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Korea Blog: Why K-Pop Is the Same as Classic Rock

Pet Sounds passed the 50th anniversary of its release about half a year after I moved to Korea. That same day, I later learned, also marked the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde; this year brought that of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Despite never having owned any of these iconic albums myself, I know them when I hear them (mostly, these days, at Peter Cat), as, no doubt, do plenty of kids in the West 20 years younger than me. Or at least they know a fair number of their songs, many having developed that familiarity almost inadvertently. Many in their great-grandparents’ generation probably went through a similar process: even if they loathed the then-audacious sounds of the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan or the Beatles, they eventually grew to recognize them, and even, sometimes, to grudgingly appreciate them.

One common reaction to these records’ semicentennials involves lamenting a perceived decline in all the popular music since, a long, slow erosion of craftsmanship and adventurousness perceptible in the comparatively low quality of newer songs’ lyrics, composition, performance, and even recording. Westerners in Korea, given to complaint even in the best of times, must agree and then some, surrounded as they constantly are by the sounds of modern “K-pop,” that synthetic, artificially sweetened, assembly-line-manufactured product of interchangeable (and often indistinguishable) idol singers and the boy bands or girl groups from which they emerge — or at least Westerners in the West might imagine.

When trying to explain the place of K-pop in everyday Korean life, I often talk about gyms. When I work out at the one in my neighborhood in Seoul, I do it to its soundtrack of K-pop, its volume set, typically, a few notches higher than background music in other countries. (Even the gym itself, part of a national chain, has its own K-pop-style theme song, played at 8:00 every evening while its staff of uniformed trainers marches around the weights and through the treadmills greeting every member individually.) When I worked out back in America, no matter when or where, I did to a soundtrack of “classic rock,” an FM radio format that, like the current K-pop playlists in Korea, doesn’t thrill anyone excited with its curatorial genius, but doesn’t draw any complaints either.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.