I always wondered why Korean singers were far superior to Japanese, Chinese, or American ones; and when I say superior I mean that Korean singers (in pop) tend to be, on average, more competent singers. It does not mean that American or Chinese singers do not have as many vocal gems as Koreans do. Rather, imagine a Korean equivalent of Coldplay, and that the singer would sing like Luther Vandross. So why is this so? Why do Koreans sing so well?
Recently, I read an article explaining how Korea, historically, has always lauded a musician for his or her vocal ability rather than their creativity. This reminded me of how we call a musician 가수 which literally means singer regardless of whether one is a composer or a singer-songwriter. In the United States, we don’t call a singer-songwriter a singer. We call them an artist or a singer-songwriter; and we definitely don’t call composers singers. Such insight deeply clarifies why Korean artists overlook creativity; it’s not what their culture cares much for. This does not mean that Korean artists are all unimaginative. Instead, it explains the lack of diversity within the industry. There’s much creativity within their rather homogenous musical landscape –they just all sing!
Now, Korea is certainly having a boom of Hip Hop and Rap. But, it’s about the only exception where non-vocal music thrives. Instrumental music is not as prolific as Japan. Korea’s vocal music isn’t as diverse as the US –it’s either R&B, 발라드 (it’s called ballad, but it’s really a mixture of R&B and über-Korean sentiment –i.e., it’s melodramatic and hyper-sentimental), or boy band music. In fact, the Korean rock scene is dying, traditional Korean music is very fringe, same story for jazz and classical music. Electronic music supports boy band music rather than exploring the possibilities of electronic sound in a stand alone piece.
Despite the lack of diversity, I think there is much hope. Korean boy bands these days, unlike their predecessors except for Seotaiji, create their own music –finding influence from hip hop, electronic music, jazz, and so on. It’s become unfashionable to be a boyband that just sings songs written by their company’s designated composer who writes for every other boy band. Moreover, the Hip Hop scene has been growing exponentially, and its growth has been largely positive. The rappers are skilled, innovative, and hip. Unfortunately, most of them are signed to big record labels that produce boy bands and dominate the industry. But, if such trends continue, then perhaps this would make room for more independent labels and artists, proliferating rock, electronic music, traditional korean music, and so on.