As K-pop further breaches the conciousness of Western media outlets, including many mainstream publications, the portrayal and coverage of the genre may not always be what K-pop fans envision. There have been multiple instances of articles, podcasts, videos, news reports, and more, being called out for inaccuracies and misrepresentations, the latest and most spectacular of them being the cancellation of Fuse’s K-Stop podcast.

However, there is also content that manages to largely pass the close scrutiny of K-pop fans, presenting facts, information, and insights in a way that doesn’t want to make the average K-popper want to tear their hair out in frustration. For this Roundtable, we would like to celebrate such content by asking our writers: what K-pop related media from mainstream Western publications have you liked, and why? What makes for good K-pop coverage in the West, and what do you think fans can do to encourage more of it?

Mark: I honestly can’t think of anything other than this one New Yorker post from 2012 which helped me define “Cultural Technology” and gain a greater understanding of Lee Soo-man‘s vision. Other than that, I tend to stay away from any type of K-pop coverage from Western media outlets. I hate to toot my own horn here, but I think our coverage offers so much more value to K-pop fans than any Western publication. That goes for many of the other K-pop blogs out there which do a much better job of serving K-pop fans than do the large media corporations who are just moonlighting in their K-pop coverage to cash in on what is to them a momentary trend. If fans really cared to have more informed articles on K-pop from the larger media outlets, they should start directing them to some of our posts. Toot toot!

Qing: I don’t keep close tabs on Western (which, as Camiele noted in the last Roundtable, often implies American) coverage of K-pop, but the odd BTS article does make it to my Twitter timeline. A recent piece that really impressed me is The New York Times’ review of Love Yourself: Her. It’s concise at just over 400 words, but manages to be an excellent album review that also draws relevant links to the larger K-pop scene, and is almost free of the common pitfalls of many Western articles on K-pop.

It’s not too surprising that this article, as an album review rather than a cultural piece or artist feature, focuses on the musical aspects more than anything else. But it refreshingly cuts straight to the music without exposition on the album’s concept or a list of achievements, as articles on BTS seem wont to do. It’s very coherent as an album review: there’s pithy analysis woven around the central idea of ease, but the writer also works in nuggets of information about the members behind the music, and how their skills work together.
Even when it briefly broadens out to the K-pop scene, the writing trains focus on the music, deftly side-stepping sweeping generalisations about how “glossy” K-pop and its “squadrons” of boy bands and girl groups are. The only reason I said it is almost and not completely free of the common pitfalls is that, like many Western articles on K-pop, it falls back on comparisons to Western artists (think the “Shawn Mendes-esque guitar intro” of “DNA”, and categorising Jimin as a “lithe singer in the Justin Bieber vein”).
It’s an efficient way to prompt instant recognition in the reader who may be more familiar with Western artists than K-pop ones. But such comparisons obscure key differences: Jimin’s voice may lean towards the breathy side like Justin Bieber’s, but it’s smoother, with an ethereal quality to its lightness, and doesn’t sound much like Bieber’s raspier timbre when you actually listen to it. I wish the writing gave that extra push to capture what Jimin’s voice or the “DNA” intro sounded like, without going down the easier route of using comparisons.
And that’s what I hope Western coverage of K-pop, whether music-focused or not, works towards: seeing and talking about K-pop in its own terms and contexts, instead of always approaching it as either a fascinating Other wunderthing with an ugly underbelly, or by flattening out its uniqueness in favour of familiar, understandable parallels to the Western self.

Leesha: I really like this write-up CNN did on Jay Park being signed to Roc Nation. They were a little late to the party, but the story isn’t just about breaking barriers or being the best or ignoring the efforts put in my other groups/artists. Jay was really…humanized? It felt like l was learning about the man behind the music, that there was a reason to him getting this huge opportunity that went beyond fandom or charts. Jay isn’t an “idol” anymore so there isn’t the hype and the effort into charting and streaming, etc. that groups like BTS get, so it’s easier for Western media to convert that hype into coverage. The Jay article is well researched and feels mature vs a lot of the BTS articles that are super repetitive.

 Sorry, not sorry, they’ve been using those three letters for clicks and at this point it’s getting annoying to read the same three facts rearranged. K-pop dedicated sites can offer more of a personal touch, and, if they’re willing to go there,  more critical analysis/coverage because we know what we’re talking about. I think if fans want real coverage, and by that I mean, things that aren’t copy + pasted Wiki facts or pulled from the source’s own charts, they should be aware of what the articles they’re sharing say. Don’t just click and share because your fave’s name is in the title. Fact check. Hold authors accountable. If you can do it to us here then don’t be afraid to call out “big names” for the same thing. Don’t settle for simple exposure when your group/artist is worth more.
Jennifer: I think I’m just hyper-critical, but I find a lot of Western coverage on K-pop to be so frustrating to read: like yes, they’re breaking barriers! They have an international audience! Yes, they’re Korean and yes, they use makeup and yes, they actually can make music that is enjoyable! There’s so little Western input that actually gleans beyond the surface and numbers and the hype over K-pop.
K-pop culture is composed of so many little cultural facets that go ignored in Western coverage, and it’s hard to really understand and appreciate K-pop until you’re slowly exposed to and start to understand that sort of culture. My friends who don’t listen to K-pop are often really astounded and look at the K-pop industry very differently once I explain the whole training and debut concept to them, and the differing standards of beauty is something that I have to constantly deconstruct and explain each time a new friend of mine watches a K-pop MV.
K-pop is really nuanced, and it’s not something that can be covered in a blanket article that just talks about a group’s most recent notable successes in the international music market: fan-to-idol interaction is a huge thing that you see in K-pop but not really in the Western music market, and it builds a strong and loyal fanbase. On the flip side, the puritanical and politically correct standards that K-pop idols are held to domestically and internationally are huge and it becomes a huge minefield for fans and idols to navigate. There are so many complexities that are involved, and they should be getting more attention.
At the same time, I do have to admit that change has to start from somewhere. Increased exposure does spread the names of your faves, and makes people more aware. I’m not saying that authors shouldn’t be critiqued or that facts shouldn’t be checked, but if we take every single article in the Western market to extreme offense because it doesn’t explain everything about K-pop and its nuances perfectly or fully, then no one in the Western market is going to want to write about K-pop, and that’s not what K-pop fans wants. K-pop fans want to spread K-pop’s success. Maybe it’s not perfect, but getting more Western coverage about K-pop is the first step in that direction.
QianOne could argue that regardless of whether it comes from blogs or major publications, the presentation and coverage of K-pop online will only pander to the tastes of the existing K-pop community, and the effect of such coverage to K-pop’s growing influence is questionable. I doubt the casual music listener would give K-pop a try reading articles about it, unless they already had a passing interest surrounding it in the first place.

As such, when mainstream publications like Billboard and Fuse cover a new release, the knee-jerk reaction is for fans to use it as a bid for their group’s increasing relevance overseas. As the recent K-stop podcast controversy shows, however, one would benefit with treating such articles with a double helping of salt, especially when said coverage comes off as disbelievingly flattering.
Having said that, on the rare instances it reviews K-pop releases, Pitchfork is a refreshingly illuminating read. They’ve covered reviews for G-Dragon’s Coup D’etat, 2NE1’s Crush, and f(x)’s 4 Walls, and what makes their reviews of K-pop so refreshing is that besides showing an understanding of the intricacies behind K-pop — even making reference to SM Entertainment’s dystopian concept of “cultural technology” in their “4 Walls” review — they critique the albums from the viewpoint of a casual listener, and consider whether the album is enjoyable for them even with the added language barrier. I particularly enjoyed this excerpt from Sheldon Pearce:
Listening to any K-pop record (or any foreign language record, really) can prove to be a challenging experience for casual listeners simply due to the added communication barrier. You can also lose some key information in translation—even when you know what’s being said, there’s a layer of context missing. Still, just like any other type of music, a listener has the opportunity to fill in some of that context on their own; stripping Korean of its code is no different than reinterpreting a really dense English lyric.

They even manage to maintain a level of objectivity between reviews, with one reviewer judging Coup D’etat to be a rather clumsy crossover attempt, despite moments of brilliance such as “Crooked”. Such reviews, aimed not towards the existing K-pop community, but that of the casual listener, makes for good K-pop coverage, and should be encouraged and shared when available.
And Mark: I’ve don’t like tooting my own horns either, but the greatest assurance I can give readers about the quality of our articles is that none of us are getting paid for the articles we write, and every article and roundtable we do comes out of our own interest and volition, with nothing but our personal pride and integrities as writers (and K-pop fans) at stake.
And so with reluctance, toot toot.
(Images via YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment, AOMG, CW)