K-Pop Unmuted: October 2018 Roundup

On Episode 36 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight, Tamar Herman and Alexis Hodoyán take a look back at a busy October in Kpop. We discuss NCT 127‘s “Regular,” BTS’ RM‘s “seoul,” BoA‘s “Woman,” EXO’s Lay‘s “Namanana,” fromis_9‘s “Love Bomb,” and April‘s “Oh My Mistake.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of October 2018 in K-pop’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: GOT7’s ‘Present: YOU’

On Episode 35 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, guest Carolina Donastorg joins Tamar Herman and Alexis Hodoyán to discuss GOT7‘s new album “Present: YOU.” Of course, we talk about lead single “Lullaby” (all four versions!), other standout tracks, GOT7’s international appeal, and all things GOT7.

Please note, we said that it was the first song from a K-pop group in Spanish, but it is more accurate to say from a “Big 3” group.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of GOT7’s Present: YOU and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: LOONA Debut

On Episode 34 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, M.O. Kng joins Stephen Knight, Joe Palmer, and Tamar Herman to discuss LOOΠΔ’s debut with [+ +] and the single “ Hi High.” We also talk about BTS’ “I’m Fine,” BerryGood’s “Green Apple” single and “Free Travel” album, and (G)I-DLE’s “Hann.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of LOONA’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Dreamcatcher talk career aspirations at Los Angeles fanmeet [interview]

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

Freshly debuted, the K-pop-rock girl group Dreamcatcher was a bold choice to play this year’s KCON in Los Angeles. Formed by Happyface Entertainment, Dreamcatcher had never performed in the States prior to the event, but were welcomed with open arms by fans as soon as they stepped foot in LAX. Most of the featured female artists (except fromis_9) have years of experience under their belt, having debuted long before the group. Not to mention, Dreamcatcher’s distinct sound is different from the usually expected guests of KCON. Fortunately, the group, composed of members Gahyeon, SuA, Siyeon, JiU, Dami, Yoohyeon, and Handong, are already loved internationally. The members completed a European tour early in the year, as well as a South American one in late July, so it was no surprise when a fanmeet emerged right before KCON.

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

Almost immediately after they arrived in the city of angels, the group held their very first U.S. fanmeet on Aug. 10th, organized by their stateside based fansite 7 DREAMERS. As it was planned by the group’s fans and not a tried-and-true production company, many fans were skeptical as to how it would turn out. However, the event proved to be a good choice for Dreamcatcher, as tickets for all spots sold out within two minutes.

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

KultScene had the opportunity to attend Dreamcatcher’s fanmeet at A-List Music in Downtown Los Angeles, where we got to talk to the seven women about their first trip to the U.S., hopes for the future, and career so far.

Dreamcatcher are fulfilling a niche that hasn’t been explored by other female K-pop groups before with your rock-oriented, guitar heavy music. Who inspires you all musically, whether within K-pop or otherwise?

Siyeon: “Hyolyn.”
Yoohyeon: “Babymetal.”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.


Also on KultScene: RED VELVET’S ‘SUMMER MAGIC’ ALBUM REVIEW

You all have achieved a lot of chart success here in the U.S., including ranking number five on the Billboard World Albums chart and the top spot on the iTunes KPop Albums chart with your mini album Prequel. You clearly have a large fan base here. Is it shocking to see that?

Gahyeon: “We are so happy to be able to have fans from all over the world and in the US as well. While we’ve been in LA, we were approached by fans while taking photos—”

SuA: “As well as at In-N-Out.”

Gahyeon: “—and we were so surprised that these fans knew who we were. We asked them if they knew us as Dreamcatcher and it was shocking when they said that they were fans.”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

Your album sales have doubled in Korea, with Escape the Era selling over 20,000 copies, which is very impressive for a rookie group. It seems like your fanbase is growing very quickly. Did you all ever think that would happen?

JiU: “We’re so thankful for our success so far. We don’t feel as if our fanbase in particular is growing, but we can tell that people enjoy our concept because of our album sales growth, and we’re really proud of that.”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

Dreamcatcher have been known to cover a lot of different songs by different groups, and you’ve become very popular with fans of the original artist. How do you all choose what to cover?

Siyeon: “The reason why we cover groups whose concepts are really different is because we want to show all of the concepts that Dreamcatcher is capable of performing, and to show a different side of Dreamcatcher than the concept that we are comfortable in right now.”

Dami, your magic trick in “You & I” went viral on a lot of websites internationally, including on Twitter and Reddit. It introduced many people to Dreamcatcher. Do you have anything to say to new fans that discovered Dreamcatcher because of that video?

Dami: “First of all, thank you for all the love and support of my trick in ‘You & I.’ I’ve seen people try to imitate it. Please use plastic instead of steel while practicing the trick!”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angelesby Christian C.


Also on KultScene: K-POP MID-YEAR REVIEW: 3 DISTINCTIVE MUSIC STYLES DOMINATING 2018 SO FAR

If you all could switch positions within Dreamcatcher, what would you choose?

(All say ‘Ahhhh’ in a thinking tone)

JiU: “I would like to be the maknae.”

Siyeon: “I really like rapper’s parts, so that would be interesting to try.”

SuA: “I would like to switch with Handong because she speaks Chinese and it’s really hard.”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

by Christian C.

Circling back to growing, it has been a year and seven months since your debut as Dreamcatcher. What have been the most memorable moments of your career so far? Are there any things you all have yet to achieve that you’d like to?

Gahyeon: “Our debut [‘Chase Me’].”

Handong: “Our nomination for first place at a music show.” [All members nod in agreement]

Siyeon: “We really could physically witness the love from InSomnia when we were nominated.”

Yoohyeon: “Because there are many international fans, we noticed that the votes grow a lot at night, which is interesting.”

SuA: “One day we hope to achieve number 1 on all charts in Korea (All-Kill).”

dreamcatcher fanmeet fanmeeting usa la los angeles

* Interview was facilitated by a translator.

Check out the rest of the pictures here:

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What’s your favorite Dreamcatcher song? Let us know your picks and thoughts in the comment section below. Be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: Stan LOONA

On Episode 33 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Joe Palmer takes Tamar Herman and Stephen Knight on a walking tour of the Loonaverse. In anticipation of LOOΠΔ (LOONA)’s official debut, we discuss the individual members, the roles of each major sub-unit in the Loonaverse, some of the group’s more interesting releases, and other LOOΠΔ lore. We also talk about Lovelyz’s “Wag-zak,” Minseo’s “Zero,” and Triple H’s “Retro Future.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of LOOΠΔ’s and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Being a fan of BTS & their youth-oriented music as an adult

by Yasamine Entesari

Becoming a BTS fan is not exactly the smartest decision to make when you don’t have much free time. Between albums, music videos, live performances, Bangtan Bombs and Run BTS episodes, just to name a few– BTS puts out such an overwhelming amount of content that it might literally keep you as busy as a second job. If you join the fandom (called “Army”) a bit “late,” like I did, it becomes near to humanly impossible to catch up with years of content.

But falling in love with BTS is not exactly something you decide – it’s just something that happens; you can never predict when or how. With me, as much as I’ve been listening to their music for years, the obsession started when I went to research what was the deal with this BTS guy being promoted as a full member of the KOMCA.

Regardless of your motives, getting to know BTS is indeed worth it for anyone in any age group. However, there is something so peculiar about being a BTS fan when you’re in your late 20’s or older. You find yourself taking a break from a business essay to watch an old performance of babyface Bangtan singing about being in “2nd Grade.” You accommodate coloured merch, albums, and photo cards between power and rent bills in your budget.

I’m not alone in this – I dare say a big part of BTS’ fanbase is made of adults (mostly females) in their late ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s; regardless of people who say that pop sensations’ fan bases are made up of dumb 12-year-old girls, a belief often used to delegitimize an artist’s talent or success.

The music of BTS, and the personalities and stories of its members can inspire love and admiration for people of any age. The same probably could be said about any K-pop group or pop star of any culture. However, in the case of BTS, something adds a particular meaning to the “older fanbase” passion for the group: the interesting (and maybe contradicting) fact that BTS’s entire purpose is focused on youth. I can’t speak for all the adult fanbase, but as for me, this particular aspect of BTS’ artistry is one of the things that made me love them – even if I am, supposedly, no longer young enough to relate to their narrative.


Also on KultScene: AEON DREAM STUDIOS TALKS ‘TO THE EDGE OF THE SKY,’ BTS, & DREAMS [INTERVIEW]

Actually, I’m not that old  – I’m only two years older than Jin, BTS’s oldest member. However, a few years can make a lot of difference when you are in your teenage or young adult years. For example: the disproportion between the fact that the youngest member, Jungkook, won an “Artist of the Year” award at 19-years-old when I was 26 and still trying to figure out what to do with my life, could be enough to make me feel like a loser. But, actually, the more I dug into BTS’s story, I ended up feeling the opposite.

Maybe some of us older fans think that it’s too late for us to pursue our dreams and do meaningful things like BTS. But through their music we find out that they, too, feel insecure and scared, even after achieving so much.

How ironic is it that BTS has chosen to speak about the beauties and sorrows of youth, yet they are so overloaded with work that they barely have the chance to enjoy their own? We’re talking about a group that is releasing their fourth album in less than 12 months, while they get ready for a world tour with more than 20 sold out stops. These guys don’t rest. Yet, they seem so passionate about what they’re doing, it doesn’t seem like they think they’re “wasting” their “best years.”

As young people, we have so many things in our favour and so many against us at the same time, and we end up not knowing what to do with the gift of youth – like the famous quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde: “youth is wasted on the young.” Youth might be, borrowing the words from the title of a BTS’s album series, “the most beautiful moment in life”; yet it’s also so full of contradictions. Society expects an adult to know everything about life; yet, everyone agrees that before you turn an adult you have to enjoy being “young, wild and free.” How are we supposed to learn and build everything we need to be a successful adult, and have the most amount of fun possible at the same time? Which one should we choose?

Sometimes it’s inevitable to think if anything could be different today if I had been more of less “myself” in the past; if I had worked/studied more, or if I had worked less and “enjoyed” more of my youth. Nevertheless, I somehow feel at ease when I see Jin, Suga, RM, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. Just like everyone else, they’re doing the best that they can with their “best years.” They’ve decided to follow their biggest dream, because they have one – but they say it’s okay if you don’t have one too. They’re giving their all and trying to be okay with the fact that even that all might not be enough to make them feel proud and content. And if like is like this with these seven amazingly talented beings, why wouldn’t it be with me? When I think of it, I too can find comfort and stop blaming my younger self. Because I too did my best. I did what I could being the person I was at that time.

Seeing the member’s personal colours also help fans to relate to BTS in so many ways. In “Reflection,” for example, a boy confident enough to name himself “Rap Monster” confessed that, even after achieving so much, he still wishes that he could love himself. In “Awake,” the member with the most unwavering self-esteem in the group (Jin) sings that he’s aware that he may never fly as high as he’d like to. It’s sad, but it’s also empowering because it sounds human; it sounds genuine


Also on KultScene:  FROM UNDERDOGS TO INTERNATIONAL STARDOM BTS’S RISE TO SUCCESS

The fact that insecurity and fear coexist with confidence and determination, for the group, is what makes their music and their individual personalities relatable to 12 to 60-year-old people. And the fact that they share it with us gives us a feeling of “we’re all in this together,” regardless of age, gender, race, or culture. It makes me think we’re not that different after all – and if people who feel “lost” can relate to seven guys that inspire such amazing feelings, then, well, maybe we are not so lost. Maybe we are doing something right.

When you’re 28, like me, you think you should already have life all figured out. Younger friends, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry, but I have to spoil something: it is possible that five, 10 or 20 years from now, you still won’t have figured everything out. And it’s okay. We all have doubts, insecurities, and challenges in life, regardless of having found ourselves or not. With due proportion, life is the same for everyone: nothing is guaranteed, the fight gets harder after each battle you win. And it’s okay.

I remember watching one of the many interviews BTS gave while they were in the United States for their first US performance at the American Music Awards in 2017 and I felt really touched by one of the comments in the video. It was from a 60-year-old woman who said: “I just found out about these boys and I am feeling so much joy from watching them, they make me feel young again.” I thought that was the same reason why I grew to love and respect BTS so much. They make me feel okay about not being what I thought I should be right now – and this is feeling young too.

After all, regardless of age, we can all be young as long as we’re okay with the fact that we don’t know everything and that we can always learn and improve – like Suga says in “Nevermind:” “We are still young and immature, don’t worry about it.”

What do you like the most about BTS’s concept? Let us know in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

K-Pop Unmuted: June 2018 Roundup

On Episode 32 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight and Tamar Herman look back on how K-pop treated June 2018. We talk about KCON NY, Taeyeon’s “Circus,” Lee Jin Ah’s “Run,” SHINee’s “Our Page,” UNB’s “Black Heart,” Yuju’s “Love Rain,” and BlackPink’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU.”

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in June 2018’s latest and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

The Twice cinematic universe


As they grow into their role as the defining girl group of the generation, Twice have begun to come to terms with their identity. Similar to Girls’ Generation before them, they don’t really need an identity to succeed. They represent the ideal; young women who go through all the same trials as anyone, yet do it with the veil of perfection. Twice, however, are not resting on the simplicity of being the best. Through their music videos and dances they are creating their own personal world. A world in which a group of young women dress up as their favourite movie stars, make up their own cheesy dances, and constantly drop private jokes.

Right from their debut, “Like Ooh-Aah,” Twice were borrowing from popular culture. It was a zombie story where the girls played the typical high-school archetypes: cheerleader, sporty, bad girl. From its follow ups though, they positioned themselves as not only star but viewer too.


Also on KultScene: KCON 2018 NY’S M! COUNTDOWN’ DAY 1 CONCERT RECAP

In typical K-pop fashion, the videos for “Cheer Up” and “TT” have a litany of references, but many of them are kept general. It makes more sense in this context compared to some later work given the speed at which the scenes are cut together. In “Cheer Up,” it goes from a clear Scream callback to a fairly generic high school movie to a Sailor Moon-type scene in seconds. Each member has their own particular scene, but other members always participate in that scene with her. As well as the lack of specificity, there’s a constant connectivity that makes it much easier for the viewers to grasp the many ideas being thrown at them.

“TT” has a similar style. It’s halloween theme is filled with pirates, witches, superheroes, and fairies. Each has an obvious touchstone, but not all are clear references. It has one particular, innocuous moment that changes and defines their approach from then on though. It comes right after the first chorus and is not visual but a lyric. Jeongyeon sings “Doesn’t cheer me up at all baby.” It’s an admission of self-awareness. The Twice of “Cheer Up” are the same Twice of “TT,” and so on. They are not reinventing themselves each comeback but growing as a group of young women together.

Even when not connected directly like the “Cheer Up” lyric in “TT,” they still create memes as a way of communicating. The antennae of “Signal,” the knocking in “Knock Knock,” and the Ls in “Likey” all tell the story of their respective songs but add to the growing dimension of the Twice universe. Memes have become a primary source of communication on the internet, and Twice are clearly attuned to that. What’s different from how Twice uses these gimmicks compared to how other groups created viral dances is how they integrated them into their whole career. A viral dance usually happens for one song and is specific to that song. A meme, on the other hand, becomes a part of your language, drifting into other areas of your life regardless of if you wanted it to or not.


Also on KultScene: THE STORY OF LOONA: ODD EYE CIRCLE

This is no more evident than in the choreography for “Likey.” The entire concept of “Likey” is self-reflexive. The choreography is constantly framing the girls in solos or duos, they reference almost all of their previous songs, and the videos features them filming each other and dancing alongside formations as if they were just fans. “Likey “ is a song about social media anxiety barely hidden beneath a more straightforward love song. It’s about what constantly being online does to your real life self esteem. The allusions to a relationship in the lyrics are pretty scant and could easily be replaced with no issue. Twice are singing about themselves. Problems of looking at yourself and being looked at. Problems that connects us as an audience to idols like them.

Instead of filming each other in “What is Love?” Twice are watching themselves on TV. They observe alternate versions of themselves play scenes from famous movies, the dance to Chuck Berry in Pulp Fiction, Mathilda dressing up in Leon, and best of all Dahyun in her own contact lens commercial. After two years of building their world, Twice are now comfortable enough with their identity to have much more concrete references. “What is Love?” is less a video of spotting films you know and feeling good about it but watching people you know act out these (mostly) iconic scenes. It’s even shot like a more focused version of “Cheer Up.” The transitions are similar and both give time to individual close ups for a big reaction.

Not only are they watching themselves on TV, they are also playing the extras in the scenes, watching their characters as characters. It solidifies the several planes of existence these girls live on. They are the girls who watch and the girls who are watched. In the same way that they use references in their choreography, they enjoy watching themselves. They are their own idols.

Twice’s use of callbacks and pop culture references uniquely situate them within a changing landscape of girl groups. Formally girl groups are becoming more diverse. Gone is the apparent hegemony of cute concepts, now one can look through the groups of today and find just about anything. Conceptually too there are changes going on. Similar to Twice, LOONA are creating something of a world for themselves just on a much larger scale. Yet no group has quite found how to capture the imagination of so many like Twice have. They create works that reflect their intimate day to day problems while at the same being the ideal person that makes them feel self-conscious. It’s a complex series of emotions communicated with ease through modern means. It’s easy to dismiss as vapid or childish but at its core it’s personal — almost casual— but so necessary.

What do you think of Twice’s visual work? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. Be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Debunking the “Factory” Narrative: K-Pop’s Authenticity and Shifting Gender Politics

Girl in Fine Bros video sighing while watching "I Am the Best" by 2NE1

In January 2012, the Fine Bros released “Kids React to K-Pop,” the latest weekly installment of their growing “React” series, which featured elementary school children watching and answering questions about videos—in this case, Korean pop music videos. For the Fine Bros, a pair of YouTube moguls whose 16 million subscriber base is built on videos of kids, teenagers, and fellow YouTubers reacting to viral content, K-Pop videos were merely an addition to their collection of outlandish content used to sustain weekly production quotas.

But for many of K-Pop’s English-speaking fans, the Fine Bros’ video was a modern miracle. K-Pop groups, with as few as four or as many as fifteen members, release multiple albums and high-budget music videos per year, performing with elaborate choreography and colorful fashion. In 2012, after several years of potential blow-ups and no immense international breakthroughs, few of them had much recognition in the West. Influenced by a variety of global music genres, K-Pop was, as fans believed, ready to explode in English-speaking markets once Westerners were finally exposed to it. The Fine Bros, with a significant North American viewership, were giving K-Pop a new platform for global advancement.

In “Kids React to K-Pop,” they showed the children some of the genre’s most over-the-top songs (“Bonamana” by 13-member Super Junior) and highlighted those videos’ most outlandish moments (2NE1 members struggling in straitjackets in “I Am the Best”).

“How do you think they found each other and decided to start a band?” they asked the children, knowing that their innocence (“They were probably long-time friends!” a kid guessed) would be shattered by the reality that members of K-Pop groups are chosen by companies that put them through a rigorous training regime before debut, atypical in the garage-band-rock scene of the U.S. The questions became increasingly slanted as the video progressed: “Do you still like the music, even though it was essentially created by a company and not the artist?”


Also on KultScene: SHINee’s ‘Good Evening’ Music Video & ‘The Story of Light EP.1’ Album Review

By the end of the video, the kids had decidedly negative impressions. “Lots of weird people probably like it,” one said. “If I even liked one of them, I would be liking the person that trained them,” another concluded. When made aware of the genre’s growing worldwide presence, a third cried, “I hate my generation so much! Why couldn’t I be born in the Eighties?”

K-Pop fans were furious — a genre whose musical output they took seriously had been reduced to an exotic spectacle of Asian quirkiness that Americans could dismiss as too foreign and corrupt for their collective taste. With such a dialogue surrounding the genre, it is no surprise that journalist John Seabrook’s October 2012 New Yorker article on 9-member Korean ensemble Girls’ Generation was called “Factory Girls.”

Despite some K-Pop acts gaining momentum in Western markets over time—BTS became the first Korean act to top the U.S. Billboard 200 with their studio album Love Yourself: Tear earlier this year—discourse on the genre is barely advancing. In a recent article about Korean music acts performing at the PyeongChang Olympics, TIME defined K-Pop as “music churned out by South Korea’s music-making factories.” A quick Google News search of the genre yields a variety of articles, like the recent entry from CBC News entitled “The Punishing Pressures Behind K-Pop Perfection,” that portray the genre as the Fine Bros do in their video.

Most fans will not deny the indisputable truth — there is merit to the claim that K-Pop stars are rigidly controlled by companies and contracts. During interviews, four-member girl group BLACKPINK discusses rarely being allowed to leave dormitories outside of official schedules. Passing their third anniversary as a group, seven-member Oh My Girl revealed that their management only recently allowed them to use cell phones following the success of a recent single. Sadly, the term “slave contract” is well-known to many fans, whose favorite idols have suffered at the hands of companies that hoard profits and abuse workers. Laws have been passed in attempts to rectify the situation, but work conditions for most K-pop idols are less than ideal.

This “factory” narrative, however, is more reductive than it is factual—it dismisses thousands of singers, dancers, artists, producers, managers, stylists, technicians, A&R teams, and designers as industrial robots with no independent agency. While the portrayal in TIME’s headline attracts the attention of American onlookers fascinated by outlandish foreign creations, it fails to capture the essence of K-Pop as imperfect, but not worthy of dismissal by Western audiences.

“Authentic music” fans and critics often deem K-Pop meaningless and shallow. The initial impression is understandable—it is sometimes the case that none of the members of a group play a minimal, if any, part in the process of crafting music or choreography, aside from actually performing it (which in itself somehow gets overlooked, as if many Western pop stars don’t do the very same thing). But beneath the narrative that Western media curates for its viewers, one can quickly find evidence of K-Pop stars heavily involved in their artistry. G-Dragon, leader of popular boy group BIGBANG and successful soloist, is credited as the main (and sometimes only) producer of both his solo releases and those of his group; BTS is also often known to self-produce their hits. The same dynamic is true of a variety of male and female K-Pop acts—in recent years, producer royalties reaped by idols like G-Dragon, Jinyoung of male outfit B1A4, the late Jonghyun of SHINee, and L.E. of girl group EXID have rivaled those of K-Pop’s biggest behind-the-scenes producers hired by companies to make music for groups.

Speaking of hired producers, Western music writers struggle to grasp is the idea that K-Pop’s artistry isn’t exclusively about creative musical production—to some Korean artists, onstage performance is far more valuable than lyrics or melody. Unlike the American music industry, K-Pop places heavy value on dancing ability and performative skill. In a way, this system actually makes musical performance inclusive of a different kind of talent, creating an industry in which dancers, rappers and vocalists can enjoy the fame, audience, and respect often claimed by singer-songwriter solo pop stars in the U.S. Those with legitimate musical passion, maybe for singing the lyrics instead of penning them, can occupy the spotlight. Is that inauthentic or illegitimate? To rockists or classicalists, maybe so. But to those who aren’t theory geniuses or lack a natural talent for musical composition, it may just be “authentic” as ever, and no less worthy of the praise that critics and writers give to Western pop stars who work with production teams.

The debate extends to gender politics as well. In his “Factory Girls” article, John Seabrook portrays Girls’ Generation as a group of one-dimensional personalities constructed by their companies, calling member Tiffany’s characteristic eye-smile a “jolt of cultural technology.” But it would be Seohyun, another member of the same group, who would depart from her image as the group’s chaste maknae (youngest member) and pursue a sultry vibe for her solo debut mini-album Don’t Say No in 2017. The album concept and image change were entirely her own choices, some of which she made against her company’s advice. She also recently participated in the North-South Korean dialogue on multiple occasions, becoming a symbol of peaceful intentions of the South through performances in Seoul and Pyongyang.

Just like Taylor Swift’s pivot from country to pop with her album Red or Lady Gaga’s image shift in Joanne, female K-Pop stars can be fluid performers, capable in their own right of forging unique artistic destinies. When the Fine Bros reduce them to props of an industrial complex, they are robbed of the creative legitimacy and individualism they seem to rightfully deserve.

Cutesy K-Pop girl groups are often the first to receive criticism for musical and visual concepts that strike Western viewers are misogynistic and infantilizing. And they’re not entirely wrong—the patriarchy is as strong as ever in K-Pop, and many girl groups’ biggest hits are written by men and targeted for consumption by male fans. But as these groups top the charts and become noticeable fixtures of the Korean entertainment scene, the performers themselves reach a new level of empowerment. Seabrook’s “Factory Girls” Girls’ Generation have now been a girl group for a decade, comprising multi-millionaire members who each own property and run individual ventures, and have their own public personas. On her solo reality show, member Sooyoung recently talked about popular Korean feminist book Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982, explaining her reaction: “Things that I thought were nothing, were actually being treated unfairly just because I’m a girl.” With a platform built on her multi-gender fandom and supported by millions of dollars in the bank, Sooyoung is now one of many female K-Pop idols reading the book and talking openly about feminist issues in the media, despite South Korea’s overall aversion to the term “feminist,” which she has indeed shied away from.


Also on KultScene: K-Pop Unmuted: ‘Produce 48’ & What is an Idol?

The cutesy songs may have patriarchal overtones, but the women performing the music have much more to say—the cultural structures they conquer as a group allow the members to use their newfound capital to then subvert those same structures. The Wonder Girls, formed in 2007, debuted to major commercial success singing bubbly pop songs produced by Korean singer-songwriter and businessman J.Y. Park. While the group’s popularity has fluctuated over the years due to a failed American advancement and lineup changes, the members grew to self-produce their music as their careers progressed. Member Yeeun, credited as HA:TFELT in solo releases, co-composed and wrote her entire debut solo EP Me? in 2014. By the release of their 2015 comeback album Reboot, members of the group were credited for lyrics and production on all of the album’s tracks, taking the sound of their music in a retro pop rock direction. Their subsequent 2016 reggae-rock hit “Why So Lonely” was also written and produced by the group’s members.

A similar example of growing into self-production, singer Lee Hyori debuted as a member of girl group Fin.K.L in 1998. Since the group’s disbandment in 2002, she has gone on to become one of the most recognizable women in Korean media. Moving on from the group and into a solo career, Hyori has taken greater control of her music over time, switching record labels frequently and dropping albums for which she designs concepts and writes and produces almost all tracks. Her success as a Fin.K.L member and soloist gave her the power to control her future releases—a narrative common among matured K-Pop acts, but largely overlooked in Western media coverage. From talking about feminism to performing with more empowered stylings, female members of Korea’s entertainment industry are slowly but steadily laying the internal groundwork for change to take place. The gender dynamics of innocent-seeming girl groups in K-Pop may be more complex than a face-value New Yorker article on Girls’ Generation could tell you.

Despite the advancements, restrictive body standards, contractual abuse, sexual harassment, and other horrors do run rampant in the K-Pop industry. Trainees work tirelessly against a low success rate to become stars, and many undergo abuse by companies that push them to their physical and mental limits. But in a world where Hollywood and public opinion have exiled Harvey Weinstein from public consciousness and all-but-convicted rapist producer Dr. Luke still profits off of Kesha’s albums, how can these abuses be in any way unique to K-Pop? Of course aspects of the K-Pop industry do make certain abuses widespread, but the ability to dismiss K-Pop as a whole over its ethical questions is a simultaneous failure to hold the Western entertainment industry accountable for the same problems.
So why do Western media outlets fail to report on K-Pop’s authenticity? The simple answer is convenience. Portraying K-Pop as freakishly quirky and industrially restrictive are worthwhile efforts for the Fine Bros, whose viral video series is based on reactions alone. The same is true of the articles’ authors and publishers, who profit in clicks from those curious about K-Pop’s apparent strangeness.

But the not so simple answer is racism. The Spice Girls and NSYNC may have gotten similar flack about authenticity back in the 90s, but the Korean-American dynamic of K-Pop’s newfound Western popularity makes the “factory” narrative not only musically, but also culturally objectionable. Like Americans laugh at Japanese variety shows, gawk at harajuku culture, or imitate native Chinese speakers, sensationalizing the controversial aspects of K-Pop gives the Western mind an excuse to stigmatize Korean culture as ridiculous and outlandish. Conflating K-Pop’s nonsensical moments with its ethical dilemmas for Western viewership, TIME and the Fine Bros allow the English-speaking mainstream to dismiss foreign-ness simply because it is foreign. Americans won’t have to reconcile K-Pop’s sonic, visual, and cultural values with their own if they can simply call it weird or unethical and go on with their day. Thus, “Kids React to K-Pop” was an exercise in ignorance—a lesson in xenophobia. And as more kids “react” to K-Pop as it grows in stateside relevance, we can only hope that better lessons are taught. They are only kids, after all.

K-Pop Unmuted: Produce 48 & What is an Idol?

On Episode 31 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Tamar Herman, Stephen Knight, and Joe Palmer join guest Patrick St. Michel to preview Produce48 and to discuss the concept of an “idol” and what makes a great idol. In our Unmuted K-pop Picks we talk about GIRLKIND’s ‘S.O.R.R.Y,’ Yubin’s ‘Lady,’ ONF’s ‘You Complete Me,’ and WJMK’s ‘STRONG.’

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on SoundcloudiTunesGoogle Play Music, and Stitcher.

Let us know your thoughts on Produce 48 and what you think makes a great idol in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.