Like all people not living under rocks, I’ve noticed the rise and sustained international popularity of Korean pop, with a fanbase nigh-unmatched in current times. I first caught wind of its global rise about ten years ago, when one Starcraft 2 tournament after the next would feature music videos of hits such as “Gee” and “Bubble Pop!”—Korean esports and K-pop seem to go hand-in-hand. But while there are K-pop songs I enjoy (and I can appreciate the creativity of BTS), there’s always been a sleek and shiny veneer that I’ve felt preventing me from embracing the genre entirely.
For a long time, I’ve wondered what exactly was the nature of my reticence. Recently, though, I read a 2019 article by a student journalist Yuzu I. comparing K-pop and J-pop (a genre I’m relatively more familiar with and enjoy more), they laid it out in a way that helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings. Essentially, the big difference between the two—or rather K-pop and the idol strain of J-pop that is so prevalent—is that K-pop is about presenting an image of perfection, whereas J-idols want fans to follow along in their growth like unpolished gems that their support to achieve greatness. It’s that “out-of-the-box” flawlessness that I think has always given me a slight pause when it comes to K-pop.
To be clear, I don’t think that the J-idol route is somehow more authentic; it’s merely presented as such. The two are different approaches towards the same end of getting loyal fans and hitting it big culturally and/or monetarily. That’s okay—they’re products designed to engender certain feelings in their audiences, like so much of entertainment. The ability to see your heroes improve and level up until they’re the strongest around is a hallmark of certain manga genres, and I can’t help but note that similarity to something like AKB48.
I find that the aesthetic of K-pop perfection is not limited to Korean pop culture or its music. It might not even be the primary driver of that aesthetic, as I often get a similar sense from more visually oriented forms of social media like Instagram, or even the way that video production has changed over time with Youtube. I understand why such things have occurred, and I don’t think it’s right to fault people (or even companies) for wanting to make their stuff look good. It reminds me of the concern among mothers about the pressure they feel from “Instagram moms” whenever their own lives are less than idyllic. I’m not saying that K-pop (or anything else) needs to show its performers behind the scenes screwing up and getting into fights—merely that while some can take positive inspiration from this totality of spotless presentation, I’m not naturally inclined towards that.
Unless, perhaps, you give it to me in the form of a cool cartoon.