SOUTH KOREA: 2011 has been a transformative year for South Korean music, in multiple ways. Its content and makeup changed; its perception and popularity did, as well. And fortunately, the vast majority have been changes for the better.
As we close out 2011 and reminisce about these things, I will be posting a series of articles entitled “2011 In Review” that recognises artistes and works that have shown exceptional merit and quality throughout the year. As it is with hellokpop’s music reviews, these selections will be completely subjective and based solely on my personal opinion.
2011 In Review series
Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Best In R&B/Soul
Part 3 – Best In Rock/Alternative
Part 4 – Best In Dance/Electronica
Part 5 – Best In Rap/Hip-hop
Part 6 – Best In Pop/Ballad
Part 7 – Best In Crossover/Jazz/Miscellaneous
Part 8 – Best In Performances
Part 9 – Label of the Year
Part 10 – Rookie Artist of the Year
Part 11 – Song of the Year
Part 12 – Album of the Year
Part 13 – Artist of the Year
Part 14 – Wrap-up
Now, while I promise that I’ve been as free of external bias as possible with these selections and have made them carefully after long periods of preparation, they are inherently subjective; you will disagree with some of them. That’s a certainty, and it’s also a great thing, because we’d like to hear from you. We invite you to comment on these articles and sound off on selections that you agree or disagree with, and tell us what YOUR picks would be for each category.
Before we get into the actual categories, let’s first take a brief (and very broad) look at what happened this year.
* 2011 was the year in which Kpop constructed itself as a globally recognised brand. Yes, Kpop was known and loved outside of South Korea before, too, and particularly in Asia, but for the most part, its existence outside of South Korea was known only to fans. But it seems that everyone else took notice this year – we saw an exponential increase in articles written about, news covered about, and interviews conducted with Kpop artistes and their craft. Kpop music videos on YouTube exploded in viewcounts, as social networks spread them across the world. Events such as the SMTown Live World Tour and United Cube concerts drew immense numbers of fans in Europe and America as well as Asia. Kpop still has a way to go before it’s truly ubiquitous, but people recognise and know the name now. In one of the most telling displays of just how big 2011 has been, this last part applies to South Koreans, as well. If you were to ask any South Korean person off the street last year and ask them what “Kpop’ meant, chances were that they wouldn’t know – after all, if you’re South Korean, it’s just “music” to you. It just wasn’t something you would say. Now, though? Practically everyone has heard of and know the term – news media has only been using it and covering its success for the whole year, in a similar way to how “Hallyu” became a household term all those years ago. Years from now, 2011 will be remembered as one of the most pivotal years in Kpop’s history.
* 2011 was the year when veteran artistes were rediscovered and public perception of vocal performances increased tremendously. This fact owes itself largely to two popular TV shows – ‘I Am A Singer’ and ‘Immortal Songs 2’ – that started airing this year, and especially the former. The shows gave an outlet for some of South Korea’s most highly regarded (but not necessarily popular) vocalists and bands to show off their skills in a (controversially) cutthroat, competitive setting. Contestant artistes who were popular already got renewed credence for their skills and got to show some unseen sides of their music: examples include Baek Ji-young, who had a couple weeks of very solid performances before leaving the show, and Jaurim, who were noted for their constant experimentation. Those who were almost completely unknown obviously gained tons of name recognition and rediscovery of their work; an example is Juckwoo (also known as Red Rain). Some of those who were sort of in-between, like Lena Park and Kim Bum-soo (both had one mega-hit each in their decade-plus careers, plus a few minor ones), became bona fide superstars. And one in particular – Lim Jae-beom – became legendary. So what’s the result of all this? Well, for starters, every Sunday, songs featured on ‘I Am A Singer’ top the real-time charts. But even more than the “unveiling” of many talented veteran artistes, and the hundreds of classic songs by diverse artistes that they helped uncover (many from the “golden era” of the 70s and 80s and even before), the greatest achievement of these shows is the sheer amount of musical discourse that they’ve generated. All of a sudden, people in their teens and twenties are discussing kinds of music that they had never heard before, and debating the merits of artistes that they never knew about. In the process, they discover more and more diverse music, old and new. Older listeners, many of whom had simply stopped listening to music at a certain point, are starting to listen again. It’s a shift in public perception towards music. For that, these shows deserve to be recognised – no matter how controversial they sometimes may be.
* 2011 was the year when Kpop diversified more than in any recent year. People say that South Korean music has lost the diversity it used to have until the 1990s – and they’re right. But if 2011 is any indication, we’re moving in the right direction. The Indie scene, as always, produced tons of excellence, and the public took notice: Jang Gi-ha and the Faces, one of the most popular Indie bands in the land, enjoyed great success with their sophomore effort, as did many in the Indie-rock and electronic scenes. The impact of such TV shows as ‘I Am A Singer’ has already been noted, and the success of ‘American Idol’-like audition show ‘Superstar K’ spawned several derivatives like Top Band and The Great Birth, which combined to increase awareness of minor markets and artisets while producing tons of promising rookies. The hiphop scene made strides like never before, with artistes like Verbal Jint and Leessang having almost unprecedented levels of success in the mainstream. And last but not least, the idol scene diversified as well: groups like Infinite and F(x) explored the boundaries of euro- and synthpop in ways and extents never attempted before in Kpop, while some such as 2NE1 and Wonder Girls made bold directional shifts. Still others like Sunny Hill ventured out into unorthodox (and sometimes unnameable) genres.
In sum, 2011 was the year of immense activity balanced with remarkable stability. Over 40 new idol groups debuted in 2011 (that’s a crazy number, if you think about it); meanwhile, T-ara quietly recorded nearly 4 million downloads of the year’s greatest hit ‘Roly-Poly’, making it almost certainly the most-downloaded song in the history of South Korean music. Artistes and fans alike showed the resiliency to withstand several huge and potentially devastating incidents and accidents. Even as Kpop’s popularity and awareness increased outside of South Korea, it diversified and transformed inside the country. It’s been a busy year, and at the same time a positive, reassuring one.
That’s my recap of this year in Kpop, and that will wrap up Part 1 of the “2011 In Review” series. For more stories from this series, please visit www.hellokpop.com.