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Girls’ Generation and the blurred lines of pop music

Jessica-Anne Lyons

Mon Nov 18 2013


When one of Korea’s most successful pop groups Girls’ Generation won Video of the Year at the YouTube Music Awards, it sparked a wave of online criticism from fans of its fellow nominees. Jessica-Anne Lyons tunes in to find out whether or not ‘pop’ music needs to be redefined. 

Girls’ Generation, a nine-member all girl K-pop group have been tearing it up on the music video scene, but it hasn’t been without controversy.

Also known as SNSD in Korea, all of their official music videos on YouTube have each been viewed millions of times and their song I Got A Boy has been watched almost 80 million times alone.

When Girls’ Generation were nominated for the YouTube Music Awards Video of the Year for that very song and then won the big prize – beating out Justin Bieber, One Direction, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga – they didn’t just receive the title, but also a metaphorically tsunami-sized wave of online criticism.


A small handful of the online remarks made on Twitter following Girls’ Generation’s win at the YouTube Music Awards.

Their popularity speaks for itself. Despite this, angry fans from SNSD’s competition took to Twitter to voice their frustrations – with some resorting to racist remarks – where the common complaint was that no one had really heard of the Korean girl group in the western world.

Girls’ Generation isn’t the only Korean pop act that received less than favourable attention in western countries.

PSY, who released his smash single ‘Gangnam Stylelast year, rocketed to the top of the charts when the music video to his song became a viral sensation, making it the first video in YouTube history to reach more than one billion views.

But when PSY performed at Future Musical Festival 2012 in Melbourne, he announced he would sing ‘Gangnam Style’ twice; once so the audience could record him and again so they could actually enjoy the song.

It was as if he knew he would be treated as a foreign spectacle and that a lot of people would have watched his set purely so they could tell their friends that they saw, “the Korean guy doing the horse dance”.

At the same time, it’s that uniqueness of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ music video that made it so successful. Millions of people logged onto YouTube to watch him cheekily stare at a girl’s behind, mime riding a horse in his dance routine, and of course, the bizarre yet hilarious frog man in the elevator. All of these things were pure online-sharing gold.

Now, it’s not just song downloads or purchases that contribute to a track’s success. Billboard’s decision to make YouTube views contribute towards the Hot 100 and other charts, as well as SNSD’s victory at the YouTube awards, has us asking whether or not pop music needs to be redefined.

Since Billboards’ decision, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see a lot more videos that aim to ‘go viral’ because more views (and even better, shares) all help drive a track up the charts (though an argument can be made against Billboards’ new measure of popularity as people may be watching for the video’s visual content rather than the quality of the actual music).


Billboard’s decision to include YouTube views certainly elevates the chances of ‘unpopular’ music artists into the American charts.

While the number of views for ‘I Got A Boy’ speak for themselves, the video is so visually heavy that you’d want to watch it multiple times just to take it all in.

Viral-potential aside, the winning video for the YouTube Music Awards was decided by the number of times the finalists’ videos were shared on social media. In this case, even though the music video for ‘I Got A Boy’ didn’t  have as many views on YouTube as compared to the other finalists’, the video’s victory was as a result of Girls Generation’s dedicated fan base who shared the video more than the fans of the other finalists.

Of course, fans of artists like One Direction or Justin Bieber were furious, which likely boils down to the fact that many of them had never even heard of Girls’ Generation before their win at the YouTube Music Awards. It was definitely a culture shock for them to realise that K-Pop, while not ‘huge’ in the western world, was very established and noteworthy elsewhere.

In some ways, pop music is relative to your environment and the music you’re exposed to.

At its purest, pop music is essentially music consumed by the mainstream – that is to say it is accepted and made popular by the masses. Music that is popular, whether it’s through the number of downloads, views or plays, is more exposed, which gives it a place on the charts. But “mainstream” can mean many different things.

In the case of SNSD, the music they make is certainly considered mainstream in Korea. However in the United States, for example, their success wouldn’t appear to be as equally significant which perhaps explains fans of western artists in the YouTube Music Awards were outraged when SNSD, a group who they considered unpopular, beat out artists who they believed were the best and most popular of them all.

At the same time, pop can also be considered a genre of music in itself though with the variety of music that’s considered popular, this assertion can also seem quite contradictory.

And on that train of thought, there are plenty of songs that are categorised as ‘pop music’ but only become ‘popular’ thanks to YouTube views (think ‘Chinese Food’ by Alison Gold – but that’s a whole other cup of noodles).

Newcomer Lorde, who is absolutely ruling the charts all over the world with her debut single, ‘Royals’, has proved to be incredibly popular and has been played over and over on the airwaves, but would you associate her sound as ‘pop’? Starting to hate those blurred lines (thanks Robin Thicke)?

Girls’ Generation, like Lorde, don’t sound like conventional western pop music, but they are still able to win awards and are at the top of the western charts.

It will be interesting to see where the Korean girl group ventures towards now as there are talks of Interscope Records bringing out an American full-length release of their album I Got A Boy sometime this year. Its reception in the western world will definitely be telling.

Do you feel that pop music is in need of a serious reevaluation following Girls’ Generation’s win? Should the definition of pop music be redefined to accommodate Internet culture? Is the current format of determining what’s ‘popular’ archaic? Sound off your opinions in the comments below.