Seoul Music: The Rise and Rise of K-Pop
October 23, 2019
While global pop has traditionally been dominated by Western styles of music, South Korean K-pop is now challenging its supremacy. Music writer John Lewis analyses what factors have led to its success.
When the South Korean boy band BTS sold out London’s Wembley Stadium in June 2019, it was the latest in a series of milestones for this pop phenomenon from Seoul. A year before, they had topped the US Billboard charts. By the end of 2018 they had sold 14 million records globally – more than any Korean artist ever – and had addressed the United Nations General Assembly. They currently boast 19.8 million followers on Instagram.
According to the Hyundai Research Institute, BTS are worth around US$4 billion annually to the Korean economy, with more than 800,000 tourists visiting the country each year on the back of their international success. They arrive in the wake of other enormously successful K-pop acts such as Monsta X, Blackpink and EXO. While no one doubts the global influence of this musical genre, understanding exactly what fuels it is a lot trickier. From the haircuts to the videos to the dance routines, here is a guide to what has helped K-pop take over the world.
Stunning dance routines
The uniformity of K-pop band members makes the fast, tightly choreographed, perfectly synchronised, knife-like dance routines even more aesthetically thrilling. Lurching between balletic shapes and jerky hip hop moves, the bands look like a gang of near-identical insects moving in unison at high speed. Members put themselves through hours of dance training and aerobic exercise in order to perform these routines, and also learn to sing while performing them.
Gangnam style was an exception
Psy (below), the star behind the globally famous Gangnam Style, is atypical of the average K-pop star. Tubby, eccentric, educated in the US, he was well into his 30s when his song achieved success, and he had a history of writing his own surrealist lyrics. There are a few oddballs like Psy in the K-pop world – including the Southern-style rapper Keith Ape and 2NE1’s rapping singer CL – but few K-pop stars write or produce their own material. Uniqueness is not a selling point in the K-pop world.
K-Pop courts overseas audiences
The K-pop industry was quick to cater for its overseas fan base. Bands would re-record existing songs or entire albums in Japanese, Chinese, English or Malay, while the entertainment companies formed bands featuring non-Korean members. There’s an all-female quartet, for example, called Twice, featuring three Japanese and one Taiwanese; Got7 has one Chinese, one Thai and one Taiwanese-American. Increasingly, bands are run as pan-global franchises: EXO were originally divided into the Korean-language EXO-K and the Mandarin language EXO-M, while NCT have 21 members so they can perform in several locations at once; their diverse collective included an entire eight-piece Chinese section, with other members from Japan, Thailand and North America.
K-Pop grew after economic collapse
The year zero for K-pop is often cited as April 1992, when former heavy metal singer Seo Taiji performed on a live TV talent show. His song, a rave-style slice of swingbeat that started with a lengthy rap, got the lowest rating from the TV jury but became incredibly popular with young viewers. It set the template for a multi-million-dollar industry, with bands like the all-male quintet H.O.T, female trio S.E.S and female five-piece Baby V.O.X all becoming big stars in the mid-1990s. Ironically, when the Southeast Asian economy collapsed in 1997, K-pop flourished, with the government looking to music and TV dramas to boost tourism and exports.
Teenagers are brought into special schools where they live together in dormitories and undergo rigorous training, often singing, dancing, exercising and studying foreign languages for 12 hours a day.
Last year, a 23-year-old from Scotland called Stephanie Fairfield moved 5,000 miles to Seoul to be closer to the boy band BTS. K-pop fans are known for such behaviour. Most bands’ fan clubs have waiting lists, with prospective members forced to buy a certain amount of merchandise before being allowed admittance. K-pop fans even collectively bankroll electronic billboard adverts for their favourite bands, often at a cost of $30,000 or more.
Frighteningly expensive videos
When YouTube was launched in 2005, K-pop agencies were quicker than Western record companies to upload their artists’ videos, quickly gaining an international audience. The first crossover hits that broke into the US and European charts – Nobody by Wonder Girls, Gee by Girls’ Generation and Sorry Sorry by Super Junior – were high-fructose pieces of bubblegum electronica powered by colourful videos. Where the budgets for Western pop promos have plummeted in recent years, K-pop videos are mini-feature films that often cost around $100,000 each to make. The elaborate promotional films for some K-pop hits – Cry Cry and Lovey Dovey by T-ara, and One Shot byB.A.P – cost more than $1 million each.
Only a few songwriters
A handful of songwriters and producers dominate the K-pop scene, including the Korean-American rapper and producer Teddy Park, BTS’s main producer Pdogg, veteran writer Yoo Young-jin and the 11-member writing committee Sweetune. As K-pop has internationalised, entertainment companies have drafted in overseas talent – LDN Noise from the UK, Caesar & Loui and Andreas Oberg from Sweden, and a host of Americans. Where much contemporary Western dance music and R&B has become harmonically very simple, K-pop still maintains a faith in the nuts and bolts of the classic pop song – verses, choruses, middle-eights, bridges and lots of meaty chord changes – elements that seasoned Western songwriters can get their teeth into.
A hybrid genre
There is barely anything authentically Korean about K-pop. It is a hybrid of Western pop genres – 1990s R&B, hip hop, electronic dance music, bubble gum pop, UK rave, Swedish synth pop, with touches of reggae and Latin pop. It’s often compared to a 1950s Korean car called the Sibal, which was cannibalised from old oil drums and US Army Jeeps left over from the Korean War. This creative hybridity set the tone for South Korean culture over the ensuing decades, with the once-isolated nation adapting and surviving; building a new society using cultural scraps drawn from the rest of the world.