Korean Pop has been in existence since the early nineties. Also known as Hallyu, Korean pop has spread over two decades to bring quality entertainment to the South Korean people. It was not until sometime between 5-10 years ago that K-pop (short for Korean pop) became globally appreciated.
K-pop actually started with an electric hip-hop performance in 1992. The liberalization of the media in 1987 gave room for South Korea’s entertainment industry to grow beyond what it was. Prior to this democracy, South Korea’s media was under heavy pressure to produce materials deemed fit by the music censure board. The board critically watched everything viewers would have access to through the TV and radio and ensured it was under the tight control of the State. Independent music production didn’t exist, and any song that seemed controversial, including rock music were at risk of being banned. It was only during weekend music talent shows, that new musicians and songs were introduced to the public.
In the 80’s before the liberalization of the Korean music industry, the only music that media networks were allowed to produce were trot and slow ballads. After 1987, South Koreans began to evolve with the times, they became more exposed to the kind of music played outside the country, including American music.
The first-time modernisation was infused into traditional South Korean music was through a popular musician known as Seo Taiji and his band. Seo Taiji was a member of a heavy metal band, Sinawe which was greatly influential to rock music in the late 80’s. After the brief reign of the band and subsequent break up, Seo Taiji went on to start his own band. He was taken to Hip hop and infused it in his music, he recruited two good dancers to join him as back up and named the group Seo Taiji and Boys. Although the band failed woefully during the popular weekend talent show, their song ‘Nan Arayo (I know)’ topped the South Korea’s singles chart for 17 weeks in 1992 and for the next 15 years, this feat would be seen as the longest number one streak in the country’s history.
The feat that Seo Taiji and Boys achieved in 1992, paved the way for aspiring musicians to think outside the box and create a niche that South Korea as well as, people all over the world celebrated.
By 1996, before the official disbanding of Seo Taiji and Boys, the group successfully changed South Korea’s musical and performance landscape, thereby creating the way for other artist to break boundaries with their creativity. Soon, music studios began to crop up, the rigid system governing music is South Korea was minimised but not completely eradicated.
Between 1995 and 1998, three powerful music studios arose and created a system known as Idol groups, they are SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. The Idol groups has continued to be the focus of K-pop till today.
K-pop has since become a global brand based on style, lots of flash and a whole load of quality. Rather than focus more on making great songs, K-pop groomed great performers who in turn churned out all time musical hits. K-pop as a music genre was unique because of these three things: exceptionally high-quality performances (especially dancing), an in-house method of studio production and a polished aesthetic production.
One song that most definitely captures these characteristics is “Gee” by Girl’s Generation. This hit song came at a moment when K-pop was on its walk of fame and had started to turn heads internationally due to several milestone hits. Among the list of successes are Big Bang’s “Haru, Haru”, Wonder Girls’ “Nobody”, and Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra”.
How Idol groups are formed and trained.
Music studios induct talented children from ages 10-12 through highly competitive auditions into the K-pop regimen. The young talents are put through schools that specialise in dancing and singing so they can take lessons. Not only that, they are taught how to behave in public and comport themselves in various situations at such a young age. They spend several hours in rehearsals everyday being groomed for the life of a pop star, and then they perform during weekend music shows and other special group performances. Such shows gain fan followings for the budding artists even before their official debut album is out. When they are old enough, if they are really lucky, they could be added by the studio to existing idol groups or launched out as solo artists.
Once an idol group has been trained to perfection, pop songs are generated by the studio for them to perform. Everything pertaining to the marketing, visibility of the production and subsequent tour schedules will be handled by the studio.
The complete control that studios exert over their artists is directly responsible for shaping the global image of K-pop as a genre. However, the industry is becoming more exploitative and sessions so gruelling that it’s bothering on abuse. Most performers who signed long-term contracts especially from their tender ages, suffer most from this exploitation, in fact the contract is now dubbed “slave contracts”. These artists are closely monitored and told how to handle every aspect of their lives including their relationships, private lives and public behaviour.
The studios are said to be a breeding ground for harassment and predatory behaviour from studio executives. All these however, has not in any way diminished the value that South Koreans place on these studios. A lot of young people covet the cloistered life of a K-pop star and would troop in their numbers to compete, during walk-in auditions or scouts for talented kids.
Future of K-pop.
The highly regimented and coordinated production system of K-pop has made it the face of South Korea, which means it’s a system built to last forever. As time evolves and styles trend, K-pop has shown its tenacity in blending with the times without losing the inherent culture and style of South Korea while absorbing others. It has grown to become a massive $5 billion investment that shows promise of becoming even more in the nearest future.