All nine members of JYP Entertainment‘s latest girl group, NiziU, are Japanese, and all their songs are Japanese too. However, according to company founder J. Y. Park, NiziU is still a K-Pop group, dubbed “K-Pop 3.0.” The same goes for SM Entertainment‘s WayV. The China-based unit of NCT, WayV comprises members of Chinese, Thai, and Taiwanese nationality, and they sing in Chinese too. Yet, they’re still considered a K-Pop group by many.
Groups like these are on the rise, but without Korean members or Korean songs, how can they be considered K-Pop? Korean music critic and ethnomusicologist Youngdae Kim, Ph.D. set out to answer that question in a recent interview with Arirang.
Youngdae Kim explained that as a Korean music critic, what makes a group “K-Pop” is one of the most frequently asked questions he receives and one of the most discussed topics in the K-Pop world as a whole—namely because “there’s no clear-cut answer.” But, while Kim says he doesn’t have the perfect answer to the conundrum, he does have an explanation that sheds some light on how groups like NiziU and WayV can be considered K-Pop acts.
First and foremost, Youngdae Kim says that what many people don’t realize is that this isn’t a completely new concept. It actually began in the early 2000s, Kim says, when K-Pop agencies like SM Entertainment began to heavily promote their artists globally and sell them in the overseas market. One of the first examples of K-Pop crossover, according to the ethnomusicologist, is BoA.
Kim went on to explain that BoA was “trained as two different artists: [as a] Korean artist for the Korean market, and as a Japanese artist.” While BoA herself isn’t Japanese, she was trained as a J-Pop artist to tackle the Japanese market alongside her K-Pop pursuits. According to Youngdae Kim, that was the first phase of “cultural technology.”
If the term “cultural technology” sounds familiar to you, that may be because it’s part of NCT’s name, which stands for Neo Culture Technology. Cultural technology is a system created by Lee Soo Man, founder of SM Entertainment, to promote the Korean Wave around the world. According to Youngdae Kim, cultural technology has three broad phases. The first encompasses artists like BoA, trained as foreign artists when they tackle foreign markets.
The next phase of this K-Pop evolution is a hybrid model—a Korean group with foreign or diasporic members. These groups are everywhere in Korea today, and no one questions whether they’re K-Pop or not—think TWICE (with Japanese members) or Girls’ Generation (with American-born Korean members). Kim says that groups like these were created so the members could act as a “mediator or cultural bridge” in overseas markets.
This leads to the third and final stage, which Kim explained is “all-foreign K-Pop groups for the foreign market.” This is the model that NiziU and WayV use, and agencies like HYBE and SM Entertainment have plans to create future groups this way too. “That’s kind of an inevitable evolution and the latest development of K-Pop,” says Kim.
The critic went on to say that whether you can call these groups K-Pop depends on how you define the term. While some think K-Pop is based on the ethnicity or nationality of the members, the company, or the market, others—like J.Y. Park—have a different definition. Kim says that to J.Y. Park, NiziU is a K-Pop group because they’re based on the same “technology, know-how, money, and processes” developed by K-Pop, just like TWICE and ITZY.
Ultimately, Youngdae Kim says it’s difficult to distill the essence of K-Pop into one factor. However, he says, when you take the core elements of beautiful young men and women performing great songs with great choreography, you get a combination that represents K-Pop—a combination that can be replicated without any Korean members or Korean language at all.
For more interesting K-Pop insights, check out Youngdae Kim’s explanation of how “Dynamite” topped the Billboard Hot 100.