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Are “Old” Sounds Making A Comeback In K-Pop?

It is no secret that the K-pop industry is one of the most competitive and fast-paced businesses in the world. Music and entertainment companies spring up one after the other to debut barely-teenagers onto an overcrowded market, coming up with ever crazier concepts and sounds to make their artists stand out from the rest. As for the groups already at the top of the charts, there is massive pressure from their rapidly-improving competitors below them to maintain an “iconic” sound capable of directing musical and thematic trends in the industry.


In such a forward-looking venue of music, therefore, it is surprising that traditional, classical music genres are making somewhat of a comeback. While the sampling of older songs is an ancient concept in itself, the idea seems to have been left in the past and even ridiculed in the last few years. However, recent song releases by big names in K-pop, such as BLACKPINK and IVE, have shown a return to the method of mixing old Western pop into their songs. Here, I briefly explore the usage of sampling old music in K-pop throughout time and then move on to discuss recent releases and the problem that I have with them. My issue, namely, is that these songs seem to sacrifice musical perfection for the sake of following popular trends to maximise profit. Has K-pop become more a business than a genre of music?


An extremely brief history of sampling in K-pop

Since the Korean pop music industry began to gain global attention in the mid-late 2000s, producers have been sampling bits and bobs from other popular songs, mainly Western pop music, to create hits. For example, in 2012, the unrivaled girl group Girls’ Generation (SNSD), still nicknamed by many in South Korea as the “nation’s girl group, released a remake of Welsh singer Duffy’s 2008 hit song Mercy called Dancing Queen. I have fond memories of jamming to Dancing Queen in my room when it first came out, only finding out years later about the Duffy original - a true testament to the power of SNSD to make any song their own.


Throughout the 2010s, several songs were released by various big names in K-pop that contained references to, or sampled, older Western music. I remember listening to girl group Red Velvet’s Dumb Dumb in 2015, in which English lyrics in the rap verse referenced Michael Jackson's songs as a tribute to the late singer. Later, in late 2016, survival showgirl group I.O.I.’s single Whatta Man took the K-pop community by storm, captivating listeners with its addictive, repetitive chorus and upbeat instrumental. However, many may still not know that Whatta Man is a pop remake of American singer Linda Lyndell’s 1968 hit song What a Man. Additionally, K-pop has referenced classical music as well - Cherry Bullet’s 2020 release Hands Up put them in the spotlight for a while, as their mixing in of Beethoven’s iconic Für Elise caught the attention of many non-K-pop listeners.


And yet, the sampling of popular music from Western died out slightly during the pandemic years. This may have been caused by the oversaturation of the K-pop industry, with artists and idol groups eager to make a name for themselves. Instead of turning to used ideas and melodies, many groups took on increasingly weird, out-of-this-world concepts to generate unique sounds that would catch the attention of bored listeners stuck in quarantine. Songs released by newer groups under JYP Entertainment immediately come to mind - take a listen to Stray Kids’ God’s Menu or N.MIXX’s O.O, and you’ll see how out-of-the-box some producers can think to come up with original sounds and musical concepts.


Furthermore, a stigma against sampling and remaking old songs had arisen in recent years. I was saddened to see many young fans criticize the girl group Aespa - the sister group of SNSD and Red Velvet - for not having many original title tracks in their repertoire after nearly two years of being active. Indeed, songs like Forever, Next Level, and Dreams Come True are all remakes of already-existing music, with the first and third songs being taken from 2000’s favorites from Aespa’s company, SM Entertainment. However, people used their lack of originality to criticize the 4-member girl group’s performance abilities. I believe that attacking remakes for this reason is unfounded and irrational, but this is out of the scope of this article. Instead, the long history of sampling in K-pop as well as its resurgence this summer is sufficient to prove these critics wrong.


The recent boom in “old” sounds

The K-pop world was once again attracted to the use of sampling after the release of Red Velvet’s most recent track, Feel My Rhythm (2022). SM Entertainment promoted the pop dance track by highlighting the selection of the famous Air on the G String throughout the instrumental and threaded through the song’s melody. The light, catchy tune and string-heavy instrumental, along with the other-worldly visual themes that tied in with the 5-member girl group’s conceptual storyline, made it a viral release with long-time fans and new listeners.


In light of Red Velvet’s success, we can understand why other girl groups have been quick to follow along. Red Velvet is one of the most loved senior groups still active in the industry today - since their debut in 2014 with the refreshing Happiness, they have consolidated a solid fanbase that grows daily. The group’s main vocalist, Wendy, has been praised by many senior artists in the industry as being one of the best Korean singers of all time, and their principal dancer, Seulgi, has been similarly commended for her unparalleled dancing abilities. Although they have had their fair share of controversy and criticism, this has only made their current success even more respectable. As such, Red Velvet has consistently been at the helm of the industry in recent years, creating conceptual and musical trends that other groups aspire to perfect.


Therefore, Feel My Rhythm can be seen as the beginning of a resurgence of used sounds in K-pop, especially among girl groups. In August, the up-and-coming rookie girl group IVE released their third title track, After LIKE, which sampled the ’70s hit I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor in the instrumental. Like Red Velvet, IVE’s company highlighted the referencing of 1978 original in promotions, making music fans excited to hear the return of a classic party tune in the modern world of K-pop.


And it is not just IVE who has hopped on the sampling boat this summer. Just a month, the world-famous girl group BLACKPINK released their first album in two years. The title track, Pink Venom, makes several lyrical references to famous 2000s American pop hits by artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and Rihanna. The song’s choreography features dance moves from the members’ previous solo releases. Apart from Pink Venom, their second track, Shut Down, takes the beginning of classical composer Paganini’s La Campanella and mixes it into the otherwise-trap instrumental.


At first glance, all is well - old listeners of K-pop may rejoice at the potential return of more straightforward sounding music, or at least music that reminds them of past times and good memories. As a violin player myself, I was initially happy to see the increased incorporation of classical tunes into modern K-pop as well. Unfortunately, my expectations were considerably deflated upon hearing about these recent comebacks.


The problem

What makes me so disheartened about BLACKPINK’s songs, and to an extent IVE’s as well, is the apparent lack of meaningful thought behind their songs’ referencing of old sounds. First, let’s look at the main offender, BLACKPINK’s Shut Down, the second track in their new album, BORN PINK. What makes me so mad about the song is what comes across as the thoughtless use of Paganini’s La Campanella in the soundtrack. The song opens with the beginning of La Campanella, played on the violin. These first few notes captivated me at first, as string instruments and classical sounds, in general, a world away from the dance-heavy BLACKPINK’s typical sound. And as someone who appreciates artistic versatility, I was initially happy to see the world-famous girl group try out new sounds despite their unparalleled success.


Yet these expectations I had harbored were sorely disappointed in the next few seconds. The proud, striking tone of the violin playing La Campanella was immediately drowned out by synthesizers, which produce loud, artificial sounds that usually characterize trap music and are more signature of BLACKPINK. The La Campanella melody was then repeated nonstop throughout the entire song’s instrumental, while continuing to be swamped underneath the dominating trap beat. Furthermore, on top of the messy soundtrack, the girls sang unoriginal lyrics about shutting their haters down with their success, an overused theme within BLACKPINK’s relatively small repertoire.


Overall, the poor taste of the producers and lyricists ruined the incorporation of Paganini into the track. La Campanella, or ‘The Little Bell” in Italian, is a technically advanced and musically challenging piece to play well. In particular, its name is taken from the “bell-like sounds” produced by the solo violinist and the accompanying orchestra, which suggests that it should be played with a light hand and whimsical taste. Layering it on top of a heavy-beat, repetitive synthesized instrumental takes much of its beauty away. In other words, I question the point of using Paganini in BLACKPINK at all, other than that of superficially following an up-and-coming trend.


Before moving on, I want to clarify that this is not BLACKPINK’s problem. After all, K-pop is an industry where performers are given the music they should sing, with little to no participation in its production. The girls can put on a fantastic show, as they have proved they can sell out arenas and concert halls even with small setlists and unoriginal songs. What this is hopping on the musical bandwagon shows, instead, is the superficiality of K-pop’s musical side.


To an extent, my criticism can also be supported by looking at rookie girl group IVE’s the newest release, After LIKE. I think that its producers have more masterfully worked I Will Survive into the soundtrack, as they only bring it out at the end of each chorus, while the members are not singing, to make the sample stand out from the rest of the song while also being nicely tied into it. Yet, in this case, the instrumental seems to stand out more than IVE’s vocals, as the girls are made to sing a relatively simple, repetitive melody that is a world away from the thrill of Gloria Gaynor’s voice. Though After LIKE is a very catchy dance song that indeed sells well to IVE’s target audience, I do wonder whether its producers could have made it more lyrically or musically creative to pay proper tribute to the 70’s hit.


The mediocrity displayed by the producers of these songs points to a deeper problem within the K-pop industry, that of its superficiality. In other words, I feel that K-pop is not about the music anymore; instead, companies prioritize quantity over quality, pumping out songs as long as they sound somewhat unique to keep their artists active in such a fast-paced market scene. And for the world-famous, such pieces may be an attempt to satisfy fans while also ensuring that their product makes enough profit - which is why following musical trends can be so enticing even for those at the top.


Conclusion - should we be sampling from old, popular songs?

In short, I feel that some of the sampled or remixed songs that have been coming back into the spotlight recently do not deserve all of the praise and adoration that they are receiving now. A closer look into the history of sampling old music in K-pop suggests that this year’s releases have merely been reactions to the success of other groups that did so by money-hungry companies eager to consolidate their own artists’ place in K-pop stardom.


Sampling and reusing old music have worked in the artists’ favor whenever they have been able to add an extra element to it that makes the new song truly theirs. Yet the lazy recycling of old musical themes and ideas by recent producers means that the sampled elements fail to spruce up the piece and may even contribute to its downfall. In the future, music producers should genuinely think about the meaning behind the songs they wish to use in their creations and understand their complexity. Otherwise, the beauty of the original music and the new song could be ruined in an ever-increasing effort to make easy money off the artists’ backs.


Image source: PUBG MOBILE:絕地求生M via Wikimedia Commons

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