Beyond the Glitz and Glamour: 8 Korean Tracks that Tackle Social Issues

Words by Lorraine Giron 

There are many misconceptions about K-Pop and Idols, especially coming from non-fans.  Korean music has a lot to offer–it’s more than just upbeat and fun songs coupled with cute choreography. Moreover, K-pop Idols are real artists, too. They are more than just their looks, fashion, and fame. Despite the conservative society they are in, many Korean artists are actually using their music to take a stand and as a platform for social commentary. The following are just some of the recent tracks tackling social issues.

8. IU – Bbibbi (2018) 

Photo courtesy of LOEN Entertainment 

For her 10th Anniversary in the entertainment industry, IU released the digital single “Bbibbi” which is an alternative R&B track. Despite being one of the most popular and loved female soloists in South Korea, IU has received countless bouts of criticism throughout her career.  “Bbibbi” is probably the cutest way of dissing your haters and critics, which just shows IU’s singing-songwriting prowess.  In “Bbibbi,” she calls out her haters and emphasizes that she doesn’t tolerate it. She won’t let what people say about her affect her anymore.

This is very relevant as many fans and haters, be it international or our local entertainment industry, have become too obsessive and cannot recognize that there are limits and boundaries. Spreading and acting on negativity and hate, whether online or not, is very destructive. Celebrities or influential artists and personalities do not owe others explanation for everything. They deserve respect just as much as normal people do.

7. Dean – Instagram (2017)

Photo Courtesy of  Universal Music

Who knew that even Dean, one of the most talented artists of this generation of Korean artists, has his own insecurities? In a Spot Interview, Dean was asked what led him to create a track about the popular social media site. He said: “I decided to observe myself and I realized that I used Instagram a lot, for no particular reason; just out of habit. I thought about writing a track on Instagram. And I also found out that I became very depressed after using Instagram. I tend to follow many renown artists and realized how small I am compared to them. There are so many talented, pretty and handsome people out there. Soon, I started comparing myself to others and it was really difficult for me.” This track is very relevant today, as many people also feel the same way with Dean. While social media is a great platform, how people use it and allow it to influence them greatly affects their mental health in a negative way.

6. Sunmi – Noir (2019)

Photo Courtesy of Makeus Entertainment 

Quite similar to Dean’s “Instagram,” the latest comeback from female soloist Sunmi is not afraid to call out the destructive and toxic realities of social media. The music video shows that many people nowadays have become obsessed with online validation. They are willing to do risky things for the sake of likes. Many fans are actually surprised but happy with how the video delivered the message.

5. 10cm – Help (2017)

Photo Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound

The acoustic folk 10cm was originally a duo; however, it is now a one-man band after Yoon Cheol-jong’s departure. “Help” has such a beautiful message and music video. It shows various storylines and social struggles all of which are taboo topics in conservative societies.  The highlight is probably the internalized homophobia and the LGBT representation shown in the video. There’s even more symbolism in the video but it’s wonderful that these kinds of issues are being given representation in the media. Everyone has different struggles, which is why we need to be kinder and more understanding.

4. Mamamoo – Yes I Am (2017) 

Photo courtesy of Rainbow Bridge World

Remember when 2NE1 released “Ugly” way back 2011? Fans were wondering why they would put out such a song when they are gorgeous and talented idols at their prime. Sadly, Korean girl groups are easily targeted by criticism, particularly for their appearance and weight. Therefore, they undergo rigorous diets in order to conform to Korea’s ridiculous beauty standards.

Similar to 2NE1, powerhouse vocalists Mamamoo have always stood out among other girl groups.  Musically, they are able to slay any concept, badass,  jazzy or retro–you name it, they can do it. They are known for taking a stand when it comes to social issues, particularly female empowerment. In “Yes I Am,” the quartet talks about embracing and being confident with themselves despite not having to conform to Korean’s beauty standards. As Hwasa confidently puts it, “My face is more round than V-line / I like it / It’s my own, some special thing/ Instead of double eyelids / I like my mono eyelids.”

3.. AGUST D – The Last (2016) 

Photo courtesy of BigHit Entertainment 

BTS’ Suga may look like a softie who loves to sleep (who doesn’t?), but he has solidified himself as one of the fiercest idol rappers in the industry.  He first started as an underground rapper before being an idol. He is not afraid to say what he thinks and feels and this was very evident in his self-titled mixtape, AGUST D.

In this mixtape, he was able to openly talk about the hardships he went through before and even during BTS’ rise to success. In “The Last,” Suga talks about acknowledging and seeking help from a psychiatrist for his depression, social anxiety, and OCD. He detailed the struggles he faced because he couldn’t understand himself at all. (Mental health is a taboo topic in Korea).  He also talked about success and the dangers that come with it–greed and craving for more success. More importantly, he finally acknowledged that he is an idol and everything that comes with it.  However, despite everything, he is reassuring fans that he is regaining his self and for them to be proud of themselves.

2. Triple H – 365 Fresh (2017)

Photo Courtesy of Cube Entertainment 

It was fun while it lasted, Triple H. While we are disappointed with their sudden disbandment, they still gave us bops such as their debut track “365 Fresh.” Sound-wise, it gives an “Uptown Funk” vibe. However, the music video was not something you’d expect in K-pop! The music video for “365 Fresh” showed explicit dark contents such as sexual harassment and suicide which definitely garnered controversy and criticism. Think Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma and Louise. While other people think that it glamorizes or glorifies drugs, sex, or suicide, I think otherwise. It shows that one’s self-destructive behavior is an effect of different struggles.

1.  B.A.P – Wake Me Up (2017) 

Photo Courtesy of  TS Entertainment 

B.A.P. is such an underrated group, but their discography is really amazing. “Wake Me Up” is probably their best release so far for many reasons. First, they didn’t just use an all-Korean cast in the music video in order to show diversity. They wanted to reach out to everyone, most especially their fans all over the world. In the music video, they touch certain issues such as anxiety and eating disorders. Back in 2016, their leader, Bang Yongguk, didn’t promote with the group because of his mental anxiety and panic disorders. “Wake Me Up” was able to deliver well the message of self-care and mental health.

Which one’s your favorite? Let us know!


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