In recent years, k-pop has taken the world by storm. The first band that will probably come to mind is BTS, and it’s no wonder; the seven-member boy band have achieved three number 1 albums in less than a year, performed at numerous sold out arenas across the US and UK, and recently (August 2020) got their first US number 1 single with ‘Dynamite’, their first song entirely in English. Another huge k-pop band currently taking over the globe is the all-female group BLACKPINK, made up of four members. They’re the first ever k-pop band to join the ‘billion views club’ on YouTube, with their single ‘Ddu-Du Ddu-Du’. However, labelling BTS, BLACKPINK, and all other popular artists from Korea as ‘k-pop’ is narrow and restrictive – imagine if Stormzy, Little Mix, Ed Sheeran and The Beatles were all labelled ‘b-pop’ simply because they make/made popular music in the UK. It wouldn’t even begin to touch upon the diversity between these four artists. This is the issue that arises from labelling all popular Korean music and artists as ‘k-pop’, and is why we should define these artists by genre, not nationality.
As put on Ask a Korean, the bands BTS (hip-hop), IU (pop) and FT Island (light rock) have very little in common musically, but are all labelled ‘k-pop’. They continue, stating “the commonality among IU, BTS and FT Island is not, and cannot be, music. Their only commonality is that they all perform popular music of Korea” which sums up this over-simplification perfectly. Similarly, as these current bands are simply given the same generalised label, each wave of music that has come from Korea into the mainstream has been labelled ‘k-pop’ – again, imagine if every wave of popular music from the UK had been called ‘b-pop’, despite the obvious shifts from rock n roll, to pop-rock, to psychedelia, to drum and bass, and so on. It would be a definition based upon country, opposed to musical style, which doesn’t make sense.
In their Netflix documentary Blackpink: Light Up The Sky, the band and their music producers discuss this topic. They delve into the limitations of the all-purpose label ‘k-pop’, and argue that it takes away from their creativity and individuality. Even in the context of BLACKPINK, their members, Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa, come from a mix of countries – Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Australia. This alone shows that, despite the band creating popular Korean music, their influences range from a mixture of cultures and should not be defined by this one label. In a 2018 interview with Goldman, Suga from BTS stated similarly “I’m a little careful to talk about Kpop as a genre because I don’t want to be defining Kpop as a genre”, arguing that k-pop is more an “integrated content” of genres, fashion, visuals, and more, opposed to simply a style of music.
Although it’s easy to fall into the trap of calling popular Korean music ‘k-pop’, this is far from the all-purpose label that it claims to be. Instead, call BTS a hip-hop band as you would Brockhampton, and call IU an R&B artist – when you really think about it, ‘k-pop’ doesn’t make sense as a genre, and shouldn’t really be considered one. Rather than call these artists by their musical country of origin, refer to them and their genre as you would if they were an English or American band/artist.