The K-Pop Phenomenon
Go anywhere in East and South-east Asia and you are likely to hear Korean pop music blaring out of radios, shops and televisions. Increasingly these days, residents of London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo are being treated to Asia's most successful commercial music.
With a bigger dose of mellowness and sexiness than J-Pop, but maintaining at least the same level of ebullient energy, K-Pop is a formula that manages to work its charm at all levels, across borders and cultures.
Tokyo even has its own dedicated K-Pop theater in Ebisu Garden Place
The latest, staggeringly successful, incarnation of the K-Pop phenomenon is Psy, whose "Gangnam Style" with over one billion YouTube views has made him a household name around the world, and his dance a party standard..
However, the erstwhile staple of K-Pop was the boy band or the girl band, some with as many as 13 members, trained, trained and then trained again to look perfect both on and offstage.
K-pop bands release singles at a dizzying rate and the frenetic level of activity of the members at home and overseas is astonishing. The mantra seems to be that as popularity can be fleeting, it is best to work as hard as possible, and give yourself as much public exposure as possible before your time in the spotlight is over.
The Korean Wave
Known as Hallyu, the Korean Wave has swept all over east and south-east Asia and even into North Korea.
The Korean Wave started with domestic soap operas, which have proven to be massively popular in the region and especially with middle-aged Japanese women, who went crazy for Bae Yong-joon (aka Yon-sama) in the 2002 hit Winter Sonata, and then spread into the music scene.
There is a crossover between K-Pop and Korean dramas. Some pop stars started in these dramas and some stars also try their hand at acting after they make it in the music business.
It is not uncommon to see K-Pop groups to be missing a member or two due to filming commitments.
In 2002, BOA became the first Korean to top Japan's Oricon music charts. She became a huge star in the country and elsewhere in Asia.
Rain, a kind of Korean Michael Jackson who is now doing his military service, was one of the first to make a real impact overseas. In 2006, he was named by Time as one of the top 100 people 'who influence our world'. He also appeared in the movies Speed Racer in 2008 and Ninja Assassin in 2009. He had legal problems in the US because of the existence of another act by the same name.
Their attempts top crack the United States brought limited success but did pave the way for others to follow.
The growth of social media was hugely important with management companies using Twitter, Facebook and especially YouTube to spread the message.
International Media Reaction
Every week, there are new reports appearing in the Korean media about a new frontier that has been broken by K-Pop and every week, a report from a major western newspaper makes headlines in Seoul.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that the boom and its global reach "aren't just a random act of globalization. They're the secret weapon in Korea's next push for worldwide youth-culture domination."
The New York Times: "A global exporting powerhouse, the country had always chafed at its lack of cultural exports that would let the rest of the world know that it was more than a maker of Hyundai cars and Samsung cell phones. Said Andrew Kang, the arts and recording director at Star Empire: "K-pop has become Korea's killer content."
The International Business Times: "The catchy and energetic songs are making inroads in the United States."
The Guardian: There are an estimated 460,000 Korean-wave fans across Europe, concentrated in Britain and France, with 182 hallyu fan clubs worldwide boasting a total of 3.3m members.
The lyrics of K-pop are simple, effective catchy and always include a few lines of some kind of English which often don't make much sense--at least not to the uninitiated. Take, for example, such lines by Psy as: "Ah Ah Ah Ah Im a mother father gentleman" or from SNSD: "Ayo! Stop! Let me put it down another way" or "One Shot" by B.A.P which even has a line evoking the memory of America's greatest freedom fighter: "Shine the light like Martin Luther King"!
With many groups being pretty large in number, management are not averse to, from time to time, splitting them up for specific songs. So, the eight girls of After School were divided into two groups of four (After School Blue and Red) - one group with the sexy' girls and the other more 'cutesy' and then each sub-group released separate singles. Super Junior have done something similar.
There are three big entertainment companies. SM, JYP and YG Entertainment. These put together groups, train them, sign them to lengthy contracts and work them very hard. They also, of course, make a great deal of money.
SM Entertainment are the most successful and have close to 1,000 employees and record sales of around 60 million a year. Artists include Girl's Generation, Super Junior, Shin-ee and F(x).
Korean management companies need the money, SM Entertainment estimates that it costs around $3million to make a star from scratch, though it is unclear if this is times thirteen in the case of Super Junior.
JYP, named after founder Park Jin-young, a successful singer in his own right, has the Wonder Girls and Miss A and a good deal of contacts in the US music industry while YG have pinned their hopes on Bigbang and 2NE1.
The Downside of K-Pop
People involved in show business are forever trying to convince us that it is not a world of glamour but it actually hard work, repetitive and quite dull. For some K-Pop stars, that does seem to be the case.
Some members of boy band TVXQ took SME to court to challenge a 13-year contract that they contested was excessively long especially as canceling would have cost them close to $10 million. Other stars followed suit and told of harsh working practices that had caused some to become ill.
With a never-ending stream of concerts and television appearances all over Korea and now increasingly all over the world, it is perhaps no surprise that some stars have questioned whether it is all worth it but with a million people auditioning for K-Pop Superstar, the doubters are few and far between.
K-Pop Movers and Shakers
Girls Generation are the biggest girl band in Asia. The nine-members are attractive and good at what they do. After their usual cutesy early days, they have matured into sexy (but of course, not too sexy), sophisticated performers.
Girls Generation started to make the big time with 'Gee' in 2009, (68 million views on Youtube and counting) they have never looked back and you could probably live a reasonable life using and eating just the different products that they advertise in their homeland. Huge in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, they recently appeared on the David Letterman Show in the US.
Girls Generation have topped the charts in over ten Asian countries and their first show in Paris sold out in 15 minutes. Two American-born members helps the group appeal in the world's biggest music market.
Wonder Girls were massive three years ago and then went to America to try and make the big time. It didn't quite work but they are still big news.
T-ara are now making it big in Japan. T-Ara are a fun group that offer something a little different from their debut song 'Bo Peep' to the recent smash 'Lovey Dovey'. Always look like they are having a good time.
At one point there were 13 members in the band and Super Junior were the world's biggest boy band. At the moment there are nine because one left after suing the management, two have started their military service and one wants to be actor.
Slightly different, four girls, who of course look good, but a harder sound, a bit more hip-hop style and a little more original. Of the groups tipped to make it in the west, this quartet seems to have a good chance and have been/are being mentored by mentored by Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am. Three of the four speak excellent English.
Other notable acts include 2AM, 2PM, 4 Minute, Beast, Shin-ee.