Your Biggest Fangirl
Music prejudice and K-pop, by someone who knows very little about it.
By Andrew Broadley | Illustration by Yi Jong
The lyrics to TWICE songs have been running through my mind all day. And the day prior to this one, and the day prior to that, and with a few Red Velvet songs sprinkled in between, several days prior to that. The South Korean girl group have dominated my thinking of late. I know the names of all nine members (nine seems excessive), have watched their music videos, several interviews of them and even cringed as I clicked on the recommended video “TWICE FUNNY & CUTE Moments – Try not to Laugh”. And I blame COVID-19 for all of it.
I spent both level 4 and level 3 babysitting and my main instructions were, if she (‘she’ being an 11-month old baby) starts to cry, just play TWICE. The K-pop girl group are an antidote to all her worries. She squirms, she cries, she does anything you don’t like, and the intense techno beats and colourful visuals of their music videos knocks her into a trance. Now being a lacklustre babysitter, this became my main tool (kudos to all the parents not raising children on a diet of TV). I played TWICE for much of the days, and all of the evenings. They played on repeat, over and over, day after day. Only broken up when the YouTube algorithm threw in a new K-pop group every now and then. Before this experience, I knew of K-pop, but not much beyond that. I hadn’t spent much time listening to it or thinking about it. Now suddenly it was in my head all the time. I hummed it over breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, post lunch-snack (it was lockdown, don't act like you didn’t all eat your boredom and feelings), afternoon snack, dinner, dessert, and pre night-time shower snack. I went to bed humming and I woke up doing the same. The humming was mainly due to the fact I couldn’t sing along on the count that my Korean is pretty horrific beyond ordering myself some food.
순두부 찌개 하나주세요!
But as horrible and annoying as this likely was for those around me, I didn’t tire of it myself. There are many great albums that I love, and I believe to be great works of art, and yet the thought of playing them on repeat for any more than a few hours sounds like a laborious task. But somehow K-pop was different.
Now there are plenty of moral reasons you could abstain from K-pop. Mental health issues, exploitation, sexual assault, an overbearing expectation to control every aspect of an individual for the sole goal of profit are all commonplace (though Western music industries are no strangers to these either). But my reasoning was less a moral high ground and more a personal high ground. In my eyes, K-pop wasn’t real music. It’s manufactured. It’s mindless, crap. Originality or talent isn’t a necessity. It was music for annoying teenage girls and hysteria and obsession. And well, in some ways I wasn’t wrong, and in some ways I was. But I was definitely wrong to write it off.
People such as myself who like to think of themselves as ‘music’ people. The kind that don’t stand at the front when we go to concerts because the music balance isn’t as good. The kind who stand in the corner at parties and give long winded answers to the questions:
“What music do you listen to?”
“What’s your favourite genre?”
We have this sense of superiority that music has to be about creativity and pushing boundaries and artistic expression. Or even more importantly, underground! (Major labels? Gross!) And all that is important, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for other forms of music. Major label influence is seen as the death of authenticity, the very idea of a guiding hand ‘manufacturing’ an artist for profit can rightfully give the impression that an artist is untalented or not worthy. So, an industry such as K-pop where it is built on the very notion of manufacturing goes against these beliefs. In the K-pop industry, a few large corporations send out worldwide auditions, selecting children that are at times as young as 12. These children are then signed on as ‘trainees’ where they go through a K-pop boot camp (which they often have to pay for). The label’s pool of hopeful artists train for years in the hopes they get the chance to debut. Artists openly talk about their time as a trainee. Labels upload footage of groups practicing and preparing for all the varying aspects of life as an idol (the term used to refer to famous K-pop artists). Manufacturing is not only done, but advertised and flaunted. In the West, artists try to convince us of their authenticity, uniqueness and independence. They do their best to shy away from their label influence and team of writers that construct everything from their sound to appearance and personality; K-pop almost seems to do the opposite.
But whilst authenticity is important, it’s unfair to link that authenticity to who an artist is signed to, or what sound they choose to create. An artist may not have control over all aspects of their sound, and they may not be creating something ground-breaking and new, but they can still be authentic in their love for music and performance. And authenticity aside, I don’t see why there has to be any stigma beyond that. Sometimes I want to turn on the radio and hear a song fresh off the top 40 that sounds like all the other songs fresh off the top 40, and I think that’s okay. Music should first and foremost be about enjoyment. But we have linked this attitude to a sense of cultural class. That a ZM listener is inherently less cultured and intelligent than the guy listening to an LP. But so often we get caught up in the image of music that we push our enjoyment of it to the background. To this day I’m still not sure if I am supposed to actually like The Sex Pistols or just say I do. It’s great to expand your music repertoire, to expose yourself to a variety of genres and sounds but don’t be afraid to relax to something easier. I love film for example. But I don’t want to watch Twelve Years a Slave every day. That sounds really depressing. Some days you just want to sit back and watch Fast and Furious 17. Or that Transformers film where for some reason there are robot dinosaurs and the robot car people are riding them and there is a big ancient robot sword (wow Transformers got really wack). Mainstream pop music bangs. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it goes exactly where your mind wants it to go. There’s no surprises or challenges and some days that is perfectly okay. We will always need auteurs. The people that propel us forward and create new culture and forms of expression. And you never know where that is going to come from. It wasn’t too long ago that artists such as Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, and 21 Savage were seen as the death of rap, now they are hailed as highly influential in a new era of hip hop. Who’s to say that K-pop doesn’t have a place at this table?
Despite all this talk of manufactured music and a lack of originality or complexity, I learned over the course of lockdown, that K-pop is far from predictable or unoriginal. Massive synth leads, rap breakdowns, beat switches, key changes, tonal shifts, spoken word sections, dance breaks, and group chanting are all commonplace. It’s a bloody roller-coaster and to write it off as predictable and lacking innovation is a complete injustice. If anything, you could argue (and upset metalheadz around the world) that K-pop draws heavily from prog-rock’s F.U. attitude to song structure and format. K-pop tracks often lack traditional song structure, often switching it out for a series of sections that can have little interlocking them. Calvin Harris-esque synth leads drop into Travis Scott inspired breakdowns, dance breaks remnant of vintage Pussycat Dolls and then throw out huge choruses circa High School Musical. It’s all kinda a shit show, and it all kinda works. It may be manufactured, and it may borrow heavily from largely Western influences. But when you blend the shit out of something pre-existing and mix it with your own cultural and musical influences you get something completely new, and far from unoriginal.
K-pop isn’t for everyone. I’m still not entirely sure it’s for me. But what I did learn was that it’s wrong to write things off based on preconceived ideas. And this obviously doesn’t only apply to music. But in music, much of why we choose to consume is based on image and public standing. Everything has a place (within reason, don’t go and rep some pro Nazi band tee anytime soon) and in limiting yourself to what will be received well by the cool kids or the critics you are denying yourself the potential to stumble across hidden gems or just something fun. Whether the music is happy or sad or simple or complex or predictable or original or the result of a damn singing contest show, give it a chance before you make a decision on how you feel about it. Usually the only time we allow ourselves to break this rule of music class is when enough time has passed for irony to come into play. Pop music is cool if it’s early 2000s, but the modern wave of pop artists is reserved for fangirls.
In the West, artists try to convince us of their authenticity, uniqueness and independence. They do their best to shy away from their label influence and team of writers that construct everything from their sound to appearance and personality, K-pop almost seems to do the opposite.
And fangirls are like music credibility kryptonite. We have decided that the hysteria and passion of young girls discredits the thing in which they have the hysteria for. Despite fangirls being the early adopters of the Beatles, Elvis, and many of the successful artists we have seen and continue to see today, a fan base of white men is the only real way to have any level of credibility. In a current sense, artists such as Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, Arctic Monkeys, Beach House and many more are suffering from a wave of popularity amongst Dr. Martens-wearing high school and university girls that is tarnishing their reputation amongst ‘music dudes’. And it's bullshit. It suggests that the opinions of young women have no reputable weight or depth (a problem women have to face in many areas beyond just music). Feel free to dislike these artists, I dislike some of them too, but to do it because of their growth in popularity among girls is nothing but sexist. And it has no standing whatsoever. I think fangirls are in many ways the coolest fans out there. Because they just don’t give a fuck. They are like the modern-day anarchists of music fandom. They don’t care about the judgement or the Pitchfork rating, they only care about how that music makes them feel, even if that feeling is dancing on their bed and singing into a hairbrush. Even if that feeling is getting shitfaced on a Saturday night.
Music is the best thing ever. I love it. I love music so much that I am a straight white guy that doesn’t listen to podcasts. I don’t have the time for them. And I want everyone to love music too and to be a music person. I want everyone to expand their horizons beyond what we are fed by our peers or by our algorithms. But that isn’t only for the ZM listeners and The Edge callers. It’s for us music people too. Get off your high horse and put on something shitty, you might just find it’s not so shit.