K-POP SOUND AND LOOK
August Brown wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “K-pop artists pull from techno, hip-hop, R&B and top-40; singles are often focused vehicles for elaborate music videos and rarely less than bonkers good fun. Traditional Korean culture can be patriarchal, but K-pop's most famous acts, whose members often have roots in California, are groups of women deploying butt-kicking superhero imagery. [Source: August Brown, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012]
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Like K-drama, K-pop is a blend not just of Western and traditional but of new and old. The music features lush soundscapes made with the latest synths and urban beats. The hooks are often sung in English, and sometimes suggest a dance move: steering in “Mr. Taxi”; butt-shaking in “Bubble Pop.” The videos feature extravagant sets and big production numbers reminiscent of early Madonna videos, while the music sometimes sounds like New Jack Swing — the late-eighties dance music created by the American producer and songwriter Teddy Riley and popularized by Michael and Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, and Bobby Brown, among others. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“The girls’ sexy but demure style recalls groups of the early sixties — the Shirelles, the Crystals, and the Ronettes. Neither the boys’ nor the girls’ lyrics or videos generally refer to sex, drinking, or clubbing — the great themes of Western hit-makers. Indeed, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a state agency, endeavors to keep minors from hearing or seeing K-pop songs and videos that make reference to clubbing.”
Typical K-Pop songs have techno beats, catchy melodies, and singable chorus. The lyrics often mix Korean and English. The subject matter repertoire is limited. Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: “The qualities that typify a K-Pop song, according to JD Relic, an in-house songwriter and producer for Marcan Entertainment, are more or less universal. "Choruses tend to be a simple, yet with a catchy melody. In Asia, karaoke is so huge. One thing that we've noticed is that if you have a song that's really singable it's more likely to be a hit, because people can go to the karaoke lounge and sing your song. But if it's really complicated, it's harder to sing and enjoy. I think that's a big aspect of writing songs that are hits." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]
Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “Hip-hop tends to be a dominant part of the K-pop sound, particularly among male groups, a trend that has opened up the genre to criticism for appropriation. South Korea grapples with a high degree of cultural racism, and recent popular groups have come under fire for donning blackface, appropriating Native American iconography, and much more. Still, K-pop has increasingly embraced diversity in recent years, with black members joining K-pop groups and duo Coco Avenue putting out a bilingual single in 2017.” [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]
It is sometimes hard come up with music that appeals to both the East and the West, without alienating the fans of either? John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: Music industry executives have commissioned “hundreds of songs from a broad range of songwriters — Asian, American, and European — as more and more Western writers become aware of K-pop’s potential. “I don’t want to lose the Asian flavor. I want songs that speak to Girls’ Generation’s brand and also speak to the sound in America right now.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
A lot of K-Pop songs have chorus that all or partly in English with the raps and verses being in Korean. AJ Willingham of CNN wrote: “K-pop songs tend to be mostly, if not exclusively, performed in Korean. You might hear an English word or phrase, and on occasion a rapped or spoken verse in English, but the built-in language barrier is a standard operating procedure for the genre. (There are notable exceptions, of course: BlackPink's massive new release, "Kill This Love," has entire verses and refrains in English.) Still, the language difference makes K-pop's rise even more impressive: Most fans outside of Korea probably have only the barest grasp of the language, but will joyfully burst into broken sing-alongs whenever the latest BTS jam comes on. [Source: AJ Willingham, CNN, April 14, 2019]
Girl’s Generation Sound and Image
August Brown wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For years, Korean pop lived in the shadow of Japan's hyper-kinetic music and fashion scene... But in 2009, one single instantly transformed the country's role in the Asian pop landscape. Girls' Generation's "Gee" was the K-pop equivalent of Elvis walking into Sun Studios: It drew the blueprint for a culture to come. The song, written by the South Korean duo E-Tribe, used double-time electronic drums, fluorescent synthesizers and a cute-cloying repetition of the song's title. It's so insistent and poppy, it's almost avant-garde. "It's just really good pop music. It's very hooky and fast and just doesn't sound like Western pop," said James Brooks of electronica band Elite Gymnastics, who wrote an essay on K-pop for the influential music website Pitchfork. [Source: August Brown, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012]
“The track stormed Asia — the official version of the video where the nine girls dance around a clothing store clocking in at just over 70 million plays on YouTube. The song topped South Korean pop charts for two months and made Girls' Generation the first non-Japanese Asian girl group to top Japan's singles charts. It also set a template that, alongside a broad array of peer acts like the more rap-inclined 2NE1 and dance-heavy group Wonder Girls, suggested that South Korea's pop music culture was coming into its own.
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: I was watching the show from beside the stage when the nine members of Girls’ Generation came out, in bluejeans and white T-shirts, to perform “Gee.” The whole place shouted the hook: “Geegeegeegeebabybaby.” Whenever a song ended, the Girls deployed around the stage. At one point, Sooyoung came to where I was standing and began frantically winking and waving her way through the crowd, wearing a blissful smile and shaking her glossy hair. She was no longer the cold idol I had encountered in the press room but a super cheerleader. It was just as Jon Toth had said it would be: the Girls had come to see us.
“But after the Girls left the stage the concert flagged a bit, and I found myself wondering why overproduced, derivative pop music, performed by second-tier singers, would appeal to a mass American audience, who can hear better performers doing more original material right here at home? The Girls’ strenuous efforts notwithstanding, the mythical mélange of East and West remained elusive.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
K-Pop Dance and Liver Performances
Videos and live shows that showcase well-synched choreographed dancing play a huge role in the creation of a song. Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: "A lot of K-Pop singles are dance tracks, the majority of them," songwriter JD Relic says. "So you have to take that into account. Can someone make a good choreography at a song at this tempo? Or the flow? It's almost like half and half — the choreography and presentation's equally as important as the song. If one's not good, everything falls apart. I definitely try to write stuff that lends itself to the choreography." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]
"I think that the music in K-Pop has to go hand in hand with the choreography," agrees Ellen Kim. "I think that's the difference between American music and Korean music. The Korean people really want their fans to be in the music as well. That's why as choreographers we have to simplify movements. It's actually harder to think of moves that non-dancers can do, that dancers would appreciate at the same time. When you go to concerts you have the ability to do little movements that make you feel like you're part of the song and the performance."
Aja Romano wrote in Vox: The “TV-sponsored idol shows have caused pushback from the studios, which see them as producing immature talent — and, of course, cutting into studio profits. That’s because a K-pop group’s success is directly tied to its live TV performances. Today there are numerous talent shows, along with many more variety shows and well-known chart TV countdown shows like Inkigayo and M Countdown, which factor into how successful — and therefore bankable — a K-pop idol or idol group is seen to be. Winning a weekend music show or weekly chart countdown remains one of the highest honors an artist or musical group can attain in the South Korean music industry. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]
“Because of this dependence on live performance shows, a song’s performance elements — how easy it is to sing live, how easy it is for an audience to pick up and sing along with, the impact of its choreography, its costuming — are all crucial to its success. Groups routinely go all-out for their performances: Witness After-School learning to perform an entire drumline sequence for live performances of their single “Bang!” as well as pretty much every live performance mentioned here.
“All of this emphasis on live performances make fans an extremely active part of the experience. K-pop fans have perfected the art of the fan chant, in which fans in live studio audiences and live performances will shout alternate fan chants over the musical intros to songs, and sometimes as a counterpoint to choruses, as a show of unity and support.
Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “South Korean “idol groups,” including Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and Big Bang, produce music videos that generate millions of views on YouTube. Fans from across Asia and elsewhere make pilgrimages to South Korea to attend their album releases, concerts and awards ceremonies, or just to stroll around the Gangnam district, renowned for its pricey bars, chic boutiques and plastic-surgery clinics.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 9, 2013]
Simon and Martina Stawski created the Eat Your Kimchi video blog that was so popular for a while the couple needed a security detail to escort them through the mob of screaming fans K-Pop conventions. Kimchi began in 2008 “as a simple series of videos that the couple produced for the family back home in Canada; Later the site's goal became "to document the fun and quirky things we like about Korea." In 2016, the Stawskis moved to Tokyo and produced a video series there called “Eat Your Sushi.” Their channel is now called Simon and Martina. A of January 2018, the channel had 1.3 million subscribers. [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]
"It's an acrobatic mental exercise of globalization of mind-bending proportions," Timothy Tangherlini, a UCLA professor who specializes in Korean culture, told the Los Angeles Times. "There's been a strange inversion, an almost fetishization of the foreign where before it was almost shunned. The street creed in Korea, the new types of voices and styles, are all coming from L.A. now." [Source: Jason Song, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2007]
August Brown wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The overwhelmingly single-gender bands, cast by talent agencies for Korean corporate label conglomerates like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, created fierce and ever-evolving loyalties — imagine picking your favorite Beatle or Rolling Stone if there were 10 of them. Songs and especially videos were quickly passed over high-speed Internet and mobile devices several times faster than what's available in America. Sites like AllKPop and magazines like KoreAm chronicled the exploits of the young, fashionable and lightly transgressive stars — when GD&TOP and pop singer Hyuna saw singles banned by South Korea's major broadcasting networks, that made for delicious scandal. In August, Billboard launched a K-Pop Hot 100 chart to track the genre's sales. [Source: August Brown, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012]
Trying the Break Girl’s Generation in the U.S.
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Neil Jacobson is a thirty-five-year-old executive in the A. & R. department at Interscope Records, one of Universal Music Group’s labels, who is in charge of making Girls’ Generation’s début American album...Jacobson said that he had met Chairman Lee in Hong Kong, and that they attended a Girls’ Generation show together. “It blew my mind how conceptual he is! Every little thing is thought out. Every song is like a mini epic! And the fans — oh, my God!” He paused, slightly staggered by the memory. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“Jacobson’s challenge is to put together an album that highlights the Girls’ Koreanness — the distinctive sweetness and purity that sets them apart from other pop acts — while making the music urban-sounding enough to get on the radio and be embraced by, say, Nicki Minaj or Rihanna, who could introduce the K-pop sound and style to their fans. The rapper and producer Swizz Beatz has spoken of wanting to pair Chris Brown with Y.G.’s BIGBANG, a five-member boy group, and Nicki Minaj with the agency’s other big success, 2NE1, a fashion-forward four-member girl group. “Bridging the gaps with collaborations can be the start of a global phenomenon,” he told the music magazine The Fader. But so far only PSY has come close to bridging the East-West pop-culture divide, and it remains to be seen whether his success will be a one-time phenomenon, like that of the other Asian star to reach the top of the U.S. charts singing in his or her native tongue, the Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, whose song “Sukiyaki” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963.
“The directive to make a Girls’ Generation album for the U.S. market came from on high. Max Hole, an executive at Universal’s international division, told me, “I keep close tabs on what’s happening in Japan, so of course I was aware that Girls’ Generation had become monstrously huge there, and they do these amazing synchronized dances — a very visual act — and I thought the songs were great. So, at one of our meetings which the heads of all the North American divisions attended, I played Girls’ Generation for them. And Jimmy Iovine” — Interscope’s chairman — “said, ‘These are really good records.’ And the decision was made that we should try Girls’ Generation in America.”
“Like everyone else in the record industry, Hole wants to do business in China, which one day will be the world’s biggest market. The question is when that will be. When I asked Hole, he said, “China is obviously a huge opportunity for us in five to ten years’ time.” He added, “Right now, the market is so small, but we make money on endorsements and touring.” Collaborating with S.M. on a U.S. record for Girls could lead to other collaborations in China, where S.M. is better connected than Universal.
““Granted, it’s a small bull’s-eye,” Hole went on, turning to the Girls’ chances in the U.S. “There isn’t much of a precedent for non-English-speaking acts in the States. Rammstein” — an industrial-metal band from Germany — “has done O.K., though now it’s mainly a touring act. There are some Spanish-speaking solo acts that do well, but there is very little precedent for a group that sings in another language. The Swedish groups like ABBA sang in English, even in Sweden.” “Obviously, there are nine of them,” Neil Jacobson said of Girls’ Generation. “Getting Americans to accept nine girls isn’t going to be easy.” Western boy and girl groups rarely number more than five — One Direction, a five-member boy band from the U.K., is the latest group to conquer the U.S. — and marketers are at pains to emphasize the individuality of each member. But Girls’ Generation seems larger than the sum of its parts.
Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: “A K-Pop concert is extremely interactive. Fans will bring balloons and glow sticks to match their band’s "fan color." Even more impressive are the fan chants. These are complex chants — backing vocals and countermelodies — that the audience sings in unison, along with the band’s performance. As Simon from Eat Your Kimchi explained, "the record labels will actually release a song to the official fan groups before it hits the actual airwaves. The fan groups can memorize a fan chant of a song, so at the actual debut performance of the song they can sing along with it. It's a crucial part of the marketing." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “It was five o’clock on a Sunday in May, two hours before showtime, but already thousands of K-pop fans had flooded the concrete playa outside the Honda Center, a large arena in Anaheim, California. Tonight’s performers were among the biggest pop groups in South Korea — SHINee, f(x), Super Junior, EXO, TVXQ!, and Girls’ Generation. In the United States, Korean pop music exists almost exclusively on YouTube, in videos like “Gangnam Style,” by Park Jae-sang, the rapper known as PSY, which recently went viral. The Honda Center show was a rare chance for K-pop fans to see the “idols,” as the performers are called, in the flesh. Outside the arena, clusters of fans were enacting dance covers: copies of their favorite idol groups’ moves. (PSY’s horse-riding dance, from “Gangnam Style,” may be the Macarena of the moment.) People carried light sticks and bunches of balloons, whose colors signified allegiance to one or another idol group. The crowd was older than I’d expected, and the ambience felt more like a video-game convention than like a pop concert. About three out of four people were Asian-American, but there were also Caucasians of all ages, and a number of black women. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“The first group to take the stage in Anaheim was SHINee, a boy band. The boys were fun to watch — heavily made-up and moussed male androgynes doing strenuous rhythmic dances. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is no way that a K-pop boy group will make it big in the States. The degree of artistic styling is much more Lady Gaga than Justin Bieber. Perhaps there is an audience of ten-to-twelve-year-old girls who could relate to these guys, but there’s a yawning cultural divide between One Direction, say, and SHINee. Still, the fans loved SHINee, especially when the boys distributed themselves around catwalks set up above the aisles and began greeting audience members with winks and waves. Then the crowd sound turned from a baying into a sort of keening — I had never heard that exact tone at a show before.
“I was watching the show from beside the stage when the nine members of Girls’ Generation came out, in bluejeans and white T-shirts, to perform “Gee.” The whole place shouted the hook: “Geegeegeegeebabybaby.” Whenever a song ended, the Girls deployed around the stage. At one point, Sooyoung came to where I was standing and began frantically winking and waving her way through the crowd, wearing a blissful smile and shaking her glossy hair. She was no longer the cold idol I had encountered in the press room but a super cheerleader. It was just as Jon Toth had said it would be: the Girls had come to see us.
“I headed up to the arena’s Premium level, where Interscope had reserved a box. The woman running the elevator told me that she couldn’t remember hearing screaming this loud at a show. She had put in earplugs.” Interscope records’ Neil “Jacobson gestured around the arena. “O.K., notice no one is sitting down. No one. Even up in the rafters. So, obviously, there’s a connection there.” Connection, he explained, was the essence of pop music, according to his boss, Jimmy Iovine. “Jimmy always says it’s all about the connection between the artist and the fans,” he said. “This whole business, it’s just about that connection. And, clearly, people feel that connection with the Girls.”
“There were some covers: Jessica and her sister Krystal did Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” and Amber, the tomboy from f(x), Kris, from EXO-M, and Key, from SHINee, covered Far East Movement’s “Like a G6” — the only Asian precedent so far for the kind of pop-group success that Jacobson would like the Girls to have in America (even though all the members of Far East Movement were born in L.A. and grew up there). Acts came on and went off, changed costumes and came back on again. In between, we were treated to messages from the S.M. family. At one point, the crowd watched a slightly creepy video with cartoonish illustrations about the love that the S.M. family members feel for each other. Occasionally, the concert seemed like a giant pep rally. But at its best it elicited primal pop emotions that only a few of the greatest pop artists — the Beach Boys, the early Beatles, Phil Spector’s girl groups — can evoke: the feeling of pure love. “When the Girls came out again, Jacobson watched them closely. “O.K., it’s all about humility,” he said. “Look how they bow to their fans. That’s a big part of it.” He started ticking off the Girls’ qualities on his fingers. “First, beauty. Second, graciousness and humility. Third, dancing. And fourth, vocal. Also, brevity. Nothing lasts more than three and a half minutes. Let’s time it.” ?
Backstage at a K-Pop Concert with Chairman Lee
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Half an hour before the Anaheim show, I was backstage, on my way to meet Tiffany and Jessica, the two members of Girls’ Generation born and brought up in the U.S., who are both in their early twenties. An S.M. man was guiding me through the labyrinth of dressing rooms, where various idols, mainly guys, were having their hair fussed over and their outfits adjusted. There was a lot of nervous bowing. My minder hustled me along, telling me what questions not to ask the Girls. “Was it sad to say goodbye to your friends who didn’t make it?” he said. “Do you have a boyfriend?” He paused. “This is all going to Korea, and it’s a little different there,” he said. “So if we could stay away from the personal questions like boyfriends.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“I began by asking the pair about the challenges they had faced in adapting to Korean culture. “I thought I would be able to adjust, because my parents spoke Korean at home,” Tiffany said. “But I didn’t even imagine how different it would be. American culture is so open compared to Korean culture, which is really conservative. So I would be, like, ‘Hi!’ and they were, like, ‘You don’t say “Hi!” You bow!’ ”
“As I was heading back toward the stage entrance, I came upon a circle of idols tightly bunched around a small man in a dark-blue suit. He was quietly giving some sort of exhortation; occasionally, he paused and the group would send up a shout. Moving a little closer, I recognized Lee Soo-man. I was struck by the rapt attentiveness with which his “family” hung on his every word. He was directing his remarks at EXO, his new Chinese-Korean group; all twelve members were present. With each shout, the twelve EXO boys bowed deeply from the waist.
Charlene Chua and Jeanmarie Tan wrote in the New Paper: “ Korean minders are also notoriously draconian, controlling their famous charges like mastermind puppeteers. Ask any reporter or concert organiser who has ever had to deal with this breed and they'll have more than a few horror stories to spill. At press conferences and interviews involving Korean stars, "no photos, no videos, no personal questions" is a common refrain. All that's missing from this picture is a ball and chain.” [Source: Source:Charlene Chua & Jeanmarie Tan, The New Paper via AsiaOne, June 13, 2011]
K-Pop Meet the Idols Press Briefing
On a meet-the-idols press briefing before a show in Anaheim’s Honda Center, John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Two idols from each of the six groups who were performing filed in. They sat on high stools on a small raised platform. Each was wearing one of the many different costumes that he or she would sport in the course of the four-hour show. The boys’ faces were as pancaked and painted as the girls’, and their hair was even more elaborately moussed, gelled, and dyed, in blond and butterscotch hues. Some guys wore high-waisted jackets with loose harem pants or jodhpurs, circus-ringmaster style; others wore white cutaways with high, stiff collars and black ties, like dream prom dates. They were more androgynous than Ziggy Stardust. The girls wore gold hot pants or short skirts, sparkly tops, and lace-up leather boots. Everyone looked very serious. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“Once the idols were seated, a woman appeared with a stack of white gym towels. She gave one to each of the female idols, who arranged it atop her exposed thighs, as a makeshift modesty panel. I sat opposite Sooyoung, of Girls’ Generation, a willowy brunette. She seemed distant and frosty, like a figurine in a glass case.
“S.M. had prepared questions for the idols, and they were read out loud, in English and Korean, by the S.M. company man who ran the proceedings. The first question, for the two members of the Girls, was: “Every time you visit the States it seems like you receive crazy love and support. Can you feel it? Can you explain the wonderful reception your fans have given you?” The same question was put, in slightly different forms, to all the groups. The two representatives of Super Junior, a twelve-member boy group, were asked, “How do you always manage to have an explosive reaction from your fans worldwide? What’s your secret?” One of the members hazarded a guess. “Maybe it is because of our great good looks?”
K-Pop, YouTube and the Internet
Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: “ According to everyone I talked to, the internet — and specifically YouTube — has been essential in the spread of K-Pop to the US, and not just because it is an extremely visual genre. Ann Lu, Mnet America’s VP of Marketing, says that since YouTube came along, "the entertainment sphere has completely changed. The landscape is so different. When they talk about entertainment, source of entertainment, I think television counts for only maybe 30-40 percent. For sources of content, a lot of [our viewers] watch stuff on YouTube, watch stuff on the internet. They're on the internet all the time. Because of YouTube, foreign content is readily available [to viewers in the states]. There's no national boundary or language boundary. When it comes to music, language is less of an issue." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]
“K-Pop blog Soompi cited a report in early 2012, stating that "K-Pop videos were viewed [on YouTube] nearly 2.3 billion times worldwide in the past year, breaking the previous year’s record of 800 million views by nearly threefold." Of all those views, American views measured in at the 240 million mark, second only to Japan’s 423 million views. YouTube lets American fans discover and share K-Pop amongst themselves without dealing with language barriers, paywalls, and DRM. At the same time, it just might be that the internet — and YouTube — are what will prevent K-Pop from getting any bigger than it already has.
In November 2013, Girls' Generation beat Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga for "Video of the Year" at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards. [Source: Jane Sit, CNN, December 11, 2013]
K-Pop and Television
John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “In Korea, record promotion is built almost entirely around television appearances. During a weeklong stay in Seoul, I saw members of Girls’ Generation on TV every night. In the U.S., with the exception of awards shows, which are infrequent, there are few prime-time TV formats for promoting pop music; artists must rely on radio and concert tours to build a mass following. “The usual rule for English-speaking acts is that they are ten months touring here and in Europe and one month in Asia,” Jacobson said. “But these girls are ten months in Asia.” Product endorsements represent a significant portion of their income — the Girls have more than forty endorsement deals in Asia, from cell phones to roast chicken. The Wonder Girls, who used to be the biggest girl group in K-pop, spent two years in New York trying, unsuccessfully, to break into the American market, while they were eclipsed at home by Girls’ Generation. Several people I met at the agencies cited this as a cautionary tale. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“Groups début on one of the many musical-variety shows that play on Korean TV almost nightly. I went to the taping of one, for the Mnet musical program “M! Countdown,” where new and established groups perform their latest songs and the audience votes for its favorites; I was reminded of the days when MTV actually featured music. If idols are successful, they are often expected to churn out a full album every eighteen months or so and a five-song mini album each year. The charts change rapidly, and, because youth and novelty are at such a premium, established groups usually don’t last long: five years is the average shelf life of an idol. (Some idols extend their careers by acting in K-dramas.) New groups appear regularly; in 2011, about sixty groups made débuts, an unprecedented number. Only a fraction are likely to last; most will fade away after a couple of songs. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
Mnet and the Mnet Asian Music Awards
Culver City-based Mnet is a cable channel and a division of CJ Entertainment. According to the Los Angeles Times: It “is heavily focused on K-pop and broadcasts a mix of video countdown shows like "M! Countdown," "Jjang!" (a celebrity gossip show) and "Hello Pop!" (a social-media-themed show whose 21-year-old host, Chrissa Villanueva, is L.A.-raised and Filipina). [Source: August Brown, Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2012]
"We want to organize the space. K-pop has penetrated the U.S. without radio or iTunes support, so the fan base is there," Adam Ware, the former president and CEO of Mnet, told the Los Angeles Times. "There's just been no advocate for Asian pop yet in the way that MTV was an early advocate for hip-hop."
Mnet hosts the annual MAMA awards (the Asian pop equivalent of the Grammys) and through its sister company M-Live, the station is beginning to present Korean acts in L.A. concert venues, like the set from the rapper Drunken Tiger at the Wiltern and a Nokia Theatre show by FT Island and CN Blue. The Korean Music Festival, an annual K-pop compendium, hits the Hollywood Bowl on April.
The 2013 MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) in Hong Kong featured some of South Korea's biggest idol groups Girls' Generation, BIGBANG, EXO, 2NE1 and Sistar. Jane Sit of CNN reported: “Tickets for the 10,000 seats were sold out within an hour of going on sale and nearly 13 million people signed onto MAMA's website to vote for their favorite idols. MAMA also showcased notable guests from the international music scene including Hong Kong singer/actor Aaron Kwok, Norway's Ylvis, Sweden's Icona Pop and American legend Stevie Wonder. Self-proclaimed K-Pop fan Paris Hilton also made an appearance. [Source: Jane Sit, CNN, December 11, 2013]
“One of the more unique acts to go onstage was helmet-donning girl group Crayon Pop, which took home "Best New Female Artist" at the event. The comic act shot to fame when their music video "Bar Bar Bar" went viral earlier this year. At a backstage interview at MAMA, the five girls bowed politely, but were extremely careful of their actions. Showing how closely monitored they are, their manager was on high alert, often signaling to them about what they should and should not say.”
K-Pop Image and Concepts
Paulina Cachero wrote in Yahoo Lifestyle: “Once a trainee is picked to debut with a Korean pop group, everything from their hair, clothes and makeup to their public image is meticulously constructed and controlled by their talent agency — and the responsibility of maintaining this appearance is critical to their group. “To keep that look and image and vision of the group intact, they are dressed by coordinators and stylists,” K-Pop columnist Jeff Benjamin explains. “In the East, it’s a very Confucian ideal that the family or the group comes first.” [Source: Paulina Cachero,Yahoo Lifestyle, October 15, 2019]
However, with the rise of social media and increasingly obsessive superfans known as “sasaeng fans,” admiration for K-pop idols has spiraled to sometimes creepy, and even criminal, behavior: One fan broke into the home of a K-pop idol to take a photo, South China Morning Post reported. Hong says that this scrutiny from their fans adds to the already intense pressure they face from their record labels.”
Groups are continually coming up with new concepts — often for every album and sometimes for each — song to stay fresh and keep fans interest. When asked what K-pop concepts you would like to see more of in the future? Nikki Sumesh, Hardcore Kpop fan, replied on Qora.com: School concept, pop-themed music. Basically any school concept, cute ones or bad girls/boys ones. There is something I can relate to in it lol. I mostly would like if girl groups did it, I don't know why but I don't like boy group school concepts much. Something like Little Mix Black Magic, but in Kpop would be awesome.
“Fantasy concepts, ballad songs. Not just people walking around flowers as that's only an elegant concept, but also flying horses (not only unicorns, but pegasuses and stuff), dragons, snow princesses, witches, ogres, gnomes, talking chameleons and other insects, and a bunch of other supernatural animals. I would also love things like toys, gingerbread houses, lands fully made of gold, crystal stuff like Elsa's castle. I would love this kind of stuff. I think co-ed groups would do very well if they used this concept, but overall boy groups as well as girl groups could pull it off. However I feel boy groups would do better at this.
“Cute concept with a dark meaning behind it. Something like Melanie Martinez 'Dollhouse', which may seem cute but the story behind the walls is tragic. I would like to see an MV like Girl's generation Gee or Twice Heart Shaker, but they have distressed faces and do a lot of aegyo still, making viewers think the person singing has been rejected by their crush, or they are in love and can't fall out of it. But then they turn on captions and BAM, it seems scary/disturbing. I would want to see girl groups since boy groups don't have much cute songs.
“Slice of Life concept with Travel elements. This would work for boy groups more, and for more senior groups, like BTS, Super Junior, Apink or groups who have been here for at least 5 years. Something like BTS: I need you, which has a story line. Not a storyline like SNSD Lion Heart though. Something more mature, which they can act out using their emotions. It could be love for parents, for siblings, or romance in general, or something like friendships. It would be really cool.”
Life of K-Pop Stars
When asked what her living circumstances were like, American-born Tiffany of Girl’s Generation told the New Yorker: said, “Six of us live together, and the other three live like a minute away. So we’re always going back and forth to each other’s houses.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]
“Do netizens chronicle their movements on the Internet? “Yeah, that’s true,” Jessica, another Korean-American in the group said. “I’ll be at a restaurant and it will be on Twitter in, like, ten minutes.” “What’s it like living with that?” I asked. “I think we’ve been brought up to be really careful and to take responsibility in our actions, in order to be in this position,” Tiffany said. She added, “We always stay at home.”
“I mentioned a news item I had seen about how the Girls tried to disguise themselves in the streets of Seoul but that their limbs alone — the shape of their arms and legs — gave them away. Was that true? “It is,” Tiffany said, shooting an accusatory glance at her arm. “It’s just so . . .” she paused, searching for the right thing to say. “Freakishly cool!”
“From out in the arena came a long, low wailing sound — the screams of the fans, dying for the idols to appear. “O.K., we have to go,” the S.M. man said. But I did have one personal question for Tiffany. “Your eye smile: did you learn that or is it natural?” “No,” Tiffany replied, giggling. “My dad smiles this way.” She eye-smiled me from two feet away: a jolt of pure cultural technology.
Poor K-Pop Stars
Maria Sherman wrote in Cosmopolitan: “For those fortunate enough to reach Idol status, things don’t get better. Sometimes, they get worse, for little more than the illusion of being rich and famous. Because while K-pop concerts sell out in minutes, some artists can’t even afford to buy a friend a last-row ticket to their own shows. When Lee Lang won Best Folk Song at the 2017 Korean Music Awards, she used her speech to auction off her trophy to pay rent. There was laughter and then an uncomfortable silence in the room — until someone piped up and bought it for US$422. [Source: Maria Sherman, Cosmopolitan, March 10, 2020]
““K-pop musicians don’t enjoy much wealth,” says Lie. Instead, their predatory contracts, which can outlast their careers, allow for very little compensation. That’s because most artists aren’t really viewed as artists at all but as assets. While profiteering off pop stars is hardly a new thing (see: Lou Pearlman, the notoriously exploitative manager of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC), it’s especially intense in K-pop. “Companies are trying to maximize profits in a short amount of time,” says K-pop expert Hye Jin Lee, PhD, a clinical assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “The career life span of an Idol is very short.” Few make it to 30.
“For women, the problems compound. While female stars aren’t usually allowed to be in a relationship, that doesn’t stop managers from selling sexualized personas of them to fans. Once, a male investor even tried to broker a deal to take Grace to “dinner” for US$30,000. It never went through, and Grace only found out about it when a mentor told her more than a year later. “Maybe it happened all the time behind my back,” she says. Others in the industry have been pressured into prostitution — one CEO was sentenced to prison for his role in pimping out artists.
Jessica Wong wrote in CBC News: Along with the pressure to knock it out of the park with each release, the intense competition expands to include K-pop rivals also vying to top the charts as well as the ever-younger new graduates entering the industry annually. Oh, and don't forget branching into solo career efforts on the side. Racing against an inevitable "expiration date" of usually five to seven years, idols operate in an accelerated release and whirlwind promotion schedule and must also fulfil fan interaction expectations at every turn, according to music critic Benjamin. "In North America, we are more used to seeing a single or two or three [released] in a year. Then a full album comes and then maybe [the artist] takes a year, two or three years off," he said. "K-pop's downtime is maybe a couple of months."[Source: Jessica Wong, CBC News, February 24, 2018]
Add in fans' intense social media scrutiny of everything idols do or say and the pressure can be simply unbearable. "[Idols] will do everything, anything for their fans because that's the only reason for them to exist," said Eunice Chang, a production manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based E&M Productions, which stages K-pop events, appearances and concerts. Even when problems arise, she said, many performers feel they cannot speak up. In Korean culture, Chang said, "when you are popular, you can not show your weak side.… People will say: 'Oh, you have everything. Why are you saying that?' They get a little judgmental."
Difficulty Making Money in the South Korean Music Business
Jihyun Kim wrote in Korea Expose: “Even when an artist’s music becomes popular enough to generate revenue, the financial situation for the musicians is not always much rosier. When songs are distributed through streaming sites, musicians get the smallest bite out of the profit pie. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, a consumer pays an average of 14 won (1.2 cent) for streaming a song on a music distribution site. [Source: Jihyun Kim, Korea Expose, September 28, 2017]
“However, according to Bareun Music Cooperative, a group aiming to improve profit distribution for musicians, many sites provide a monthly flat rate service (for limitless streaming), which cuts down the user price by half, to 7 won per song. Of this 7 won, composers and writers take 10 percent. Singers and instrumentalists get 6 percent. 40 percent goes to the company distributing the music on its website and 44 percent goes to the company that produced the music. “A common joke among musicians in the industry goes like this: “If we can buy cigarettes with the profit from the song, we did O.K. If we can buy a pack of fried chicken, we have succeeded.”
“Some artists say there is no such thing as a minimum wage in the music industry. “The minimum wage law does not apply to the music business,” said Choi Hyeon-min, the leader of indie band M020. “Power and fame rule the industry,” he argued. “As an example, if a famous singer wants to sing the song of a rookie composer, the composer is commonly forced to give the song for free. Sometimes, even the copyright is not registered under the composer’s name; there have been cases that the person who introduces a newbie composer to a famous singer steals the copyright [for the song]. Also, there is no standard fee for a performance. It depends on the unilateral decisions of the event organizers.”
Most musicians don’t resist openly. They are afraid of being known as a ‘rebel’ and losing valuable opportunities to create songs and perform. “Companies with the power to produce music and organize festivals usually sit above the artists. Artists give up on speaking out for their rights and just continue to work,” said Esssin. “Performing means making a promise to the audience. Let’s say we receive only 20 percent of the fee that was originally offered to us. It’s not like we can only do 20 percent of the performance. We have to do 100 percent for the audience. Some companies exploit this reality to buy musicians’ labor at a rock-bottom price,” said a musician who gained popularity through YouTube and AfreecaTV, a South Korean streaming site. She requested anonymity, because she was afraid that openly criticizing the music industry would ruin her career. “To make a profit, the only possible way is to broadcast yourself online. It brings in advertising and helps grow your own brand as a musician,” she said.
Laws rarely help To be eligible for government support under this law, a musician has to submit a list of albums he or she made over the past three years and show that his or her annual income is more than 1,200,000 won (around 1,100 dollars) or 3,600,000 won for three years (around 3,200 dollars) — this minimum income is supposed to prove a person is viable as a professional musician. “Considering it takes a long time to produce an album, this law doesn’t reflect reality at all,” criticized Yun Jong-su at Bunker Buster.
Military Service and K-Pop
One factor that shapes the careers of male K-Pop groups is South Korea’s mandatory military service, which all male citizens, even pop stars, must fulfill after reaching the of 18, with most doing while in their twenties. The genre’s superstars, such the members of BigBang, entered the military in the late 2010s and got out. Military service generally lasts for 21 months, a big chunk of time in fleeting pop star career and world of fickle fans and opportunist business interests.
In 2003, Psy was asked to perform his mandatory military service. He was excused from military duty due to working at a software development company (the South Korean government grants exemptions to those with technical expertise work in companies that serve the national interest). His duty was over in 2005. But in 2008 Psy was forced to do his military service again and join the army for real after authorities determined he had abused the law that allowed him to serve in a private company rather than a military unit by continue his show business work while purportedly working at the software company. PSY joined the army in 2008 to spend two years fulfilling his service after authorities found he had abused a law allowing him to serve in a private company instead of a military outfit. He was freed from his duties in July 2009.
T.O.P. was the first Being Bang member to do his mandatory military. He enlisted for his two-year service in February 2017, as a conscripted policeman. The remaining members continued without him, doing a tour with 14 concerts in four cities with an attendance of 696,000 fans. In 2018 the remaining members began their enlistment: G-Dragon in February; Taeyang and Daesung in March. Seungri was initially announced to enlist in March 2019. The same month he retired from show business due to scandals surrounding the Burning Sun nightclub, and left Big Bang. In July 2019, T.O.P was the first member to be discharged from the military. He was followed by G-Dragon in October 2019 and Taeyang and Daesung in November, 2019.
Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post that military service has caused each member to cultivate his own image, with “all of them marketing themselves as individuals and smaller units in anticipation of their stint in the military derailing the group’s career. Before his service started Big Bang’s G-Dragon told The Washington Post: “If we’re going to talk about that, we’ll feel sad. We are Korean, so we have to go someday, but I don’t know when it’s going to be. Until then, we’ll just try hard to do what we got to do.” [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, March 3, 2016]
According to The Telegraph: “Recent years have seen a series of draft-dodging scandals involving top stars. Song Seung-heon, a Korean drama star hugely popular in Japan and other Asian countries, suffered a massive public backlash in 2004 over attempts to avoid the draft. He eventually went to the army and is now back on the path of success. "The mood against draft dodgers is so hostile that nowadays entertainers feel it's better to simply get it over with," said Ha Jae-keun, a South Korean pop columnist. In the past, a two- or three-year hiatus often meant irrevocable damage to an entertainer's career in South Korea as the public moved on to new faces, but nowadays military service can actually enhance a star's image, Ha said. [Source: The Telegraph, October 12, 2011]
Rain’s Military Service
In October 2011, the big pop star Rain began his mandatory military service after showing up for boot camp at an army training center in Uijeongbu, north of of Seoul. With his hair cut short, he bid farewell to weeping fans before he stepped into the camp. AFP reported: Many fans, including hundreds from Japan, Taiwan, China and elsewhere in Asia, burst into tears when the singer disappeared into the camp. The singer will undergo eight weeks of basic training before being posted elsewhere for the remainder of his 22 months' service. He staged a farewell concert in Seoul Sunday attended by 20,000 fans. [Source: AFP, October 11, 2011]
The Telegraph reported: “Rain is fulfilling his compulsory military service at a relatively late age and risks losing career momentum during the 21 months he spends out of the public eye. But he could otherwise face a backlash given South Korea's hostility toward draft dodgers. Military service has agonised many young South Korean entertainers and athletes hoping to continue their successful careers. Athletes can be exempted from service if they win an Olympic gold medal or otherwise improve the country's image with major achievements. But entertainers – no matter how successful they are abroad – enjoy no such lenience from the government. "Entertainers are thought to work for their own sakes. That's the difference," said Hwang Sang-min, a Yonsei University psychology professor and frequent commentator on popular entertainment. [Source: The Telegraph, October 12, 2011]
Kim Hee-ra, a 21-year-old Sogang University student in Seoul, said she was sad to see Rain go but glad that he was fulfilling his duties. "The fact that Rain entered the army without any attempts to be exempted will positively affect his future career," she said. Lee Jin-young, 22, fretted that Rain may not be as popular after a two-year publicity blackout. He also worried that Rain may find his service to be tougher because he is starting at a relatively old age. Many people serve in their early 20s.
Rain served as an "entertainment soldier" for a unit that promotes the military. In January 2013, the South Korean military said it punish Rain for meeting with a top actress while serving his military service. Associated Press reported: “Paparazzi photos showing Rain meeting with Kim Tae-hee have raised suspicions that highly sought-after entertainers may be receiving special favors during their military service. The ministry denies Rain has received special treatment. Rain, an “entertainment soldier,” however, broke rules by meeting with Kim at least three times” in 2012 late last year despite being on duty, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. Rain is not allowed to have such private meetings while outside his base for official duties like recording and performing.” [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, January 3, 2013
In July 2013, Rain was officially released from military service after 21 months. Hundreds of fans waving banners cheered as the 31-year-old left the Defence Ministry building in Seoul. Two weeks before his release, according to the Korea Herlad, Rain and several other active duty PR soldiers including singer Se7en, Sanchu of the group Mighty Mouth, KCM (Kang Chang-Mo), and Kim Kyung-hyun from group “The Cross” were filmed wearing civilian clothes, using cellphones and drinking alcohol. Se7en and Sanchu were also filmed leaving an erotic massage parlor at 3 a.m. According to the Defense Ministry, Rain spent 71 days off duty last year, compared to the average of 43 days given to non-celebrity soldiers.” The singer was confined to his barracks for seven days after getting caught meeting the actress. [Source: BBC, July 10, 2013; Julie Jackson, Korea Herald, July 9, 2013]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021