Investigating the Status Quo of K-Pop Through the Lens of 'Born Pink'
Opening with their now-iconic line, “BLACKPINK in your area” echoing again in the ears of audiences across the globe, the South Korean girl group BLACKPINK launched Born Pink, their second studio album, in September 2022. Fans rejoiced as after two long years, the band made history: Born Pink earned 102,000 equivalent album units, or individual global album sales, and was the first of the band’s releases to debut atop Billboard’s Top 200 Albums Chart. Although the group has broken streaming records, it remains debatable whether BLACKPINK have surpassed their own musical ability.
Comparing it to their debut album The Album, BLACKPINK member Rosé recently pointed out in an interview that Born Pink is about maintaining their “original identity” while experimenting with new elements. Indeed, if previous EPs and songs present more of the “black” side of BLACKPINK, Born Pink, as its title suggests, encapsulates their transition to the “pink” side of their identity. While this intention is laudable and can certainly be observed through some aspects of the album, BLACKPINK and their team have not fully mastered this balancing act. On one hand, the group’s notion of “original identity” seems to resort to familiar or preexisting ideas. An obvious example is that the opening song, “Pink Venom,” thematically resembles previous songs like “Pretty Savage” and “DDU-DU DDU-DU”, with a characteristic satirical tone and the sonical unification of independent girls daring to break social barriers. On the other hand, the so-called new elements are just different from the past, rather than truly innovative creations of music.
Arguably, the largest selling point of K-Pop is its power to stimulate instant excitement by virtue of lively EDM and hip-hop music while engaging in intricate (and at times sexually suggestive) choreography in their music videos and concerts. At the insistence of industry moguls, who operate as a kind of K-Pop factory, performers must not only be proficient at singing and dancing, but also be hyper-conventionally attractive, and the impressive collection of all three specialties in one person impresses fans and contributes to record and ticket sales. Since short-term thrills are one of the most distinctive aspects of K-Pop music, one wonders how such an effect can be sustained, and what audiences are left with, in the experience of only listening to K-Pop.
For instance, the brisk guitar loops and smooth synths of Born Pink’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah” make the song musically engaging, yet the only English lines in the song, which are what most international audiences can understand, are simply, “Just say yeah yeah yeah” and “Don’t say no no no.” These cliché lines seem to only contribute to a general oversaturation of heartache anthems on the market—without much originality, as their songs (like that of most K-Pop groups) are very much commercially engineered. The superficial message this song tries to convey is only one example of the use of gimmick in K-Pop marketing. The music industry should question how the pleasant sensations native to K-Pop can remain alongside more musical and cultural depth so listeners can enjoy K-Pop outside of live performances or internet fancams.
Surface-level content also hampers the ability of K-Pop artists to maintain complexity in their songwriting, which can be partially attributed to the failure of management companies to offer adequate opportunities for songwriting. Given the number of K-Pop groups—past and present—and their increasingly similar performances, artists have to present something new in their long-awaited releases in order for fans to stick around. To some extent, Born Pink suggests that the music of BLACKPINK has plateaued: while certain new techniques in the album have not yet appeared in their back catalog, these novel ideas are not boundary-pushing/trailblazing. For example, “Hard to Love” and “The Happiest Girl” are slower pop songs with melodies, uncommon due to the group’s disproportionate rap talent. However, these two songs struggle to leave memorable impressions on audiences, because of the lack of refreshing musical ideas and other typical characteristics of K-Pop production. Additionally, “Typa Girl” shows BLACKPINK’s effort to try a bass-heavy ringtone rap—different from their conventional rap style—but the attempt is already tired in the era of Billie Eilish’s whisper-and-gas-sounding “Bad Guy.”
What’s most unfortunate are the missed opportunities for innovative musical risk. The album concludes with the song “Ready For Love,” in which BLACKPINK collaborated with battle royale video game PUBG Mobile to produce an ambitious mixed media project. The music video follows the four members’ virtual avatars as they explore the mysterious forests and colorful clouds of the video game’s fantastical landscapes. Though the song marks BLACKPINK’s first collaboration with video games, the music employs few (both musical and societal) technological elements such as uncommon electronic sound effects and sensations of the future world central to the song’s premise. This collaboration was a great opportunity for BLACKPINK to become a K-Pop trendsetter, but the lyrics, melody, and music arrangement did not represent the characteristics of this new possible style. In other words, the audience would have a hard time discerning the signals of the future and technologies present in the song without knowing the full context.
Finally, Born Pink seems to represent the K-Pop industry’s anxiety and uncertainty over adaptability and internationalization, especially as these concepts relate to language. The K-Pop tactic for accomplishing “universal understanding” has been to feature choruses in English, while occasionally and inadvertently including English vocabulary at other points in the song. While this is an imperfect solution, Born Pink offers an even more perplexing phenomenon: three out of its eight songs are completely in English, yet still somehow belong to the category of K-Pop, obscuring both the genre’s definition and the identity of its artists. Linguistic dissimilarities are certainly a dilemma for non-English speaking and non-Western artists trying to pursue a global influence, and BLACKPINK has not found an easy path forward.
In conclusion, Born Pink, ostensibly, has achieved immediate success, but the album is symptomatic of the K-Pop industry’s need to ponder its future and creative merits, sitting at a bleak crossroads for the genre.
Wendi Wang is a first-year in the SFS studying international economics and planning to minor in philosophy and music.