How K-pop is Enhanced by not Knowing Korean (or English)
There’s been much talk lately about the Korean Wave’s relationship to soft power, or how K-pop and K-dramas have been utilized as a political tool to win the “hearts and minds” of people around the world. Evidence of such a phenomenon has been cited through the global increase in people’s affinity towards learning about Korean culture, including the Korean language.
Has the proliferation of K-pop into various markets around the world actually caused more people to want to learn Korean? Yes and no.
It’s not that there aren’t more people who are learning Korean because of their interest in Korean pop culture, there’s just relatively not that many of them. Of course, there are those who seek to brush up on their Korean so that they may interact with their biases upon that fanciful moment in which they might encounter them one day, or because it will be beneficial to them when they travel to Korea in an attempt to increase the ultra-slim likelihood that they would run into their biases. Perhaps the glamorous lifestyle as displayed in MVs or dramas has caused more people to want to live in Korea, or it’s simply made them want to live and talk more like a Korean. I’m sure that these sort of people exist (and I mean no offense if you are one of them). It’s just that there isn’t a significant number of them when compared to the hordes and hordes of people who are rushing to learning Mandarin Chinese and Arabic due to greater extrinsic motivations: political and economic.
With that said, the lyrics in K-pop aren’t doing too much in convincing international fans to learn Korean either. In fact, a lot of songs tend to reduce the role of lyrics in order to cater to an international audience. By purposely disposing the importance of lyrics, splicing in random English words, and relying more on universally recognizable chants (bamratatatata), K-pop is accessible to the international fan in many ways other than language. Along with MVs which readily display the concept and theme of the song, it gets to the point where language is no longer a necessary component in conveying the message and emotions of a song.
Not only are the Korean lyrics unimportant in most songs, I’m going to argue that they actually detract from the quality of some songs. Understand that I am speaking from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t know Korean. I tend to only look up the lyrics to songs that I really like. Upon being disappointed time and time again by the utter lack of depth or even the dearth of meaning that the lyrics convey, I’m starting to not even bother. It’s even worse when I spend the effort to look up the lyrics and find that they are so disappointingly bad that it actually undermines the initial positivity I had about the song. Here’s an example:
Upon seeing the fiery and rebellious concept presented in the MV for EvoL’s “We’re a Bit Different,” I anticipated a song with anarchist undertones along the lines of B.A.P’s “Power.” Intertwined with many visual symbols of rebellion, intense rap verses, and hip hop elements, the girls of EvoL seemed fiercer than 2NE1 at first glance. However, upon further inspection of the lyrics of the song, it turns out to be nothing more than a simple dance track. To say that the concept was deceiving would have to be an understatement. They simply hid behind the façade of a fierce concept as a marketing tool for promoting a song whose contents are a far cry from the visual context provided. Nevertheless, the song is still highly catchy and in-tune to those who are familiar with and attracted to the heavy electro beats, fiery raps, and saucy dance moves associated with fierce girl groups. All the right things are in place in promoting EvoL as a sexy brand of girl group. It’s quite fitting that the title of their debut song states that they are just a “bit” different, and not a whole lot different from most other groups who sing about mostly nothing.
T-ara is another girl group whose songs are notorious for not having much meaning despite their videos being spectacular concept showcases. Focusing in particular on their body of work with industry hit-maker Shinsadong Tiger, these songs are infamous for their senseless hooks which contribute largely to the addictive chorus and much less so to conveying any meaning whatsoever. Their titles alone are nonsensical: “Bo Peep Bo Peep,” “Roly Poly,” “Lovey Dovey,” and “Sexy Love.” The translations of their Korean lyrics do not provide much clarification as to what these titles actually mean. As a matter of fact, they seem so hilariously simple that they do not provide much meaning beyond what a second-grader could understand. Take a gander at a sample of the lyrics from 2011’s top selling hit, “Roly Poly.”
Roly Poly Roly Roly Poly
Even if you push me away
I’m going to come back to you
Roly Poly Roly Roly Poly
You’re only going to see me
I’m going to show you who I am
Why are you looking at the time
Time stopped the moment we met
I really like you
It’s a shame because the MVs for their recent trio of Shinsadong Tiger hits are fabulously produced. The on average 15-minute long dramas that are made for each track ties far more emotion and meaning to the song than do the lyrics. Not only do the MVs come with extended drama versions, but the dance versions also provide additional appeal to the international and domestic fans. If one were to ask non-Korean speaking fans about the things they associate with “Roly Poly,” they’re likely to say that it has this nice retro feel, an unbelievably catchy hook, a very popular dance, and that the song probably has something to do with the nostalgia an older generation feels for their disco-rocking days as youngsters, as expressed in the mini-drama MV. Even if one were to ask the same question to Korean fans, they’re probably not likely to mention anything about the lyrics of the song because they know that they’re unimportant and mostly irrelevant to the concept of the song. As with “We’re a Bit Different” and “Roly Poly,” the appeal of K-pop is more in the song’s concept than in its actual meaning.
Let’s take this notion a step further. I’m going to argue that K-pop is better enjoyed by those who don’t know English either. Disregarding the plain fact that English is necessary in marketing K-pop internationally (with English song titles in particular which make the songs better recognizable for international audiences), there have been countless examples that have made English-fluent fans wish they never paid attention to grammar lessons in school. While there is an enormous body of work we can choose from which contains head-scratching misuses of English in the lyrics, here are a few recent examples which I have found quite vexing.
Of the most random insertions of English into the chorus of a song, the most comical may be from SNSD’s recent Japanese release, “Flower Power.” The three repeated English words in the chorus are “butterfly,” “spider,” and “flower.” Given that the song is in Japanese, and that K-pop artists tend to throw in a bonus amount of English words as a substitute for Japanese lyrics, the detached yet frequent repetition of these three words in an attempt to synthesize a catchy chorus leaves the English speaker quite puzzled as to what this song is actually about.
It turns out, upon further research, that these three words are actually used as metaphors to describe a theme of deception. But in what way are non-Japanese speaking international audiences supposed to know that? Instead, we are left wondering what spiders, butterflies, and flowers have to do with a sexy concept of dancing stewardesses in a club. As with most people, I would rather focus on their concept and music without puzzling over the reason for the oddly inserted English lyrics.
Another candidate for the most humorous misuse of English comes from Teen Top’s “To You,” which is repeated in the chorus as “To you, to you, to you now.” Unfortunately, little did the producers know that by not emphasizing more of the “t” sound in “to,” and also by stressing the “to” and unstressing the “you,” it sounds more like they’re saying “Do you, do you, do you now.” The line’s amusing implication I need not elaborate. This may be the only example where knowing the English lyrics actually provides the song with additional meaning, albeit not the one originally intended by the artist.
None of the songs mentioned above, however, comes close to the following example in its tendency to absolutely drive me nuts. “If You Love Me” by NS Yoon-G featuring Jay Park contains many examples of good English, especially those featured in Jay Park’s introduction, rap verses, and ad-libs. That makes sense given that both artists were raised in the US and spent a significant amount of their childhoods there. However, during the middle eight, NS Yoon-G’s vocal crescendo climaxes with the blatantly obnoxious line, “Hold me too tight.” Let’s get this straight. There are not one, but two Asian-Americans in this song. There should be no reason why there should be any foul grammatical errors in the lyrics! How could this have happened? How does NS Yoon-G, who apparently attended UCLA, feel about such a grammatically atrocious line? Does she cringe like I do every time she performs it? Head-scratching indeed.
Lyrics are the particular reason why I avoid listening to certain kinds of American music. Present day American hip hop is known for its gratuitous use of senseless and demeaning lyrics, especially in reference to women. Like K-pop, American party tracks which speak of nothing more than hitting the dance floor, moving this or that body part, consuming different variants of drug, and flaunting various symbols of wealth also provide no sense of depth outside of their catchy beats and glamorous MVs. I can understand why certain types of American music are so popular abroad. It’s because non-English speakers don’t have to deal with comprehending the vulgarity and the idiocy of the lyrics! Similarly, it wouldn’t be hard to understand if Koreans feel the same way about K-pop.
That is not to say that there aren’t songs in mainstream K-pop which do not fit the mold. The lyrics of miss A can be at times empowering. Epik High, Brown Eyed Girls, and Sunny Hill amongst others are known for their meaningful lyrics, as well as thought-provoking MVs which provide further depth to their songs. It seems that artists who work with lyricist Kim Eana (including Brown Eyed Girls, Sunny Hill, and Lunafly) have songs which come with lyrics of substance. Especially in the case of Lunafly, whose simplicity concept comes with nothing more than a plain rendition of the members performing in a studio, their emotionally sweet and meaningful lyrics are a big part of their appeal. Lastly, Song Ji-eun’s solo debut, “Going Crazy,” is a great example of how lyrics can make a concept more hauntingly vivid. The song’s alternate MV featuring Song Ji-eun and Bang Yong Guk adds a more disturbing, if not utmost creepy, element to the beautifully crafted song.
Nevertheless, the primary advantage of not knowing Korean (or English for that matter) is the ability to ignore the lyrics. A big part of K-pop is evidently meant to draw attention away from the lyrics. Concepts and themes are clearly expressed through the music and the MVs. As with American music, senseless, disturbing, and degrading lyrics at times get in the way of enjoying the musical quality of the songs and the brilliant production of the MVs. It’s better to enjoy the music as intended for an international audience and to neglect the lyrics which don’t seem to be intended for anyone. But then again, K-pop artists and karaoke enthusiasts do require some words to sing to.
What is your favorite meaningless Korean or English lyric? Which diamond in the rough song did you discover that actually contains meaningful lyrics? As always, please let us know in the comments section.