Is “Idol Music” Just Dance Music?

Super Junior
Super Junior

Super Junior‘s “Sorry Sorry” is, but “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is not. f(x)‘s “Nu Abo” is, but “Beautiful Goodbye” is not. TVXQ‘s “Mirotic” is, “Before U Go” is not, and who knows what’s going on with “Something.”  Some want to equate popular K-pop music with dance music, but they may be surprised by the variety in the music produced by idols.

Because idols make up so much of popular K-pop, many equate their music with dance music.   Park Si Soo refers to a National Assembly report that described 82% of the tracks on the Gaon Music Chart as “idol music.”  According to Park, critics seem to equate “idol music” with dance music because K-pop is “dominated by hook-heavy dance music or ‘idol music.'”

Academics believe the popularity of “idol music” contributes to the homogenization of K-pop, causing all the music to sound the same.   Solee I. Shin and Lanu Kim examined the top 20 songs published by Melon Music, an online music service in Korea, from 1988 to 2012 and found “a sizeable presence of dance and hip-hop music in the early to mid-1990s.”

Both journalists and academics limit the kinds of music associated with K-pop idols and equate it with dance music.  Dance music is music designed to make people dance, and the beat is crucial.  Mark J. Butler argues that “rhythm. . . is the raison d’être of electronic dance music” (4).  But that does not mean that all dance music sounds the same:   “There is an astonishing array of rhythmic diversity beyond the beat. . . . fans, musicians and critics  [claim] that all of the myriad genres of dance music have the same meter (4/4) which they tend to link, through implicit or explicit comparisons, to perceived notions of simplicity” (5).

All dance music is not the same.  Super Junior’s “Bonamana” is not the same as House Rulez‘s “Reset,” even though both may be considered dance songs because they share the “four on the floor” rhythm.  “Bonamana” is the type of dance song that Super Junior is known for, but it contains standard elements of popular song, including lyrics, verses and a chorus.   “Reset” is quintessential electronic dance music (EDM):  “Most of [EDM’s] genres contain no consistent verbal components [or lyrics]” and are “created by synthesizers and drum machines rather than ‘real’ instruments” (11).

A comparison of songs by idols reveal differences. BigBang‘s “Fantastic Baby” sounds different from Infinite’s “Hands Up,” but both are dance songs.  This is the case even with songs by the same artist.  While Super Junior songs may reflect the trademark “Super Junior funky style,” “Bonamana” sounds different from “SPY.” “Bonamana”‘s rhythm stands out, while “SPY” features thick orchestration where horns are central.

In addition, music produced by idols goes beyond dance music:  “There are many critics who are reluctant to define idol music as a genre, citing a lack distinctive musical identity. They insist idol music is like a “spaghetti bowl” in which various music genres including dance, hip-hop, rap and R&B are all mixed up in one category” (Park).

While charts tell us about popularity based on sales, listening to the music on albums reveals far more variety. A consideration of SM Entertainment (SME) artists show a variety of musical styles. With the largest roster of idols, SME is often cited as a primary producer of “idol music”:  “‘SM style music’ was gradually defined as electronic-based, fast-beat, and strong with  memorable lyrics with repeating ‘hooks'” (Shin and Kim).

It’s clear that SM has its share of idols producing dance music. As the first paragraph shows, artists such as Super Junior, TVXQ, f(x) as well as SHINee and EXO have their share of dance tracks.  However, these groups release albums with songs that go beyond dance music.

Super Junior has had great success with dance tracks like  “Sorry Sorry,” “Bonamana,” “Mr. Simple,” and “SPY.” However, the group’s albums feature other kinds of songs.  “Good Friends (어느새 우린)” is not a dance track.  It feels more like a throwback track to the 1970s with its use of horns and organs.  “Memories” is a song with a slower tempo. “Sorry Sorry The Answer” is an old-school R&B ballad that focuses on vocals:

The same can be said of TVXQ.  We all know TVXQ for their dance tracks, such as “Mirotic” and “Humanoids.” But the group also has a reputation for more pop-inspired fare like “Hug,” rock-influenced songs like “Tri-Angle” and “Athena,” and slower songs like “I Swear” and “Honey Funny Bunny.”

If we take a look at deeper cuts on SHINee’s albums, we see there are different kinds of songs that go beyond the dance fare like “Lucifer” and “Dream Girl.”  SHINee fans always look forward to R&B-inspired songs such as “Excuse Me Miss” and “Symptoms.” But they often have surprises as well, like the acoustic track “Honesty.”

These songs are not only included on albums, they are also featured in set lists when groups tour, suggesting that they are just as important as promotional dance tracks.      The set-list for Super Junior’s Super Show 4 includes “Good Friends” and Super Junior’s Super Show 5‘s setlist features an acoustic medley that includes “Memories.”   TVXQ includes “Tri-angle” and “Honey Funny Bunny” in its setlist.  “Honesty” appears on the setlist for SHINee’s performances at SM Town Week.

Music made by idols runs the gamut. In fact, it is the reason why fans like it. Instead of making assumptions,  just listen to the music.


“Electrifying Super Show.” Seoul Rhythms. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Jan 2014.


“Super Junior(슈퍼주니어) _ SORRY, SORRY – ANSWER _ MusicVideo.” sment. YouTube. 10 Dec 2009. Web. 9 Jan 2014.

“SUPER JUNIOR 슈퍼주니어 _SPY_MUSIC VIDEO.” SMTOWN. YouTube. 12 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.

“TVXQ – I Swear.” Oumae24. YouTube. 23 Sept 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.

“07 늘 그 자리에 (Honesty) – SHINee (Sherlock).” AmberInJapan. YouTube. 18 Mar 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.

“하우스 룰즈 (House Rulez) – Reset (With 안지석).” 3cinquesette. YouTube. 3 Aug 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2014.


Butler, Mark J. Unlocking the Groove: Rythym, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia November, 2013. doi: 10.1007/s12140-013-9200-0.

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