Warning: Some YouTube comments contain course language that may not be suitable for some readers.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, there’s a group trying to break into the K-Pop world called EXP Edition (formerly EXP). The Columbia University thesis project by Bora Kim has been generating buzz since 2015 when news broke that a non-Korean group would be trying to debut in Korea as a K-Pop idol group. In April 2017, the training, Korean language-learning, and fundraising finally paid off as EXP Edition released “Feel Like This” as their official Korean debut song.
Now a four-member group, EXP Edition improved greatly since their first release “LUV/WRONG” to include stronger musicality, tone, and harmony. “Feel Like This,” while not up to the processed standard of the typical K-Pop track, is a nice throwback to the 1990s American boyband-era thanks to mature vocals and stylization. With many K-Pop songs recalling past music eras and genres, “Feel Like This” fits right in with the current trend, so its release comes during an appropriate time.
With their Korean debut, EXP Edition had different opportunities open to them including appearances on Music Bank and I Can See Your Voice. For all intents and purposes, they’ve been treated no different than any other K-Pop group promoting now, so they have a chance to experience what other K-Pop groups get to experience during their debuts.
Unfortunately, EXP Edition have come across ridiculous amounts of hate from K-Pop fans both domestically and internationally. Exploring their Instagram and YouTube pages, in addition to the number of dislikes the group receives, messages wishing for the group to disband or to “die” far outweigh positive messages at the time of this writing. There’s no clear reason why all the hate exists at this point, but one thing for sure is this: It is uncalled for and unnecessary.
Different Training is Still Training
Even though EXP Edition is a project group, they’re really no different from other K-Pop groups. While EXP Edition’s training is different from the years of training and sacrifice Korean K-Pop groups endure, training did occur to help them groom for this moment. Just because training was shorter and differed from the methods used in Korea, this shouldn’t minimalize the hard work EXP engaged in to get to this point.
Time frame aside, why is it assumed EXP Edition did not train as hard as other groups? Does years of training trump effort? Effort is what counts. Watching the group’s growth through YouTube videos and Instagram snapshots, the members had to learn how to carry themselves to cater to a Korean audience along with improving stage presence, choreography, appearance, and overall performance and they have improved since “LUV/WRONG.” Each member comes from a different musical background, so there is a period of also learning how to mesh different styles to have a more cohesive piece. This takes time and effort. Just because they didn’t train for seven, eight, or 14 years should never take away from the effort behind the act. There isn’t a medal of honor that comes from length of training. In the end, quality is better than quantity, people learn at different rates, and years of training doesn’t necessary mean attention and riches.
Yes, those who’ve trained for years do have an edge, especially in the Korean music industry where precision, finesse, and graciousness can make a break a group. Even so, there are sometimes up to or over 50 groups that debut each year in Korea (in 2015, over 75+ groups debuted), and maybe 10 to 15 get to survive for further releases while others disappear without their names ever being known. Even with years of training, there are groups that can’t keep it together enough to be cohesive and perfect in an industry that demands absolute perfection. These are groups that train for years, sacrifice their lives and childhoods and even their health for a chance for stardom, but many just don’t have what it takes. This could be due to lack of support, and it could be due to lack of quality training, so quantity does not always mean “the best.”
EXP have a lot riding on them too. Not only do they have the pressures of training like other K-Pop groups, they also have the added pressure of being a project. As a project, failure isn’t an option even if the group, as some eloquently point out in comments, exists for collecting data. No matter the reason, the group worked hard to get to this point, and minimalizing their efforts is an insult to anyone who’s ever worked for anything.
The Nuances of Language
Additionally, the members had to learn Korean to prepare for their debut and connect with the Korean audience. Yes, their Korean is not smooth, but Korean is not their first language just like with Korean idols who learn English: English is not their first language. Furthermore, they learned Korean as adults, which, linguistically, is considered a much more difficult task than learning another language at a young age. This involves the Critical Period Hypothesis, which is one of many language theories that suggests second language-learning occurs best between the time a child can speak until puberty. During this time, there’s a higher chance of fluency and natural flow, which is something that doesn’t come easy for adult learners.
Speaking as an ESL instructor and tutor, learning a second language is difficult for anyone no matter the language. For adult learners, it’s not going to come easy and it’s not going to flow naturally. Yes, EXP has American-sounding Korean; that’s to be expected. Unless they’re going through an immersion program, natural flow and cadence is not expected, and those who criticize their Korean are just looking for another reason to complain.
The fact is this: EXP took the time to learn Korean to sing, perform, and communicate. While it’s not perfect, it’s still effort that should be commended because they’re not blowing into Korea expecting everyone to speak English to them as if they’re superior beings. For those who have and are learning a second language, take a moment to recall what the learning period was like and the awkward missteps that occurred. No one can learn a second language perfectly overnight. No one can expect perfection all the time. On the same coin, aren’t there K-Pop fans and even non-fans who make fun of K-idols and their English-speaking and singing missteps? What about the unnecessarily cruel remarks B.A.P’s Himchan endured for pronouncing “roof” as “loof” in “Hurricane” (of which caused B.A.P to re-record the song to correct pronunciation and prevented Himchan from singing his lines for a period)? What about the awkward English used in Super Junior songs? A second language is difficult if one is not fluent; even K-artists aren’t an exception to this rule and saying otherwise is hypocritical.
K-Pop: Is it Korean Language or Only for Korean People?
Dissect the word “K-Pop.” It is short for Korean Pop. The K in K-Pop refers to the language used, not just the people in the genre. If the K only stood for Korean, then Asian artists from Japan, Thailand, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and any other Asian country represented in K-Pop should be banished for not being Korean.
One of the arguments used against EXP is that they are not Korean. Over the years, there have been many non-Korean artists infiltrating the Korean music scene, yet no one bats an eyelash. Perhaps this is because these artists have stereotypical East-Asian features that help them pass as Korean artists. Yet, these artists are in K-Pop because they are in Korean groups singing songs in Korean, which is the K in K-Pop. With this, the K also stands for the country of Korea. Here again, we have non-Korean artists who live in Korea making Korean music.
K-Pop is what is because it is performed using the Korean language. When Little Mix released the Korean version of “Wings,” the song became a Korean Pop song despite them being a Western group, whereas if it remained in English only, it’s a Western song. If a song is primarily Korean and promoted in Korea, it is a Korean Pop song regardless of the artists’ backgrounds.
EXP Edition’s Korean debut brings forth the important topic of double-standards since the concept is strongly rearing its ugly head.
As mentioned, K-Pop fans call out EXP as non-K-Pop artists because they are not Korean. Yet, there are already many non-Korean artists in the industry. These individuals like BP Rania’s Alex, CLC’s Sorn, GOT7’s BamBam, Jackson, and Mark, f(x)’s Amber, and CrossGene’s Casper and Takuya among other idols are not Korean, yet they’re embraced and loved by fans. If the K in K-Pop is for Korea and Korean, then non-Korean group members should be immediately removed from their groups because they don’t embody what people think K-Pop should be.
Over the years, fans—especially International fans—have called for more diversity in K-Pop. However, when diversity does exist in the form of other Asian artists and mixed race artists, it’s not diverse enough for some because the artists still have the stereotypical East Asian appearance. The same fans who cry for diversity are the same fans who show disgust when it actually appears. With the introduction of EXP, diversity appears, but people hate them because they are white in a Korean market. For fans, diversity is only acceptable if it is a certain type of diversity.
During the same time EXP made their Korean debut, the African American duo Coco Avenue also released the Korean song “Eottae.”
The reactions to both releases are vastly different: While EXP gets hate, Coco Avenue receives praise and positive comments (with a few calling the Koreaboos) for adding diversity to the K-Pop tapestry. This is not a slam against Coco Avenue because they do deserve praise for their sexy single and efforts. The truth is, both groups add diversity to the K-Pop scene because both are non-Korean and non-East Asian in a primarily monoethnic industry and homogenous country. The same works in reverse: In a country that’s primarily Caucasian, any time a non-White person is represented, that is diversity. In terms of the Korean music industry, different races—regardless of it black, white, Hispanic, and even South Asian— making an impact is diversity.
The reactions to Coco Avenue (top) and EXP (bottom) are vastly different.
EXP’s negative responses are due mostly to them being white. Comments for both “Feel Like This” and Coco Avenue’s “Eottae” point to this as K-Pop fans suggest diversity only exists if the singer or group is ACOW (Any Color Other than White). Arguments for this include how K-Pop uses elements from the black music and fashion scenes.
The truth is, K-Pop doesn’t just use elements from black culture as it uses elements from Western culture as a whole just like Western music pulls inspiration from various cultures and countries. Music—as well as food—is one of the great equalizers as it is one of the true societal melting pots. K-Pop does borrow from black culture, but it also uses EDM and other club influences that were developed by white people. Music is diverse because it does seek influence from everywhere, so no one group is more influential over another when it comes to the whole music scene. Music adapts and changes as it always has for centuries as different influencers come around.
With that said, both Coco Avenue and EXP have the right to partake in the K-Pop scene regardless of race or influence. One shouldn’t have more of a right over the other, and suggesting that one group does have more of a right is part of the problem today. Everyone, regardless of race, socio-economical background, or culture should have an equal shot of getting somewhere. Believing otherwise creates issues on top of tensions that already exist.
“It’s a Project. Don’t Take Them Seriously”
Another reason EXP Edition receives hate is due to their thesis project status. To K-Pop fans, the phrase “thesis project” is a turn-off because they feel the group doesn’t take the hardships, training, and promotion process as seriously as true K-Pop groups do. K-Pop fans can speculate all they want, but what actual proof do they have suggests EXP and its creators do not take the process seriously? A project doesn’t necessarily mean this is “for fun” or that it’s not taken seriously.
EXP and the IMABB crew worked hard to get to this point. Fundraising, promotions, and, of course, the aforementioned training and language learning made this project happen. That takes time and money. Even if the project is there to collect data as many commenters suggest, how does that influence the time and energy taken to make EXP Edition happen? The group debuted under non-traditional circumstances, but they debuted nonetheless showing that they were and are serious about the direction the group takes and what comes out of the debut. Even if they disbanded tomorrow, the effort it took to get to Korea still existed and should be noted. Why shouldn’t they be taken seriously with everything considered?
With the overwhelming dislikes, it becomes clear people want EXP to fail and that it is a trend to hate them. Instead of sipping the tempting haterade the K-Pop fans, bloggers, and vloggers lay out, why not give them a chance and cheer them on? It’s one thing to dislike something because a song may not be your cup of tea, but to blindly hate something because it’s different and not what’s considered “normal” by industry standards is cruel.
Even if the non-Korean K-Pop experience laid out by EXP and others like Coco Avenue doesn’t pan out, they should be praised. At the same time, their experiences open the door to the necessary conversations we need to be having world over about diversity. Diversity isn’t just an issue stateside, but a global issue. Instead of hating and fueling tension, why not talk about both in the respect of diversity and what needs to be done to improve it globally? Regardless of where the EXP Edition experiment goes or if other non-Korean groups break into K-Pop or even if Asian artists break into the Western world, the lesson should be that we need to talk and work toward accepting people’s differences instead of hating on people because of their skin and background. Otherwise, what’s the point?