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Is there really more English being used in K-pop than their used to be?
According to my very scientific calculations, the answer is "Yes, mostly."
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It feels like everytime I listen to a new K-pop album or single, I’m finding myself understanding more and more of the lyrics. I wish it could say my Korean language skills have increased exponentially in the recent past, but, language studies aside, it feels more like a different factor is at play: increasingly, there is more and more English used in K-pop lyrics.
While there are a variety of great all-English songs targeting the US or global music markets, it’s general increased English usage in releases ostensibly for the Korean market that has piqued my ears. Conversations with others in the industry, and in online spaces, make it clear this is a current Big Topic.
K-pop has always utilized English, typically as catchy, addicting choruses, but lately it feels that K-pop is becoming not merely infused with the occasional English phrase or lyric but becoming more or less bilingual linguistically when it comes to a lot of lyrics.
I’ve seen some other discussions about it, but it wasn’t until I was writing this piece to see what other people were saying that I discovered this was a discussion already on the unpopular K-pop opinions subreddit seven months ago. Over 4,000 people voted on a poll asking whether “K-pop has been overusing English in recent years,” and over 2,400 of respondents did agree. This is a relatively small sample size considering the state of the world, and I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the OP’s perspectives, but it was in interesting thread to read.
Now that I had seen some numbers about this seemingly agreeing with my perception, I decided I needed to get absolutely scientific data. So went to my Google Drive and made a very rudimentary databank, that absolutely nobody should take authoritatively beyond the sake of this newsletter.
I compared a handful of artists at random, as far back as first gen to more recent debuts, and looked at how many verses in their songs compared between their most recent single and their very first one. There are definitely artists not represented, because I wanted to show artists that definitely had post-2020 releases, but feel free to look into others out of your own curiosity!
Some rules I made for myself: I counted fully English lines, so if there was a Korean word or two, it didn’t count. If it was the same repeated phrase, it counted, but one-word lines didn’t typically count. Aside from that, I think everything was fair game, although I did leave some notes if you’d like to read them.
If you’re targeting international audiences, either fans or general public via TikTok and radio play, there’s typically more English. If your marketing is focused more on Korea, Korean is still the majority of the lyrics.
Just a heads up… This data is only showing my own correlations and not real actual truly valid mathematically derived results beyond what I’m musing about, since I was only comparing two singles of all these artists. If I had more time I’d probably want to compare about 20 different artists entire roster of singles over time, but time is sadly finite so I didn’t do that.
To some degree, it did show immense changes: Girls' Generation and INFINITE, for example, had zero full English verses in their debut songs, whereas their most 2022 and 2023 releases, respectively, had upwards of 20 all-English lines. Some artists, such as BTS and IVE incorporated English-lyrics into their debut singles, but recent songs more than tripled in English-language usage.
In general, it did look like English was being used more by most artists in recent years, but some, such as IU and Seventeen, tended to still veer very Korean, with only a few lines in their first and most recent singles. But it also became apparent that, at least among these few artists, it’s clear the trend at times is stylistic, since many artists, like Sunmi, Blackpink, and NCT 127, have had a lot of English in their lyrics from the get go.
In general, SM acts tend to have a lot of English, but depends really on the target audience and/or lyricists.
Newer, globally oriented acts acts like Tomorrow X Together and NewJeans tend to utilize a lot of English, while some artists, like IU and Seventeen, veer away from English or avoid it entirely, aside from choral rejoinders. Only Mamamoo, (G)I-dle, and TVXQ!’s recent releases had fewer verses than their debut singles. It’s no surprise that those artists all are more prominently focused on the Korean and general Asian markets over global fans and the US, although (G)I-dle’s new English album is pretty damn good.
A lot of it does seem to have come down to who target audiences is: if you’re targeting international audiences, either fans or general public via TikTok and radio play, there’s typically more English. If your marketing is focused more on Korea, and perhaps greater Asia region, Korean is still the majority of the lyrics.
While my little experiment’s data isn’t particularly analytical and would never pass a peer study, I do hope someday to see this laid out a bit more precisely because it would be wonderful to see the ebb and flow of non-Korean language usage in K-pop songs over time (help me data analysts, you’re my only hope!) We’re clearly beyond the era of awkward exclamations like “Don’t deny our r squared pi,” as memorable as they are, since now we’re operating in a stage of K-pop where English is not only something being tapped into for English-language releases but heavily playing a role in the lyricism nowadays.
What I’m working on
My first ever Nylon byline features an interview with VCHA and attempts to answer the question, “How Do You Create An American K-pop Girl Group?” (The answer? Pray, and maybe work with some of the biggest names in the US and Korean industries.)
I wasn’t working on it per say since I ultimately am not writing a formal review of it, but I attended the Immortal Songs concert the other day and it was a pretty disorganized mess, but a great show ultimately despite a lot of technical and organizational errors.
Also, I linked it earlier, but in case you missed the link… Here’s where you can see what My Very Professional Database where I counted English-language verses in K-pop songs.
What I’m listening to
I feel like I wasn’t absolutely enthralled by IVE’s Baddie or Off The Record as singles, though do enjoy them enough, but it’s their I’VE MINE b-side Holy Moly that won me over this comeback with its lush and funky styling. According to r/Kpop users, Holy Moly was not only written by the same songwriter, Lauren Aquilina, as IVE’s Eleven, but written during the same session, which makes it a bit less surprising that I like it because Eleven is still my favorite IVE single most days.
I’m still deciding what I think musically of Seventeen’s God of Music, but I love the ideas behind the lyrics. They’re a bit cheesy, but I too would like to hug the god of music if one such being existed. Kind of want to see someone mash this up with ABBA’s Thank You For the Music just for fun, but that’s just how my brain works and absolutely nobody should create that remix.
I’m not a gamer at all, but I really love the latest League of Legends song, Paranoia. Introducing Heartsteel, which is essentially the male counterpart of K/DA, this features Baekhyun, tobi lou, ØZI, and Cal Scruby, and is just a really fun, anthemic time. Between this and NewJeans’ GODS, I think the music team at Riot Games deserves a bonus this year.
RIIZE’s Talk Saxy is also in my playlist this week. I think the pun is fun and continuously referencing certain instruments in their singles is a nice theme, so I’m really interested in seeing how far they take this.
I was writing this newsletter when Le Sserafim dropped their new English single Perfect Night, so I’m obligated to drop it here. I hope the girls are enjoying all their chipotle while they’re here in NYC. I am sadly not going to see them at all on this trip, but hopefully they’ll be back soon!
What I’m reading
Unsurprisingly, K-pop causes a lot of plastic waste despite claims of creating ecologically-friendly albums. I’ve reported on both aspects, so this isn’t brand new information, but I feel like far more people are talking about it as if it is.
Of all the people writing about K-pop, I find I probably have the most similar taste musically to Nick at The Bias List, so I always enjoy reading his reviews, even when we disagree. He wrote a recent piece about the softening of K-pop, which feels like it came straight out of my own thoughts, and was something I was contemplating writing for this newsletter. But instead, you can read his thoughts!
always has engaging thoughts at Pass The Aux, and I really enjoyed this recent piece on how online spaces do or don’t operate, with a focus on music audiences.
Overall, it feels like K-pop is becoming quieter. Melody lines are flattening. EDM thumpers lose out to funky anti-drops. Showy vocals and theatrical, expansive arrangements are few and far between. After all, they betray the effortless cool that has caught the zeitgeist. It’s better to deliver two minutes of vibe sprinkled with one incessantly catchy, TikTok-ready hook than to attempt a multi-part pop opera with build and climax.
In the news
I don’t usually include one of these sections, but it’s been a big few days and these are some of the news stories I’m thinking about the ramifications about.
I’ve been continuing to read about the investigation into alleged stock manipulation of the Kakao Entertainment purchase of SM, and the potential fallout and what it means for the larger Kakao complex.
I’ve also reading about several high-profile investigations into criminal wrongdoings by celebrities, including allegations of drug usage by G-Dragon that he has denied.
A stalker of BTS’s V was also arrested, which shouldn’t be surprising but it is given that there’s typically little action taken against stalkers of K-pop stars.
Keena is now the only member of Fifty Fifty still with Attrakt, which has officially nullified its contracts with the other three members of the group following an intensely publicized battle between the two sides. Keena will represent Fifty Fifty as end of year award season kicks off in earnest, and will now be attending the Billboard Music Awards.
At the moment, it’s unclear whether Keena will remain the sole member, like Bol4 becoming a single person, or they’ll add more members, but all in all I feel like this is a pretty sad resolution considering all of the accusations bandied about that made it seem this wasn’t at all a clear-cut situation. A friend of mine who is newer to K-pop expressed to me earlier today that she thinks it’s kinda wild to continue the group under the name Fifty Fifty with just one original member, but honestly it feels like truly nostalgia is thriving in K-pop since it’s been some time but this was actually very normal at one point in K-pop, like with Jewelry having 10 members making up the lineup over more than a decade.
Attrakt is also joining hands with JTBC to create a new girl group.
And, unsurprisingly, K-pop has led to skyrocketing usage of plastic over the past few years. I’ve written quite a bit about both the environmental impacts of K-pop merchandise and consumer behaviors, and how I’ve been a part of the problem myself, so this is a topic I’m particularly invested in as we continue to see more and more millions of copies of albums sold and merch become more accessible. I think in this world that we live in, it’s impossible, cruel even, to ask fans to take on the burden of this challenge and solve the industry’s environmental footprint on their own, although some are trying, but I do hope this is a wakeup call to someone, whether that’s regulators or companies themselves, to enact change to create less a destructive industry.
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