So now you’ve had a year to get “Gangnam Style” out of your head, and meanwhile Korean pop music has moved on. Have no fear: here’s a guide to finding the music you didn’t know you wanted, assuming you are not already a K-pop expert.
There are plenty of interesting male groups working, but so far mainstream K-pop has yet to see the equivalent of Ad Rock’s “This disrespect to women has got to be through.” (Or even LL Cool J’s “I love it when a woman ain’t scared to do her thing,” come to think of it.) So let’s start by supporting the women. Read on to see which female group might suit you best, or skip right to the playlist.
You’re Just Getting Started: Girls’ Generation
If you are intrigued by the phrase “shiny-haired juggernaut of adorability,” then your starting point is Girls’ Generation (pictured). Armed with formidable earworms (see also “Gee” and “Mr. Taxi”) they dominate the commercial landscape on the women’s side, winning YouTube’s Video of the Year competition and racking up endorsement deals. (The perfume and nail polish in the “I Got a Boy” video? Product placements.)
A disadvantage of taking to Girls’ Generation is the reductive images of sexy-cute-wide-eyed-and-willing girls explicitly created for men in their 30s and 40s coveting sexy-cute-wide-eyed-and-willing. (That last link via The Grand Narrative, a very useful resource for those interested in messages about gender in Korean popular culture.) The advantage: you can rest assured that the nine performers are well compensated. According to The New Yorker, their seven-year contracts net them $1 million a year. (Whether they are fairly compensated is another story. Girls’ Generation was responsible for $21m in revenue for its parent company, SM Entertainment, in 2011 alone.)
You Find the Above Off-Putting: G.I.
Somewhere on the spectrum of representations of women far from Girls’ Generation, there is new group Global Icon, or G.I. The difference isn’t merely aesthetic: it’s near impossible to imagine Girls’ Generation gaining attention by covering a male hip-hop group (as G.I. did with Block B’s “Nilili Mambo”) or titling a follow-up “Booshit.”
What’s not to like? Their chances. The K-pop machine has been churning out more and more groups, and each in turn has worse and worse odds of gaining enough popularity to ensure long-term survival. (In K-pop fandom, less-established groups are known as nugus, from the Korean word nugu, “who?”) G.I.’s management being relatively small, with a promotional budget to match, doesn’t help. G.I. is a group worth following; just be prepared for a shorter ride than we’d like.
You’re Looking for Something In Between the Two: f(x)
f(x) is managed by the same behemoth as Girls’ Generation, only aimed at a totally different market. f(x) was the group that went to SXSW earlier this year, and joked around with Anna Kendrick, and made an artsy intro video for their critically beloved album Pink Tape, featuring the maximalist gem “Rum Pum Pum Pum.” f(x) also has rapper Amber, who, prior to the arrival of G.I. and fellow nugus GLAM and Crayon Pop, was seemingly the only female performer wearing something besides hot pants and high heels. In short, f(x) is a very good way to impress your non-K-pop-familiar rivals without having to wander too far from the mainstream.
At first glance, 2NE1 looks nifty. (Quite. Put “I Love You” on mute; you’ll still be impressed.) The quartet puts on world tours, hits various global fashion weeks, and parties with M.I.A., all while turning out such interesting pieces as “Ugly,” seemingly a perverse reconstruction of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” and the above “I Am The Best.” The Spice Girls might well be proud.
There’s a catch, however. Mainstream K-pop has a rather pervasive and ongoing problem of borrowing liberally from other cultures’ music without context. Thus you get “The Baddest Female,” the solo debut by 2NE1 member CL, which shoots for “gangsta” and ends up at “inappropriate with a side of racist.” 2NE1’s next video included vague Orientalism and bindi decorations. This is not quite as bad as groups that have had to wear feathers for an “Indian” concept—or, for that matter, Selena Gomez’s bindi or Katy Perry’s geisha nonsense—but it does make liking 2NE1 harder than it should be.
You’re Tough As Heck: Ladies’ Code
Next to G.I., Ladies’ Code is my favorite new group of 2013, largely on the strength of “Bad Girl,” complete with witty video and the voice of Sojung, the bleached-blond piano player. Sojung got recruited to be an idol on the strength of her performance on the Korean version of The Voice in 2012, and…
…what’s that, you say? She looked different then? Yes, yes, she did. She has since admitted , rather bravely, to essentially developing anorexia while preparing for her debut. Ladies’ Code’s management’s response was to tweet pictures of Sojung digging into a plate of fried chicken. The evidence that she is actually being taken care of is in shorter supply. So now, even rooting hard for Sojung and her bandmates, I can’t listen to “Pretty, Pretty” without wincing a bit.
You Are Sorely in Need of Some Asian-American (or American-Asian) Badassery: Ailee
Asian-American singers with international profiles are in rudely short supply: fortunately, there is Ailee, originally Amy Lee from New Jersey. She’s not the only woman in the groups featured here who didn’t grow up in Korea (see also Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany and Jessica, f(x)’s Amber and Krystal, and Ladies’ Code’s Ashley), but she stands out as a solo artist, not least for being able to carry “U&I,” which is basically ubiquitous K-pop producer Shinsadong Tiger lazily tapping out a “Crazy in Love” knockoff.
Ailee is also notable for her response to an ugly attempted setback earlier this year: a sleazy news-slash-gossip website leaked nude photos of her, taken years earlier, to a global audience. Ailee did exactly what she needed to: utter not a word of apology, let her agency threaten to sue all and sundry, and go on with the strong performances. In an industry where two stars being photographed on the street together can be labeled a “scandal,” the pressure was likely strong on her to assume some of the blame and lie low for a while. And she didn’t. May she do so only on her own terms.
You Say Up with Goofiness: Hyuna
Hyuna is a big deal. Hyuna is the woman who danced on the subway in “Gangnam Style,” only she normally has eyebrows. Hyuna is a goofy bunny. Hyuna is a favorite of mine. Hyuna is a tough case.
Hyuna is the rapper for the group 4Minute who simultaneously works a side solo career. Since “Bubble Pop” became a smash in 2011, it’s been a whole lot of Hyuna front and center, Hyuna getting groped by backup dancers, Hyuna wearing skimpy clothing and bending over for the camera’s benefit. Her lyrics are more assertive than those of Girls’ Generation, and her style relies less on reassuring the viewer of her innocence.
As with a lot of female performers who emphasize their sexuality in a conventional way, the question is how much agency she has in all this. Either she’s having fun—see the sheer ridiculousness of “Ice Cream”—and enjoying being able to distinguish herself, or this is another case of managerial manipulation. Let’s go with the former, and enjoy Hyuna’s taunting sing-song in 4Minute’s “Volume Up.”
You Want Reclaimed Sexuality and Goofiness and Agency and Killer Songs: Brown Eyed Girls
Brown Eyed Girls have two distinct advantages over many of the groups featured here: they were older when they started making music, and they do a lot of in-house writing and conceptualizing. This may explain how they manage to produce more thought-provoking videos, including the mini-movie of “Cleansing Cream,” the gender-bent V for Vendetta remake that is “Sixth Sense,” or my favorite, “Kill Bill,” in which they rewrite the Tarantino film by removing all male action, and clearly have a roaring good time while doing so. The only major downside I see to loving Brown Eyed Girls is the periodic desire to lament the injustice that they are not multi-national superstars with tours to match.
You Are Unimpressed by All of the Above: Yoon Mi Rae
“Okay,” you say, “this is all well and good, but my feminism is intersectional, and I am bored by the questions of ownership and control hovering over all this, and I really would prefer someone working independently, with a dollop of social awareness, offering the catchy tunes under her own power.”
Your best bet, to my knowledge, is Yoon Mi Rae, probably the most famous woman so far to emerge from Korea’s home hip-hop scene. Her father is African-American, and she discusses the racism she faced, both growing up in the United States and later in Korea, in “Black Happiness” (complete with loving cameo from her dad). She is also capable of turning out a hit ballad, “Touch Love,” or teaming up with her husband, fellow rapper Tiger JK, and their friend Bizzy to produce the likes of the steampunk-influenced epic “Sweet Dream.”
Sure, it’s a ways from that back to, “I got a boy, handsome boy!” Fortunately there’s room under the big Korean pop umbrella for all of it.
Jessica Doyle is a mom, a freelance writer, a doctoral student in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, and an alumna of the K-Pop Writers' Workshop. She is happy to receive feedback on Twitter.