How to collect Korean pop music, part one: the introductory course

How to Collect Korean Pop MusicAt the end of the year, we will be flying to Seoul. (Yes, we – Niko and Rainy.) Well, hopefully, since we haven’t gotten our visas sorted yet. So, in a misguided effort to prepare ourselves for the trip, we’ve decided to curate a list of K-pop songs that will serve as a soundtrack to, at least, the four-hour plane ride to the South Korean capital. What we ended up with is a series of blog entries on curating such a list – a bit of a crash course, if you may, if you’ve been looking to get started on K-pop but feel intimidated by all the SONEs and Pink Pandas (my apologies) and the seemingly (actually?) complicated ecosystem that is the Korean pop music scene. Welcome to our seven-week series, How to Collect Korean Pop Music. We’ve put too much of our hearts and souls into this, if we have any. Anyway, let’s begin with some history…

Where did all of this begin anyway? Korean music goes way back, of course – trot music, mixing traditional Korean music with American sensibilities brought over by missionaries, emerged in the 1920s. (This episode of KBS’s Immortal Song is a good starter; recent songs from Lizzy and Crayon Pop touch on this sound, too.) This American influence continued throughout the 20th century, from the folk movement of the 70s, to the rise of ballads in the 80s.

The 90s saw a turning point of sorts for K-pop, when artists really embraced hip-hop and rock sensibilities. Seo Taiji & Boys emerged in 1992 as the movement’s leaders, with their debut “Nan Arayo” becoming a template for many other acts. Soon, acts appealing towards the youth emerged, and their appeal spread beyond their home country. Baby V.O.X.’s “Coincidence” got a high-profile debut at the 2002 World Cup; that same year, BoA broke into the top of the Japanese charts with her album Listen To My Heart. The hits then followed: Rain, TVXQ and the Wonder Girls each tried to break into the American market, but it took one billion hits on YouTube to put K-pop firmly on the map, with Psy’s “Gangnam Style”.

Who’s behind the whole thing? There are three major companies responsible for the bulk of K-pop you’re hard-pressed to avoid today. S.M. Entertainment, the largest, was founded by music producer Lee Soo-man in 1995. YG Entertainment, arguably the “deluxe” of the three labels, was founded by Yang Hyun-suk in 1996. Finally, JYP Entertainment grew from a computer hardware manufacturer founded in 1997. Other companies include CJ E&M, LOEN, Cube and DreamT.

Fans easily identify the companies by the way they typically treat their artists. S.M. – home to Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and BoA –  is notorious for overworking their stars and not giving them enough income. On the other hand, YG – which has 2NE1, Big Bang and Psy on their roster – has fashioned itself on exclusivity, not often allowing their acts to appear on variety shows on Korean television. (A recent break from this is 2NE1’s Bom appearing on SBS’ Roommate.) Finally, JYP – in charge of the Wonder Girls, Miss A and 2PM – is seen as the nicest of the big three, with a better working atmosphere, although the company has the lowest income of the big three.

What’s with the things they call those K-pop group members? This isn’t a problem faced by Korean solo acts, of course, but if you’ve encountered fans of a particular Korean group, you’d probably hear terms like maknae, visual and rapper (well, you know that one). K-pop groups are treated as one unit, like the whole phalanx thing you’ve seen on 300: members take on predefined roles based on their skills and personalities and work towards one goal. Let’s take APink, for instance.

How to Collect Korean Pop Music, Figure 1

First, the basics: the vocalist sings, and the rapper raps. But there are different kids of vocalists: the main vocalist is generally the best singer of them all, while the lead vocalist can be, err, everyone. However, three roles are more distinct. The leader, well, leads the group – you’d see her up front and center in promotional cycles, live performances and all those other things. The maknae – this translates to “youngest” – has to play cute and innocent; this role is always taken on by the youngest member, and can be connected to the Koreans’ thing towards respect for elders. Finally, the visual’s job is to look gorgeous. The visual cannot be ugly – unless you’re Super Junior’s Siwon being a horse on Halloween.

What’s with the whole “comeback stage” thing? The K-pop promotional cycle is pretty different from the rest of the pop world’s because of the keen sense of timing. Folks like Taylor Swift, for example, would release a single (and a music video) weeks before releasing an album, followed by a bunch more singles. Koreans, on the other hand, get everything as it is revealed. Singles (and albums) drop in stores the same day they are debuted on the radio and TV, and there’s a well-coordinated series of performances, complete with terms, which makes acts easy (or hard) to keep track of.

A company prepares to launch a new(ly manufactured) act – one they painstakingly auditioned and all that – by releasing teasers, beginning with the individual members – including personal information, photos, guest appearances and the like – followed by the group as a whole. (The members of Girl’s Day, for instance, worked towards their debut by appearing in a flash mob.) Then, they release their first single (or mini album – that’s what they call the EP) in what is called the “debut stage”, where the group’s overall concept – cute, sexy, edgy, boring – is revealed on the many music shows on Korean television. (The music video goes live at the same time, and the single hits stores.)

The group would perform for several weeks, depending on how well their song is received, or the company feels, or if the music shows want to keep them on. This culminates in the “goodbye stage” – a final live performance which ends the promotional slug for their song. The cycle repeats a few months (or years) later, although the debut stage then becomes the “comeback stage”.

Acts also engage in some form of fan service, often before they appear on those Korean music shows – you might have heard some of them, like M! CountdownInkigayo or Show! Music Core. These take the forms of meets and greets, showcases (think live, relatively intimate performances) and appearances on variety shows.

Additional reading: Of course there are people who can better explain K-pop than us, so let us point you towards David Bevan’s article for Spin (back when it still did printed magazines) on how the K-pop system came to be. [NB/SY]

[Next week: Rainy walks us through her five essential K-pop acts.]

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