“Gangnam Style” has taken the world by storm, infusing itself into televisual and sporting events, including political stunts and talk shows across the world. While Psy’s anthemic tune has introduced much of the Western world to K-pop, many are yet to understand it in the context of Korean pop culture.
I’ll be taking a different approach to this week’s playlist, bringing a beginner’s guide to K-pop that includes music and variety show clips to simplistically highlight key concepts and storylines.
The first point in understanding the current system of K-pop is that female solo artists with no girl group experience are incredibly rare these days. Interestingly, boy bands in Korea are often focused on ballads and seen as soft/clean-cut in comparison to the harder-edged girl groups with harsher beats. Of course, the groups are incredibly versatile, as evidenced by two of 2NE1’s big hits “I Am the Best” and “I Love You”.
Driven by the elite class of the country, K-pop is a money-making machine that strives to influence the social standards of its listeners. While modern K-pop started back in 1992 with Seo Taiji & Boys, it has only been since the turn of the millenium that the three major labels/talent agencies – S.M. Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and arguably LOEN Entertainment – have focused on international success. Beginning with Rain in 2006, the major Korean labels have desperately attempted to break into the Western market, most obviously with Wonder Girls.
The above exemplifies the amount of money being driven into Korea’s music industry. It also highlights the months and years of training it takes to be successful. Here is Wonder Girls’ dance practice for the same song:
Another girl group who strive for international success is Girls’ Generation (aka SNSD), although their breakout album focused more on the concept of “aegyo” overload: acting cute with whimsical charm. SNSD member Sunny is often quoted as the “Queen of Aegyo” – here’s a compilation example:
And here is their breakout single “Gee”, which brought them success across Asia:
Still, time and age forces groups to adapt to more mature content and also – to break into Western charts – Americanised music:
Of course, not all groups are actively searching for international success, but they’ve found fan bases along the way. Boy groups Super Junior, Big Bang and Epik High are popular around the world but still focus on Korean markets.
Now it’s story time, starting with the intertwined careers of Ga-In from Brown Eyed Girls and Jo Kwon from 2AM.
Jo Kwon was the longest-serving male trainee of JYP Entertainment, having trained for 7 years and 12 days before debuting with his boy group. Here is he auditioning for Park Jin Young’s (JYP) “99% Challenge Project”, which also included Sunye of Wonder Girls.
On the other side, Ga-In would be eliminated during the auditions of a reality show before being approached by the existing members of Brown Eyed Girls to join their group. Two years after their debut, they would hit it big with “Abracadabra”:
The dance quickly spread and many other idols began doing it themselves. Even further, 2AM and 2PM would join to do a parody video of the song. Jo Kwon would also perform the dance on variety shows, including this relatively recent SGB broadcast (the pink group to the left is Brown Eyed Girls).
Soon after the parody video, Jo Kwon and Ga-In would star in reality television show We Got Married, where pop stars are coupled up and filmed for an extended period at time. They were labelled the “Adam Couple”, becoming the most popular duo on the show and releasing a successful duet track.
Both have produced solo albums since then. Jo Kwon has been labelled the Adam Lambert of South Korea, but Ga-In’s recent single has caused controversy due to its adult-themed music video. After two-minutes of Lana Del Rey-esque clippings – complete with pale skin and blonde hair – the music video includes clips of implied masterbation and sex, causing it to be banned from Korean television, but still available to view online.
In terms of controversy, however, no artist currently compares to “Gangnam Style”‘s own HyunA. Leaving Wonder Girls to transfer into another girl group called 4Minute, HyunA would find solo success at the very start of 2010 with the song “Change”, again with an infectious dance move:
While still retaining her duties to 4Minute, HyunA would establish herself as the “most-sexualised” K-pop star, courting plenty of negative press along the way. Nevertheless, she would still find success with songs like “Bubble Pop” and “Troublemaker”:
Controversy still follows her even after working with Psy on “Gangnam Style”, as she continues her solo run over working again with 4Minute, angering a lot fans in the process. And she certainly hasn’t slowed down on the sexualised content in new track “Ice Cream”. (It’s not very subtle)
Korean pop culture is also well-known for its vertical integration, with singers often working in Korean dramas. One of the best recent examples was The Greatest Love, which saw a Sunny Hill member take on one of the main supporting roles, and the theme song providing the group with its biggest hit yet.
The Greatest Love also featured tracks from one of the rare female solo artists not to debut in a group: IU. Rejected during JYP Entertainment auditions, she later was picked up by LOEN Entertainment. She would make her start through small cover performances on television shows, quickly building her way up. Here’s one of the later examples:
IU would gain mainstream attention with her debut album Growing Up but mini-album Real and follow-up Last Fantasy would go even further, the latter achieving an ‘all-kill’ as all 13 songs immediately swept most of the charts. Here are popular songs “Good Day” and “You & I”:
That’s pretty much it for this very basic introduction to K-pop (I didn’t even mention Hyori Lee, BEAST, G-Dragon, SHINee, Kara, Huh Gak or BoA). To leave you, here are two songs: one is the first Korean song I saw on television; the other is a recent track by one of the most powerful men in Korea’s music industry.