Cultural Awareness: Kpop


In February 2016, I will be traveling to South Korea for a period of around five months, and hoping to do my best to both enjoy my time there and learn as much as I can about the culture and the different ways of living and being. I endeavor to understand as much as possible what South Korean culture means to the Korean people, and how it is practiced by them. It is almost certain that I will not be able to fully achieve my goal within the short period of time that I am there, but I am sure to learn much from my stay. Still, there are ways to prepare myself for what I might experience there. One common method that others have used before me is studying Korean pop culture, something I have done for upwards of four years. While Korean pop music only gives a small and often distorted glimpse into Korean culture, there is still much to learn from it. I discovered Korean pop through a blog on a college website in March 2011, and became instantly enamored. My interest has calmed some throughout the years, but it remains an important part of my history, and led me to the point where I am today: a soon-to-be traveler to South Korea. With this essay, I hope to give an introduction and history of Korean pop, and then describe not only what it is in the broadest and easiest to understand sense in terms of popular media, but also what other opinions and consequences it has abroad and within its country of origin. Beyond being a form of entertainment, Korean pop and indeed Korean popular media in general has a far-reaching economic, cultural, and political footprint globally. Several scholars are beginning to discuss these more hidden effects of the international popularity of Korean pop, and are important to understanding the larger context of Kpop in the world today.

Korean pop music has existed in its current form since around the mid-1990s, but prior to that, there was indeed pop music in Korea similar to how it is thought of in the West during that time. Directly following the Korean War in the 1950s, many American expats began to take residence in South Korea, and with them, increased connection to the West and the United States in particular. During this time, Korean popular music was beginning to take form, and in much the same way as the United States’ pop music. Many chart-topping South Korean songs in the 1950s and for the next decade or so were direct covers of popular American songs, with lyrics changed to fit South Korean ideals of the time. Later in the 1970s and 1980s, a mixture of ballads and US inspired dance pop hits were common; though the ballads are most often remembered. The country was going through a difficult time of economic growth by dictatorship, and the ballads of this period reflected the sorrow and angst felt by the nation at large. Moving into the 1990s, we see Korean pop emerge as we know it now.

(Seo Taiji and Boys)
(Seo Taiji and Boys)

Pioneered by a group of men called Seo Taiji and Boys in 1992, more foreign music styles began to be incorporated into Kpop along with larger promotion through music shows and pop culture magazines. The country was beginning to stabilize economically, and was now considered one of the Economic Dragons of Eastern Asia. With this stability and modernization came a surge of popular media, and the 1990s had no shortage of boy bands whose companies were willing to take advantage of this new teenage music market. Since this period over two decades ago, Kpop has grown to become an enormous industry; in the first half of 2014, Kpop grossed 3.4 billion USD (“PSY’s Gangnam Style: The Billboard Cover Story”). The industry is recognized by Time Magazine as South Korea’s “greatest export.” Known for its catchy tunes, high-production music videos, polished dance moves, and large groups of attractive pop stars, Kpop has become a worldwide favorite. Today’s Kpop groups tour in nearly every continent with great success, and Kpop music videos are watched tens or even hundreds of millions of times on websites such as YouTube. Kpop incorporates several musical genres, and many songwriters in the Korean pop industry are the same people who write songs for many big label American pop artists such as Justin Bieber, Beyonce, and more (“12 Kpop Producers and Composers You Should Know”).

The Kpop industry was not always so popular worldwide, but with the invention of the internet and social media working in tandem with the popularization of Kpop, it soon spread to all corners of the world. But, many other factors are at play as well. Korean culture expert Suk-Young Kim attributes Kpop’s international success to a combination of social media, catchy hits, flashy and attractive music videos, and use of English in their songs (“The Try Guys Watch Kpop for the First Time: Part 1”). Many Kpop hits are carefully crafted to include English in the chorus–however nonsensical–in order to attract an international audience and give them a part of the song that they can sing along to.

youtube kpop
(YouTube’s Kpop Section circa 2013)

Kpop companies also began to spread even more into the YouTube market once they discovered it’s popularity abroad, and have made sure to consistently release content on YouTube for international fans to enjoy, often with subtitles. In more recent years, several Kpop conventions have been scheduled in the United States, and provide a place for fans of Kpop, people interested in Korean culture, and Korean or Eastern Asian-centered corporations to gather and interact.

So, aside from the surface-level differences of group size, music video content, and language, what sets aside Kpop from other pop music that makes it uniquely Korean? As a non-Korean, my experiences are biased and surely have some inaccuracies, but one can still notice several cultural differences within Kpop that reflect and portray a certain image about Korean culture as a whole. For example, even from a first glance at a photo of a boy band, an American such as myself can note a contrast between Western and Korean male pop stars.

(Kpop group Beast circa February 2015)
(Kpop group Beast circa February 2015)

Male Kpop stars do not necessarily accurately represent what Korean beauty standards are for all Korean men, but they do shed some light onto the topic. Boy Kpop singers are often more “feminine” in appearance than their American counterparts, according to Western standards. They wear more visible makeup, have clothes with more ‘sparkle’, have little to no facial hair, and often appear younger than their actual age.

(Members from the Kpop group JYJ model for a Korean makeup company)
(Members from the Kpop group JYJ model for a Korean makeup company)

Makeup is also not uncommon for many men in South Korea; they have the largest cosmetics industry for males in the world (“The Korean Men Makeup Fad”). As another example, from watching a Kpop boy bands’ music video, it is often easy to tell that the topic of most Kpop boy groups’ songs are about love and angst over romance, complete with dramatic gestures, tears, and anguished faces. In comparison with the West, it is more common for South Korean men to be allowed to show strong emotions such as anger or despair without as much negative reaction. Kpop can also provide a great view into other topics besides gendered expectations for presentation and behavior, including but not limited to societal standards for romantic love, the importance of physical appearance and saving face, and the indirect way in which Koreans represent sensitive topics such as sex and death through visual symbolism.

Within South Korea, opinions about pop culture and Kpop in particular are largely positive; in a 2013 survey of over 2500 Korean citizens by the Culture, Sports, and Tourism Ministry, it was found that 81.5% were proud of their country’s pop culture, an increase of 27.9% from 5 years prior (“South Koreans are Really Proud of their Culture and Kpop”). Many South Koreans report being excited about the increased international consumption of Korean Dramas and Kpop music, and hope that along with it will come a greater interest in traditional Korean culture, politics, etc. One cannot walk the streets of Seoul without being inundated with Korean pop music and the faces of Korean stars on most advertising, and indeed, Yonsei University–where I will be residing for my 5 month stay abroad–hosts nearly half a dozen Kpop concerts each year. Still, there is a good amount of the Korean population that dislike Kpop, and these people can help to highlight some of the negatives of the industry. In the aptly titled “How it Feels to Grow Up in Korea and Hate Kpop” article by Korean native Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, we get a general look into how it may feel to be a South Korean person growing up in the rise of Kpop, and yet feel completely disenchanted with it. Kim sums up very bluntly the off-putting parts of Kpop, and states that the industry is “less about the music and more about creating an army of perfect-looking girls and boys, usually with the help of plastic surgery…who have [no] talent in music yet make millions and millions of dollars” (“How it Feels”). She goes on to discuss the issues with artists being picked primarily for looks and with little regard for musical talent or skills–essentially hand-picking girls and boys with model-like looks and training them for anywhere from 2 to 8 years to become megastars. Although the negative effects of the Kpop phenomenon have not yet been psychologically studied in any large-scale way, Kim points out that the possibility of damaged self esteem in young Korean girls as a result of Kpop is not only possible, but almost inevitable.

(Korean group Girl's Generation circa March 2014)
(Korean group Girl’s Generation circa March 2014)

Kpop groups–even more than their pop music counterparts in the West–feature stars with one main body type ideal that allows for very little variation. Plastic surgery among Korean pop stars is almost expected, especially the “double eyelid surgery” that gives Koreans who normally have a monolid a more aesthetically pleasing–according to societal standards–double eyelid. There is no room for a Kpop star with bad skin, extra weight on their body, or even a significant difference in height. Although these standards of beauty were not created by the Kpop industry or by any one factor, Kpop helps to perpetuate the beauty expectations of Korean young men and women.

Economically speaking, the Kpop industry may be one of the most important in South Korea currently. If it were not, there would not be several dozen record companies attempting to churn out girl and boy groups to cash in on whatever small portion of the Kpop industry possible.

(Graph from Soompi's 2014 Kpop Infographic)
(Graph from Soompi’s 2014 Kpop Infographic)

Post-2008, the amount of boy and girl groups debuting each year on average increased by more than 4 times that prior to 2008 (“Soompi’s 2014 Kpop Infographic”). The largest record company in South Korea, SM Entertainment, grossed a whopping $260 million USD in 2013, as compared to their competitors YG Entertainment, who earned $110 million, and JYP Entertainment, who earned $21 million (“2013 Revenue from SM, YG, and JYP Entertainment Revealed”). Still, the benefits to entering the Kpop market are large; 50% of the market earnings for the Kpop industry in 2014 were from smaller record companies, rather than the big-name record labels. With this over-saturation of record labels comes a over-saturation of idol groups, and the earnings reflect this.

(Pictured on top: Girl's Generation, Pictured below: Super Junior)
(Pictured on top: Girl’s Generation, Pictured below: Super Junior)

Super Junior and Girl’s Generation, the most popular boy and girl group for SM Entertainment, respectively, each made around $28 million USD in the first half of 2014. But for groups from the smaller record labels, average annual earnings in 2014 were a mere $42,940.91 USD (“It’s Shocking How Much Money Kpop Stars Actually Make”). It may be surprising to learn that a large majority of this revenue is not gained from the music itself; according to CJ E&M, a major South Korean entertainment company, “record sales account for about 40% of the major management companies’ revenue; the other 60% comes from having their stars appear on everything from energy-drink labels to soap operas” (“South Korea’s Greatest Export”). This discrepancy in the origin of Kpop artist earnings leads directly to the difference in earnings between the popular label artists and those from the smaller corporations. Most artists make pennies off of each track sale (“Stars Make Almost No Money at Home”), and so earnings are almost entirely dependent on advertising contracts, ticket sales for world tours, and popularity in digital music sales abroad–things that are much more accessible to groups from major label companies.

While this summary only covers a small portion of the interconnected factors surrounding the popularity and consequences of the Kpop industry, the topics discussed here should hopefully give an overview of the relevant topics in Kpop today. The Kpop industry’s rise is right now, and  I believe that we are seeing only the beginnings of the research and knowledge that can be gained from studying this worldwide phenomenon.



Works Cited

“2013 Revenue from SM, YG, and JYP Entertainment Revealed.” Allkpop. 6 Theory Media, LLC., 21 May 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Chang, Max. “It’s Shocking How Much Money K-Pop Stars Actually Make.”NextShark. N.p., 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

DeNinno, Nadine. “The Korean Men Makeup Fad: South Korea Is Largest Market For Men?s Skincare In The World.” International Business Times. IBT Media Inc., 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Ji-sook, Bae. “South Koreans Are Really Proud of Their Culture and K-pop.” The Star Online. N.p., 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Kim, Kristen Yoonsoo. “How It Feels To Grow Up In Korea & Hate K-Pop.”Noisey. Vice, 11 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

“K-Pop Is The World’s Hottest Music Trend, But Its Stars Make Almost No Money At Home.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Kpop Idol Groups: A Soompi Infographic. 2014. Soompi. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Lizzie. “12 K-pop Producers and Composers You Should Know – Beyond Hallyu.” Beyond Hallyu. Beyond Hallyu, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Mahr, Krista. “South Korea’s Greatest Export: How K-Pop’s Rocking the World.” Time. N.p., 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

“PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’: The Billboard Cover Story.” Billboard. N.p., 3 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

The Try Guys Watch K-pop For The First Time • K-pop: Part 1. YouTube. Buzzfeed, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.