Thursday, October 1, 2009

What the heck is Kpop!?

It's not Kapampangan pop. The K in K-pop stands for Korean, and the term must have been an offshoot of J-pop, as in Japanese pop, which the Koreans used to consume very much back when they were still in the process of having their presence felt in the global community.

I'm guessing I was writing about the Korean pop music scene ahead compared to other journalists, thanks to my self-appointed obligation of monitoring the pop music scene vis-a-vis the development of Pinoy pop music—which I can only describe as pitiable, no thanks to the non-creative producers wasting the talent of very gifted young Filipinos with novelty music, ugly copycat tracks, unflattering remakes, and sleepy ballads.

Weeks even before Ricky Lo wrote about the re-packaged Sandara Park, I have already featured the all-new “Dara” with her YG Entertainment-managed group 2NE1 in Central Luzon Daily, along with the market gamble of Korean pop stars BoA and Se7en in the States. And now, the whole country is singing and dancing to Wonder Girls' “Nobody,” the melody of which is too catchy for us to not download through the Internet.

What sets K-pop apart

As I'm writing this, I'm listening to a folder in my MP3 player dedicated solely to my K-pop favorites. Yes, that's right. In spite of me being a so-called monitor of world pop music, catchy K-pop tracks have proliferated so much in that I just had to declare them autonomous in the my MP3 world and create their own folder. Funny I don't even understand the lyrics of the songs, except that I hear 'saranghae' almost in every song. (That's “I love you” in Korean.)

What's different with K-pop is that different artists from different management companies produce hot songs one after the other, unlike in others countries like Taiwan, where only Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai have impressed me; now that the two are inactive, there is nothing much to monitor in their homeland.

Now regarding the genre itself, K-pop is nothing different from what American pop music is offering; hip-hop, RnB, and disco tracks are abundant, except that the lyrics are in the Korean language, with smatterings of English phrases and sentences—an obvious influence from J-pop. However, I see something different from K-pop—it's a whole new resurrection of group bubblegum pop, which has long died in the American scene, now replaced by solo artists.

Life Cycle of Bubblegum Pop

Let me give you a brief history of the American pop music scene since the 90s. Boy groups, girl groups, and co-eds came in throngs—the Backstreet Boys, N'SYNC, 90 Degrees, A1, O-Town, Westlife, Spice Girls, Solid Harmonie, Steps, A*Teens, to name a few. Then came the rise of solo female pop—Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, and the like.

Solo males also started popping like Usher, along with former-group-members-turned-soloists like Justin Timberlake, Gerry Haliwell, and Beyonce. Dancing had become more complex from the simple modern dance, to actual street dance, with complicated moves not all members of the 90s generation can do. “Black American music” started to rule American pop, with non-blacks trying out “black” styles—take Christina Aguilera, JoJo, and Justin Timberlake for example. Slowly, American bubblegum pop died, at least in the US, replaced by young alternative pop, the Jonas Brothers, Hilary Duff, and the like.

Whoever thought Koreans would be absorbing that love-it-or-hate-it genre, but with a whole new form? This is how it is in the K-pop scene. In the US, you have one Justin Timberlake that sings with vocal curls and bluesy falsettos, and dances advanced and lyrical hip-hop. In Korea, you have a chinky boy group composed of younger Timberlakes that all sing, pop, lock, and drop it—and they all do these damn good, thanks to serious training of performers.

Also, instead of the usual classy adult packaging of US pop artists, K-pop retains the bubblegum flavor of pop—colorful backdrops, rainbow clothes, and psychedelic album covers. Back when American bubblegum pop was gradually fading, it was very humiliating in the Cool World to admit being a fanatic of bubblegum pop. Try performing a Backstreet Boys song in a high school event, and your schoolmates would cringe at your disgusting taste.

But K-pop is a growing trend. They're the new cool thing, and the moves that accompany the tracks are not your typical left-right-left-right steps, or the simplistic combos that accompanied 90s bubblegum pop. If I were in high school or college currently, I'd definitely not hesitate to pick a K-pop song for my performance number.

How did it boom?

It's called Culture Technology (CT), a branch of Information Technology (IT), which I believe the Koreans are taking seriously. They even have their own Graduate Program focused on CT in S. Korea. In a nutshell, CT is the use of technology to propagate culture (while IT is the use of technology to propagate information). Try to ride an Asiana Airlines plane, and Korean movies and music are accessible right in front of your seat. In Seoul, they have a museum dedicated to Hallyu—the Asian term for the Korean wave—where you can listen to sample tracks from pop stars like Rain, and have a digital pose with a Korean celebrity.

The Korean cultural invasion of the Philippines is evident. In Angeles City, there is already a Korea Town along Friendship Hi-way, where almost all billboards are written in Hanggul, and a Filipino passing by can only wonder what the heck they are saying. The Angeles City government also celebrates the Choo Seuk festival every year for the Korean residents of the city. I myself am a frequent customer of the convenience store called Mr. Ramyun, which offers delicious Korean noodles and other Korean instant goods, like fruit popsicles, seaweeds, and cookies—and I rarely see Korean customers in the store; they are mostly Filipinos.

Colonial Mentality?

This Korean phenomenon might shake the claims that the Filipinos are suffering from colonial mentality, i.e., preferring the products of our former colonial masters than our own. The Koreans and the Filipinos share no colonial history, yet we are now basking in the spicy sauce of Korean pop culture. What does this imply?

Truth be told, the Filipinos are just bad in making pop-cultural products despite our undeniable talent in performing, that is why we are unable to reverse the colonial mentality we are said to suffer from. The truth I believe in is that foreign products are sometimes really just better than local ones. Nationalism is good, but if it blinds us into believing we are the best people in the universe, it's not being nationalistic; it's called being delusional.

As I consume lots of Korean cultural products, I am trying to absorb everything I can, hoping to channel them into the Filipino pop culture someday. That's how the Koreans did it anyway, absorbing Japanese, Chinese, American, and European sensibilities, and “Koreanizing” them into their own.

Well, let's hope Sarah Geronimo's new Beyonce-esque image will live a long life. I finished writing this article with Big Bang's “Last Farewell” (a Korean disco pop song) playing in my MP3.

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