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How South Korea imposed K-Pop on the world

UNDERSTAND IT ALL – This full-fledged genre has managed to gain a foothold in the mainstream Western audience. How did South Korean pop become a global phenomenon?

They are young, beautiful, talented and for a few years they have been causing the end of the American monopoly on the pop music market. Their names are Hioryn, Jin, Jisoo or YooA and they fill stadiums all over the West, where most people don’t understand the words they sing. They are the products of an ultra-young musical genre, which in less than three decades has become a war machine that brews billions internationally: they are the stars of K-Pop, pop from South Korea.

For a long time, K-Pop remained confined to its country of origin, acclaimed outside the borders by teenagers connected, in an underground way. But the phenomenon has taken on a new dimension in recent years and its muses are invading more traditional channels. Last year, the Blackpink singers performed at the Coachella festival, a Californian high mass and annual meeting of the greatest American artists. The boys of BTS, probably the most famous K-Pop group, have been received by the most watched talk shows in the United States. Regularly, these groups appear in the Billboard rankings, which are authoritative all over the world.

Besides a cultural phenomenon, K-Pop is a real economic force for the country. In 2018, the Hyundai Research Institute estimated that BTS alone generated $3.6 billion in revenue for the year, as reported. Release.

  • K-Pop, what is it?

The recipe is often the same: rarely mixed groups, made up of four to ten members, string together catchy refrains that stick to the eardrums. The texts are in Korean but always embellished with a few words in English to catch the foreign ear. The clips are real fireworks of colors, the choreographies are worthy of those of the greatest hip-hop artists in the United States, and the looks are ultra neat. Everything is thought out to lure the young barge in search of models.

Certain groups, in particular BTS, promote in their texts and in their interviews messages in tune with the times, made of self-acceptance and the pursuit of one’s dreams. Here again, teenagers adhere.

It was around the mid-1990s that K-Pop began to explode on the Korean market, then in Asia. “At the time, it was Japanese and Hong Kong pop that were very popular across the continent,” explains Antoine Bondaz, director of the Korea program at the Foundation for Strategic Research. Very quickly, K-Pop imposed itself in turn and broke new boundaries: “Unlike J-Pop, it has become globalized.”

The first groups achieved worldwide fame during the 2000s: 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, 2PM or Sistar. The second wave arrived in the mid-2010s with new, even more popular formations. “BTS remains, by far, the greatest achievement.”

“The success of K-Pop is part of what is called the hallyu, the Korean wave”, adds Antoine Bondaz. “It is an increasingly massive export of cultural production, including K-Pop, but also series, cinema or cuisine. In fact, we are seeing a rise in interest in Korea around the world.” But why has Korean pop been able to export itself like none of its predecessors from Asia?

“There was a real marketing reflection, a real business that was set up. We build groups, mainly composed of Koreans. Sometimes, one or a member is Thai or Chinese, which is useful on the market. They pushed the notion of girl bands and boy bands as we had never done in Europe.To this are added the social networks, which make it possible to create an incredible phenomenon of fans, who organize themselves into real structured networks. .”

This phenomenal success forms a breach into which the South Korean government rushes. Aware of the boon that such influence can represent, the leaders are surfing the wave:

“For a long time, South Korea suffered from a degraded image abroad. Ten years ago, it was talked about very little; people did not differentiate between North and South. Big initiatives have been put in place to improve the image of the country. K-Pop has been used by the government as one of the vectors of its public diplomacy.”

  • Why the controversies multiply

Cinema, music, fashion; all entertainment sectors are industries. But none deserves this name as well as that of K-Pop. The stars of the industry are produced at a breakneck pace by labels that subject them to quasi-military training, from which only a few will emerge famous.

Korean music is dominated by large corporations, which act as record labels, managers, coaches and promoters. JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment… each one has its own methods and its gold record winners. All follow the same model: aspiring artists are recruited very young by audition. Those who are retained become trainees (or “apprentices”). For several years, they perfected their skills in dancing, singing, rapping and foreign languages. We prepare them to go on tour, to answer interviews, to behave properly. Until doing wonders: below, a rehearsal of the girls band Blackpink, on a song by Rihanna. Ultra-suggestive movements, chewing-gum joints.

Such a level of excellence has a price, around which the record companies maintain the mystery. According to many media, the trainees – just like the idols – train for hours every day (up to 15 for the boys of BTS, according to their own statements). The extreme thinness of certain female stars necessarily raises questions about the draconian diets to which they are subjected. The YouTube channel CNA followed the training of a young streak. We see images of almost unbearable rehearsals, full of cries of pain, and young girls exploding with joy when they discover that they have dropped below the 50 kg mark. Vagal discomfort in full stage performance sometimes happens; fans make compilations of them which they publish on the web.

The remodeling of trainees also goes through the scalpel; cosmetic surgery is a persistent taboo, but the before-and-after photos prove just how common the practice is. In 2017, the youtuber Euodias published a video in which she recounts her two years as a streak:

“I didn’t have plastic surgery, but I was supposed to [le faire]. If I had renewed my contract with them, I should have done so the following year. The company (to which I was attached) did not warn you that you were going to go there. They sent you there, that’s all.”

The remuneration of artists also raises questions. Way, one of the singers of the former K-Pop group Crayon Pop, assures in an interview published by the Asian Boss YouTube channel that she had to reimburse the price of her training to her record company herself. She explains that she was paid for the first time a year and a half after the group’s debut. French YouTuber Tev, expatriate in Japan, explains in a video dedicated to K-Pop that these salary singularities are not found everywhere, and that they vary from one company to another.

  • What pressures do celebrities experience?

These behind-the-scenes revelations of this flourishing industry are part of the growing unease among the media and fans. In particular because of a wave of deaths, often by suicide, which has fallen on Korean idols for two years. Goo-Hara from Kara, Yohan from TST, Sulli, Kim Jong-Hyun from SHINee: all died before 30 years old. In a farewell letter, the latter said he was “broken from within”: “The depression that is eating away at me has finally swallowed me whole.”

Because the life of young Korean artists does not become easier after their years of trainees. The stars live at an extremely fast pace and sometimes have to give up their right to an intimate life, so much the devotion of some fans can be invasive. Last February, protests took place in South Korea demanding that singer Chen be fired from the group EXO. His fault? Announcing his engagement.

The glamorous and glittery world of K-Pop hides a sometimes sordid reverse. Many complain of persistent cyberbullying. Before ending her life, Goo-Hara had been blackmailed into a sex tape by a former lover. In November 2019, singer Jung Joon-Young was sentenced to six years in prison for rape. A few months earlier, it was Seungri who was under investigation for illicit betting, after being suspected in a case of pimping.

“K-Pop is a chance for the visibility of the country, it is a considerable economic opportunity”, concludes Antoine Bondaz. “But there is also a negative side: it is not representative of cultural diversity, crushed by the weight of the majors. This makes it more difficult for atypical artists to have a market share. Finally, for artists from K-Pop, the pressure is enormous. Bands are built, their members are formed. This raises a question; should the music industry identify artists and promote them, or manufacture them?

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