Neither Deliberate Nor Accident: The Long Road to K-Pop

Let’s be honest, Asian pop music doesn’t get a lot of respect. K-pop is definitely rising in popularity, but a cursory examination of coverage by Western media reveals a lot of prejudice (I’m looking at you Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, author of “Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel”). In the broadest strokes, K-pop will have to stand up to accusations of being manufactured and derivative, implying that real music is created by American or British artists who have struggled through poverty for the sheer love of performing, gradually winning over a fan base before finally achieving fame/selling out to the man. Such depictions are a topic for another day, however. For now, I want to provide context for how we got the K-pop we know and love — or at least have a complicated relationship with — today.

For starters, let’s get one thing straight: K-pop and J-pop are very different things, which you know if you’ve ever heard them (BoA and DBSK defy this logic, but they’re very special cases). Kim Chang Nam1 draws a line between music before and after the 90s, which is essentially a line before and after Hallyu, or a line before and after democratization and the easing of censorship. Really, that decade just flipped everything on its head and those changes are all reflected in the popular music and culture. Still, there are a few things that have remained constant: hybridity and political influence. Korean popular music has always combined several generic styles and international influences, particularly from the US and Japan. The exploration of some of these styles was cut off by military regimes when deemed politically expedient. At other times, perhaps most particularly today, music is used as a medium for national representation or spreading a national-political vision. This will be a brief overview of the development of Korean popular music from its beginning through the colonial period to liberation, then the turbulent military regimes from the 60s through the 80s, and finally a look at the early 90s when the last few stylistic and production elements were introduced, setting the stage for K-pop and the musical branches of Hallyu.

The hybridity of Korean music has never been a secret or source of shame, nor is it something that started with K-pop in the 90s. The traditional genre of folk songs was popularized to create a genre of new folk songs (sinminyo) in the 1920s when radio broadcasting and the recording industry got their start in Korea. Western genres of folk, classics and jazz found their way over, often filtered through Japanese music (because colonization) to mix with traditional styles and form “trot”. Similar production styles allowed a lot of crossover. Trot dominated from the 1930s to the 1960s, with its upbeat songs of tragedy, even when American influence increased after liberation (1945). American-style songs reached the same level as trot from 1961, with “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt”.

Many of the performers got their start playing for U.S. troops and Kim associates this music with urban middle-class lifestyles. However, it failed to solidify into a distinct genre and faded in the 70s.  Dance music was particularly popular, giving rise to serious social concern. Kim suggests that trot drew on the heartbreaking circumstances of many Koreans, whereas the American music was more escapist. Although many American genres were influential, acoustic folk rock seems to have been the most popular.

Likewise, mass media has been a vehicle for supporting political authority since it was introduced to the peninsula. The Japanese certainly weren’t promoting radios out of the goodness of their hearts. Music was highly, highly censored until rather recently, by one regime after another. Of course, there were subversive musical elements too, but I’ll let E. Taylor Atkins2 explain that if you’re curious. Park Chung Hee also promoted or suppressed music to bolster his flagging legitimacy. He composed two lively propaganda songs himself in the 60s, but in 1971 cracked down on rock music, long hair, and mini-skirts as “vulgar, decadent culture” that undermined his vision of ideal obedient, industrious subjects. This change is connected to international economic recession and domestic political challenges, especially the normalization of relations with Japan, which had badly damaged Park’s legitimacy and ultimately led to the Yushin constitution in 19723.

Park Chung Hee

Shin Joong Hyun

This quest to remove “impure” influences meant many musical venues were shut down, songs banned by censors, and many musicians, like Shin Joong Hyun, were prosecuted for marijuana use (though there weren’t clear legal grounds as marijuana wasn’t technically illegal. Shin believes he was persecuted because he refused to write propaganda songs praising Park’s presidency). So youth culture was smacked down hard just as it started to build. Rock went underground and stayed there while go-go clubs thrived by working around curfews; thus we see a strong trend towards dance music (There’s also some evidence to suggest that banning rock and folk cost Korea in good beer as it was part of the same independent youth culture as blue jeans and rock. If Hallyu can somehow bring better booze to the peninsula I swear I will forgive all the sequins and even some of the feathers. Though most idols are probably a better metaphor for Hite or Cass, there are a few who could perhaps save us from this dismal fate).

And so trot rose once more, setting aside some of its melancholy and fusing with some elements of rock, go-go, and disco to reach out to new youth. Then Chun Doo Hwan opened the door for more sex, color TV,  and pro sports, but by no means eased up on censorship (the “3S policies: sex, screen, and sports). More importantly (yes, more important than even a new military dictator), teenagers came into their own as consumers. Not just teenagers — teenagers with color TV (and thus variety shows!) and video games, teenagers more visually oriented and flush with cash than any generation before them. So, not so shockingly, the music industry began to prioritize dancing skills and good looks, producing “idols” rather than “artists”. Pop ballads were left as the middle ground between adults’ trot and teens’ dance music.Thus we have many of the key elements of K-Pop in place by the 80s.

While many of the changes in the 1990s were behind the scenes, on the surface, two new trends revolutionized the way Koreans approached music. It is easy to forget that the ubiquitous karaoke room has not always been a feature of Korean life. Introduced to Pusan by a video game arcade owner in April 1991, its popularity spread nationwide in under a year. The government encouraged it as “healthy-minded” entertainment (Russell 2008: 149-150). Then Seo Taiji and Boys took Korea by storm in 1992, with dynamic hip hop music and dance moves, all written, arranged, and recorded independently. The sudden removal of censorship had opened the door for new music styles and Seo Taiji certainly was different. ( Korean b-boy culture also formed a few years later. All that was missing was the means of production.

Seo Taiji and Boys

Lee Soo Man, a former DJ, was working on this, however, bringing to life his vision of a new style of management that oversaw the development and production of artists from audition to training to public persona, encompassing every aspect of the performance and personal life. Under this system, the company invested heavily in every hopeful trainee, reclaiming the cost from the earnings of those lucky few who succeeded. Unlike the Western system, musicians generally came with little to no experience and therefore were indebted to the company for any success, which could put a serious cramp in their artistic and personal freedoms 4.

H.O.T. “Candy”

Three entertainment companies now dominate the Korean music industry. In 1995, just before the financial crisis, Lee Soo Man’s SM Entertainment launched H.O.T, its first great success. They started out bright, colorful, and playful but later moved to a more goth look. Since then, the company has debuted a successful group or star almost every year. The other two largest entertainment companies, JYP and YG, were started by former artists Jin Young Park (a solo R&B artist) in 1997, and Yang Hyun Suk (one of Seo Taiji’s boys) in 1998 respectively (Cube totally deserves mention as the fourth and many other companies have sprung up in the wake of Hallyu). Each brought their own style and experience to create distinct sounds and brands, yet the three companies tend to adapt successful strategies of their rivals, contributing to a general K-pop image.While each company has different relationships with trainees, it is the company that is ultimately responsible for the strategic design of each star’s image. This has led to the widespread reputation of Korean music as strategically manufactured for commercial goals, such as a New York Times review of the 2011 Madison Square Garden concert, in which Jon Caramanica describes the industry with phrases such as “companies that specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols”, “it only slightly tweaked that polyglot K-pop formula”, and auditions that “will keep the machine oiled” (*shakes fist vehemently*).

1997 was a year of terrible upheaval and opportunity. The Asian Financial Crisis (or IMF Crisis, as Korea calls it) was a really big deal. I’m not going to go into it now (neoliberal reform!!), but it was a game-changer in soooooooo many ways. What you need to know for right now is that Asian countries could no longer afford Japanese media so Korea had an opportunity to export popular media (they’d been liberally borrowing Japanese formats and were much cheaper).  Korea seized that opportunity. Big time. Also, the government started to introduce new ideals and goals for Korean individuals, which lined up rather nicely with the entertainment industry (qualities like creativity, language and tech skills, or international experience). Did I mention that the government was strongly promoting awesome internet connections? I should mention that. It has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Hallyu.

Technically, one can date the Korean Wave to 1997 when melodramas first began to pick up popularity in China (this is when and why they coined the term “Hallyu”) and other nations.  The Hallyu that most of you reading this in English recognize probably hit the scene closer to 2003-2004 (the era of Winter Sonata, Full House, Dae Jang Geum etc). The dramas had a pivotal role in K-pop because many stars didn’t gain wide fame until after success as an actor (like Rain in Full House or Jung Young Hwa in You’re Beautiful). Reminder: rock was/is still very much an underground indie thing, so some groups played in Japan, which has a stronger rock scene, but most aren’t known outside Korea. There has been a lot of change and development to the keen observer. I’m running out of steam here so I’ll sum this up: lots of familiar boy and girl groups in the late 90s (far more bubble gum and at that time called gayo), replaced by solo R&B giants for a few years (Rain, Wheesung, SE7EN, Lee Hyori), before bigger shinier boy bands and girl groups, riding the full momentum of the Korean Wave culminate in the K-Pop we know today. Those two decades of K-Pop are rather complex, especially the last decade (the transition from kkotminam flower boys to jimseungdol beastly idols alone is a fun shift….), deserving their own separate analysis.

It’s true that the visual and dance elements have been in place for some time, but K-Pop isn’t stagnant or one-dimensional. Nor is it the sum of all Korean popular music. The prioritization of K-Pop as part of Hallyu has come at the expense of other genres, but there is reason to hope for diversification. Competitive shows in an American Idol format are bringing interesting changes to the line ups of major companies, especially more folk-style singers. K-pop artists are exploring more genres in their songs or new bands strongly align themselves with a particular genre, like hip-hop. Korean rappers seem to be gaining more exposure and b-boys are lobbying for government support. Then again, this overwhelming surge itself brings potential problems like oversaturation of markets or loss of quality in the rush to jump on the bandwagon. The strong connection between pop music, celebrity culture, and nation branding is something I will discuss often and at length. I hope this brief (ha ha, but seriously, I held back) background will provide a starting point for some of those conversations. Thanks.

Citations and Notes
01. Kim Chang Nam, K-POP: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music .

02. Atkins, E. Taylor. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, detailing the popularity of Korean music in Japan during the colonial era.

03. Pil Ho Kim and Hyunjoon Shin’s The Birth of “RoK”: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Glocalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964-1975

04. Russell, Mark. Pop Goes Korea (there’s a chapter on SM Entertainment).

Note: I’m in the middle of moving and can’t access the books…… so if you need page numbers, write me a message and I’ll find them for you later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.