Frank Kogan, one of my favorite music critics to read and one who has consistently written about K-pop at a really high level, recently put up a post about The Voice, both the American version and the Korean version. At the end, there’s this paragraph, which I found really perfect:
As for others, Jesse Campbell is the best of the American soul bores and is a favorite to win, and it wouldn’t be an injustice if he did. Even given my pro-Korea bias, I’m surprised at how, when you get past the standouts and down to the average song upon song upon song, the Koreans are so much better than the Americans. In my notes on the U.S. series, the word “soul” is all over, while “r&b” appears not once — this is probably a technical mistake on my part, but says that the singers who veered in those directions were looking backwards rather than into adventure. (I used “soul” to cover a wide range, from gruff rockers to gruff pleaders to MOR pop guys to sweet lamenters.) Whereas the American quirk girls who’ve heard Adele and had their ears open to the last two decades of singer-songwriters and quasi-eccentric stylists are hearing a world of permutation and possibility. And this is what the Koreans seem to hear in most everything, though of course, being unfamiliar with Korea, I could be projecting novelty into whatever they do. (But listen, for instance, to how much fun Nah Deul Ee and Lee So Jung have with bluesy material that Americans would use to demonstrate endurance and painful emoting.) For what it’s worth, the Korean contestants are staying away from what I love most in K-pop, the fierce freestyle and the hip-hop tunepop amalgam and T-ara’s thirty flavors of piffle, etc., none of which is built to impress talent-show judges. Son Seung-yeon, the best of the two Weather Girls, auditioned with a solid version of 2NE1’s “Go Away,” but that’s basically a power ballad. Jang Eun-a and Lee Yun-gyeong did a thoroughly inventive version of SNSD’s “Hoot,” but they do it as a bossa nova/r&b conglomeration. What strikes me is that the bossa nova (or whatever; I don’t claim to be accurate with that designation) is so easily daubed onto the canvas.
One of my favorite things about Kogan’s writing is the way he wrings rather profound insights out of seemingly inconsequential ephemera, such as his reading of the word “soul.” The idea of K-pop as, essentially, a sonic “adventure” is one that really resonates with me, and it cuts straight to what drew me to K-pop, which is its creative flirtatiousness and promiscuity (rather than being tied down, looking backwards to pay homage). I suspect that one reason for this is the fact that Korea developed so rapidly: I have a hard time imagining the average Korean struggling excessively to sort through the past (in the way we do in America) when the present and even the future are emerging so quickly (and thus tugging at his or her attention). But Kogan really says it all in pointing out that the Koreans simply look more like they are having fun with the songs they’re given. Isn’t that the definition of creativity?