One of the first things I wanted to do with my book, Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop, is to recognize K-pop’s history and development. Placing K-pop within a historical context is crucial to the way we ultimately understand it.
K-pop is often seen in present-day terms. It is described and treated as a short-term trend. Much of what many people know about K-pop comes through the media. Journalists tend to focus on the current developments and their coverage of K-pop is no exception. K-pop’s coverage includes metrics of popularity, such as views, streams, charts and awards. We need that coverage.
At the same time, Elijah Wald sees a difference between the way critics and historians approach popular music in his introduction to How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2011):
The critic’s job is to assign value and importance on an artistic level, which necessarily is a judgment about how the work stands up in the present. The historian’s is to sort out and explain what happened in the past, which means attempting to understand the tastes and environment of an earlier time. And the latter task also involves sorting out and understanding how earlier critics and historians were affected by their own times. (8).
My book, in part, tries to understand K-pop, beginning with what it actually is. As early as 2013, I explored how we could talk about K-pop in a way that recognized its highly visible pop groups (i.e. “idols”) but also included other types of groups that K-pop fans also liked, thereby avoiding the often-repeated myth that K-pop is a genre (“Let’s Call This Song Exactly What It Is: Defining K-pop” 2013).
Understanding K-pop also involves recognizing K-pop’s iterations and developments over time, which is much more like a historian than a critic. In addition to talking about the way black popular music informed K-pop, I felt that it was also important to talk about K-pop examples and explain why these examples were important within the larger historical narrative of K-pop. For example, each section of the book begins with a bit of contextualization, explaining where the groups under discussion fit in the general history of K-pop and how they relate to each other.
For example, g.o.d, a first-generation K-pop group, and 2PM, a second-generation K-pop group, were both labelmates at JYP Entertainment and their sound draws from black popular music. While the prevailing notion is that all “idol” groups sound the same, these groups couldn’t be more different in terms of genres of black popular music they draw from and the way they use their vocalists to produce very different music. Only by understanding them in relation to each other can see how they are related as well as their differences. Ultimately, I emulate Wald’s attempts “to write history, not criticism–that is, . . . [to] explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work” (10). Like Wald, I’m more interested in connections among artists across time.
K-pop warrants a consideration of its history because it impacts the way we see it now.
Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop (2020, University of Mississippi Press) explores how K-pop draws on various genres of black popular music and how fans deem such practices as authentic. It is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and University of Mississippi Press.
Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Writing About K-pop: History and Context by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.