The Kingdom of K-pop and the “Korean Wave”

K-pop has experienced a real boom all over the world. In Spain it has even crept into the list Del 40 al 1 of the radio station Los 40 Principales. How has it been able to be the most mainstream in the West?

First, we should know what k-pop is. For many people, it is just the popular music in (South) Korea, and for others it is an industry that produces idols (I will explain this figure later), and even a musical genre. It is a true debate whether it is really about a genre or just an attempt to separate them from Western categories.

Since its inception, Korean popular music has been characterised by the confluence of its own culture, Western and Japanese cultures. In 1885, a North American missionary showed at school North American and British popular songs with Korean lyrics (changga). Between 1910 and 1945, during the Japanese occupation, they became popular when they were used to express rejection against this invasion. This is how trot was born, considered the first form of Korean popular music. After the Korean War, North American troops continued in South Korea, so that vinyl records, jazz, blues, country, and rock & roll, as well as social movements such as the hippie movement arrived. During the 1970s, folk and DJs became popular, and ballads were very important in the 1980s. Cho Yong Pil was the first South-Korean artist to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York, and among his repertoire, rock, trot, folk pop and even dance were found.

It is in 1990 when k-pop we know nowadays began to develop with the group Seo Taiji and Boys, whose members mixed rock, techno, and the most important, hip hop, a genre not very well known in South Korea until that moment. This fact marked, likewise, the decline of trot. Many groups emerged to imitate Seo Taiji and Boys, and such groups were created by companies that tried to be the most popular of the moment, thus marking the beginning of idol culture. Idols are celebrities able to sing, act, model, present, etc., trained by companies since they are kids, for which they are elected in auditions. The three most important companies in South Korea were created at the end of the 1990s, S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, and although there are many more, these ones are the most influential.

This system is reminiscent of the one given in j-pop, but there are some differences respect to k-pop that makes the latter the most known in the world. In Japan, kawaii (‘lovely’) aesthetic is very important, both in feminine and masculine artists. Furthermore, there is a great quantity of groups, some of which have even been created to advertise different products. If they success, they can last decades, thus existing graduations. The most known example is AKB48 (Akihabara48), which has 91 members in 2020, and along their existence (since 2005) has had 395. In addition, obtaining their music out of Japan is very difficult as buying CDs is complicated, and until very recently they did not post their videos in YouTube nor shared their music in Spotify; in the same way, very few artists have played their music out the Nipponese country, but some of them have been Kyary Pamyu Pamyu y Babymetal.

On the other hand, k-pop aesthetic is usually more focused on being transgressor and sexy (the most exemplary group is 2NE1), something more typical in the West. The Korean standard of beauty is also very westernised, being extremely common the aesthetic surgeries (many of them are established in the contract). This is not usually done in j-pop, as being natural and innocent is better. The number of groups is even more extreme than in Japan, and it is estimated that around 120 groups debut every day; this way, it is common that lots of them disappear soon after being created. Furthermore, although there are exceptions (such as Girls Generation), it is normal that groups exist for about 5 years even if they success, since it supposes a great physical and mental effort for its members. Among the rules that idols must follow are not taking drugs nor attending parties, not having a partner, keeping a determined weight, etc. The most important may be the wide publicity that is placed out of South Korea and the accessibility of their CDs and merchandising. It is also very important that some of the members speak English, Japanese and/or Chinese, and on many occasions, members have Western artistic names. The main goal of k-pop has always been to expand, because unlike Japan, South Korea has half its inhabitants (126 million people versus approximately 51 million people).

From 2000, the rise of hallyy (‘Korean wave’) occurred, first in East Asia, and later all over the world. Thus, k-dramas or Korean dorama (it could be categorised as Korean novels) and k-beauty (Korean routines, make-up, and beauty products) among others also began to expand together with k-pop. This is especially significant for a traditional country that, let us remember, is still in conflict with North Korea. The government itself praises k-pop, and even many songs by groups such as BTS are played on the loudspeakers at the border with the neighbouring country. It could be said that this process is like the one given during the Cold War, in which US cultural products tried to spread its ideas and the benefits of capitalism. In the same way, exportation has turned into a very important part of its economy, and furthermore, many people travel to South Korea whether for learning Korean, going to concerts or even undergoing surgery (aesthetic tourism is common as prices are so low).

The way in which they get such a loyal follow-up is through a great interaction with the fans, in addition to having catchy rhythms, dances, Korean and English lyrics, and videos and staging with a very neat image. It is evident that many Western groups have had huge legions of fans, however, for k-pop fans it is especially important that their idols know the support they have. This is due to the great effort they must make since they are trainees. This word refers to the people that have passed an audition or have directly been contacted by agencies, who are training to form a group. Many of them never get paid, as companies keep the money to pay teachers, clothing, accommodation, etc. In other cases, the trainees themselves must pay for classes and other expenses. All this training must be combined with the studies when they are old enough to pursue compulsory education. Of all these trainees, very few become a member of a group and, in turn, very few of these groups have success. Those who success must live together since they must practice every day, and often without seeing their parents for long periods of time. Thus, fans try to make their idols happy whenever they can.

Every fan club of a group usually has a proper name and a colour, which is used in personalised lightsticks (only the most famous groups have them). These are the lights that are used in concerts and awards ceremonies, and among the fans they are very important as they show appreciation for their favourite groups, who can see the room illuminated with their colours. Besides, fan clubs are in charge of financing charitable works on the behalf of their idols, and they even send them lunches. All this requires a great organisational capacity, which has been shown on many occasions with which they got the respect of the Internet: when Dallas P.D. promoted the sending of videos of illegal activities during Black Lives Matter protests, they received waves of videos of their favourite groups; the occasion in which they reserved seats for a Trump campaign event, what resulted in a great quantity of empty seats; or when in Spain they flooded hashtags of Vox with videos of k-pop groups.

Although through these groups many young people make friends and meet to sing and dance their favourite songs, the influence of k-pop could be negative on some occasions. South-Korea standards of beauty and the obsession for being thin permeate the audience. Numerous videos of idol diets and photos before and after an aesthetic surgery are browsing social networks (through which they create a community).

In the end, k-pop reflects the most perfect capitalist music industry, with all the good and the bad things involving it. It has no problem in admitting that it is prefabricated, as Western pop so is it, however, it does not reach the level of perfection of k-pop and both they and their fans know it.

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