“K-pop” is an abbreviation of Korean pop and a musical genre originating in South Korea that is characterized by a wide variety of audiovisual elements. But how did it attain such popularity throughout the world? Throughout the 1990s, various Korean pop artists incorporated American popular music, such as techno and rock in their music. In 1992, the rise of Seo Taiji & Boys brought the true turning point in the history of K-pop.
Because of catchy rap lyrics and memorable choruses, the famous group achieved commercial success, attracting teenagers and leading to the emergence of so-called idol groups: young boy and girl bands, such as Shinhwa and S. E. S. In the world of K-pop, fans not only enjoy listening to their favorite bands’ music but also fantasize them to the point of ‘worshipping’ them. Just what exactly do idols possess that has the power to transform an ordinary human into an obsessed fan?
Aside from the music that K-pop groups produce, there is a myriad of attributes that contribute to their popularity: physical appearance, dance choreography, acting in dramas, appearing in variety shows, modeling in CFs and so on. With an array of new K-pop bands flooding TV screen every day, it is becoming gradually more difficult for the rookies to stand out in the music scene. In order to swiftly gain popularity from the public, they would turn to acting. According to Ock Hyun-ju’s article, ‘Korean Idols Increasingly Dominate Dramas’, the local newspaper Seoul Daily informed that “idols starred in 32 dramas, or 45. percent, of 71 dramas that aired on three major broadcasters and cable channels this year.
Also, there are two reasons why drama producers increasingly seek idols for their shows: idols’ fame and influence” (Ock Hyun-ju, 2014). An official from SBS who agrees with Ham Young-hoon’s reasons to seek idols for drama production said, “We lack actors and actress in their 20s in the drama scene as most of those with fame and popularity move to the film industry. When we fail to cast one of a few popular 20-something stars, we turn out eyes to idols” (Ock Hyun-ju, 2014).
Many fans of K-pop can become K-drama fans because they watched a drama starring their favorite idols. “C. N. BLUE managed to solidify its place in the world of K-pop almost immediately after their debut in January 2010 because of Jung Yong-hwa’s performance and sweet, sensitive second lead in You’re Beautiful” (2012). In other cases, f(x)’s Krystal “plays the female lead in the Wednesday-Thursday SBS drama “My Lovely Girl”, co-starring with global star, Rain; while, TVXQ’s Yunho starred in the popular TV series “The Night Watchman’s Journal” (pictured) (Ock Hyun-ju, 2014).
Yunho played Moo-seok, a night watchman and a skilled swordsman who is a cold-hearted man of few words but popular with the ladies. Because of his amazing acting skills and incredible sword play, the drama not only boosted his own popularity but also brought more attention to his respective group, TVXQ. An idol turning to the field of acting is among the great means of seeking more popularity, especially rookie idols, as Yunho and Krystal both set as examples in this situation.
Aside from acting, the combination of synchronized group dancing to harmonized melodic music is the next particularity that has helped K-pop artists to gain popularity. Unlike, Western artists, K-pop boy and girl bands actually attempt to master synchronized group dancing while singing complex harmonies. According to an article, ‘Envisaging the Sociocultural Dynamics: Time/Space Hybridity, Red Queen’s Race and Cosmopolitan Striving’, Nusrat Durrani of MTV World mentioned: “K-pop is very interesting because it comes from a place of great discipline. A lot of these acts have been professionally trained for years and years.
A lot of K-pop acts actually have gone through very rigorous training, gone through a lot of discipline and have worked extremely hard. So the quality you see in K-pop is quite extraordinary” (Jang Won-ho and Kim Young-sun, 2013). Choreography carries out two purposes: serving as a vessel for music and emphasizing the meaning of the music. In the case of Exo’s Overdose, the “hammering the head” dance (pictured) carried a unique and special meaning: “as a representation of how logic in a brain fails to work with its obsession with love, so Exo is hitting the brain the return the common sense” (2014).
Such extraordinary dancing technique caught the attentions of fans, so whenever they hear the song, they would recognize and attempt to imitate the unique dancing movement for fun. To achieve such a difficult feat, trainees must sign a long-term contract and go through intensive training while maintaining the motivation for enduring such training. In an interview with SM Entertainment trainers, one interviewee explained that “Korean trainees were more willing to endure harsh training of synchronized dancing while singing more successfully than their Chinese, Japanese, or European trainee counterparts” (Jang Won-ho and Kim Young-sun, 2013).
This statement is justifiable because of the stereotype of strict “Asian” training held by American audiences and critics of K-pop. Even though strict discipline can potentially cause health problems, it allows trainees to concentrate and to understand their mistakes, in order to improve and expand beyond the horizon. Complex dance choreography has captivated fans so much that many also do dance covers of their favorite artists.
TheVicAnda, a Youtube channel, caught some level of public attention as the two Vietnamese girls are huge fans of Exo, so they even did dance covers of such Exo’s songs as ‘Growl’ and ‘Mama,’ despite not being skillful dancers. St. 319, a renowned Vietnamese dance group, is among many well-known dance groups in the world for their dance covers of many K-pop idols, including Infinite, Henry and Sistar. The more complicated the dance choreography is, the more it can attract fans to boost the popularity of their favorite artists.
When one looks at the role of an idol group in the K-pop industry, it’s more than just producing music. Along with sophisticated choreography, addictive hooks and nice-looking appearances, appearing in variety shows is also included in the job description. Variety game shows are huge in Korean entertainment with shows, such as Running Man and Infinity Challenge, gaining popularity both in Korea and overseas. Such shows usually include idols as guests and make them do really odd actions, such as playing a giant adult version of hide and seek.
Idols participate in variety shows not only to promote their newest album or single but also to strengthen the bond between fan and idol. “Look at us, we’re humans too, and we’re not always perfect, but because of our minor imperfections it’s easier for you to love us and connect us to a personal level” (GUEST, 2012). In April 2012, Shinhwa appeared as a special guest in Invicible Youth Season 2, a well-known South Korea variety show that featured K-pop female idols experiencing how it is to live and survive in Korean rural outdoors.
During the wrestling matches, leader Eric (pictured) displayed his interesting yet hilarious way of cheering on Miss A’s Suzy by combining his charismatic face with ‘cute’ gestures, causing all the people around him to burst out laughing and shocked, despite being known for his charismatic image. In order to heighten their popularity, K-pop idols can turn to variety shows by revealing their hidden personalities, allowing their fans to know more about them and boosting their recognition among the public. K-pop idols are creatures of the media.
Their purpose of existence is to sell and to be sold. Occasionally, their digital singles and albums are insufficient for them to make it to the profit margin. They earn a lot of money from especially the sales of posters and other merchandises. Other than the stated methods, what other source can they turn to, in order to gain more money? That is where CF comes in. Idols lend their dancing, singing and faces, in support of everything from food products to water purifiers. In a blog post, ‘The Idol and the CF,’ the author, codenamed GUEST, pointed out that Any major idol groups are bound to have multiple CFs under their belt. The reason is simple: the advertisement provides a source of income that they would not have had otherwise. Starring in CFs is often to the benefit of the idols themselves. Earning from these ventures significantly pads their usually sparse income and get their names out to an even wider public” (GUEST, 2011). In 2011, Girls’ Generation was featured in a small series of commercial for water filtering manufacturing brand, Woongjin Coway.
By taking advantage of the famous girl group’s fame, the company “experienced an increase of sales of 400% in the quarter following the marketing campaign” (GUEST, 2011). With such a significant increase, not only does the company gain the benefit of increasing sales, but also does Girls’ Generation gain more income and adoration from fans. As Girls’ Generation is among the best examples of gaining recognition by modeling in CFs, it truly is among the key elements of K-pop idols’ popularity.
Aside from all of the key components listed above, physical appearance, especially those with the role of visual, is next on the list. “An idol’s physical image is their selling point, which pulls the body shape, size, wardrobe, hair, facial features and even manners, of which they carry themselves in interviews, shows, and any other publicly televised event into relevance” (2012). Especially if there are idols, who are not A-level superstar, they are forced to learn how to make themselves massively appealing to the public in the most direct way possible.
The usual means of allowing the public to know the idols more include magazines, TV, Youtube and etc. Taking the importance of physical appearance into account, this concept especially applies to idols with the role of visuals. Almost all of the K-pop idols have gone through dramatic changes in their appearances through both plastic surgery and dieting process. Taking Big Bang’s T. O. P as an example, in his younger days, he was surprisingly quite fat, so there was a huge gap between his current and past images.
Thanks to the power of dieting and plastic surgery, he was able to gain his charismatic image as a result and gained public recognition. Without the technology of plastic surgery, idols now would not have been able to gain popularity from the public and would not survive as long as they are today. The visual’s job is exactly what the word implies: visual. “Often times the visual member is the face of the group, being the most commercialized and recognized member, and plays a great deal in carrying an idol group into the limelight” (Nabeela, 2012).
Visual members, such as 2PM’s Nichkhun, 2NE1’s Dara, Girls’ Generations’ Yoona and Exo’s Kai, are all “likely to be the one most often hired to endorse products and appear in commercials and ads” (hyucham, 2014). Although the task of being the visual may seem pointless and simple, these visual members go the extra mile in advertising not only commercial products but also themselves, their respective idol groups, and their world of entertainment. In the case of Girls’ Generation’s Yoona, the famous star apparently “is featured in over 25 commercial films annually, allowing her to earn more than 2 billion won alone” (2014).
Because of the fact that Yoona is the visual of Girls’ Generation, she not only earned a huge sum of money but also allowed the famous group and herself to gain more fame and adoration from fans. In order for idols to complete the equation of becoming ‘perfect,’ they will need to take extreme care of their image to maintain their recognition within the public. Talent is the final piece of the puzzle that contributes to K-pop idols’ popularity. There are a handful amount of idols, who specialize in fields other than singing, acting and dancing.
CNBLUE’s leader, Jung Yong-hwa, is well-known for not only his acting and singing but also most notably his skills in songwriting. In the first half of 2012, he wrote and composed 17 tracks, emerging as a “songwriting genius”. He “composed fellow FNC Entertainment label-mates, Juniel’s ‘Fool’, AOA’s ‘Love Is Only You’” (jnkm, 2012) and even “the Samsung Galaxy’s brand song, ‘Feel Good’, which was released officially on Youtube on August 23, 2013” (halves in unison, 2013). Chinese-Canadian singer, Henry Lau, sets as another perfect example of those with exceptional talent.
Lau has been called a “musical genius” for various reasons. His areas of expertise include violin, piano, popping, drum, Latin dance, ballet, beat box, rap, songwriting, music composition, acting, guitar playing and singing. He “started to learn to play the piano from his mother at the age of 5 and also learned to play the violin at the age of 6” (JHE, 2010). Thanks to his exceptional skills in violin and piano, he has “gained many such performance awards as the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music Regional Gold Medal for Level 10 Violin” (JHE, 2010).
Aside from the field of music, he also possesses a very high degree of foreign language skills. While his native language is English, he is also fluent in Mandarin and Korean. Other languages that he can speak include “Cantonese, Japanese, basic French, Taiwan dialect and Spanish” (2010). With such skills in his arsenal, he has been highly recognized by the world. With talent, idols can quickly gain the public attention and obtain popularity, as Jung Yong-hwa and Henry Lau have done to get to where they are now.
In order to gain popularity, there is a multitude of options that K-pop idols can take: acting, dance choreography, appearance in variety shows, CFs, physical appearance and talent. Although there are other ways of attaining popularity, the six alternatives stated above are the major factors that contribute to an idol’s reputation. Once rookie idols debut on stage, they must take their first step to the miraculous journey of gaining public recognition by going through any of the listed options in this paper or other methods, such as radio DJ.