In 2012, it seemed like the world was infected with a new craze - doing the “horse-galloping” dance move while shouting Oppa Gangnam Style! No matter where you were, you couldn’t have avoided hearing Psy’s iconic song Gangnam Style. This viral hit had exposed the entire world to the existence of Korean Pop - also known as K-pop. In short, K-pop is a subset of the mainstream Korean pop music division focused on “idol” groups that feature multi-talented singer-dancers. Now, Kpop is the new obsession for many people across the globe and these Kpop concerts and shows attract an uproarious British Invasion-like crowd. The explosion of the K-pop wave has now become a $5 Billion global industry. This wave of K-pop is often referred to as “Hallyu”.
However, Kpop was not a miracle overnight emergence as Kpop was already drawing in crowds in Japan and all across South East Asia since the mid-’90s. Kpop groups have been constantly scoring regular hits globally that Billboard opened a “K-pop Hot 100” world chart in 2012 as well as an article column called ‘k-town’. It also has been successful enough for YouTube to add a specific “K-pop” entry amongst its existing music genre entries.
There are 3 “generations” of K-pop:
Source: Greg Munda
The revolution for Kpop music in Asia came with the debuts of boy bands such as TVXQ, SS501 and Super Junior. In 2003, Baby V.O.X - a kpop girl group released a Chinese version of their song “I’m Still Loving You”, and this song topped music charts in China and Thailand. Kpop was on a roll since then, with various girl and boy bands selling out concerts all over Asia.
Kpop’s take over of the West started way before BTS and Blackpink. SM Entertainment (the entertainment company which has birthed legendary Kpop groups like TVXQ and Girls Generation) had a World Tour back in 2010 that started from Seoul and covered the North American (Staples Center, Los Angeles) and European regions (Le Zenith, France). With more than 15,000 attendees a concert, SM Town Live World Tour was a concert tour that definitely proved that Kpop had become global. But no one could have guessed how big Kpop music would be in the next decade. Mainstream radios are now playing Kpop hits, there are huge Kpop concerts happening near you almost every season, and more and more people are loving riding the Hallyu wave.
However, blood, sweat and tears were shed during the makings of this revolution into the West. Many Kpop groups tried their luck breaking into the western scene such as Wonder Girls and Girls Generation who have recorded and released English-version of their hits but sadly, none of them took off. After years of trial, the Kpop music industry has finally found its niche and then continued to work to make Kpop a global phenomenon. By mashing together cultures and genres, Kpop songs now kick the familiar rhythms of American pop music up a notch. Many American music veterans have commented on how and why Kpop has achieved and reached this high point in the mainstream American music scene. These are some of the factors why BTS, Blackpink (and the likes) are thriving in the music industry now.
Leslie Whittle, radio program director of Houston’s top radio station, KRBE says “Everything in the Top 40 is mid-to-low-tempo. The feeling K-pop leaves you with is upbeat and positive”.
Songwriter Rodnae “Chikk” Bell says, “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies,”.
Besides that, Kpop music videos are intricate works of art that are very visual and according to Kristine Ortiz, community manager at the company that owns Soompi.
“They’re able to create a sensory experience through clothes and music videos with elaborate storylines. That’s not seen a lot in Western music,” (and the fans and casual listeners are loving it!)
K-pop music nowadays keeps making headlines and decorating front pages of music news with the presence of sexy girl bands like Blackpink and Twice as well as charming boy bands like BTS. They have been dominating the Youtube charts with BTS reaching total views of more than 5 billion and followed by Blackpink with more than 3 billion.
In 2018, the vice president for content at Alpha Media (they own 68 U.S radio stations), states “I think six months from now we’re going to be talking about some of the biggest mainstream U.S. artists in the world infusing themselves into K-pop records.”
And he was right, more and more Kpop groups are collaborating with famous American artists and DJs to create bangers that are topping charts worldwide. Check out some of these amazing hits:
Although it all seems glittery and glamorous, there’s a dark side that’s kept in the shadows behind the colourful poppy music videos, fancy outfits and make-up.
It all starts with trainees who audition to become idols. If they succeed, the trainees are selected and go through gruelling training - vocal, dancing and even personality training - that may last up to 16 hours a day. They do not have time to get proper rest or have even proper meals. To make matters worse, training may last from 3 years to about a decade. Once training has taken place and the idols have gotten their chance to debut, they are then under total control of the company. The companies see them as products that bring in revenue and so exploit them as much as possible. Forbidding these idols to do anything that may cause drama/harm even on the simplest things like dating. These idols are bound to the contract and have to commit with their respective entertainment companies if they want to avoid heavy, expensive lawsuits. These idols are the investments of companies. Similar to how you invest in property, these idols are properties of their companies.
Besides that, idols are subjected to all kinds of abuse - be it verbal, physical, emotional, mental and even sexual abuse. Kim Chang Hwan, CEO of Media Line Entertainment was accused of physical and verbal abuse against members of the East Life. It has become a norm for top-ranking officials and executives to abuse their powers in exchange for sexual favours. Kim Hyun-ah, also known as HyunA gave an insight into paedophilia in the Kpop industry in her song ‘Babe’.
Have you ever seen a kpop band performing on YouTube and wonder if you’re seeing things (or if you’re racist) or if they all really do alike? Well, it’s because they do look alike. Kpop is highly manufactured - they train their idols to act, sing, and dance a certain way, of course they are going to control how these idols look like as well. The Korean beauty standards are very high and the idols’ appearances are often forced to be in line with the standards. Companies force their idols to undergo painful plastic surgeries to transform their looks and mould them into an image that will appeal to the public and do well in the markets. On top of that, they go through extreme dieting as well, especially the female idols, to maintain a certain slim look. This means that these artists may have been starving their entire lives. Extremely toxic and unhealthy for one’s health, physically and spiritually.
The Kpop music industry fits in the cliché, “all that glitters is not gold”, however, this could be the result of enablers from the surrounding environments as well as the formula of manufacturing these idols to gain profit that never seems to fail. We consume their music and make these idols our gods. It’s no wonder that these big companies keep exploiting them.
Just like the yin and yang of life, there is bad and good in everything - the music industry included. The dark side of Kpop should be brought to attention as well so that significant change can be done to ensure these idols are treated like human beings and we can enjoy Kpop music without risking these idols lives.