March 28, 2019

K-pop - a concise guide to the Korean phenomenon pt. 1

K-pop - a concise guide to the Korean phenomenon pt. 1

Kevin Ong

Kevin Ong


This week we are super excited to present a guest writer on Backstage! Kevin Ong was so kind to agree to enlighten us on the topic of K-pop. His interest in the genre goes back a decade, so it’s pretty safe to say he is the expert in the room. When it comes down to K-pop everyone usually falls in one of two categories: you either hear the word K-pop and think “is this some kind of new drug kids are doing these days” or you lose your mind, because you are a die hard fan. In either scenario, you might learn something new. Here is part 1 of our guide to K-pop. Look out for part 2 next week!

Addictive songs, sharp choreography, and technicolor visuals, these are the three primary components that make up K-Pop, oh and of course the fact that it's all in Korean. In the past few years, western recognition of K-Pop has hit a fever pitch and doesn’t seem to show any signs of stagnation. Psy’s 2012 Gangnam Style may be the most recognized piece of K-Pop to most people, given that it was the most viewed YouTube video for five years. And more recently the K-pop crown is held by seven-member boy band BTS and their aptly named fandom, ARMY.

My own ride on the K-Pop roller coaster is now a decade in the making and watching the genre grow and evolve to where it is today is not something I would have ever imagined. However, before we get into the current state of the industry, we need to know how we got here.

The history of K-pop

We are currently in the third generation of K-Pop. “Wait, what? Third generation? I just heard about K-Pop.” is probably what you’re thinking now. So when was the first? 1992 with Seo Taiji and The Boys. Coming out of an era where South Korean media was heavily politicized and government mandated, more Western content and more socially conscious content was making its way into people’s homes with entertainment not unlike Idol or The Voice. Seo Taiji and The Boys were a hip-hop trio that hit the stage on a music talent show and wore iconically more American attire, rapped like Americans, danced like b-boys, but their message was all Korean.

In 1996 at the height of their fame, they disbanded to the dismay of many fans and to the birth of something much bigger: a revolution in the form of idol groups. The late 90s brought the debut of H.O.T., S.E.S., Fin.K.L., Sechs Kies, g.o.d, Jewelry, Shinhwa, Baby Vox; groups of young men and women with questionable fashion choices (hey, it was the ‘90s), with catchy earworms, and choreography you could do in your living room.

What is an idol group?

Idol groups are those group of young men and women you see dancing around to catchy songs in the most extravagant outfits. Within these groups, each member has some sort of role to play. "Main vocalist/dancer", "lead vocalist/dancer", and "sub vocalist/dancer" are common titles you’ll see fans assign to their favorite idol group members. Of course, you will also see titles like "center" or "visual", essentially the face of the group (think Justin Timberlake of *NSYNC), but generally every member of a group has a stellar appearance. They can not only sing and dance, but some also produce their own music, work their way into acting, host radio shows, and of course become the face of huge brand endorsement.

These groups are formed through a training system where record labels recruit young teens and train them to become entertainers. Training period vary from person to person, idol group to idol group and is never consistent. Nine member girl group TWICE’s leader Jihyo remained in the trainee system for a decade meanwhile Japanese groupmate Mina only has 16 months of formal idol training under her belt.  After years of training, groups are assembled which usually average to about five members, but thirteen is not uncommon either. With such large groups you’re bound to find at least one member that appeals to your taste.

The industry

Enter, The Big Three: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment (found by Yang Hyun Suk a member of Seo Taiji and The Boys). To this day, these three companies have the most influence over the industry and their idol groups have the most recognition. In K-Pop, a group’s managing company has control of the group’s image and style. In YG you’ll find music that leans towards hip-hop and the styling of their artists reflect that. SM tends to be more experimental and at the same time probably K-Pop in its purest form. JYP has a history of looking to r&b and soul for more retro sounds, but recently sounds distinctly modern. Of course there are other entertainment companies of various size and influence, and specialization of genre such as hip-hop labels AOMG, Amoeba Culture, and Illionaire Records to name a few.

What this provides is a sense of familiarity, for example if you’re a fan of TWICE, you may also like their female predecessors The Wonder Girls and miss A, or their juniors ITZY, or perhaps their male counterparts Stray Kids and GOT7 as they’re all under JYP Entertainment. These record labels also can use this opportunity to have full label concerts, have artists easily feature in each other music videos or album tracks, and furthermore fans just love it when label siblings interact with one another.

Don't forget to tune it for part 2 next week. And in the meantime, you can always check out what Low-Fi has in store these days: 


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