Blood Sweat & Tears: A Closer Look at the K-Pop Phenomenon

By Ava Roche

The “Korean Wave”

“Hallyu,” or the “Korean Wave,” is the term used to describe the spread of South Korean popular culture and media throughout the rest of the world. From cuisine to beauty products, Western people have become obsessed with Korean culture. Hallyu began in the mid-nineties with the massive success of the TV drama, What Is Love?, which aired in China in 1997 – over 150 million Chinese viewers watched the show.   Korean pop music was quick to follow, as global markets became increasingly interested in the dance music made by the country’s pop stars. South Korean entertainment companies have shaped the industry – and its artists – to be as profitable as possible and, thanks to globalization, those artists have become international sensations.

The Origins of K-Pop

In 1987, Roh Tae Woo was elected president after South Korea’s first direct popular vote in sixteen years. The Roh reforms worked to “eliminate past vestiges of authoritarian rule,” with the Government revising over 1,500 laws. These reforms expanded freedom of the press and lifted restraints which had previously stifled press and artistic creativity.  

Before the reforms enacted by the Sixth Republic, the country had only two broadcast networks.   These networks frequently featured music competition shows, through which South Korean audiences learned about music. After the reforms were established, more broadcast networks formed, followed by a larger music industry. The music industry was still quite new in the early nineties, so the primary means through which people discovered music was through music competition shows. These music shows are still extremely popular today, and many musicians still find success through them.

In 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys performed their song “Nan Arayo (I Know)” on a weekend music show. The group, which featured leader Seo Taiji (who had previously been a member of heavy metal band Sinawe), and musicians/dancers Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, fused American styles such as rap, techno, and R&B, with Korean lyrics. The first performance of “Nan Arayo” shocked the audience and judges, earning the lowest score of the night.  But despite its low score, the song skyrocketed to number one – and stayed there for 17 weeks. In her comprehensive series on K-pop, Hannah Waitt explains the reasons for Seo Taiji’s success. Seo Taiji and Boys released socially conscious music which reflected the youth at the time, criticizing the rigorous school system and government propaganda.    

Following Seo Taiji’s massive success, three labels were founded: SM Entertainment (1995); JYP Entertainment (1997); and YG Entertainment (1998), the last of which was founded by Seo Taiji and Boys member Yang Hyun-suk. These labels were the first to develop the “idol group” model, which is still used today. One of the first idol groups, H.O.T. was formed by SM Founder Lee Soo-man. Lee Soo-man held auditions in South Korea, the United States, and Japan to find young performers who could be molded into “idols.” H.O.T. (High-five Of Teenagers) was formed as a result of these auditions. H.O.T. experienced immediate success, selling 1.5 million copies of their debut album, released in 1996. The group shares many similarities to modern groups like BTS, Super Junior, and Monsta X, which all feature intricate choreography, multiple singers and rappers.

The Idol Factory

In recent years, the model established by H.O.T. and SM has evolved into an entire industry – the “idol factory.” Young teenagers study at cram schools, where they rigorously train in dance and music in the hopes of becoming K-pop idols.  Major labels frequently scout for talent at these cram schools, recruiting young performers to sign and train further. These labels have strict guidelines for performers, ranging from fitness requirements to public behavior requirements. Idols are also frequently required to learn multiple languages, mainly Japanese and English, to increase profitability in global markets. According to Joshua Barajas, a journalist at PBS, the members of Girls’ Generation trained for a combined total of 52 years at SM. This grueling process contributes to K-pop’s success: high-quality performers with manufactured public images. 

As most K-pop performers go through much of the same training before reaching “idol” status, many K-pop performers have criticized the formulaic nature of the genre. Hallmarks of K-pop performance include complex, high-quality choreography; a polished and planned aesthetic; and an assembly line style of songwriting and production. While the music, and the performances, are formulaic, they are not simple; multiple melodies, rhythms, and textures can be heard in each song. A K-pop performance is one that is fundamentally maximalist, both musically and visually. This flashiness has been a major contribution to the success of the genre.

Suk-Young Kim, author of “K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance,” explains that “what really caught fire was how K-pop, as a spectacular, visual genre, had such an appeal in YouTube.”   Considering that many K-pop acts find their success through television shows, it is no surprise that the identity of these artists is linked to visual media. While K-pop artists are rarely played on Top 40 radio, they have found enormous success online – especially on YouTube. K-pop videos are as extravagant as the music itself. Psy, who attended Berklee in the late nineties, made history with Gangnam style, the first video to be viewed over one billion times on YouTube. BTS’s hit “Boy With Luv,” featuring Halsey, recently broke the record for the largest 24-hour debut, amassing 74.6 million views on the music video in one day – they broke records again, as that video became the first to garner 100 million views in under two days. Kristine Ortiz, a manager at the company that owns Soompi – one of the largest online K-pop communities – states that “they’re able to create a sensory experience…that’s not seen a lot in Western music.”  This “sensory experience” has allowed K-pop artists to fill a void in Western markets.

Where Markets Collide

For international artists, it can be notoriously difficult for artists to break into the American Market. For artists whose music is not sung in English, it can be nearly impossible. Nevertheless, K-pop artists have not only come to infiltrate Western markets but dominate them entirely. 

One major factor contributing to this success is frequent crossover between Western and Korean artists. BTS has led a trend of Western/Korean collaboration, working with Western artists such as Nicki Minaj, Steve Aoki, Juice WRLD and Charli XCX. Their recent release, Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey) has amassed nearly 300 million streams on Spotify. 

Monsta X, which has collaborated with French Montana and Steve Aoki, is one of the idol groups at the helm of K-pop acts who have signed with a major U.S. label (the group recently signed to Epic Records). Ezekiel Lewis, the executive VP of A&R at Epic Records, stated: “We see the fact that we are recording [Monsta X] in English as an advantage…that will help enable us to market them to a much wider audience.”   Lewis is right: English speakers cling to those lyrics which they do understand and find translations for the remainder. U.S. fans hunt for translations and explanations to understand the music which they love so much; that process is fun and exciting for diehard fans, or “stans,” and it provides an opportunity to get involved in K-pop digital communities. 

“The world’s gotten smaller and streaming has taken down the barriers to entry,” says Greg Thompson, president of Maverick Music. “Social media opened doors and labels are thinking globally now.”   Consider the huge success of Despacito, was the longest continuous stay at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart – 16 weeks – until Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road broke that record with a 17-week stay. Lil Nas X released a remix of the song with BTS member RM, which they named the remix “Seoul Town Road.” The huge success of Despacito, as well as other Latin and Reggaeton tracks,  signifies a shift in American tastes towards other styles, cultures, and genres.

As globalization continues to blur the lines between countries and cultures, American audiences have become less concerned with understanding the lyrics of a song, and more concerned with the quality of the song’s writing, production, and performance. Despacito was well-produced, cleverly written and, most importantly, extremely catchy. When Justin Bieber collaborated with Louis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, he not only solidified the song’s presence in the U.S. market but that of Latinx music on the whole. It is only a matter of time until a K-pop track does the same. Considering the frequency with which Western artists collaborate with K-pop acts, the wait will not be long.

While the U.S. market is crucial, K-pop’s influence in Western and global markets extends far beyond collaboration with American artists. Eshy Gazit, who works with Maverick Music, began working with BTS in 2016, long before most were open to working with a K-pop group – especially one that primarily sang in Korean.   In the past, groups like Wonder Girls and Girls Generation (two of the pioneer K-pop groups in the 2000s) recorded English versions of their hit songs. Groups like BTS, however, sing Korean lyrics, while embracing Western pop production and melodic structures. The fact that modern K-pop acts like BTS can achieve such huge success worldwide despite both singing and speaking in Korean is hugely significant. The industry has been centered around the United States for decades and, while that hasn’t changed yet, the acceptance and success of the Korean culture which is embedded into the K-pop points to the impacts that globalization is and will continue to have on the music industry worldwide.

K-pop acts have focused efforts beyond the United States, as well: many acts have begun to incorporate Latin rhythms and Spanish lyrics. Idol group Vav recently collaborated with Puerto Rican Urbano musician De La Ghetto and Latin/hip hop producer duo Play-N-Skillz on the song “Give Me More.” The song was released with three different versions: one in Korean, with English and Spanish, interspersed throughout; one in Spanish and English; and one Play-N-Skillz remix.   K-pop super-group collaborated with Latin pop star Leslie Grace on the song “Lo Siento.” The trilingual song debuted at number two on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales Chart.   By innovating in this way, K-pop acts continue attracting and including fans from around the globe.

K-pop has also provided a new world of opportunity for American songwriters; in particular, its influence has drawn to a large extent from the harmonic and vocal features which are characteristic of American R&B.  Songwriter Rodnae “Chikk” Bell has followed this trend closely. “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five,” Bell says. “The average K-pop song is eight to ten.”   This appreciation for R&B styles has given American writers more opportunities to utilize their skills, which have not been highlighted some of the recent dominant styles of the last decade.

K-Pop as a Major Export

The effects of K-pop extend beyond its cultural and musical impacts; it is a massive industry and a large source of revenue for the South Korean economy. According to the Global Music Report published by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the South Korean music industry grew 17.9 percent in 2018, making it the sixth-largest music market in the world.

BTS has been the largest source of revenue in the genre: the group accounts for 4.65 billion dollars of South Korea’s GDP, placing it in the same league as the country’s other major companies like Samsung and Hyundai.   BTS’s contributions to the South Korean economy are less of a surprise in light of their enormous success online. In November of 2018, Apple Music announced that the idol group was the first K-pop artist to surpass one billion streams.   

BTS made further headlines when they were announced as the second-most streamed group on Spotify in 2018. What makes this even more incredible an accomplishment is that to-date, Spotify has not yet launched its platform in South Korea: all of those streams came from other countries.  

The Darker Side of K-Pop

While idol groups project light-hearted, upbeat and happy personas, there are many ethical issues to be raised regarding the business practices that make these groups so successful. The extensive lengths that are gone to in preparation for superstardom extend far beyond their training in music and dance. 

Idol hopefuls are required to maintain a specific physical look, sometimes going to extreme lengths to do so. Park Boram has spoken about her training process: she lost 66 pounds, resorting to extreme exercise and fasting. Major labels often weigh their idols every day, designing performers’ menus and exercise regimens based on their weight. Professor Heather Willoughby worries that these massive entertainment companies, and the performers that they represent, send an unhealthy message to women and girls. In an interview with NPR, she said that “there is a much more deep-rooted sense of still viewing women as objects…you have to be within a norm.” This unnatural obsession over an arbitrary standard of “fitness” is far beyond what is healthy or reasonable and threatens the well-being of the performers, as well as their fans.

If this was not enough, many idols go so far as to undergo plastic surgery to fit into labels’ strict beauty standards – a trend that has had a huge impact on Korean society. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita; on average, plastic surgeons in the country perform 20 procedures per 1,000 people as of 2013. The United States follows second with 13 procedures per 1,000 people, and Japan takes third with 10 procedures per 1,000.   A poll done by Gallup Korea found that one-third of South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 say they’ve gotten cosmetic surgery.   Most of these surgeries are eyelid procedures, conducted to make the patient look more “European.” The phenomena are now common in South Korean popular culture, and especially K-pop, as many entertainers go under the knife to fit Western ideals of beauty – sometimes at the request or suggestion of major entertainment companies. While the success of the K-pop industry seems to point towards a future in which different cultures sit on equal footing, the dominance of European beauty standards remain as a harrowing reminder of the persistent and ongoing effects Western imperialism across cultures and industries. 

Beyond the social, racial, and ethical implications of forcing K-pop stars to undergo such drastic measures to force their bodies to conform with such unhealthy and naturally unattainable beauty standards, there are further questions to be raised over the management of the artists themselves. South Korean entertainment companies are notorious for their unrelenting micro-management of finely-crafted public personas, which their artists must adhere to at all times. During “idol training,” performers are trained in public speaking, foreign language, and etiquette. These practices are fairly standard for pop stars in the West; however, the molds that these artists are forced to conform to are far more constraining than what would be considered ethical in any other area of liberal society.

Entertainment companies frequently require their idols to be – or at least appear to be – single. Many trainees, especially women, are not allowed to date while training at a label. This is done to make idols as appealing as possible; young people, especially young girls, are more likely to devote themselves to an idol if that idol is single. This was demonstrated in 2017 when SHINee leader Kim Jong-hyun (known best by the stage name Jonghyun) was rumored to have a girlfriend and faced a wave of backlash online, some of which was quite extreme. It was not long after this that the star committed suicide. In his suicide note, he wrote, “the life of fame was not for me…why did I choose this life? It’s a funny thing. It’s a miracle that I lasted this long.”   In life, he was open about his struggles with mental health and fame. There may be no telling what exactly led the star to take his own life, but it seems unlikely that the maintenance of such a strict lifestyle would have offered him any solace. 

K-pop star Sulli was also quite outspoken about her struggles with mental health and fame. Sulli, born Choi Jin-Ri, was a member of the girl group f(x) but left as a result of online harassment. She began her solo music career in 2015 and released Goblin in 2019, a short 3-song EP in which she wrote from the perspective of someone with dissociative identity disorder. Breaking from the norms of a genre that so strictly controls the public images of its stars, Sulli took full advantage of her opportunity to be outspoken about love, sex, and mental health.   Despite the bold courageousness she displayed in her release, her reward was far from savory. Sully was harassed relentlessly online following the release of her EP, and on October 14, 2019, the 25-year-old star was found dead in her home – yet another suicide of a K-pop icon. 

While clear tragedies in their own right, the suicides of Sulli and Jonghyun are indicative of a larger issue in the South Korean music industry. Even with every aspect of their lives sculpted and maintained for commercial success, the psychological wellbeing of K-pop stars are left utterly neglected by those entrusted to take care of them. The standards of perfection demanded of each K-pop idol are far more than any performer could be expected to maintain, and with its industry depending so heavily on the internet, artists are subjected to the most severe levels of cyber-bullying. Silenced by the structures that brought them to success, Idols are all but defenseless against the whims of their labels and the opinions of their fans. Despite its success, K-pop sets a dangerous precedent for an industry that is famous for exploiting the talents of its artists – even to their demise. 

Conclusion

The K-pop business model works for a multitude of reasons: digital presence, clever songwriting, trendy production, and dramatic visuals are a perfect recipe for extreme fandom. South Korean entertainment companies understand their market (young people) and understand the elements that will allow idols to succeed globally. Westerners are captivated by Korean culture; all one needs to do is scroll through twitter, where K-pop “stans” constantly share videos and photos of their idols or explore one of the many online K-pop communities like Soompi, to understand the impact of Korean popular culture.

Despite the true genius of the K-pop model, the ethical issues it entails are simply too severe to go unacknowledged. While the South Korean music industry has created a worldwide phenomenon, it also silences its stars and forces them to fit unrealistic standards of beauty and fitness. That glamorous mold is one of the reasons we like K-pop so much, but who is responsible when that mold causes its brightest stars to take their own lives? The music certainly will survive, but what about its idols? And is this model simply too good – too perfect – to be true?

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