Is this... K-pop?
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
There are two types of K-pop fans: Those who tell you they listen to it without telling you they listen to it and those who try to hide it from you.
Okay maybe it’s more nuanced than that. Maybe?
I have no energy for lecturing the former on how to draw the boundary on fetishising or looking respectfully. Or on the line between excessive consumerism and supporting the artist. But, there is something to say about the relationship between these two sets of fans. Why K-pop is sometimes considered a guilty pleasure. Despite sharing patterns of consumption, one keeps the shrine to their bias hidden and the other wears it on their sleeve, their phone, their bedroom wall.
Like every fandom, there are people who don’t know when to stop. This reinforces a dynamic where people interested in something want to avoid being grouped in with those who are too interested in something. Hence, the fewer Koreaboos we have, the more confident the rest of us can be about enjoying some BTS. For the time being, why let them stop you?
Obviously you don’t need a stranger to give you permission to like something, but if you find yourself sweating on the aux, wondering “is this the playlist with LOONA on it?” Maybe it’s time to offload those fears. Or find friends with better taste because in 2021, we’re all listening to pop unironically. Disco revival, K-pop, synthpop, hyperpop. Pop music represents a tradition of music-making engineered to be as appealing as possible and backed by billion-dollar industries. There shouldn’t be any shame in finding this music appealing, it’s borderline out of your hands. Just don’t book a flight to Seoul once you get vaccinated expecting to find your soulmate.
Pop music represents a tradition of music- making engineered to be as appealing as possible and backed by billion- dollar industries. There shouldn’t be any shame in finding this music appealing, it’s borderline out of your hands.
If you’re reading this and thinking, maybe I gotta chill on my photocard collection, the answer doesn’t lie in moving from this end of the spectrum to the other, either. It’s not the character development you deserve and while everyone’s arc is different, today, your third act resolution lies in dipping your toes into the rest of what Korean music has to offer. Was this all an elaborate ploy to plug my favourite artists and get you bopping to something made outside of committee meetings? Maybe, but what’s a music issue without some recs?
I’ve only just begun to explore Korea’s indie scene in earnest myself, but I hope there’s enough variety to suit whatever your tastes and mood may be at the moment! If not, you can find more cool artists in a playlist I made in the following list ;)
If my one hundred and something plays are any indication, 'MIMI' by Youra might be my favourite song this year. Opening her sophomore EP Gaussian is this quiet anthem of a track that ticks every box. Classy guitarwork and organ-like synths exchange the limelight to accompany Youra’s delicate singing. It’s the type of song that breaks your heart and mends it together at the same time, which is what watching the music video is kind of like. More montage than plot, the video is both chaotic and intimate in its study of a volatile relationship.
There’s an understated charm in each of Youra’s songs that brings me back – a mellow quality that commands your attention nonetheless. For a preview of her music prior to Gaussian, check out the video she did with Dingo FreeStyle on YouTube which offers a fun, 14 minute medley of her features and solo works!
새소션 (SE SO NEON)
If you’re after something with a bit more kick to it, I’m pleased to present SE SO NEON: a three-piece rock band that does not miss. Two EPs in and (fingers crossed) one killer debut album away from becoming my favourite band active right now, SE SO NEON brings the spice your playlists have been missing. This is the type of group that deserves to go viral off of an iconic Tiny Desk performance with songs that stubbornly refuse to leave your daily rotation. They’ve shown poppier sides, noisier sides, but like all the best emerging artists it’s delivered through a cohesive, sonic world that leaves you wanting more.
If you’ve been reading so far and thought okay this is cool, but where’s my shoegaze, wow do I have the album for you! On top of being a genuinely compelling rock album, To See... represents the best of what DIY music has to offer. It’s lo-fi construction is inseparable from the universal angst of the twenty-somethings the lyrics speak to. Even without tuning into what he’s saying buried underneath walls of sound, the riffs and layered instrumentation convey the struggle between disillusionment and hope in a way that feels authentic, validating our own struggles along the way.
Lastly, ending on an artist that has demonstrated mastery of quiet, main character music, JIEON is a singer- songwriter-producer you need to keep an eye on. Her debut EP, WWW, came out this year and illustrates a knack for crafting wistful tunes that are as comforting as they are melancholic. Her prior two singles were built on acoustic instrumentation and this debut project shows her interest in ambient music and electronic sounds. Give songs like 'Sincerely' a go and you’ll be surprised by how JIEON stands out in a crowded lane.