The inspiration for this post came from a recent article published on allkpop, written by a friend, Jeff Benjamin. If you haven’t already read it, here’s a quick summary:
NS Yoonji and G.NA are two female K-pop artists who have a shot of achieving mainstream success in the United States because:
- They speak English fluently.
- Their sex appeal would work with Western audiences.
- They’d be able to work with a number of genres.
I agree with many of his points. I think if NS Yoonji or G.NA were to debut tomorrow in the United States, with a song produced by Dr. Luke or RedOne or Stargate, I’m confident that they’d be able to grab part of the demographic that currently listens to Rihanna or Katy Perry, and maybe even land on the Billboard Hot 100 (and not just the Billboard K-Pop Chart).
But here’s the catch – not under a Korean record label.
Korean entertainment companies are notoriously bad at understanding the American market; the failed debuts of Rain, BoA, Se7en, Wonder Girls, and (dare I mention) JQT provide evidence enough of this.
The reason I wrote this is because Jeff’s article stopped tantalizingly short of a far more interesting question. Whether NS Yoonji or G.NA can use their sex appeal and English fluency to achieve mainstream success stateside is besides the point; the real debate that’s worth writing over a thousand comments about is, “Why can’t K-pop make it in the United States?/Is it enough to speak English to make it in the United States?”
The answer, of course, is complex and multifaceted. It’s not as simple as “America only likes solo artists“, because if you’ve been listening to the radio recently in the States, One Direction, a British boyband, has scored two huge hits with “One Thing” and “What Makes You Beautiful“. And it’s not as simple as, “Americans don’t like Asian entertainers“, because there are good counterexamples - Steve Aoki is one of the leading faces of the EDM movement, and Far East Movement had a Billboard #1 single in 2010.
One important factor that does makes a difference, though, is the indisputable fact that K-pop is still very much a derivative genre that owes the majority of its trends (with some significant exceptions) to American pop.
Here’s a great example – the use of dubstep drops or breaks in K-pop. Dubstep first began to make its way into pop music in earnest last year in the States because musical acts wanted to jump on the “it trend” of the moment (dance music). Then, at the 2011 Gayo Daejun, we heard not one, but three special stages with dubstep drops, followed by a number of singles incorporating dubstep (the latest example being “Action“, by rookie group NU’EST). Why is this worth noting? Because dance music and dubstep is nowhere near as mainstream in Korea (forget Asia) as it is in the United States. This variety of trend-mimicry is a problem that I’ll explore later on in this piece.
The American music market is also incredibly competitive, and here’s the cold, hard, truth: with this amount of competition, talent becomes orthogonal to success (unless you’re a once-in-a-generation talent like Prince or Michael Jackson). No one in America wants to see a bunch of Asians get on stage and do a vocal cover of Beyonce or a rap cover of Eminem. Contrast that to the way Korean variety shows are styled, where idols are constantly given opportunities to show their vocal covers and their dance skills.
In America, talent is taken as a given (loosely defined). This quote from the New York Times does a good job summarizing these sentiments:
“And so it falls to Mr. Harrell not just to elicit sterling vocal performances, but also to preserve and highlight what’s distinctive about each voice: Ms. Lopez’s blend of husk and flirt, Rihanna’s petulant purr, Mr. Bieber’s sweet coo. ‘Rihanna, you hear two bars — Oh, my God, that’s Rihanna,’ Mr. Harrell said. ‘You can hear that tone in your head.’” (Source: New York Times; Pitched To Perfection: Pop’s Silent Partner)
What stood out to me was the last quote from Mr. Harrell – “…you hear two bars – Oh, my God, that’s Rihanna”. What this really says is that vocal talent is important, but what’s even more crucial is individuality, something unmistakably you.
But more often than not in Korea, it’s better to follow trends – to look like someone and do what’s popular – consider, for example, the amount of buzz companies and netizens drum up over celebrity doppelgangers, or the recent adoption of Jeremy Scott‘s collection for Adidas by almost every label.
That stuff just isn’t as important stateside.
As Kuk Harrell, one of the most sought-after vocal producers in the industry, noted in a video interview accompanying the same article, “I’m not looking for great pitch – I’m looking for passion. Listeners always identify with passion.” (New York Times).
In that same article, we get an insight into what American record companies believe is the key to pop stardom and why they’re willing to shell out the millions that vocal producers like Kuk Harrell make a year.
“We want to enhance the artist’s authenticity,” said Chris Hicks, who was until recently executive vice president at Island Def Jam, home to Mr. Bieber, Ms. Lopez and Rihanna. “You buy a Bieber or Rihanna because you believe in them, and this is part of that.” (Source: New York Times; Pitched To Perfection: Pop’s Silent Partner)
Note that Mr. Hicks doesn’t talk about talent, or things that are quantifiable, or measurable. He talks about qualitative, subjective things. Mr. Hicks’ decision to highlight qualities like belief and authenticity — necessarily skipping over the opportunity to highlight the sweat and effort artists put into their music — in and of itself shows us the value hierarchy Mr. Hicks, and perhaps other American music executives, subscribes to.
Authenticity over training. Uniqueness over talent.
Does K-pop have the authenticity factor? It’s important because authenticity is a myth that Americans cling dearly to. It’s part of the reason Justin Bieber captures the popular imagination and why he might actually have the staying power to become his generation’s greatest star. He’s talented, but there are tons of other kids who have equal amounts, if not more talent. It’s more about the story that he told in his box-office hit, “Never Say Never” – raised by a single mother, discovered on YouTube, becoming an overnight sensation. It’s a Dickensian rags-to-riches narrative that perfectly molds to our desire for authenticity from our artists.
In the end, K-pop fails to tell the kind of story that American audiences can believe in. The idea of a trainee system, beginning with auditions and taking years and years of specialized vocal and dance classes, isn’t the kind of romantic story that listeners in the States want to hear. It’s not palatable, and it doesn’t sit well – isn’t it child abuse, one might wonder, to put someone through hours of practice like that?
So we return to refine the question that’s worth debating. It shouldn’t be about, “Do you think this K-pop star has the talent, or the looks, or the English speaking ability to succeed in America?“, but rather, “Is this K-pop star different enough from everything else in the American market right now?” and/or “Does this K-pop star have the right story to sell to audiences?*”
What I’d like to humbly suggest to K-pop artists that seek to make it in the West is this: Stop copying Western trends. I can promise that Western audiences will not respect you for mimicking what’s already been done. The only way K-pop is going to stand out in America is to be different.
And here’s how you know you’ve really made it – when American labels are willing to invest money for your debut in the States.