Dropping the K: Can K-pop ever be just pop?


Le Sserafim’s “Perfect Night” (2023) dominated music charts without a single word in Korean, and JYP Entertainment’s VCHA debuted with just one Korean member — it seems as though the larger K-pop grows, the smaller the capital “K” in K-pop gets.

As the made-in-Korea music genre continues to grow each year, its Korean-ness is becoming increasingly replaced with diverse cultures and languages, not just in its songs but also in the makeup of the groups themselves. But does this mean that it’s time for K-pop to drop its prefix and dive into the pop music world at large?

'Drop the K': K-pop guru

Such an argument has been repeatedly made by BTS producer and chairman of the largest K-pop company HYBE, Bang Si-hyuk. He has emphasized on numerous occasions that “K-pop has to drop the K and become ‘just pop’ if it wants to become the true mainstream genre of the world” since last year.

HYBE founder and chairman Bang Si-hyuk explains the company's global audition program ″The Debut: Dream Academy″ in Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 2023 [HYBE]

That would explain all the non-Korean endeavors that have been taking place across the HYBE dominion: girl group Le Sserafim’s collaboration with U.S. game company Blizzard’s famed video game “Overwatch” for its all-English track “Perfect Night,” a global girl group audition program “Dream Academy” jointly held with Universal Music Group’s subsidiary Geffen Records, and acquiring music labels in the Americas including Ithaca Holdings, Quality Control (QC) Media Holdings and Exile Music, the music label of Spanish-language media company Exile Content.

The company has indeed been making more dollars overseas in recent years, with 63 percent of its revenue coming from outside of Korea in the first half of 2023. HYBE’s main goals for this year are global expansion and exporting the K-pop system.

Of its 2024 projects, the debut of girl group Katseye is anticipated to be the biggest project so far, at least in terms of the company’s ambitions.

The six members were finalists of “The Debut Dream Academy,” and just one bandmate holds a Korean passport. Sophia is from the Philippines; Lala, Megan and Daniela are from the United States; Manon is from Switzerland and Yoonchae is from Korea. A date for their debut has not been fixed yet, but the company aims to do so by the end of June.

“Katseye members were chosen by a joint venture founded by HYBE America and Universal Music Group who are receiving attention for their potential to prove the globalization of K-pop that we have been pushing for,” a HYBE spokesperson said.

Girl group VCHA during the Mexican leg of girl group Twice's world tour [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

'Ready for the World'

One visible trend is that K-pop agencies are teaming up with companies outside of Korea to directly target the international market, rather than growing a band at home and trying to take it abroad.

K-pop teams specifically targeting Asian markets were formed in the past as well — such as HYBE’s &TEAM, JYP Entertainment’s Boy Story and NiziU, SM Entertainment’s WayV, CJ ENM’s JO1 and INI, FNC Entertainment’s Priki, MLD Entertainment’s Hori7on and more — but the difference is that the freshest batch of debuts do not aim for just one country but a much broader audience.

Coming months ahead of Katseye is VCHA, pronounced vicha, JYP Entertainment’s newest girl group that came as the result of a joint project between JYP Entertainment and U.S. music giant Republic Records.

The members are six finalists of audition program “A2K,” or America2Korea. There are four Americans, one Canadian, and one member, Kaylee, who has dual nationality in the United States and Korea.

Girl group Black Swan on Dec. 7, 2023 [NEWS1]

VCHA dropped its pre-debut single “Ready for the World” on Dec. 1 last year, and made its official debut with “Girls of the Year” on Jan. 26.

SM Entertainment partnered with British media TV production company Moon&Back Media last November to create a boy band. Moon&Back Media will be in charge of casting talent in Britain, while SM Entertainment will create the music and choreography for the boy band. A six-part TV series showing the production process will air within the second half of this year.

YG Entertainment also announced a new audition series in collaboration with Japanese entertainment company avex that will take place in seven cities around Japan. Online submissions are being accepted until March 10 and further details will be announced later, the agency said.

SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man during a conference held in central Seoul on Feb. 14, 2023 [YONHAP]

Hallyu 3.0, the 'culture technology'

The streak of global partnerships had actually been foretold over a decade ago under the name “Hallyu 3.0” — by SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man in 2011.

According to Lee, Hallyu 3.0 — or the third phase of the Korean Wave, or Korean content export — follows the first phase in which Korean content is simply exported to foreign markets, and the second where overseas companies or celebrities collaborate with Korean content, finally ending at a point where Korean companies export the “culture technology” of Korea by establishing joint ventures with overseas companies in a true realization of localization.

Culture technology refers to more than the content — i.e. K-pop songs or groups — but the systematic structure of the K-pop and K-entertainment industry that led to the birth of the content that we see today.

Girl group Le Sserafim's ″Perfect Night″ photo [SOURCE MUSIC]

Simply put, the true globalization of K-pop is when Korea exports not only the dish but also the ingredients and recipe for K-pop. It’s not where it’s made but by whom it’s made that’s important, because K-pop is not just a genre of music but a system — a system that includes the nurturing of potential teenagers, making of music, marketing of products and branding of stars.

“There has been so much discussion surrounding the question ‘What exactly is K-pop?’ ever since 2011, when K-pop songs started going outside of Asia,” music critic Kim Zakka said.

“The definition of what it is has been a flexible one, but the general consensus has been that it’s the whole industry, not just a style of music or looks. Korean companies are taking their expertise in auditioning, training, image-making and branding and planting in U.S. soils. And the very fact that music giants have accepted that system is evidence that K-pop is being benchmarked as a business model targeting the teenage audience.”

Girl group VCHA during the Mexican leg of girl group Twice's world tour [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

What is K?

Defining K-pop has indeed been a difficult, if not impossible, task.

Is it the Korean lyrics? If so, how much of the lyrics need to be in Korean? Does this mean that Le Sserafim’s “Perfect Night” or Jungkook’s “Seven” (2023) are not K-pop songs? What about songs that are written in Korean then translated into other languages: Does the song suddenly lose its K?

The same goes for the nationality of the members or where the company that trained a group is based.

It is neither the number of Korean people in a group or agency nor the place from which the group debuts nor where the agency is established that gives it the K-pop sticker, because there’s nothing solid or quantifiable in K-pop to use as a rule of thumb. Rather, it is a chain of businesses, beginning from the auditions and training process to music production, publishing and marketing, where new value is added at each step.

Girl group Le Sserafim [SOURCE MUSIC]

And rightly so, according to Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University.

“K-pop is an industry and culture, which means it’s fluid and adaptable,” he said.

“There have been various attempts in K-pop to go global, whether that be to seem more Korean or less Korean. BTS, for example, emphasized the K, while Jungkook tried to forgo the K in his solo music. Both were successful, but would it have been the same for any other Korean artist who didn’t start out as a K-pop star but just labeled themselves as ‘pop’ from the very beginning?”

“It shouldn’t be simply be about removing the K,” he added. “This is high time to think about the true essence of K-pop and how we can maintain the K identity while still making it global.”

Global contestants of ″The Debut: Dream Academy″ posing for photos with HYBE founder and chairman Bang Si-hyuk at center [HYBE]

To K, or not to K

Returning to the conundrum of “Is it time to take the K off,” one realizes there is actually a bigger conundrum that is not whether to take off the K now, but whether or not to take it off at all, insiders say.

On the one side are the protectionists who argue that the K is not a scarlet letter but a luxury branding that makes the customers want them more, if not at least a safety cushion that protects it from bigger competitors.

“The reason Bang Si-hyuk or Lee Soo-man argued what they did is because their artists are big enough to compete in the big leagues, but that’s not the case for the vast majority of K-pop artists,” said one industry insider who wished to remain anonymous.

“Overseas K-pop fans will listen to a song from the smallest groups just because they carry the K-pop nametag. K-pop itself is a brand that attracts more listeners, and taking it off would be imprudent to say the least. Can we truly say that K-pop is big enough to compete with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé in the same arena?”

Global contestants of ″The Debut: Dream Academy″ [HYBE]

On the other hand are the reformists, the likes of HYBE’s Bang and SM founder Lee, who claim that K-pop will never be able to truly compete with global pop musicians with the K stamp embedded into their music. Whether it be the language of the lyrics or the nationality of the members, the lesser the Korean-ness, they say, the wider the audience.

"It's only natural that the K fades away — in a way, it's already happening," music critic Cha Woo-jin said.

"We say that we want K-pop to take over the world, to top the global music charts. But that's just not possible with a song that's sung in Korean. Could we imagine a Japanese song topping the local music charts? Expanding inevitably comes with conforming to the market that we want to adapt to. Dropping the K shouldn't be considered as abandoning our identity, but about finding a method to becoming popular music in the global market."