Let’s talk about… K-pop!

May 17, 2011

Alternate title: The post that Rebecca’s been working on for too long and is finally going to just PUBLISH whether it’s done or not.

Aaah, K-pop. Everyone’s new favorite kind of music. All of the cool kids are now following Kara’s butts, and K-pop groups have garnered high profile fans such as Maeda Atsuko, Takahashi Ai, and the entire Japanese schoolgirl population. Suddenly, everyone and their mother adores K-pop. Wonder Girls are performing in the US, and Kara has gone from a slightly angsty 4-girl R&B group to being certified platinum in Japan and… whatever you’d call URAKARA.

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I can’t say that I mind. K-pop is like J-pop’s louder, sexier, attention-grabbing younger sister. For years she’s been the bratty kid who threw sand at you at the beach. But suddenly she went away to summer camp and returned a woman, having gone through puberty and gained a slammin’ body, ready to outshine her older sister at all costs.

Did I just say “outshine?” I did. Everywhere that J-pop is failing in recent years, K-pop is succeeding.

J-pop has never really grown up. True, there’s Koda Kumi tossing her lady parts around left and right, but the overwhelming focus of J-pop is on youthfulness. Part of that is of course because of Japan’s preoccupation with youth and cuteness. Nearly everything about Japanese culture reflects that love of adorability. Look at some of Japan’s most famous, most successfully exported characters:

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The Japanese creations were entirely fabricated with a cute and non-threatening image in mind. They have round features, lack expressive limbs and faces, and  their overall appearance is benignly non-human. They convey no real emotions. It is the viewer who projects his or her own emotions onto the character. Their harmless cuteness allows them to appeal directly to the cute-obsessed culture that Japan has cultivated.

In a similar manner, Japan’s pop scene* generally revolves around wide-eyed teens who project cute, non-threatening images. They are hard-working, always pretty, and occasionally talented. They generally cultivate a simple, non-assertive persona which the public can project onto, and in that way they are most different from their K-pop counterparts: K-pop’s artists tend to be more in your face, less outwardly concerned with whether they can appeal or not. For the most part, the gamble of being so aggressive has payed off: The public loves K-pop’s firm, fierce personalities.

Where was I going with this? Ah yes, the degree to which kawaii culture is enmeshed in Japan’s pop psyche. Above, I mentioned Japan’s collective Peter Pan syndrome, the obsession with youth. Though I implied that youth obsession was one of Japan’s failings, I didn’t mean to say that it is entirely so. Japan’s love of youth is enchanting. It brings those who immerse themselves in Japanese pop culture into a world that is always bright, cheerful, overflowing with the energy of childhood. You can hear that exhilarating childishness in songs like Berryz Koubou’s Yuujou Junjou OH Seishun and AKB48’s Ponytail to Shushu. The beauty of J-pop and kawaii culture is that it so brilliantly captures what is most wonderful about youth: its abundant energy, its innocence, and its ephemeral nature.

So then what of K-pop? What room does J-pop’s overwhelming youthfulness leave for K-pop’s glib sultriness? Well… plenty. Youth and innocence are wonderful, but who doesn’t get exhausted after playing with children all day? The sag in the J-pop music industry that began a few years back is indication enough of a market exhausted by all that cutesy youthful joy. K-pop happened to be just what tired-out listeners needed. The sound was a refreshing change from J-pop- not only more mature, but in an entirely new language! But it also retained some familiarity. SNSD’s songs have an undeniably “kawaii” side, as do many of KARA’s. Groups like 2NE1, T-ara and F(x) straddle the border between cute and mature well, with Brown Eyed Girls standing with their 9-inch stilettos planted firmly on the adult side of the field.

The nature of the K-pop/J-pop relationship then is this: A rivalry, but one with mutual benefits… much like the relationships between real sisters. When J-pop fans want a break from constant brightness and noise of kawaii culture, they can use K-pop as a breather (I suppose the opposite could also be true, though as a fan primarily of J-pop I cannot say for sure). And when they want to go back to the familiar and the innocent, J-pop is there with open arms.

*Please understand that I am speaking from the perspective of an Idol fan. I am aware of the wide variety of musicians that don’t fit in with the cute, youthful image. But the most widely known, well-loved artists (AKB48, Johnny’s artists, etc) do fit this description.