In Spin this last month, there was an article by David Bevan about the pop culture phenomenon of K-pop (“Seoul Trained”). K-pop, or Korean pop music, is similar in flavor to the music of the American boy and girl bands of the late ’90s and early 2000s. K-pop groups are made up of young, cute, energetic and talented performers, and their fans are as rabid as foxes in a hen coop. Their songs are simple and catchy, with Korean words filling the verses, and English phrases in the sing-along choruses.
So, how is this wave of pop music different from BSB or *NSYNC mania? And why is it so popular now?
First of all, these artists didn’t enter the music scene after years of practicing at their high schools or in their garages. K-pop stars are cherry-picked from a young age for their singing and dancing abilities, as well as for their looks. And they are not only Korean. Some of the most popular singers are from the U.S. (such as Jay Park, from California) or of Thai or Chinese descent (e.g., Nichkhun). They essentially become property of the most prominent record label, S.M. Entertainment, as they are trained, day and night, to sing, dance, entertain and present themselves as the perfect product.
By now, the producers know what works in pop music – all the way from the outfits to the key changes – and they implement those strategies through these bands. Unlike in the U.S., where our opinions of pop stars might be marred by their personal lives (e.g., Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, T.I. and others have all been convicted of crimes), the reputations of K-pop stars are protected by S.M. Entertainment. These kids aren’t allowed access to their own social media accounts, so that scandal is minimized. They aren’t even allowed to talk about dating, for fear that their adoring fans will be let down.
The music is wildly successful; while it’s just starting to emerge in the U.S. market now, it’s very popular in Japan and China. But to me, it lacks some of the humanity that I look for in art. Sure, I can separate the person from his creation to some degree. But without feeling like there is some flawed, likeable human being behind the music, it’s hard for me to engage with it. There is a new K-pop band in training now, and S.M. Entertainment has already started to market it on Twitter and Facebook. Even without a band name or any photos, the new band has already been “liked” by thousands of fans! In the article, S.M. Entertainment compares itself to Apple. You don’t have to know what the iPad3 is like exactly to know what its style will be…and you don’t have to hear the new K-pop music to know that it’s going to be in the S.M. style.
Jay Park, whom I mentioned earlier, was a cog in the S.M. machinery for a while, until it was discovered that he made an anti-Korean comment on Youtube. His career seemed to be shot after that, but now he’s back making his own music. It’s still K-pop, but the fact that he is the creative mind behind it, and that he has had to work extra hard to gain a fan base again, makes me want to like his music more. Here is Jay Park’s version of “Nothin’ on You” by B.O.B.