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May 29th, 2013 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

Seoul Power

The Korean pop machine is going global. But what exactly is it?

music_big box_3930NEW K’S ON THE BLOCK: (Clockwise from upper left) Exo, Glam, GI, Shinee. - Image Courtesy of Reese Umbaugh
     
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When “Gangnam Style” seized the world in its cartoon-neon clutches via YouTube last year, it seemed like something uploaded from another planet. 



In fact, it originated from the South Korean pop industry, but close enough. Sounding and looking like a facsimile of mainstream American pop and R&B blown up into a widescreen Technicolor fever dream, K-pop is the subject of growing international fascination, not just for its sensory-overloading aesthetics but also the unique celebrity-generating farm system that cranks out stars like widgets on an assembly line. Psy and his hypnotically goofy dance moves represented K-pop’s first global success, but there’s more where he came from. A lot more.

Next week, the Hollywood Theatre hosts a symposium on modern K-pop, featuring a screening of music videos and a discussion with regional experts. We asked panelist Allen Huang, a music writer and host of a monthly Asian pop club night in Seattle, for a primer.

[Allen Huang's top five K-Pop bands to watch.]


Willamette Week: What defines K-pop for you?

Allen Huang: First of all, it comes from Korea, but also, it’s involved in the whole multifaceted pop music industry of Korea. There are indie bands and electronic producers from Korea who make really good music, but aren’t what I would say is K-pop. K-pop, to me, feels like, you work with the industries, you do the promotional cycles, you make the music videos, you dress up and do promotion. It’s this whole promotional music scene that’s constantly churning and constantly innovating to keep up with itself.


What was the catalyst for the origin of the industry, and how did it evolve to this point?

The industry as it is today got its roots when boy bands were blowing up in America and the UK, like Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. The few major companies—there are three or four major agencies who put out most of the K-pop in Korea or are the parent companies for some of the smaller labels that do this, most of them took directly what they do from that, and will admit as much. They’ll be like, when I was in America in the late ‘90s or early ‘90s and I saw the Backstreet Boys blowing up, I started thinking, we could do this, we should do this. They literally brought that kind of idea back to Korea, started their own agencies, recruited talent and started writing songs for them, and it kind of rolled from there. Before then, I’d say before 2000, the sound pretty much aped exactly what was going on in that era, this Jive Records sort of sound that didn’t sound much different except it was in a different language. I’d say since 2010, 2011, K-pop’s been taking more from Eurostyle, Euro-trance and Euro-club, as well as American pop music, and adding a whole other level of visual element to it. And it also has to do with American pop music pulling back from that a bit. It’s mostly solo artists and indie bands and pop bands. You’ll have Maroon 5 do a dance number, but they’re going to go onstage, play instruments and kind of rock out. K-pop has taken that and been like, OK, we’re going to keep with the dancing, we’re going to keep with the vocals, we’re going to keep with the huge groups, and we’re going to make really up to date pop music that will hopefully have a global appeal.


Is anything about it distinctly Korean?

The biggest indicator of Korean culture is how it tackles social issues, in that Korea is sort of a conservative culture socially. In their songs, they’ll talk about love and sex and dating and stuff, but it’s very much toned down, especially compared to American pop music. If you look at the lyrics, the things are off from our standpoint. A lot of family duty. They’re the things young people want to hear about, say, family duty. It’s OK to respect your parents, but be yourself and stuff like that. It’s very subversive compared to what they’ve been getting the last 20 years. 


Tell me about the training camps for pop stars.

It’s like a boot camp, basically. If you’re recruited by these agencies—sometimes they’ll recruit you but most of the time it’s these open auditions, and people will go to these open auditions and perform. It’s funny, when people talk about the harshness of these camps, like oh, they’re taken away from their families and worked 16 hours a day, it’s not like these kids don’t know that’s what happens. I’m not saying it’s like prostitution or something, where you know that’s a bad life. It takes a lot of hard work to be a pop star, especially now with the amount of pop stars out there. Of course you’re going to go work hard. These agencies are investing in you to become a big pop star. They go to these houses, and it’s just to create camaraderie with the other recruits. It’s just like a dorm. They go school, and after school they go back there. It’s not like every agency does this. A lot of them still live at home and do this. It’s just like a part time job, as well as school. So they’re probably putting 30 extra hours per week into this. That’s like the early training. If you’re actually becoming a success and you’re getting promoted and about to debut, then you’re going to shoot up to 60 hours a week and you’re probably not going to school for a little bit. It’s not a shady business. I won’t lie and say it’s not a harsh business.


In what way is it harsh?

If you look at the last few years, I think the numbers are, in 2010 maybe 15 groups debut, and in 2012 maybe 60 groups debut. It’s been an exponential growth in the number of people who are in this groups and how big the industry has gotten. What’s also surprising is not a lot of these groups have imploded. Some of them are less active than others, but I can count maybe two or three who have said we’re no longer a group, we’re folding this. It’s hard for me to know how deep the well goes with some of these agencies, as far as how much money they’re going to put into these groups. I think a lot of them are banking on their kids to succeed, and will keep going with them as it is.


Tell me about these massive 12-person pop idol groups.

The thing about being a pop star in Korea, or in any Asian country, you’re not just expected to sing and dance. You’re expected to be an actor or actress, you’re expected to go on TV, you’re expected to promote—just be a full, multifaceted celebrity. When you have these huge groups, you have denotations of what part of that group is good at what. You’ll have the vocalists. You’ll have the models. You’ll have the dancers. You’ll have the charming personalities. Basically, you have under this one brand, all these different, excellently crafted personalities, and then the agency is able to say, this has all your favorite stars in it, support the group as a whole. So instead of having three or four celebrities with maybe a CD or two each, you have one big group and everyone is buying that CD and they’re topping the charts, which looks a lot better.


The aesthetic seems deliberately manufactured. How much artistic control do any of these performers have?

In some long tenured groups, you have some of the singers and performers helping to write songs and produce and stuff. In general, mostly the production and songwriting is handled by producers and songwriters, but I don’t think that compares unfavorably to what’s going on in Western pop markets, where you have guys like Max Martin and the Dream writing complete albums for Mariah Carey or something. So you basically have these denotations of you’re the performer, you’re the dancer and you’re songwriter, and they’ll go out and make a complete product with that. 

As far as the aesthetic being manufactured, I think it’s futurist manufactured.  There’s an element of fantasy to it, and their fantasy isn’t necessarily organic.


But it seems even more fantastic than the American pop it’s modeled on. I’m wondering if that’s a particularly Korean element.

I don’t think it’s innately Korean, honestly. Basically, what I think is Korean about it is the pop industry over there moves really fast. Song cycles happen on average in five weeks. You release the single, you release the single with EP the same day. Music video comes out the same day. Next week, you’re performing on live TV. You’re doing a concert at the end of five weeks. Then you go into dormancy, and wait for the next single to get written and performed and do it again. So most groups have two, at max three big singles per year. You don’t tour on an album for like a year and a half. You have to make the biggest impact you can with that first impression. And I think the immediacy of that lends to exaggerated visuals, exaggerated aesthetics. If you have something that’ll blow the socks off of somebody, you can find unprecedented success. “Gangnam Style” proves that point.


How representative is Psy of all this?

He’s a super outlier. Psy is very well respected in Korea. He’s been going for a long time. The guy is almost 40. No one in the game, at least making the music he’s making, is over 40. Everybody else is balladeers or television hosts who sing traditional music. He’s also been kind of a bad boy of Korean music. His first album was banned, and then his second album was censored heavily. And his newest song, “Gentleman,” is a big fuck you to the censors. He’s a super outlier, but he’s super funny, he’s got a lot of friends in the industry, and that video was hilarious, and so it just took off like that. 


He actually made some anti-American statements early in his career.

That was an interesting thing because anti-American sentiment was really high at the time he made those statements. There was an incident where a peacetime tank had run over two young girls in the countryside. There was a big brewing anti-American, anti-war statement. And Psy did come out and say fuck Americans, fuck these tanks, and tugged on his crotch and stuff.


Is there any equivalent of that, to artists making more outspoken political statements?

Politics and K-pop don’t really crossover very much unless you have that status like Psy does. You won’t see anyone younger than 30 going out and saying anything. There was a guy in a pretty famous band back in the ‘90s, one of the first big K-pop groups, and his aunt is one of the presidential candidates or something. There was a big scandal because he literally just appeared at the event. He didn’t say anything, he was just sitting in the back. But it’s like, You’re being political, you’re picking a side. He’s like, no, I’m there because she’s my aunt. It’s really hot button. There was also some flub where some girl from a group used the word democracy wrong. It wasn’t even talking about politics, it was talking about the group she was in. She was like, ‘No, she makes all the decisions, we don’t need democracy around here.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Why are you saying such a thing?’ The public opinion is very sensitive to what they do, I would say overly sensitive. And that inhibits but also allows some subversiveness to go on.


It seems like a fairly scandal-less culture, though. Have there been bigger incidents or is everything kept tightly controlled?

It’s more with the older members of the industry. Usually you’ll find a lot of celebrities after their groups disband they’ll have run ins with groupies and stuff like that. A lot of people suing each other over text messages and emails sent amongst each other. There was something with bullying that happened at the end of 2012 or so, that ended with one member leaving a group. It caused kind of a black cloud around the group. There’s a lot of conjecture over whose fault it was, but most of the industry is pretty quiet about these kind of things. No one likes to lose their favorite member from a group, so you’ll have a lot of public outcry.


Tell me about Jay Park, who’s from Seattle. Is he the next to blow up?

We’ll see about internationally, that’d be kind of cool. Full disclosure, my little brother hung out with Jay Park a lot. My little brother’s a b-boy, and Jay Park would come over to our house, and they had a little studio downstairs, and they’d dance and stuff. He was a scrawny kid back then. He’s pumped up a little bit. He had a big scandal. When he went to Korea, he grew up here and auditioned in Seattle, and they accepted him and he went to Korea, and they trained him with a big group. He was the leader of his group, and they’re still active and very big. But Jay wrote on MySpace back in the day when he was training, he basically wrote something to the tune of, “Korea sucks, I’m so bored, I miss all my friends,” and some Internet guys, I don’t know if they hacked his MySpace or were able to view it somehow, but they told the press, and the press was like, This young man is disrespectful of Korea. He came back to America, kind of in exile, they kicked him from the group. His fan club was flying airplanes over his house with banners saying, Please come back Jay Park. He put out a couple YouTube videos of him singing, and they did really well, and it basically revitalize his K-pop career. Right now he’s touring under a new single, and the video is filmed all in Seattle.

He’s like a heartthrob, he’s like a Leif Garrett kind of guy. The girls just scream when he does his thing. I think his appeal is not quite built for America, because I don’t think Asian Americans are in the top tier for sex appeal when it comes to American eyes, so I don’t think he’s going to blow up like “Gangnam Style” any time soon.  I think Gangnam Style was more about global humor slash addictiveness of the song, and I think Jay Park’s appeal is more the heartthrob, teen idol sort of thing.


That leads to the question of where do you see K-pop heading in terms of international crossover.

I think you’ll see it panning out pretty similarly to the Latin explosion, in that you’ll have a choice of three or four really excellent, really unique stars come over from that scene and have a global presence. “Gangnam Style” will be the “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” you’ll have your Shakira, you’ll have your, I don’t know, Marc Anthony or whatever, but I don’t see K-pop taking over per se. They’ve been trying for a long time. I personally think the music’s great, and I think producers from other markets, in Europe and America, can learn from the pace which they innovate. But I don’t see K-pop dominating charts all over the world like “Gangnam Style” did on a regular basis.


SEE IT: Fantastic Baby: The Opulent Kingdom of Contemporary K-Pop is at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., on Monday, June 3. 7 pm. $5.

 
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