The global heritage of K-Pop's boy bands, rappers and divasWhat is K-Pop? Is it the melodious, flowing ballads of Fly to the Sky and SG Wannabe? Or is it the lively, energetic beats of Se7en and pop diva Lee Hyori?
In its entirety, K-Pop is a collage of influences borrowed from around the world. Although K-Pop is relatively new and classified as one genre of music, its roots can be traced from various musical influences outside of Asia, chiefly America. Even today, many of the most popular Korean solo artists and groups have infused fragments of other foreign musical styles with their own unique sounds to appeal to Korea’s blossoming entertainment audience.
The K-Pop genre was launched by the popular boy band H.O.T., which debuted in late 1996, and the female trio S.E.S., who hit the stage in early 1997. H.O.T. was seen as the poster child for K-Pop, and they marked a transition from the techno era in Korean music history to a time when boy bands and pop divas dominated the music charts. Both hit groups performed under the SM Town recording label, an instrumental leader in today’s K-Pop industry, boasting popular singers such as BoA and Fly to the Sky in their stable. A new generation of musical stars was born.
BoA Kwon, the 2005 winner of the MTV Asia Artist of the Year award, and hit Korean solo artist in Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan, is today’s mega-superstar in the entertainment industry. She draws much of her appearance, songs and demeanor from American pop sensation Britney Spears. Her “cute-girl” vocals and attractive beats in her early career mirrored the early days of Britney Spears. As Britney moved to a more urban and provocative type of pop with Slave 4 U, so did BoA change her image from a young innocent pop star to a more sophisticated model with the song, “My Name.” In effect, BoA is Asia’s Britney Spears.
Including an American influence in her music, BoA also closely follows the J-Pop scene where she is tremendously successful. She has even released albums and singles all in Japanese. Her 2005 album, “Girls On Top,” BoA displayed a different look inspired by Japanese punk rock stars. Whether following the Korean, American or Japanese model, BoA has become one of Korea’s representative stars in Asia and the world.
From K-Pop to the K-Hip Hop scene, the influences garnered from other countries remain the same. Drunken Tiger, one of Korea’s most respected hip-hop groups, has close ties to America as one of its members is from L.A. and another is from Flushing, New York. With these ties come the stylistic echoes of Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G. and other famous American rappers who have manifested their influence through the spread of hip-hop worldwide. Much of Drunken Tiger’s appeal comes from the fact that they flawlessly combine aspects of American hip-hop culture and give it a distinctively Korean flavor.
Famous boy bands, such as Dong Bang Shin Ki and Shinhwa, resemble their American counterparts, N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys. The groups share the same types of love/loss lyrics as well as the looks to attract young groupies wherever they go.
Shinhwa’s hit song, “Perfect Man,” seems to borrow heavily from N*Sync’s hit song “It’s Gonna Be Me,” with both numbers following the theme of persuasive love. For example, the lyrics to N’Sync’s song, “It’s Gonna Be Me” ― “But I’m not like them/Baby, when you finally, get to love somebody/Guess what, It’s gonna be me.” ― seems to have become the basis for the lyrics in Shinhwa’s “Perfect Man” ― “I only know you baby/Until I have my last breath/’Cause You’re the One.”
The Korean boy bands also all seem to have the same type of orchestrated and choreographed dance moves they use in music videos and on stage.
Fly to the Sky, one of Korea’s most prominent R&B duos, shares many similarities with the American smooth singing group Boyz II Men of the 1990’s. The group uses slow, soothing beats that create a melodramatic tone like those used by American Brian McKnight. The emulation even gets personal ― the nickname of Fly to the Sky member Brian Joo is Brian McKnight. Another possible influence could be that of the famous American singer Luther Vandross. His deep voice and love lyrics are mirrored by the style of music that made Fly to the Sky so famous in Korea.
The R&B soloist phenomenon of Korea, Se7en, has been likened to the American sensation Usher. Both men are especially talented at dancing, and Usher’s club hit “Yeah” was followed up by Se7en’s dance hit “Passion” with the same electronic beat in the background. The music video for “Passion” also shares the same type of dance platform as “Yeah” as well as American backing dancers. Other songs by Se7en, such as “One More Time” and “Moon-shin,” reflect classic Usher songs like “You Remind Me” and “Burn.”
Se7en’s production company, YG Family, is also influenced by American hip-hop, as are its other artists, such as 1Tym, Jinusean, and Lexy.
A 2005 album by Dr. Reggae, “The Second Coming,” was filled with reggae-style rap. Reggae originated in Jamaica and has now found its way to Korea. The group’s music is a platter of Jamaican reggae beats mixed with traditional Korean rhythms, musical elements and instruments. Dr. Reggae furthered the Jamaican “effect” by dressing in vividly colorful Jamaican clothes and braiding their hair into dreadlocks. The Jamaican influence is clearly evident in the music of Dr. Reggae but with a twist of Korean artistry.
It is unjust to claim that K-Pop is just an emulation of American, Japanese, or Jamaican music. BoA has had her fair share of hit songs with distinct, original beats and lyrics in Korean, including the hit songs “Valenti” and “No.1.”
Furthermore, Drunken Tiger has its own unique style with the fast-paced lyrics of Tiger JK and the raspy voice of DJ Shine. Even though some of their music may be inspired by American rappers, Drunken Tiger has found its own niche, with member Tiger JK commenting, “What’s the point of following the popular trends from the [United] States?”
Korean boy bands Dong Bang Shin Ki and Shinhwa add their own characteristics to their songs through more urban beats.
Finally, the duo Fly to the Sky has been continually pumping out hit love ballads that are laced with undercurrents of hip-hop, creating their own style of music.
With this ability to distinguish itself from the influence of foreign music, K-Pop has made a name for itself in the music world.
by John Lee