Why are we so ob­sessed with Korean Pop Cul­ture?

CLEO (Singapore) - - CON­TENTS -

We lis­ten to their songs, fol­low their dra­mas and turn to them for style in­spo, mak­ing South Korea clearly the tastemaker du jour of Asia. So just how did we be­come so en­am­oured with all things Korean?

Big Bang. Goblin. Run­ning Man. BTS. Om­bre lips. Ae­gyo-sal. “TT”. Descen­dants of the Sun. Un­less you’ve been liv­ing un­der a pop cul­ture rock for the past cou­ple of years, chances are, you’d know ex­actly what all those words mean. From mu­sic to TV to beauty to fash­ion, most of us in the Asian re­gion tend to con­sume a lot of Korean pop cul­ture. But why is that so, con­sid­er­ing the cul­tural and lan­guage bar­ri­ers?

The K-Wave

It all be­gan with Korean TV dra­mas like Win­ter Sonata, Jewel in the Palace, Full House and Stair­way to Heaven in the early ’00s. This was be­fore streaming video sites were a thing, so most Sin­ga­pore­ans watch the dubbed and sub­ti­tled ver­sions on our lo­cal chan­nels. Then, in the next decade or so, came the pro­lif­er­a­tion of K-Pop bands and their care­fully cu­rated mem­bers, like Su­per Ju­nior, Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion, Big Bang and Won­der Girls. Their mu­sic videos were on YouTube, so pretty much any­one with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion could lis­ten to their favourite songs over and over again with the click of a but­ton.

And sud­denly, the whole of Asia fell in love with South Korea. From housewives to work­ing adults to youths, you’ll be hard­pressed to find some­one who hasn’t been ex­posed to some form of K-Ex­port these days. The me­dia named the sud­den boom of Korean pop cul­ture the K-Wave – also known as Hal­lyu (which means “flow of Korea”) – and the rest is his­tory. But what’s puz­zling about this phe­nom­e­non is that, de­spite be­ing in a for­eign lan­guage and cul­ture al­to­gether, it has man­aged to cap­ti­vate a wide au­di­ence out­side of Korea. It’s not like Western pop cul­ture, where we can con­sume its ex­ports di­rectly, no sub­ti­tles needed. What gives?

In an in­ter­view with CNN1, Sung Tae Ho, a se­nior man­ager from the Korean Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem, pointed out that be­cause of sim­i­lar­i­ties in Asian cul­tures, there isn’t much of a cul­tural bar­rier. “Even though the lan­guages are dif­fer­ent, we share an Eastern men­tal­ity. We re­spect the fa­ther and mother, a very hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­ci­ety and Con­fu­cian­ism,” he said.

This sen­ti­ment was echoed by Dr Liew Kai Khiun, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity’s Wee Kim Wee School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and In­for­ma­tion.

“Me­dia and pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment flows are gen­er­ally very por­ous in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, es­pe­cially in mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­eties like Sin­ga­pore,” he ex­plains.

He adds: “While Sin­ga­porean pro­grammes may ap­peal to lo­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties, it has lost out to in­tensely com­pet­i­tive Korean coun­ter­parts, who have also up­staged the Ja­panese in trend­set­ting mod­ern life­styles and val­ues in Asia.”

Mass ap­peal

For 25-year-old HR ad­min­is­tra­tor De­light Ng, her gate­way to K-Cul­ture was SHINee, a five-mem­ber boy band with an in­fec­tious hit called “Ring Ding Dong”. “I won­dered who were these men danc­ing in sync and singing in Korean, mixed with a smat­ter­ing of weird English lyrics that made no sense,” she re­calls.

“What caught my eye was that the band was pack­aged so per­fectly, like a prod­uct to be mar­keted to the masses. They could dance, sing, and rap all at the same time and they were hand­some as well!” she adds. That was eight years ago – the HR ex­ec­u­tive now speaks flu­ent Korean and even stud­ied in Seoul for about a year.

Much has been said about the pop mu­sic fac­tory that is South Korea. The story of how bands are pro­duced is fa­mil­iar to those who have the slight­est in­ter­est in the K-Pop scene: tal­ents are re­cruited into agen­cies from as early as 13 years old, pre­sented with air­tight con­tracts that don’t leave room for the slight­est mis­de­meanor, and put through a gru­el­ing train­ing sys­tem that can last years be­fore their de­but.

Given the im­mense reach of K-Pop and the tried-andtested for­mula for pro­duc­ing pop stars, it’s no sur­prise then, that the three big­gest Korean en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies – SM En­ter­tain­ment, JYP En­ter­tain­ment, and YG En­ter­tain­ment – have gone be­yond South Korea in their tal­ent search. BamBam from GOT7 and Lisa from BLACK­PINK are from Thai­land; Fei from Miss A and Vic­to­ria from f(x) are from China; TWICE’s Sana, Mina and Momo are from Ja­pan; SNSD’s Tif­fany, f(x)’s Am­ber and Krys­tal, and Jay Park are from the US; while BLACK­PINK’s Rosé is from New Zealand. Although, it’s in­ter­est­ing to note that tal­ent re­cruited from over­seas are all East Asian.

Pretty sells

On the K-Drama side of things, Dr Kai Khiun pointed out that there’s a con­scious mar­ket­ing of Korean en­ter­tain­ment to fe­male au­di­ences, who are be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent de­mo­graphic.

“Many Korean dra­mas fo­cus on the strug­gles of women in the house­holds, work­place, and even in the high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice. And to whet the au­di­ence’s fan­tasies, there are usu­ally dash­ing males around to help them pull through life. And, of course, these ex­tra­or­di­nary men on screen – some even come with su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers – are meant to be com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the mun­dane boyfriends and hus­bands in real life, which is the draw of Korean dra­mas,” says Dr Kai Khiun. With this in mind, it’s not dif­fi­cult to see why women would turn to Korean dra­mas as a form of es­capism.

But wait, you ask, what has that got to do with us hav­ing more spend­ing power? Well, con­sider this: Jun Ji Hyun’s char­ac­ter in You Who Came From the Stars – which fea­tures eye candy in the form of Kim Soo Hyun – was fre­quently seen sport­ing YSL’s Rouge Pur Cou­ture in No.52 Rosy Coral, and as a re­sult, the lip­stick shade was not only sold out at YSL coun­ters in Seoul, but around the rest of the world as well.

And when LANEIGE spokes­woman Song Hye Kyo whips out her two-tone lip bar or BB cush­ion to touch-up be­fore a date with Song Joong Ki in Descen­dants of the Sun – guess what? Yup, some­thing in us stirs and sud­denly we need to have those in our cos­met­ics pouches too. On top of that, you have Krys­tal from f(x) as the face of ETUDE HOUSE and Miss A’s Suzy fronting cam­paigns for THE­FACESHOP.

“These ex­tra­or­di­nary men on screen... are meant to be com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the mun­dane boyfriends and hus­bands in real life.”

Just like we see in Western celebrity cul­ture, when­ever these pop stars and ac­tresses make an ap­pear­ance, it’s not un­com­mon for fans to ask where their clothes are from, and which shade of lip­stick they’re us­ing.

The forms of me­dia we’re ex­posed to have a huge in­flu­ence on our fash­ion and beauty choices. So, very pre­dictably, be­cause we love K-Pop cul­ture, we love K-beauty too. This partly ex­plains why South Korea is also a jug­ger­naut in the beauty in­dus­try, and in­creas­ingly in the fash­ion stakes too.

Dol­lars and sense

Be­sides some clever busi­ness strate­gies from the con­tent pro­duc­ers and en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies, the govern­ment has also had a hand in el­e­vat­ing Korea’s sta­tus as a heavy­weight pop cul­ture ex­porter. In a The Straits

Times re­port2, an ex­pert from Ernst & Young pointed out that the South Korean govern­ment in­vested 1.4 per­cent of its Bud­get – that’s a whop­ping ap­prox­i­mate of US$5.2 bil­lion – in cul­ture and me­dia last year. This year, the govern­ment plans to in­crease it to 2 per­cent – or US$7.8 bil­lion.

These hefty in­vest­ments have paid off. The Straits Times re­ported that ac­cord­ing to data from the Korea Cre­ative Con­tent Agency, the con­tent in­dus­try’s ex­ports, which in­clude mu­sic, games and broad­cast­ing, in­creased from US$43 bil­lion in 2011 to US$58.3 bil­lion in 2014.

Just look­ing at the num­ber of Korean artistes in re­cent mem­ory who are hold­ing world tours, over­seas con­certs, and over­seas fan meet­ings, it’s safe to as­sume that Hal­lyu is mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to South Korea’s econ­omy. And it’s not just in the form of di­rect sales – it also helps to in­crease tourism dol­lars too. In the same re­port, tourism pro­mo­tion of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that around 10 per­cent of tourists who vis­ited South Korea in 2015 were there “purely be­cause of Hal­lyu”.

“Be­ing a K-Pop fan for so many years has made me ap­pre­ci­ate Korean cul­ture as a whole: the food, the eti­quette, the lan­guage, and so on,” says busi­ness de­vel­op­ment man­ager Valen­isha, 26. “It was only nat­u­ral that I started learn­ing the lan­guage and vis­ited the coun­try for long hol­i­days, not only to see the artists in real life, but also to ex­pe­ri­ence for my­self what Korea is like.”

World dom­i­na­tion?

While K-Wave ex­ports do very well re­gion­ally, it still re­mains to be seen if it will take off in the US mar­ket. A hand­ful of Korean artists have tried break­ing into the US main­stream – in­clud­ing CL, Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion, Rain, Se7en, Won­der Girls and Big Bang – but none of them have be­come house­hold names in Amer­ica yet. So far, the only K-Pop act that has made a con­sid­er­able dent in the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness is Psy.

“The Amer­i­can mar­ket has gen­er­ally been prej­u­diced against Asian-based pop­u­lar mu­sic, which it con­sid­ers to be too man­u­fac­tured… Gang­nam Style was pop­u­lar as Psy’s un­re­strained awk­ward­ness pro­jected some au­then­tic­ity that play­fully sub­verted the con­strain­ing po­lite­ness of daily liv­ing,” says Dr Kai Khiun.

“How­ever, this is set to change with the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar­ity of some per­son­al­i­ties in the West, like G-Dragon from Big Bang and CL from the re­cently dis­banded 2NE1,” he ob­serves.

K-Pop songs like “No­body” by Won­der Girls and “Lifted” by CL have charted on the Bill­board Hot 100, as have all of Psy’s post-“Gang­nam Style” hits. Ac­tor Lee Byung Hyun had ma­jor roles in Hol­ly­wood films like

G.I. Joe and The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven, while Rain played the lead­ing role in Ninja As­sas­sin, which raked in more than US$13 mil­lion dur­ing its open­ing week­end in Amer­ica, and even earned him an MTV Movie Award.

But the re­al­ity is, waves ebb and flow. Be­fore the rise of Hal­lyu, the Asian re­gion went gaga for Tai­wanese pop cul­ture (re­mem­ber Me­teor Gar­den, My MVP Valen­tine, 5566 and F4?).

And be­fore that, J-Pop cul­ture also en­joyed a pe­riod of pop­u­lar­ity within the Asian re­gion. Which prompts the ques­tion – will the K-Wave re­cede over time? Not for the next decade at least, says Dr Kai Khiun.

“For me, signs of decline and re­duc­tion in public in­ter­est comes when the turnover rate of pro­duc­tions and celebri­ties start to slow down… with new K-Pop groups and celebri­ties still be­ing churned out, it’s un­likely that the fad will fade in the next decade or so.”

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