PSY of 'Gangnam Style' fame has taken K-pop's global reach to a whole new level.

PSY of 'Gangnam Style' fame has taken K-pop's global reach to a whole new level.

Objects of envy and desire

4th November 2014

It could be a gospel concert.

A massive crowd of do-gooders who neither smoke nor drink, let alone do drugs, watching on as their favourite band performs.

Today’s ‘perfect consumers’ are lovers of Korean pop, otherwise known as K-pop — a global phenomenon that’s been captivating millions of mostly very young fans since the late 1990s.

In 2013 alone, concerts were held in, among others, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London, Vancouver, Sydney, Berlin and Mexico City.

To the South Korean government, the movement’s representative idols are treasured national assets.

“Some even say in jest that K-pop idols are, together with Samsung smartphones, the best merchandise ever produced by the nation,” says ANU College of Asia and the Pacific academic, Dr Roald Maliangkay.

He makes the point in a new book, K-pop – The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry.

Co-edited by JungBong Choi, from the Department of Cinema Studies, at New York University, the book includes views by new and established scholars in the West and the East, all of whom are fascinated by K-pop’s phenomenal success.

Part of its appeal lies in being able to cross all kinds of cultural possibilities and barriers, fusing Korean lyrics with nonsense English, Japanese or Chinese word hooks, and a fast R&B soundtrack with a heavy beat.

Not that the music matters all that much.

With most of the focus being on the visuals and choreography of each performance, K-pop is always easy on the eye; but not so easy on the ears.

“You don’t listen to K-pop, you watch it,” Maliangkay says.

“There are cute, good looking people. It is very watchable.”

The main menu consists of boy bands and girl groups whose members are often styled similarly, to increase the visual appeal of dance routines.

Maliangkay likens the synchronised movements of performers dressed in the latest fashions to a catwalk dance skit.

Accessing the latest K-pop act is as easy as logging onto YouTube. While there’s no money to be made from providing high definition videos of major pop acts, record companies frequently make them available online.

“They still make a lot of money because the acts themselves are so attractive that people want to go to the concerts,” Maliangkay explains.

Fans are mostly girls in their teens and younger; the classic ‘bubblegum pop’ audience. At a concert Maliangkay went to in Seoul in February 2013, he estimates one-in-10 were male.

“K-pop fans are fantastic fans,” he says.

“They are not people who drink huge amounts of alcohol. There’s no alcohol served at concerts anyway.

“The only vice that you see is people maybe wearing rather revealing outfits,” Maliangkay adds.

Adding to their wholesomeness, there’s competition among fans over who can best support charities endorsed by their idols.

Crayon Pop, for example, sponsors a 15-year-old boy with leukaemia. In June, the group posted a message on its website saying it had invited fans who had contributed to their cause to a dinner.

When not performing on stage, K-pop idols have dominated television genres including sitcoms; quiz, talk, variety and reality shows; and even comedy programs.

There is a price to pay for being idolised.

Expected to represent and demonstrate only the desirable, media entertainers are seen as objects of envy and desire.

But the service-oriented nature of their work often renders them vulnerable to the public’s frivolous demands.

Suspicions concerning Tablo, the lead singer of K-pop group Epik High, saw fans unleash an unprecedentedly vicious online tirade over whether or not he had graduated from Stanford University, as he had claimed.

It eventually transpired Tablo not only graduated from the prestigious university with both a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in creative writing — he completed the qualifications in significantly less time than expected.

Haerin Shin, one of Maliangkay and JungBong’s contributors, uses the case to illustrate the ugly side of the industry.

“The Korean entertainment industry structurally condones or even actively promotes voyeurism as a lucrative add-on commodity, allowing its audience another kind of pleasure in the act of dismantling and observing the very constitution of their enjoyment,” she writes.

‘K-pop – The international rise of the Korean music industry’ is published by Routledge.

Dr Roald Maliangkay researches South Korea's cultural industries and policy, music, folklore, popular entertainment, fashion, and marketing. In 2015 he will teach the course ‘Popular Culture in East Asia’.

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