The Hallyu Wave
The motifs of Korean culture are the cynosure of transcultural audiences in cyberspace, and beyond, in the contemporary entertainment milieu. The Hallyu (Korean) wave, a reference to the formidable, counter-hegemonic soft power of South Korea, is a term coined by Beijing journalists in the late 1990s, who had observed the burgeoning popularity of Korean cultural exports in China. Korean popular music (or K-pop), cinema and television dramas have acquired an unprecedented ubiquity and garnered worldwide attention with the burgeoning demand for Korean content on online streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+, endowed with subtitles and dubbed in multiple languages; K-pop bands such as BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bulletproof Boy Scouts) have grown from being niche subcultures to become household names. BTS, now synonymous with the genre K-pop and is one of the most influential contemporary musical acts across the globe; the Grammy-nominated Korean septet brings in an estimated $5 billion to the South Korean economy through their album sales, concert-events and other promotional endeavours.
The affinity for all things Korean is more than just the passive consumption of sitcoms and music for K-drama and K-pop enthusiasts; it also translates into a fondness for Korean cuisine, Korean skincare products, and even voyages to South Korea, specifically to the iconic K-drama filming locations or the buildings of K-pop music labels, replete with band associated merchandise and museums.
Scholars such as Jimmyn Parc and Hwy-Chang Moon have noted the two significant waves of Hallyu, wherein the first one mainly refers to the globe-wide adulation garnered by Korean dramas and films such as “Swiri”, “Autumn in my Heart”, “My Sassy Girl” and “Winter Sonata”, while the second wave broadened the horizons for the globalisation of Korean cultural assets by including Korean musicals and K-pop within its ambit. In August 2010, after the K-pop girl-band Girls’ Generation’s performance at Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo, Japanese media first used the term “New Korean wave” to refer to a novel dimension of the all-pervasive,
international appeal of K-pop, Korean video games and animation. The second Hallyu wave was catalysed by the mushrooming of social networking sites and the extensive usage of the virtual sphere by K-pop fandoms to interact with their favourite artists, publish their own interpretations of their musical legacies and to disseminate various forms of fan-generated content. The advancement of information technology has enhanced the world’s access to Korean culture, as evidenced by the unprecedented success of the notoriously memeinducing, viral pop-dance hit of 2012, “Gangnam Style” by South Korean singer PSY, enabled by YouTube.
The Rise of K-Pop: Exploring the Culture & The Quintessential K-pop Idol
The cultural inheritance of K-pop is complex and kaleidoscopic: the blueprint of the K-pop paradigm has been inspired by the American Motown Model and its successful adaptation by the 1990s Japanese pop boy-band SMAP; K-pop possesses melodic movements that are embedded within Western pop, elements of folk, stripped-down rock, mellow alternative, vicious dubstep, hip-hop song-structures, a smidgen of rhythm and blues and house music, thus, the suffix “pop” does not quite encase the veritable diversity offered by the contemporary Korean popular music scene.
Scholar Jaeyoung Yang has stated that the global concoction of the Korean pop techniques with the stylisations of hip-hop vehemently appeals to the youth and the erstwhile rap-dance Korean groups such as Seo Taiji & Boys and Deux have popularised this cross-cultural fusion. Quintessential K-pop songs are built around an arrangement of a memorable hook, a slew of repeated harmonious variations or an eloquent rap verse and are sprinkled with simplistic English phrases few and far between, perhaps to ease the unacquainted into the song, just until the catchy chorus becomes indelible in their mind.
The state-funded industry of K-pop is discernably different from its counterparts around the world and the marketing strategies have been crafted to incorporate every art form: the release of new albums is preceded an array of “concept” films, photo-books, collectible photo-cards strategically placed within albums to boost sales and symbolism-laden teasers to encapsulate the aesthetic of the upcoming musical project and to build anticipation for it; the online platforms for the fandoms soon become abuzz with speculations and theories about themes of the forthcoming album.
Every artistic “comeback” is accompanied by a complete audio-visual overhaul and the construction of a new body of imagery that defines that particular era, comprised of a new set of songs, a potential concert-tour, fan-meetings, vibrant sartorial components, and an assortment of visual art, ranging from album covers to the ornate designs, props and effects associated with performance stages. The act of consuming music is no longer limited to listening and reflecting; the production values of K-pop mould the genre into something that is meant to be perceived, both visually and sonically, given the intricate storytelling through the cohesive choreographies for each song, unique makeup and fashion ensembles.
The most recognisable emblem of K-pop is that of an idol: a labyrinthine institution in itself. The core tenets of the idol system bear the traces of the Motown Model from the United States. Whilst being employed in the Henry Ford’s assembly line, African-American songwriter, Berry Gordy discovered the virtues of structuring the manufacturing process in a company like an assembly line and applied this theoretical proposition to his record label wherein each person is responsible for a specific part in the process that takes places repeatedly which makes them “specialise” in that particular type of task. Thus, Gordy crafted a methodical approach for an artist’s success wherein their musical output would be treated like a product undergoing the processes of the assembly line. Whilst the K-pop idol system initially adapted various elements from the Motown model to a significant degree, it is now a unique, transcultural institution in itself.
The discourses around the idol-trainee or the “academy” system, as it is known in local parlance, associate it with a “factory,” owing to the intensive periods of training that the idolaspirants undergo and how only a handful of groups attain the opportunity to officially debut and showcase their art. The K-pop idol trainees work through arduous, long-drawn years of preparation after passing their auditions for entertainment companies to develop performance skills, ranging from enhancing their vocal range to perfecting complex choreographies. The K- pop production system possesses in-house equipment for the creation of music, artist management and promotions. Each idol-group possesses different positions that dictate their role within the K-pop collective: there is a leader, a visual, lead rappers, sub-rappers, main vocalists, lead vocalists, main-dancers and playful maknaes (the youngest amongst the group, a position of privilege).
Much like the assembly-line model of production, the songs of idol-groups are divided into fragments that complement the vocal flairs of the various members: the rap-centric parts are assigned to the main rapper, the strongest vocalist gets to sing the main chorus and the arrangement of the song is also meant to highlight the synchronised choreography of the group.
The formation of the alternative-metal and hip-hop group, Seo Taiji & Boys for a television talent show in 1992 and their short-lived yet, impactful career foreshadowed the emergence of the idol system. The alt-rock collective amalgamated English lyrics with sociallyconscious verses through their experimental music.
Lee Soo-man, a music producer, founded the SM entertainment company that manufactured the first K-pop boy-band H.O.T. (High Five of Teenagers) in 1996 and the eventual establishment of the nearly oligopolistic framework of the “Big Three” record labels and artist management agencies (SM, YG and JYP) involved in churning out formulaic, all-singing and all-dancing idol groups that came to dominate the sphere of music soon after. In 1998, Lee expanded his focus to include more Asian countries within the musical ambit of Kpop.
Alongside Korean, the idols were also trained to sing in Japanese and Mandarin and the process of song-production adhered to a manual of “cultural technology” that meticulously worked towards the pan-Asian dissemination of K-pop, entailing instructions about songcomposition, choreography, methods of videography and styling. Post the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the state-supported digital economy thrived and with the decline in physical sales of albums in the mid-2000s, a “spin-off” market was created for the digital distribution of music. The heavily tech-based digital sphere of music is fraught with competition and thus, only a handful of record labels could develop blossoming idol-systems, thereby monopolising the mainstream arena of K- pop and determining the fate of the K-pop trainees awaiting their official debut stage performance.
Lee Soo-Man has also attempted to attain “perfect localisation,” for K-pop, through the formation of the K-pop group EXO in 2012 with two subunits: Korean-speaking members who make up EXO-K and Mandarin-speaking members who were known as EXO-M; both the collectives released music simultaneously in their respective countries and languages and many of their popular songs have both Korean and Mandarin renditions. Whilst the distinction between
these two subgroups faded over time with the departure of three of the Chinese members, Lee was successful in establishing the cross-cultural appeal of EXO’s music and this initiative cemented the methodical approach of his “cultural technology,” that was still firmly rooted in the Korean music landscape, despite the multicultural orientation of the artistic endeavours.
Contemporary Korean popular culture scholars note that K-pop idols are utilised as “commodities” by their labels and as a source of multi-purpose content that possesses scope beyond music streaming and physical album sales. Apart from their conventional singing and dancing roles, the idols also participate in variety shows and sporadic stage performances catered for television broadcasting, act as radio hosts or even star in K-dramas.
The Intricacies of K-pop Song-Making
Within the computer-controlled environment of song-making, once a performer for a song is determined, the songwriters and producers tweak the music according to the vocal abilities and proclivities of the singer. The factory-like orientation of the K-pop idol system often nudges one to wonder: Is K-pop innately hyper-produced and inauthentic? The idol-artist dichotomy and the debates surrounding the mechanisms of songwriting and song-producing, given the fact that a significant number of idol-groups are deemed performers rather than artists, owing to an absence of songwriting credits and the fact that songs written by their labels are assigned to them, signifying a degree of alienation from the product of their own labour and the lack of personal experiences in the musical narrative.
Soloists such as IU and bands such as SHINee and BTS wield considerable creative control over the processes of songwriting and music-production and tend to receive adulation for pouring the emotions from the innermost crevices of their psyche into their work, which, as a result, possesses authenticity and a raw, artistic vulnerability.
BTS, initially an outlier in the monopolistic structure of the Korean music industry, owing to its erstwhile low-profile label, Big Hit (currently deemed a part of the “Big Four”), is now the biggest K-pop act in the world, composed of three rappers: RM, J-hope, Suga and four vocalists: Jin, Jimin, V and Jung Kook, and has made inroads into the international arena of musical acclaim, despite possessing a discography that is entirely in Korean, except a smattering of
English-language pop songs (Mic Drop (Remix), Dynamite, Permission to Dance, and the irresistible Butter) and have collaborated with artists such as Halsey, Steve Aoki, Megan Thee Stallion, Ed Sheeran, Nicki Minaj, Lauv, Snoop Dogg, Jason Durelo and Coldplay.
While idol groups are guided by certain creative limitations, BTS’ label values the vulnerability, iconoclasm and the diligent craftsmanship that the rap-line, who are the most involved with the processes of songwriting, bring to the band’s now daunting song-catalogue. BTS tactfully capture their coming-of-age anecdotes; their hip-hop inspired bildungsroman, sprinkled with their regional dialects (an anomaly in K-pop) encapsulates teenage angst, the travails of the youth, their tryst with burdensome educational expectations, inner conflicts, their rebellions and inchoate romances and all their records are punctuated by intros, outros and skits. Skits, especially, are identified with the conventional format of hip-hop albums that enable the listener to go through the same experiences that the artist underwent and vicariously perceive the world the way that the singers do.
The themes of BTS’ music have always been introspective; it is wistful and doe-eyed, yet prudent; the band’s music is powerful in its ability to stay rooted in the unfiltered, tangible reality of life whilst also possessing a dreamlike, comforting haze. Their songs have frequently deliberated on their stature as artists, their idol personas and their connection with the colossal, ever-affectionate ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth) fandom, well-known for their daunting and overwhelming online presence when it comes to streaming and polling platforms, owing to their incessant viewing, voting, tweets, likes, and unparalleled community engagement: BTS beat the likes of Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande to the fan-voted Top Social Artist prize during the Billboard Music Awards back in 2017, one of the first indicators of their forthcoming mainstream global success.
The Transcultural Hybridity of K-pop
Non-Korean songwriters often produce and export songs to Korean entertainment companies and thus, the presence of K-pop machinery in Norway is not an anomaly, given the globalised production model of Korean music which is not limited by spatial or even linguistic barriers; it possesses an all-pervasive transnational transcendence.
Simon Cowell’s attempt at forming a British rendition of the idol-system to compete with the global virality and the stylised grandeur of K-pop has elicited skepticism and criticism from music aficionados who have noted the gaping void of adequate musical infrastructure in the United Kingdom to sustain such an ambitious K-pop-esque artistic venture.
K-pop provides a counter-current to the transnational flow of Western popular culture and enables the formation of hybrid identities through encounters and retransmissions with the hegemonic mainstream elements: a unique concoction of Western and Eastern values.
As the eon of Metaverse dawns, the K-pop idol system may also involve and incorporate the advanced facets of technology; in fact, it has already begun moving in the direction: virtual idols are garnering the attention of K-pop enthusiasts. K-pop girl-group aespa has included the virtual avatars of the members in some of its performances, thereby setting in motion debates about dehumanisation. A Seoul-based startup has also formed an 11-member girlband named Eternity by using artificial intelligence.
A band named Superkind debuted in June 2022; the group consists of four human idols: Daemon, Eugene, Geon and Sio – and one virtual idol named Saejin (who blends in seamlessly), crafted through artificial intelligence and the person behind his voice remains an enigma. The trend of digital idols is fraught with debate: they possess eternal youth and the ability to perform tirelessly; however, there is skepticism around their ability to develop a bond with their fans.
The Hallyu wave does not showcase any signs of slowing down; it may very well thrive, perhaps, even for perpetuity.
Author: Ria Chakraborty
[Political Science; Lady Shri Ram College for Women; Literary Reviewer]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team