When Will U.S. Music Writers Get K-Pop Right?

by Raizel Liebler

Ben Sklar for The New York Times -- in their only coverage of the SXSW Korean music showcase
Ben Sklar for The New York Times — this picture serving as their only coverage of the SXSW Korean music showcase

If Brooklyn Vegan can write about CoC, one of my musical boos, and correctly get their subgenre right — “North Carolinian thrash/sludge/crossover institution” then the way the American music journalism doesn’t write about K-pop is just not excusable any longer. (Yes, I realize that Brooklyn Vegan has been writing about Corrosion of Conformity since 2010 and metal preceding that time). But as great as of a band as CoC is, they aren’t mainstream to anyone who isn’t a fan of metal. Korean pop seems to have the same subgenre (or out of the mainstream) issue metal writing used to have because it is outside of the comfort zone of most American music journalists. Already existing fans know where to go, but what about potential listeners?

Billboard does have a kpop writer (Jeff Benjamin) because they are interested in covering genres and subgenres on the move (and fuse tv did a kpop week), but sadly the music journalists at SXSW and beyond seem to not be interested in even fully describing the performances they attended — regardless of whether they liked the music they are there to review it.

After this year’s South by Southwest music, I was sure that this would be the year that music journalists would finally truly review the k-pop showcase. After all, last year’s performance by f(x) led to them appearing in a Funny or Die video with Anna Kendrick …. and Psy … oh, so much writing about Psy. But instead of reading about the performances themselves, most of the writeups of the showcase read like re-writes of Wikipedia pages, especially for Hyuna.

Yes, she’s pretty and was in Psy’s video, but what about her singing or her dancing? And the fact that she can do both (mostly) at the same time? Or contextualizing Korean pop within worldwide pop? Or contextualizing her possible U.S. mainstream pop career within a framework that requires non-American female performers — regardless of skill — to speak and sing in English, like Shakira’s transformation from Laundry Service onward? Or whether there is a place for Korean pop artists who focus on their dancing and theme as the music itself in an oversaturated market that generally focuses on the same dozen existing superstars? If hipsters can understand Robyn, why would it be too far for them to go to also understand and potentially like Hyuna? I dare you to read this writeup of Hyuna’s performance in the New York Times. I’ll wait. Notice something odd? She gets a nice, glossy picture, but no mention of her performance. At all.

[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8SJxqMUCEs”]

And Jay Park? Lady Gaga while not covering herself in snacks and more showed up to his show. End of coverage

He is a K-pop star, but he is also Korean-American. But somehow the fact he sings in Korean some of the time seemingly overwhelmed the mainstream press from covering his actual performance. I saw the result of research journalists did covering performers from other genres, but nothing about how Jay is from Seattle, is part of a dance crew included in many of his videos — and has even started a music label. Read a review of the show by an American journalist that isn’t Jeff Benjamin — does it explain what type of music Jay Park does?

Here it is: Imagine Usher or a one person Jodeci or Keith Sweat or any major New Jack Swing slow jam (and medium jam) singer and add lots of dance skills, with most songs being sung in Korean. See, was that so hard? True fans will critique this summary as not being inclusive enough (what about his Chamillionaire-lite rap?), but that is the point — mainstream audiences don’t even know to seek out this music because it is not being described to them.

[youtube_sc url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrHZ6LUBMsA”]

And why is this? I think at least part of it is lumping in Korean culture with the already existing viewpoint of Asian culture as being represented by “weird Japan.” And Japanese pop culture is commonly written off as SOOO weird with their emphasis on cute, etc. And therefore, journalists don’t seem to feel the need to do research about the very music that they are reviewing. Maybe I should give them a pass — there were lots and lots of bands to cover. But it has been a month and there hasn’t been any additional coverage of the groups that performed during the showcase. Even I’m not detailing the performances of the other showcase artists — Jambinai, Nell, Kiha & The Faces, Crying Nut, and Idiotape — but I wasn’t actually there at the showcase.

Maybe I’m making this too much about Korean pop — and not generalizing enough about how pop music is considered to be not serious and thereby not worthy of critique, but rock music and singer/songwriters are. Of course there is a gendered component to this, considering how much pop music is performed — and consumed by women and girls. I love Pop Matters and their features, but their music reviews stay within the “safe” zone — rarely reviewing women or true pop — and their most recent feature about pop or a woman performer is about a seventy-four year old French “zany pop” singer.

And Pop Matters and other similar publications do review indie pop like Katie Herzig, but the type of pop that is urban and ethnic and worldly (but not “world music”) seems a step beyond. Of course, all of these publications can wax rhapsodic about the Beastie Boys or the new WuTang Clan, but pop exists in an untouchable zone of irony, never to be taken seriously on a critical level.

There are glimmers of hope for the coverage of k-pop — Billboard’s kpop writer and the coverage by both the New York Times and the L.A. Times of the recent 2ne1 and Big Bang shows. But I doubt there will be coverage of the upcoming K-Con in Los Angeles beyond the “some kids like weird stuff” coverage.

[Editorial Note: I want to make sure to acknowledge that NPR Music did list Jambinai as one of their SXSW finds.]

Comments (4)

When most agencies don’t even have a proper English website, or crew that properly speaks English, what can you expect from journalists? All they can do is look up Wikipedia, as they don’t have other non-Korean sources to go to. And if the Wikipedia article is incorrect or crappy, you get sh*t on your face. That’s it. The major stars have pretty good articles but not-quite-as-famous artists might only have a fraction. Look at Zion.T’s article – I wrote it. That’s all I could find in English sources and it took me bloody two days and a lot of headache to literally scrape it together, because I don’t read Korean quite as well as it would be necessary to build a biography. Will any journalist spend as much time trying to figure out a K-pop star’s path? Nah. Does his agency have an English bio? NOPE. Their website is friggin in Korean, with a couple of English words thrown in the middle. How do these companies expect business from other countries? Shall everyone who wants to deal with Kpop learn Korean? In a utopia, perhaps. Not in a real business world. Some of the websites are an embarrasment, with GOOGLE TRANSLATE texts. Not kidding, take a look at Lee Minho’s website. It’s ridiculous and why would anyone ever take these “stars” US ventures seriously when all they can see is some crap on the website. They don’t radiate professionalism, they radiate “well whatever, hallyu will make us money anyway”. If it were me, I wouldn’t give a sh*t either to write up a good article on someone who doesn’t take the efforts to help the media understand what they do.

Hmmm this comment strikes me as being a little inaccurate.

From my experience working in Korea, all the major Kpop agencies have English versions of their websites and English-speaking staff. I just looked up – despite already knowing the outcome – SM, JYP, YG, Cube websites myself and –boom– all had English versions. I live in Seoul and otten times our team at Green Tea Graffiti have to cover events that are sponsored by Kpop entertainment companies – that entails emailing and calling them – all the companies except for Woolim have English-speaking staff available.

You mentioned Zion T. Zion T has gained a steady amount of respect in Korea but not a crazy following the way idol music has both on the homefront and abroad. Although finding info about him is not hard and Amoeba (ironically considering your first statement) has an English version of their website. What might be a household hip hop label in Korea, Amoeba, does not have that genre pull that idol music has. Labels that produce idol music globalize themselves to account for the growing fanbases their artists were/are gaining (and having members that speak English or Chinese has become an important new aspect of forming a successful group).

Lee Min Ho – same thing. It’s not hard to find info about him. It’s relatively easy to get whatever information (besides what an interview can provide) from him. So saying “their website doesn’t use English” is an excuse in my opinion. Real journalism does not rely on simply clicking on a website, saying “Oops! No English” and then shrugging back your shoulders with a “I guess they don’t want anyone to know what they do.” No, it’s more like you don’t really care enough to find out what they do. The info is out there with these artists and actors. It’s not hard to find resources and I can’t even count on my fingers how many websites on the homefront spend every day just finding info about Korean pop culture and translating and writing it in English so others can know about it – Soompi, Seoulbeats, Green Tea Graffiti, Hallyu Magazine, Korea Times, Kpop United, etc. For you to say there’s no resources is a bit ignorant, and borderline insulting to those journalists who work hard to produce information for the very reason that it’s available to others in English.

I definitely agree with your frustration over the lack of SXSW coverage and good K-pop coverage in general. Though I do find it interesting that you specifically brought up PopMatters, because that publication (through myself) DOES publish regularly on K-pop now. Each month a I write a monthly K-pop round up and I did a big 2013 in K-pop piece for their year-in-review publishing last year. I’m far from perfect about this, but the focus of my round-ups is to introduce this great music to non-fans and the curious or skeptical. And I try to focus on the music itself, and the lyrics, and how they relate to the music videos. Definitely more than Wikipedia bios and ‘hey isn’t this weird?!’. But, as you said, this isn’t reflected in their reviews, which is something I have issues with too. (I did review the Ariana Grande album for them last year very positively, 8/10). I just thought it was funny that you brought up a Western publication that does actually publish–at least semi competently, I think–on K-pop. But I agree that I wish it was more widespread!

Kpop is crap. Korea does so many other genres right without government and corporate control that kpop is fabricated under.

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