Hello, and welcome to The Deep Dive—a weekly close-up look at an idea, issue or trend that’s shaping Asia’s future. We’re happy to have you with us. Please send your comments, questions and favourite K-pop tunes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Korean culture is everywhere, having broken out of its domestic market and taken the world by storm this century. K-pop has become ubiquitous around Asia and in the West as part of Hallyu, the wave of Korean cultural exports that also includes film and television, fashion and food.
K-pop started to emerge in the 90s when Korean musicians, in particular the band Seo Taiji and Boys, began experimenting with incorporating a global palette of musical styles. It first conquered its neighbour and fellow cultural powerhouse Japan in the early 2000s, then spread across East and Southeast Asia, and over the past decade has increasingly spread its tentacles to every part of the world, powered by social media and video sharing platforms, in particular YouTube.
The breakthrough moment is pretty obvious – and surprisingly, given that K-pop specialises in perfectly polished identikit youthful idols, it came from a rotund 30-something joker. Psy’s Gangnam Style topped charts in more than 30 countries in 2012 and was popular just about everywhere (except, for some reason, Japan). Perhaps the other biggest act powering K-pop’s unstoppable march is BTS, K-pop’s top sellers, and the first Korean group to make the cover of the US edition of Billboard.
A key ingredient in K-pop’s success has been its staging of concerts, which has taken set design, costume design and choreography to new levels. The stars are also invariably unbelievably polished performers, thanks to the legendarily intense training programmes of the large management companies that dominate the industry, in particular SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment –although the treatment of those stars has raised concerns about physical, sexual and labour abuse.
So how did the pop music of a fairly insular country of 50 million come to dominate the global airwaves? Let’s take a deep dive.
"It’s not like we have superpowers, or are super talented or super beautiful, but we have passion and we believe in ourselves.”
—Park Yee-un, aka Yeeun, K-pop singer-songwriter and former member of Wonder Girls
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The song that launched a global movement is the fourth most-watched video on YouTube, with 3.4 billion views. Go on, you know you want to watch it again!
THE FULL PICTURE
The South Korean government-owned Korea Foundation found last year that there were 89 million members of official Hallyu fan clubs worldwide, with about 21 percent of them living outside the Asia-Pacific region.
SOURCE: Korea Times 2019
MOVERS & SHAKERS
K-pop innovators who have driven its rise
The Revolutionary Lee Soo-man More than any other individual, Lee Soo-man shaped the modern K-pop industry. The founder of South Korea’s biggest entertainment company, SM Entertainment, he started off as a singer in the 1970s before his career was cut short by government media censorship. After studying in the US, he returned with a mission to revolutionise South Korean entertainment, coming up with the unique hothouse training system during the 1990s.
The International Force RM The standard bearer for K-pop’s march towards global domination, Kim Nam-joon, aka RM, is the leader and main rapper of BTS, the genre’s number one group by a distance. A former academic high flyer and star of South Korea’s underground hip hop scene, his rise to international fame has been aided by collaborations with US stars like Warren G, Wale, Lil Nas X and Fall Out Boy.
The Stereotype Breaker Holland Go Tae-seob, known as Holland, is K-pop’s first openly gay idol. That isn’t necessarily a sign that that industry’s conservative values are breaking down, though; with lyrics that address his sexuality and the prejudice he has encountered, and a debut video featuring him kissing a man, he was unable to secure and agency contract and has been forced to crowdfund the release of his music.
Gen T Spotlight
An Honouree To Follow
Lalisa Manoban K-pop management companies aren’t averse to putting non-Koreans, especially Chinese, in bands’ line-ups, but Lalisa, better known by her stage name Lisa, is the first Thai to break into the industry. Probably the most famous pop star to come out of Thailand, she is a member of mega-successful girl group Blackpink and the first foreign artist to work with the country’s second biggest management company YG Entertainment.
Thanks for all of your responses to last week's question on fast fashion. According to the results, 51 percent of you believe that fast fashion will clean up its act.
DID YOU KNOW?
K-pop’s tentacles have reached into all sorts of unlikely places. It is massive, for example, in the remote northeast Indian state of Manipur, where separatists banned Bollywood in 2000, creating a hunger for alternatives.