Because of Psy, a lot of people have also heard of the female sensation Hyuna who starred in Gangnam Style. And if you’ve delved a little bit further and dipped your toes into the realm of K-Pop, you’ll most likely have heard of Girls’ Generation, otherwise known as SNSD, who have had worldwide acclaim, their music videos often reaching millions of views within a few hours. Popular YouTube uploaders like BuzzFeed have also shown a distinct interest in K-Pop, even producing a series in which they explore beyond the music into the culture of South Korea.
But where did it all begin? The Hallyu wave only really picked up in the late 1990s with groups such as H.O.T and G.O.D becoming magnets for teenagers of the time to tune in to and enjoy. In fact, it was H.O.T’s immense popularity that allowed for further groups to be established and enjoy the limelight, but most importantly, they paved the way for girl groups to form. H.O.T can also lay claim to being the first K-pop group to perform in the Seoul Olympic Stadium due to their huge fanbase and to receiving the American MTV Award for best international video. Despite this, no one has really heard about them unless they’re a K-Pop fan. This is a real shame considering if it weren’t for these groups, it’s quite possible the Hallyu wave wouldn’t have brought us what it has so far. People often ask me, “How can you be so into something when you don’t even speak the language?” Without wanting to sound cheesy in any sense, the language any song is performed in shouldn’t factor as to whether you like something or not. I’ll admit, at first I didn’t understand K-Pop. I had no idea why my friend thought six boys with blond hair, in the grungy setting of a music video, who were all shouting at me like I’d done something wrong, were cool.
I was stubborn, refusing to give up or share my interest anywhere away from the Japanese culture I was so in love with at the time. I ended up giving in though. One look at the six blond boys in interviews and reality shows had me hooked and wanting to know who was who. I soon found myself a fully-fledged fangirl.
The misconception of K-Pop is how it just seems to revolve around flashy backdrops, five different outfit changes, and super cool choreography. If you try to develop a love for it from this perspective you will inevitably fail first time around. Some of it is true, the choreography being super hard at least, but there’s a lot more soul and heart that goes into the making of the music. However when shown to a Western audience and then told about the process of how these groups are manufactured, many people are repulsed and write it off immediately believing the Hallyu stars are in it solely for the money and fame. What I don’t understand is how it’s any different from our regular weekend entertainment. Shows like the X Factor come to mind along with the idea of how they ‘churn out’ their own stars. Personally, I don’t like the drama that comes with our shows. It feels very staged and fake and there’s often a distinct lack of respect as you watch people turn into the star version of themselves.
You can argue that in K-Pop it might be the same, that they just act better, but it’s not true. If we go back to the culture of South Korea, they have something I feel we’re very much lacking in our Western world: the teaching of respecting your elders and listening to them no matter the occasion. Although this brings forth its own arguments around people becoming too compliant and pressed into making wrong decisions as it’s the polite thing to do, it also means that in terms of the entertainment industry, things can work more smoothly and there’s a distinct sense of accepted peace between those collaborating together as a team.
It’s not all rainbows and sunshine for the artists who have made a name for themselves in the K-Pop scene however. Groups sometimes come through via similar shows to the X Factor, albeit those which are a little more strict. Any sudden absences, no matter the reason, can lead to expulsion from the show often with no second chances. Similarly the audience has complete control at the later stages of the show, deciding if certain members’ personas and attitudes are worthy enough to let them continue with their dream. They must deal with all of this, let alone whether or not they can perform well.
Others break onto the scene via companies where participants pay to be trained in singing, dancing, and acting, and even in learning new languages. The people who become trainees spend from two to ten years, waiting to be released as either a solo act or as part of a group, some of which can consist of fifteen members. Sometimes these supergroups garner more fame as fans have a wider variety of people they can pick from to idolise.
When and if a trainee becomes an idol, it’s up to them, under the supervision of managers, to live together as a unit, look after themselves, have monthly comebacks when new albums are released, learn new dances, and have fan meetings, all on top of filming reality shows, commercials and performing in big screen acting roles. Moreover, sometimes these artists do not get the recognition they deserve, some overshadowed by others for the label names they’re signed to. SM, JYP and YG are the three major companies in the K-Pop industry, all having created many stars over the years and still going strong today, vying for the most attention and competing against one another. Artists from all three companies include DBSK, Super Junior, SHINee, EXO, F (x), 2PM, Wonder Girls, GOT7, Miss A, 2NE1, Big Bang (pictured below), and Winner. These groups are well-known within the field of K-Pop some of which is due to how big their company name is.
After H.O.T the rise of boy groups continued, in particular DBSK and Super Junior, the members of both groups originally starting as one big group then whittled down into the smaller groups they are today.
DBSK should be noted in particular for having brought the Hallyu wave to countries K-Pop had never touched before, such as South America and parts of Europe. They have also been featured in the Guinness World Record books for holding the biggest fanbase. That fanbase is still in existence today under the name of Cassiopeia.
Similarly to the rest of the music business, the K-pop industry tends to be ruthless and hides behind many guises. SM Entertainment, is a company currently in a legal dispute with some of the group members of EXO who have left for various reasons. These disgruntled ex-members of the group have even refused to leave the existing members alone even interfering in their work with other clients abroad. The group DBSK went through their own split, with three members leaving due to ‘slave contracts’ and mistreatment. It’s clear what kind of grip these companies have on their artists and on the entertainment business in general.
Strict rules are enforced. Some idols are not allowed to date, companies citing instead they must focus on their careers. There is also the fear that fans may lose interest or feel betrayed by their idols if their dating was to be made public. Though the latter sounds ludicrous it’s true. Scandals spread like wildfire in the K-Pop industry. Shame sometimes damages an idol’s image so immensely their career is ended for them.
So why become involved with K-Pop? Well through the Hallyu wave I have learned many things and even found a career for myself. As my natural passion is English, I learned how English teachers are in high demand in the country, and I’m already feeling very much welcomed by a nation I am still to visit. For me K-Pop has given me the idea to pursue what has now become a dream job. I have also learned about another country’s love for food and how their cuisine is so vastly different from the one I have known here most of my life, how their language varies from place to place within the country, how some of the dialects sound more appealing than others and so on. I’ve learned of the people, made friends who come from South Korea and generally developed more as a person than I would have without the introduction of the place. I’ve learned about how peculiar some of their beliefs can be from my Western perspective, how important aesthetics are to them, things about their notions of family, friends and so on. So far this ride on the Hallyu wave has been something to remember, and I don’t intend on getting off any time soon.
Check out our top ten K-Pop song recommendations and tell us what you think! Will you join the Hallyu wave?