Beyond "Gangnam Style": A K-Pop Primer
by Rachel Devitt | September 18, 2012
So, how many times have you watched (or posted, or Tweeted) the video for "Gangnam Style"? If you're anything like us, you not only watched and rewatched, but forwarded and reforwarded Psy's gallop-dancing, Korean star-studded, little kid move-busting, bowtie-bestudded, candy-land dreamscape ode to (and/or critique of) the culture of a posh district of Seoul. Nearly 200 million views, a date with Justin Bieber's manager and a surprise appearance at the 2012 VMAs later, it's pretty clear we weren't alone in our fascination with his kooky, krazy brand of K-pop. For some, the fascination may end with the meme. But for those of us with an intrepid listening nature, "Gangnam Style" may have just whet the appetite for a bigger, deeper bite into a huge genre.
You crave, we deliver, friends. We've pulled together this playlist of the hottest contemporary Korean pop artists and hits to give you a little snapshot of Psy's world. K-pop, as the kids call it, has been around for about as long as pop anywhere, but over the last several years, it's become big business. Its artists cater to a global audience, performing throughout Asia and recording in multiple languages (including English and Japanese). The stars range from groups assembled by one of several big talent agencies to reality contest winners to individuals like Psy with the talent (and personality) to pull off global success.
And it works: "Gangnam Style" has arguably commanded the genre's hottest global spotlight yet. But before Psy, there were Rain, who famously "feuded" with Steven Colbert, and the Wonder Girls, whose retro-girl group, Barbie-riffic R&B single "Nobody" could be found playing almost anywhere in Asia at any given moment for a good three years. More recently, already globally successful artists like BoA and Girls' Generation have specifically targeted American audiences with English-language songs and albums. Beyond cult status, none of these attempts have been extremely successful in the U.S. -- until Psy, who just saw his song debut on the Billboard Hot 100.
So how do we define the current sound and culture of K-pop? Well, "big club beats," "cooed vocals" and "the occasional wry rapping" may come to mind when listening to "Gangnam Style" -- and that description is fairly apt for the genre (even if the song itself is extreme). The contemporary K-pop charts are crowded with R&B, a little hip-hop and a whole lot of shimmering dance beats. Girl groups and boy bands are huge, though individual artists like Psy (not to mention individual members of said girl groups and boy bands -- Wonder Girl HyunA guests on "Gangnam Style," for instance) persist, too. And at the risk of over-generalization, one fairly common element is a sense of playfulness, an almost candy-coated Technicolor campiness that pervades much of the genre. In other words, even if you don't understand Korean, it can be a lot of fun to listen to. Hear for yourself!