Rewind to summer for a hot second and you might remember Fast Forward, a viral K‑pop track from Canadian-Korean popstar Jeon Somi. It received much of the usual, unconditional adoration from the genre’s fans. But a subsection of stans noticed something else: the song sounds distinctively, well, British. With its treble-heavy, tinny-speaker-friendly production, belting vocals, a bouncy club-ready bassline and a building bridge, it’s more like something you’d hear in a club in Soho, not Seoul.
“Its sound could easily have sprung from UK or Ibiza club trends. It’s generic in a satisfying way,” wrote Nick James of cult K‑Pop blog The Bias List. Social media chimed in with similar takes. “Jeon Somi saw that Little Mix had disbanded and that UK Pop desperately needed saving so she released Fast Forward,” said one X (formerly Twitter) user. “If the Love Island UK producers don’t use Fast Forward next season they are the stupidest assholes to ever exist,” went another.
Fast Forward is far from an isolated case; lots of recently-released K‑Pop sounds like UK Pop. A six-minute YouTube video titled “kpop songs that sound british”, for example, rounds up tracks such as Going Dumb by Stray Kids, Go Big or Go Home by Enhypen and The Feeling by Shine, alongside nearly fifty other examples. “As someone who was raised in Britain, this is the epitome of British radio,” reads the top comment.
But let’s press pause for a second. What does it actually mean for a pop song to sound British? And how can a song that’s from outside of the UK still sound like it was made here on our stupid little island?
If you get it, you get it. Recognising the sound is a form of innate pop cultural knowledge that’s hard to put into words. You hear it all over the place: downstairs at the gym, upstairs at your local pub-club. There’s usually a top-heavy ’Beefa bassline, several belting vocal hooks, triumphant lyrics about overcoming adversity, an orgiastic orchestral section and the same piano that loops over and over. Add the kind of title you could quickly spell out in a bowl of alphabet soup and a glossy, glam video, and you’re on the right track.
This particular brand of British pop has a cast of main characters who dominate the charts. There’s Becky Hill, the fierce vocalist behind Gecko (Overdrive). Jess Glynne, the singer-songwriter who went mega with her vocals on Clean Bandit’s Rather Be. Ella Henderson, a hun-to-hire featured on Crazy What Love Can Do (let’s forget she performed at the Tory conference that time, eh?)
When it comes to the lads, there’s slick DJ Joel Corry (Sorry), knockout vocalist and songwriter MNEK (Head & Heart) and floppy-haired Chase and Status alumnus Tom Grennan (Little Bit of Love). Pretty much every combo of the above have featured on tracks together. Many of them, too, have come through the X Factor and The Voice.
But what makes their music feel so British? Even the stars behind this subgenre find that a difficult question. “I think our version of pop has this energy that makes you smile. But it’s so hard to have a definitive answer,” says Jess Glynne, a singer who’s ridden that sound so successfully that, with seven chart-toppers, she’s had more UK number ones than any other British female, ever.
“When you hear certain uplifting records like Becky Hill, she has such an energy that gets you excited – like Love Island, getting in an Uber and pre-drinks, what does it evoke? You get excited, you hear a build in a record, and you get up to this moment where you just want to fricking dance and get off your nut and let loose! That kind of music really makes you want to go out.”
There’s also something about how this music captures UK hun culture. The sound instantly makes you think of flights to Malaga, tinnies of pink gin, maybe a cheeky wrap of MD at Capital’s Summertime Ball, Love Island and that Hinge prompt about loving a roast and a long walk. Stuff we all enjoy, even if we might not always care to admit it.
Welcome to the world of Happy Huncore, then: there’s no place we’d rather be. Sure, it’s about as edgy as a satsuma, but it’s a sound that’s been years in the making, rooted in our nation’s predilection for partying. Us Brits have always loved feel-good, dance-inspired pop. To give a whistle-stop tour: in the ’90s, Fatboy Slim brought dance to the masses and commercial trance gatecrashed the charts (see: Set You Free by N‑Trance). In the ’00s, we fell hard for a more Euro sound, pounding Clubland comps like Monday would never come. And in the 2010s, homegrown acts such as Disclosure, Duke Dumont, Jax Jones and Naughty Boy ushered in a UK take on tropical house and soundtracked our teenage hols abroad.
“The happy, commercial UK house music scene has always been there,” says songwriter Sarah Blanchard. She’s a “topliner” which means she comes up with the main melody and lyrics to match a pre-produced track or beat that’s then built upon.
A member of all-female collective music The Six, Blanchard has worked with pretty much every Happy Huncore star under the Mallorcan sun over the last decade, from Grennan to Anne Marie, Galantis to Glynne and, of course, Becky Hill, back-to-back BRIT Best Dance Act winner and current queen of dancefloor-igniting pop. “I think in the UK, we just really love an uplifting banger, people like to be part of a festival crowd,” she adds.
When exactly did dance music mutate to produce this more recent, distinctively British pop sound? The release of Rather Be in 2014 is a pretty good reference point, although Glynne reckons the subgenre went into full swing a little later. “British pop music took on a different energy around 2015 or 2016, and it really kind of ignited a whole new energy in the music world,” she says. “That time was really significant for our dance music.”
Corry, who has just released debut album Another Friday Night after years of pumping pristine party-starters, agrees. “There’s been a distinctive British pop dance sound over the last decade,” he says. “Dance music is very present in British pop culture right now and the UK continues to lead the way globally in the genre.”
The key to our world-beating beats? “Elements like KORG’s M1 piano and organ have been consistent in pop dance hits, that sort of UK piano house sound. Tracks are generally around 124bpm and arranged with traditional song structures,” says Corry. “I think the [current] US pop dance sound leans more towards EDM, trap and dubstep, to be honest. Dance music in America doesn’t cross over into the commercial charts like it does in the UK and has always been a bit more niche.”
It’s important to make these distinctions, because there are occasions when the subgenre crossovers with other countries’ sounds. Fast Forward for example, sounds a lot like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain on Me with its string synths and isolated vocal moments. Then, again, Rain On Me kind of sounded quite British itself.
Certain Happy Huncore tracks also stumble towards Eurodance, but there’s something a little less hardcore about it – there’s a reason that M&S chose Rather Be over, say, Everytime We Touch, to market their meringues.
For Blanchard, Happy Huncore is incredibly different to US dance-pop. Many of her songs, she says, make it to Europe, but not across the pond. “A lot of the UK House stuff is [centred around] a feel good lyric that’s unique but simple,” she says. “The repetition of things makes it hooky and catchy.”
While we’re on hooks, Happy Huncore holds a simple philosophy: very few of us can say no to a na-na-na-na – especially when four pints deep on a dancefloor. It pops-up with staggering frequency, sometimes cosplaying as a lah-di-da, oh-woah-ah-oah or dum-dee-dum-dah – from Crazy What Love Can Do (Becky Hill, David Guetta, Ella Henderson) to Head to Heart (Joel Corry and MNEK) to You Don’t Know Me (Raye and Jax Jones). Becky Hill even has a song that sums up this bracket of tunes (in the brackets): My Heart Goes (La Di Da).
Blanchard is all too familiar. “With your melody, you either turn it into words or make it into an ooh or a dah-dah-dah or…” she pauses, “a na-na-na-na”. And despite their ubiquity, these poppy scats are still increasing in volume. “I keep thinking: when are they going to realise that we’ve done loads of na-na-nah songs and we can’t write another one,” she says. “But people don’t get bored of it.”
But perfecting the right na-na-na hook isn’t as easy as it might seem. Scores of songwriters hash out these tunes in studios, having honed their scribing skills over the years, sometimes leading to slight ridicule that it takes so many writers to create one song.
“I don’t think you can say you only need two people in a room, or you only need one person – there’s no answer to making an amazing pop record,” says Glynne. “If six, seven, eight, nine or 20 people are in a room, and it creates a song that stands the test of time, so be it. We’re all here for the win.”
Having more people in the room also helps when songs are being written at breakneck speed. After bashing out some draft titles and hooks on Notes, Blanchard takes her ideas to the studio and works double-time. “It’s very fast-paced. You often write a song in a day, usually with people you’ve never met before, go home and hope for the best,” she says. “A lot of this music comes about because you can’t sit and think about it.”
The key is to make the songs as palatable and easily-consumable as possible.
“The lyrics are about what sounds the best, because when you’re at predrinks, you’re not really listening to the story that much,” continues Blanchard. “It’s why people use the same words a lot of the time, like, ‘love’ in a lot of songs, because it sings well,” she adds, explaining that they add just enough spice to make it sound energetic rather than generic.
All of this culminates in Happy Huncore’s key appeal for audiences and executives alike: it’s totally inoffensive. This might sound a little bit like a slight, but sometimes you’d rather not decipher Aphex Twin’s latest ambient glitchiness but guzzle down some sugary pop instead. Whether it’s doing spin class to housey gym tunes or singing in the taxi on your way out-out, Happy Huncore is designed to make us feel good, a scoop of soft-serve ice cream with sprinkles on top.
“People want to feel that positive energy when they finish a long day at work, are smashing a workout at the gym, heading out on the weekend, or flying away on holiday,” Corry says. “Some of the best-written dance records are really emotive. That combination of euphoria and emotion can be magical.”
That’s precisely why Glynne’s track Hold My Hand has been the advert and boarding music for the airline Jet2.com for eight years.
“It’s so crazy. When I wrote Hold My Hand with my best mate Janee (Bennett) and Jack (Patterson) from Clean Bandit, that song just felt so amazing. It had an energy about it and a message that was so close to home and relevant and relatable to so many people,” she explains. “Jumping on a plane is one of the most amazing feelings, to feel that you’re with your mates and you’re going away and you’re going to have the best time of our lives.”
And now that Glynne’s the voice of our summer getaways, that joy is a two-way ticket. “It feels amazing to be the person to give that energy to people when they’re going away,” she continues. “It’s quite funny because people love and hate me for it, as I think it annoys people when they get delayed on that flight and I’m like…” Glynne, gamely, bursts into song over the phone: “Darling, hold my hand!”
But as much as British dance pop is designed to have a broad-church appeal, it doesn’t stop music snobs from having a dig at it. I ask Blanchard what she thinks about artists like Noel Gallagher sounding off about the “bland nonsense” of British pop.
“I find it so irritating. The simple songs that cater to millions of people are really, really, really hard to write,” she says. “I could sit there and write a dreary song about how my life is depressing or thinking about the solar system or some abstract shit. But who wants that if you’re out?”
Still, dancey pop, to stay fresh and fizzy and floor-filling, needs to keep popping. So, for those looking for something with a little more edge, the sound has a new wave of emerging artists. They’re focusing less on house and more on drum’n’bass pop, taking us back to Rudimental’s rollers, UKF remixes and trance.
As Corry has observed, “a new trend of faster records at around 140bpm has emerged in the UK, with trance influences and off-beat donk basslines.” Blanchard agrees. “I think there is a new scene coming up. There’s a drum’n’bass resurgence,” she says, referencing emerging popstars Issey Cross and Charlotte Plank. Both are part of the female and non-binary music collective LOUD LDN and are bringing the sound to a fresh, younger audience – the ones who still enjoy the thrill of cheap-and-cheerful, budget pop but are equally thirsty for a brand new flavour.
Even the genre’s OGs are getting on board. Glynne’s upcoming single Friend of Mine, is backed by a drum’n’bass breakbeat, ready to ignite some final night, firepit tears on Love Island. Rather than holding hands, she’s “holding her hands up” at mistakes made as a mate, a classic Happy Huncore mix of ecstatic and bittersweet.
So, like a good, well structured, ruthlessly catchy pop song, let’s go out on where we came in: perhaps, a pop song that sounds British isn’t the same as saying that a song sounds, say, Italian. There’s nothing intrinsically, quintessentially, historically British about the music itself. It doesn’t use certain scales, modes, patterns or instruments that are particularly traditional or unique to the UK. Instead, it’s about the imagery it creates and the contexts it’s heard in. It’s pop made for chinning alcopops or shopping for bodycon dresses, capturing part of what it’s like to be British, whatever that really means.
It’s easy to get all high-and-mighty about Happy Huncore, but there’s a reason it does so well: it’s great fun. And if our world-renowned love of partying has created a sound that’s managed to simultaneously filter into K‑Pop, remind us of package holiday hook-ups and soundtrack impromptu nights out, then, hey, we’ll drink to that. Anyone got a gin tin?