Practically an unknown quantity at the start of the decade, K-pop is now a household name around the globe. In recent years, the Western media has all but overflowed with a rising tide of South Korean pop, from fashion spreads to viral ads, Lorde pull-quotes to Grimes tweets, music video analyses to industry think pieces (and, of course, the most popular piece of content on the internet). And yet, so little of this attention has paid much mind to the music itself. If K-pop seems like the fad that never ends, that’s probably because it never really started, either.
K-pop treats a song as just one of several interlocking aesthetic parts, which typically include corresponding choreography, a music video, novella-thick liner notes, the occasional corporate tie-in, and an overarching “concept” that brings it all together. These tend to be conceived in tandem to a much greater extent than in Western pop, so to divorce a K-pop single from its context is to engage with it only partially. For example, the absurdist satire of “Gangnam Style” wouldn’t make total sense even to someone living in Gangnam without its attendant video and “horse dance.”
At its best, K-pop’s package-product approach can result in concise, nonpareil pop music gesamtkunstwerks—but good or bad, they can cause sensory overload for the uninitiated. The intense rate of productivity in Korea, where taking even a year’s pause between albums can kill a career, also adds to the overwhelming feeling for casual fans and popstars alike; onstage fainting and use of IV drips for energy are commonplace.