The Foreigner’s Guide to K-Pop

For those of you who have not had the joy of being exposed to K-Pop (Korean pop music), this upbeat genre features both male and female groups which generally have around five fiendishly attractive performers, and a group leader.  While Korean music hasn’t cracked into mainstream Western society yet, it is a cultural phenomenon that extends into Japan, China and Southeast Asia.

K-Pop is one of my favorite parts of Korean culture and does wonders when it comes to relating to my students.  Music really is a universal connector, so the sooner you learn popular songs of the country you reside in, the more cultural inclusion you can experience.  Therefore, in the name of expanding cultural horizons and enjoying some delightfully mindless music, I’ve complied a list of must-know K-Pop songs to begin your musical education…

  • Miss A – Bad Girl, Good Girl (It’s sassy, it’s catchy, it’s delightful)
  • T-ara – Bo Peep Bo Peep (T-ara members spend most of the song just looking cute and winking at the camera, but A. they can dance, and B. this song is seemingly omnipresent on the streets of Seoul, so it is worth a listen or two or seven)
  • SHINee – Ring Ding Dong (If for no other reason, listen to this so you can help me understand the usage of “ring ding dong” as a lyric)
  • Outsider – Alone (Okay, this one technically doesn’t count as K-Pop because it’s rap music, but it’s still awesome, and Outsider is the fastest rapper in Korea so I like to give credit where credit is due)

To better understand the glory that is K-Pop, I’ve boiled the essentials down to four bite sized sections to help overview this international craze.  Consider it your guide to K-Pop music, from one foreigner to another.  You’re welcome.

The English

One of the trickiest parts of mastering K-Pop is learning how to pronounce the group names, as this can be a dead giveaway that you know nothing about the genre, and loses you street cred.  Admittedly, the use of English in the group names leaves something to be desired.  Take F.Cuz, B2ST, and 2ne1, which are pronounced as Focus, Beast, and Twenty-one, respectively.  Group names are designed to trip up the educated English speaker, so proceed with caution, or Wikipedia the life out of the group before engaging in any K-Pop discussions.

Equally off-putting can be the sprinkling of English throughout the song, which leads to delightful lyrics such as “Her whisper is the Lucifer,” “He’s not Superman, he must be mama boy,” and “Rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka so elastic/fantastic fantastic fantastic fantastic” which I am still trying to wrap my mind around.  It may be a complete mess grammatically, but it’s likely the only part of the song you’ll be able to pronounce correctly, so go with the flow and belt that “English” out.

The Lyrics

Jury’s out on the caliber of K-Pop songs, as nearly everything is sung in Korean, of which I understand little aside from ordering food and apologizing for my unimpressive linguistic breadth.  That being said, the fact that every song is in Korean does not stop me from trying to sing along, resulting in an unsightly, garbled performance akin to Bulgaria’s Valentina Hassan taking a stab at Mariah Carey’s Without You. It may not be pleasant, but hey, K-Pop isn’t really designed to contribute to musical evolution, so don’t feel bad about swallowing your pride and brutalizing a historically rich language.

The Dancing

Say what you want about what K-Pop singers bring to the table musically (admittedly, some members are just there as eye candy), but damn can they dance.   I’m not sure if dance skills are a strict requirement when new members are being considered or if there’s just some awesome choreography going down, but either way, I’m impressed.  The majority of K-Pop singles will even have a dance tutorial in addition to their regular music video to help fans break it down in style.  Take this opportunity to seek solitude in your apartment, dim the lights, and master the dance moves from your favorite video.  My students may laugh when I preform the complex hand movements from SHINee’s Lucifer, but I know they’re just jealous that they can’t dance with the same reckless incoordination that I have come to take for granted.

The Members

Generally speaking, boys tend to love the girl groups, and girls love the boy groups, which isn’t too hard to understand when you factor in sex appeal.  That being said, teenage girls are a force to be reckoned with when they set their eyes on a boy band member, and Korea has a plethora of posters, buttons, pins, and t-shirts to keep even the most die hard fans happy.  It is not enough to simply follow one group — but a well raised lady must be educated on her favorite member, and be able to defend him in front of peers.

K-Pop certainly isn’t for everyone, but when introduced with the right setting and company, it can be a nice guilty pleasure.  Listen to it when you need something upbeat, fun, or simply mindless to get your day started.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I indulge in K-Pop on a daily basis, and busting dance moves that would make Elaine Benes proud… and neither should you.

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