Learned #21: K-Pop'd

In which we learn about Korean pop music.

The performers dancing in the confines of my iPad's screen are uniformly young, good looking in an effeminate, effete way, surprisingly diverse, and yet impossible to tell apart save by their differing wardrobe. The twelve-year-old girls I am teaching know every word and are eager to tell me all about their favorite member of...whichever K-Pop boy band this is.

Every teacher has found themselves in a scenario like the one above. The decade, the faces, the names, and the fashions may change, but the danceable beat and the superlative marketing machines never, ever sleep. As I write this, I'm a few years past 40 and thus have been completely disqualified from ever making cogent statements about pop music*, but K-Pop is on the rise and, like most fads, it intrigues me.

The caveat behind this entire issue is that I don’t actually like K-pop.** It’s just not my taste in music. However, the reason it fascinates me is that the marketing behind K-pop is internationally savvy on a level rarely seen and something I think we’ll see more and more of as globalism completes inevitable assumption of everything we hold dear.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: K-pop!

  • What We're Reading: Yoko Kanno’s Cowboy Bebop

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: In the Enlistment Train…Changes

Let's get to it.

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

What We're Learning: Korean Pop



  1. ever-present, featured everywhere, omnipresent, all-over

  2. K-pop

Okay. K-pop may not be ubiquitous yet, but it is on the rise and it's coming to your town.


In major U.S. cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Houston, K-pop concerts have sold out venues seating 1,700 to 2,500 music fans. In 2011 the nine-member dance-pop group Girls' Generation performed to a sold-out audience, along with other K-pop acts, at New York's hallowed Madison Square Garden.

This by itself, should be enough to make even the punters sit up and take notice of the existence of K-pop, but there’s more:

BTS, a seven-member all male group from South Korea, beat Post Malone with their album Love Yourself: Tear to take the No 1 spot on the Billboard 200, which ranks albums by sales in the US. The group’s third full-length record sold 135,000 equivalent units, which includes a combination of traditional sales and streaming, in its first week.

As it turns out, BTS is the very group my students were so excited about, but what caught my attention was that this Korean boy band was singing in Japanese. I learned (from the girls, and later from Wikipedia) that a full half of the bands’ albums are recorded in Japanese, and that they perform in Japan nearly as often as they perform in Korea (and the States).

Which makes sense. Japan has one of the largest music markets in the world and its own local pop music scene (J-Pop), in many ways, set the template for other Asian markets by introducing a “graduation” system where in the membership of differing groups can be, and does, change often. This allows for breakout stars to begin solo careers and for younger artists to get valuable training time with the team before being shown to the spotlight.

K-pop has taken that system a step further by branching out internationally. Members of its groups are routinely scouted for their ability to speak, or sing in, other languages. One of the other groups my students love, Twice, a girl group, has three Japanese members, and was formed expressly with the purpose of being able to sell in both markets.

This commercial mindset is found over and over in the K-pop world. And well it should be - it works. The groups bringing in foreign, or mixed-race, or multi-lingual members are thriving. They are able to foster fanships around the globe, even in countries where non-English music does not traditionally do well. (*cough* America *cough*)

Personally, I think it’s the rough edge of a trend. It’s working for Korea. It’s beginning to work for Hong Kong (English pop has been a thing there forever, as you’d expect, but they’re branching out into other languages), and it might work for Japan, if Japan can ever get out of the way of its own success.

(I realize I’m leaving out reams of examples and counter examples from Europe, West Asia, and Africa - but my impression is that pop artists from countries in those areas follow the usual trend of singing in their native languages as well as English; I don’t think there is as much of a trend of, say, a Swiss artist recording an album in Russian. Maybe I’ll look into that for another article, another day.)

Back in the native-English speaking world, non-English albums are regarded as something of a creative one off. Iggy Pop singing in French, etc. But it begs the question of whether a trend like the one happening in Korea could ever take off in the U.S. Will we ever see One Direction releasing an album of Japanese pop songs? Will we ever see a band like Backstreet Boys put together with members specifically chosen for their ability to break into non-U.S. markets?

Probably not right away. Maybe not ever. But it would be something to see…

Further Reading:

*You might be reading this and thinking "Wait, I'm over 40 and my thoughts about pop music are still relevant!" Sorry, they're not. Just ask any 12 year old.

**Not a slam; I respect the work the performers put into their art and I don’t believe in like-shaming - there should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” If you like it, it being whatever you’re into, then great, enjoy!

**IPA, y'all!

What We’re Reading:

Yoko Kanno's Cowboy Bebop Soundtrack (33 1/3 Japan)

by Rose Bridges

Three things:

  1. Cowboy Bebop may be the best anime ever created. I mean, my personal favorite will always be Macross, from whence came Robotech, but Bebop is a close, close second and, arguably, a much more mature and grown-up story.

  2. The 33 1/3 series is still one of the best ways to get the in-depth stories behind the music we all love and that they have opened up a Japan division expressly for publishing the sort of books I’m recommending today has me all kinds of stoked.

  3. “Tank,” by Seatbelts, is quite possibly the greatest theme song ever written for any show, ever.

Right. Now that I’ve repulsed and frightened you with my nerdery, let me talk a little bit about the book. Bridges takes a deep dive into the worlds of anime and jazz and how they intersected in a single-season, weirdly romantic, and, at times, deeply silly anime about a bounty hunter and his quest for vengence. It is really, really good.

Part of what made it so good, and what made it stand out, was the soundtrack. While other anime were putting together vapid, by the numbers, J-pop, Bebop’s episodes were filled with jazz and blues numbers that punctuated the scenes in deliberate, sometimes delicate, ways.

The same creative teams have gone on to produce a few other wildly creative and inventive anime, each with their own distinct soundtracks (Nujabes’ OST for Samurai Champloo is sublime acid hip-hop jazz, and Space Dandy takes all the tropes of pop and stands them on their ends) but Bebop was the first, and the best, and I’m going to go re-watch it now.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

It’s been said that pop music unites us. It’s true. It unites us by giving us a common foundation on which to build culture. And, sometimes, we have to go down the rabbit hole to figure out that shorthand when its for a culture other than our own.

In the final episode of Age of Youth 2 (also known as Hello, My Twenties!), a popular coming of age drama, Seo Jang-Hoon has just left for his compulsory enlistment period, leaving girlfriend Jo Eun behind. At their parting, Jo Eun teases Seo Jang-Hoon by singing “In the Enlistment Train,” a 1990 song by Kim Min-Woo about, well, enlisting in the army. Later, at home, Jo Eun’s roommates sing the same song to her, teasing her that she is not more upset…until the next morning, when Jo Eun overhears Song Ji-Won singing to herself while doing the laundry. Jo Eun breaks down in tears.

It’s a beautiful set of scenes and highlights how a song can give us a kind of shorthand for expressing complicated emotions or difficult to elucidate thoughts.

And sometimes, those cultural touchstones just make you cry…

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.