Youth and Unconventional Music: An Inseparable Duo

by Boran Göher & Alp Ünal Ayhan

One of the most prominent factors making up any generational gap is the difference in music taste. A fact apparent when you analyze the music tends over the years. The dominant music genre is always different, and sometimes the dominant genre in just the previous decade is, in some ways, the distinct opposite of the ongoing decade. Many people can anecdotally testify for this fact as well, since like some genres of music that are not liked, or even "understood" by your parents seem to be a universal experience.

The premier example of this phenomenon in recent years is the rise of rap music. In just two decades, rap has gone from slightly niche, fairly ethnic music to a complete chart breaker. At the time of writing, half of the songs in Billboard's Top 10 were hip-hop music. (1) But it is not just rap music that is on the rise. Other aspects of hip-hop culture such as breakdancing and hip-hop’s unique sense of fashion have had a rise in popularity, although they never became as mainstream as rap music. But whether niche or mainstream, aspects of hip-hop culture are most celebrated by the youth.

Indeed, senior members of society are almost wholly uninterested in hip-hop music, or any unconventional genre, for that matter, despite growing popularity. One reason for this might simply be that all unconventional things resonate stronger with younger people and almost not at all with older folks. In essence, unconventionally doing things is challenging the established system and tradition. Considering that older people were the builders of those systems and traditions, it is no wonder that they would not take them being challenged very openly. Indeed, old people are generally very quick to respond with praises of past eras when presented with works and situations that challenge the norm. In a way, we may say that they are simply trying to preserve their favored status quo.

The last point is perhaps the focal point of the problems. Hip-hop, like many other niche music genres, is at times very heavy-handed with its messages. On top of that, the content of these messages is often anti-status quo, supportive of drastic measures to force change within the system, and directly insulting the upholders and proponents of the current systems. This is also reflected in the actions of the fans, on both an individual level and in an organized way, the fans of unconventional music can be very commonly seen fighting against regimes and institutionalized systems that they deem dissatisfactory, often taking up the fight to help the oppressed and the downtrodden. Most famously, the rap industry, in almost perfect unison, mobilizes to support Black Lives Matter every time a relevant event occurs in the United States. Notably, "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar has become something of an anthem for the movement.

If one wishes to analyze a less popular example, the K-pop fandom gives ample material to be analyzed. The music itself is not as prevalent as rap among western circles, but if you are using Twitter, chances are, you probably have seen GIFs or vertical videos (as known as fancams”) of K-pop idols more than once. K-pop has found itself a small but dedicated audience in the West, the numbers speak for themselves. The total yearly music export revenue of South Korea has well surpassed half a billion dollars in the last years, without even taking into account the massive amount of merchandise revenue Korean music generates. (2) Much of this statistic is still owed to East Asia sales (mostly Japan and China), but the most rapid increase in sales has been observed in Europe and North America. Despite all the barriers, it seems that Western youth is quickly accepting the rather unique style of K-pop.

Western K-Pop fans (also affectionately called K-Pop stans) are more likely to belong to the under-represented. They are more likely to be young, more likely to be female, more likely to be queer, and more likely to be in an ethnic minority in the Western world. This is certainly reflected in K-Pop fans' behavior and actions. K-Pop fans are very online, very active on social media-especially Twitter-, and they're very in line with progressive causes such as feminism, LGBTQ+ equality, anti-racism, combatting climate change, and left-wing ideologies such as social democracy/democratic socialism and socialism. They use Twitter to spread awareness about issues they care about, spam hashtags that promote racist and transphobic views and mobilize donation/activism efforts very quickly and efficiently. This summer, when Dallas, TX's police department asked people to send them images of protesters in Black Lives Matter protests K-Pop fans flooded the app the police department uses with "fancams," making the police unable to crack down on protesters. The app was "temporarily shut down due to technical issues" in a few hours after the initial announcement.

Yet, it is hard to extend that sentiment to older generations. To them, much of Korean music is incomprehensible. The distinct style of K-pop idols is often very alien to older folk, along with the conceptual idea of an idol. Indeed, the idol culture of East Asia creates a whole different way to view, follow, and interact with celebrities. And not just in Korea (and Japan) but in any country where their music is consumed as well. Add to that the differences in music style too, and you will easily see why listeners on the older side might have trouble getting into K-pop.

At the end of the day, music out of the mainstream is often a voice for those that feel the streamlined way of living in the current system is not acceptable. By human nature, those people are much likelier to be younger people, thus unconventional music does not resonate as much with older people. But no matter how you feel about the music itself, you cannot deny that it has been instrumental in unifying the opposition and amplifying their voice. The politicization of unconventional music is, undoubtedly, another piece of evidence that music is more than just a simple pastime.  

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