If you are from an English-speaking country, K-Pop is probably not the first genre of music that you have ever listened to, so what got you into it? What made you listen to K-Pop even if you didn’t know the meanings of the lyrics? What made you have an interest in learning the choreography or singing along? It is most likely from the music itself: the catchy melodies and the beats that shape up the appeal. However, K-Pop music isn’t really all that different from Western pop. If you have never listened to K-Pop and only listened to the instrumentals, you would not have guessed where the song was made in.
Pop music is short for popular music which embraces many genres. You may have listened to Western pop which can range from Hip-hop, Dance, Jazz, R&B, and even Rock. Although Western pop has countless types of music, K-Pop does too. Growing up listening to American music, I didn’t feel a shift in taste when I started listening to Korean pop. The sounds that we always hear in Western pop is so diverse that we are accustomed to many kinds of music.
Because of this, listeners compare many K-Pop songs to Western pop songs because they sometimes sound alike. To my ears, for example, SEVENTEEN’s “Don’t Wanna Cry” has a chorus part that sounds like The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This”, which both have an electric future bass base. Triple H’s “365 Fresh” sounds to me somewhat like Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” because the beat is mixed with a kick and a bass while having guitar and brass sounds in the background. The light piano sound with a mellow 90s feel is heard in Red Velvet’s “Talk to Me” as well as Ariana Grande’s “The Way”.
The abovementioned examples are, strictly speaking, about how they sound to me. You may or may not agree with me. However, believe it or not, some K-Pop songs use samples of Western songs. This is either easily detectable or very subtle. A well-known example is the intro for EXO’s “They Never Know” and BTS’s “Dead Leaves”. This caused a feud between the two fandoms about plagiarism and copyrighted material without knowing that this was actually a sample from Blackbear’s “Dead Roses”. Also, Pentagon’s “Critical Beauty” uses the catchy intro of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”. Other examples are K-Pop songs that sampled almost all of a Western song and used a similar title but tweaked it to match the idol’s style. Examples include Keb’ Mo’s “Am I Wrong” for BTS’s “Am I Wrong” and Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” for I.O.I’s “Whatta Man”.
These examples show the tremendous amount of influence Western pop music has had on producers of K-Pop music. On the other hand, Western music has rarely used K-Pop music samples so far.
In my opinion, what makes K-Pop stand out is more from the visuals and the performance than the music itself. The songs come with impressive choreography for stage performances which are also very appealing to the audience. From this, K-Pop music is stereotypically very upbeat and various melodies include many sounds to keep the listeners’ attention. Not only the songs they perform but the image of idols and the groups they form have a huge impact on their reputations as performers. This can change depending on their audience. Some groups have started to expand to global markets such as BTS, Blackpink, and NCT 127. Therefore, their sound is adjusted to “fit” more with Western music by having less variety of melodies, and they might even mix in more English words in the lyrics for anyone to understand.
Like this, it is very easy to tell that K-Pop sounds like Western Pop because they have gotten plenty of inspiration from Western music, and they even use direct segments of some songs. Nevertheless, K-Pop producers manage to constructively adapt different kinds of sounds to fit idols’ images. This gives them a positive reputation in places like the West where most of their influence comes from.
Although she was born and raised in Tokyo for most of her life, she is bilingual in English and Japanese and studies at an international school. She moved to Hong Kong for two years and experienced a variety of cultures. With her international background and her interest in music and the arts, she is determined to spread the distinct K-Pop culture even further to the West through videos and articles.