Western influence. Two words you seemingly can’t go a day without seeing on social media nowadays; with dozens and dozens of people flocking to tell everyone that their once favourite group has become too westernised, or that western influence has ruined a group’s discography.
Now, whilst a lot of users on these kind of apps can be very reactionary, there could be some grounds for debate when it comes to the influence of western music on Kpop. However, it should also be considered that this isn’t exactly a new debate, and even if one was to go back to the era of first-generation Kpop groups such as H.O.T and SECHSKIES, there most likely would have been plenty of people exclaiming that the hip-hop seeping into the US and UK charts was influencing Korea’s popular music scene too much. But, whilst H.O.T’s bold outfit choices in performances of old were definitely more Slim Shady than Lee Moon-Sae, can an artist or group really be too influenced by music and styles from across the ocean?
The short answer: not really, but at the same time, quite possibly. Whilst it might be a little grating to hear a group that you once adored tread the line of “generic top-40 hit,” there isn’t really an argument that holds up when it comes to what type of music influences what. Almost everybody has been influenced by someone or something in their life, even if unconsciously, and these influences are likely to trickle their way into every-day life, or, from a more musical perspective, into artistic creations. If that happens to be music from the west, then so be it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the music remains original at its core, and has some sort of spin on it.
Now, if every Kpop artist was to suddenly release every single song of theirs in English, never promote in their native country because the myopic western media had convinced a company or two that they’re where artists need to push to be, we’d be more than concerned. After all, it’s grating to try and see these big companies push big time collaborations on artists with their favourites from the west, and act as if Kpop is a quirky “threat,” rather than a genuine genre full of artistic nouse. In that regard, there can be too much western influence, especially if it’s to try and push a narrative on a genre of music that one may not have an in-depth, nuanced knowledge of.
But, it should be taken into account that as a rule, music evolves naturally over time. If the industry just decided to stagnate and never progress, show no signs of innovation, and never so much as hint at new styles and sounds being created, the charts would be unpleasantly boring. Everything would have one uniform sound, nobody would be allowed to freely express or discover their own taste, and you’d just lose the public’s interest. Seriously, imagine if the entirety of today’s charts consisted of only piano ballads written and delivered in the same way, and then this methodology would be recycled with different artist’s piano ballads, for the next 100 years. It would be boring, right? So sometimes, it’s best to allow for outside influence, even if it is slightly outside of a person’s comfort zone, as that allows music to develop on a global scale (or more excitingly on a local scale), and helps break new ground.
Furthermore, has this influence really hindered song quality that much? BLACKPINK’s latest single “KILL THIS LOVE” may feel like a waste of potential with its over-the-top anthemic instrumental chorus, but is that down to the western music scene? Sure, it may be a trendy song for an overseas audience, but that doesn’t mean that the Korean charts have been plagued by artists who would much rather find a home on the Hot 100 than score a win at MusicBank. If that’s your opinion, then you have a myopic view of Korean music. In fact, if you were to look at the charts right now, there is a rich diversity thanks to ballads, indie music, and rock finding a home alongside the typical Kpop stylings we’ve all become accustomed to. If you believe what you’re hearing is cookie-cutter chart music with splashes of generic electronic beats seen everywhere in the UK charts, then there are more than healthy alternatives ready and waiting for your attention.
Take for example Day6. The five-piece have made it no secret they’ve been influenced by Britpop, as well as more modern bands such as Maroon 5. Does that stop their music from being excellent? Absolutely not. Day6 have carved a completely idiosyncratic brand of music free from lazy comparisons, proving that influence doesn’t always lead to a carbon copy. The track “Days Gone By” is the perfect example of this. There may be heavy nods to the 80s synth scene, but by the end of the song, you’re left realising that it’s quintessential Day6, with an upbeat melody accompanying sad, thoughtful lyrics. The western music has not plagued nor ruined Day6, but rather allowed them to consider new and interesting soundscapes, in turn helping their signature sound become more developed, bold, and refined.
Next, WINNER. Trap instrumentation, EDM drops, and colourful pop choruses dominate the foursome’s music these days, but is that detrimental to their success, or their appeal? Once again, the answer is no. Thanks to member participation in the songwriting and arrangement, the group’s music still comes across as completely authentic, and avoids being recognisable as generic. Sure their music is definitely influenced from all over the musical spectrum, but never can it be categorised as cookie-cutter, and despite their various stylistic changes, everything still maintains the ingredients needed to make each track identifiable as a WINNER release.
And, finally, we must consider BTS. Whether you love or loath BigHit Entertainment’s marquee group, there’s no denying what they have done for the Kpop industry is something almost immeasurable compared to the majority of their peers. But, is their music completely free from western influence? It isn’t. Does that make what they’re doing any less special? It doesn’t. BTS are one of the flag bearers for the recent Kpop mainstream push, and with their broad appeal and stylistic choices allowing for increased attention to the genre in general, they in turn help put more eyeballs and eardrums on other, perhaps more experimental acts under the Kpop umbrella. So, whether BTS are your cup of tea or not, it’s fair to say that their trading of musical visions with artists here in the West is paying dividends, and is the easiest example to show that western influence certainly isn’t a bad thing.
In conclusion, as of right now, their is no huge cause for concern. Pop music is pop music no matter the language, and if something is popular, people will happily try their hand at it. However, whilst there may be no need to hit the panic button, we must tread carefully to ensure that western sonic influence doesn’t become western media influence, as Korean music will never need that, and it will ultimately only narrow down a country’s music to a select few artists, something which benefits absolutely nobody.