This post is part of an ongoing series on Asian pop.
Before I go on and on about Asian pop music, I feel that it is important for me to talk about what my favourite music genres and artists are, and what my upbringing on music is. This way, you will have a feel for why I bring up the artists that I do, and maybe leave some out. While I want to show a wide variety of Asian music to you within the genre of pop, I obviously have a bias towards certain artists.
My entrance into pop music was mostly from my Dad, but I would be a fool to say my Mom did not have an influence on my musical tastes as well. My Dad is a musician, relatively known in western Canada in his own right for being in such known Canadian bands as the Nocturnals and Scrubbaloe Caine. The earliest music I remember listening to was from artists like Wings, the Beatles, Sting, the Eurythmics, Level 42, Steely Dan, and Michael Jackson. Since I was raised on those artists and more, I found myself expanding into all sorts of genres later in life from electronic to industrial. I love funk, which is why I love songs by George Duke, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. I also love interesting melodies that stream from the norm, which is why I always loved Steely Dan. When the Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993, it was the first time I had ever really appreciated instrumental music, and from then on, I fell in love with scores. I am a HUGE score buff; my favourite composers being Danny Elfman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Randy Newman, and more recently Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I enjoy various forms of movie scores, but my favourite kinds of scores would have to be ones with more creepy phrases and diminished chords. I have always loved creepy music, whether I find it in electronic swing or movie scores, it doesn’t matter. If it’s creepy, I will probably like it, or at least give it a listen. It is also worth mentioning that I play three instruments: clarinet (main), alto saxophone, and oboe (well…it may be a bit rusty at this point). Junior High School was when I really fell in love with music from the 30s-50s, like Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman. I just love old jazz and swing. My last point of reference would have to be that I worked in a music store for almost nine years, and whether I knew what it was, I could find it. Customers could ask me for lesser known punk bands or country stars, and I knew what they were talking about. I love trivia, so just knowing about music, even if I don’t really dig it, is a hobby of mine. I listen to all genres for the most part (REALLY). I know it’s frustrating when people say that because they are generally lying, but I truly do listen to all sorts of music, from Keb ‘Mo to Marilyn Manson, Girls Generation to Caravan Palace, and Turmion Katilot to NWA. I love mainstream artists like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, lesser known electronic swing artists like Alice Francis, and the Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair score by Masafumi Takada. Sometimes I just want to listen to country, or croon to some Bobby Darin. So that’s my musical background; I wanted to share it with you so that a) you know what my history with music is and b) so that when you see the types of Asian music I share, it will maybe make a little bit more sense.
This post; however, is all about the main styles that I have noticed within Asian pop music. So let’s get into some of the categories that I enjoy, and want to share.
Heavy Rotation – AKB48 (Japan)
Yes, what most people think Asian music sounds like is a genre within Asian pop music. It’s usually over-the-top bubbly with very high-pitched vocals, is incredibly cute, and definitely does not try to be westernized at all. This genre is usually heard or used whenever western movies show a scene in Japan, is associated with crazy video games, and sometimes pedophilia. Generally this type of music is sung by women and girls, and sadly is the reason a lot of people do not bother to learn about or explore music in Asia further. Most people hear the word “J-Pop” and think cute (yet annoying) school girls all singing together in sync. For me personally, I am open and enjoy this genre. Because it is a genre very unique to Asia, I like to embrace it as a cultural experience and way of understanding the culture in Asia, especially Japan.
The Girl Groups & Boy Groups
The Boys – Girls Generation (South Korea)
I didn’t want to make this a category at first, but I figured I would since there is a distinct style that I have noticed with many Asian boy and girl groups. Let’s get this out of the way right now: they are completely different from American/British boy band/girl bands. When someone says boy band to me, my first thought at the moment is One Direction, and with girls, maybe Pussycat Dolls or Spice Girls. The category in Asia (mostly Korea) is quite different from what we hear in the west. For starters, in Korea, majority of all the famous girl/boy groups are kind of factory made, which at first sounds awful, but it seems to work very well. All the main record labels in South Korea recruit teenagers who can sing and dance and train them for years until finally placing them into a label made group. At first I thought this idea was terrible…but honestly, it means that all the members in the group are great vocalists and great dancers. I have noticed that many American singers aren’t actually that great of vocalists, but since they can ‘scrape by’ and look pretty, they sell records. The girl and boy groups in South Korea only pick those who are great singers and dancers, so that by the time they are old enough to be placed into a group, they are extremely talented and prepared. So by saying they don’t pay their dues is not fair, they work VERY hard for years training at these labels before finally becoming famous. It is refreshing to see pop singers actually have singing talent. There are lots of Asian girl groups that are more fitting towards the ‘Stereotype’ category, and that is why I would not count them in this category. This genre of music obviously has many subgenres within it (Girls Generation and Sunny Hill do not sound the same), but generally, I have found it to be high quality pop with a good dosage of disco-funk, edge, and a focus on strong vocals. I also find it to very westernized, not just in visual styles, but singing styles as well. Many of the songs in this category and a few others could easily be sung by an American singer.
The Confident Songstress
A’s Doll House – Ailee (South Korea)
The singers in this category are solo and usually focus primarily on vocals. They focus primarily on excellent vocals, and tend to sing a lot of ballads. Sure, they’ll dance sometimes and look beautiful, but there is a huge focus on vocals since it’s just them. Many of the singers that I will show you in this category have similar styles to the girl groups out there, and that’s a compliment on the girl groups out there since most singers in the Asian world have strong vocals. The singers in this category are more of a Christina Perri than the girl groups being more of a Britney Spears (if that makes any sense?). They don’t tend to do a a mix of genres – they stick to what they do and they do it well.
The Distinctly Asian Yet Western Jack of all Trades
Mirrorcle World – Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan)
This is certainly an interesting category because the singers in this category do it all and generally don’t have one distinct style. They tend to blend various styles to create their own unique style. The singers in this category will mix pop, rock, metal, electronic, country, traditional asian styles, punk, classical, and pretty much anything else you can think of to create one of the most unique musical styles I have ever heard. I have found that it’s more of a trend in Japan, and Ayumi Hamasaki most notably uses this style. I’m not saying these artists don’t have pop songs or rock songs, but a lot of their songs blend various genres together. They will use rifts from metal and combine them with incredibly poppy beats. It’s rarely done in western music, and I have found it to be one of the most interesting musical genres out there. I love when an artist can explore outlets from all styles to create a mesh of all of them. This distinct style of pop (and many other styles) is very popular with some of the biggest artists in Asia using it.
The Ultimate Pop Star
Beast – Jolin Tsai (Taiwan)
This category is just how it sounds; these are the artists who stick to their poppy roots and do an amazing job doing it. Much like the Confident Songstress category, they don’t tend to do a mix of genres, but I don’t care because everything they are doing is done well. The artists in this category are not known for their singing (not that they are bad vocalists or anything), because they are more of a package deal – they sing, they dance, they look beautiful; they are the stereotypical pop star. Much like Rihanna, Kesha, and Britney Spears – the same exists in Asia. They can do it all, and some are better at singing than others, as we will explore in a later post.
The Pop Singer Who Also Raps / The Rapper Who Also Sings
The Baddest Female – CL (South Korea)
Perhaps to your surprise, rap is popular within the Asian music scene, in fact, many of the girl and boy groups that I mentioned above have a designated member of the group who is known as the rapper. Some famous rappers only rap (ie. Psy); however, there are many rappers now that are singing as well. Much like how Nicki Minaj releases rap songs and pop songs (some a mix of both), the same exists in Asia. These rappers, especially some of the girls are amazing vocalists who also happen to have the talent of rapping (or they are amazing rappers who also happen to have the talent of singing). Many of the rappers in South Korea for instance are actually members of the girl and boy groups who have their own solo careers rapping or being featured in other singer’s songs. It is nice to see versatile rappers who incorporate other styles of singing into their music.
While there are few more genres we will be exploring in this series, those are the main musical styles that I wanted to introduce to you for the meantime. Asian pop definitely has a lot to offer with a lot of incredibly talented artists, not to mention very unique. It seems that Asian pop music has definitely become more popular in recent years due to Psy’s western success. More people are certainly looking into what K-Pop has to offer, which is why I want to share with you more than just K-Pop, but artists from all across Asia. Stay tuned for the next post where we will explore artists in ‘The Stereotype‘ category.