Asian Pop and Appeal

So, Asian pop is catchier than the measles.

To be fair, you could say that about just about any variety of popular music. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all; go over four decades back now and you can hear the influence of ‘60s American pop-rock in Rouge no Dengon, down to its Motown-like backup vocals. Then the latter half of the next decade showed the same full-bodied embracing of the synthesizer as seen in the West. And more recently and across a different ocean, there’s little outside the literal lyrics used in Jag Kommer that makes it specifically Swedish rather than the product of some U.S. or South Korean label.

The songwriting industry as a whole clearly had figured out the sweet-spot appeal of the now-conventional A-B-A-B-C-B verse-chorus structure ages ago, to the benefit (or detriment, depending on your taste) of every market. But there’s something about Asian pop music in particular that feels like the strong elements of the medium have been reverse-engineered in a way that new compositions can have as wide an appeal as possible, making it stand out from almost anything else in the medium.

Of course it is. The genre is explicitly pet-named for the descriptor “popular”. That’s the whole point of it.

It’s worth noting that there clear consistency to the way these things are written, especially for those groups regularly pushing the top of the charts. For example, take the Girls’ Generation albums from 2008 and 2011 – every single track is between 2:42 and 4:25 long, and if you take away a small handful of outliers, that narrows rapidly to between 3:11 and 3:54. I suspect a non-zero part of this to be music videos (and, by extension, three-act structure and visual language) being an especially strong element of modern music groups’ brands, but that doesn’t seem to tell the whole story – similarly video-heavy US-based groups like Gorillaz generally see broader spreads within albums released in the same years.

Even those divergent from the aforementioned chorus-verse pop structure follow some bookended (starting and ending with the chorus, but otherwise similar), condensed (e.g. A-B-A-B), or embellished variation of the same core concept. And where many try to set themselves apart by injecting some English “hook words” in their chorus or backing lyrics to draw attention, enough make the same interest grab that it, too, becomes a conventional part of the song structure (even if some take this idea and run away with it – I’ve Got A Boy, we’re looking at you). It’s all fad-like, in a way, always chasing after a fresh flavor of a proven idea.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” after all.

Clearly there’s some underlying similarity in their construction, which leaves the draw of any given track to the strength of individual groups and vocalists. Each imposes their own variations and character on familiar, proven conventions, which may be a substantial part of why the bands themselves feel like they have such a strong appeal whereas the genre as a whole seems more “take-it-or-leave-it” than most.

It’s great that anything in The Eagles’ library instantly recognizable as them regardless of the principal songwriter or that Lady Gaga’s distinct style permeates her entire library. But that in turn ties their identity to a specific style and personality, which in a way makes them the best analogue to what I find to be the real appeal of Japanese and Korean pop. For groups that change over time, that evolution is generally either fairly gradual or historically results in a dichotomy among fans between the “old stuff” and “new material”.

But the structured, directed approach taken by Japanese and Korean pop writers creates a more even field on which musicians can impose a distinct sound that certain outfits and especially vocalists bring to the table, and the distinct style can carry across a single album with as many as seven principal songwriters across twelve compositions. That isn’t to say, of course, that the songwriting behind every group is interchangeable. Asian pop groups, as a whole, have a tendency to operate within a fairly broad window within their individual discographies.

Even for bands with relatively consistent composition and a distinct flavor of performance, like angela‘s aggressive, warbly vocals or personal favorite Supercell’s solid pop-rock foundations, you get occasional one-offs standing in contrast to their usual image – the former’s poppy and youthful Aoi Haru comes to mind, as do the latter’s visible releases explicitly made for and performed by Hatsune Miku by way of Sony Music (or any lyrics not revolving around saccharine adolescent emotion, if you’re looking for sung poetry). And it’s a borderline trope for one or two songs on any Korean girl-group album to include a hip-hop bridge (more often than not a cross-promotional cameo by another artist) despite that being a total genre break from the vast majority of the kind of sound associated with them.

Speaking of the Vocaloids, there’s a whole separate conversation to be had on the fascinating history of that whole sub-industry, the very Internet-age nature of the music productions associated with them, and just how bizarre its ongoing existence as both a brand and revenue-generator is. Suffice it to say, the very literal and very transparent construction of characters to be the face of a line of synthesizers feels like the logical conclusion of a very personality-driven industry.

Because of the high-budget industry in which they operate, each of these faces has a strong brand built into them that is mostly summed up by their music, but extends further than that, including their social media presence, as themes to TV series – all aspects of their public-facing “performance”. As much as the songs have a personality, in turn there’s a certain human personality (or set of personalities) that are associated with the them in turn, providing a context that brings the music above what it might be in a vacuum.

Divergent expressions of the same idea.

Again coming back to music videos, TT’s Twice leaves its most distinct impression not as much in its melody or audio performance as it does in the simple, cute, and infectious choreography associated with its video. Put any other song with in the same genre and tempo in its place behind the visuals, and you still have an enthralling performance that makes you want to get up and dance along. Then you have each member’s individual take on the same color and style of outfit in the group shots – a microcosm of that individuality within a field of music artists, and a common motif among K-pop ensembles – that further impresses a certain image of each person that is built upon by distinct costuming, backdrops, and choreography in their solo appearances in the same video.

In short and as an illustration of the point, I don’t necessarily love all of IU’s music directly, and that’s because her works are as often collaborations as they are her own. Rather, I appreciate it because of what she’s done with broad-strokes material, and because (quite frankly) she personally comes across as sweet and endearing. And, sure, the latter is pretty explicitly a construct of an industry machine that churns out captivating figures to latch onto (and can chew up those who lash out off the worn path, but that’s a whole other can of worms). But at the end of the day, having a strong enough identity to stand out from those starting on the same foundation and ingraining a flavor of personal growth into her musical brand speaks plenty enough – just in a different, fine-tuned way that from-the-ground-up musicians can’t quite match.

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