Crazy for K-pop

Korean music and videos have exploded into a US$10 billion-plus market that is spawning festivals worldwide.

It is well known that some pop music artists and groups are packaged “products,” created by music marketers to please specific audiences. The K-pop phenomenon from South Korea brings that concept to an entirely new level, reports Quartz.

K-pop music and K-drama videos are the two arms of a recent cultural “outpouring” that began in 2012 with the unexpected success of rapper Psy’s infamous “Gangnam Style” song (see original Youtube video here: Since then, what had started out as a niche occurrence has exploded into a US$10-billion global market that has spawned five KCON festivals worldwide (two in the US), and which enraptures fans, 90% of whom are non-Korean.

On stage, K-pop presents itself as frenzied, meaningless electronic prancing and dancing, what fans characterize as “just fun.” Nothing particularly groundbreaking there. The novelty rests in what is happening behind the scenes: everything is written, packaged, designed and planned on what Quartz calls an “industrialized” level.

First, behind the phenomenon is South Korea’s government which, according to Quartz, “has made a mission out of flooding other countries with its own distinctive brand of entertainment.” The official term is “Hallyu”: Korean Wave. Government determines the content, sets the style and personalities of the “idols,” regulates what can and cannot be said in songs and shown on scene. For example, family-friendly chasteness is specifically encouraged.

Then the songs are made to order by a studio according to a lead supplied by a production company to fit the style of a single artist or group. When part of a group, members are meticulously chosen to complement each other in height, hair colour and personality. And the “artists” themselves come out of boarding-camp-like schools where sometimes they have been trained for years.

“If Western radio’s Top 40 hits are already pretty synthetic,” writes Quartz, “then K-pop is the ultimate distillation of that artificiality—a formulaic, paint-the-numbers approach to music that resembles an assembly line more than a genuine process of music discovery and production.”