In Spin this last month, there was an article by David Bevan about the pop culture phenomenon of K-pop (“Seoul Trained”). K-pop, or Korean pop music, is similar in flavor to the music of the American boy and girl bands of the late ’90s and early 2000s. K-pop groups are made up of young, cute, energetic and talented performers, and their fans are as rabid as foxes in a hen coop. Their songs are simple and catchy, with Korean words filling the verses, and English phrases in the sing-along choruses.
So, how is this wave of pop music different from BSB or *NSYNC mania? And why is it so popular now?
First of all, these artists didn’t enter the music scene after years of practicing at their high schools or in their garages. K-pop stars are cherry-picked from a young age for their singing and dancing abilities, as well as for their looks. And they are not only Korean. Some of the most popular singers are from the U.S. (such as Jay Park, from California) or of Thai or Chinese descent (e.g., Nichkhun). They essentially become property of the most prominent record label, S.M. Entertainment, as they are trained, day and night, to sing, dance, entertain and present themselves as the perfect product.
By now, the producers know what works in pop music – all the way from the outfits to the key changes – and they implement those strategies through these bands. Unlike in the U.S., where our opinions of pop stars might be marred by their personal lives (e.g., Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, T.I. and others have all been convicted of crimes), the reputations of K-pop stars are protected by S.M. Entertainment. These kids aren’t allowed access to their own social media accounts, so that scandal is minimized. They aren’t even allowed to talk about dating, for fear that their adoring fans will be let down.
The music is wildly successful; while it’s just starting to emerge in the U.S. market now, it’s very popular in Japan and China. But to me, it lacks some of the humanity that I look for in art. Sure, I can separate the person from his creation to some degree. But without feeling like there is some flawed, likeable human being behind the music, it’s hard for me to engage with it. There is a new K-pop band in training now, and S.M. Entertainment has already started to market it on Twitter and Facebook. Even without a band name or any photos, the new band has already been “liked” by thousands of fans! In the article, S.M. Entertainment compares itself to Apple. You don’t have to know what the iPad3 is like exactly to know what its style will be…and you don’t have to hear the new K-pop music to know that it’s going to be in the S.M. style.
Jay Park, whom I mentioned earlier, was a cog in the S.M. machinery for a while, until it was discovered that he made an anti-Korean comment on Youtube. His career seemed to be shot after that, but now he’s back making his own music. It’s still K-pop, but the fact that he is the creative mind behind it, and that he has had to work extra hard to gain a fan base again, makes me want to like his music more. Here is Jay Park’s version of “Nothin’ on You” by B.O.B.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a lecture by Jamshed Bharucha. Currently the president of Cooper Union, he has spent his research career investigating music cognition and its neural correlates. During the talk, he presented a few cool findings, as well as his theory for the purpose of music. (Keep in mind that many psychologists, including Steven Pinker, think that music is a side effect – an accident – of the evolution of language, and that it does not necessarily have any additional survival purpose).
The first intriguing part of Jamshed’s talk actually connected music to language. One of his students remarked that she sometimes perceived melodic intervals in people’s everyday speech, and that these intervals related to speaker’s emotional state. To test this, Jamshed brought in professional actors to read lines in different ways – angry, happy, sad, and pleasant. For example, “Let’s go” was read as “Let’s go!” or “Let’s gooo” (in a whiny, tearful way), depending on the emotion that the actor was assigned to portray. Strikingly, the melodic interval of almost every sad reading was a descending minor third – an interval that has been associated with sadness over many, many years of music composition. The intervals for the happy readings were more scattered, while there were two distinct intervals that reflected anger (I don’t remember which). To me, this made sense, because the efficient communication of negative emotions is usually way more crucial to survival than communication of positive emotions (e.g., “A predator is coming!”).
So, one might think that Jamshed’s theory of the purpose of music is the same as that for language – communication, but more specifically, the communication of affect. However, he mentioned that there is much more to music than emotion. Most musicians talk about structure – things like tempo, timbre, chords, etc. that go beyond producing certain feelings in the listener. So maybe it’s not emotion that music tries to communicate to other people, but rather, brain states in general. Our brains tend to respond to music in similar ways, so when we share music with other people or listen to it with them, our brain states are synchronized with theirs. This synchronization leads to social cohesion, since people with similar brain states might feel a connection with each other! In fact, we do see that music is a significant factor in the formation of identity in teenagers and adolescents (as I’ve mentioned before, musical tastes tend to stabilize by 18, probably because you’ve lived through the most important years for social cohesion – that is, for aligning yourself with people with whom you share similarities). And music has long been used as a tool in religion and small societies for bringing people together. After all, what makes you feel more connected with others than singing and dancing? Music may even predate language as a way for people to communicate very simple brain states.
To take this theory further, this may be why people who are friends or lovers tend to like the same things – the same types of music, movies, art, etc…because shared experience leads to social cohesion. Liking the same music means that your brain states are aligned when you both listen to it, and this helps to foster relationships. I would be curious to see if there is any research on “bonding” hormones, such as oxytocin, and the shared experience of music.
Last night, Adele took home several Grammy awards, including Record of the Year for her soulful “Rolling in the Deep.” Adele’s voice is spectacular, and her hits really seem to have what it takes to move people. While “Rolling in the Deep” makes me want to shout and dance, her wistful ballad “Someone Like You” makes me (and millions of others) feel like crying. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses why this song has that kind of effect.
It comes down to the appogiattura – a musical device in the form of an extra ornamental note that “clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” This dissonance is then resolved, sending us on a mini roller coaster whenever our ears come across this little trick or surprise. All perceptual “surprises” are coded in the brain with a burst of dopamine (note: in a past entry, I wrote about how dopamine represents “prediction error”, or when something is better than expected, such as getting a reward when you expected nothing). This dopaminergic signal causes us to experience an emotional reaction, and to want to experience the stimulus again. Many drugs work by causing unnatural bursts of dopamine, which is how people get addicted; their brains are programmed to want it again and again. So, when you feel that emotional reaction to a song – goosebumps, chills, your tearducts filling up – you want to feel it again. And you listen to that song repeatedly.
Most musicians seek to make this kind of music – the poignant pieces that keep you coming back for more. But most don’t, or can’t, articulate the devices that they use. As music and musical research advances, however, producers and artists are purposefully playing with our brains’ auditory and pleasure centers. It seems cheap, I know…but it’s effective. And after all, isn’t that what matters in the end? Or is there something about knowing exactly why you’re getting goosebumps that takes away from the musical experience?
Someone Like You