RANDOM THOUGHTS #1: Is an alternative K-Pop idol scene possible?

RANDOM THOUGHTS #1: Is an alternative K-Pop idol scene possible?

Let’s do an experiment. I’m going to talk about something I didn’t really expect to include on this website for many reasons, but here we are. Also, this random thoughts thing has been fun, so it may also become a new column of the site. Anyway, let’s get to the main topic.

The issue is the following: is an alternative K-Pop idol scene possible? The answer is obviously yes, because anything is possible if someone desires it. Just kidding, let me explain my thoughts of the last few weeks. Trigger warning: this article is going to be full of K-Pop videos.

K-Pop vs J-Pop

During my well-deserved summer vacations in August, I’ve been listening to a lot of K-Pop. I’d like to say this is mostly my friend’s fault, but actually I enjoy some groups. Anyway, I always dislike anything she forces gently asks me to listen to. So, yeah, I’m the culprit of my own degeneracy.

As we already know, Japanese and Korean idols are essentially different. Very, very different and in many ways. On one hand, the Land of the Rising Sun’s underground keeps producing a lot of obscure groups and in the last ten years they adventured into alternative and extreme genres gaining a small but faithful international fanbase, while mainstream idols are still mostly a very Japanese thing (or at least that’s how I see it), with very few exceptions; on the other hand, Korean overproduced idols have been taking over the global market lately, even releasing collaborations with very famous American artists like Nicki Minaj and Selena Gomez. Well, I’d never want to see Broken By The Scream doing a song with Justin Bieber, but whatever floats their boats.

I’m not going to annoy you all listing all the differences between the two countries, but one of the most evident ones is surely their music. Compared to the punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop and anything-core idols we have nowadays in Japan, K-Pop groups have a more strict range of genres from which they draw, as it’s basically almost always a mix of pop, EDM, R&B and hip-hop. But is it really true?

A (Not So) Different Kind Of K-Pop

It is mostly true, that’s for sure; however, I’ve been discovering a few interesting things that made me think that even the Koreans may enjoy a different kind of idols. Strangely enough, the first unit that made me think this is one of the most hated groups in the whole K-Pop scene, for reasons unbeknownst to me. In any case, Momoland‘s take on the electro-swing genre immediately piqued my interest. I don’t know if their songs’ titles and lyrics can get any dumber than this, but I still enjoy their music a lot.

Some may argue that electro-swing isn’t the most alternative or different genre out there; still, it’s not the usual stuff you get in the Korean scene. Same goes for groups like Dalshabet, Brown Eyed Girls and — even more — Wonder Girls, incorporating strong 80s vibes into their music. First time I listened to them, I immediately thought of Especia, although city pop is not the only genre explored by the Korean artists.

Nu Disco, Synth Pop, even some Reggae stuff: this shows how the concepts behind these idols are deeply linked to their music and aesthetics. Admittedly, their songs are really well-thought, very catchy and with an identity strongly rooted in the sound of the 80s. I’m quite sure there are other groups looking back at the past, but yeah, I’m not that much into K-Pop to search for them.

Speaking of both retro and electro-swing stuff, let’s spend some words on one of my favorite units, which sadly are probably gone. Orange Caramel was a sub-unit of After School (an EDM-oriented group) which is pretty unique in the Korean idol scene. Seeing how this kind of different groups are often disbanded, disappeared or hated almost made me lose my hope for an alternative K-Pop scene, however I won’t give up so easily.

Just enjoy how retro-looking, retro-sounding and just… weird this unit was. They had many awesome songs, but I’m going to put only one here, for the sake of readability.

Put Some Rock In My K-Pop, Please

I still feel the “where is the truly alternative shit?” looks on me; ok, let’s get there. After losing hope, one group made me regain it: Dreamcatcher‘s dark rock sound was what I was searching for. The horror vibes, the powerful electric guitars, everything was finally something really different from the whole scene.

While I feel like recently they have been getting closer to the standard K-Pop sound, they still have a unique aura around them. I seriously hoped to find more units like them…

…but completely failed at it. Unfortunately, there is literally no one doing anything similar.

Sure, a few years ago Pritz came out with an interesting rock-metal sound together with some very questionable uniforms. However, they did like… two songs? And then disappeared, showing how the Korean scene was not yet ready for a Babymetal-like group. Besides their official MV below, I’ll also leave an unpublished video for “CRAZY COWBOY” here, because they deserved a longer life.

Take A Look At The Other Side

And then, in the midst of my renewed hopelessness, I realized it. The most difficult question to ask myself, which I tried to avoid with all my cowardness strength, finally popped in my head.

Why am I searching only among female groups?

Yeah, why? Of course the answer is because I’m not realy into cool guys and their sexy dance moves, but since male idols are appearing here and there in the Japanese alt-idol scene (the original Ladybaby line-up, qppo and Monoclone for example), why don’t we give these way-too-perfect-looking boys a chance?

I did some research and, as I expected, there is a lot of hip-hop, but it’s often drenched in the usual k-pop stuff, which basically removes any kind of alternative potential from the music; there are a few exception though, BTS“War Of Hormone” is one of the best examples if you can ignore its laughable lyrics.

Aside from that, after watching way too many MVs from these boy bands, I still didn’t find really much, except for one song: Younique Unit‘s “MAXSTEP” features dubstep-brostep parts and even some metal-like guitars, which is fairly different from the usual K-Pop.

But is this really the best we can expect from k-pop? Although I couldn’t find anything else, I still felt that the possibility of an alternative K-Pop may exist; and yet, there isn’t really much material supporting my idea.

Maybe The Real Treasure Was The Friends We Made Along The Way

So I gave up for a while and almost forgot about my research, until the friend I mentioned before asked me to watch one video. I already knew the group — capable but still very standard, in my opinion — and it was a cover of a song I already knew, which made me do the biggest facepalm of my entire life (we’ll get to it soon). However, I couldn’t escape my curse, so I watched the video.

…THIS. THIS is exactly what I was searching for. Even if the aesthetics gave me Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” flashbacks, it’s a really enjoyable, not-standard K-Pop song, featuring electric guitars, a powerful and slightly dark aura and very catchy melodies.

For the record, the original tune is an Italian children’s song titled “Volevo Un Gatto Nero” (I Wanted A Black Cat), which is why I facepalmed really hard; but seeing how they turned it into this cool song, I’m very impressed. My friend is still upset that I enjoy this more than their normal stuff, but whatever.

Apparently, Ateez was the first rookie group to win that TV contest, which means it has been a hit; so, in a way, this shows that k-pop can actually do something different as well. I don’t know if it will happen soon or not, or even if it’ll ever happen, but I’ll be waiting for some black metal korean girls to change the rules and smash the boundaries, as the good old Ladybaby used to say.


  • Good article, thanks for sharing! It’s a trip reading this as I’m a long-time k-pop fan who only recently decided to dive into the alt-idol scene. Sorry for the infodump but I thought I might offer a few suggestions from the other side of the divide.

    It’s true that any true rock influences are few and far between, and Dreamcatcher is really the standard bearer for the genre (and even then they’re much more popular internationally than domestically). Other directly rock-influenced groups are Rockit Girl, a little-known group who perform fun rock and power-pop stuff, and Marmello, a very short-lived group who were one of the very few full bands to promote in the idol scene (best known for ‘Puppet’, if they’re known at all).

    The best case for a genuinely metal k-pop track is probably AleXa’s metalcore cover of her debut single ‘BOMB’ which kind of slaps: https://youtu.be/rbqnFQQjm8g

    Going in a more aesthetic direction, there are some korean artists with darker concepts that might maaybe interest alt-idol fans. Just to knock out a few faves over the years: Red Velvet’s ‘Peek A Boo’, Sunmi’s ‘Noir’, Puer Kim’s ‘Manyo Maash’ and f(x)’s ‘Red Light’. As far as recent releases go, Everglow just came back with ‘LA DI DA’, a synthwave banger with a slick Sin City style, and there’s Red Velvet’s subunit Irene & Seulgi with the (relatively) dark and sleazy ‘Monster’.

    If you dig Orange Caramel you might also like Gugudan’s ‘Chococo’ and Fanatics’ ‘Milkshake’, which share a similar sense of OTT quirkiness. You’ll probably like Cocosori, a group heavily indebted to OC who only released two proper singles, one of which (‘Exquisite’) pulls a bit of an alt-idol-move by intercutting a hyper-cute song with metal guitar breaks.

    But yeah, there are some bits and pieces going on at the fringes but it still feels like k-pop is a long way off having its BiS moment, if it ever will. Which is probably a big part of the reason I’m kind of jumping ship 🙂

    • Thank you for the recommendations!
      Yeah, I already knew some of the groups you mentioned (Marmello, Gugudan, f(x)) and I’m going to check out the other ones since your descriptions sound interesting.
      The article was just a summary of my research anyway and I may decide to go even more in depth if there is enough material (and from what you said, there may be).

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