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Surfing the Korean Wave: How K-pop is taking over the world

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Last December, K-pop superstar group EXO announced a North American tour scheduled for early 2016. This headline garnered thousands of views and shares on various social media platforms, and concert tickets sold out almost instantly for each stop of the tour. But before the late 2000s, K-pop and South Korean culture didn’t have nearly the same amount of global appeal and popularity.

Hallyu, or “Korean Wave,” was coined in the early 2000s to define the increasing popularity of South Korean pop culture, especially among other East Asian countries. K-pop, or Korean pop music, is one of the many sub-genres of Hallyu, which include various media, such as dramas (soap operas), movies, and TV game shows. Since the beginning of South Korea’s cultural exportation, the cultural and entertainment industries have thrived, becoming a significant part of the economy, generating more than $10 billion in 2015. 

The K-pop movement started in Seoul in 1992, with a three-man boy band called Seo Taeji and Boys. Debuting with a never-before-seen style, mixing traditional Korean folk music with hip-hop and electronica, they became an instant sensation among the young. Arguably, their musical success became a template for rising stars to challenge conventional musical styles. After them, many other “idol groups”—pop groups consisting of many young members—arose. Interestingly enough, one of the former members of Seo Taeji and Boys, Yang Hyun Suk, is the founder and CEO of a major record label, YG Entertainment, holding contracts with stars such as PSY, BIGBANG, and 2NE1. 

After initially gaining huge popularity in the East Asian market, K-pop started attracting international attention in the mid 2000s. Groups such as Girl’s Generation and Wonder Girls managed to attract North American crowds. Arguably, the release of Gangnam Style by PSY in 2012 launched K-pop into the global phenomenon it is today. Generating a record-breaking million views per day in the first weeks of its release, the comedy song served to many as an introduction to K-pop and South Korean culture in general. Since then, dozens of groups have gained popularity, and the industry has been becoming more and more lucrative.

The rise of K-pop is reflected in the evolution of Korean cultural and economic identity. Ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has been obsessed with escaping poverty and proving to the world that the tiny nation can indeed rise from the rubble. Economic growth was prioritized over democracy during years of military dictatorship: During his 19-year rule from 1961 to his assassination in 1979, president Park Jung Hee enforced a strict military rule, while establishing long-term economic plans that focused on industrialization, increasing exports, and technological advancements. This eventually led to “The Miracle on the Han River,” an economic phenomenon that rapidly increased the national GDP from $800 million in the 1970s, to $85 billion by the 1990s. It was during this period that large corporations known as Chaebol (multinational business conglomerates), such as Hyundai and Samsung, rose to economic and political power. During this period, South Korean nuclear families were taught to be efficient, to be productive, and to strive for success and growth. 

Decades of government propaganda, accompanied by a sudden economic growth spurt, may have engrained into the Korean identity an ultra-capitalistic, nationalist mindset, evident in the world of K-pop today. Accordingly, the movement has become a giant industry driven by profit and success. The superstars themselves are highly manufactured: Behind the flashy music videos and unblemished looks, many of the stars sign a multi-year contract with a record label in their early teens, and receive years of training, while their identity is shaped by multiple managers, assistants, choreographers etc. The treatment of stars is a controversial issue, with little of the profits actually going into the performer’s hands. Those who do not make it to the big stage are confined as “trainees,” living in cramped apartments, dreaming of a chance to see the spotlight. In particular, three major labels, SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, sign contracts with young stars-to-be, and make sure during their training that they maintain a certain persona. The fact that the label has so much control over every aspect of a band means there is little room  for creative development. 

It seems that South Korean culture itself was hit hardest by all the international attention. Besides controversies surrounding the industry itself, the by-products of its popularity produced unhealthy, if not alarming, shifts to the cultural identity. South Korea is a demographically homogeneous country, with low rates of immigration and a long history of isolationist policies. However, it seems that due to the advent of K-pop, South Korea is also becoming more and more culturally homogeneous, preferring conformity over individuality. South Korea now has the highest ratio of plastic surgeries per capita in the world: Cosmetic surgery is becoming a casual concept, comparable to putting on makeup. Hundreds of cosmetic centres advertise the ‘ideal image’ of K-pop stars and the importance of adhering to beauty standards; when roaming the busy streets of downtown Seoul, it is often difficult to tell the difference between people. 

Musically, melody and lyricism have become lesser components, while catchy beats and dance patterns are prioritized. Many songs sound very similar, since they are produced by the same cookie-cutter mold of large record label companies. K-pop has become self-aware: The song “Rhythm Ta” by IKON says, “This is just a song so get on the rhythm.” If one categorizes K-pop as pop music, it can be argued that it is a reflection of current trends, and it purposefully emphasizes dance and rhythm rather than lyricism. Further, K-pop is a good representation of the current YouTube generation: visually-appealing music videos are as important, if not more, than the musical content itself. In that sense, K-pop is thriving and taking advantage of popular social media to spread across the world. It goes without saying, there are many artists and songs that do have artistic qualities and are unique. Even though many South Korean bands are arising as indie groups in the musical underground, it is very rare for them to match the international attention of K-pop stars.

The advent of K-pop is a musical phenomenon that introduced South Korean culture to the world. Today, people from all around the world enjoy the music and shows produced by the enormous industry which is booming more than ever and continuing to grow and match the public’s desires. The rise of K-pop seems to be a reflection of the people’s drive for progress during Korea’s economic growth throughout the 20th century, and thus, K-pop will continue to evolve. 

Today, there are many facets of Korean culture as artistically rich and varied as any other that are shrouded by the flashy lights of K-pop. The rich history of Korea, a tiny 5000-year-old nation, developed a unique culture that is still relatively unknown to the world. Today, Seoul is continuing to grow as the trend-setting capital of Asia, with events such as Seoul Fashion Week and K-pop concerts attracting more and more people every year. The growing popularity is helping to expose other cultural aspects such as the food scene and architecture to the public. Hopefully, K-pop will not only serve as popular entertainment, but act as a beacon that can introduce South Korea’s rich and vast history to the world.

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