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Korean pop music comprises a collection of several music genres whose roots can be traced to South Korea. Since its inception in the Korean music market, the genre has experienced an immense growth, starting from the Asian markets to the global music industry markets.1 The aim of this paper is to discuss the influence of Korean popular music with particular focus on its uniqueness and impacts.
The uniqueness refers to the characteristics of the K-pop, which makes it peculiar in comparison to other music genres both within Korean and on global platforms. From the paradigms of influences, the paper discusses the implications of the K-pop on the Korean social values and foreign influences. The paper also discusses the limitations of K-pop and offers suggestions of making it better.
The emergence and growth of K-pop
Korean pop, which is abbreviated as K-pop, entails musical genre of South Korean in origin. The genre is characterized by immense varieties of different audiovisual constituents.2 Despite the view that K-pop captures all popular music genres of South Korea in originality, it mainly comprises modern types of pop music such as ballads, hip-hop, rock, and dance-pop among others.3 K-pop was ushered into the Korean music industry in 1992 when Seo Taiji and Boys was formed.
The group experimented with the success of merging different music styles with the Korean music genres. As Howard notes, “this move sparked a paradigm shift in the music industry of South Korea.”4 K-pop made incorporation of various foreign music forms into the Korean native music genre common practice.
The worldwide proliferation of K-pop has been enhanced by the onset of social media platforms like YouTube, thus making it possible to share videos. This aspect has allowed K-pop to gain an immense share of the global audience. In this regard, Ramstad notes from 2005, K-pop has encountered double-digit growth on global platforms.5 During the first six months of 2012, K-pop secured a gross income of about US$3.4 billion.6
These earnings made K-pop to be dubbed as the greatest Koran export.7 In the 1990s, K-pop gained enormous popularity across East Asia. It then found its way into the Japanese market in the beginning of the 21st century.
Within Southeast Asia, K-pop became a subculture aped by young adults coupled with teenagers towards mid 2000.8 Currently, the Korean wave has allowed K-pop to penetrate other parts of the world such as Africa (especially North Africa), Latin America, the Middle East, and amongst immigrant communities in the Western nations.
Uniqueness’ of K-pop
K-pop is unique in comparison with other music genres in the music industry across the globe in its both musical lyrics and stylistic moves. It is principally produced for export9, which makes it unique since it incorporates diversity in audiovisual contents.
The audiovisual organization for French perhaps explains this uniqueness when it states that K-pop “is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines, and fashionable, colorful outfits combining bubblegum pop with the musical elements of electro, disco, rock, R& B and Hip-hop.”10
In comparison to other music industries genres, in Asia, K-pop is unique in terms of how recruitment and training of the idols is conducted. Singers are systematically trained. The very large “music artists’ management agencies offer contracts that are binding to young children in the range of 9 to 10 years”.11 Not all K-pop idols operate in a lone environment as they are managed by the large K-pop agencies such as JYP, YG, SM, and DSP, live together, and attend to school together.
After successful enrollment and on undergoing through rigorous auditions, contracts are awarded. Trainees are then maintained together under tight regulations. In this environment, they “spend many hours a day learning music, choreography, foreign languages, as well as communication techniques with fans and journalists.”12
This form of training takes a robotic kind of training system, which is highly criticized by other Asian music industries and the western media agencies. The training is unique as it is an extremely expensive affair. Siho puts training cost for one member for a nine-crew band of K-pop girls’ generation at SM at 3 million US dollars in 2012.13
The coordination of lyrics and the dance movements constitute unique characteristic of K-pop. When performing K-pop, “multiple singers in a band, often made up of more than three members, switch their positions while singing and dancing by making prompt movements in synchrony.”14
The music industry for Korea is relatively small compared to other Asian nations such as Japan. However, K-pop uniquely manages to penetrate other markets through strategies of rapid mass distribution through recent technological innovations such as You Tube.
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Upon the release of K-pop songs, they are simultaneously uploaded to You Tube and aired in national TV. Before this move, several promotion of the incoming releases, which are referred to as comeback, is conducted in a bid to create mass anticipation and excitement. This strategy helps in driving sales within Korea, Asia, and even to the global audience.
Use of promotions to drive sales on the official release of music videos means that advertisement is a major creative mediation for Korea popular music. Deployment of social media and TV to influence sales of the new K-pop music adds TV and new media (Internet facilitated media such as You Tube) into the list of the most important creative mediation for Korea popular music.
K-pop uniqueness in comparison to other Asian music industries also stems from the involvement of the fan base in the advancement of K-pop culture. The K-pop fans are involved in the translations of songs’ lyrics from Korea into languages with global reach such as English. In this context, Kim notes that K-pop’s “staying power will be shaped by fans, whose online services have partly evolved into “micro”-businesses and small-scale ventures.”15
Fans are highly involved in the promotion of the K-pop. They organize for gathering of flash mobs within public places via social media such as Facebook in a bid to force holding of live concerts.
The fans even make requests to the embassy and consulate for South Korea to make official requests for concerts to management agencies for them to see the K-pop idol. This aspect implies that K-pop is unique as fans are responsible for advancement of the K-pop culture instead of the idol management agencies seeking to attract fans into live concerts.
Influence of K-pop
K-pop music has penetrated global markets with Psy’s music Gangnam Style topping the list of the most watched video over YouTube by exceeding1 billion views by December 2012.16 In particular, Gangnam Style has had a large foreign influence. For instance, key political icons of the world such as the President of the United States, Barrack Obama, and the Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, have attempted to make Gangnam Style moves.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also welcomed Gangnam style for use in fostering global peace. While meeting the president of South Korea during a bilateral meeting on 1 May 2013, President Barrack Obama considered gangnam style as key indication of intensive spread of the Hallyu. The positive reception of the Psy’s song, Gangnam Style, by key icons of the world implies that the spreading K-pop culture is becoming unstoppable.
The immense growth and spreading of the K-pop culture to draw an enormous foreign influence are akin to the unique traits of the genre so that there are no close competitors to the genre elsewhere in other Asian nations. K-pop uses cultural technology to enhance its adaption to the tastes of various audiences across the globe.17
Its success is particularly akin to the view that it is self promotional since it has changed from a music genre to constitute a subculture drawing interest from young adults and teenagers across the world. In a bid to associate themselves with the culture, the audience increases their consumption of the music. Its foreign influence is also enhanced by the speed at which new releases reach the global markets. Choice of the Internet as the means of exportation of K-pop is especially effective.
K-pop foreign influence is also attributed to the view that it is perhaps one of the most successful attempts to develop global music integrating globalised cultures of the world music consumers. Jung supports this argument further by informing that K-pop “can be described as a globalized music, as it is a mixture of Western and European sounds with an Asian flavor of performance.”18
This assertion implies that amid cultural affiliations of the foreign audience, they are in a position to enjoy the K-pop since its trend borrows from the Western music mixed with J-pop, which provide the necessary musical lyrics required to keep international audience energized. This aspect explains the ever-growing foreign fan base.
Apart from foreign influence, K-pop has had also an immense impact on domestic social values in Korea. In an article appearing on the Korean Times website, the Korean Times managing director criticizes K-pop with particular reference to Gangnam Style claiming that it represents less of the Korean culture than globalised culture standards.19
This criticism implies that K-pop has had the impacts of blending the social values of the Koreans with the social values of the westernized cultures. K-pop has influenced and increased Koreans’ pride over the music genre. However, with the mix up of Korean culture with the western culture to form K-pop, evidently the Korean domestic social values are becoming integrated with global cultural social values to constitute a contemporary youth culture with global reach.
The K-pop culture has not grown without the contribution of the government. Lee states that the Korean government plays an incredible role in the supporting of the Hallyu wave.20 The government of South Korea appreciates that the rising popularity of K-pop has the implication of expanding the export sector of South Korea. “US$100 increase in the export of cultural products results in a US$412 increase in the export of other consumer goods.”21
Based on this benefit, the government of South Korea, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, establishes cultural centers globally to help in marketing of the K-pop and Korean culture in general. As discussed before, embassies coupled with consulates also engage in the process of organization of concerts for K-pop.
Limitations, problems, and ways of improving of K-pop
Analogous to any emerging culture, K-pop has its own limitations and challenges. Incidences of plagiarizing of western music are encountered, thus making some songs unoriginal.22 Seabrook further states that the girls’ generation greets the audience with smile, wicks, and dance style that are incredibly synchronized coupled with hand gestures all having the flavors of the Asia, but the songs are westernized.23
The songs carry hip-hop verses, rapping, and Euro-pop choruses. Hence, the songs do not carry any South Korean lyrical sound. This aspect perhaps explains why K-pop emphasizes on the visual aspects of the songs, as they are the ones that carry the Korean tastes.
The growth of K-pop is also enhanced through robot like training, which pre-packs the idols’ songs and bands for fast music consumption markets.24 Recruitment of young people to join the idol management agencies followed by strict rules against interacting with people from outside the agencies hinders social interaction of idols.
Incidences of idols’ complaints over being overworked have been registered. This aspect made a BBC report to describe K-pop agencies as offering ‘slave contracts’ to their idols.25 TVXQ litigated SM entertainment based on unfit working environment. Siho posits, “Fair trade commission released contract templates to regulate conditions.”26 In some cases, K-pop lyrics are accompanied by English words that are non-existent and some meaningless phrases.
Addressing this challenge can improve K-pop. The fan base for K-pop is also driven by the idols, as opposed to the music itself, something that needs being corrected to improve it. For instance, in social media, there are thousands of commentators claiming to have travelled long distances simply to see their favorite idols perform. In this context, an important question arises on whether K-pop would sustain its growth and its presence in the next coming 20 to 30 years.
Long-term domination of the K-pop in the global markets requires consistency and incorporation of new elements into the music to meet the emerging needs. As suggested in the name Hallyu, it is a kind of musical wave. Hence, even though it is not known or possible to approximate the time that it will take for the wave to reach its maturation, it is arguable that after such a time, the wave will start to decline as it is replaced by emerging waves, though yet unknown.
This likelihood is suggested in the Seabrook’ statement that girl’s “generation is dominant girl groups positioned to conquer the West, but too robotic to become mainstream.”27 Nevertheless, K-pop is unique in the way it integrates various cultures into a single song. With the globalization of cultures continuing to become a reality, K-pop will perhaps sustain its relevance in global music markets within the next 20 to 30 years.
K-pop hits the world shockingly with songs like Gangnam Style becoming the world’s largely viewed song. The K-pop culture has had immense foreign influence as exemplified by the cases of key political icons attempting to make Gangnam Style moves and massive fan base to the new South Korean subculture.
The genre is unique in its both composition and performance. It blends different cultures under energized J-pop lyrics and it constitutes an immense mechanism of exportation of the South Korean cultural products. If some of the limitations and problems of the culture were solved ardently, K-pop would continue to present an important commodity from South Korea offered to the world for consumption apart from automobiles, IT products, and electronics.
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Hyunjoon, Shin. “Have you ever seen the Rain? And who’ll stop the Rain? The globalizing project of Korean pop (K‐pop).” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10, no.4 (2009): 507-523.
Jung, Choi, and Ronald Maliangkay. “K-Pop Politics: Digital Mediation and Global Fandom.” Journal of International Study of Popular Culture 23 no, 9 (2012): 311-319.
Jung, Sun. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011.
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“Korean Wave Gives Exports a Boost.” english.chosun.com. Web.
Lie, Jon. “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean popular music.” E-cultural Industry and National Identity 4 no.3 (2012): 339-363.
Mandy, Thomas. “Re-orientations: East Asian Popular Cultures in Contemporary globalised world.” Asian Studies Review vol. 26, no. 2 (2009): 189-204.
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1Howard Keith, Exploding Ballads: the transformation of Korean pop music (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2002), 35.
2Jon Lie, “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean popular music,” E-cultural Industry and National Identity 4, no.3 (2012): 340.
4Howard Keith, Korean Pop: Riding the Wave (Kent, England: Global Oriental, 2006), 19.
5Evan Ramstad, “South Korea’s greatest export: how K-pop is rocking the world,” Los Angeles Times, April 18 2013.
8Shim Doobo, “Hybridity and the rise of Korean popular culture in Asia,” Media Culture Society 28, no. 1 (2006): 83.
9Choi Jung and Ronald Maliangkay, “K-Pop Politics: Digital Mediation and Global Fandom,” Journal of International Study of Popular Culture 23 no, 9 (2012): 311.
10 Ramstad, 32.
11Shin Hyunjoon, “Have you ever seen the Rain? And who’ll stop the Rain? The globalizing project of Korean pop (K‐pop),” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10, no.4 (2009): 508.
12Hae-Joang Cho, “Reading the ‘Korean Wave’ as a Sign of Global Shift,” Korea Journal 45, no. 4 (2005): 149.
13Nam Siho, “The Cultural Political Economy of the Korean Wave in East Asia: Implications for Cultural Globalization Theories,” Asian Perspective 37, no.5 (2013): 201.
14Jung Sun, “Fan Activism, Cyber vigilantism, and Othering Mechanisms in K-pop Fandom,” Transformative Works and Cultures 8, no. 10 (2012): 214.
15Kim Myung and Sam Jaffe, The New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 49.
17Thomas Mandy, “Re-orientations: East Asian Popular Cultures in Contemporary globalised world,” Asian Studies Review 26, no. 2 (2009):192.
18Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 37.
19Oh Young-Jin, “Coming out of Psy,” The Korean Times.
20Lee Keehyeung, Looking back at the politics of Youth culture, space and everyday life in South Korea since the early 1990s, (Oxford, Oxfords University Press, 2006): 12.
21“Korean Wave Gives Exports a Boost.” english.chosun.com, 2012.
22John Seabrook, “Cultural technology and making of K-pop,” The New Yorker, May 17, 2012.
24Kim Yeran, “Idol republic: the global emergence of girl industries and commercialization of girl bodies,” Journal of Gender Studies 20, no. 4 (2011): 133.
26 Siho, 224.