K-pop is “pop” — it is a form of popular entertainment that is based on how the music is produced, how the performances are staged, what kinds of business interests label companies have, how the content from these companies is distributed, and the means by which the audience can consume this content. So it is “pop” in the strict definition of what “pop” stands for (popular), but is it “pop” in terms of genre? That depends on how pop is defined as a genre, which is also an increasingly contentious debate. When we look at Western pop music today, we find that more sounds are being borrowed from cultures across the globe, more artists are exploring various genres throughout their albums, and the definitions for categorizing music have become more vague. Even in the Western context, “pop” is more of an industry then a genre. An artist can write music with elements of R&B or rock or country, but their process of promotion, distribution, performance, and consumption will have a great impact in determining if they are considered pop or not. While a particular sound has become associated with pop, it is largely due to the process of music creation and the way that music is delivered to the audience. (For example, “radio friendly music” is a term that has come to define music that translates well to radio, but it has become synonymous with a style of music set at a comfortable bpm (beats per minute), a four-chord progression, easy lyrics, etc. Therefore, the method of distribution has directly influenced the sound of the music.)
“K-pop,” then, becomes an even more difficult term to define. While the “pop” suggests an industry, the meaning of the “K” has also been contested. Ultimately, the “K” represents the presence of some aspect of Korean culture — this might not always be directly in the music, but can exist through various cues of the music, including the Korean language (which is most often used, but not always), style of music production, style of distribution, and style of performance. Essentially, these are elements that are often used to describe industries rather than genres. While K-pop music does have actual musical elements that make it distinctly Korean, such as how melodies are constructed (for example, the use of fourth intervals appear to be more common in K-pop than in Western music, possibly derived from East Asia’s use of pentatonic scales), most of K-pop does not explicitly present itself as Korean in the “traditional” sense. What K-pop does represent, however, is a modern idea of Korea. It’s an amalgamation of various cultures and styles of music that are brought into a framework that is Korean. In other words, one can attribute the “Korean” characteristics of K-pop to be rooted in emotion, style, performance, and distribution rather than sound that is constructed from predominantly Western culture (particularly that of Black music in America). This sort of approach to music develops out of Korea’s desire to establish a global presence in culture, but that desire was partially influenced by Korea’s own tumultuous history of oppression.
Therefore, K-pop evolved as an industry aimed at global influence but also rooted in the idea of a new, modern Korean identity. The difficulty with defining K-pop, however, arises with the fact that K-pop never had a consistent sound. Early on, Seo Taiji and Boys presented a heavy hip-hop sound in K-pop. Then, K-pop transitioned to pop. Now, it has encompassed almost every genre from R&B to reggaeton to rock. While it is possible to define and contextualize K-pop in industry terms, it is almost impossible to associate a particular sound to it in genre terms. Therefore, K-pop can be best regarded as an industry, not a genre.