It's a musical industry as big as anything the West has ever produced, so why do so few people outside of Asia know anything about K-Pop? Here to bring you up to speed, we bring you a complete beginner's rundown of this bizarre cultural behemoth.
In the West, music is a constantly evolving artistic phenomenon. Where we sit today is the result of centuries of cultural development, and our attitudes towards musical appreciation are built on a complex tapestry of heritage and interlocking genre. Yet every so often something unexpected collides with our world like a meteor from another galaxy. In December 2012, that was the 18th music video by a hitherto unknown Korean artist by the name of Psy.
Psy's now beyond-ubiquitous "Gangnam Style" became the first video to hit one billion views on YouTube. At time of writing, it has over 2.3 billion views, which is a number so ridiculous it actually broke YouTube's view counter at the 2,147,483,647 count. The aftershocks of this colossal deep impact have been twofold: 1) a huge rise in embarrassing attempts at synchronized horse-dancing 2) an unprecedented new curiosity surrounding the music, celebrities and pop culture of South Korea.
While it was unfathomable to many Westerners that an artist like Psy could come "out of nowhere" to eclipse household names like Beyonce or Lady Gaga in terms of exposure, airtime and video plays, all that this really proved was how little most Westerners knew about Korean pop (or K-Pop) itself. In actual fact, K-Pop is an industry so vast and powerful that it rivals anything the Western world has managed to construct. What's more, all that has been achieved in little over two decades and the entire thing can be traced back to a single, epoch-defining event.
From regimented diets to arranged dating and mafia-esque corporate rivalries – the K-pop world is every bit as bizarre as it is fascinating. If you count yourself among those who know nothing about its inner workings, read on for a thorough introductory schooling...
It All Started In 1992
Imagine a room in which there was only you and a TV. You’ve spent your entire life in the room and never made contact with anyone outside it. The TV has two channels: one channel is a news report telling you that everything outside the room is fine; the other channel is just Barry Manilow doing a wall-to-wall performance of greatest hits...
You live happily in that room for 30 years until, one day, someone opens the door to the room and you walk outside and see the light of day for the first time. Then, whoever opened the door leaps at you screaming “LOOK! Look at all this amazing stuff! Look at Michael Jackson! Now listen to him! I know, right?! Now watch this Backstreet Boys video. They’re not as good as N-Sync. Wait, you haven’t heard of N-Sync?! Watch THIS.” And so on. How would you process that information?
Essentially that’s what happened when Seo Taiji & Boys appeared on Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’s Weekend Music Show in April 1992. Until the late '80s, South Korea was in the throes of rigid cultural conservatism. Television broadcasts were controlled by the state. Music was limited to inoffensive ballad-type fare and broadcast controversy was kept to an absolute minimum. In 1987, South Korea achieved democratization and with that a new era of ever-so-slightly-more-liberal broadcasting rules were ushered in. Koreans became aware for the first time of contemporary American pop music, although the concept of marrying those American styles with Korean vocals was still totally alien. American music felt like something distant, to be observed rather than directly interacted with.
Enter Seo Taiji & Boys. Their debut song "Nan Arayo" (literally "I Know") lifted directly from contemporary American hip-hop, pop and rock music so blatantly that there’s even an unmistakable Flavour Flav sample thrown in. In that 1992 performance the trio danced their way around the studio in high-octane synchronicity – a stark contrast to the mawkish ballads the Koreans of the day were used to. While the show was met with a tepid and confused response by the studio audience, just like James Dean did in ’50s America, Seo Taiji & Boys struck a chord with teenagers across South Korea like nothing had ever done before.
This was the first time anybody had seen a Korean musician do something radically different from the state-sanctioned ballad factory they’d grown up with and that was fuel enough for a phenomenon.
There are Three Major Labels
The immediate success of Seo Taiji & Boys opened up the floor for similar acts to gain notoriety. Hyun Jinyoung was one such act. A dancer-turned-singer, Hyun's first album completely flopped upon release, but his second album came complete with a "reinvented" style (read largely as “Seo Taiji is doing well. Let's copy that.”). It proved to be a good move and the man behind Hyun (Lee Soo-man) would use this success to found Star Museum Entertainment, most commonly referred to as S.M. Entertainment.
Over the past 20 years, SM has grown to become a huge entertainment business. Starting with groups like boy band H.O.T and girl band S.E.S, their current roster is an impressive array of huge K-Pop stars such as Girls’ Generation, Exo, F(x), and a handful of other artists who aren't named using acronyms but are still selling hundreds of thousands of records across the country.
And what became of Seo Taiji & Boys? Well, they disbanded in 1996 but one of those "boys" (Yang Hyun-suk) went on to found YG Entertainment – another huge label that focuses more on K-Pop artists with a hip-hop edge. YG is home to, amongst others, the incredible 2NE1 (who have worked with Diplo, collaborated with will.i.am and are generally quite excellent) and the legendary boy band BIGBANG, who count such major names as G-Dragon and T.O.P among their members, have worked with Skrillex and generally dominated the K-Pop landscape in their own right. Then, of course, there's Psy.
The final and youngest of the "Big Three" is JYP Entertainment, which is an entity that actually started out as a data storage company (seriously) before changing both its name and purpose to give the music thing a try. Their lead act is Wonder Girls, who have toured the U.S. with *ahem* the Jonas Brothers, and the bands 2AM and 2PM, who used to be part of a single band called One Day before they were split in half and forced to create such a clever name for themselves.
Despite all this, the three biggest labels in South Korea decided that this wasn’t quite enough and together with 4 smaller labels joined forces to create KMP Holdings, in which KMP stands for, incredibly, Korean Music Power. KMP is a distribution service that all labels run their releases through, ensuring maximum exposure for the stars they invest so much time in training. KMP also owns the majority shares in Korea Telecom, which makes them something akin to Rupert Murdoch crossed with an Orwellian Simon Cowell.
There’s a Very Specific System for Becoming a K-Pop Star
At first glance, the idol system in Korea isn’t too dissimilar to something like American Idol or The X Factor. Back in the early ’90s, SM Founder Lee Soo-man conducted extensive surveys amongst his core teen audience groups to try and find out exactly what they wanted to see. Those results, somewhat unsurprisingly, showed that teenagers want to see young, attractive people who can sing and dance.
This information was evidently revelatory in the hands of Lee Soo-man and he used these findings as the basis for his worldwide talent search. He viewed audition tapes from young, beautiful humans from Korea, Japan and the United States, before picking his golden five and forming the aforementioned band H.O.T., which actually stands for High-five of Teenagers. Yup, still seriously.
After H.O.T really took off (their debut album sold 1.5 million copies) SM decided to fine-tune their manufacturing process with the SM Academy, inspiring the other labels to follow suit and start their own academies soon after. These academies would do nothing other than relentlessly train new batches of young hopefuls who had passed the initial auditions of stardom – everything from how to act on stage, to singing and dance coaching, extensive media training and the careful construction of distinct personas for public consumption. Different band combinations are tried and tested behind closed doors using hundreds of hopefuls from the academy, until eventually – sometimes after years of training and auditioning – finished bands are formed and debuted as "rookies."
This by no means guarantees them success, but it’s their best shot at it. While rookies often drift into obscurity after a poor or mediocre debut release, a few artists are lucky enough to have all the elements fall into place at exactly the right time, leading their careers to develop to the point when they graduate to full-blown "idol" status. If all this sounds like some bizarre, gladiatorial system of aspiring patronage and favor, that's because that's precisely what it is – only with less lions.
The Chart System is Confusing and Inconsistent
Speaking of success, what better way to gauge your debut than by your chart position? The UK has the Top 40, the U.S. has the Billboard 100 and, until 2010, South Korea had nothing of the sort.
The Gaon Music Chart is the official chart system and it takes into account album sales, digital sales, streaming, background music, ringtone sales, and karaoke sales to rank the 100 most popular songs of the week. It’s been running for five years and is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. This all seems very neat and official, so you might be wondering where the problem lies.
The thing is, South Korea’s main method of music consumption has been the same since the ’80s: television, which is something the Gaon chart doesn’t consider in great depth. To remedy this, there are weekly music shows on various television stations, each one complete with its own chart and its own winner. The problem is there are so many of them – *deep breath* M! Countdown, The Music Trend, Music Bank, Music Core, Pops in Seoul, Simply K-Pop, Music on Top, The Show and Show Champion – that they all offer their own approximation of the chart, all with slightly different criteria.
Show Champion, for instance, is a completely live show performed in front of thousands of fans. Trophies are awarded at the end of the show for the first place artists, and they decide first place based on the following criteria: 50% Digital Sales, 15% Online Voting, 20% Physical Sales and 15% Ranking from a revolving cast of Professionals & Expert Judges.
Music Bank, a similar show on the KBS channel, ranks its charts with slightly different percentage portions, but also takes into account how many times the song/video has been played on KBS itself. Which seems bizarre, as it gives KBS the power to boost its own winners.
Other shows take into account the audience vote of whoever happens to be attending on that particular day, and so on and so forth, until every variable under the sun is accounted for by some TV show or other. While many of the first place winners end up being the same across the board, the whole thing is so unnecessarily complicated that it's never possible to label something an official no.1 single. And unlike boxing, there's sadly no option for artists to fight it out for the "undisputed" title of the week.
There’s a High Cost to Being a K-Pop Idol
Image is everything for an idol. The whole point of the idol system is to elevate these talented, young people to a position so immaculate and untouchable that it becomes unreal. They are supposed to be Perfect with a capital "P," although perfection is, of course, a subjective and intangible fallacy.
Although the idea of celebrities going on strange and intense diets or getting cosmetic surgery seems familiar to us in the West, in the Korean Academies it’s not merely familiar – it’s outright expected. Men have their dance training choreographed specifically to sculpt their bodies in a certain way and women are weighed weekly to keep them within "acceptable" parameters. Idols are forcefully encouraged to undergo cosmetic surgeries (sometimes given a new "look" for every album) and statistically, South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Given that “Which entertainer do you most want to resemble?” is one of the most common questions asked in the consulting room, it’s no wonder entertainers keep having to change their look. After all, if everyone looks like you, how can you be Perfect?
Beyond the cosmetic, the image of a "pure lifestyle" is also encouraged. Contracts permit only a conservative lifestyle and demeanor; girls are trained to be both innocent and seductive, and every female idol has to toe a fine line between "saint" and "public sex symbol." Many artists are all but banned from having independent relationships and inter-band relationships (especially ones involving bands on separate labels) are treated more like large-scale corporate mergers than affairs of the heart.
Contracts themselves can also tie up idols for anywhere between seven and 13 years (not including the several years of training and auditions required beforehand) and that time is essentially spent with little-to-no say in the creative output of either you or your band. Trapped on an endless, exhausting treadmill of new releases and media appearances, it can be a hell of a price to pay for fame.
So, if the K-Pop scene is widely accepted to be artificially manufactured, frequently confusing and punishingly cruel to its stars – what’s the appeal? Well, it all comes back to context (or lack thereof). South Korea has consumed the entire 20th and 21st centuries of Western culture in the space of about 20 years, cherry picked those bits it liked the look of, thrown them together with a mash of Korean culture and produced something bordering on insanity.
There are bands with between nine and 12 members, all singing in a mixture of Korean, English, Japanese and Mandarin. There are bands who cram the equivalent of five different songs into one production. There are bands who've faced the equivalent of public crucifixion over discrepancies in their official "Perfect Story" – all of which amounts to one huge, sugarcoated spectacle dripping with power, control and excess that manages to be every bit as naïve as it is chillingly self aware. What more could you want?
Words by Luke Bather and AJ Gwilliam for Highsnobiety.com