K-pop is a form of popular music whose significance goes beyond its financial success.
In January 2021, Esquire published Emma Carey‘s article, “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music,” which acknowledged the slippery nature of the label of “pop,” but also declared: “In simple terms, pop music is literally. . . popular music.” It goes on to explain the criteria for the listing of best pop bands: “When it comes to pop bands, we’re basically just looking at collectives of hit-makers, no matter their pop purity or crossover creed. From rock and roll adjacent pop bands like The Beatles, to Motown greats like The Supremes, R&B/pop/ crossovers like Destiny’s Child, and disco-influenced pop acts like ABBA, the variety of pop bands knows no bounds. The only requisite to making the cut? Topping the charts.” The article lists only one K-pop group, BTS, a choice that conforms to list’s criteria. For Esquire’s list, economic success equals chart success and chart success equals popularity.
But should chart success define popular music? Elijah Wald, author of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, reminds us of the original function of music charts: “It is always worth remembering that they were intended specifically to serve the needs of the record and radio industries, and at best measured only selected markets. The charts of pop, R&B, and C&W hits were never meant to be lists of people’s favorite performers or songs; they were lists of favorite–or most-played, or best-selling–singles” (181). Wald reminds us that the whole concept of charts serves the music industry rather than audiences. Currently, charts like Billboard use a method that includes paid digital downloads and digital streams. Both indicate economic impact, or how well an act sells.
K-pop’s audiences are spread across ages, locations and, most importantly, greatly vary in their ability to contribute to the economic criteria for the charts. There are many K-pop fans who may not have access to paid digital downloads, streaming plays and streaming data or may not engage with them frequently. Using these metrics do not capture how these fans feel about their artists. Moreover, it is widely known that K-pop fans work to collectively mass stream their favorite artists to improve their performance on these metrics, so that such metrics do not always reflect an organic popularity. When we define popular music by economic success, we marginalize and erase significant figures from the landscape of K-pop, which skews our perception of K-pop as a music tradition spanning over 20 years.
It might help to view K-pop as popular music defined beyond economic success. In Understanding Popular Music, Roy Shuker warns against using commercial success as a basis for a definition of popular music: “Related to this emphasis on the popular, are definitions emphasizing the commercial nature of popular music and embracing genres perceived as commercial, with the term ‘mainstream’ often used to indicate these. . . . In such definitions, certain genres are identified as ‘popular music,’ while others are excluded. However, this approach can suffer from the same problems as those stressing popularity because many genres have only limited appeal or have had limited commercial exposure. Moreover, popularity varies from country to country and even from region to region within national markets” (5).
Defining popular music solely by its financial success marginalizes and excludes. Shuker suggests that music can be popular without widespread financial success: “The criteria for what counts as popular, and their application to specific musical styles and genres, are open to considerable debate. Classical music clearly has sufficient following to be considered popular, while some forms of popular music are quite exclusive (e.g. Norwegian black metal)” (5). K-pop is like Norwegian black metal in that it appeals to a subculture not in the mainstream but it is still popular music. Wald is concerned with avoiding reductive canons that can emerge when we solely focus on popularity defined by economic success: “One thing I want to stress is that I am trying to write history, not criticism–that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and 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). In other words, Wald seeks to look at the context that surrounds popular music rather than assume that the best-selling are the only significant figures. Considering K-pop as popular music would mean going beyond the best-selling artist to explore the musical environment of the time.
Emma Carey. “The Best Pop Bands of All Time Prove the Universal Power of Music.” Esquire. 30 Jan 2021. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g35279080/best-pop-bands/ (2 Mar 2021).
Elijah Wald. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Roy Shuker. Understanding Popular Music. Routledge, 2016.
K-pop as Popular Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.