An exploration of K-pop musical aesthetics
K-pop is a misunderstood musical genre. For one thing, it is a very broad classification. Just like Dance Music or R&B, there are dozens of sub-genres under the K-pop umbrella. One of the reasons K-pop became so broad is by shamelessly borrowing from any and all foreign musical genres over the years. Any K-pop song, chosen at random, could be a ballad, dubstep, hip-hop, reggae, bubblegum pop, retro, metal, electronica, disco, or maybe even a crazy combination of some of the above, or more. K-pop can also be highly original, and it's constantly evolving, with new concepts and acts appearing weekly. All of which is what makes K-pop sound so unique, and it is what makes K-pop a consistently fascinating musical genre.
K-pop acts are primarily boy groups or girl groups, usually consisting of between four and twelve members. Prospective members often train for years before they get a chance to audition for a group. Despite their exhaustive training, many members are only just ok at singing. To be selected as a K-pop star, there is greater focus on physical appearance, personality and dancing ability. Some K-pop members are scouted from outside South Korea, which can greatly increase an act's global appeal. Decisions about how the members dress, where they go, what they eat, even private aspects of their personal life, are typically strictly controlled by management. One could make a very strong argument that K-pop acts are interchangeable and not really important to the music, which is not unlike the American bubblegum pop acts of the 60s and 70s.
Particularly for my generation, bubblegum pop was something we grew up with on TV – The Monkees, The Partridge Family, or The Archies, for example. A bit later on, MTV arrived alongside new generations of boy bands and girl groups.
Most kids outgrew this music and forgot about it. But to many of us who became musicians as adults, the music is like a comfort food we reach for time and time again.
K-pop is the bubblegum pop of today, but instead of TV, it’s on YouTube. And instead of fan-club newsletters, wall posters and Tiger Beat magazine, you’ve got social media, and myriad fandom blogs and vlogs. In reality, K-pop comprises much more than just music. It’s also fashion, dance, entertainment, culture, advertising and merchandising. And just like the bubblegum acts of olde, it all boils down to the music. Without that great song, you got nothing.
Ok. But why K-pop?
I've lived in Asia most of my life – over 30 years. As a musician/songwriter, I've always paid close attention to the popular music in my surroundings. K-pop first appeared on my radar around 2009 when Girls' Generation, Super Junior and Wonder Girls all came out of nowhere with super catchy hits. Even though I didn't live in South Korea, it was impossible to not miss K-pop's cultural impact – in clubs and bars, shopping malls, TV variety shows and dramas, hair salons, advertisements, practically everywhere, it literally seemed to happen overnight, and it's only become even more ubiquitous since.
It was really only a few years ago that I began appreciating the brilliant songcraft and production behind K-pop, which places a much stronger emphasis on melody than you would find in western pop music at the moment. I discovered that many successful K-pop songwriters and producers are Scandinavian or British, although overall the most successful are from South Korea, such as Park Jin-young, who has written over fifty #1 K-pop hits. Perhaps the most successful of all in cranking out hits are the K-pop song camps, for better or worse.
Rubber Seoul is NOT K-pop!(it's the opposite)
My goal with Rubber Seoul is not to create K-pop. By definition, K-pop should be sung in the Korean language and performed by South Korean artists. To actually make that happen I'd first have to send my songs away to a K-pop music publisher, where they (most likely) will never be heard from again.
Instead of just drawing from my usual musical influences – Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson, Burt Bacharach, etc – I also borrowed influences from K-pop's song structures, lyrical themes, musical motifs, chord changes, beats, vocal arrangements, and production techniques. So, in essence, I'm actually doing the opposite of K-pop – borrowing ideas and inspiration from K-pop and then creating western music.
As it turned out, preparing for Rubber Seoul would prove to be quite a challenge as I'd never actually tried to write contemporary pop music before. It took me a couple years of writing before I felt ready to begin recording, but I knew I would still need a great producer to really get the songs into shape.
Early 2020 I flew from Chiang Mai to Los Angeles and began recording the first tracks for Rubber Seoul, with Bleu producing. I didn't know Bleu beforehand, but I knew his music very well, via his fantastic indie-pop releases plus his writing and producing work with other artists. Bleu brought in Lee Miles who worked on beats and a good chunk of the backing tracks. I had worked with Roger Manning Jr on my demos and many of his keyboard performances on the demos made it to the final versions. Lastly, LA-based vocalist, JSMN, brought the songs to life with her cheerful spirit and professionalism, not to mention her excellent vocal chops.
COVID-19 abruptly brought an end to our collaboration, so we only finished the four tracks released on First. Ultimately, this has turned into opportunities to collaborate with other producers and musicians. As of this writing, a second and third EP are underway, with plans to record even more. I'll be delving even deeper, exploring many far-flung corners of K-pop and exploring new ways to write and produce pop music. It's been a fun diversion. I'm sure there's much more to come!
Why Rubber Seoul ?
Anyone familiar with the Beatles should recognize the re-worked pun.
Secret Friend is still ongoing. Secret Friend has become more of an experimental musical outlet, whereas Rubber Seoul is more contemporary and focused on a very specific genre. You can expect to hear more from both Rubber Seoul and Secret Friend in the near future.