While there is much to commend about K-pop in general — from the amazingly supportive fans, to the fact that so much can be done out of passion, and also to the seemingly strong beliefs that one is rewarded for hard work — there is in fact something to go on about in terms of the camaraderie amongst total strangers, for common goals and dreams. This common aim in question is K-pop celebrities standing together on stage for fans through the good and bad.

In some ways though, the aforementioned view can be seen as subjective, which would then mar a more objective observation of K-pop. Instances of objectivity could come in the form of brushing off mainstream news as hype, and coming to the realisation that occasionally, too much has been asked of K-pop. After all, for something at times driven by love and passion, these two do get in the way.

Worth tackling objectively would have to be K-pop’s ascendency to the world stage. While it was great to finally see a song sit atop an internationally recognised chart, all due to viral appeal, one must really wonder how much of the “Gangnam Style” success boils down to it being good pop music from Korea, and/or how much can be attributed to K-pop’s potential to go toe-to-toe with Western genres, in terms of commercial appeal.

The eternal optimist and K-pop believer in me would lean towards the latter, that Psy indeed possesses the talent to be more than just about “Gangnam Style”, but there’s also that inkling that the song has all the makings of a fad.

A catchy tune, done by everybody at the moment, with seemingly unstoppable hype (as evidenced by the endless stream of parodies), seems to ironically throw a spotlight on how non-K-pop listeners actually perceive the craze. The Tiger JK controversy reflects this mentality in some ways. While there is undoubtedly more to K-pop than a well done, unintentional viral hit, it is sad that there are those who would tar most Korean songs with the same brush of “stereotypical parody”.

Closer to Asia would have to be the Japan charge of recent years. Like all international efforts, praise and success for well-developed, properly-targeted and well marketed acts (step forward, SNSD) are deserved, but just as well, there has been a myriad of other acts happily coasting about on goodwill and “being part of the party”.

In some ways, this also ties in with how hyped Japanese debuts are, and how over-reported news and overseas successes tend to be. A good example would be what constitutes a successful K-act in Japan — selling the magical “more than half a million albums”. In light of outselling Japanese albums, these are good numbers, but to use a handful of statistics to infer that K-pop has completely dominated Japan, would have to be pushing it. Looking through the charts, Japanese acts are still the industry’s goldmines, with only a fraction of Korean acts leading the surge.

As for singles, which is probably how most music is sold these days, the gap between what really sells in Japan and how it is reported in Korea is, to put it mildly, significant. Though sales of a 100k are notable, it is also essential to note that they are worthy as import albums, and that local acts, especially heavyweights such as AKB48, tend to push copies in the region of hundreds of thousands, and at times, millions. As shown by the Oricon chart (left), when year end sales are tallied, the local acts are still what matter. Even with consideration for singles (and single charting positions) from popular K-acts, it’s obvious that album sales are still held in high regard.

And as for acts that do not get mentioned much in the news, it would be safe to presume that their singles did not make any significant marks on the charts. Think of how Rainbow, After School or Secret were simply non-existent in news reportings after their releases.

To sum up, it is commendable in some ways that K-pop is making a dent on the world stage (and Japan), but it is also necessary to put its success into context. Contrary to popular spin, the music is not yet the widespread success that some people think of it to be, but rather an “imported, alternative niche”, that thrives along with local prevailing tastes.

(Oricon Style, Billboard USA)