When we discussed the Far East Movement in class, we mentioned that their music is notable for the fact that they are the only Asian American artist to achieve a #1 Billboard Hot 100 song. There aren’t any obvious markers in their music that we would consider Asian American, but this may not be a fair critique due to the nature of dance pop or club music. It’s rare to see any indication of racial identity or social critique in these kinds of music. This begs the question, what would make dance pop music Asian American? One way to do this would be through the composition and arrangement of the music instead of the lyrics, and we can see this in some modern K-pop. In analyzing the music of Teddy Park, a Korean American rapper, songwriter, and producer from Diamond Bar, California, we can see how he has achieved success by creating Korean pop music that is Asian American.
In 1995, YG Entertainment signed Teddy Park to their record label. During and after his career as a rapper, Teddy has become one of the most prolific hit makers in the K-pop industry. He has accomplished this by incorporating distinctly American elements into his music while still appealing to Korean popular taste. Teddy’s career as a producer began while he was a member of 1TYM. At the time that his group debuted, hip hop had not yet crossed over into mainstream Korean pop culture. 1TYM was one of the first hip hop groups backed by a large entertainment company. During their active years from 1998 to 2005, their music was undoubtedly hip hop — it wasn’t a watered down pop experiment with some hip hop influences. However, it also wasn’t particularly innovative or interesting. Their style tended to be an imitation of American rap that lagged behind its influences. 1TYM’s last single in 2005, “Do You Know Me,” sounds like a generic combination of the popular rap trends of 2003. Despite this, the music that Teddy produced at this time clearly demonstrates his American roots and influences, and this would play a large role in his transition to a pop music producer.
Following the disbandment of 1TYM in 2005, Teddy started to focus on production. Within a few years, he was responsible for shaping the sound of YG’s two most popular groups, Big Bang and 2NE1. In their singles, there is a marked shift in Teddy’s production style. Rather than doubling down on copying American hip hop and R&B trends, he began to incorporate these elements into the traditional structure of Korean club music. In addition to this, he discovered a newfound interest in electronic music. Many popular K-pop songs at that time were structured around soaring, catchy hooks, and this formula fit well with EDM. Teddy’s music with Big Bang and 2NE1 retained this general strategy, but also, found a way to enhance this existing structure with American influences.
As both hip hop and EDM’s popularity rapidly grew in the late 2000’s, American pop music, most notably via the Black Eyed Peas and Flo Rida, began to merge the two to great commercial success. However, there still remained a clear distinction between EDM and pop music; the difference between a Skrillex song and a Flo Rida song was obvious. These American pop songs were the result of extracting the mass appeal of hip hop and EDM without retaining any of the abrasive or experimental aspects that define these genres of music.
This was when Teddy’s production style finally significantly deviated from American pop music. Songs like 2NE1’s “I Am the Best,” feature the melodic dance pop synths that are used by dance producers like RedOne and Stargate, but Teddy pushes the electronic aspects of the song further. Various electronic sounds weave in and out of the song, and the chorus is an incredibly maximalist arrangement of synthesizers and drums. Big Bang’s “Bang Bang Bang” is another example of Teddy’s tendency to seemingly create the most possible energy with his set of tools. Structurally, these songs follow traditional K-pop tropes, but the hip hop and EDM influences are novel ways to maximize the impact and energy of the music.
Teddy Park’s music has two distinct influences, but neither fully defines the music. He draws upon Korean music for song structure and songwriting, and draws upon American hip hop and EDM for sounds. He pushes Korean pop music further by making some of the most maximalist club music, but he also doesn’t simply copy American music to achieve this. Where American pop producers balked at the more aggressive and abrasive aspects of EDM, Teddy embraced their pop appeal. Given the lack of Asian American pop sources of inspiration, it was difficult to find ways in which someone could create pop music that is genuinely Asian and American, but Teddy’s work with YG shows how Asian Americans can draw upon their roots to make authentically original music.
Note: It’s not directly related to this, but Teddy is by no means perfect. While “drawing inspiration” from some sources, his music can be very appropriative. An example of this would be Blackpink’s “Boombayah”, which features a Middle Eastern melody in the chorus, accompanied by very questionable vocals from the group. Something funny/depressing to consider is that Teddy may be copying what Diplo and DJ Snake are doing in their own problematic songs.