Mapping the Authenticity of K-pop

Background of the Project

Ever since the Korean boy band BTS gained popularity on a worldwide scale, a controversial and heated debate has emerged among their fans: Can we classify BTS as “K-pop”?

The question emanates from the coverage of K-pop provided by the mainstream media, perpetuating a stigma towards K-pop idols and fans. On the one hand, K-pop is usually depicted as a materialistic industry with a systematic production process and a “dark side” – an expression coined by the media to refer to the recent scandals of sex trafficking and suicide happening in the industry. On the other hand, the depiction of K-pop fans is equally unflattering. The most common image of a K-pop fan seen through the lenses of the media is a young and hysterical woman who would do anything for the band she likes. Even though the landscape of K-pop journalism is evolving with skilled journalists and scholars raising their voices to explore a more nuanced view of K-pop through broader issues, this experience of stigmatization is enough for the fans to want to distance themselves and hence, to dissociate BTS from the generic term of “K-pop.”

Nevertheless, it is technically hard to find solid arguments supporting the uniqueness of BTS in a K-pop landscape. The group was formed in a similar pattern to most other K-pop bands. All seven members were recruited from different backgrounds by their entertainment company, BigHit Entertainment (now known as HYBE Entertainment), and went through a period of training that led them to the beginning of their career in June 2014. What was different is that BTS appeared as the “first hip-hop idol” band – a label that gradually dissipated as their popularity rose.

Another particularity is that contrary to other entertainment companies that meticulously curate content for fans, BTS members regularly documented themselves through social media, offering small snippets of their daily lives. Those moments even showed the creative process—which led many BTS fans to think that the members were the only producers of their music. Fans often use this statement to deny BTS’ appurtenance to the K-pop industry.

Since the end of the 2000s, and to attract a broader market, K-pop entertainment companies have all retained the services of producers outside Korea, mainly from the United States and Scandinavian countries. BTS is no exception and has collaborated with famous singer-songwriters such as Ed Sheeran and the Chainsmokers in their last album.

To sum up, BTS fans negating the appurtenance of the band to K-pop shows two different interesting phenomena: first, a wish of the fans to distance themselves from the stereotypical K-pop fan stigma perpetuated by the mainstream media, and second, their interpretation of BTS music production process as more authentic than any other K-pop band.

In the field of K-pop studies, there has been an ongoing debate over what makes K-pop essentially Korean. The mainstream media approach explores the authenticity of K-pop by looking for its “Koreanness.” They often mistakenly frame K-pop as a political weapon of soft power used by the Korean government. In terms of research, if some proved the potentiality of K-pop as a way to gain international visuality and influence, fewer studies are looking at fans’ perceptions or the music’s production process.

This project aims to fill a gap in this scholarship by considering the different assumptions K-pop fans (BTS fans included) have regarding the song production process and the reality of this process. As many of the arguments asserting that BTS is not part of K-pop come from the international part of the K-pop fandom, it will also incorporate a comparison of the views of Korean and non-Korean fans. As a result, this research project will combine three different data sets. (1) Data gathered from an online ethnography of the internet sphere. (2) Data gathered from interviews with K-pop fans and producers closely collaborating with K-pop idols. (3) Finally, a data science approach is used, with a network analysis conducted with a data set gathering the metadata of K-pop songs.

Dataset and Methodology

As someone who has observed and enjoyed K-pop for the last fifteen years, I thought North America, Scandinavia, and South Korea were where most K-pop songs were written/produced. Through this network analysis, I could verify this hypothesis while also seeing how diverse the pool of K-pop producers is. Finally, seeing how much K-pop idols are involved in those networks would help verify the veracity of statements such as “BTS is more authentic because the members produce the music themselves.”

This project revolves around metadata mentioning the producers and writers of K-pop songs. To gather this data, I need the help of an API. When it comes to K-pop, the limitation is that it is quite difficult to find a reliable source/API to get info regarding producers and writers. With its recent entry into the Korean streaming services market, Spotify could have been the perfect candidate, but its API does not disclose any producer/writer info.

As a result, I opted for Genius, which has the advantage of combining official and user-generated data. Using, of course, BTS as a base, but also other popular K-pop acts as a point of comparison, I plan to use the info gathered about producers and writers for each group and materialize it into different network analyses that will be at the same time weighted, but also inscribed in space. I am planning on working with Neo4j and Neo4j Bloom for visualizations.

This project revolves around metadata mentioning the producers and writers of K-pop songs. To gather this data, I need the help of an API. When it comes to K-pop, the limitation is that it is quite difficult to find a reliable source/API to get info regarding producers and writers. With its recent entry into the Korean streaming services market, Spotify could have been the perfect candidate, but its API does not disclose any producer/writer info. As a result, I opted for Genius, which has the advantage of combining official and user-generated data. Using, of course, BTS as a base, but also other popular K-pop acts as a point of comparison, I plan to use the info gathered about producers and writers for each group and materialize it into different network analyses that will be at the same time weighted, but also inscribed in space. I am planning on working with Neo4j and Neo4j Bloom for visualizations.

Presentation of Project and Preliminary Results