Music in my kitchen: the weird & wonderful world of K-Pop

Recently I fell down a deep, dark hole. Its name was K-Pop.

It started with a joke on American Dad about boy bands with ridiculous amounts of members and lead to this video.

If I felt anything after watching EXO’s Overdose, it was deeply perplexed. I had so many questions. Did the pretty lady make it out of the maze? How many people are in the band and who’s the main singer? Did they steal that opener from Labyrinth? Who thought that a blonde bowl cut was a good idea?

This lead to more videos and more questions, but, slowly, one video at a time, I’d worked my way through BIG BANG, 2NE1, Girl’s Generation, Orange Caramel, B.A.P, SHINee and finally BTS. And so began my love affair with K-Pop – a sort of socially inappropriate boyfriend that you’d call if you were home alone but would never dream of introducing to your friends.

Quick facts about K-Pop

  • K-Pop is an entirely manufactured industry. A conveyor belt of pop that recruits future stars in their early teens using country-wide auditions. They’re then sent to bootcamps and rigourously trained before the best are divided into man-made groups, given a makeover (which can involve the K-Pop plastic surgery triple threat: eyelid, nose and chin surgery – yes, there are sites dedicated to spotting the surgery) and then debuted. Sort of like The X-Factor on steroids.

“We’re sick with work for half our days
We live sickly in our studios, our youths may rot away
But thanks to that, we’re running to success.” – Lyrics from BTS’s Dope

But hey, sacrificing your youth in pursuit of your popstar dreams, being put into a group with strangers that you have to share bunk beds with and spending evey minute of your life either training or performing must be worth it for the cash, right?

  • With Korea’s leading record label, SM Entertainment, posting a reported annual revenue of $1 Billion in 2013, you’d think that its stars would be banking the mega bucks. Not true, apparently. Unless you’re a megastar like BIG BANG’S G-Dragon (the undisputed daddy of K-Pop who, at 27 is worth around $8 million), the average K-Pop idol income is around 47 million won (£26,718) so, less than a London tube driver…and K-Pop stars will work nights.

Ah. But, when that magic formula works, it REALLY works. According to Forbes, SM entertainment’s artists played to a total audience of 2.5 million in 2010-2013 and their YouTube page got 1,000 views a second.

  • One of the most recognised K-Pop songs ever, Gangnam Style, has more than 2.5 BILLION views on YouTube. To put that into perspective, that’s more than Beyoncé’s Put a Ring on it, Love on Top, Run the World, Drunk in Love, Crazy in Love, Halo and If I Were a Boy combined.

And, with armies of fans across the world – due in part to the fact that Korean popstars can perform in multiple languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese – K-Pop is only going to get bigger. So you’d better brace yourself for the bonkers bubblegum, bullet-ridden onslaught.

10 reasons to love K-POP

The styling


To be honest, this could have just been a gallery of Korea’s leading trendsetter, the solo artist and BIG BANGer, G-Dragon, but that wouldn’t have been fair to some of the other exceptional efforts from bands like EXO, 2NE1 and SHINee.

The high production values

No one watches music videos anymore right? Well, we would if they made them like the Korean’s do. All you need is a loose theme, an acre of glitter, six costume changes and, as my friend put it, a banging donk. Oh, and an absolute ton of cold, hard cash. Some of the most expensive music videos outside of America have been K-Pop ones, like T-ara’s Cry Cry – a 20-minute musical soap opera that cost around $1,000,000 to produce or B.A.P’s gangster-themed gun-toting kidnapping montage for One Shot

The elaborate dance moves

It isn’t enough to be able to sing in a K-Pop group, you have to be able to dance like the lovechild of Michael Flatley and Usher. Every music video has a complicated routine, often involving some sort of gimmick like the shiny-gloved human centipede dancing in a pool of milk in TVXQ’s Catch Me

And, even when only a fraction of the actual routine is shown in the resulting video, the bands still release their full practice videos. You know, incase you feel like learning them of an afternoon…

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Let’s take a moment to appreciate this beautiful moment of symmetry from BTS’s Boy in Luv studio session

The obligatory rapping

Every K-Pop band has at least one rapper. It’s imperative, because how else would they sample American tracks and channel that oh so 90’s desire for, as Suga (BTS) puts it: “Big house, big cars and big rings” (and bitchin’ hood threads, too, obvs).

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However, no one does it better than Korea’s answer to Busta Rhymes, Outsider, or T.O.P from Big Bang. At least, I think so, I still have no idea what he’s saying, but I appreciate the Twin Peaks madness of his video.

The sheer volume of members in bands

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If K-Pop had a motto, it would be more is more. I mean, why have five people in a band when you can have ten and up the choreography difficulty to infinity? Also, bonus, with that many members, fans are bound to find someone to obsess over and, if a couple have to drop out to complete their obligatory military service, you’ve still got enough to maintain the vocal harmonies. Smart K-Pop, smart.

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The cultural mash-up

It’s no secret that K-Pop likes to imitate American and British culture. Sometimes it’s a little nod like a Sid Vicious T-Shirt or an overuse of the Union Jack, and sometimes they take it to the edge of too far, a la Big Bang’s gorgeously garish bedlam that is BANG BANG BANG.

The glittery gimp on a leash and THAT lacy shirt aside, this track is packed with a back catalogue of cultural appropriation, from Indian headresses and cowboys to lowriders, astronauts and American football shoulder pads.

It’s like a drinking game – take a shot every time you see a piece of Americana.

The English language fails

K-Pop is littered with token English words…usually used incorrectly. But then again, what isn’t sexy about being told “I really want to touch myself”, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know but I’m hard” or “you look like a door”.

The fan service

K-Poppers are treated almost like public property in Korea. On top of their shows they do endless promotional TV stints and behind the scenes programmes, from a wacky show invoking random choreography challenges and a plastic toy hammer called Weekly Idol to embarrassing shows like Intimate Moment, where stars who are perceived to not have close relationships with other brand members are forced to play games with each other all day until their pride is battered into non-existence and they’re the best of friends.
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Can you imagine any Brit pop star letting anyone have this much access? although…I wouldn’t mind seeing Noel and Liam Gallagher being forced to re-assess their relationship through two-person limbo and feeding each other…

Oh, and then there’s this advert from EXO-K for Baskin’ Robbins, which deserves a special mention…Strong.

The fact that they’re idiots

There’s a universe of #derp memes and macros out there celebrating the stupid side of K-Pop.

And can we talk about Aegyo?

Aegyo (Korean: 애교, hanja: 愛嬌) in Korean refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a coquette-ish manner and is commonly expected for male and female k-pop idols to behave this way

If anyone was worrying about BTS’s mental state after their ‘we work like slaves’ lyrics in Dope, don’t. They’re fine.

Their videos MAKE NO SENSE

One of the most appealing things about K-Pop is that their videos. As beautifully produced and choreographed and manufactured to within an inch of their lives they are, they’re also, sometimes, bat shit crazy.

The most obvious example of this is Orange Caramel’s Catellena, which involves mermaid sushi, tears and cannibalism. I’ve watched this five times and am still none the wiser but have become unnaturally disturbed by the octopus and the feminist in me has become increasingly annoyed at the fact that they’ve slapped a price tag on their sushi bodies.

Surrender to the K-Pop, you know you want to…

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Quite enjoyed this article. I am getting ready to jump into the K-pop world :$

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