As BTS goes to the Grammys, here are four reasons why K-Pop is 'virtuosic' music

Korean pop sensation BTS has been nominated for a Grammy — a first for K-Pop. But it's for best recording package, not the band's music. Music journalist Jakob Dorof says that in just four songs, he can prove K-Pop has more going for it than Western pop.

Music journalist Jakob Dorof says K-Pop has more going for it than Western pop

BTS arrives at the Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)
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It was a big moment for K-Pop fans when the Grammy nominations were announced in December.

The internationally popular Korean pop group BTS was nominated for Best Recording Package — a first for the genre. The members of BTS will also get to present an award.

But some K-Pop fans say the music should be recognized for just that: its music.

Jakob Dorof, a Korea-based journalist who covers the country's music industry, says K-Pop is musically more complex than American pop.

"It makes a lot of sense to me that they would be nominated for their album art, because the packaging in K-Pop is frequently incredible," said Dorof. "But as great as that is ... I think the music is really the heart of it and is really what makes it remarkable."

Here's his case for K-Pop, which he says should see more Grammy nods coming in the future, as "virtuosic" music.

1. Complex harmonies and melodies

In North America, K-Pop is typically known for its earworm melodies that are impossible to get out of your head, like Psy's Gangnam Style. But the genre is overall quite melodically complex, Dorof says.

"K-Pop is, for one, very generous with its melodies, its harmonic development and its musical ideas in general, which I find refreshing in a time when Western pop, I feel, is increasingly simple, repetitive and vibe-based," he said.

While Dorof appreciates the vibe of modern Western pop music, he's grateful for other trends.

The K-Pop group NCT 127's single Limitless shows those complex musical trends for Dorof. It was marketed as "urban R&B," but Dorof said that doesn't do the song justice.

He described it as a "2000-era rap banger," that shifts dramatically into the pre-chorus and chorus.

"You're sort of teleported into this totally different sonic world with these rich jazzy R&B chords," said Dorof.

"They're just cramming in as many ideas as possible, really."

2. Genre-bending songs

For Dorof, K-Pop doesn't often operate in just one genre and can even change throughout one song.

"I think you get a lot of really interesting contrast in genre, and frictions between them in a really gratifying way that is not so commonly found in Western music or really anywhere else that I've found," said Dorof.

He pointed to the group Big Bang's song Bang Bang Bang, which was the number one song in Korea when it was released in 2015.

The verses are what Dorof described as "straight-up fist-pumping '90s rave music," like Jock Jams.

"But then everything drops out and the chorus just kind of hits you like a Mack truck," said Dorof.

The chorus drops to half-time and drops a few musical intervals, "so we're basically moving in slow motion all of a sudden."

"So we've gone from Europe to Atlanta in record time," said Dorof.

3. Adventurous song structure

Girls' Generation's song I Got a Boy is a good example of K-Pop's ability to play with song structure and speed, according to Dorof.

The song starts off with a snappy, upbeat tune that then changes tempo and style, and doesn't repeat.

"There's lots of these connective tissue sections between those two main modes that only happen once," said Dorof.

"Some people have called this song a K-Pop Bohemian Rhapsody, but I think it's even a little bit odder than that, in how it keeps repeating sections and 'whiplashing' between them — but also pretty much staying on the same chord the entire time."

4. Multicultural hodgepodge

K-Pop music doesn't just rely on Korean influences as inspiration for its music.

"Nothing's off limits as an influence or a reference in Korean pop," said Dorof.

Orange Caramel's song Catallena draws inspiration from '80s Italian disco music, according to Dorof. The chorus also incorporates a Punjabi folk song called Jutti Meri.

For a decent portion of the song, the trio is singing in Punjabi, "while they're also making a visual pun on the Korean written language in the choreography," said Dorof.

They do all this while dressed as sushi and increasingly discounted shrink-wrapped fish.

"The musical side of it is by far the most appealing thing to me, but K-Pop is also really visually rich," said Dorof.

"I would say K-Pop as a whole is a really richly developed, musically considered, often times virtuosic and melodic approach to pop music that is all in service of being entertaining and fun and gratifying."


To hear the full interview with Jakob Dorof, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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