I am a Kpop fan. I’ve been a fan since high school and my knowledge in this area has spanned over the years to include multiple groups, actors and actresses, and even comedians and other South-Korean celebrities. I watch a lot of South Korean television; this includes a long list of dramas and variety shows. I probably watch more South Korean TV than American TV.
Girls Generation performing Japanese version of “Genie” live.
Nowadays, Kpop can be considered as some sort of Internet craze. This statement is false, in my opinion. I agree that Kpop thrives on the Internet because the Internet is the only place we can access these programs and music videos. However, it is not only living inside our computers. In the last few years, the term “Hallyu Wave” has been talked quite a bit. “Hallyu Wave” means the Korean Wave, an increasingly popular demand for South Korean cultural exports. While many South Korean pop stars embark on Asia tours, its popularity has also spread to America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Music and appearances aside, there are a lot of reasons why I both adore and admire Kpop and the South Korean entertainment culture.
The role of the entertainment companies interest me the most because it draws such a parallel to America’s entertainment system. In South Korea, if you want to become a singer, you first have to join a company. Each agency has their own distinctive styles in music and looks. The prospective singer will then become a trainee at a company and this training period can stretch on to an unknown number of years with no guarantee that you will debut at the end of it all. On average, these singers and dancers debut after 3-4 years of training at the ripe age of early 20’s or even younger. As many have critiqued, these entertainment companies function as a factory that simply manufactures idol groups and other celebrities. Most of the time, the songs they sing are written by other producers and the dances are choreographed by someone else in the company. In this way, Kpop stars are not seen as real artists because they do not make their own music.
While I understand this valid point, for the most part I like the role of the entertainment company. I admire the trainees who successfully debut after years of hard work and the efforts are clearly visible. There is a noticeable difference in skill between someone who has undergone 3 years of training to someone who didn’t and just signed with a record label and debuted right away. Even though it seems like these South Korean entertainment companies restrict its trainees from creatively and artistically developing, they are still free to try to write their own songs or lyrics. A lot of times, companies will allow their celebrities to use their own songs when their fame has been established (or if they just really approve of the song). This also brings up the point of how young these idols are. They may begin training at the tender ages of eleven and debut at seventeen. What kinds of songs can they possibly write? This leads me to my next point, which is the PR support these companies provide for their idols.
American celebrities are scandalous. They are involved in raw cases of drug use and partying in a highly sexualised contemporary culture. South Korea’s culture itself is much more conservative so you do not often hear about such news. The biggest scandals is probably simply the revelation of 2 celebrities dating. And even in these cases, representatives from both companies have to prepare statements in all of its polite and formal glory. While an American artist may say “This is who I am. This is my life,” it is the Kpop idol who says, “I apologize that I have disappointed my fans. I will work harder on improving myself, and I hope to receive your support”. I can say with confidence that any sort of crisis mitigation is handled much better by these companies than the resolution from anything I’ve seen in the American music industry.
Another critique on Kpop celebrities is that they all look the same. This is not because these critics are racist, but it’s because of the heavy influence of plastic surgery. In South Korea, plastic surgery is commonly acceptable. Girls may get a double eyelid surgery for their birthday present (from her parents!) or a nose job as a graduation gift. It’s like getting a hair cut; it is just an inexpensive alteration on your physical appearance. Because this topic is intricately embedded in South Korean culture, there is not much use in my commenting of whether this is “right” or “wrong”. But I think it’s very interesting because in a society where everyone is “pretty”, what is a celebrity’s differentiating factor? My answer to this question is back to my first point: skills.
The only way these Kpop stars can differentiate themselves is based on skills or even more difficult to showcase, personality. This means that you can’t just be good-looking to make it in the South Korean entertainment industry. You have to have the skills to back you up and a personality the masses can connect with.
Lastly, another point that fascinates me is the fandom culture around these Kpop stars. I don’t know too much about how fans of Justin Bieber or One Direction operate, but Kpop fans live through a structured hierarchy. Every group has an official fan club and fan cafe. They are like a mini society with its own leader, sub-leaders, and all these other ranks that follow. These fans will come cheer for their artists every week at music broadcast shows with perfectly in-synch cheers and chants during certain breaks of the live song performance. These fans will put an ad on a bus for the idol’s birthday and donate 28 tonnes of rice under their beloved idol’s name.
In general, I don’t believe the South Korean entertainment industry and its companies are “bad” for its celebrities and artists. While it is most definitely different from where I live, I believe there are also many benefits this type of system offers. In a movement where the cultural center may shift from America to South Korea, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from their system.