K-pop fever ignites a new era for Asian entertainment in the U.S.
By Brenda Velasquez | Asian Avenue magazine
Photos by Sean Choi
Reminiscent of the popular boy and girl bands that dominated the music scene in the 90s, the U.S. is experiencing a revamped pop revival through highly-disciplined and aesthetically captivating, Korean pop, or “K-pop”, bands. Originating in South Korea, K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation, The Wonder Girls and Super Junior are maximizing the genre merely tapped into by American predecessors. As a vital component of the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, K-pop is amplifying the export of Korean culture across the globe and most recently, across the U.S., in a vibrant cyclone of synthesized music, video art and fashionable outfits.
Modern pop emerged in the 50s in the U.S. and Britain, drawing from an eclectic variety of genres, including gospel, jazz, country, rock, hip-hop and rap. This vibrant package began influencing South Korean music in the late 60s and by the 90s, musicians were experimenting with these American genres, marking the beginning of modern K-pop, supported by teens whose impressionable sensibilities prompted the emergence of addictive idol bands comprising of young, attractive single-sex groups. H.O.T., considered the first K-pop boy band debuted in 1995 and was trailed by other pioneers like Tae Sa Ja and Shinhwa.
The same year, Korean entrepreneur Lee Soo-man realized the increasing demand for these idols and initiated the movement to capitalize K-pop by establishing the industry’s largest talent agency and record label, S.M. Entertainment. Numerous agencies followed suit with three dominant companies being S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, the “Big Three.”
The growing popularity of television in 1950s U.S. required pop artists to focus on visual design as well as audio composition; this emphasis carried over into and was elevated by K-pop, a feat manifested in the genre’s distinctively vivid music videos. Loren Chhetry, a 25 year-old Nepalese and Native-American K-pop fan of Girls Generation, Sistar, The Wonder Girls, 4Minute, and 2NE1 describes how “The music videos are mostly why I like K-pop; they’re very visually appealing, artistic and unique to watch.”
K-pop’s visual experience begins with the members’ physical looks as record companies seek to recruit young, attractive members whose subtle sex appeal is enhanced by colorful, edgy costuming and sophisticated video designs. Rather than restrict themselves to one style, K-pop artists apply the full palette of fashion by changing their look for each song, setting trends and building viewers’ anticipation.
The next visual technique involves dance characterized by synchronized choreography where members switch positions while singing in harmony. Although not as sophisticated as the costuming or set designs, K-pop’s choreography is simplified in order to invite the fans’ participation. Choreographers keep the viewers in mind when orchestrating the steps, which revolve around a short series of repetitive movements easily memorized so fans can dance along even if—especially if—they can’t sing along.
Drawing from such diverse musical roots, modern K-pop has become a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop (J-Pop). David Bevan, editor at SPIN magazine describes how the songs, like the groups themselves whose members hail from a range of Asian races including Chinese, Japanese, and Indian, “are constructed for maximum reach: choruses built from catchphrase English, verses in Korean or custom-tailored to target markets. Sounds, textures and visuals are sourced from various Western hits so the result is a listening and viewing experience that is both bewildering and thrilling, one wherein recognizable pop moments from the past (or present) are copied, tweaked, and improved upon before being fused together in an aggressively polished product.”
Riding the wave of social networks
K-pop first gained popularity overseas in Japan in the late 90s, then in India, the Middle East, Europe, and finally Latin and North America. This gradual global spread was facilitated by the rise of social networking which allowed bands to reach wider audiences directly through media-sharing platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. James Brooks from The Pitchfork Review explains how “K-pop has developed a massive presence on YouTube, which overflows with high-budget, attention-grabbing videos and countless reality shows documenting the day-to-day exploits of the country’s most popular groups. And that’s not even getting into the fan-generated content, including hundreds of videos subtitled in multiple languages, ‘dance covers,’ and English cover versions by multilingual super-fans who want to give Western k-pop aficionados something to sing along with.”
After many failures by prominent K-pop bands, the year 2012 marked the industry’s breakthrough in the U.S. with the release of PSY’s unexpected hit “Gangnam Style.” In a boomerang effect, K-pop has finally invaded the same nation whose musical styles first influenced and shaped the genre just five decades ago. Evidence of K-pop’s imprint on the American mainstream abounds: In 2011 Google announced that its subsidiary YouTube will launch its own K-pop channel; the same year, ‘Korea’s Justin Timberlake’ Rain, was voted the most influential person of the year by readers of Time magazine. Prominent American artists like Missy Elliot, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and even Madonna have sought collaborations with Girls’ Generation, Big Bang and The Wonder Girls while many of these K-pop bands have signed on with American music companies.
Sony Music Entertainment for example, which promotes global artists like Beyonce and Usher, signed a deal with girl band Crayon Pop in hopes of producing the next PSY-a desire clear in the band’s music video for their debut single “Bar, Bar, Bar”, a “Gangnam Style” parody imitating the carousel and amusement park setting, the exaggerated gawking-at-yoga-bending-backsides scene, and the ending explosion.
Crayon Pop’s wacky choreography includes a signature “Straight Five-Engine Dance” that recalls PSY’s trademark horse trot and overall humor. Jeyup Kwaak of WSJ’s Scene Asia blog observes, “The popularity of South Korea’s music scene is moving beyond YouTube clicks, as domestic and global labels bid for K-pop groups as they seek to monetize the genre.”
A controversial business model
Keeping up with K-pop’s exploding popularity, South Korean record companies produce more than 60 idol bands each year giving the fast-paced, competitive industry a reputation as a ‘star factory’-but some critics pronounce the name with disdain since the exposure of the industry’s ‘slave contracts.’
To increase the potential of success for a new talent, agencies fully subsidize and oversee the careers of their trainees, recruiting, financing, training, marketing and publishing new artists as well as managing their activities and public relations. To ensure tight control, some companies design highly-restrictive contracts binding recruits to lengthy terms and eliminating distractions by moving them into company dormitories. The young recruits train up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for years, learning dancing, singing and foreign languages. These recruits are prohibited from owning a cell phone, hanging out with friends or developing romantic relationships before their debut. Lacking security, trainees can be kicked out and replaced at any moment for showing signs of under-performance.
Due to the steep cost of managing a band’s career prior, during and after its debut, companies are compelled to protect their investments; the cost of training, which includes vocal coaches, choreographers, stylists, make-up artists, living expenses and more, thus snowballs into a formidable loan. The profits from the band’s success goes towards paying the hefty bill so that after the company recoups its costs, there is little left for the artists who divide what remains among the group which can have as many as 13 members.
In 2009, three bands took their agency, S.M. Entertainment to court disputing their contracts’ length, restrictiveness, and profit management; the lawsuits prompted the Fair Trade Commission to regulate conditions, knocking down the maximum length from 13 to seven years. The Committee further inspected 20 entertainment agencies finding that 230 celebrities under 19 agencies were subject to unlawful clauses in their contracts such as ‘Star must tell Agency of their exact location at all times,’ and ‘Star cannot retire without Agency’s consent.’
The exposure of these ‘slave contracts’ enraged fans; one sympathizer’s post on the discussion platform Seoulbeats.com argued, “the costs of supporting an idol are nowhere near enough to justify the idols still being relatively poor…The amount of money they’re putting away in the bank is even less than the that of the average cog in the corporate machine. And unlike a white collar worker, after these idols have reached a certain age, there’s no real prospect for a hopeful future anymore.”
Other commentators have defended the agencies’ training method; a post on Beyondhallyu.com responded, “Whilst it might seem severe, it can be seen as the best way to prepare future idols. The experience is tough, and only the motivated and those who really want the lifestyle will make it through…the companies are protecting the prospective idols from breakdowns in the future.
Fans pay a lot of money to see their idols live, so the performances have to be good, therefore copious hours of training must be undertaken…The effortless look of slick, in-time dance moves, pitch perfect vocals and stunning wardrobes doesn’t just cost money; it costs time, blood, sweat and tears.”
BBC News Lucy Williamson reported on how K-pop’s rising overseas success and interaction with foreign music companies has helped push for change in management but entertainment lawyer Sang-hyuk Im reminds the public that while “Attitudes are changing…there are some things that even new contracts and new attitudes cannot fix: K-pop is expensive to produce…music sales in South Korea alone do not recoup that investment.
For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough…The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.” Nevertheless, Moon Jae-gap, a former policy director at South Korea’s main artists’ union believes the industry will go through a major upheaval: “Because at the moment, it’s not sustainable.”
Promoting K-pop across media platforms
Perhaps the most popular form of advertising K-pop is the crossover of idols into the equally popular realm of Korean drama, or “K-drama”. When the Korean won was devalued in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, East Asian broadcasters, particularly in Chinese-speaking areas decided that Korean dramas were not only more in tune with local values than Japan’s dramas, but also much cheaper, causing them to adopt these frugal programs, and as a by-product, cultivate an overseas fan base for Korean television, kicking off K-drama’s place in the Hallyu Wave.
In this context, Hong Kong’s YesAsia formed a U.S. division to market K-dramas and films in North America; as a result in 2008, Netflix began offering a small selection of Koran dramas and as of 2010, K-dramas began airing on Hulu. In addition to these fee-based mainstream sites, no-charge niche websites dedicated to K-drama and commentary such as DramaBeans and Viki are managed by bilingual fans who translate and insert subtitles for other viewers.
K-dramas span multiples genres but typically fall under two categories: stories that are set in modern South Korea, such as Coffee Prince and Boys Over Flowers, and stories that revolve around Korean history, involving elaborate costuming, sets and special effects with martial arts and sword fighting, such as Sungkyunkwan Scandal. A growing number of dramas incorporate both modern and historical aspects like in the 2012 Rooftop Prince but all K-dramas portray romance in the same modest manner, which may frustrate American audiences accustomed to more physical displays of affection.
“American dramas, as a result of the image of Americans being more ‘open’, tend to depict romance as more sexualized,” observes one 20-year old Vietnamese K-drama enthusiast. “There tends to be more sex scenes, kiss scenes and in general touching. Korean dramas depict romance and relationships as more chaste and ‘innocent.’ There tends to be a huge emphasis on first loves.”
A second 20 year-old Vietnamese fan, Thuong Nguyen supports this conservative convention, saying, “In a way it’s escaping from Western modern society where sex is so commercialized; it’s refreshing to get away from it. It recalls innocent beginner moments like when you first held hands and felt that tingling sensation. Clean K-dramas make it comfortable to watch with others; it can be a family thing to watch the dramas together.”
In addition to its modesty, Chhetry praises K-drama’s depiction of a more balanced romantic experience, relating how “The comedic romances are more relatable than America’s; here it’s more focused on the girl’s perspective whereas in the Korean dramas it’s more centered.”
K-drama producers will often cast K-pop artists who will contribute to the show’s soundtrack, a decision criticized by avid audiences.
“Most serious viewers of k-dramas view the casting of idol members as a joke,” critiques the first enthusiast. “If an idol is casted as one of the leads, I tend to stay away from the drama. I understand the producers’ hope that the show will appeal to a wider audience (i.e. fans of the idol) however, smart producers tend to only cast them as secondary characters, leaving the weight of the show to professional actors.”
Many have marveled at how PSY’s success in the West has opened the doors for K-pop bands to root themselves in the U.S. after many household names failed. Park Jae-sang known by his stage name PSY, (short for psycho, referring to his crazy passion for music and performance) unexpectedly broke through Western barriers with his single “Gangnam Style” in which the eccentric 37 year-old raps about the ideal girlfriend-modest during the day and sexy at night- while making audiences laugh with his horse-trot dance. The song’s video bears none of the self-seriousness of many K-pop productions although it includes K-pop cameos by Hyun-a from 4Minute, along with Seungri and Daesung from Big Bang.
Not only does PSY deviate from the standard K-pop image of a young, pretty-face male with his doughy physique, older age, and intentional comedy, the rapper also writes his own lyrics (often deemed obscene by the South Korean government) and choreographs his own videos, both unusual in the industry. So although he falls under the K-pop genre, neither his image nor sound mirrors those of his perfectly-groomed idol peers. Moreover, rather than mold his song into a globally accessible product, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” contains specific cultural references, and is written in largely untranslatable Korean; nevertheless, the song not only transcended the language barrier but most notably negated thousands of hours and millions of dollars’ worth of market research in South Korea, remarks David Bevan.
The U.S. has celebrated K-pop through three major events: KCON, founded in Oct. 2012 by Mnet America, the L.A.-based subsidiary of CJ E&M, the largest entertainment company in South Korea and held at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena; KPOPCON held annually at the University of California, Berkley campus beginning in Jan. 2012, organized by fans for fans; and the Korean Musical Festival hosted by news group The Korea Times at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles since 2003. As a small-scale venture, KPOPCON successfully attracted over 300 guests in its inaugural year while KCON secured 10,000 attendees and the Korean Music Festival sold out to 18,000 attendees in just two weeks.
Noticing this rise of Korean cultural entertainment in the U.S., Aurora-based Korean American Community Foundation Colorado (KACFC), established in 2012, organized the first Colorado K-pop Contest in December 2012 inside the Denver Post Building auditorium. The contest, judged by the Consul-General of Korea San Francisco, a former opera singer and a Korean CSU professor, was won by 12 year-old Collette Hong, a student at Aurora’s Fox Ridge Middle School who sang Lee Hi’s “1, 2, 3, 4”, receiving a free ticket to South Korea donated by Asiana Airlines.
As a follow up, the KACFC hosted the Colorado Korea Day Festival in August 2013 at Infinity Park in Glendale, organizing a U.S. K-pop Contest (which spanned the Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Northern California regions) as well as a regional preliminary round contest for the annual World K-pop Festival. The winner of the former received a free trip to Seoul to debut as a singer with an album recorded with Noble Soundz music company while the winner of the latter contest entered the qualifying round for the world festival to compete with international fans.
The festival, attended by 1,000 visitors was emceed by two members of pioneer K-pop boy band Tae Sa Ja and included a Korean Food Trade Show, traditional performances like Taekwondo, and a finale K-pop concert performed by girl band Pascol. Jennifer Kim, Chairman of the KACFC explained the organization’s desire “to bridge the Korean community with the American community here in Colorado. I don’t think the Korean community has tapped into the American community because we’re all so spread out and shuffled; we haven’t had an organization that will bring everyone together.”
Bringing fans into the experience
While many question K-pop’s staying potential, one WSJ reporter stationed in Seoul has suggested that the genre’s key to longevity may lie in its conscious inclusivity: “It is really striking how K-pop is resonating with people all throughout the region but also in the United States and Europe. I mean, these are little micro-niches of fan groups and yet they are quite devoted to it,” remarks Evan Ramstad.
K-pop’s efforts to invite their loyal audiences into the experience (simplified choreography, releasing albums in different languages, chiefly Japanese, Chinese and English) has cultivated strong fan communities that will likely continue to support their idols even if the trend disappears from mainstream media a few years from now. These fervent fans channel their passion into well-organized clubs each with its own name and color that visually represent fan groups at concerts where they gather into a sector within the crowd and create a multi-hued “K-pop Ocean”.
At the first YouTube Music Awards, Girls’ Generation won ‘Video of the Year’ for “I Got a Boy” which received millions of views within its first few hours of release, beating out Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and One Direction. In a surprising proof of devotion, their victory was a win by, for and about the fans as nominees for the awards were selected based on the number of likes, shares, views and other demonstrations of fan engagement; in that aspect, says Jeff Yang of WSJ’s Scene Asia. “K-pop fans stand head, shoulders and starry eyes above the milling crowd as the most dedicated congregation of idol-worshippers in the pop culture universe.”
Flowsion Shekar, CEO of K-pop fan site Koreaboo explains, “There are numerous fans on Twitter discussing how they stayed up with friends all night to vote. Justin Bieber has a much larger fan base, but they do not have the desperate drive that K-pop fans have to really be recognized by the rest of the world.”
“The reason why K-pop has become such a global phenomenon is because of the never-ending efforts of the fans, who constantly work to spread and bring more awareness to the genre and their favorite artists,” states Johnny Noh, CEO of 6Theory Media, which operates AllKpop.com. “It’s why although many believed and still believe that K-pop is just a bubble, I’ve been saying all along that this genre is here to stay.”