There’s a New Wave of Korean Musicians Thriving Outside the K-Pop Machine
A crop of producers are breaking free from your stereotypes.
It's never been tough to find women in Korean music. While K-pop's carefully coiffed and chiseled boy bands rake in most of the diehard fans and sales certs abroad, it's their female equivalents who dominate the charts back home. The right combination of a catchy melody and memorable dance can spread from Seoul to the southernmost tip of South Korea in a matter of hours, and whether it's Wonder Girls' point dance or Sistar's bouncy hooks, girl groups haven proven to be Korea's preferred mode of pop fantasy for the better part of the past decade.
But there was always something missing. Girls' Generation may have ushered in an era of female-focused pop that's lived up to their name, but all too few women have been creatively involved in the music's production or performance. Even popular anthems of female empowerment from acts like 2NE1 ("I Am the Best") and Miss A ("I Don't Need a Man") were made by men at the record companies who'd assembled them, set to music videos as cutesy as they were fierce. In a sense, K-pop girl groups developed out of a Korean entertainment cliche that stretches back through 80s idols like Kim Wan-sun and Ed Sullivan's multi-instrumentalist faves the Kim Sisters: women permitted to perform a role, but not to make one for themselves.
Trailer for NOISEY: Seoul, an episode of Noisey's TV show on VICELAND that looks at the K-pop training academies where teenagers give their all to be the next big thing. The episode—which airs at 10 PM EST on VICELAND on Tuesday, January 31—stars the Justin Bieber of K-pop, Taeyang from BIGBANG. Learn how you can watch VICELAND here.
No more. Following the rise of female rappers and the pop idol IU's turn as a hitmaker for herself and other (male) artists, the Korean charts have seen a surge in women writing their own songs over the past few years. Last year Wonder Girls ruled the charts all summer long with a song they wrote and played themselves as a band, members of Girls' Generation and Apink offset their groups' waning chart power with massive smashes they helped write, and 2NE1's CL has collaborated with everyone from Diplo to Asher Roth, of all people, in the early stages of her push into the American market. The chart-topping 2016 success of young, classically cookie-cutter girl groups like Twice and GFriend might prove the old model still works, but ambitious new hybrid groups like DIA—featured in the NOISEY SEOUL doc—indicate a broader shift in Korean music and women's place in it.
One especially exciting facet of this change is the sudden abundance of excellent female producers in the Korean underground. What was once a spotty field has filled out with a broad spectrum of artists crafting their own fully realized microcosms, most of them having gotten started in just the past two or three years. Many are producers in their own right who enjoy collaboration, like a Solange or an FKA twigs, while others are akin to Grimes in their nigh total self-reliance. Together, they're a symbol of how the Korean public is no longer simply listening to female voices, but to what they have to say, too.
A former art director whose creative career started with a $100 Casio keyboard at a college in Los Angeles, CIFIKA has covered a lot of ground in under two years. Initially inspired by discovering that Washed Out's Within and Without was recorded in a bedroom, her music runs a gamut closer to Jamie xx, Fever Ray, FKA twigs, and 90s Korean pop escapee Lee Sang-eun. K-pop superstar and songwriter Jonghyun has praised CIFIKA, suggesting she's already beginning to weigh on mainstream Korean culture, but her ambitions look beyond: she's recently said her current goal is to sing in Korean for a set at a global music festival.
Just last week, Hoody turned out an impeccable blend of Korean R&B for The Fader in what is one of the year's first must-listen mixes. But she's been turning heads worldwide from the very start of her young career—Kelela became an outspoken fan after catching one of Hoody's first sets in Seoul a few years back, and Teengirl Fantasy tapped her to sing on his single "U Touch Me" at the end of 2014. One of her most infectious jams is last year's "Like You" (above), which sways and trills with all the grace of a lost 00s Mariah classic.
Neon Bunny appeared at the start of the decade with a francophile mix of Phoenix and Ed Banger influences ("Oh My Prince" never goes out of style), having since matured into a deeper, more layered sound of her own. She wears her otaku influences on her sleeve with the video for the hypnotic "Forest of Skyscrapers" (above), which blends the aesthetics of Wong Kar Wai, Akira, and classic Korean karaoke videos. That song comes from last year's excellent Stay Gold, which also features emotional banger "It's You" and the unique genre meld "Romance in Seoul." The fact that she qualifies as an OG in Korea's bedroom producer scene speaks to just how young it is, and her artistic development suggests exciting things for the many newcomers she's helped inspire.
One of Neon Bunny's few true peers is the artist formerly known as Yukari, who debuted around the same time with a darker, gauzier sound. Last year she redefined herself as Aseul, refining her shoegazey synthpop into something more essential and haunting on her full-length debut, New Pop. Informed by a similar ambivalence about Seoul and the modern Korean condition, she and Neon Bunny toured Taiwan together last month, and the two look set to cross paths again in the near future.
Having written earworms for the likes of Lim Kim and AOA, Suran could be one of K-pop's busiest hitmakers were it not for her tremendous skills as a vocalist, pianist, and artist in her own right. She often collaborates with some of the top producers in Korea, but her best work tends to be when she goes it alone, as with the entirely self-composed, self-produced daydream "Calling in Love" (above).
With western college credentials and an all-caps name like CIFIKA, the alternately Seoul- and London-based OOHYO debuted in 2014 with an EP of cozy, confident, fleetingly twee keyboard tunes. Since then she's grown into handling more richly orchestrated and conceptual themes, like the vivid clip for two diverging arrangements of last year's "Youth" (the "Day" take is above), or the sobering look into a VR headset future explored in her video for "Perhaps Maybe." OOHYO has described her music as being made by "a person who has faith in God and the way He designs 'love,'" earning extra credit for being a pioneer of Korean Christian synthpop.
Born in 1995 and active for barely a year, Yeseo is one of the most ambitious young guns in Seoul. She emphatically notes that she writes and produces all her music herself, often handling the mix and master as well. Her first experiment, "Margo," showcased an edgy R&B sound sculpted by the obtuse chords and production techniques she picked up as a music major, and her Soundcloud has since traced a wunderkind's exploration of contemporary sounds. Even without any official releases to her name, Yeseo's already opened for Honne during their three-night takeover of Seoul last November, and she's poised to help push the Seoul scene forward in the years to come.
Watch NOISEY: Seoul at 10 PM EST on Tuesday, January 31 on VICELAND. Learn how you can watch VICELAND here.