August 4, 2021

My Korean Life!

Spotify Wrapped 2020: A Look at Western and KPop Music

5 min read
The music world is in a frenzy right now with a specific genre making rounds and breaking records. KPop has successfully broken through the West and it makes you wonder, which of these genres is more popular?

Recently, one group has been making a commotion in the international music scene and it’s hard not to notice them when they’re breaking records, selling out concert venues, and constantly trending on Twitter. BTS, the seven-member Korean boy group, has successfully broken through the jungle of Western music phenomenon earning themselves the name “game-changers” in the industry and opening up more opportunities for other KPop groups to be known in the international arena. 

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BTS (Korean: 방탄소년단; RRBangtan Sonyeondan), also known as the Bangtan Boys

Recently, the group has been named by Spotify as the Top KPop Act with over 5 billion streams on the platform and also achieving multiple year-end feats like being the only international act to be featured on India’s Top 5 Artists. Dynamite, their first English song, has been met with an astounding 12.6 million streams in just the first 24 hours. 

But while KPop has garnered a generally positive reaction from the West, it remains to be an acquired taste for most, a niche genre despite it being an undeniable global phenomenon. Its popularity has also surfaced numerous discussions comparing these two music genres. Most of these debates revolve around questions which of the two is better and more popular. But before we dive right into answering if there really is a better and more popular genre, let us first take a look at the similarities and differences of these two. 

Over time, it has become evident that Western music has influenced KPop with its general consistent trope composed of heavy bass drops, rap, electro/techno, and a variety of sick drum beats. One of the songs that marked the increased westernization of KPop songs was 2NE1’s “Fire” released in 2010. According to a midi analysis of the song, it uses instruments such as Syn Saw Wave, Banjo, Fingered Bass, Syn Square Wave, Distortion Guitar, Syn Bass 1, and Acoustic Bass. Before 2NE1, this style was virtually unpopular in KPop and the group was known for experimenting styles instead of sticking to the traditional elements of the industry. Additionally, their agency YG Entertainment has always been directing its artists towards this path like Big Bang and Blackpink whose music sounds more Western than KPop. 

2NE1 – FIRE (Street Ver.) M/V

In 2014, SNSD released “Mr. Mr.” which featured instruments such as Syn Brass 2, Syn Saw Wave, Fretless Bass, Violin, and Piano. While this song has not completely detached from the traditional KPop elements, it still reflected a major change in the overall musical concept of the group directed towards a more Westernized style. 

Girls’ Generation 소녀시대 ‘Mr.Mr.’ MV

Although the westernization of KPop started in the early 20th century, these two groups who are considered pioneers of their time as 2nd generation KPop idols can be considered to cement the hybridization of Korean trot elements and American Hip Hop influences. 

These Western influences on KPop have also been credited to collaborations with Western artists with some songs even written and produced by these artists. A few examples are SHINee’s Lucifer (Bebe Rexha) and BTS’ Make It Right (Ed Sheeran) and the list runs very long on this one. 

Yet despite the heavy touch of Western music on KPop, there are still differences between the two. In an article by The Rolling Stone, it noted that “K-pop songs kick the familiar rhythms of American pop music up a notch” by mashing up cultures and genres. According to songwriter Rodnae “Chikk” Bell, “Korean pop music likes differentiation and changes. The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies.”

But perhaps the difference between these two genres lie less on the musical part but on the overall aesthetic and industry process. In terms of aesthetics, when people think of KPop, they often quickly associate it with weird and high production concepts, colorful and avant-garde. This has been the mark of KPop leading to stereotypes in the genre. 

Second, the business of being an idol in Korea is a cutthroat competition from training to debut and unlike most Western artists, they are well-rounded from singing to dancing to even skills in variety shows. But training can take up to years without an assurance of really being able to perform on stage. On the other hand, to make it to the top of the Western scene or even just get little attention, Western artists are heavily judged on vocal ability (but less on the performance).  

Establishing these points, is there really a better and more popular music genre? 

Discussions on Reddit, Quora, Twitter, and other social media platforms have collected a number of differing opinions. Those who have been fairly exposed to both music genres also have different takes. Some argue that with the influence of Western music in KPop, it’s considerable that Western music is far better. But some contend that it may be a disadvantaged match in terms of musicality but the substance of KPop songs, especially pointing to groups like BTS who write their own songs, are better because these songs talk more about in-depth topics unlike Western songs which mostly revolve around sex, objectification, and drugs. 

But the bottomline in these discussions is that music still stands to preference and it’s unfair to describe these genres in stereotypes. Fans who throw in comments that Western music is limited to certain topics (and low-level ones as they describe it) are just the same as those who say that KPop is just all about cute, catchy, and sing-along vibes attracting viewers with aesthetics. There’s no superior music and each genre has its own charms and credits. 

In terms of popularity, one Quora user has pointed out that while BTS may have been revolutionizing the music scene with its growing influence thanks to its millions strong ARMYs, the fact remains that they have only broken through Western music which implies that Western music still sits atop the throne. Korean Pop music is still a trend and BTS’ success in the industry does not cement KPop in the international music scene. 

These are valid points but it should also be taken into consideration that popularity nowadays is scaled digitally and the streams and the strong force of KPop fandoms on social media prove that the power of KPop can not be underestimated. 

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