K-Pop: The creation of the global phenomenon
Overnight the Hallyu Wave, also known as Korean Wave, went from being a subculture known to devoted fans to something the global audience was commenting and taking part in. The Wave, which had hitherto been steadily but stealthily sweeping across the world has advanced much since PSY’s contribution.
In 2012, South Korean singer PSY created a global craze with his song Gangnam Style. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Korean entertainment industry and the Hallyu Wave. Overnight the Hallyu Wave, also known as Korean Wave, went from being a subculture known to devoted fans to something the global audience was commenting and taking part in. The Wave, which had hitherto been steadily but stealthily sweeping across the world has advanced much since PSY’s contribution. Now, in 2017, people are more aware of the massive music industry that exists in South Korea and the popularity of its stars both domestically and internationally. In this article, I will be tracing the origins of K-Pop as well as looking into what makes it so unique in today’s global music scene.
Origins of K-Pop
To understand the current status of Hallyu around the world, we need to look at the origins of K-Pop and retrace how pop music came to be such a staple musical form in South Korea. Korea’s musical traditions date back centuries but the first strains of popular music was brought into the country by US soldiers during the 1950s. After the Korean War ended in 1953, American GIs stationed around South Korean military bases brought in the influence of rock music to the Korean populace. This music grew in popularity and artists like Jackie Shin, South Korea’s first rockstar, also called South Korea’s ‘Godfather of Rock’, rose to fame playing rock music. However, the reigning military government at the time, headed by Park Chung-hee thought the music subversive and did not let Korean artists play rock music until his death in 1979. But, by the time the government had lifted the ban on rock music, Korean music tastes had changed to ‘syrupy love ballads and bubblegum pop’ (Kallen, 2014: 8). These changing tastes meant that the mainstream public preferred upbeat sounds and innocent lyrics to the rock music that Shin was known for and as the 1980s swept in, the era of Korean music had changed.
During Park Chung-hee’s regime, in the late 1960s till the mid-1970s, a highly popular girl duo, The Pearl Sisters (possibly South Korea’s first girl group in contemporary terms) reigned over Korea’s musical charts and inspired a generation of newer artists, one of whom was Lee Soo-man. Lee Soo-man, founder of SM Entertainment, the biggest entertainment company in South Korea today, was inspired by the singing and dancing style of The Pearl Sisters. He went to USA to study in 1981 and in 1985, Lee Soo-man returned to South Korea with the plan to introduce South Korea to the flashy dance moves and slick pop music he had seen on MTV in the US. He set up house and founded SM Entertainment in 1988.
K-Pop and the Hallyu Wave
Many of today’s top performing K-Pop acts hail from SM Entertainment. In fact, SM Entertainment is the birthplace of the first generation of K-Pop idols, High-five of Teenagers, better known as H.O.T. It is also the birthplace of Shinhwa, the longest running idol group in K-Pop history, as well as BoA and Dong Bang Shin Ki, the pioneers of the K-Pop side of the Hallyu Wave in Japan and the leaders of the second generation of idols. The third generation of idols also started around the time when SHINee, another SM boy group debuted. The fourth generation (we are arguably currently in the fifth generation) was led by EXO, another SM boy group. SM Entertainment has been a leading force in idol formation since the beginning of the K-Pop industry. While Lee Soo-man and SM Entertainment may have certainly paved the way forward for the Hallyu Wave, the credit for shifting the tides towards that path lies with someone else: Seo Taiji.
Seo Taiji & Boys melded rock with hip-hop, dance pop and R&B and unleashed it upon the unsuspecting Korean public in 1992. Their hip-hop clothing and
breakdancing and loud rap music was distinctly different from the sounds in the Korean media during that time. Often referred to as the ‘President’, Seo Taiji’s music appealed to the youth of the day and their debut stage on broadcast TV was unprecedented. Needless to say, their new sounds and dance style of formation changing caught the nation by storm, inciting instant fan following from the youth and censure from everyone else. However, Seo Taiji & Boys came at a time when South Korea was undergoing democratic changes and with the change in regime came change in censorship laws which became slightly relaxed. ‘In the 1990s, the domestic music industry achieved market growth largely through domestic pop music—“Korean songs” (Han’guk kayo) rather than foreign pop, rock and associated styles (known simply as ‘p’ap/pop’)’ (Howard, 2006: 82). Seo Taiji has had a lasting effect on South Korean pop music; there are two eras in the industry: before Seo Taiji and after Seo Taiji. He introduced a ‘new concept of star based on image, an image controlled by the group irrespective of managers and agents’ (Howard, 2006: 87); of course this concept hasn’t really lasted in current entertainment industry but it was a start to something different. ‘The dance moves and song styles perfected by Seo Taiji & Boys spawned an army of imitators and were mimicked by countless K-Pop stars in the following years’ (Kallen, 2014: 11). After the sudden disbandment of Seo Taiji & Boys in 1996, there was a void in the industry which was filled by SM Entertainment’s brand of bubblegum pop music starting with H.O.T, then Shinhwa and so on. This was picked up quickly by other music industry insiders. One of the ‘boys’ from Seo Taiji & Boys went to open up YG Entertainment, which is home to some of the top selling acts in K-Pop, including PSY. Since then there have been arguably five generations of K-Pop idols, each with a distinct flavour that separates them from the other. As each generation of artist expanded the industry, their reach grew, steadily taking South Korean entertainment beyond the borders of the country and into Asia. As Howard notes, ‘late in 1999, Jun Yup sang a duet with the Taiwanese singer Yuki on the album 99 Magic Power 3 (MCD1247), in many ways beginning the internationalising of “Korea Wave” (2006: 94). And it is into this that we come up with what is now termed as Hallyu Wave.’
Creating idols: the star system
A unique aspect of the Korean pop music industry is the star system, where artists are groomed from start to finish on how to become an ‘idol’ or star. This system has often been referred to as the ‘star system’ and it dominated the Korean music industry in the 1990s thanks to the media and entertainment companies. CLON (a dance music duo) sought to break out of the moulds of it while working internationally but by the turn of the millennium, ‘the star system had regained its dominance’ and ‘transitory and short-lived made-to-measure bands once more ruled’ (Howard, 2006: 96).
The creation of idols through the star system is an integral part of the K-Pop scene today. It is the production process under which a star or idol is created in the music industry. In the star system, everything is controlled: ‘the agencies act as manager, agent, and promoter, controlling every aspect of an idol’s career: record sales, concerts, publishing, endorsements, and TV appearances’ (Seabrook, 2013: 2). Heather Willoughby (2006), quoting Ho Haengnyang, identifies five steps of the star making and marketing process: ‘First, a TV station is chosen, then a decision is taken about the message the production company intends to sell it. The audience demographic is agreed and only then is a star chosen to represent the chosen image. Finally, the star is commodified.’ (2006: 101)
Following this pattern, stars are made, not born. This system was first perfected in Korea by SM Entertainment, according to a sophisticated system of artistic development that Lee Soo-man calls ‘Cultural Technology’. In an address at Stanford Business School in 2011, Lee Soo-man explained how he ‘coined this term about fourteen years ago, when SM decided to launch its artists and cultural content throughout Asia. The age of information technology had dominated most of the nineties, and I predicted that the age of cultural technology would come next. SM Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology’. (Seabrook, 2013: 4). Today, the idol stars that rule the K-Pop Hallyu Wave are all manufactured according to the blueprints of their agencies and rarely have a say, with a few exceptions, in their own popularity and marketing. In fact, there is a manual followed by SM Entertainment in their star factory: ‘The manual, which all SM employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise colour of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual close-ups)’ (Seabrook, 2013: 5).
And as fascinating as it seems, it is this almost regimental precision of image marketing that partly attributes to the popularity of K-Pop globally and the spread of Hallyu. The word ‘Hallyu’ is derived from the Chinese word of ‘hanryu’ that refers to the meaning of being ‘cool’. The term was coined in China by Chinese press who were ‘surprised by the fast-growing popularity of Korean entertainment and culture in China’ (Kim, Seneviratne, Rao, 2013: 12). As noted by Howard (2006), the first musical Hallyu stars were the group CLON who were popular beyond national borders in Taiwan and started the internationalisation of the wave in 1998. But the real breakthrough came with H.O.T., whose popularity exploded through Asia in 1999, particularly China, giving rise to subsequent boy groups better known as ‘idols’. ‘Experts say that the term Hallyu became an official word and widespread after H.O.T.’s concert in Beijing in 1999′ (Kim, Seneviratne, Rao, 2013: 13). They were the first idols and as the K-Pop phenomenon grew, the ‘idol generations’ and musical style changed.
Creating a global musical phenomenon
The Hallyu Wave can be thought to have taken place in two ‘waves’. Academics seek to separate the two (henceforth referred to as Hallyu 1.0 and Hallyu 2.0) because of the differences in approach and format between them. The first difference between the two is that of sound. If we listen to the sounds of H.O.T., from the first generation, we will see that the music is ‘cute’ and happy and can be categorised as bubblegum pop. In fact, one of the most popular songs by H.O.T is called Candy and has the group members dress in neon-coloured overalls. However, that same album was called We Hate All Kinds of Violence and had songs with lyrics also sought to talk about social issues and changes. In contrast, the music of the second wave is more developed. romance often make up a majority of the songs’ lyrics of the most popular groups. There are some groups who intersperse their lyrics with deeper content but these are far and few in between.
Another big difference is that Hallyu Wave 1.0 was meant for domestic audiences. It was used to promote high-quality media created nationally to the South Korean citizens.
This was a method undertaken to combat the influx of Japanese and foreign music and media. The products of Hallyu Wave 2.0 however are created for export purposes. It is made to appeal to international audiences and is used as a method of soft power. It comes well-equipped for a global audience with a variety of languages and is an internet-based phenomenon. The creation of transnational fans is a direct result of that international appeal and the usage of social media in the promotion strategies of K-Pop is used as a method to reach a wider international audience.
The need for this was ‘driven partly by a need to go beyond the home market,’ which was being ‘plagued by plunging CD sales and free music downloads on the Internet in the world’s most wired country’ thanks to the technological boom in the mid-1990s (Kim, Seneviratne, Rao, 2013: 42). And as sales shrank from the 286.1 billion won recorded in 2002 to 80 billion won in 2009, ‘entertainers searched for new ways to survive—for example, by courting fans abroad via the Internet’ giving rise to Hallyu 2.0 (Kim, Seneviratne, Rao, 2013: 42). After SM Entertainment opened its official channel to promote and broadcast the music videos of its stars in 2009, major global music labels believed it was too risky to expose so much content so freely on the Internet. But according to Kim Young-min, the current CEO of SM Entertainment, it actually helped them gain a global fan base very quickly (Kim, Seneviratne, Rao, 2013: 42).
Today, because of the use of social media in promotions, K-Pop has given rise to vast amounts of extended audiences beyond South Korea and increased participatory culture. KBS World (South Korea’s national television channel) streams its weekly music show, Music Bank, live every Friday on YouTube. The audiences turning into this range from five thousand to twenty thousand at any given point. The live performances are later uploaded on to the YouTube channel and have view counts in hundreds of thousands.
A unique aspect of K-Pop is the live song and dance combo that idols perform on stage. Thanks to the star system, stars are made and perfected into idols according to a sophisticated system of artistic development. Idols are expected to sing live, with fans looking for and audio engineering the ‘music removed’ (MR) versions of their songs to see the raw vocal performances. The star system focuses on dance just as much as on vocal ability and all idols are trained to be expert dancers. Along with music videos and live performances, groups also release dance practice videos with them dancing to their latest songs. These practice videos are then used by fans to create dance covers, much in the style of PSY’s Gangnam Style cover videos.
High production value for music videos is another key feature in the K-Pop industry. The production value on the music videos are often higher than Western ones, with cutting-edge fashion and intricate dance choreographies taking centre stage. As per the latest statistics, a single music video costs a minimum of US $30,000. The visual components of the videos are such as to be comparable to Japanese Visual Kei. The image, performances and music videos of Visual Kei are used to create a sort of fantasy world for the audience and lots of the musicians create alter egos on top of their alter egos. This creation of a fantasy world is common in Korean pop music, especially with music videos and stage performances, where the media acts as a ‘special space for freedom, a place in which a person’s fantasies could be safely acted out’ (Willoughby 2006, pg 102).
The live stage performances also feed the fantasy created by the artists in their music videos and Hallyu 2.0 has seen concerts becoming global affairs rather than just being restricted to the South East Asian region. Artists now go as far as South America to perform for audiences; Europe and North America have now become common destinations for popular groups with many a music video being filmed in the United States or England. The sound too has changed along with the reach of Hallyu. In the present industry, the sound is more ‘global’ with musical influences from different musical genres existing under the K-Pop umbrella. Styles ranging from basic pop to R&B, hip-hop, pop rock, dance, house and rap all form K-Pop. Western artists too recognise K-Pop’s prestige, with industry collaborations taking place between Western and Korean artists. From SnoopDogg featuring in PSY’s Hangover, to American artist will.i.am collaborating with Y G Entertainment’s girl group 2NE1, to American duo Chainsmokers (who produced current pop anthem Closer) collaborating with boy group BTS, to Bruno Mars writing the song Press Your Number for Taemin (from SHINee), to Missy Elliot featuring on G-Dragon’s song Niliria, the list is getting longer with each passing day.
K-Pop might have found mainstream global success since Gangnam Style acted like the free electron in a chain reaction, but it has been alive and growing rapidly in the past two decades, albeit stealthily. The precision artistic development used to create its multi-talented artists and the high production quality of its total musical package, from sound, to lyrics, to choreography, to video and performance shows that it’s not all a hype created by Gangnam Style.
Howard, K. (2002) Exploding Ballads: Transformation of Korean Pop Music. In: King, R & Craig, T. J. Craig (eds). Global Goes Local. Vancouver: UBC Press. pgs 80-99.
Howard, K. (2006) Coming of Age: Korean Pop in the 1990s. In: Howard, K (ed). Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave. Kent: Global Oriental Ltd.
Kim, S.J., Seneviratne, K., & Rao, M (2013) Evolving Asian Culture Gateways: The Korean Wave and Beyond. AMIC Asian Communication Series. Singapore: Asian Media Information and Communication Centre and Nanyang Technological University.
Seabrook, J. (2012) Factory Girls. The New Yorker [Online] 8 October. Available from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/08/121008fa_fact_seabrook [Accessed: 22 June 2014].
Willoughby, H. A. (2006) Image is Everything: The Market of Femininity in South Korean Popular Music. In: Howard, K (ed). Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave. Kent: Global Oriental Ltd.
Kashfia Arif holds an MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies from SOAS (UoL). Her areas of research and interest include pop-culture and social media with particular focus on music and culture. She has worked in publishing working as the Assistant Editor for the magazines Six Seasons Review and Jamini. She is currently teaching media studies and journalism at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.
Overnight the Hallyu Wave, also known as Korean Wave, went from being a subculture known to devoted fans to something the global audience was commenting and taking part in. The Wave, which had hitherto been steadily but stealthily sweeping across the world has advanced much since PSY’s contribution. In 2012, South Korean singer PSY created…