What is it about K-pop sonically and compositionally that makes it so unique?
This is the question that the team behind K-Factor: An Orchestral Exploration of K-pop set out to answer. In stripping the K-pop performance of its flashy dancing, intrinsic concepts, and beautiful performers and instead utilizing a 50-piece orchestra, we were taken on a trip through the structures and sounds of K-pop in hopes of answering the question: what is that “K-factor” that makes K-pop what it is?
A quick first glance at the night’s setlist gives us one immediate answer: dissonance. K-pop familiars would immediately recognize genre-clashing, jarring songs like Girls’ Generations’ “I Got A Boy,” Weki Meki’s debut single “I don’t like your girlfriend,” and Blackpink’s “Kill This Love” among the list of modern era tracks. But those were only one-fourth of what the night had to offer. K-Factor’s selection offered up a variety of unconventional tracks segmented by purpose, starting in the 1900s and carrying us through to 2018. Through the setlist, we learned it’s not just dissonance but cinematics and genre-blending that highlight the uniqueness of K-pop.
We start with “Three Anthems” featuring “Aegukga” c. 1910, “Aegukga” c. 1936, and “Arirang” c. 1926, highlighting how the 1910 version overlays Korean lyrics to the music of Scotland’s “Auld Lang Syne,” and come full circle with BTS’ “Idol,” two of the songs in the night’s set defined in part by their use of non-Korean music (contemporary South African takes on house) with traditional Korean music. Sandwiched between these two were performances that navigated through the pre and post-war music that set the foundation for modern K-pop, like the frenetic “Overtime” by Kim Min Gi and “Nan Arayo” by Seo Taiji and Boys. These then bled into auditory epics like TVXQ’s “Rising Sun” and dark masterpieces like EXO’s “MAMA” and Ga-in’s “Tinkerbell,” all songs that embraced unconventional progressions and darker storytelling themes in the same vein as their anti-establishment predecessors.
Among the many songs that could not or were not chosen to be featured, there might be songs that do not immediately fall into the buckets of jarring or dissonant– so what is their K-factor? For us, we walked away from Thursday night’s performance with the understanding that it is not these themes exclusively that make K-pop what it is, but rather the freedom of musical exploration that only a space like K-pop can create. Oftentimes, and especially in response to “weird” sounding K-pop songs (looking at you, “Zimzalabim” and how incredibly on the mark K-Factor was to end with a Red Velvet medley), it’s easy for certain releases in K-pop to draw doubt that they were haphazardly thrown together. Fans contribute their two cents using the ideas of “listenability” and “public friendliness,” swapping these words out for “mass appeal” and the idea that a song that everyone likes equals the most successful of K-pop tracks. But K-pop has never tried to be just that. K-pop has always played with its influences to create something entirely new and wholly unique unto itself.
In “The True Value of K-pop,” a panel preceding K-Factor, we had the privilege to listen to SM Entertainment A&R Executive Chris Lee outline the history and visions of one of the most prolific companies in K-pop, if not the one that really propelled the genre as we know it today. Gleaning insight into how SM uses music to spread Korean culture worldwide, we ourselves have a newfound level of respect for how much value and love is placed into their music-making process. That love translates into the boundary breaking and explorative approaches to music that may not be for everyone, but that are valuable in their own right. K-pop is constantly creating something new. While K-pop may experience trends, we as consumers never have to worry about an aversion to newness limiting what artists and companies put out. That’s how we can get something like Davichi’s revolutionary, song-splicing “8282” in a sea of traditional ballads.
This is particularly poignant considering the most pervasive narratives of K-pop in the last few years, especially in Western media. In addition to the aforementioned weirdness in K-pop that doesn’t resonate with all listeners, there is also a black and white interpretation of music forming where the value comes not in its construction or sound but who is listed in the credits. By boiling the night’s selection of songs down to their compositional skeletons, and conveying every track through the same 50-piece orchestra, K-Factor highlighted the intricacies and nuances of the genre as a whole. It’s here that we can discover new, interesting insights into the magic that is K-pop and all that it strives for, regardless of who pens the track.
This is the time to be thinking about K-pop in refreshed ways and K-Factor provided just the outlet for that. Over the last few years the West has boxed K-pop into a few simple definitions, which leaves it ripe for new exploration and interpretations on the subject. Now is the time for engagement– which we received not only through K-Factor, but through Chris Lee’s supplementary panel. The goal of Lee Soo Man and SM Entertainment to share Korean culture globally, the exploration of Koreanness, and the innovations of Korea being spread by K-pop–these ideas were pervasive throughout the night. Where better to showcase this deep dive into a culture gaining worldwide attention than in a culturally rich space like the Lincoln Center?
Written in collaboration with Dhania Kamayana and Shelly Pires