Ever since Psy went viral on YouTube and ‘Gangnam Style’ made it into the pop culture lexicon in America and the rest of the world, South Korean pop artists have resolved to crossover with renewed vigor. This essay examines Korean pop (K-Pop), the practices of the entertainment agencies that sustain the genre, and the culture that nourishes it. In part, it concludes that there are limitations for a repeat occurrence of a Psy type phenomenon.
The juncture is, nevertheless, promising. Lee Chae-rin, known as CL, the leader of K-Pop girl group 2NE1, recently teamed up with US talent manager and businessman Scooter Braun to launch a solo debut effort in America next year.1 CL’s entertainment agency is YG Entertainment, which was responsible, no less, for Psy’s earlier success. The effort, moreover, will come after CL’s collaboration with Skrillex on the EDM producer’s song “Dirty Vibe” (another Korean rapper, G-Dragon, of the boy group BigBang, was involved as well). Like Psy, it is worth noting that CL is multilingual, and will add French to Psy’s English.
Business and Culture
Context is everything, and to understand K-Pop’s projection, and possible crossover limitations, some reflections are in order. In Korean culture, the songs, the image of the artist, the concept for the music video, and the connection built between stars and fans all follow a very different dynamic than found in the West. Overall, there is a carefully crafted, in-house-production approach that is commercially tweaked over time.2 These are not compositions written by artists that express individual and personal experiences for the benefit of fans. Instead, either generic songwriters or the artists themselves write K-Pop songs to fit the concept assigned to talent by the entertainment agency. New artists, in fact, are more often than not vehicles for creativity rather than the drivers of it, and may not even be involved in the creative process.3
In South Korean culture, in fact, it is widely understood that image is the basis on which the agencies and the artists’ careers are built upon. The actions and the words spoken by the artists are tightly controlled, a practice common among many idol groups. A slip of the tongue, it is felt, can have a detrimental effect on careers and, therefore, spills over to the entertainment agency that hires the talent.4
Such tensions have been well documented. Joy, from the girl group Rania, told TV station Al Jazeera that before the debut track “Dr. Feel Good” was released in 2011, the group was not allowed cell phones and could not call or see friends, nor (sic), “of course”, boyfriends.5 More recently, boy band B.A.P. filed a lawsuit against their agency describing their 7-year agreement as a “slave contract”.6
These are not isolated episodes, but they are to some extent undercut by the remarkable success of K-Pop, which is based on an incubator type mentality. The entertainment agencies recruit prospective artists as early as their teens, and send them through a specially designed and very competitive training program to prepare them for careers as global pop exports.7
Lee Soo-Man, the founder of SM Entertainment, the biggest entertainment agency in Korea, explains that the creation of a K-Pop group starts off with a search for potential artists, often through global auditions, in, for example, Japan, Thailand, or Malaysia. After applicants are screened, a software simulation operated by the company is used to show how the voice and the appearance of the trainees would change in three to seven years.8 If everything checks out, the future stars start their training program, which consists of singing, acting, foreign language classes, song composition, and rap and dance choreography. The artists have to be relatively skilled in each of these areas before they are deemed ready for a local debut.
This vision of the music and pop market is at the very least odd for American or European sensibilities. In 2011, lecturing at Stanford University, Lee Soo-Man explained that exporting Korean culture involved an ongoing collaboration with companies and artists in different Asian countries with the goal of creating joint ventures “to share the enormous added value [so] created.”9 Korea’s national border, it seems, is not the limit by any means.
YG and JYP, the other ‘big two’ agencies, are equally bullish about success in Asia. Together, combined sales of the big three, inside and outside South Korea, totaled $106 million in the first quarter of 2014.10 But platinum status is given for only ten thousand units sold (in the US it is one million), so arguably it is the small market size of South Korea that prompts the more international business strategy.
Expanding in Asia
Part of it as well is the fickle nature of debut records in South Korea. Upcoming or established artists tend to be dethroned by newer releases. To maximize earnings, entertainment agencies turn abroad for sales and touring receipts. Japan, the second largest music market in the world, is a top destination for K-Pop, and there appears to be a growing market for the genre in China.
BoA, hailed as the Queen of Korean Pop, is the first star to break into Japan. At age 28, her career spans fifteen years and lists sixteen albums. She has travelled often to the island, mastered the language, and her management company has signed contracts with a local company to coordinate releases. K-Pop group TVXQ toured Japan for two months in 2008, putting up seventeen shows in front of 150K fans.
K-Pop boy band Super Junior crossed over China and to other Mandarin-speaking countries, such as Taiwan. The malleability of talent is noteworthy here, for SM Entertainment put together a subgroup in 2008 with Chinese and Korean nationals, or descendants of either country, and called it the Super Junior-M. Their debut album “Me” topped charts in China, Taiwan and Thailand. Their popularity has not waned, and this year, at the Top Chinese Music Awards, they collected the “Most Popular Group Award” and the “Best Music Video Award”.11
Rain, the singer-songwriter, actor, and music producer (his real name is Jung Ji-Hoon), is yet another example of Seoul’s outreach. The Best Show Asia Tour has played to packed audiences in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and Macau.12 K-Pop, therefore, has a global dimension that transcends Psy and Gangnam, and produces a crop of local and regional superstars.
Crossover Into America
So far, Psy is the exception to K-Pop’s full recognition in America. The K-Pop wave may be known as ‘Hallyu’ in Asia, but ‘Gangman Style’ seems to be identified only with Psy—and it is not for lack of effort from the Korean entertainment conglomerates.
Wonder Girls, a popular K-Pop act in Asia, performed two concerts in California and one in New York in March 2009, as Jonas Brothers’ opening act. They released an English version of the song ‘Nobody’ which debuted at No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 four months later, marking the first time a Korean group entered the US charts.13 Wonder Girls video, released later 2012, featuring Akon currently has 10 million views, but it is difficult to know how many of these were from US viewers as they did not return to the Billboard charts. Earlier, Rain had garnered some fame from his dance-off with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. At about that time in 2009, BoA’s collaboration with Flo Rida did not sustain momentum, and BoA ‘s US debut moved only 8K units.
Psy’s YouTube video and TV appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show early in 2013 broke the mold for K-Pop. But little seems to have changed since. While the US looks for artists to have personality and an ability to connect with fans, K-Pop talent usually has to project a desirable but unattainable quality. Psy, a Berklee student familiar with Boston, may have been an exception. He did not have to conform. Canadian musician (Claire) Grimes says, accurately, that Psy “is not hiding behind a group name or label…and that is why [he has] managed to cross over.”14
There is a real dilemma here, for K-Pop artists that succeed in the West could lose their home base if they are perceived as a product of an alien culture. For Korea, music is more than just entertainment, as is the case for most non-English speaking countries. Psy, and possibly others like G-Dragon of BIGBANG have to tread carefully as they attempt the crossover.
So will their entertainment companies. Too high a pedestal for the artist distances them from America fans, and a secondary role in collaborations doesn’t help either. Psy and Snoop Dogg’s “Hangover” barely resembled the work of Psy, except for Psy’s catchy hooks.15 “Hangover”, released this year, lasted only a week and peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has had 161 million views on YouTube to date– a big drop from Psy’s “Gentleman” released 2 years earlier, which lasted 15 weeks and peaked at No. 5 on the chart, with 761 million YouTube views to boot.16
Still, multinational collaborations are currently making the top of the Billboard charts, as is shown by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj’s “Bang Bang”. It is inevitable too that large cities will develop a more international sound imprint over time, and K-Pop, with its choreographed dance moves and exciting visuals, could be a fun fit for our sprawling neighborhoods (South Korean cuisine has exploded in the last five years in coastal cities like Los Angeles, and we are more familiar than ever with Korean culture and their products, particularly cars).
Yet a K-Pop break in America seems elusive. Language and culture will always be a barrier. But K-Pop may be testing the limits of our terms of engagement with Pop, for it suggests that the quality of an entertainment package, if fun oriented, may not need to rely on aural elements exclusively. A good projection of the music or the lyrics draws attention to the quality of the song, but a standout visual performance built around a few simple musical hooks can be as alluring.
By Corliss Lee and Melissa Sutikto