Let’s Talk Kpop

Since the mid-1990’s, shifting economic values in South Korea has contributed to the evolution of a broader cultural movement known as Hallyu. Referring to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy, including television, music, fashion, film, beauty, and cuisine, Hallyu, or the “Korean wave” is a phenomenon attributed to massive changes made by the Korean government over the last few decades. With an increasing interest in branding major companies, a new focus on infrastructure, the restructuring of Korean chaebols, and lifts in censorship laws, Korea’s transnational flow of popular culture as a means of promoting soft-power by shaping preference through attraction has boosted Korea’s economy exponentially, marking it the 12th largest economy in the world.

New products and movements born in South Korea have begun receiving recognition abroad, with makeup brands such as Dr. Jart+ and Too Cool for School popping up in stores like Sephora and Ulta alongside talks of the infamous 10-step Korean skincare routine. Meanwhile, celebrities such as G-Dragon, from the K-pop group Big Bang have gained attention whilst attending Paris Fashion Week, even receiving a spotlight in Vogue. While there are many aspects of Korean cultural entertainment that has become internationally recognized, I wanted to delve a bit into discussing the Kpop industry, especially in light of BTS’s performance at the 2017 American Music Awards.

During my last semester of my undergrad, one of my professors had everyone in our class sign up to present some type of visual media to our peers at some point during the semester. This encompassed a span of mediums, but soon after the first few presentations, it became apparent everyone was simply going to present a music video that could be molded to fit into the material we were studying in the course. But our professor never explicitly stated that whatever we presented had to be in line with our academic material, so I decided to show everyone a Kpop music video because 1) that’s where my music interest lies, and 2) I had just accepted a job offer from a school in Korea. I chose to show a SHINee music video, the title track from their 2015 album Odd. I tried to pick a video that was not too far outside of American pop videos, as well as had cinematographic techniques that mimic the types of videos found in the industry that didn’t feel as highly produced as other notable videos from the same group.

I think it took about thirty seconds before people realized the song they were listening to was actually in a language other than English, but overall the only comments that prompted discussion involved the choreography and then some wanted a rough translation of what the song was about – mostly lukewarm response (expected from a morning class). Another student compared it to NSYNC, a comment that never goes unsaid by an American who is watching Kpop videos for the first time. I nodded a let out a curt, “sure,” because while I suppose there are some similarities, meaning, there are at least four members in each group who are expected to sing and dance, Korean pop and American pop are not siblings in so far as the spectrum of pop – maybe cousins. When I look at both the American music industry and the Korean music industry, it’s apparent that Kpop is an entirely different beast. This is not to discredit the American music industry in any way, but I wanted to shed some much-needed light on the Kpop industry in an attempt to dismantle tropes that belittle it and help remedy some of the ignorance surrounding what it is.

One of the biggest differences between the Kpop and American industry is the trainee system for idols in Korea. Unlike America, where the idea of possessing natural talent is key to success in the industry, Koreans believe in the idea that an idol can be trained. Essentially, idols are manufactured in a productive, though extreme, manner. Trainees are either picked through an audition or they are scouted by a company recruiter, typically at a young age, with contracts with the company that can last up to ten years before debut (though there are some companies that only allow trainees under contract for one year). The environment for trainees, much like the work and academic environments in Korea, is extremely competitive. Once signed into a company alongside hundreds of other trainees, there is limited opportunity to make an impression during monthly evaluations in order to be chosen to debut with a group, so the pressure is inevitably tough. Worse over, even if trainees are lucky enough to debut, there is still no guarantee that their group will gain popularity. The possibility of a group being forced to disband if they receive lukewarm attention from the public is high. However, the effects of such intense training, while it may not always be found in the vocal line of groups, can definitely be seen in the tight synchronization of choreography – done to the point where singing, rapping, and dancing is done almost effortlessly on stage.

Getting through trainee life is no small feat. With an intensive schedule consisting of practicing choreography, voice lessons with vocal coaches, and language classes in English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese (Korean for trainees that are not from Korea), trainees work for over twelve hours a day including attending school full-time. While guest starring on Happy Together, Big Bang opened up about their time as trainees under YG Entertainment (one of the big three entertainment companies), recalling stories of sneaking into their manager’s office to steal some snacks because they hadn’t eaten, and would only be allowed to spend 5,000 won (roughly $4.50) on food each day. T.O.P. added that they would sometimes buy whole wheat chips from the convenient store, would decide how many each person would get, then each member would take out one to eat at a time, often sucking on them in order to make them last longer.

(top left) Seungri, Daesung, Taeyang, T.O.P., G-Dragon on the KBS talk show “Happy Together” which premiered May 21st, 2015 

Once a group has debuted and generated enough buzz in the public eye, they will continue a schedule much like the one they were under while a trainee in the company; rigorous still, with limited benefits. Members will normally live in dorms with one another until they have become popular enough to move elsewhere, or they will opt to continue to live with the members they get along best with. Alongside practicing singing, dancing, and recording and producing albums, idols are also expected to actively promote themselves, whether it be filming commercials, attending photo shoots, or appearing on an array of variety shows such as Weekly Idol, Running Man or Infinity Challenge. The range of skills that idols must possess varies depending on their popularity, but many work as MC’s on weekly shows, act in Korean dramas, or host radio shows (widely popular Blue Night Radio was hosted by SHINee member Jonghyun for three consecutive years). The skills that an idol has illustrates another fundamental difference as to how these celebrities are treated in the public eye due to the number of responsibilities they have. While in America artists are coined as “singers,” and are expected to perfect that talent by writing and producing their own music, in Korea, artists are expected to participate in as many aspects in the entertainment industry as they can. This is not to say that Korean artists lack talent, in fact, there are a number of idols who have been recognised globally for their incredible talent in writing, producing, and choreographing their own music, including solo artist IU, and artists such as G-Dragon from Big Bang, Jonghyun and Taemin from SHINee, and Jinyoung from B1A4. 

Along with working in other areas of entertainment, the rise of social media has changed the way that fans can interact with their favorite groups. V-live has become an immensely popular platform for idol groups to promote themselves and connect with their fans, recording live videos anywhere from their hotel rooms to backstage before a performance. Many groups also have television shows in order for them to maintain or improve their popularity in the public eye (some have even been uploaded on Netflix), including Real GOT7, EXO’s Showtime, and Sixteen featuring TWICE. While American and British artists, like Justin Bieber and One Direction, have released movies detailing their lives behind the scenes, Korean artists are promoted in such a way where they participate in all entertainment mediums, making their fans all the more dedicated and all the more attached. Typically, episodes will be dedicated to showcasing the idols personalities through a series of challenges (examples include having to find food and cook their own meals on an island, go through a haunted house alone, or play obstacle course games), or follow the group while they go on vacation over their working holidays. 

Seventeen members: S.Coups, Wonwoo, Mingyu, Vernon (hip-hop unit), Woozi, Jeonghan, Joshua, Dk, Seungkwan (vocal unit), Hoshi, Jun, The8, Dino (performance unit) on Seventeen’s One Fine Day in Japan.

Another difference between the American music industry and the Korean industry is the importance of image for each companies brand. Due to the nature of the training system, idols are not necessarily chosen based on raw talent, but rather, their marketability. Because each entertainment company is trying to sell their groups to the public, marketability is an essential component in whether a company chooses to debut a trainee. Among the different groups, there are often specific concepts attributed to the type of image that the company may be trying to sell. For companies such as JYP Entertainment, groups such as GOT7 or TWICE tend to be more on the “cutsie” side of the spectrum with concepts featuring school uniforms with bubblegum pop title tracks foregrounded in bright colors.

Then, for companies like YG, both girl and boy groups often have concepts that are more saturated in R&B and hip-hop influence with a greater showcase of street style and subtle sex appeal.

At present, 90’s street style is extremely popular in South Korea, with an influx of distressed jean jackets, jumpsuits, fanny packs, and bucket hats on the rise among Korean youth – especially prominent in areas such as Hongdae in Seoul. It’s no secret that Korean pop is largely influenced, not necessarily by Western music (though there are examples of EDM, and other genres found), but by African American music found in the West, as artists such as Michael Jackson, Beyonce, and N.W.A. have significantly influenced their genres to the point where I’ve often seen traces of their sound in Korean pop. A hybrid tradition of music, Kpop derives its influence from other musical traditions, bringing in elements found in a variety of different genres. For groups such as SHINee, these influences can be found in throughout their discography, as they dabble in areas of rock, pop, soul, and R&B. In the book K-pop: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music, Kim Chang Nam claims that Korea’s pop music is largely influenced by the black community:

It is not easy to discuss African-Americans’ influence on music in isolation within the scope of Korean popular music history. Considering the fact that the progression of Korean popular music unfolded under the profound influence of pop and rock from the United Kingdom and the United States, where African-Americans were prominent music pioneers of popular music, it should be noted that their impact indeed permeated the overall history of Korean popular music.”

I don’t necessarily want to delve into the issues with black visibility/invisibility in Kpop, as it’s a pretty nuanced subject that will take more than just this post for me to really get into. But, I wanted to point out that Kpop does pull a lot from the hip-hop movement, including its fashion, music style, and choreography.

Now, within each group there are a number of positions, beginning with the leader of the group. Typically the oldest, the leader is the one in the group who represents the group as far as speaking during interviews, mediating among members, and ensuring that all the members are taken care of. There is also the maknae of the group or the youngest member. Terms like this may seem unimportant, but due to the importance of the hierarchical system in Korea (yes, even within friend groups), there are certain characteristics that these members will take on due to their age (to give an example, as the youngest in my friend group, I feel it is my responsibility at meals to set up the table for everyone, while my eldest friend will often offer to pay for things because it is her responsibility to take care of me as the youngest – though I can dedicate another post to this). Besides the leader position, other roles within a group include vocalists, dancers, and rappers. For groups such as Seventeen, which consists of thirteen members, subunits (Rap line, Vocal line, Leader line, Performance line) will sometimes break up to record their own songs on an album.  

As far as overall looks go, Korean idols are expected, much like any celebrities, to adhere to a certain standard of beauty. Physical appearance is of great importance in Korea (nearly singularly important), almost to an extreme as plastic surgery, dangerous weight loss routines, skincare, and make-up are foregrounded within the culture. In each Kpop group there is an appointed visual member, known for their looks, and often when you hear people discussing certain members, sometimes they will refer to someone as “the second visual” or something else along those lines. These members are considered the most attractive according to Korean beauty standards and are typically the ones asked to act, do photo shoots, or appear in commercials. While the visual is seen as the most attractive, this by no means says that all the other members of a group aren’t placed under the same amount of pressure to appeal to their fans. While under contract, idols are often also placed under strict dietary and exercise regimes, which only intensify the closer they are to having a tour or comeback. Some of the most famous diets discussed include the paper cup diet done by Nine Muses, where members were allowed to fill three small disposable cups (like the ones you might find at a water cooler in your office) with healthy food for each meal in order to control their portions. Roughly, I believe this would put each member as intaking around 800 calories a day, alongside working out and attending dance practices. Another idol who was hailed for her weight loss a few years back is IU, whose diet consists of an apple for breakfast, a sweet potato for lunch, and a protein shake for dinner. While most idols are initially placed on diets by their managers, considering the backlash I’ve seen from idols who may be deemed a bit on the “heavier” side, most stay on them because they are afraid they will lose fans (IU and Wendy from Red Velvet are perfect examples of this, unfortunately). Paired with diets, plastic surgery is sometimes recommended for idols. This is a pretty normal thing to do in Korea, as plastic surgery is widely popular and even given as a graduation present for teenagers. Rumours of idols who have gotten V-line surgery, double eyelid surgery, and nose jobs are pretty frequent in the media.

The widespread popularity of Kpop is also due to their selection of members within groups. Most groups have at least one member from another country other than Korea in order to better their chances at international appeal. For groups such as EXO, which originally started with four Chinese members, released albums in both Mandarin and Korean, having units deemed EXO-M and EXO-K that even included different music videos. GOT7 consists of members from China, Thailand, Korea, and America; among them, they can speak Mandarin, Thai, English, Japanese, and Korean, meaning that they have more international appeal. Many groups will also release albums in Mandarin and Japanese; either the exact same song they originally released in Korean, or they will produce entirely new albums with all new songs in order to further expand their popularity (SHINee is a great example of this as their Japanese albums are immensely popular overseas). Kpop’s international appeal is also symptom to their marketing deals with international companies such as Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube, making their music all the more accessible (this is one of the main reasons you don’t see a lot of music from say, Japanese pop groups). The music is geared in some ways towards an international fanbase, with the majority of the lines in Korean while the chorus normally includes some simple English lines that could easily be printed on a t-shirt.

Fan culture in Korea, alive and well, is something else entirely compared to fan culture in the West. Due to the way that the groups are promoted and marketed, there is so much more content to sift through when it comes to following a specific idol group. There are albums, live performances, live videos uploaded on their V-live, behind the scenes footage, variety shows, television shows that showcase the groups, radio programs, and more based on the popularity of the group, and the number of years they have been successfully making music. In the West, I think that much of the fan culture is often looser in terms of the so-called “requirements” to be considered a fan. In Korea, being a fan encapsulates partaking in the consumption of the media that is marketed towards the fans, including tours, paraphernalia, light sticks, etcetera. Different groups have different fandom names, such as EXO’s fans, EXO-L’s, or f(x)’s MeU’s. Each group has a color reflected in their light stick, and during live stages, there are fan chants that are learned alongside simple choreography that goes with the songs. Groups will often release videos showcasing their chants and “choreo” to do with the light sticks during specific songs. Fan groups are also extremely dedicated to their groups and have been known to orchestrate symbols such as hearts in the crowd during massive concerts for idols to witness while on stage.

While living in America, I was much more into Kpop than I am now (I listen to it of course, but my dedication to watching variety shows and v-lives has waned a bit), but living here, it’s something that you simply can’t ignore especially due to the fact that idols are everywhere. Their faces, if not seen on TV, are found on countless products, from soju to chocolate, from skincare items to automobiles – it’s impossible to get away from it. Though it might sound like something that’s a bit too manufactured for everyone’s taste, I see its effects in the school environment and have grown to appreciate it in a different manner. Also, just to add, my workouts are all the more productive when listening to Kpop. It gets you amped. It’s clean. It’s fun. Production value in the music videos surpasses anything coming from the United States right now. It’s impossible to deny how incredible the outcome of countless hours of work is. There is a sense of dedication among all idols that I have yet to see from the same number of American artists – I mean, these people understand grit; they work themselves to the bone in order to succeed, and unfortunately, I don’t mean that lightly.

Now, was this just a ploy to forcibly insert videos into a post for you guys to read (maybe)? Am I currently working on a highest rated list and wanted to give some background (possibly)? Do I regret anything? No. And will I be doing it again soon? Of course.

And, just to end this correctly, here’s the first Kpop music video I ever watched, possibly one of the most stereotypical/what you might think of when you hear “k-pop.” But hey, it was enough for me.



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