A beginner’s guide to P-pop

Who are the biggest idols? Are SB19 the new BTS? Here's everything you need to know about the burgeoning Filipino music scene.

by Tanu. I. Raj
04 August 2021, 2:37pm

Images via @officialSB19@bini_ph, @alamatofficial

In April 2021, locked down fans across the world were glued to their screens, eagerly waiting to find out whether their faves had been nominated for a Billboard Music Award. There, among the list of names was a proverbial dark horse: P-pop group SB19, who, until that point hadn’t quite cracked the western mainstream since they debuted in 2018. Now rubbing shoulders with the likes of BTS, Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK, and SEVENTEEN in the ‘Top Social Artist’ category, the idol group’s name was broadcast into homes everywhere as they became the first Filipino act to ever receive a nomination.

When we talk about Asian music, P-pop (Pinoy Pop aka pop music from the Philippines) usually gets a position in the footnotes. But having evolved from its origins in OPM — Original Pilipino Music, which reigned supreme locally through the 60s and 70s -- P-pop is quickly establishing itself on a global stage. And SB19 aren’t the only Pinoy act to have made a mark on the west: in the last year alone, octet Alamat became the fastest rising P-pop act on the Billboard Next Big Sound chart, with BGYO and Filipino folk-pop act Ben&Ben achieving similar levels of recognition. With these exciting new groups at the helm, P-pop’s global expansion -- following closely in the footsteps of K-pop -- is making the wider industry sit up and listen. Could this be the next big thing in Asian music? 

Here, we delve into the big questions you need to know the answers to if you’re planning to discover the best that P-pop has to offer…

What exactly is P-pop?

P-pop refers to Pinoy Pop, also known as Filipino Pop, a genre of music that evolved from OPM. While the earliest instances of Pinoy Pop date back to the 60s (known commonly by its parent term OPM), modern P-pop is an umbrella term for a melting pot of genres — everything from pop and rock to jazz. Some experts argue that, much like K-pop, P-pop should be considered an industry rather than a genre. “It's less about the genre than it is about the production and marketing,” says Dr. Thomas Baudinette, lecturer of International Studies at Australia’s Macquarie University. “When we think about K-pop, it is a particular way of producing a musical group, with a traineeship and management. [Idol culture in] P-pop emerged in the mid-2000s up until today, with attempts from various movers and shakers in the OPM industry to really tap into the popularity of K-pop and to develop a similar system.”

Hold on a minute, what’s OPM?

That's what we call Original Pilipino Music, a term used to refer to Filipino pop music from the 60s and 70s, most commonly represented by the likes of Basil Valdez, Freddie Aguilar, and Ruben Tagalog. "OPM was associated with ballads and alternative music,” says Filipino director and screenwriter Jason Paul Laxamana. “It didn't involve a lot of singing and dancing.”

So the rise of K-pop was a big influence on modern P-pop?

Well, yes. Through the 00s, K-pop acts like Super Junior, Girls Generation, Wonder Girls, and TVXQ found their way into mainstream Filipino pop culture, presenting a polished, sophisticated take on popular music and proving there was a real audience for idol culture. "For a long time, we had OPM… and then came K-pop," Laxamana, who is also co-Creative Director for P-pop rookies Alamat, explains. “K-pop presented singing, dancing, audio-visual music with focus on choreography and visuals. That was the moment that [similar] groups started emerging in the Philippines as well. So it can't be denied that P-pop is a localised attempt to create something like K-pop. P-pop is an extension of OPM -- it's just that we needed a new term to encapsulate these innovations."

What languages do P-pop idols sing in? And what are songs typically about?

In addition to most P-pop songs being in Tagalog, Pinoy pop has emerged as a medium through which to explore identity -- cultural and otherwise. While acts such as SB19 do this through their concepts, others, like Alamat, throw light on the Philippines' ethnic and linguistic diversity by incorporating other regional languages into their music too. In Baudinette’s words, P-pop is constantly engaging in an active ‘renegotiation’ of what it means to be Filipino. 

"The Filipino identity is not as established as the Korean identity or Japanese identity," explains Laxamana. "Filipinos in general do not know their roots or their place in history, so it's very interesting that we are trying to find the Filipino identity through P-pop music. What does the P stand for? Yes, it stands for Philippines, but what does that entail? We don't know the answer yet."

Who are the coolest P-pop idol groups in 2021?

Glad you asked. If you're looking for somewhere to start, try the following…

SB19: While this powerhouse quintet officially debuted in 2018, it was actually a dance practice video of their song “Go Up” that sent them hurtling towards popularity towards the end of 2019. Since then, the group has become synonymous with addictive hooks, powerful music and knife-sharp choreography. Backed by their loyal fans, they became the first Filipino act to appear on the Billboard Next Big Sound chart in 2019, and to receive a Billboard Music Award nomination in 2021.
Listen to: “Alab (Burning)”, “WHAT?”, “Mapa

Alamat: Despite being less than a year old, this eight-member group is already making strides in carving out their own niche while also celebrating their Filipino roots. Their debut single, “kbye”, featured seven different Philippine languages amd clocked in at No. 2 on the Billboard Next Big Sound within a month of its release — making them the fastest rising P-pop act on the chart.
Listen to: Kasmala

BGYO: Bolstered by the success of their debut single “The Light”, this fledgling quintet is quickly becoming a fan-favorite with music that focuses on self-love and social issues.
Listen to: “The Light

BINI: Also known as BGYO's sister-group, this eight-member act officially debuted in May 2021, but had been creating waves since last year's pre-debut single, “Da Coconut Nut”. Hopping from empowering anthems to saccharine pop with effortless ease, you should 100% keep an eye on BINI.
Listen to:Born To Win

Why did the K-pop model become so popular in the Philippines?

Apart from the evident success of K-pop in its home country of South Korea, its popularity in the Philippines and the consequent adaption of the K-pop model by the music industry was spurred on by various socio-economic factors. As the Philippines entered an era of economic growth, the upward mobility was reflected in the changing pop culture as well.

Before K-pop became a benchmark for pop music, companies were hesitant to venture into anything that was not 'cost-effective'. "Pop music is expensive,” Laxamana explains. “It requires production, budget for choreography, costumes, visually appealing music videos – the essence of it was money. Producers back then weren't as enthusiastic about the idea of putting a lot of money into what makes pop music." When the Filipino youth started gravitating towards the slick production value of K-pop, the industry realised that they needed to innovate.

Who were the first P-pop idol groups?

While MNL48 -- a sister-group of the famous Japanese idol group AKB48 -- were widely considered the first Filipino idol group when they debuted in 2018, the local industry had been experimenting with acts for some time. In 2009, Pop Girls released a self-titled debut album inspired by the electro-pop revolution in K-pop, with lead single “Crazy Crazy” achieving some success.

2010 saw the emergence of boy groups XLR8 (from the same entertainment company as Pop Girls, Viva Records) as well as 1:43, whose 2012 single “Sa Isang Sulyap Mo” would quickly go viral. Other notable acts from the 2010s are U Go Girls, dubbed as the "cheerleaders of P-pop" and P-pop Generation, a 45-member group (yes, you read correctly) who are divided into teams A, B and C, each with a distinct musical style and aesthetic. Phew.

What does the P-pop idol business model look like?

Structurally, there are a lot of similarities between P-pop and its Korean and Japanese counterparts. Most P-pop companies follow the classic idol trainee system, where young aspirants burnish their skills through rigorous training processes before finally debuting as a unit. And in actual fact, many P-pop groups, such as SB19 and Clover, were scouted and trained by Korean entertainment companies looking to set up base in the Philippines. 

Others, like the Manila-based girl group MNL48, employ the generational or graduation system, where idols eventually "graduate" or leave the group after reaching a certain milestone. Just like K-pop and J-pop, P-pop groups also have subunits that pioneer different concepts and sounds.

Do P-pop idols also have strict rules, like dating bans?

Despite being inspired by K-pop, the P-pop trainee system is much less rigorous, although traineeships also depend on the scale of the company involved. It is also more relaxed about trainees' personal lives and creative control over their music. For Laxamana, the system focuses more on emulating the structural practices rather than nitty-gritties of idol culture: "[P-pop] is learning from K-pop that there needs to be organisation and structure and hierarchy. It doesn't have to reject the best practices from K-pop — the strict training, the quality control. At the same time, I want it to search for its own identity."

For the moment, Baudinette claims that “P-pop is still too new” to move away from simply adopting practices from other countries. “Since the industry is still in its fledgling state, it’s still finding solid ground in terms of a unique idol culture compared to K-pop and J-pop, where idols have been a mainstay for years; so it might be some time before we see a fully evolved Filipino idol culture.” 

Are SB19 the new BTS? 

It’s easy to spot parallels between the two acts: just like BTS, SB19 started as underdogs. One of the first awards that BTS picked up in the west was the Top Social Artist trophy at the Billboard Music Awards; SB19 received their first nomination for the same award earlier this year. Both groups, too, have been involved in the grassroots of their artistry from the very beginning. So, who knows? SB19 might just end up opening doors for P-pop globally, just like BTS did for K-pop! 

Finally, what does the future of P-pop look like? 

While P-pop has been experimenting with idol groups and gaining some serious attention globally, it still has a long way to go. This goes both for establishing a strong idol culture and improving the production value and process of songs overall. We’re currently looking at an industry which might be inspired by its Asian counterparts, but is making headway in establishing what exactly it stands for culturally and socially. Watch on as it figures that out.

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