Walking into the DoubleTree Hotel in Irvine, California, the Verge team was greeted by representatives from K-Pop United, a world-wide fan organization. The Los Angeles chapter was apparently quite new, and the three reps (two young women and one young man) seemed really psyched to be there. They told us about the chapter in Las Vegas that holds some sort of big concert or parade or something every year, and about how they arranged to have one cancer stricken member come to Irvine to meet her favorite K-Pop star.
“We’re actually here to do a story on this,” I said.
“On K-Con?” The most vocal of the three asked. She was referring to the K-Pop fan convention being sponsored by Mnet America, a TV network devoted to Korean music and culture.
“The Verge,” I said, wondering if she’s heard of it.
“The Verge, cool,” she said. Then she cocked her head to the side, still smiling, and challenged me: “You’re not here to write about Psy, are you?”
I assured her we were not, and she seemed satisfied with the answer. I guess now I’m going to make a liar out of myself.
K-Pop is where east meets west in a musical Uncanny Valley
The Verge spent a solid twelve hours at K-Con, an event for K-Pop fans featuring musical guests, panel discussions on things like Korean music and fashion, a number of merchant booths, and over 10,000 ticket holders, according to MNet. The highlight of the night was a concert in the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater where a half-dozen acts performed — many for the first time in the United States.
K-Pop, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a particularly catchy and calculating strain of Korean popular music that somehow manages to simultaneously sound like just about every contemporary musical genre, a conflation of the various strains of electronic dance music — mostly trance, electro, and dubstep — arranged in conventional pop song structure. In addition to taking off in Asia in a big way, K-Pop has found some popularity in the United States, more as a subculture than as a bona fide phenomenon in the west.
For an American new to the genre, it can be kind of disorienting. Or exciting. K-Pop is where east meets west in a musical Uncanny Valley.
At K-Con we had the pleasure of talking to Simon and Martina Stawski, whose Eat Your Kimchi video blog is apparently very popular (so popular, in fact, that they required a security detail to escort them through the mob of screaming fans). Kimchi began four years ago as a simple series of videos that the couple produced for the family back home in Canada, but now the site's goal "is to document the fun and quirky things we like about Korea," as well as helping first time visitors to the country deal with the particulars of the culture.
"K-Pop is not just a song or a genre, it's an entire culture," explained Martina. "You're really getting involved in a community of people. They all like the same band as you, and you all get to know the same thing, and it becomes a family of people. So that's why everyone's so passionate."
Your typical K-Pop idol group is composed of several youngsters, so attractive that they’re boring
This much is true: K-Pop fans are, if anything, passionate. And at this event at least, they’re almost always teenage girls. But all that really says is that it’s teenage girls that are willing to take the trek to the west coast in order to get autographs from the members of Nu’Est, for instance. According to the event promoter, fifteen international K-Pop fan clubs made the journey.
If you’re like most Americans, and if you know the term K-Pop at all, you first heard it in connection to a Korean rapper named Psy. His "Gangnam Style" is the only song listed in the Billboard Korea K-Pop Top 10 while also appearing on other American charts (for the week of K-Con, he’s charting with Digital Songs (#1), Hot 100 (#2), Pop Songs (#19), Radio Songs (#34), and Dance/Club Play Songs (#49)).
"I know a lot of people think 'Gangnam Style' is opening the floodgates," Simon says, but the song is much different than most K-Pop. "[T]here's a lot of irony and humor in that video, while other K-Pop songs are very serious and sexy and very well crafted."
And of course, this is by design. Your typical K-Pop idol group is composed of several rather anonymous youngsters, so attractive that they’re boring.
"The mainstream success that Psy has," Simon continues, "we don't see that [happening] in other kinds of K-Pop, but we still see a vast amount of success happening on an underground level."
What about the hope, expressed by a number of people in the industry, that K-Pop will be the next big thing?
"[W]e think that it's possible that the bands will be pushed towards marketing in the United States," says Martina, "but we don't think that they'll ever really make it mainstream because Korean music does not reflect North American culture."
"I guess they still wanted me in the band because I can speak English and they liked my look."
Lee Soo-man is the founder of SM Entertainment, one of the so-called "big three" Korean record companies (alongside YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment). He is also the creator of something he calls Culture Technology, or CT. This might be one of the most extreme systems of pre-packaging pop bands yet (a tradition that includes such fine acts as The Monkees, Sex Pistols, and New Edition). In the United States, even the most cynical music industry professionals I have met seem to think, on some level, that music is magic and that there is an ineffable "something" that must happen for an act to make it big. Lee Soo-man has done away with that quaint notion entirely.
The process of creating a K-Pop group, as described in Korea Times, begins when SM Entertainment finds potential singers, often through global auditions. "After screening applicants," writes Chung Min-uck, "the company operates [a software] simulation of how the voice and the appearance of the trainees would change in three to seven years."
If everything checks out, the future stars are taught to sing and dance, act, and learn foreign languages. According to a story in the Harvard Business Review blog by Dae Ryun Chang and Kyongon Choi, "these talent agencies resemble the old Hollywood studios in terms of their size, organization, contractual relationship with their stars, and control of their private lives.... [the] model tries to embed more and more foreign singers from strategic markets into larger girl or boy bands. These imported singers are then used to promote their acts back in their respective home countries."
In the South Korean model, a pop group is more like a brand and a talent pool than a proper band. For instance, SM Entertainment’s Super Junior boasts 12 members. This allows the company to break the band down into sub-units targeting different markets, including Super Junior-M (Mandopop, Mandarin pop music), Super Junior-T (trot music, a form of Korean popular music dating back to the early 1900s), and something called Super Junior-Happy.
Marg Lee is a Los Angeles-based attorney. As a child she and her sister were in a band called T.T.Ma ("Taste The Maximum" or "To The Maximum"). Her experience as a professional pop singer is interesting in that it demonstrates how big the industry is in Korea, and how quickly the large entertainment companies shuffle through its performers. Born and raised in a small town outside of Dallas, Lee’s family moved to Korea when she was in the eighth grade. It was soon after arriving that she was approached on the street in the neighborhood of Apgujeong (where Psy’s "Gangnam Style" video was shot] by a talent agent.
"The next day," Lee says, "I gave the card to my mom and I explained what happened, and my mom thought we should call him." Soon, the whole family was at a karaoke joint, where Lee and her sister auditioned for a place in a pop group the agency was putting together. "I can’t really sing that well," she admits, "but I guess they still wanted me in the band because I can speak English and they liked my look." Both sisters were asked to join, and soon after that auditions were held to fill the three other positions in the group.
After a year of dance, rap, and singing lessons, the group’s debut album, In The Sea (1999) was released. "Over the course of our career, we did interviews, radio shows, game shows, music shows, concerts, festivals, all that stuff. We toured Shanghai, we filmed our music video in Thailand." The experience was like that of an eccentric after-school job for the young student. "I’m actually glad that I was really young when I did it," she says, "the entertainment industry can be really corrupt... [but] because I was so young, everyone in the industry looked out for me."
After two years, when her contract was up, Lee left the business to concentrate on school work and the SAT’s.
"K-Pop is scary!" Says Ellen Kim, a dancer and choreographer also based in Los Angeles. "If I was an artist in Korea, I'd be nervous. The pace of the popularity of the music is quick. You got one song that can last for a week, and that's it... that's really scary. You put so much work into one song, but yet it's going to get old quick. Korean people want something new every week, and I think that's the hardest pressure, probably. To come up with something catchy all the time, a hit all the time, and you've got tons of artists and the lifespan of one song is so short. It's pretty hard."
11 Verge K-Pop Favorites
f(x): "Nu ABO"
Brown Eyed Girls: "Abracadabra"
4Minute: "Mirror Mirror"
2NE1: "I Am The Best"
Hyuna: "Bubble Pop"
Super Junior: "Mr. Simple"
G.Na: "Top Girl"
Psy: "Gangnam Style"
Vixx: "Rock Ur Body"
Special thanks to Sam Byford and James Chae for their help in assembling this playlist.
Theodor Adorno vs. Girls’ Generation
He was looking at the culture industry, long before Lee Soo-man ever thought to revolutionize cut’n’paste boy bands
The most telling thing about Psy’s popularity in the US is that he avoids the K-Pop "idol" schtick entirely. He isn’t model thin, and the video for "Gangnam Style" is a send-up of the trendy denizens of Seoul’s Gangnam district. Essentially, the song is a comical swipe against the type of image that most K-Pop stars portray. Although the song is sung in Korean, the music is as pure a slice of modern American pop as anything in the states. And the video is really rather funny, in any language.
It’s probably worth noting here that, unlike the majority of entertainers that came up through Korea’s idol system, Psy (real name: Park Jae-sang) was educated at Boston University and Berklee College of Music.
He’s also a bit of a troublemaker. In 2007, he got busted for trying to weasel out of mandatory military service and as a result was inducted into the ROK Army, where he remained until summer 2009. His albums have been dogged by controversy: after his first album dropped in 2001, Psy was fined for releasing music with "inappropriate content," and sales of his second album are restricted to adults over 19 years of age.
Grimes, a Canadian musician that lies on the more interesting and experimental edge of the rock spectrum, discussed the appeal of the artist in a recent NME blog entry. "One of the reasons Psy's 'Gangnam Style' has been so popular in the west is because he has a very specific personality type." In other words, he has a personality. He isn’t hiding behind a group name or label. "Bands such as SHINee or Girls' Generation are kind of anonymous, whereas Psy or G-Dragon from Big Bang have emphasised personalities, and that's why they've managed to cross over."
Grimes calls it personality, but seventy-some years ago Theodor Adorno, the German critical theorist who was never much fun at parties, called it "pseudo-individualization," capitalism’s way of tricking you into thinking that there are differences between nearly identical cultural products. He was looking at the culture industry, long before Lee Soo-man ever thought to revolutionize cut’n’paste boy bands.
The qualities that typify a K-Pop song, according to JD Relic, an in-house songwriter and producer for Marcan Entertainment, are more or less universal. "Choruses tend to be a simple, yet with a catchy melody. In Asia, karaoke is so huge. One thing that we've noticed is that if you have a song that's really singable it's more likely to be a hit, because people can go to the karaoke lounge and sing your song. But if it's really complicated, it's harder to sing and enjoy. I think that's a big aspect of writing songs that are hits."
In addition to simple, catchy melodies and a limited repertoire of subject matter, video and choreographed dancing play a huge role in the creation of a song.
"A lot of K-Pop singles are dance tracks, the majority of them," Relic says. "So you have to take that into account. Can someone make a good choreography at a song at this tempo? Or the flow? It's almost like half and half — the choreography and presentation's equally as important as the song. If one's not good, everything falls apart. I definitely try to write stuff that lends itself to the choreography."
"I think that the music in K-Pop has to go hand in hand with the choreography," agrees Ellen Kim. "I think that's the difference between American music and Korean music. The Korean people really want their fans to be in the music as well. That's why as choreographers we have to simplify movements. It's actually harder to think of moves that non-dancers can do, that dancers would appreciate at the same time. When you go to concerts you have the ability to do little movements that make you feel like you're part of the song and the performance."
Indeed, a K-Pop concert is extremely interactive. Fans will bring balloons and glow sticks to match their band’s "fan color." Even more impressive are the fan chants. These are complex chants — backing vocals and countermelodies — that the audience sings in unison, along with the band’s performance. As Simon from Eat Your Kimchi explained, "the record labels will actually release a song to the official fan groups before it hits the actual airwaves. The fan groups can memorize a fan chant of a song, so at the actual debut performance of the song they can sing along with it. It's a crucial part of the marketing."
Walking around the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater prior to the big concert, snatches of music came in and out of range. I’d hear what sounded like Def Leppard, and then as I focused on the source, it would turn out to be some K-Pop tune, of course. All day and into the night one could hear ghosts of K-Ci & JoJo, Smash Mouth, One Direction, T. Rex, LCD Soundsystem, Abba, and many more — all constructed on a foundation of contemporary dance beats.
According to everyone I talked to, the internet — and specifically YouTube — has been essential in the spread of K-Pop to the US, and not just because it is an extremely visual genre.
Ann Lu, Mnet America’s VP of Marketing, says that since YouTube came along, "the entertainment sphere has completely changed. The landscape is so different. When they talk about entertainment, source of entertainment, I think television counts for only maybe 30-40 percent. For sources of content, a lot of [our viewers] watch stuff on YouTube, watch stuff on the internet. They're on the internet all the time. Because of YouTube, foreign content is readily available [to viewers in the states]. There's no national boundary or language boundary. When it comes to music, language is less of an issue."
K-Pop blog Soompi cited a report in early 2012, stating that "K-Pop videos were viewed [on YouTube] nearly 2.3 billion times worldwide in the past year, breaking the previous year’s record of 800 million views by nearly threefold." Of all those views, American views measured in at the 240 million mark, second only to Japan’s 423 million views.
YouTube lets American fans discover and share K-Pop amongst themselves without dealing with language barriers, paywalls, and DRM. At the same time, it just might be that the internet — and YouTube — are what will prevent K-Pop from getting any bigger than it already has.
The term that musicologists use (in fact, it’s been borrowed from agriculture) is "monoculture." There was some debate in the blogosphere last year about the bygone days when the United States had what was essentially one monolithic culture. There were only a few TV channels and everybody watched The Cosby Show on Thursday nights. Writing in Salon, Touré put it something like this:
Back when MTV played videos, it functioned like a televised boombox. It was the central way for many people to experience music they loved and learn about new artists. Thus MTV directed and funneled the conversation. Now there’s no central authority.
"Wait a minute," you’re probably thinking. "Central authority? He’s talking about communism!"
OK, you’re probably not thinking that. But maybe you’re thinking about when you went to school and found out that overnight all your fellow students had converted to the church of Nirvana, the morning after the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video premiere. (Or, in my case, you were remembering where you were when you first heard "Eat It" by Weird Al Yankovic.)
Monoculture nostalgists argue that limited options for news and entertainment (three or four TV networks and a couple shitty record stores in your town) brought everyone together. When an album like Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out it was a huge deal for everybody. They say that the internet, while giving us endless entertainment and news options, somehow divides us as a nation by denying us the opportunity to bond over the same movies and record albums and episodes of Seinfeld.
Whether you buy this or not (I’m not sure that I do) what is clear is that record labels are selling a lot less new music, in part due to piracy and streaming media, and in part because there are just so many more options available for consumers online than there were in brick and mortar shops like Strawberries or Record Den. Not only is a pop group now competing with almost every other pop group in existence, they’re also competing with almost every group that has ever existed in the past, thanks to the endless reissues and recycling of record label back catalogs.
As a result, instead of a few dominant artists, consumers have a great number of niche genres to choose from. Including K-Pop.
The same internet that has brought K-Pop to the attention of mainstream America will probably prevent it from ever being more than an underground phenomenon.
K-Pop and its discontents
Let’s wait until tomorrow to rage against the machine
My ticket for the K-Pop idol concert grants me access to the tippy-top of the 16,085 seat amphitheater, and as I post myself in a nosebleed seat I feel like a total creep. This is probably the most family-friendly event I’ve attended since my confirmation at age 16, and here I am, looming over it with a notepad and a frozen margarita served in a foot tall, green plastic cup shaped like an electric guitar.
"There is something legitimately strange and troubling about the phrase Culture Technology," I think out loud while taking in the grand finale. When you care about culture — and people should care about culture — it doesn’t at all feel good to know that it’s being run roughshod over by corporations.
As for the ten thousand teeny-boppers packed into the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (where Ozzy filmed the Speak of the Devil concert almost exactly thirty years ago) they couldn’t care less about my misgivings. Then again, after a good twelve hours or so, I don’t really care that much either.
The thing of it is, I now realize that I really do like K-Pop. Definitely not all of it, and maybe not most of it, but the stuff that I do like, I really like. Despite the obvious weirdness of the pre-fab pop industry, or maybe because of it, I am a convert.
What my brief trip to Irvine, California, has brought into focus (other than the fact that I prefer 2NE1 to Super Junior) is that the manipulation of art and music that Culture Technology represents isn’t going to end anytime soon. Until things change, artists have to consider this, and they have to remember to hold onto something for themselves. This might be as simple as not trying out for American Idol, or not uploading your music to iTunes, or not turning it into a ringtone.
But that’s a discussion for another time. Tonight we’re having too much fun. Let’s wait until tomorrow to rage against the machine.
Additional reporting by Billy Disney