The ingenuity that is ‘K-pop’


The genre is backed by generations of fans who are vocal in pitting their idols against the industry’s long list of legends, because they are very much entitled to believe they can.


K-pop was always made for world domination.

Lee Soo-man—yes, the guy who owns SM Entertainment—saw that music was the next great export. He was a visionary for identifying music as the biggest cultural asset to invest in, as revealed in Vox’s “Explained” series which can be streamed on Netflix.

Come the year 1997, South Korea created a basic law for the promotion of cultural industries. It meant putting prime focus on bolstering the arts, and, in turn, promoting Korean cultural and entertainment productions as exports supporting the economy.

1992’s Seo Taiji & Boys are as much of a Korean revolutionary music symbol as BTS is now (in fact, their music are considered as bold criticisms of society, with BTS even covering Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Come Back Home”).

Seo Taiji and Boys

The group was considered as fearless trailblazers of K-pop groups, even preceding the 1997 law. Seo Taiji and Boys was replaced in the spotlight by agency talents H.O.T, Roo’Ra, Baby VOX, S.E.S, and Sechskies, which all soared to fame in the mid 90s.

   SECOND GENERATION   

Filipino fans are more familiar with the second generation of idol groups. TVXQ, Super Junior, Girls Generation, Wonder Girls, 2PM, SHINee, Big Bang, 2NE1, f(x), and EXO are some of the artists that have debuted in the 2000s. Several of these groups are still producing music together until today.

SHINee


Girls Generation

Super Junior

Almost 20 years ago, the formula of a K-pop idol was not only more defined but patronized by the Korean public. The complicated recruitment process of the “Big 3” entertainment agencies like SM, JYP, and YG, are also widely known by its global fans.

It starts with young hopefuls auditioning in their teen years who are trained to possess the skills of an “idol”—dancing, singing, acting, and modelling. Once they are assembled into a well-rounded group, members prepare for their debut that is often accompanied by a 10-year contract.

   THE ANATOMY OF K-POP   

What truly sets K-pop industry apart is this rigorous mining and manufacturing of talents. Every group has a designated member to fulfill a specific role. There are leaders, visuals (the most attractive), dancers, rappers, and vocals. The genre has eventually created its own image with intricate dance choreographies, ragged fusion of music genres, and fashion-forward wardrobes.

This music industry also redefined what an artist “comeback” meant. Its game players knew exactly how to get people hooked and convert new audiences into fans. They built anticipation and expectation high, introducing unique and eccentric “music eras” for each K-idol comeback. There is focus on the artistic concept as much as there is for the new album’s title track, which comprises the group’s overall look, and experimental genre mash-ups.

This is mirrored in the concept-driven music videos. Koreans have introduced cinema-worthy MVs with muddled story lines that feature every idol member. Each one is given a different thematic persona in the limelight. K-pop MVs are also a lot more similar to concert productions and live performances with its grand sets and props and color-curated moods. K-pop is deemed as an audiovisual genre.

   THE UNIQUE FAN EXPERIENCE   

Early fans of the genre claimed that their peers looked down on their appreciation of the music, with language as a primary barrier.

It also has a cult of followers, and so-called “fandoms” become an integral subculture of the genre. It is a dynamic experienced and shared by every K-pop fan in the world. It’s about growing up with their “bias (favorite group member),” having unique concert protocols (Lightsticks! Synchronized fan chants!), and more.

Being a K-pop fan is undeniably widely accepted these days. As it breaks its way into the mainstream, there is less aversion to this non-English genre to combat. Early fans of the genre claimed that their peers looked down on their appreciation of the music, with language as a primary barrier.

With prejudice shying away from the picture, K-pop enthusiasts now worry about “toxic fan wars.” “Everything is an issue for the new generation fans. They judge and base Hallyu (or Korean wave, South Korea’s version of a pop culture invasion) legends through music video views. I really wish everyone would just calm down and respect each and every one in the fandoms because everybody have different tastes and varying opinions when it comes to music,” 23-year-old Diannara Ombao, vice president of a local Super Junior fan club, shared.

“Some fans have become boastful about their favored groups. I don’t like how they disrespect the second generation of groups. They called them irrelevant and flops without even checking the history of how K-pop became big worldwide,” a fellow Super Junior stan, April Castillo revealed.


   THE $5-BILLION MUSIC INDUSTRY GOES GLOBAL   

There is no doubt that the recent years comprise the beginning of the golden age of not just K-pop but Korean entertainment altogether. But while individual milestones are ought to be recognized and celebrated, it is often disregarded that the decades-worth of producing Korean pop music has elevated the possibilities for this genre and its artists. There is undoubtedly a number of factors that has led to this global phenomenon.

BTS

The contemporary Korean music scene is now saturated with idol groups, which has tripled in number since the second generation of artists in the same genre. But there is one group that is making headline after headline, with a commanding presence that can no longer be ignored—yes, BTS has got the whole world talking.




It is often disregarded that the decades-worth of producing Korean pop music has elevated the possibilities for this genre and its artists.


“They started off as rebellious teenagers who are tired of what society dictates. They are continuously fighting against [the norms] since they debuted their music. But now, they’re opening up little by little, just like how every one of us matures. BTS shows us how life changed them through the music they create. It’s unravelled in front of us and it is like watching your own life before your eyes. They show every aspect of human development,” 22-year-old Cha Guinto, an administrator of the House of Army Philippines Facebook page, said.

“BTS is always sincere with the messages they weave into their music. It’s catchy, but it also discusses serious issues that most K-pop idols don’t dare to cross. Their music is something people can relate to and helps them open their minds about certain issues which are often ignored,” Rose Samonte, another BTS fan, added.

   NEW MUSIC CULTURE   

New records like H1gher Music, Big Hit Entertainment, and On The Record, are here to challenge what defines K-pop, and most importantly, the idol formula that the “Big 3” entertainment agencies have long established.

DEAN
These newcomers to the Korean music scene are putting the talent of artists front and center. The traditional process of making music—which involves the artists themselves in brainstorming, producing, directing, and composing—is being rediscovered and explored for the rest of the world to hear.

As these companies focus on the sonic taste of Seoul itself—where R&B and Hip-hop are currently making waves—the contemporary mix of various genres make for a diverse yet familiar compositions pulsating with modern groove and energy, much at par with Western releases.

But even the pioneering K-pop producers are breaking the molds they themselves have created and standardized. One theory to this shift is the regulation of the rigid contracts and practices, making the music scene more inclusive.

Another thing not to be overlooked is that idols, who mostly belong to the second generation of K-pop groups, have already earned the companies’ trust to compose their own music, be their true selves in front of the camera, and are secured by the undying loyalty of their fans.

“What I like about the idols now is that they are exploring and challenging themselves with different types of music which they didn’t normally promote. They do not keep themselves caged to the norms that we got used to,”  Daphne Joy Cortina, who leads Philippine ELFs of Super Junior’s streaming team, stressed.

   INTO THE MAINSTREAM   

K-pop no longer exists in an exclusive bubble

Korean solo artists, including the likes of Jay Park, DEAN, CL of 2NE1, and Tiffany Young of Girls Generation, are now pursuing international careers, with great concentration in penetrating the US and European market. There is now a struggle to break a cultural homogeny perceived by the world: That every music and artist that come from Korea is of a K-pop background.

Tiffany Young

“No matter how much you listen to music, there’s always more left to it… There are always undertones of what you’ve gone through and created before. For me, I love everything about K-pop. From its productions, to rehearsal, to how it’s packaged, and how you reach out to your fans,” now solo artist Tiffany Young shared.

“[K-pop to me now] remains to be an interpretation and re-interpretation of what you are inspired by, and I hope to continue to bring what I love about K-pop and pop to everybody,” the former Asian-American Girls Generation member said.

But one important thing to note is: K-pop was always seen fit for a global audience. While the industry initially branched out in East Asia, creating Mandarin-focused K-pop subgroups and Japanese versions of albums, the huge English-speaking market was always in their horizon.

And it has achieved exactly that—K-pop no longer exists in an exclusive bubble. What was once a genre that was caged in a separate world known only by fans now finds its artists in the same league as today’s biggest global pop stars.



Its fans are even bold enough to erase the boundaries that differentiates K-pop from pop itself. And it is precisely in this same reality that makes the BTS and Steve Aoki remix, as well as the unreleased Dua Lipa and BLACKPINK collaboration possible.




K-pop, both as a genre and a global phenomenon, has consciously transformed itself into a music powerhouse. It continues to introduce new standards and even setting new records in platforms that didn’t exist decades before. The genre is backed by generations of fans who are vocal in pitting their idols against the industry’s long list of legends, because they are very much entitled to believe they can.


Special thanks to the leaders of Philippine ELFs of Super Junior & House of Army Philippines
for their valuable insights, without which this article would’ve lack its authenticity.

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