“It is the job of art to be divisive,” said U2 frontman Bono last year. But perhaps nothing in music divides opinion quite like the issue of plagiarism in K-pop. Hardly a month goes by in K-pop news without someone somewhere vigorously denying that they have copied someone else’s work. Check out some recent plagiarism controversies (videos included) and decide for yourself:
This month, the news has been dominated with allegations that 4Minute’s most recent hit “Crazy” lifts sections from Australian electro house duo Knife Party’s 2014 track “Boss Mode.” The matter has caused such a stir that Rob Swire, one of the members of Knife Party, and the producer of “Boss Mode” had to take to Twitter to clarify his thoughts on the issue.
The debate about whether 4Minute’s producers copied “Boss Mode” for “Crazy” is still raging online, however – on discussion forums, on social media, and in the comments sections on videos on both songs’ YouTube pages. Those who think “Crazy” is a copy are probably referring to the 1:16 and 1:50 sections of “Boss Mode.” Undoubtedly, there is a similarity, but is the track a copy? I am not so sure that anyone except for the producers of “Crazy” can say so for sure.
The boot has also been on the other foot. Disney is currently involved with a protracted legal battle with Woollim Entertainment over allegations that the American company plagiarized Infinite’s “Come Back” for Spanish-language track “Queen of the Dance Floor” from the soundtrack of the Argentinian TV show “Violetta.”
You do not have to look back very far before you come across dozens of similar stories, many involving electronica musicians and K-pop acts. Last year, the Korean media and web users alike were leveling accusations at the makers of T-Ara’s “Sugar Free” for allegedly copying DVBBS & Borgeous’ track “Tsunami.”
Many web users also accused Seo Taiji of stealing his ideas from elsewhere after the release of his comeback track “Sogyeokdong,” claiming that the song was a copy of Scottish pop group Chvrches’ “The Mother We Share,” an allegation that was refuted by Seo Taiji.
One of the biggest songs in American pop last year, Meghan Tarinor’s “All About That Bass” has also been accused of copying a Koyote track from 2006 called “Happy Mode,” and the makers of the video below certainly make a very good case for that being the case.
The issue of plagiarism in music predates K-pop, however. It has pretty much been around since people started to record popular music, and if you think that musicians don’t copy elements from each other’s music (and style), you are deluding yourself.
Even the most iconoclastic of musicians have been influenced by somebody else. Artists like Bo Diddley accused Elvis Presley of “stealing his act,” The Beatles first won fame as a group that covered American RnB songs and Michael Jackson got his distinctive dance moves and many of his musical ideas from watching singers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson perform on stage – yet Elvis, the Beatles, and MJ are widely considered to be some of the most notable pop pioneers ever.
To my mind, though, Knife Party’s Rob Swire put it best in his Twitter post, when he said the makers of “Crazy” used his song as “maybe […] a reference or something.”
K-pop, like all pop music since the 1980s, draws heavily on electronic music as a reference point. K-pop producers cherry-pick the musical ideas that they think can cross the boundaries between the dance floor and the television music show.
Pop music in general works thus, pop songwriters and producers draw the best sound concepts from the adventurous and daring artists who make non-mainstream music. When those sound concepts become too common, the underground moves on, because the leftfield is only leftfield if it is doing something new. And after a while, pop moves on, too, chasing after the best of the brand new ideas that underground artists are coming up with.
Up until fairly recently, the vast majority of upbeat K-pop songs featured elements derived from dubstep (think tracks like Tasty’s “You Know Me” and f(x)’s “Toy”).
Last year, though, dubstep sounds in K-pop started to fall out of fashion. Instead, K-pop producers are now drawing their inspiration from the Big Room House genre. However, in the underground dance scene, Big Room is dying a slow death – producers are abandoning the genre in their droves, and are moving on to make different sounds. Pretty soon, you won’t hear any K-pop tunes that use Big Room House elements either.
It is not K-pop’s job to be ground-breaking, though. It is K-pop’s job to draw elements from the leftfield of electronica and other places (for example 1970s disco and 1980s synthpop), and channel them into something that just about everyone can enjoy and understand, and something that can be matched with non-musical elements, such as videos and dance routines.
I have been following Rob Swire for years now, from his work as part of Drum n Bass duo Pendulum, through to his deadmau5 and Chase & Status collaborations and now Knife Party. He is one of the most inventive producers out there, works with a whole host of electronica genres and will continue to be at the forefront of electronica for many years to come. If you want inventive electronic music, he’s your man.
But I have also been following 4Minute since the girls made their powerful “Hot Issue” debut in 2009, and happen to think they are one of the best K-pop acts around. “Crazy” is one of their best songs in years, right up there with tracks like “Muzik” and “I Me Mine.”
4Minute doesn’t break down musical barriers like Rob Swire does, but Rob Swire doesn’t perform perfectly choreographed dance moves and entertain on TV shows. He also doesn’t (and I’m guessing here) look stunning in crop tops, 10-inch platform shoes and fishnet leggings. Rob Swire and Knife Party’s product is purely audio, while 4Minute offers an exciting mix of audio and visual entertainment.
Critics of K-pop used to dismiss K-pop as nothing more than an aping of American and UK pop music. But, in many ways, Korean pop has already surpassed the pop scene in many other countries. Instead of drawing inspiration from the stale UK and American pop scenes, Korean producers are turning directly to electronica for ideas. The results inevitably sometimes sound similar. Even though a few rotten-apple producers may cross the thin line that separates an inspiration from a copy, on most occasions, what sounds like plagiarism to some is actually purely a result of musical evolution.
Even if 4Minute’s “Crazy” does borrow from Knife Party’s “Boss Mode,” and I am not saying that it does, the most you can say is that the former takes a great musical idea and uses it in an equally great, yet totally different way. In the postmodern musical world we now live in, musical reinvention and adaption are part of the game, and playing by the rules is not always easy because the rules do not really seem to be defined, if they exist at all.
And plagiarism accusations, be they real or imagined, are also just part of the game. We had all just better get used to it, because K-pop producers will keep looking to electronica for ideas in the future. This divisive issue, like it or loathe it, is here to stay.
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electonica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author.