Scholars can take very different approaches to K-pop. Doing so simultaneously contributes to the overall knowledge about the subject and shows significant gaps in scholarly examinations. Some focus on K-pop as a music industry propelled by fandom, while others examine its historical roots.
In looking for critical approaches to emotional expression in music, I discovered the work of Patrik N. Juslin, Anders Friberg and Roberto Bresin, who propose a computational model to analyze emotion is music. This computational model simultaneously de-emphasizes cultural meanings of music while providing a vocabulary to describe emotional expression in music.
In “Toward a Computational Model of Expression in Music Performance: The GERM Model,” Juslin, Friberg and Bresin note that there are several approaches used to study the expression of emotion in music, including “generative rules,” “essentic forms,” ” cues from vocal expression of emotion,” “composers’ pulses” and “physical motion” (64). In response, the authors propose a computational model that integrates these approaches, the GERM Model: “The general aim of the GERM model is to describe the nature and origin of patterns of variability in acoustic measures shown over the time-course of a human music performance” (65-6). The authors go on to describe the way these approaches come together in a way that allows them to draw meaning from a computational analysis.
On one hand, the computational approach does not seem to be compatible with my inquiry, which focuses on how English-speaking audiences of K-pop determine emotional meaning from music which contains lyrics in a foreign language, namely, Korean. Attempting to apply a computational model to creative expression seems odd, in that such an approach uses something akin to the scientific method to reduce artistic nuances to numbers, formulas and algorithms. Indeed, Juslin, Friberg and Bresin use just that language to describe computational methods, for they note, “It is commonly suggested that the central act of the scientific method is to create a model,” which “is a simplified representation of a phenomenon in terms of its essential points and their relationships” (65). From a cultural studies point of view, this still leaves certain questions unanswered. Moreover, the classical music and subsequent performances under investigation in this study may be more amenable to a computational approach than popular music, which, by its very nature, is structured differently.
On the other hand, the authors do provide a vocabulary that I can use to describe the emotional expression of music. In describing the GERM model, the authors note scholarship that shows that “performers are able to communicate specific emotions to listeners” by using “a code which involves a whole set of acoustic cues (i.e. bits of information)”(71). They proceed to summarize such cues and link them to certain emotions. For example, the authors associate “fast mean tempo” and “bright timbre” with happiness, a positive valence, but “slow mean tempo” and “dull timbre” with sadness, a negative valence. Because many of us listen to music so often, we may be so familiar with such cues that we do not pay them much attention. However, such a summary is helpful in that it can help me to reveal these common cues in K-pop and understand how listeners make meaning out of them.
“Math in Music Project.” The Mathinator. 12 Oct 2012. Web. 2 Jan 2014.
Juslin, Patrik, Friberg, Anders and Roberto Bresin. “Toward a Computational Model of Expression in Music Performance: The GERM Model.” Musicae Scientiae 5 (2001-2002): 63-122.
Whether it’s excited yelling by fans or crying by K-pop artists, emotions run deep in K-pop. While some focus on obsessive emotional attachments and behaviors by fans, research shows that fans themselves describe a range of emotional responses to K-pop. 100 responses by 18- to 30-year-olds show that fans find K-pop to be a source of happiness, hope and motivation. These responses are part of a five-year study on international fans of K-pop housed at KPK: Kpop Kollective.
Some writers tend to characterize fan activities and emotional expressions in negative terms. Patricia of Seoulbeats describes emotional expressions of appreciation for K-pop as bordering on obsessive: “I think there’s something to be said about my stance on the emotional toll that idol fandom takes on its devotees. That’s why I become so alarmed when I see these SHINee fans writing these intense emotional outpourings about how SHINee has changed their lives, or how much SHINee means to them. It breaks my heart to hear fans say that they turn to K-pop as a distraction for real life because their friends and family can’t offer them the same comfort that K-pop idols do.”
Adeline Chia writes that such emotions translate into obsessive behaviors: “Then there is K-pop’s effects on listeners. It turns functional people into crazed addicts, acting in robotic idolatry. . . . K-pop is also unique in inspiring extreme behaviour from fans and generating psychosis. Cyber-bullying and online smear campaigns are common practices by anti-fans who target a certain entertainer they hate. Sometimes, anti-fans turn into stalkers or criminals.”
To view entire “Can’t Stop Loving You” infographic, click here.
However, fans talk about the emotional appeal of K-pop in more positive terms. Some talk about overall emotions that go beyond the lyrics. One notes, “Kpop has the power to touch people even for those like me who don’t understand the lyrics. I think [it] is the r[h]ythm, the emotion in the voices, the dances. Kpop is like a best friend, it is here for you whenever you are happy or sad. Powerful stuff.” Another said: “The music is more touching and you can feel the emotions of the singers when they sing regardless of what genre.” Others link emotions to performances: “They sing and perform with passion and emotions, so even if you can’t really understand the lyrics you will get to know what it’s about by just listening. Kpop is not just another type of music it’s much more, that I can’t describe it with words” (Anderson).
These responses echo what scholars have discovered about emotional responses to music that transcend cultural differences. In a study with Western listeners listening to Hindustani ragas, Laura-Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson find that it is possible for music to travel cross-culturally: “According to our model, this indicates that the psychophysical cues for joy, sadness, and anger were salient enough to enable listeners to overcome their unfamiliarity with culture-specific cues and to make an accurate assessment of the intended emotion. . . . That naive listeners demonstrated such a high level of agreement with expert listeners, who were deeply familiar with the culture-specific cues embedded in the music samples, is remarkable” (58). In other words, listeners from other cultures can identify emotionally with music of a different culture, and this may shed light on why global fans identify with K-pop emotionally.
This emotional response runs the gamut. Many respondents describe how they find K-pop to be fun and happy. One notes, “Cause the music is always so free and fun to dance to. It simply makes me happy.” Another adds, “The songs are really refreshing, and listening to it puts me in a happy mood because of their lyrics and beats.” Other respondents link the happiness they feel from K-pop to their lives in general: “It always puts me in a good mood and makes me feel energized. Kpop sometimes can make you feel like your part of something bigger. It’s hard to explain but the feeling it gives you is great” (Anderson).
Others related K-pop to more somber emotions. One respondent says, “Because it’s very different and the music touches something in me, I mean this is not superficial, there are feelings in every song, this could be happiness or some sad feelings.” Another notes, “When I listen to sad songs I find that it have feelings in it and it will touched me too.” One says, “There’s an upbeat to the music that sometimes make you want to dance other times depending on where you heard it from makes you sad” (Anderson).
Some fans talk about how K-pop helps them through hard times. One respondent notes, “It was introduced to me at a hard time in my life and it has been the only music I listened to help me get through it.” Another says, “Kpop appeared in my life all of a sudden. I was really depressed back then and it helped me get out of my miserable state, pulled me out of the worst” (Anderson). Music can have the therapeutic effect these respondents describe. Annemiek Vink explains therapy methods, such as Guided Imagery in Music, which is “based on the assumption that the most appropriate music can be selected for healing purposes.” She further finds that the choice of music impacts the therapeutic results of GIM: “In all aspects, carefully selected music based on the person’s preference and personal background was far more effective than standard relaxation music” (153, 154).
This range of fairly positive emotions challenges negative characterizations of their emotional expression. These responses come from adults rather than young teenagers, so it is less convincing to describe them as obsessive along the lines of Chia. She refers to incidents involving K-pop celebrities, but respondents speak about their emotions mostly in relation to the music. When they do comment on the artists, it is often in terms of the positive relationship they have with fans. One notes, “The singers are so dedicated to their music and their fans. They put their real emotion into every word” (Anderson).
This emotional connection that some K-pop fans feel also translates into a discourse of protection, the desire to protect their group or artist from mischaracterizations. The Triple S Pledge encourages fans of SS501 “To support and shield them through hard times…To ignore rumors.” The same sentiments can be seen in the “Prom15e to Bel13ve and 10ve” philosophy held by some fans of Super Junior, which acknowledges every member regardless of current status or sub-group membership.
These findings suggest that emotion plays a role in the attitudes and opinions of adult global K-pop fans, often in a positive way.
Anderson, Crystal. Infographic. “Can’t Stop Loving You.” 14 Dec 2012. Web.
European Kpop Fans. Digital Image. WeHeartIt. Originally posted on european-kpop-fans.blogspot.com. 14 Dec 2012. http://weheartit.com/entry/29104058
Anderson, Crystal S. “Data Set: Hallyu Kpop Survey 2 and Kpop Kollective KiFs Survey 2, 18- to 30 Year Olds.” Korean Popular Music International Fanbases Project. 29 Apr 2011 – 15 Apr 2012.
Balkwill, Laura-Lee and William Forde Thompson. “A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music: Psychophysical and Cultural Cues.” Music Perception 17. 1 (1999): 43-64.
Chia, Adeline. “Sick Cult of K-pop.” Originally published on Straits Times. 8 Dec 2011. SGSJELFs & SupershowSG. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://sgsjelfs.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/sick-of-k-pop-cult-by-adeline-chia-of-straits-times/
Patricia. “Fans Love Oppa, But Oppa Is Uncomfortable With Such Feelings.” 24 May 2011. Seoulbeats. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://seoulbeats.com/2011/05/fans-love-oppa-but-oppa-is-uncomfortable-with-such-feelings/
TS Pledge. Triple S: The States. Web. 8 Dec 2012. http://triplesstates.blogspot.com/p/about-triples.html
Vink, Annemiek. “Music and Emotion.” Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 10.2 (2001): 144-158.
“Can’t Stop Loving You: Fans Find Happiness, Solace in K-pop” by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Originally published on KPK: Kpop Kollective on December 14, 2012.