Who is an artist? What makes an artist different from an idol? These are some of the most hotly debated topics in the K-pop fandom. Opinions differ: some say an artist is one who writes their own music; others say an artist is an idol whose success transcends that of their peers. Whatever the definition, this is a loaded question that cannot have one distinctive answer. Despite the difficulties surrounding this question, OH!Press has decided to sit down and answer this question in their own terms.
I won’t go deep into antiquity and terminologies here because I believe my fellow writers will cover that part. Since I am usually the one on top, I’ll provide you guys with a nice warm up, okay? So let’s get philosophical! (What a white lie…)
For this we only need to answer two basic questions; 1. What is an artist to you? and 2. What do idols do for a living? First question, an artist. Artists produce, practice, perform, and are skillful at certain attributes such as singing, acting, painting, and so on. Even without me answering the second question, readers should be wondering by now on how on earth do people even question idols’ credibility as actual artists. Second question, what do idols…do? Well, they sing! CHECK. They act (in dramas, at fansigns, et cetera)! CHECK. Those are already two attributes, and technically you only need one to be considered an artist.
Okay enough with that. Let’s get real. The actual reason why some people question them as true artists derives from another question, is an idol a singer too? (or other questions of similar magnitude). Some idols are better at singing than others, some can barely hold a note. For them, these lacking idols are fabricated and not real. Being talented and lacking becomes a subject or a weapon I must say, in a fanwar. A contest of bragging rights. That’s the reality of it. From a psychological point of view, that happens.
An idol is an artist. But an artist might not necessarily be an idol. The question can be confusing to some, because it is too general and has no specification. An idol, whether they sing well or not, is still an artist. Idols who fully participate in songwriting or those who just have their name tattooed on it, are still artists. Just another question that should have gone with the wind.
In order to determine if an idol is an artist, I think it’s beneficial to understand what an artist is. And what better way to find the ordinary definition of a word other than to look it up in a dictionary? If you refer to the Oxford Dictionary, it defines an artist as “A person who practises or performs any of the creative arts, such as a sculptor, film-maker, actor, or dancer.” Performance is one of the many creative arts, which as most would agree with, is one of the most reputable aspects of Korean pop. It’s the combination of vocals and in comparison, intense choreography that makes Korean pop differ from genres of pop in other countries.
For as long as I’ve absorbed myself in this fandom element of liking K-pop groups, the terms artist and idol have been thrown around, generally with a negator in between. The exception is from fans of one particularly popular and ‘legendary’ boy group. There seems to be a consensus, from both Korean and international fans that an idol is not an artist. But if we refer back to the ordinary definition of the word, an idol is someone who practices and performs, not any but two of the creative arts at the same time. Some even have dipped into a third with acting. So why is there this classification between idol and artist, if the original meaning of the word ‘artists’ says otherwise? This I believe, derives from a modernisation and adaptation of the world in Korean pop. Similarly to how an idol has become this definition of a moulded singer and dancer, generally a member of a boy group or girl group, I think ‘artist’ has been redefined as well.
I’ve seen the terms compose or write their own music, thrown around as a necessity in determining whether an idol is an artist. This is because, many believe that for an idol to truly branch out from these constructed groups, they must contribute to more than just the stage performance aspect of their music. As a term, to write consists of both the artistic element of writing lyrics and composing. However, I truly believe writing lyrics to a pop song, known to be generally repetitive and shallow, isn’t a difficult task. Whilst there are song lyrics from K-pop groups that delve further into more discussion-worthy problems, I still would not classify lyrics written as part of a Korean pop song, or any pop song really, as art in any sense. Maybe I do take for granted the ability to compose lyrical masterpieces, but unless I feel emotionally touched by lyrics not about love, my opinion remains the same on this matter. In this redefining of the term ‘artist’, I believe writing is the composition of the song sample and music. And in that sense, if it’s in discussion of perhaps this new term, then no idol is an artist, until they take the extra step.
However, what still confuses me is why there must be a recreation of the term artist when used to refer to K-pop? It’s understood that an actor does not need to direct, film or write scripts in order to be an ‘artist’, so why is the term ‘artist’ just reconstructed for idols? Must idols really compose their songs or choreograph their dances to be ‘artists’? Is this transformation of the term necessary, or just a masterly created brainwashing for fans of certain idol groups to boast about their favourite stars? So in closing my thoughts, I do believe that an idol that composes their music, holds a different specification of talent and does aid in the creation of an art piece as required by an artist. However, I’m still not entirely sure if their lack of contribution, besides dance and vocals, in creating this painting makes them just an idol.
I’m going to pick on YG stans for a moment because I’ve interacted with a slew of them across the interwebs that seem to have very strong opinions on this subject. That is, some of them have it in their minds that the idols that come from YG are not idols at all, but artists. Why, you ask? Well, because they make their own music. Every single one of them is involved in some way with the production or writing of the music released by YG Entertainment.
Let’s pretend this is true, for a moment. And let’s say that to be an artist you can’t have a helping hand or orders from above guiding your way. This means that we as K-pop stans have a limited pool of idols we can safely call artists and thus place on a pedestal above their puppeteered peers. Before you even think about calling an idol an artist I want to see a full resume and composition credits on at least 94% of their group’s discography.
Nah, not really. The term “artist,” and I suppose art in general, is such a wide umbrella term ranging from portraiture to performance art to piano music. Would you tell a painter who is commissioned by someone to paint an artwork that they are not an artist simply because their painting wasn’t by their own design? Of course not. This is the same way I see K-pop idols. In the most isolated cases they are groomed by their respective companies, given choreography to practice, and lyrics to sing. And they go and do it. It can be very rehearsed and manufactured, yes. But they’re up there dancing on stage for a living. Are they not dancers? Are they not singers when they sing their title track on a weekly music show? Because if they are not, then I am sincerely curious on where the line is drawn.
These idols are performing, they are singing, they are making music. Do all of them do this to a high standard? Well, no. But our world isn’t full of Leonardo da Vinci around every corner. Talent and skill are always going to play into the quality of artistry an idol is capable of, as are the impressions it leaves on the entirely subjective opinion of the viewer. But to deny them the title of “artist” because you perceive them as manufactured or lacking the vocal prowess to be a good singer doesn’t sit quite right with me.
The way I see it all Korean idols are artists. By no means are all Korean artists idols though, and the distinction here is huge. But I’m not about to deny someone the right to think of themselves as an “artist” because their music isn’t something they organically made. Maybe it’s the Art Appreciation class I’m currently enrolled in at my university but I just don’t feel that I really have a right to consider art objective, in any way. Especially not the definition of it.
And my previous tirade is all functioning on the assumption that no idols create their own music, lyrics, or choreography. Which simply isn’t true. From the Big 3 to small name companies, idols are slowly but surely becoming more involved in their musical releases. And this has been happening for a long time. For some groups it takes them a little longer to get there (or maybe it takes a littler longer for their company to let them) but that doesn’t meant they don’t deserve the acknowledgement. I know I’m not going to go around and say “Hmm, Idol A wrote 30% of the lyrics in this album. They are 30% artist.” It just doesn’t make sense to me.
So long story short: art is subjective, semantics are complicated, and I’m going to continue to call South Korean idols artists interchangeably.
In order to understand the word “artist”, I personally think that it is important to understand the origins of the word itself. So where does the word come from? Doing some research, I found out that the word was created in the 16th century from the French word “Artiste” which denotes a master of the liberal arts. So what are liberal arts? They fall into two different groups: the trivium and the quadrivium. And what falls under the quadrivium? Music.
I would also like to take another look at the word “Artist”. What word can we form from it? Art. So what falls under art? Music, dancing and acting which can be classified as performing arts.
And now, let us take a look at idols. What are their job scopes? They sing, they dance. Some even rap and act. And what do all these skills fall under? Performance art. So based on this, an idol is also an artist to me.
People have argued at length over the artistry of pop stars in general, not just in K-Pop. A simple query on Google could yield plenty of articles that argue why pop stars can never be artists. Some deny the term ‘artist’ from pop stars and idols who have little involvement in the songs they perform (whether it is in production, lyrics, or songwriting).
But others do so to idols whose creative output they’re unable to enjoy or appreciate. To some extent, I can see why. I personally find a vast majority of Twice’s music unlistenable, with the exception of Like Ooh-Ahh (I purchased that song on iTunes during their debut era after succumbing to its catchy hook). I’d honestly be reluctant to call Twice ‘artists’ in that regard. But then I know that fellow writer Haru seems to be of the opinion that Twice has a flawless discography. One (wo)man’s meat is another man’s poison after all. Twice does entertain its target demographic through engaging in the creative arts, and that, in itself, does fulfil the basic definition of an ‘artist’ at the very least.
Part of the reason why none of us would ever be able to reach any sort of consensus is because the way each and every one of us responds to any sort of performance (and not just K-Pop) is unique. And that’s okay. They call Picasso an ‘artist,’ and his squiggly scribbles ‘art’ after all. I can deal with that.
An artist is someone who creates art. Idols fit that simple definition. But there are several factors which constitute a well-rounded artist. Idols train lengthy periods of time to develop singing, dancing, rapping, modelling and acting skills. Their occupation is an artist however it’s the level of their skills and how they use them which earns them recognition and respect.
In my opinion, those who compose and write their own music and create choreographies and/or for other artists are what a true, well-rounded artist should be. Having the skills is one thing. Applying the skills to create something original is another. In recent times, young artists have walked down this creative path. The K-pop industry has benefitted and improved because there is more pressure and expectation for idols to become proper artists.