“It’s Time to Face the Music, K-Pop!”: Raw Talent vs. Manufactured Beauty

Note: This is an opinion piece, and I know some of you may not agree entirely with my point of view. If you have anything to add to the conversation, please feel free to do so in the comments below (just no foul-language or hating on anyone who doesn’t feel the same way that you do). I would love to hear what you have to say about the topic at hand!


“Face the Music, K-Pop!”: Raw Talent vs. Manufactured Beauty”
Written by Kimchee Magazine Contributor, Andrew Fraser

It’s undeniable. Korean pop music (known worldwide as K-Pop) is catchy and infectious, with over-the-top production values that rival those coming straight out of Hollywood. K-Pop songs are often impeccably produced and are accompanied by colourful, visual feasts for the eyes that aim to leave the viewer gasping for air and cheering loudly for their favourite bias.

So, are there really any issues to discuss? Any problems with the current K-Pop formula? I suppose, on the surface, one might assume that there’s always room for improvement – but how much are we talking? Personally, I think there are a number of important issues that need to be highlighted, analyzed and addressed. I figured I would take the time to write this piece because it would allow me to use my voice to take an objective look at the world of K-Pop from all possible angles. The end result? It will allow me to uncover the root of any problems that are currently plaguing the industry and keeping it from reaching its ultimate goal of making K-Pop a staple around the globe.

Big BangThe problem with manufacturing and training 
Let me explain. The first problem with a large majority of modern day K-Pop acts is that most of them are just… OK. Underneath all the glitz and glam, these groups and performers lack impact, substance and lasting appeal. The ability to pull off hard-hitting choreography and model-esque good-looks are shaped and moulded after years of training, but the best performers have the drive and natural talent that just can’t be taught. Let’s be honest – the funky hairstyles, flashy fashion and polished vocals can only take a performer so far. What are the manufactured stars missing that those with natural talent have? Well, simply put, they don’t have the same energy, passion or charm required to stand out in the crowded market. Without these qualities, they can’t create a deep and everlasting impression that makes us want to keep coming back for more.

There is still A LOT of natural talent in K-Pop 
To be fair, I need to point out that K-Pop acts haven’t always been as manufactured as they are today. There are tons of long-lasting, influential K-Pop acts that have been pleasing Korean music aficionados for years. The first generation of idols; H.O.T, Sechs Kies, g.o.d, SES, Fink.l, Shinhwa and a handful of others. The focus then moved to the second generation of groups; DBSK (동방신기), Girls’ Generation (SNSD, 소녀시대), Big Bang, IU, 2NE1, Kara, Wonder Girls’ and so many more. The groups mentioned are just a handful of the popular groups who have songs that will never be forgotten and have helped make a name for K-Pop around the world. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t a lot of training and money put into making these idols that superstars that they are, but I think that the industry has taken it to a new, unprecedented level in recent years.

SNSDIf we fast-forward to present day, there are so many K-Pop acts/groups that it’s nearly impossible to keep tabs without losing your mind in the process. Even worse, a lot of them fail before they even get a chance to be recognized. It might be due to a lack of substance, or just terrible promotional effort on behalf of their agencies. Regardless of the reason, there are too many groups in the industry, and a significant portion of them will likely flop. Why does this happen so often? My theory is that when Korean society started to put more and more pressure and emphasis on the importance of being beautiful, the music industry took a step back and started to follow suit. This resulted in a lot of good-looking idols, but they seem to lack natural, raw talent that musicians are usually expected to have. Regardless of how much training you put someone through, if they lack charisma and drive, it is likely that they won’t be able to handle the pressure that comes along with working in the music industry. It’s not all about fame – it’s about really wanting to bring joy to the fans.

That’s not to say that there aren’t influential acts in the K-pop scene that are actually good – there are a ton of them. Beast can be compared to H.O.T back in the days. Apink has the same appeal that SES had and 2NE1 has the girl power essence that Fink.l brought to the scene. Exo are handsome, have killer dance moves and are proving themselves to be the next Super Junior/2PM.

Who deserves more time in the spotlight?
Aside from those acts who are popular and attractive, there are a lot of solo performers and duo acts that don’t get as much respect as they should. Artists like Ailee, Akdong Musician (AKMU) and Lee Hi, to name just a few, are praised for their talent, but don’t get as much attention as the ‘idols’ do. Let’s take a list at my top 3 list of the most underrated acts in the industry:

Ailee1. Ailee (에일리)
I can’t praise her enough. She is a powerhouse, with a voice that rivals some of the best singers of our time. She brings the house down every time she performs. She proves herself time and time again, and she is a serious force to be reckoned within K-Pop. Sadly, she still isn’t as popular as some of the idol groups, and I just can’t understand that. Neitzens often comment on her weight (apparently she’s too chubby, which is absurd) and talk about a photo scandal that came up in the media a little while back. I just wish people would cut her some slack and start realizing that solo singers deserve the spotlight as much as idol groups do. She is insanely talented and she is still one of my favourite artists in the K-pop universe.

2. Akdong Musician (AKMU, 악동뮤지션)
This brother-sister duo are incredible. Their voices harmonize perfectly, and Lee Chan-hyuk (the brother) pens all of their songs on his own. Lee Soo-hyun (the sister) has an undeniable charm and they have mastered the perfect balance of humour and catchy riffs/hooks to compose songs that cannot be compared to anything else out there. Trust me, if you listen to their music, you’ll be hooked. Once again, though, they are often criticized because of their looks. When they are brought up in conversation, the first thing mentioned by some Koreans is how unattractive they are. I have even heard parents talking about how sad it is that they look the way they do. Honestly, they look fine to me. They are so young, and are still growing into themselves. The important thing is that have an incredibly rare talent, and they write their own music. Let’s focus on that, shall we?

Akdong Musician 3

Lee Hi

3. Lee Hi (이하이) 
A young diva with a deep, soulful voice. She has the kind of voice that tells a story and puts anyone listening at ease. Her songs evoke a sense of reflection and she just brings the feels. Similarly to Ailee, though, fans like to mention she is a little too overweight and they bring up the fact that she not a very talented dancer. Seriously, does every singer need to be unreasonably slim and be skilled as a dancer? She’s all about the voice, and that’s what she should focus on (like Adele). Some performers are great singers and dancers, and that’s fine. On the other hand, if they have one skill, let them put their efforts into that.

Last words:
To wrap things up, I just want to say that there are tons of brilliant performers in Korea, and I’m not denying that. What I don’t necessarily always agree with is the fact that image and beauty seem to always be valued over skill and natural talent, and thus, really driven artists are sometimes not given the respect that they truly deserve. They work diligently for years to hone and polish their craft, only to be pushed to the curb to pave the road for manufactured idols who have more money and marketing backing them up to ensure that they succeed. I’m not telling you to stop enjoying well-produced K-Pop – because I enjoy it, too. However, I’m just hoping you can spend more time spreading the love for the under-represented artists after reading this. Let’s show these artists how much we appreciate their music that comes straight from the heart. Music that has touching, meaningful lyrics that we can all relate to. Music that reminds us of the days when music was about music, and music alone.

10 thoughts on ““It’s Time to Face the Music, K-Pop!”: Raw Talent vs. Manufactured Beauty

  1. Clement Kong on

    I agree with your assessment that the present-day-3rd-generation-kpop is very manufactured than the previous two generation. Tho I do agree with much of what you say, I do however have two major criticisms.
    The first being that I completely detest the idea of Super Junior & their girl group protege SNSD being put in the same vein as those “talented groups”.
    I actually think it’s the success of SNSD & SuJu that has blossomed the manufactured-style-over-stubstance-quality that has infected modern day Kpop of today. As individual group members, perhaps both groups may have some really talented members, but as a group act, their image & their music certainly doesn’t reflect the talent these members have other than the fact that SuJu can pull off some complex choreography, but I think that’s just because they benefit from their member numbers.
    In the case of SNSD, debuting in ’07, the roots of their artistry both image & music is in producing bubblegum pop music; which they have done so in the first three years of the career. “Into the New World”, “Girls Generation”, “Kissing You”, even their first no. 1 hit “Gee” are all bubblegum pop song, & I think that in terms of maturing to a more mature style, compared to other artists who have done the same (namely, Lee Hyori), they don’t really pull off the mature/sexy style very well.
    In the case of Super Junior, they debuted in ’05, but they didn’t have a major hit until ’09 with “Sorry, Sorry”, which I think is when Kpop began scaling down on talent, & scaling up on image, & fittingly, this then-overplayed-song was also one of their songs where they abused auto-tune. The lyrics are embarrassing too; for those of you who don’t speak korean & are too lazy to look up the translation, it’s a song about admitting to (presumably) a girl that she has you whipped. The choreography was also dumb; why are you rubbing your hands with glee when you’re apologizing? & why are are you slapping your feet?
    Regardless whether or not their members are talented, artistically both groups are the face of what the masses of modern Kpop groups are now; uninspired pretty faces (with the exception of Shindong, but only because of his weight) with a shameful & dispassionate display of talent. I don’t know for sure if it’s true but I’m willing to believe that most if not all of these modern-manufactured-kpop groups are formed based off of the model of SNSD & SuJu (that’s how much I detest the idea of them being labeled as “talented” or as groups that produce “good music”).

    Second criticism is that, can’t believe you concluded talking about talents of solo kpop artists, but you didn’t cover well known solo acts from back in the day with Yoo Seung Jun & Park Ji Yoon in the first gen, & Bi/Rain, Chae Yeon, BoA, Lee Hyori, Se7en & M in the 2nd Gen, or even the legendary Seo Taiji.
    When you talked about Akdong Musician, you could’ve also have mention about popular duo acts in the past like Fly to the Sky, Leessang, or Jinusean.

    But other than those two criticisms, I think overall, I think what you have to say here also reflects how I feel about the state of modern Kpop today.

  2. Chung on

    I think K pop music lacks sincere love. True and eternal love. These days its more for the dance and cool. Music is supposed to touch and move the heart. But what i understand is that the k pop genre is much more concentrated for the younger generations. At the same time young people can stray this way and that and have hard times. If only that our country also begins to produce music that can help us rise up from failure and give us hope and truth. Many people love K pop these days but I hope that they realize that there are also other good music and dont bash non k pop.

  3. David Mchugh on

    Nice article, personally I tend to avoid most Korean music but I do give Drunken Tiger and LeeSsang a good listen to, I find them to be ultra creative and talented. What other kind of Indie acts would you recommend?

  4. Anton on

    If I watch the music chart performance in the TV, I just put down the volume and enjoy the dancing performance which is hard to not say “hot”. But just try to go to the cafe and you will listen some good music, I tried Shazam some, and found some non mainstream name buy, trust me they are really good! Such as ALi (알리) whom sings like Korean version of Aretha Franklin; Vanilla Acoustic (바닐라 어쿠스틱) which offers you female Korean jazz voices with Brazillian style music; even the Indie name like J-Rabbit and Standing Egg is worth to hear. Korea sure have a lot of genre and talent but they judge by beauty appearance.

    1. Andrew Fraser on

      Great point, Anton! By you saying that you turn down the volume when you watch music charts, it just proves that the music isn’t the most important part of some of those idol groups. And you’re right! In cafes, they play a lot of indie music and it’s great stuff :) I’m hoping my article will reach the eyes of music lovers around the world, and will bring attention to Korea’s sometimes overly harsh beauty standards. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Andrew Fraser on

      Aka, thanks for the comment! It’s sad that this isn’t just a problem in Korea, it seems that many countries have a similar feeling when it comes to idols. It’s a problem sometimes in my home country of Canada, too, and in the U.S, as well. I guess we just need to stand up and shout out love and support for real artists with real talent. Let’s help them rise to the top of the charts :)

  5. Patrick on

    I totally agree with what the author has to say here. This article is very well written. Whenever I listen to K pop songs, they just sounds like the same. What is missing is raw talent, which requires agencies to find more talented performers who might not be as good looking. The Korean society is putting too much emphasis on looks. Of course, looks are a very important faucet of a performer, but what’s the good of it if singers can’t be rival others with their unique musical talent?

    1. Andrew Fraser on

      Patrick, thank you very much for your support! K-Pop has a lot of catchy tunes, but the beauty standards are just too high. I’m glad, as a Korean, that you can objectively look at the situation and make a very educated comment about the current state of the music industry. Your final sentence hit the nail right on the head – what’s the point if they have no actual talent? Beauty only takes us so far :P

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