Give K-Pop A Chance

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By Anna Goodman, Staff Writer

I bet I’ve got one of a few reactions out of you right now: excitement because you love it, ambivalence with slight interest or slight disinterest, or a full-on groan. I hope the response isn’t “are you actually kidding me,” but if you’re a friendly neighborhood naysayer, I intend to prove you wrong.

A still from Girl Generation’s “Into the New World” music video.

When someone talks about “pop” in an American context, we think we know the sound. Upbeat, bright, dancy, maybe even empty of meaning? Of course, this isn’t the case, as pop music is extremely varied. The label of “k-pop,” which we think we know so well, encompasses dozens of genres. Here are just a few examples: 

Acoustic “Fine,” by Taeyeon talks about her depression after her friend’s tragic death and fame after debuting in popular girl group Girls Generation, a mix between the gentle singer-songwriter grief of Taylor’s Swift’s “marjorie” and the anguished cry of Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me”.  

Tropical “Bon Voyage” by YooA is a beautiful celebration of nature and becoming your true self, a more tropical take on the chants of Of Monsters And Men-esque alt-folk like in the tale “Dirty Paws”. 

Lo-fi “Because” by Rie is a nostalgic, coffee-shop recollection of a summer love between two boys, echoing “Chance” by Hayley Kiyoko. 

Pop “Super Yuppers!!” by WJSN Chocome  is both a hilarious, saving-the-day satire of Sailor Moon and a more bubblegum take on several 70’s / 80’s roller skating anthems such as “Dreaming” by Blondie.

Ballad “Ascension” by Kingdom tells the tales of corrupt Korean emperors and their subjects’ suffering, and is a great choice for those who like more classical, ethereal sounds mixed with the catharsis of electronica as in Lorde’s “Green Light”And rock “AZALEA” by Rolling Quartz is full-on-furious, adapted from an old poem protesting the Japanese occupation of Korea, a more classic rock spin on “Zombie” by the Cranberries, which itself protests English invasion in Ireland. Other songs incorporate reggae (Wonder Girls’ “Why So Lonely,”), jazz (Mamamoo’s “Piano Man”), or flamenco (SONAMOO’s “I Knew It”), etc, etc, etc. They all fall under the “k-pop” umbrella. Clearly, if they were in English, we wouldn’t be so ready to wave it away, so ready to consider all of it “pop,” and so ready to declare it all “soulless.” Can you imagine someone trying to put Van Halen and LanaDel Rey in the same category just because they’re both in English? No, you can’t. Generalizing the music of a country of 51 million people ( 1/7 the size of the USA ) into one genre just because it’s in a different language is not only wrong and discriminatory but just plain foolish.

Stills from K-Pop music videos – Top Left: “Super Yuppers”, Top Right: “Because”, Middle Left: “Azalea”, Bottom Left: “Fine”, Bottom Center: “Ascension”, Bottom Right: “Bon Voyage”

Look, some k-pop songs are bad. I’m not here to deny this at all. Every genre has its duds, and often the most popular of the genre is the most widely palatable to the general audience and not necessarily the best. Why do you think it is that the songs most used on TikTok have entire choruses in English? (Popular, of course, does not equal bad. Neither does using a lot of English. The two most well-known k-pop groups, BTS and BLACKPINK, while not my own personal favorites, are both talented, introspective, and enjoyable, just not always for me). But if you don’t know k-pop well, you may think that these groups are representative of it as a whole. And just like Taylor Swift isn’t all pop and Metallica isn’t all metal, this assumption just isn’t true.

Especially when listening to songs in other languages, we (myself included) can often fall into the trap of thinking that the meaning is unimportant as long as the song is catchy. But the meaning does matter, immensely. When a quick google search will tell us the depth of the work an artist has put into their music, don’t we owe them that for our enjoyment? Also, in a world where many put down young women’s interests and anything deemed “girly” as lesser, K-pop, at least for me, is a welcome reprieve that ( at its best, mind you)  lifts us up instead. 

I want to focus especially on one song, the song whose image is at the start of the article: “다시 만난 세계” , “Dasi Mannan Segye,” or “Into The New World” by Girls’ Generation. I like to tell people that, if “Boombayah” by BLACKPINK introduced me to k-pop, this made me fall in love with it. “Into The New World” is nearly as old as the people in my grade, having been released in August 2007, and the 2007-ness of it oozes from every facet: the turn of the century clothes, the tempo, the slightly grainy filter on the video, etc. It’s like a time capsule, lovingly rendered for us in all its oddities.

“Into The New World, or not, it’s up to your choice,” the video writes as we see a tiny white biplane roll up to a runway and nine girls begin to sing. In the video, we watch them go about their average lives and make small victories: Yoona sews a beautiful dress, Sooyoung and Taeyeon, (whose solo career I mentioned earlier) repair the old plane, Tiffany spray paints a scooter in bubblegum pink, Hyoyeon becomes a hip-hop dancer, Seohyun practices ballet, Sunny and Jessica create a graffiti mural out of spray paint, and Yuri does art in latte foam. 

Throughout, the imagery of the plane is continuous as they help each other achieve their goals, and towards the end the one seen at the beginning is fixed by the two girls working on it. As the bridge builds, its rudders finally spin and Taeyeon takes off into the sky, heralding the start of an adventure created by these singers as a paper airplane is thrown into the air and the final chorus surges into pure, unadulterated girlhood joy.

Americans may not know this song, but Koreans do. A decade after it was released, it was used in a protest at a womens’ university where a couple hundred teenage dissenters faced 1,600 police head on and sang their hearts out in solidarity. After that, it’s been used in protests such as the 2017 Candlelight Democracy Demonstrations, celebrations like the 2019 courts’ decriminalization of abortion, and, even more tellingly, the anti-government rallies in Thailand in 2020, translated but the tempo kept the same. In response to the original protest, a member of Girls’ Generation called Tiffany replied that, “it was a proud moment. Right now is the generation for feminists, and it’s an era where messages of women empowering other women are important.” Another member, Yuri, stated that, “I even cried because my heart was overcome with emotion. It was a moment when I felt a huge sense of pride as a singer…as time passes and I listen to the song, the lyrics touch me even more.”

Girls’ Generation are in their early thirties now, and still reunite every few years. Their most recent comeback, to mark the 15th anniversary of their debut with “Into The New World,” was “Forever 1,” just released in August of 2022. It’s another song full of joy, this time in their still-strong friendship with each other and a promise: “We’re not stopping,” Taeyeon said. “A long time ago, we swore we’d love each other in the next life.” 

Despite K-pop groups lasting an average of seven years, despite them now being actors and soloists living around the world, despite an industry that considers women “past their prime” by the time they hit twenty-five, they have managed to keep making music, sans only one member (Jessica). That is nothing short of incredible. Just before the second verse of “FOREVER 1”, an enormous jet plane takes off into the sky as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sample from “Into The New World” plays.

When “Into The New World” was released, these singers were the same age as us reading this paper, the youngest having just turned sixteen the month before, and the oldest eighteen (none considered an adult in Korean age). We should remember that, across an ocean, our entire life spans ago, nine girls sang a song of hope that has endured throughout the ages, ignoring language and country and cruelty and forging a new path. Perhaps we should take this as a message that, no matter how old we are,  so can we. 

I leave you with the words: “Neol saeng-gang-man hae-do nan gang-hae-jyeo ul-ji an-ke na-reul do-wa-jwo. I sun-gan-ui neu-kkim ham-kke ha-neun geo-ya da-si man-nan u-ri-ui.Take my hand, and together we walk, out of the darkness and into the new world.”