Why is K-Pop So Popular?

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Noh Hong-cheol and Psy taking the world by storm.
Noh Hong-cheol and Psy taking the world by storm.

Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ has now received over 50 million youtube views, has become a bit of a world-wide sensation, and has achieved what all K-Pop artists have failed to do with any real success, it has broken into the American market. With easy to master and amusing dance moves, a catchy tune, and a great sense of fun it is easy to see why is has become such a hit (although there actually may be more to the song than that.)

America, however, is not the be all and end all. K-Pop has been popular all over Asia for some time now and has been subtly making strides into the West as well, at least until Psy blew any subtlety out of the water.

When I first arrived in Korea I didn’t really rate K-Pop. I thought it was far too silly, possibly a bit childish, and devoid of any real talent. With the exception of a couple of groups, I don’t really think I have changed my mind about it all that much in the last three years. There is much to add, however, and most of it is a fair amount of praise, particularly on the business side of marketing K-Pop artists, but I also think there is real entertainment merit in it and the messages it sends to young people appear a little more wholesome than our music artists in the West.

A great deal of the popular and visible music industry in Korea has everything to do with actual music companies and much less to do with the artists themselves. The groups are even marketed as belonging to SM, JYP, or YG (these being the most famous). Most people who have an interest in K-Pop know which record label their favourite artists belong to and have preferences to one specific entertainment company or another. Independent artists with some good talent do exist in Korea, but you do not tend to hear about them or hear their songs unless you make a genuine attempt to find them.

SM, JYP, and YG’s representatives.

As time has gone by, I have come to realise that these record labels are shrewd and smart cookies indeed.  They have built up an industry based on a kind of music that only requires them to find young and beautiful boys and girls with a modicum of talent to perform songs that I strongly suspect the companies have the vast majority of (or all) the input in writing.  There is rarely a shortage of young people fresh out of high school in any country that would not jump at the chance at being famous so these companies have a never ending production line of new stars.  All they have to do is train them to sing and dance and apply some hip, and in-vogue fashion and they have their finished product.  The main record labels also have the great advantage that because they put together such large groups of mediocre talented young people, they can own them and I suspect many of these young stars have fame but possibly not that great a fortune.  They can’t break away from the group because they can’t write their own songs and produce their own music.  For a couple of decades now, K-Pop groups have come and gone, they had their time in the sun when they were young, beautiful, and fashionable and then they were discarded.  Most K-Pop star’s careers are short and sweet.  A sad story, I know, but I have always found it difficult to be too sympathetic to music and film star’s falls from grace when there is a lot of other suffering in the world that is really worth feeling bad for.

Being pretty and throwing in a few catchy tunes and dance moves can attract big audiences in your own country, that is not difficult to figure out, but to their credit the Korean entertainment giants have achieved much more than that. Whatever you believe about the supposed popularity of K-Pop in the US or Europe (as it is overly publicised in the news in Korea) the fact is that K-Pop is very popular in a growing number of countries and especially in the rest of Asia. Even arch rivals Japan cannot get enough of the stuff. Why is this? How is it that essentially high schoolers, of limited musical ability to begin with, are so popular in so many countries?

For a start, they appeal principally to teenagers and particularly young girls, probably the biggest market for record sales, but at the same time they make the music highly accessible for most demographics. They have girls covered with the boy bands and also with the pretty girl bands and cute dance moves. They have the teenage boys market covered with the sweet young girls in hot pants (and probably most age groups of men too). They even have the middle-aged woman market with the songs and the dance moves popularity with aerobics instructors.

Angelic, but the legs are on display.

These are all inside Korea, but the same winning formula can be applied elsewhere and to help the situation they very cleverly insert some easy to understand English into almost every song, especially in the choruses.  I used to think that K-Pop was just caught up in popular Western culture when they used English in their songs and even thought it was kind of embarrassing for them, and arrogantly assumed that the rest of the world loved our language so much that they feel the need to incorporate it into their songs.  Perhaps there is an element of that but maybe we need to credit the music companies with a bit more than pandering to Western culture and music.

They have used our style of music and adapted it to suit the Asian way of thinking and the added English gives it a universal appeal. With the knowledge that most people in the world (especially those with some money) have at least some rudimentary understanding of English they have successfully incorporated English into their songs. Whether this came about originally by accident or it was a strategy right from the beginning is unimportant, it works. For me personally, even though I am not that crazy about K-pop, the little hooks of English they pop in every now and then engages me in the song to a degree that I am at least listening to it rather than it being white noise in the background. I often find myself having these hooks stuck in my head and singing them quietly when I am not concentrating. The music companies of Korea have even gone one step further into a realm that no other countries I know of do; they have different versions of the same song in different languages, most often English and Japanese. They incorporate foreign singers into the groups also, a great many of these being from China, to encourage more popularity. I can only admire what they are trying to achieve even if it is only motivated by increased record sales and bigger profits.

K-pop has become a style that can be recognised, they could almost patent it. It is often something I cannot fathom in the boy groups. I can always remember turning on the TV one day and seeing one performer jumping around in a sweater with a two eggs and one rasher of bacon design on the front (like what your grandmother might knit you for Christmas), and others look so much like girls or are so similar in appearance, dance moves and music styles I can’t tell one from the other. Originality inside the K-pop genre does not seem to matter too much to the fans.

The style, however monotonous, is something that is difficult to really dislike. The music has a sweet and innocent charm to it. On occasion a performance can get at little raunchy by Korean standards and regularly shows off the young girls main assets, their legs and bums. It rarely, however, enters into the same kind of more sexually explicit behaviour we can see on Western music videos and performances. I may sound a little prudish when I say this, but I think I prefer the image that their popular music is projecting.

Maybe it says a lot that when the conversation turns to K-pop lovelies in my high school boy’s classes the students always pick the most sweet and innocent looking girls, like 아이유 (IU) and 수지 (Su Ji) but I pick the supposed bad girl and slutty one 지연 (Ji Yeon) of T-ara. Whenever I say that I like her they usually retort with how she used to do webcam shows to men to earn money and recently about how she has bullied another member of the group. One group of boys even called their team name in class ‘T-ara Beach’ for my benefit (I wouldn’t let them use ‘Bitch’). This all seems to show that a certain amount of virtue is important to them in their perfect woman. I wonder what kind of a girl a similar set of high school boys in my own country would go for? I bet she would not be that virtuous.

IU, Ji Yun, or Su Ji – who is your favourite?

So, although I knocked K-pop in the beginning and still do not have much regard to the quality of what the genre produces, I can unashamedly say that I like it.  I cannot say that I am a fan, but it is all good-natured fun and has a charm that is intoxicating most of Asia and maybe soon the Western world as well.  But perhaps it is telling that the most popular song to date was created by a 34 year-old and not especially handsome man with a penchant for doing things differently and writing his own material, bucking the usual trending of what I have already mentioned.  Perhaps the last step for K-Pop in breaking the rest of the world is to use their tried and trusted formula while adding some originality and individuality for that little bit of extra flavour.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about Christopher, be sure to check out his site and drop him a line @ smudgem, where he regularly blogs about day to day life and happenings on the Peninsula. 

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I am an Englishman currently living in South Korea with my wife, who is Korean. We live in a small city in the far south of the country, away from the major more westernized hubs of Seoul and Busan. My situation has given me a unique insight into the culture of South Korea and I am interested in writing about my experiences. The cultural differences between the Far East and the West run so deep and it is fascinating to be caught up in the middle of it all.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Westerners crave for individual originality, not Asians. That is why Kpop with its sugary pop, slick dance moves, with group participation is wildly popular here but not necessarily in the West. All boils down to the cultural difference between the two.

  2. I'm Korean and I agree. I think it has a ways to go, compared to American pop and British pop. (I love British rock, by the way!) It is funny how PSY is the one who had the incredible global breakthrough who is not "supposedly" attractive as the handsome K-pop boybands. I love the MV of the song!

    I always knew K-pop is very popular and rising in Asia (and even in parts of Latin American and Middle East)… but I don't know about U.S or Europe.

  3. david,i’m American,and I am crazy about all things Korean cool,part of the appeal is the respectful attitudes of the idols,especially after being confronted by rude,obnoxious,and lazy americans,[I work in a retail clothing store].very few American songs make me this happy.

  4. I am korean girl. your material is so nice and it takes me to think about the real K-pop culture. But do you know that there are so many songs other than just hook songs.. like ‘ love is timing sung by buskerbusker’ .. I recommend the song for you. If you hear the song, you can feel that there are a lot of songs that feel human’s real mind

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