includes the training system for idol groups, the cultivation of a distinct idol identity, post-debut communal living, management (sometimes control) by entertainment agencies, and the peculiar triangular relationship between agencies, idols, and fans, has become a globally recognized feature often associated with Korean identity. In addition, characteristics such as the essential virtues of morality, sincerity, and authenticity, which are often considered to be outstanding personality traits, the consistent provision of diverse media content, the creation of relationship narratives (commonly known as "chemistry") between members, and the generation of engaging themes between fans and idols contribute to the formation of a close relationship between idols and their fans. These aspects, along with the use of the Internet for media consumption and the unique media consumption patterns, are all considered integral parts of the "K" in K-pop.

All these features come together based on the aesthetics of maximalism, forming a unique genre and a "total package of culture" in K-pop. The 'K' in K-pop thus represents a modern and new form of Korean identity, rooted in cultural hybridity rather than the traditional sense of Korean identity. It remains deeply connected to the political, economic, cultural, and social contexts of Korea while being contemporary and novel.

Despite potential conflicts, K-pop is unlikely to completely abandon its Korean identity, as it is intrinsic to its essence as a musical genre and cultural phenomenon.


The Expansion of K-Pop and the Future of "K

Blackpink's second full-length album, Born Pink, was released in September 2022 and was a huge success, selling over 2 million copies within a week of its release. However, it is worth noting that most of the album's lyrics are in English rather than Korean. Furthermore, when looking at YouTube content related to Blackpink, Korean viewers only account for a modest 3.7% of total views. Furthermore, within the group, the influence of Korean diaspora members and foreign members is quite significant. In particular, Lisa, a foreign member, not only has the largest global fan base among the four members, but also helps to shape Blackpink's core identity through her powerful rapping and outstanding performances. Although they achieved Billboard chart success with an English song, Blackpink's approach is in contrast to that of BTS, an all-Korean group who have consistently released albums with Korean-dominated tracks. While BTS tended to emphasize regional specificity (K) over global universality (pop), Blackpink seems to lean more towards the latter.

Nevertheless, Blackpink continues to be recognized as a representative of "K-pop" rather than a conventional global pop star. This observation is intriguing considering that the scope of Korean identity embedded in the "K" has expanded compared to the past. The expansion of Korean identity extends beyond nationality and ethnic background to include elements such as hybridized music, performance, business models, and the unique relationships between fans and artists, as well as media consumption patterns. Groups such as NiziU and WayV, which were formed with local members in Japan and China, respectively, and are active in languages other than Korean, as well as non-Korean, non-East Asian groups such as EXP EDITION and KAACHI, which have voluntarily defined themselves as "K-pop groups," are now all considered to be part of K-pop. This represents a significant expansion of K-pop beyond regional boundaries, both in terms of production and consumption.

This development suggests that the specificity of 'K' is gradually absorbing the universality of pop. However, given the peculiar compromises and balances created by the conflict between 'K' and pop that fans expect from K-pop, this evolution may not always be entirely positive. K-pop has successfully established itself as an alternative culture, offering a unique style of music to the younger generation looking for something new in the global cultural market. With the changing media landscape and diversification of tastes, K-pop as an alternative culture could potentially gain more influence and prominence, as seen in the case of BTS. However, as K-pop's excessive expansion may weaken the distinctive charm of Korean identity based on hybridity, and if it becomes too universal, K-pop may risk losing its unique appeal and eventually merging into the mainstream global music market.

Therefore, while K-pop will inevitably move into a new era with more intense conflicts and negotiations between the "K" and pop, it is unlikely that it will completely abandon the "K." This is because it involves intrinsic issues related to the essential identity of K-pop as both a musical genre and a cultural phenomenon.

Author LEE, Gyu Tag is now the Associate Professor at George Mason University Korea in the Global Affairs Program Cultural Studies/Anthropology