Besides the triple axels and slalom jumps, next week’s Winter Olympic Games held in PyeongChang, South Korea, will treat viewers to another super-human feat: a mesmerizing world of technicolor acts performed in impossibly perfect unison. K-pop is currently Korea’s most influential cultural output; its fan bases are so staggering that it’s hard to understand how its biggest stars are relative unknowns Stateside. K-pop boy band BTS topped the list of most-tweeted about celebrities in 2017, not Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. The most tweeted-about song? South Korean group Exo’s hit “Ko Ko Bop.”
But if you’re not a K-pop listener, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” likely comes to mind first. Released in 2012, the import—with its signature pony-riding move—replaced the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” as the go-to song for wedding dance floors. A landslide success worldwide (it was the first music video to reach both 1 billion and 2 billion views), the song was actually meant to lampoon the culture of consumption in the nouveau-riche Gangnam district of Seoul.
The neighborhood’s ties to K-pop date further back, though—Gangnam is known for its rural fields that grew into a glittering grid of glass towers, stimulated in part by the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In the ‘90s, around the same time that the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys were blowing up American Billboard charts, Gangnam became the cradle of K-pop, and it’s been the Korean capital’s aspirational neighborhood ever since.
But while teen pop began to fade in America, the genre only grew in popularity in South Korea, with girl groups and boy bands maintaining their status as some of the country’s biggest celebrities. Today, K-pop is a fully baked alternate universe. Mixing ‘90s nostalgia with a bubblegum, twee aesthetic, it’s escapism entertainment at its finest, an increasingly appealing antidote to the dark cloud hovering over Hollywood and American politics.
K-pop has already begun traveling West: BTS performed its charting U.S. single “MIC Drop” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. And with the Olympics once again highlighting Korean culture—and giving a literal stage to local musicians at the competitions—the stars are aligned for 2018 to be year that K-pop takes over American ears.
K-POP’S STAR-MAKING MACHINES ARE NOTHING LIKE AMERICA’S
While the Western pop machine hinges on the notion that our country is brimming with undiscovered natural talent with individual charm, K-pop’s star-making mechanism assumes the exact opposite. In Korea, hopefuls are funneled through management companies that function as academies, recruiting young talent and building them into perfectly polished “idols.” Aspiring performers spend years as “trainees” before seeing the light of day, and a management team’s investment in their trainees’ potential stardom is astronomical—those being groomed live and eat in sponsored housing, and attend regular classes to hone their craft. In addition to the usual coursework in dancing, singing, and rapping, pop students also spend a significant amount of time devoted to polishing their interviewing, acting, and even foreign language skills. They’re even taught the art of “cuteness,” a hallmark of the genre. The training portion of an idol’s career is such an important part of their public persona that even the management companies themselves—like S.M., JYP, and YG—have become pseudo-famous.
Korea’s rote approach to stardom also manifests in the paint-by-numbers way that a pop group is formed. While American ensembles tend to be self-selecting, K-pop pulls large groups—with six, nine and even 11 members—from its academies. Bigger acts are thought to inspire a wider range of devotion, as “stans” (a combustion of ‘stalker’ and ‘fan’) follow their “bias” (favorite band member). Every group’s blueprint has several key pillars: a designated “main singer,” “main rapper” and “main dancer,” plus a few K-pop-specific roles like the “visual,” the band member who most objectively embodies the conventions of Korean beauty; a “center,” the face of the group, often found in the middle of a promotional photo or the final pose of a music video; and the maknae, the youngest member, who is usually the one to affect that trademark cuteness revered in East Asian cultures. In South Korea, it’s called aegyo and is considered to be a totally different form of expression than sexiness.
That’s not to say that the Korean entertainment industry doesn’t have a fraught relationship with self-image: In fact aegyo is one of the many talents perfected in the pop academies. Whereas American pop culture claims to celebrate individuality, in K-pop culture, beauty is considered something that can be acquired, much like talent. The country sees more plastic surgery procedures than any other, with a shocking 470 independent plastic surgery clinics in Gangnam alone. In 2015, the New Yorker reported that it’s not uncommon for schoolchildren to be rewarded for good grades with a double-fold-eyelid surgery.
Another benefit to larger groups: the choreography—performed with almost robotic exactitude—also shines when there are a dozen stars on stage hitting their beats like a varsity cheerleading squad. And the cheer analogy is apt; unlike the suggestive writhing found in American music videos, K-pop routines are based on a series of formations. Their movements, called “pointing,” often relate to the song’s lyrics and are meant to be replicated by fans (think: Psy’s pony dance). Specific hand gestures often go viral on Korean social media; popular groups even record their choreography rehearsals so their devotees can practice too.
ONES TO WATCH
Of all the stars in the K-pop constellation—and trust us, there are hundreds—the nine members of Girls’ Generation (known as Sonyeo Sidae, or SNSD, in Korea) are considered the queens of the genre, and the poster girls for the country’s rampant plastic surgery (while unconfirmed, the bandmates are widely supposed to have undergone extensive cosmetic transformations). Now in their eleventh year, and minus one member, the octet recently released another album, Holiday Night, and are considered some of the most influential celebrities in the country, garnering millions of dollars worth of endorsements, promoting everything from LG to Domino’s Pizza.
"Gee" catapulted Girls’ Generation to mainstream success in Korea, but it’s far too chipper for most; try "The Boys", which shows an evolution to a more mature and universal sound; they even recorded an English version (we like the Korean one better) and performed it on Letterman’s late-night show. Their relatively new single "Holiday" is the perfect addition to your workout playlist.
The new it girl group, however, is Twice. Born from an emotionally sadistic Making The Band-type show in 2015 called Sixteen, in which a coven of JYP trainees vied for spots in a newly forming girl group, the nine-girl band soared to superstardom almost immediately after its formation—the current president of South Korea even used one of their songs as his candidacy jingle shortly after their debut. Twice’s name is derived from the idea that each member possesses the two coveted tenets of K-pop allure: being pleasing to the ears and being pleasing to the eyes.
In the music video for Twice’s early hit "Cheer Up", fans got to dig into each member’s personality as they took on different roles from iconic movies like Scream and Gone With the Wind. Halloween-themed “TT” is a fan fave, but give the newly released "Likey" a try—it’s a timely future-pop confection about seeking social media approval that kicks the tempo into high gear, plunks the chorus right at the top of the song, and tosses in some spoken word for good measure.
Happy listening, and if you become a stan, don’t say we didn’t warn you.