South Korean mu­sic is turn­ing con­verts into fa­nat­ics across the world. But be­hind the bright, in­no­cent fa­cade is a com­plex story of young dreams col­lid­ing with ruth­less cap­i­tal­ism

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY BRIAN O’FLYNN

The in­ex­orable rise of South Korean pop cul­ture

n Au­gust 27th 2017, Taylor Swift’s video for Look What You Made Me Do de­buted at the MTV Video Mu­sic Awards. The set­ting was sig­nif­i­cant – the same VMAs stage had been the birth­place of her by then leg­endary feud with Kanye West which formed the sub­ject matter of the sin­gle. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing video broke the record for most-watched in the first 24 hours of re­lease, amass­ing 43.2 mil­lion views on YouTube in its first day. It wasn’t re­ally that sur­pris­ing; in the up­per ech­e­lons of celebrity, Swift and the Kar­dashian-Wests in­habit a league of their own.

On Au­gust 24th 2018, al­most pre­cisely a year later, in rather un­canny tim­ing, a boy­band called BTS swooped in to snatch that record. This time, the new record was sur­pris­ing – for some. Many Ir­ish pop con­sumers re­acted with the one ques­tion we would never ask about Taylor Swift: who the hell are BTS? And how have they ac­crued global fame great enough to top­ple T Swift with­out even pop­ping up on many Ir­ish peo­ple’s radar?

The sim­plest an­swer is that BTS are a K-pop (South Korean pop) group, cur­rently on a huge world tour that in­cluded an ap­pear­ance

The Gra­ham Nor­ton Show two weeks ago. How­ever, the phrase “K-pop” doesn’t re­ally just mean “pop from South Korea”. K-pop is a genre and an in­dus­try, a com­plex sys­tem of late cap­i­tal­ist mu­sic man­u­fac­tur­ing. You can watch the shiny mu­sic videos this in­dus­try churns out and still know noth­ing about it. You need to talk to a fan – of which there are mil­lions in a grow­ing, glob­alised army.

In what is known as Hal­lyu, or the Korean Wave, South Korean cul­ture has been sweep­ing the planet in re­cent years. Dozens of video doc­u­men­taries by VICE, i-D and other me­dia brands on South Korean fash­ion, tat­toos, plas­tic surgery and pop mu­sic, demon­strate how South Korea is be­com­ing an ob­ject of ob­ses­sion in the western world. K-pop mu­sic was de­signed to be an ad­dic­tive cul­tural ex­port, and that as­pi­ra­tion is quickly be­com­ing a re­al­ity. If you don’t think it’s pen­e­trated your cul­tural bub­ble yet, you’re wrong – re­mem­ber Gang­nam Style in 2012?

The world of pop mu­sic is cur­rently di­vided into two camps – those who have suc­cumbed to K-pop fever, and those who have yet to be in­fected. The gospel is spread­ing rapidly, and all con­verts seem to be in­stant fa­nat­ics. Nine­teen-year-old Matthieu Sch­warz­mann is one such evan­ge­list.

“K-pop is in­fec­tious. That’s the whole point of the in­dus­try!” he tells The Ir­ish Times. “It churns out very sim­ple three minute songs that get stuck in your head. They all have sim­ple chore­ogra­phies so ev­ery­one can dance to them.”

What strikes you in­stantly about K-pop is how in­tense the fans are, and how per­fectly ev­ery­thing is de­signed to sell, sell, sell. In a BBC doc­u­men­tary aired ear­lier this year en­ti­tled K-Pop: Korea’s Se­cret Weapon?, Ra­dio 1 pre­sen­ter Adele Roberts de­scribed how she wit­nessed an on­line re­ac­tion un­like any­thing she’d ever seen when she played a song by BTS. In Seoul, she meets a Scot­tish fan who ac­tu­ally moved to Korea and learned Korean lan­guage to bet­ter be able to sup­port her favourite groups.

“That’s what this in­dus­try does to you”, Matthieu tells me. “It’s pop mu­sic on crack!” But how does it all work? “K-pop is run by com­pa­nies that put to­gether boy and girl groups. These com­pa­nies have a sort of ‘stock’ of trainees”, Matthieu con­tin­ues. “The trainees are re­cruited around age 10

K-pop was de­signed to be an ad­dic­tive cul­tural ex­port, and this aim is quickly be­com­ing a re­al­ity. Even if you don’t think it’s pen­e­trated your cul­tural bub­ble yet, you’re wrong – re­mem­ber ‘Gang­nam Style’ in 2012?

and train in schools for many years be­fore join­ing a K-pop pro­duc­tion com­pany. There are three big com­pa­nies in K-pop: YG, JYP, SM. If they’re suc­cess­ful, the com­pa­nies select them to be part of a group, and they de­but as an idol around age 16.”

South Korean con­text

To the unini­ti­ated, K-pop is a con­fus­ing world which you need to put in a South Korean con­text to un­der­stand. For ex­am­ple, tal­ent shows are a huge part of the sys­tem. Tal­ent shows to Ir­ish peo­ple means X-Fac­tor and The

Voice, where ran­dom civil­ians com­pete for a chance at star­dom, but in South Korea they serve a dif­fer­ent pur­pose, as plat­forms for the K-pop com­pa­nies to show­case groups they have al­ready spent years train­ing and cu­rat­ing. K-pop stars (known as “idols”) are put through train­ing schools, then com­bined into groups and mar­keted with minutely planned re­lease sched­ules through these shows.

“On these shows, the groups com­pete to be the win­ners. Get­ting your first mu­sic show win is what sep­a­rates you from all the other av­er­age K-pop groups. Af­ter that you’re ba­si­cally in with the big kids – your fan base, and there­fore your al­bum sales, sky­rocket. That is why some com­pa­nies have rules for the mem­bers of their groups such as no cell­phones be­fore they get their first win,” says Matthieu.

How did such a tightly con­trolled and man­u­fac­tured sys­tem of pop emerge? It’s all rooted in South Korea’s pol­i­tics, cul­ture, econ­omy and his­tory.

Dr John Lie is a South Korean-born pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at UC Berke­ley, and au­thor of the book Han Un­bound: The Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy of South Korea. Of K-pop’s ori­gins, he ex­plains: “South Korea had its own tra­di­tion of pop­u­lar mu­sic. But K-pop is a dis­tinct genre wrought by sev­eral pro­duc­ers and en­trepreneurs in­tent on gen­er­at­ing an ex­port-ori­ented pop­u­lar mu­sic. That is, there are gen­res of pop­u­lar mu­sic in South Korea that look like those in the US or for that matter Ir­ish pop mu­sic (from folk to rock) – but K-pop emerged al­most de novo in the 1990s.”

K-pop was the re­sult of the democrati­sa­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion of South Korea. As de­tailed in The Trans­for­ma­tion of South Korea: Reform and Re­con­sti­tu­tion in the Sixth Repub­lic Un­der

Roh Tae Woo, 1987-1992 by Robert Bedeski, the es­tab­lish­ment of the Sixth Repub­lic ush­ered in a new era of free­dom, when press cen­sor­ship was lifted.

Prior to this, the state had only two broad­cast net­works which con­trolled what the pub­lic saw, and show­cased only spe­cific mu­si­cal acts through tal­ent shows on these two net­works. Once the Sixth Repub­lic was es­tab­lished, global cul­tural in­flu­ences flooded in to the al­ready ex­ist­ing mould of the TV tal­ent show, which con­tin­ued to hold cul­tural sway. Groups such as Seo Taiji and Boys ap­peared on these shows in the 1990s ped­dling a new type of pop: a hy­brid of ex­ist­ing Korean pop with US pop, R&B, and hip-hop mu­sic. This new genre was dubbed K-pop and the Big 3 com­pa­nies quickly formed around it, see­ing its mas­sive mar­ket po­ten­tial.

The Big 3 es­tab­lished a pro­duc­tion line where the artists are se­lected as chil­dren, then coached for star­dom – ev­ery step of the process is un­der their con­trol. Dr Lie ex­plains that they were able to do this “be­cause there wasn’t a large in­de­pen­dent mu­sic scene (am­a­teur mu­si­cians or lo­cal per­for­mance venues) in the early 1990s”, record com­pa­nies as we know them in the West didn’t ex­ist, and there was “an ex­treme con­cen­tra­tion of power and wealth in Seoul”, where the Big 3 com­pa­nies are based.


The com­pa­nies es­tab­lished train­ing schools, which be­came the sole av­enue for success in K-pop. Chil­dren au­di­tion as young as 11 or 12. If suc­cess­ful, they will be asked to sign long-term con­tracts so ex­ploita­tive they have be­come known as “slave con­tracts”. They are so ex­treme that Va­ri­ety re­ported in 2017 that South Korea’s Fair Trade Com­mis­sion had de­manded that the com­pa­nies re­vise the terms. Con­tracts were once as long as 13 years but a sep­a­rate FTC rul­ing in 2011 fi­nally

The trainees are re­cruited around age 10 and train in schools for many years be­fore join­ing a K-pop pro­duc­tion com­pany. There are three big com­pa­nies in K-pop: YG, JYP, SM. If they’re suc­cess­ful, the com­pa­nies select them to be part of a group, and they de­but as an idol around age 16

lim­ited them to seven years.

Many K-pop groups have fallen apart as in­di­vid­ual mem­bers sue their com­pa­nies in or­der to es­cape the suf­fo­cat­ing con­tracts – the

Korea Joon­gang Daily re­ported in 2014 that the group EXO had bro­ken up be­cause for­mer mem­bers Kris and Luhan filed law­suits against SM En­ter­tain­ment, cit­ing un­fair divi­sion of prof­its, tight sched­ules and in­fringe­ment of pri­vacy.

YouTube is lit­tered with for­mer K-pop trainees’ “con­fes­sion” videos, where they de­tail the pun­ish­ing life­style. “I was only 13. It was ex­tremely tir­ing. I couldn’t han­dle it,” Jes­sica Lee re­veals in one such vlog. “I had to lose weight. I couldn’t eat”. It’s widely re­ported that K-pop trainees are de­nied ac­cess to smart­phones, for­bid­den from be­ing in re­la­tion­ships and re­stricted to harsh di­ets and timeta­bles.

It seems like a high price to pay for fame and for­tune, but for­tune nor­mally isn’t in the pic­ture. One key term of many slave con­tracts is that the idols must re­pay the com­pa­nies the cost of their decade of in­ten­sive train­ing once they be­come prof­itable. The bill can eas­ily amount to mil­lions, mean­ing the idols have very lit­tle to show, fi­nan­cially, for their pain.

Sus­tain­ing the sys­tem

The one ques­tion you’re left with af­ter hear­ing all this is: why on earth would you go through it? There are cru­cial eco­nomic and cul­tural con­di­tions in Korea which sus­tain the sys­tem. “The larger rea­son for low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions is that South Korea is a so­ci­ety based on ed­u­ca­tional cre­den­tials (more than 80 per cent at­tend col­leges/ uni­ver­si­ties) and there are pre­ciously few jobs that pay well for peo­ple who are not hy­per-ed­u­cated. K-pop is one of them.

Hence, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of South Korean par­ents and chil­dren seek fame and for­tune in K-pop and are will­ing to go through long years of train­ing and low pay at the be­gin­ning for the chance to strike it rich, Dr Lie ex­plains.

Al Jazeera re­ported in 2011 on South Korean stu­dents be­ing driven to sui­cide by the im­pos­si­bly high stan­dards and com­pet­i­tive col­lege en­try sys­tem. K-pop train­ing schools, to many fam­i­lies, may seem like the lesser of two evils.

“Many as­pir­ing K-pop stars be­lieve that this is the only route to success,” Lie con­tin­ues. “It is prob­a­bly true that in con­trast to the US – where the ide­ol­ogy of ge­nius and tal­ent is strong – South Kore­ans tend to be­lieve in the virtues of ded­i­ca­tion. That is, hard work can over­come born tal­ent, whether in pass­ing com­pet­i­tive ex­ams to get into top schools or in be­com­ing a pop star.”

The South Korean ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and the K-pop sys­tem have more than one par­al­lel: they both de­mand huge ded­i­ca­tion from their par­tic­i­pants – and they can both kill. Kim Jong-hyun of the group SHINee died by sui­cide last De­cem­ber, and Seo Min­woo of the group 100% died of car­diac ar­rest this year. While the heart at­tack can­not be at­trib­uted di­rectly to the pres­sures of per­form­ing, the count­less videos of K-pop stars col­laps­ing from ex­haus­tion on stage are pretty damn­ing.

The world of K-pop might seem cruel, but as Euny Hong, au­thor of The Birth of Korean

Cool, tells The Ir­ish Times, you re­ally need to take a step back and view it in con­text: “Yes, K-pop band mem­bers have very closely mon­i­tored lives – Hyuna just got fired by her la­bel for her choice of boyfriend. But this isn’t that dif­fer­ent from pre-union Hol­ly­wood, when ac­tors were es­sen­tially the sole prop­erty of one stu­dio and could not have free reign over their own phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Look at how Rita Hay­worth got her start, it’s got K-pop writ­ten all over it.

“Also, Korean young peo­ple are ei­ther study­ing like crazy or work­ing like crazy. K-pop stars’ long hours are the norm in Korea, even if they had cho­sen a dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion,” she ar­gues.

The Western world may be quick to jump to con­clu­sions when it sees the K-pop in­dus­try, sim­ply be­cause it does not un­der­stand the so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­text from which it arises. One of the rea­sons for BTS’s Western success is that they dif­fer from other K-pop groups in sev­eral ways – they write their own mu­sic, they have com­par­a­tive free­dom to use so­cial me­dia and ex­press them­selves, and they are signed to Big Hit En­ter­tain­ment – ie, not one of the Big 3.

Young­dae Kim is a Korean mu­sic critic who be­lieves that BTS’s Western success was a happy ac­ci­dent – they were de­signed as a Ja­panese ex­port. “Ja­pan is usu­ally an eas­ier and more lu­cra­tive mar­ket than the US in terms of record sales and tour,” he says.

K-pop has al­ways been a strange hy­brid of Korean and Western cul­ture. The mu­sic has drawn on US gen­res, but the ex­treme work ethic and man­age­ment sys­tem are a prod­uct of Korean cul­ture and econ­omy. The new man­age­ment of Big Hit En­ter­tain­ment seems to rep­re­sent an un­ex­pected swing to­wards more US-style norms, which may be helping BTS to break that mar­ket. “The fact that they co-wrote the mu­sic would def­i­nitely be a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the US mar­ket, es­pe­cially for those who value ‘au­then­tic­ity’ in mu­sic and would not lis­ten to K-pop out of dis­ap­proval,” Kim ar­gues. “But I don’t think that was ac­tu­ally a de­lib­er­ate plan by the com­pany”.

Mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive con­cepts

“BTS came to the scene when a new kind of idol for­mat started to be pop­u­larised, which was ‘Idol hip-hop’,” Kim says. “Pop and hip-hop have been con­sid­ered two mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive con­cepts in the his­tory of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic. Al­though the is­sue was rather less sen­si­tive to Korean au­di­ences, they were aware of the fact that hip-hop was ba­si­cally built upon the idea of au­then­tic­ity and ‘be­ing true to who you are’. In other words, you must write your lyrics at least if you want to be le­git. There­fore, idols were given more cre­ative free­dom than ever be­fore, ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing in the process of com­pos­ing – al­though the fi­nal prod­uct was usu­ally pol­ished by pro­fes­sion­als. It was a smart but in­evitable choice.”

K-pop is a well-oiled, late-cap­i­tal­ist ma­chine de­signed as a cul­tural ex­port to draw mil­lions into South Korea. It’s also a source of im­mense joy to mil­lions around the globe. It is the cen­tre of a cul­tural dia­logue, ex­ert­ing enor­mous in­flu­ence over the worlds of mu­sic, fash­ion and plas­tic surgery (as fans at­tempt to achieve the per­fect im­age of K-pop idols), while at the same time con­tin­u­ing to bor­row from other mu­sic gen­res.

The whole genre has be­come a light­ning rod for dis­cus­sion around cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. A VICE doc­u­men­tary fol­low­ing the world’s first Amer­i­can K-pop group, EXP Edi­tion, went vi­ral on­line. The doc­u­men­tary ex­plores how many Western fans ac­cused the group of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, say­ing such things as: “No white peo­ple in my K-pop.”

The group’s cre­ator, a Korean wo­man named Bora Kim, ar­gued that the stance of such western fans was Ori­en­tal­ist. As she points out, many K-pop groups have Chi­nese and Ja­panese mem­bers, who were cho­sen by pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies specif­i­cally so the groups could be mar­keted more eas­ily in their re­spec­tive coun­tries, but Western fans never com­plain about these par­tic­u­lar non-Korean mem­bers, sim­ply be­cause they’re all Asian. “It’s ex­oti­cis­ing and de­mean­ing and Ori­en­tal­ist”, she says.

“In Korea, we don’t get the hate re­ac­tion,” she says. “When you ac­tu­ally look at K-pop, there’s noth­ing tra­di­tion­ally Korean in it.” K-pop is it­self built on the bor­row­ing of tropes from other cul­tures, specif­i­cally from hip-hop, which orig­i­nated among the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity of the Bronx in 1970s New York. Western fan­dom’s con­ver­sa­tion around what is ap­pro­pria­tive and what is not seems se­lec­tive, and, as Bora Kim says, Ori­en­tal­ist.

Only one thing is for cer­tain – K-pop isn’t go­ing any­where. Hal­lyu is con­tin­u­ing to flood the world with the fash­ion, aes­thet­ics and sounds of K-pop. Last month, BTS ad­dressed the UN, and this month they fea­ture on the cover of Time mag­a­zine. As this cul­tural phe­nom­e­non con­tin­ues to bal­loon, you bet­ter get into it, or get out of its way.

K-pop has al­ways been a strange hy­brid of Korean and Western cul­ture. The mu­sic has drawn on US gen­res, but the ex­treme work ethic and man­age­ment sys­tem are a prod­uct of Korean cul­ture and econ­omy

Left: RM, Jimin, J-Hope, V, Jungkook, Suga and Jin of K-pop su­per­stars BTS.


Left (top to bot­tom): BTS per­form on­stage dur­ing the 2017 Amer­i­can Mu­sic Awards in Los An­ge­les, and (be­low) on the cover of this month’s Time mag­a­zine; Amer­i­can K-pop group EXP Edi­tion; Fans of Kim Jong-hyun of the group SHINee line the streets as the hearse car­ry­ing his body passes by in Seoul on De­cem­ber 21st, 2017.

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