While it’s hard to overstate the influence that Western (especially American) pop has had over global culture in the past 100 years, there’s a new kid on the block who is making even bigger splashes. Known as K-pop (Korean-pop), this genre of music has reached its pinnacle in the past two years. The most popular worldwide charts have been topped by K-pop idol groups; they achieve some of the highest physical album sales in the world (which is still a very important measure of distribution success); their social media presence dwarfs even the largest Western artists. K-pop is now the behemoth of the global music industry: it bleeds the Western market of brand deals, demands attention from international music video directors and DPs, experiments with genres (both musically and visually) and yet merely 28 years ago it simply did not exist. I argue that due to the speed of its development, K-pop has broken a huge amount of barriers, including those that have been staunchly held for generations: it has fundamentally altered the cultural landscape of South Korea and it is making forays into changing the world.
How it All Started: K-Pop as a Rebel Child
One could spend hours talking about the “factory production” of idols; about the way “concepts” make or break a group who is just debuting; about the abuse suffered by (especially female) idols within the industry; about the unlivable standards to which they have to adhere to in order to maintain a public persona. However, none of these subjects truly gets at the heart of what K-pop represents. K-pop is in fact one of the main motors through which the wider South Korean society is rapidly changing in order to catch up with modern values and it is imperative for it to be analyzed through this lens first, and stylistically second. While many like to scoff at pop culture and its inherent “lack of genuine value”, there is nothing more ruthlessly efficient when it comes to motivating and inspiring the younger generations to break from badly aged and constrictive ideals.
South Korea (SK) is a country scarred by war. War within, war without and an identity war with itself. Since the official separation from North Korea in 1948 and the subsequent Korean War of 1950-53, SK has been pushing in a direction of development as opposed as possible to that of its authoritarian neighbour. Its economy boomed as it opened itself to the global market, becoming the fourth largest economy of Asia and managing to expand even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Even so, for much of this period, SK was still culturally and socially dependent on old-fashioned standards: it carried an obsession with hierarchy, obedience, clear gender separation based on role performance in society and a devotion to the state expressed in the form of rabid nationalism.
This clash of values became very evident to the young teenagers of the early 90s who were turning their gaze towards the bacchanalian entertainment of the West, eager to experience some of the desires of every young generation: freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom of creation (and sometimes, just some very catchy tunes which weren’t also your mom’s favorite type of wedding music). In this context, the appearance of boy band Seo Taiji and Boys and their self-titled album in 1992 rocked the country. The song “I Know” remained on the charts for 17 weeks even in the face of massive backlash from state-controlled TV and radio stations. While demands for censorship were hurled like a bowling ball across institutions, SK teenagers were finally experiencing home-made music with solid beats and rebellious lyrics – and witnessed artists who spoke to power and its demands in their own language. This was to become the start of one of the most successful bottom-up change movements brought about by art.
K-pop and Its Progressive Streak
The response to Seo Taiji and Boys was swift. The South Korean government figured out that this phenomenon was here to stay and immediately created a Cultural Department focused on producing art of all types (including music) and fusing this endeavor to the national agenda. After that came the Korean wave or Hallyu, a soft-power move on the part of a country that began to export its culture as much as possible and profit off of it at the same time. In short, the Korean wave is the increasing global demand and consumption of Korean-made entertainment and products since the 1980s. In the late 90’s, a few entertainment companies were built and they monopolized the market (SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment); together they laid the foundations for the recruitment – training – debut system which still stands to this day and began turning over idols and idol groups year round. Since 1995, it is widely understood that there have been 4 distinct “generations” of idols: 1995-2003, 2003-2009, 2011-2018, 2018 – present. First generation idols are already legends within the industry and the second one is credited with breaking into the international market; by the third generation bands like BTS, Twice, Red Velvet and Blackpink were already present on social media and taking advantage of a rapidly expanding online environment in order to promote their work.
But they never promoted just their work. K-pop idols start working during their teenage years; they are products of a globalized society and, very importantly, they are also increasingly recruited from across the world (for example, Blackpink has three members who have grown up outside of South Korea). Within this context, they also promote values which are at strong odds with those of the older South Koreans who would like to see a “purer”, more “respectable” version of entertainment and who believe moral corruption lies in clothes or hair colour. While in SK It is taboo to discuss having mental health issues, BTS member Suga (real name Min Yoon-gi) has often spoken about his struggles with depression and anxiety. A lesser known fact is that tattoos are illegal and banned from national television in SK but this has not stopped many idols from simply showing up inked one day and letting the cable providers figure out a solution. For female idols, exposing their belly button while on televised stages is a cause of official reprimand – but through music videos published on YouTube they get to wear whatever they want. Even more importantly, the vast plethora of individuals who choose to express themselves in whatever way they see fit are the current role models of a generation who is getting desperate trying to juggle the highest academic demands in the world with sky-rocketing rates of teen suicide and depression.
These idols are not simply empty vessels or graven images – they are becoming independent powerhouses who make choices accordingly. While they are by default placed on a pedestal this does not mean they are content with being mouthpieces for antiquated world views. Ten years ago it was unacceptable to hear of an idol openly admitting to a romantic relationship – nowadays, idols like Hyuna perform together with their partners. Collaborations with foreign artists are a clear way through which a group can express where their allegiance lies, like when BTS released one of its most popular hits (Boy With Luv) in collaboration with Halsey, an outspoken bisexual who is an activist for radical social change. It was also BTS who made headlines by donating $1 Million to the BLM movement and inspiring their fan base to match the donation in less than 24 hours. In a country whose government refuses to accept LGBTQ+ individuals or the mere existence of non-normative identities, being the generator of $3.54 billion a year comes with its own perks – you get to speak out when you want to.
Where does this road lead?
While there are many dark undertones to an industry format which believes the lifespan of an artist can be counted on the fingers of one’s hands, the catch-22 lies in the speed with which it has to move in order to maintain its economic and cultural prowess. You cannot push the boundaries of experimenting with music and style without pushing a few societal ones in the process too. The underdog entertainment companies of the 2010s are now fighting for the same market space as the old dogs that have created the system, but they are coming in from a different angle – they sign artists who are not bound by the letter of the law to perform a goody-two-shoes role. Most importantly, the success they have achieved means that the world’s eye is focused on them. When idols commit suicide because of their professional environment, the world judges. When women speak about the abuse they suffer, the world judges. And the more popular K-pop gets, the harder it is for the conservative, restrictive streak of South Korean society to hold up to scrutiny.
There is nothing in this world which quite equals the energy and drive of young generations – this has been the case for as long as we’ve had organized societies. In South Korea, the younger generations have chosen to liberate themselves through music and style, often at the expense of public shame and reprimand. These idols are paying the highest possible price for the most decent of dividends: freedom of choice, freedom of expression, freedom of creation. All of these are progressive ideals, brought forth by dreamers and doers. The past 28 years have profoundly altered the cultural landscape of South Korea – and K-pop shows no signs of stopping.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Categories: Society & Culture