Modern K-Pop aka Korean Pop music is a bundle of contradictions, yet it has gained insane levels of popularity across the globe, including in India, thanks to its distinctive blend of addictive melodies, slick choreography and production values.
No country takes its pop music more seriously than South Korea. K-POP, or Korean Pop, is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Korean music and art is a $5 billion industry today. A huge chunk of the monies come from K-Pop alone. K-Pop bands such as BTS and Blackpink are so popular in the US, UK and international markets that their products are sold out within minutes of their launch or release.
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Music Report 2019, the K-Pop industry experienced significant growth last year. The country also ranked at No.6 among the top 10 music markets worldwide.
What is K-Pop anyway?
The Korean Pop is a music genre that blends together electronic, hip-hop, pop, rock, R&B and even rap. In the 1950s and 1960s, Korean music saw its way to the US through the singing trio The Kim Sisters. They are known for being the first South Korean music group to achieve success in the U.S market.
However, it was on March 14, 1992, the genesis of Korean Wave started. Seo Taiji and Boys performed for a live TV show at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’s weekend Music Show, performing their single ‘Nan Arayo’( I Know). Even though the boys didn’t win the talent show, the song went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No.1 streak in the country’s history.
By the time Seo Taiji and Boys officially disbanded in 1996, they had changed South Korea’s musical and performance landscape. They paved the way for other artists to be even more experimental and break more boundaries.
Between 1995 and 1998, three music studios came up: SM Entertainment in 1995, JYP entertainment in 1997 and YG entertainment in 1998. Together, they began grooming and nourishing what would soon go popular as ‘idol groups’.
K-pop is a well-thought-of package, always trying to push the envelope in every aspect of music entertainment. It has everything together — music, fashion, dance, songs and stories. It does not just sell the music but the idols themselves.
The story of BTS, one of the most popular K-Pop bands is equally interesting. It started as a seven-member boyband in 2013. That year, the team brought out its first music video No More Dream. Soon, the track skyrocketed to become No. 84 on the South Korean government’s popular Gaon Music Chart. In just six years, BTS produced three No. 1 albums. It became just the third group in 50 years to launch three chart-busting albums on the Billboard 200 in about 12 months. One cannot forget PSY’s Gangnam Style and its ‘horse-riding’ dance which became an instant hit. And there are more.
Move over the West
Fatima Bhutto in her book New Kings of The World encapsulates this new pop invasion. “This run of American pop culture was uninterrupted for decades, unhinged by any serious global competition and a little later a new cultural industry flattened the playing field,” she writes.
This new fad has received popularity in the West, with K-Pop stars such as BTS headlining the Grammys, creating a buzz on Saturday Night Live and making a billion views and streaming for their music.
According to culture studies experts, the new-found addiction to global content is partly because people have reached that point of saturation, which triggers the need for diverse content to break the monotony in entertainment.
Since South Korea’s democratisation in the late 1980s, the relaxation of censorship, the reduction of travel restrictions, and the push to diversify the economy have all contributed to the global spread of its culture. According to a report by the BBC, this hasn’t occurred by accident. Hallyu or the Korean Wave of culture has been a deliberate tool of soft power.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Artist Chart noted that BTS were the second best-selling artists of 2018 worldwide and the only non-English speaking artist to enter the chart. As of 2019, the group accounted for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP.
The South Korean government using this soft power to reach for cultural power has had remarkable quick success.
It’s not all smiles and perfections
But something seems fishy about the K-pop phenomenon, which points to a deeper malaise running through the Korean culture industry. There has been a series of suicides and high profile sex scandals involving K-pop stars in recent times. At the height of their fame, these young men and women are under severe strain, unable to live up to the demands placed on them to be polished, picture-perfect representatives of K-pop music.
Kim Jong Hyun, 27, a member of SHINee, took his own life in 2017, after speaking about the intense pressure resulted from the success.
In March 2019, several male K-pop stars were implicated in a spycam sex scandal. The lot included Seungri, a member of boyband Bign Bang, Choi Jong-hoon, a former member of FT Island and singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young. Jung shared inappropriate videos of women in a group chat.
Then in October last year, Sulli, 25, a former member of the girl group f(x) killed herself. A month later Goo Hara, 28, a former member of the group Kara and a close friend of Sulli, also took her own life.
Later, reports said both women faced extreme levels of online harassment for months. Sulli, whose real name was Choi-Jin-ri, was among the few K-pop stars who supported the nation’s feminist “no bra” movement. She was bold enough to challenge the Korean society’s strict female dress codes. This made her the target of online abuses and public shaming.
It is no secret that K-pop aspirants go through rigorous training. They start at a very young age and train for almost 12 hours. At times the industry can be notoriously exploitative, and studio life is gruelling to the point that it can easily lead to abuses. Performers face pressure to sign long-term contracts, known as “slave contracts” even when they are still children. A contract that gives studios the power to dictate their private behaviour, dating life and public conduct.
However, in recent years, public attention did bring about change. In 2017, many studios agreed to bring reform in their contracts. Big Hit Labels, which manages BTS, claim they give artists creative freedom, which became one of the reasons for their global success.
Indian millennial and Korean wave
In India, the Korean wave first started in the North East states. In Nagaland, it became popular over 20 years ago with Arirang TV (the state-sponsored English language channel from Korea that began broadcasting in 1997). The region also witnessed mass sales of K-pop albums and Korean movies, in many instances outwitting the home-grown Bollywood movies.
Experts say the under-representation of the North-east in the Indian media incentivised the people to identify with idols and stars from Korea who shared their looks and characteristics. Even though India’s affair with K-pop was slow to blossom, it is a cultural phenomenon now. It comes in the form of frequent concerts, multiplex releases of documentaries and a digital footprint to die for.
In a 2019 survey from statista.com, 34.4 per cent respondents in India said K-Pop is very popular in the country. The onset of the digital age catapulted the popularity of K-pop music in India. This along with the efforts of the Korean Cultural Centre for India, the cultural arm of the South Korean embassy, made the peninsular nation’s culture accessible to Indians.
The centre has been organising an annual K-Pop contest in 2012 and used to bring Kpop groups like M.O.N.T and IN2IT for the grand finale.
A case study for India
Korean music producers are experts at manufacturing incredibly successful products. Clever design and brilliant marketing transformed K-pop into a genre with high global value. The South Korea government started to back the music industry giving it tax breaks. They gave money to academics to enhance the popularity of the genre.
Indeed, modern K-pop is a bundle of colourful contradictions. Still, the rise of K-pop is a great example of how careful strategies and precision can trigger a global wave.
Despite all the paradoxes, K-pop is here to stay. It is slowly evolving, as more artists are shaking up the studio scene and pushing the rigid norms. Hallyu may subside, but the K-production juggernaut vrooms on.