It’s amazing how often K-Pop fans utter the words, “K-Pop is truly international.” Psy’s “Gangnam Style” goes viral, 2NE1 collaborates with will.iam, SNSD appears on David Letterman, and Billboard mentions K-Pop in a sentence of a 2,000 word editorial–all of this is supposed to make K-Pop “truly international.” When K-Pop music travels out of its own sphere fans go ballistic with anticipation that this time, it’s going to break into the Western market. There’s no combating fans’ bubbling excitement when there’s potential for K-Pop artists to make it big overseas.
But what about when a Westerner tries to make it big in K-Pop? More specifically a white Westerner? To what extent is K-Pop “truly international,” when it’s the other way around?
The K-Pop fandom recently got a precursor to that answer when Detroit native David Lehre, a.k.a. Chad Future, dropped his solo debut MV, “Hello.” Mostly in English but speckled with some Korean, the project is K-Pop’s first serious introduction to a white solo artist.
But much, if not most, of the response to Chad Future’s K-Pop foray has been negative. And that’s putting it nicely. It’s counter-intuitive to think that K-Pop fans would have such averse reactions to a white American’s K-Pop debut; isn’t he the epitome of K-Pop becoming “truly international”? But before we explore why Chad Future is getting a bad rap, let’s look at the release of the “Hello” MV and the teasers and projects leading up to it.
Chad Future isn’t a rookie to this whole being a music artist thing. In 2011, he was the leader of boy band Heart2Heart, which got its influence from K-Pop and was manned by former N’Sync member Lance Bass. Their debut single “Facebook Official” was a travesty of epic proportions. The choreography was lame, the styling was badly reminiscent of 90s boy bands, and the song was way too corny to take seriously. Which is probably why Lance Bass was quick to call it a parody after having previously calling it a serious effort.
Clearly Chad Future has ditched the boy band concept in favor of a solo endeavor. He released the first teaser for “Hello” earlier this month. The teaser has very little to do with the actual song, which, when you think about it, is such a troll-y K-Pop thing to do. So at least he’s got that part right. The teaser and the one after that were bold statements that he was going to take on Pop, rapping, and Korean lyrics.
But can he do them all well? Judging by the response to the actual video, the answer to that has been mixed.
“Hello” starts off the same way Heart2Heart’s “Facebook Official” does. With Chad dropping out of the sky and into a white room. I seriously don’t understand why he’d want to remind us of “Facebook Official,” which is probably the worst song on the planet. You’d think he’d want us to forget about that. No?
There’s hot girls pulling at him, a shit load of expensive CGI, excessive closeups of his studded white jacket, a terrible rap, and one really, really bad hairstyle. Omo! Again, Chad has gotten those parts of K-Pop perfectly! One thing he doesn’t get perfectly though, is Korean. Some of the verses are in Korean as well as the entire hook. But his Korean is stilted and blatantly bad. I want to give him brownie points for at least attempting, but I won’t.
“But what about Korean artists who sing in terrible English?” you ask. “If they can be bad at English, shouldn’t Chad get a pass on Korean?”
No. It’s not comparable because Chad Future is performing within a K-Pop framework. K-Pop is Korean Pop, and he’s going to have to work infinitely more on his Korean. He can’t just expect to show off some fancy music video and hope that everyone will become so distracted by the glitz that they’ll forget that his Korean sucks. K-Pop artists, however, have the luxury of getting away with terrible English because when all is said and done, they are Korean-language pop artists (and even then, I still criticize them, so there). But other than bad Korean skills, which the guy can work on and get better at, why have K-Pop fans taken Chad Future’s debut so badly?
Is it because he’s white? Probably.
But it’s also more than that. First off, even though Chad Future spent $100,000 on the MV (yes, his PR team boasted about the amount spent on the MV), it feels like a tacky parody. It’s still got the whole “Facebook Official” parody vibe going on. Blame it on the bad lip synching, the girls sliding their hands up and down his cheetah print “Illegal” t-shirt, his dumb sunglasses in the dark, and how terribly serious he’s taking himself. Is it a parody? Although the YouTube comments and other comments over the Web are asking that same question, I’m starting to think that the answer to that doesn’t matter. What matters is that if people are debating about whether or not your video is a parody then you should probably rethink your strategy.
But I actually don’t think it’s a parody of K-Pop. Judging by his interviews, Chad Future genuinely loves K-Pop and has for a very long time. Watch him as he nerdily fan boys over his favorite K-Pop artists as he interviews them for Billboard Korea at last year’s K-Pop Masters:
However, there is an issue with his presentation in his first music video. Chad comes off as very cocky in his videos. If you watched how obnoxious he is in “Hello,” you wouldn’t realize what a nice guy he actually is in real life. Maybe his image has something to do with him attempting to actively create what he’s branded American K-Pop.
American Korean Pop? Uh, what?
There’s an entire discussion in there about what makes K-Pop, K-Pop. Is it language? Presentation? Actually being Korean? It can be off-putting to some people when some white guy comes into something that’s already been established, recreates it, and deems it his (ah, where have we heard that story before?) The gall to declare that he’s creating a new brand of K-Pop is almost offensive. But he’s got the money and the time to do it, so he does. It’s harsh and unrealistic to purport that Chad’s goal is to take over K-Pop. But it’s understandable why some fans feel protective over the genre. And they are justified in their criticism.
I’ve probably listened to “Hello” a hundred times in order to get a feel for it. The song is terrible but the hook, like a disease, is catchy. And I could say the same thing for a lot of K-Pop music. The more I think about what Chad Future could mean for the industry, the closer I am to deciding that with all the bad, he can also bring a lot of good. Even his lyrics are full of hope and ambition:
Hello, put your hands up!
Everybody’s gonna look at you
Hello, trust yourself
Gonna get this world
He’s a representation of the fact that there is a huge international fan base who loves K-Pop and fully supports it. While he’s gotten a lot of criticism he’s also gotten a lot of praise from international fans who can live vicariously through his journey and who genuinely think that his music is good. His supporters have asked the valid question, “Would people accept his music if it were coming from a Korean artist?” We can’t really know the answer to that but perhaps he can be part of a significant shift that can make K-Pop “truly international.”
What are your thoughts on Chad Future and his debut? Is this cultural appropriation at its finest or is he making a statement that K-Pop is bigger than Korea?