I want to start off this post with a clear statement. The following discussion is not meant to diss  a) Kpop groups b) Kpop entertainment industry practices or c) commercial music business practices in general.

So, let’s discuss a less popular, highly contentious area of Kpop: The Cover Song that You Probably Didn’t Know Was a Cover Song, Even If You Have the Original Kpop CD and Read the Liner Notes and There Is Barely a Mention That the Song Is A Cover. Oh yes! It is becoming more and more likely that your favorite song by [enter your favorite Kpop group here] is actually a song that has been recorded by an American artist already…and in some cases, the song has been recorded several times. Korean entertainment companies often purchase the music tracks and then have their songwriters write Korean lyrics to the premade (sometimes already released) music.  ”Bad Case” is a great example of  how this practice a) can go horribly awry and b) is done in American music, too.


Bad Case by Jackie Boyz (the original track/song/artist)


Turned into “Case of You” by Marques Houston


Also recorded as “Case of You” by Omarion


and known by YOU as “Hit Me” by SHINee


However, it seems that this practice is quite pervasive in Kpop. Consider this list. Even though I’ll be focusing on SHINee here, you’ll see that Super Junior is even more heavily represented in the list of cover songs.

I think I realized the ubiquity of this practice while watching a video from Eat Your Kimchi – who, by the way, did a great job of discussing the pros and cons of  Kpop music covers. As a librarian who is concerned about copyright, plagiarism, freedom of expression and all that good stuff — who also happens to REALLY LOVE SHINee — I had to do some due process. That means I looked up more of SHINee’s work and realized that basically, the entire Lucifer album, which was one of the albums I purchased during my trip to Seoul so I could make sure my boys got some KRW kickback…was almost entirely COVERS. I think the biggest punch in the stomach for me was this, and then I was really upset about this song’s title along with the song cover issue. After listening to a snippet of Michael Lee’s “Don’t Say,” I was quite outdone. I didn’t listen to SHINee for a week because I was truly conflicted.

On one point, businesses’ goals are to make money. I understand that!  Not taking time to create original music for a new boy band who may or may not have longevity is cool.  But by the time Lucifer was made, surely it was apparent that SHINee was going to be a viable moneymaker for S.M. Entertainment (SMEnt.). So, why? If there is going to be an album of covers and if I had to guess which album would be chock full of unoriginal music, I’d guess it would be the first album…not the second one that’s after a couple of repackages AND a mini-album.

…On the other hand, because SHINee is so talented not only in their musical abilities, but their songwriting (Jonghyun and Onew have both written lyrics for other cover songs already), why should they not have original music on their future works? It doesn’t do them much justice as artists who are continually trying to show “different sides of themselves” (unless they are wanting to show different sides of themselves that other people have already shown?) .

…Conversely, I felt that to some degree, Kpop artists must be “ok” with this practice. During an early interview, Key discussed how SHINee tried to learn the lyrics to “Noona Neomu Yueppo” by rewinding the song over and over again. In “Hit Me,” you’ll note that Jonghyun’s note phrasing at the beginning of the song is quite close to the original, and the same goes for the adlbs at the end of the song, which means he listened to the track and imitated those sections, just like the other artists did. So, they concede and participate in this practice even if its not their true artistry.

To be sure, the star system in Kpop has great perks. Many in the industry are given a place to stay, the best education, voice lessons, instrument lessons, dance lessons, not to mention the opportunity to travel all over the world. They are getting something in return for their concessions, even if said concessions are nervewracking, isolating, and upsetting. But as Taemin said, this is what you have to do if you want to be successful in Kpop (timestamp 7:48; translation in description box):



And this is where the bonsai reference comes in. Kpop artists are being molded to ensure the long-term success of one of the industries that pulled Korea out of the economic doldrums. So, while their true reflections as artists are not immediately apparent, perhaps they are holding out for the opportunities to improve within the framework of the pots they are planted in. They are willing to be clipped, even with the certain outcome of stunted growth, and in return, they have a better shot at living out their dreams than they ever will outside of the system. To be sure, they have the advantage of becoming wild gardens – the music industry is at a cross-roads in terms of distribution, marketing and production. Those in the star system today may be in a better position to chart the course of Kpop than their predecessors were. Of course, looking at the list of covers, what really will cook your noodle is when you realize the artists who are not on the list *cough* TVXQ *ahem* Rain *stage whisper* Se7en….so beyond reasons why the practice is popular, why are only certain artists/groups represented there (sometimes overly so)?

I’ve made some concessions of my own. I reconciled that at the end of the day, I enjoy SHINee and other Kpop voices because they are talented. The music they are using to show the talent is not as much of a concern to me anymore. The librarian in me is calmed by knowing that the music tracks have been been purchased, thus ending issues with copyright and related concerns.

At the very minimum, I know that I much prefer listening to SHINee sing “we are singing this song for you” than to hear a tune wondering “where my money people at?”

Just sayin’…

What do you think about the use of cover music in Kpop? Does it matter to you? Why or why not?