K-pop has recently gotten on the radar of mainstream English speaking audiences, including two mentions on Nightline and a story on Planet Money. However, the music itself isn’t as different from U.S. pop music as it might seem at first listen.
Below are several popular Korean songs — and their English language original (or simultaneous release) song. You’ll note similarities — all of the remakes are in the same key as the original, but the Korean remakes add in more vocal tracks and remove the overt extreme sexualization. Only one song will be familiar to most U.S./Canadian pop fans — Maroon 5’s This Love — but the Ke$ha demo song turned into a K-pop hit for Girls Generation might come as a surprise.
But before we get to the remakes, I want to mention a most peculiar song that manages to be an unauthorized sequel to a song by one of the most popular girl groups ever — Destiny’s Child. Perhaps this song is more of an allusion or an homage … but Miss A (미쓰에이)’s most recent single, 남자 없이 잘 살아 (I don’t need a man) is from their EP, Independent Women Part III (they do not have a part one or two). This is strikingly similar to Destiny Child’s song Independent Woman (parts one and two) that does have similar lyrics about paying one’s own bills, etc. These songs are in different keys, different lyrics, and do not sound alike, but the thread between them exists.
BIGBANG’s remake of This Love sounds relatively straightforward, though the lyrics, by G-Dragon are almost completely different, with only a few scant phrases from the original remaining. There is also an English language remake from BIGBANG’s Japanese releases, unfortunately not available on this side of the Pacific.
f(x) (Korean name:에프엑스) remade an obscure German pop song (in English), Hot Summer, and completely changed the feel of the song — from one full of sexual innuendo and metaphor — to a very innocent summer themed song appropriate for tweens.
Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) (SNSD) are the queens of remakes, and below are only a couple of their most well-known remakes.
Run Devil Run is a very different song when sung by Girls’ Generation. Instead of the crazy stabby ex-girlfriend tone of the original, their version is much more “I caught my boyfriend cheating, but I will be just fine”. The almost coda on the end of their version is always translated something similar to: “There’s so many guys out there/it doesn’t matter if you’re gone/Until I find a guy that cares only for me/I’ll wait by myself.” Their version of the cheated-upon will take her revenge through self-improvement.
Another of the many redone by Girls’ Generation is Genie, but in this case, neither their version or the English version is technically a remake because both versions were authorized at the same time. The English version does have the original lyrics as written, however.
But the oddest Girls’ Generation remake has to be Mr. Taxi, considering the bizarre metaphors — in both the English and Korean/Japanese versions!
But what does this say for the overall state of k-pop? Korean popular music, like other forms of pop music, such as American/Canadian/U.K. pop music, is based on highly manufactured songs controlled by the label/management, not the artist. Pop music has rarely been created by the performer(s), yet the perception exists that somehow unless the emotions conveyed in the songs are not those of the performer, the song is somehow less real. There are artists that do write and perform — but the line has been blurred drastically by performers who claim a writing credit when they add a word. And those that traditionally have written their own music — in rock — are finding the modern mainstream music industry to be an unstable force to promote their music.