What K-pop’s ubiquity says about Korean sensibilities: a dispatch from Seoul

Fans gather outside JYP Entertainment's headquarters in Seoul.

I have been exposed to K-pop for roughly a decade now. I was a skeptic when I was in college, mostly along the lines of “how can people be so devoted to music that’s in a language they do not speak?” This was just before the Wonder Girls released “Nobody”, the song that arguably put South Korea’s pop scene on the map. In the past three years I’ve come to learn more about the scene, mostly through my girlfriend Shalla, who’s followed the scene for many years. (It helped that she isn’t really into the boy groups, the devotion to which has been fanatical, for obvious reasons.) And, in the weeks leading up to our trip to Seoul, we wrote a series of blog entries on K-pop, which served both as a primer for those who are coming in blind to one of the most dynamic music scenes in the world today, and as means for me to figure out just what it is I like about it.

I don’t see myself being a fanboy, although Shalla insists I am getting there. For one, she’s followed K-pop for a decade, but I was the first to buy an actual physical album. Not one, but two: IU‘s Chat-Shire, the lead single of which I highlighted as one of my favorites of the past year, and Mamamoo‘s Pink Funky, the latest release from what is perhaps my one favorite K-pop act. There will be songs I won’t like, acts I won’t warm to, but I have come to appreciate the scene, the way its proponents have embraced Western sounds without outright aping it, instead forcing it through a distinctly Korean sieve and making something that could, perhaps should, be called “derivative” into something exciting. That excitement is one shared by many, from the fans devoting their free time following their biases (to varying degrees), to the music critics who, occasionally selectively, have learned to enthuse about K-pop, and not in an ironic way.

I bought two Korean albums: IU's Chat-Shire and Mamamoo's Pink Funky. Shalla insists she bring it because both albums are in "girly" colors. I bought these at Hot Tracks, a record store within Kyobo Book at Gwanghwamun.
I bought two Korean albums: IU’s Chat-Shire and Mamamoo’s Pink Funky. Shalla insists she bring it because both albums are in “girly” colors. I bought these at Hot Tracks, a record store within Kyobo Book at Gwanghwamun.

Yet, when we finally went to Seoul, I found myself doubting that assessment. Is K-pop really that big a thing? I thought. Sure, the faces of certain idols are plastered all over, and you hear their songs in many places, but for a while it seemed to me that it wasn’t really that big a thing. Maybe it’s just us foreigners, fascinated that a place as “exotic” as South Korea can put out music like this. (Just this week, Family Guy captured the neon-bright side of the scene with a parody of HyunA’s “Bubble Pop”.) In Seoul, the radio stations don’t often play K-pop, or at least the kind (some) kids these days are so high on. They do, sometimes, often late at night, but throughout the day you’d hear ballads in Korean and, very occasionally, English. It seemed the older people – and Koreans do put a premium on their elders – still get their way.

“You’re wrong,” Shalla told me, as we walked around Sinchon-dong, a neighborhood that’s home to a dizzying array of stores mostly serving the students of nearby Hongik University and Ewha Womans University. “Have you noticed that all you hear in the stores is K-pop?”

Right then, I snapped. She’s right.

There are a lot of make-up stores in Seoul. We went to the Nowon district – still within the city limits, but very much a suburb considering its distance – and there were six of them in one intersection, all offering everything from the stuff you wash your face with to the stuff you put over your face to look flawless. Outside each of those six stores are speakers, and each have a different playlist of K-pop songs: IU’s “Twenty-three” on one, Apink’s “Remember” on another, EXO’s “Call Me Baby” on yet another, all inviting locals and tourists in.

The case is the same on the stations of the Seoul Metro, which slowly come to life as the day progresses, when stall owners come in with dirt-cheap winter outfits, alongside the usual convenience stores and coffee shops. While mapping out our route back to our hotel, I heard Mamamoo’s “Girl Crush”, and I, of course, couldn’t help but do a happy jig.

The small breakfast area in our hotel was equipped with one set of speakers, with an SD card plugged in, repeating this one song over and over. We couldn’t recognize it, as it’s a ballad, clearly from the OST of one of those Korean dramas. A change of shift, and the playlist changes: again, IU’s “Twenty-three”; again, Mamamoo, this time, “Um Oh Ah Yeh”.

Miss A's Suzy is a very ubiquitous face in Seoul, thanks to her many commercial endorsements. While other K-pop idols have a big share of CF deals, like Hyeri from Girl's Day, Suzy has deals with a wide range of brands - from make-up to electronics to, in this case, vitamin C supplements.
Miss A’s Suzy is a very ubiquitous face in Seoul, thanks to her many commercial endorsements. While other K-pop idols have a big share of CF deals, like Hyeri from Girl’s Day, Suzy has deals with a wide range of brands – from make-up to electronics to, in this case, vitamin C supplements.

It may not look like it when you’re there, and I can’t quite explain why – maybe it’s the time zone difference, maybe it’s the language barrier, maybe it’s me thinking of where to go and how to get there – but K-pop is prevalent in Seoul. Very prevalent. It accompanies everything. It accompanies everyone. And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. It’s just there, and whether you like it or not, you will have to put up with it.

We were in Seoul for a little over five days – we flew in the night of the 26th, and left the morning of the 1st – and we barely heard a Western song, not even in the most obviously tourist-y of places. You hear them so rarely it sticks with you: M83’s “Midnight City” outside one of the malls at Dongdaemun; Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You In The Dark” while browsing at Kyobo Book near Gwanghwamun; to our chagrin, Justin Bieber’s “Baby” breaking the flow at one of the make-up stores we went into.

The ubiquity of K-pop is just one sign of how the Koreans approach things. They’re perfectionists, in a way: they strive to be the best in everything they do. They have to look their best, for one, which likely explains all those make-up and skincare stores. They’re not completely insular: they clearly welcome foreign influences, but they don’t let those embrace them completely. There are Starbucks branches, but there the local coffee shop chains are more visible. There are McDonald’s branches, but there’s a better chance you’ll see a Lotteria – and that’s not mentioning the many restaurants and food stalls along the sidewalks. K-pop embraces Western sounds, but don’t follow its every beat. Sure, the sound appeals to as big a church as possible – whether it be the cool electronica of f(x)’s “4 Walls”, or the anthemic build of Taeyeon’s “I”, or the cutting hip-hop of BTS’ “Run” – which explains why so many people around the world like it, but it’s also distinctly Korean, a fact that never quite leaves you.

More importantly, it’s something Koreans are clearly proud of. Perhaps it’s not the kind of proud you boast about all the time, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a local so adamantly against it. Or maybe that’s the language barrier getting in the way. Still, like most of South Korea’s cultural exports – its food, its television – you won’t see anyone splitting hairs about whether this thing or that thing is better suited for a particular subset of the audience. It’s just simple: it’s their thing, warts and all, and they’re proud of it. That’s why it’s played everywhere you go. That’s why their record stores have more Korean music than Western music, an observation I cannot make for every other foreign country I have been to these past few years. (I can imagine the closest we have to domestic-beats-foreign is the United States, but that’s because they’ve dominated pop culture everywhere.)

The irony is, a music scene that embraces everyone, and is embraced by everyone in return, is produced mostly from a district that is very much cordoned off in favor of the rich.

K-Star Road, a packaged tourist destination in Seoul's Gangnam district, points fans to the headquarters of some of K-pop's major labels. It's not as updated as we hoped, however.
K-Star Road, a packaged tourist destination in Seoul’s Gangnam district, points fans to the headquarters of some of K-pop’s major labels. It’s not as updated as we hoped, however.

The Wonder Girls put K-pop on the map, but it was Psy, of course, who scribbled all over it with a highlighter. His 2012 single “Gangnam Style” both pays homage, and skewers, the perceived classy lifestyle of those living in Gangnam, one of Seoul’s newer districts, and home to its biggest business conglomerates, as well as rows of establishments for the upper classes – luxury goods, European cars, plastic surgery. It is here where most of K-pop’s most prominent labels are located, a fact that the city is keen to promote to tourists. Get off the Apgojeongrodeo station, located to the north of Gangnam, and you’ll find yourself at one end of what they call K-Star Road, a stretch that covers the establishments supposedly frequented by the most popular of K-pop acts – and, notably, the stretch where the headquarters of some of K-pop’s bigger labels are located.

It is, however, a chore. The maps conveniently point you to where you should go if you want to, maybe, spot your idols, but the place itself is boring. Apgojeongrodeo is cold, and it’s not just the near-freezing temperatures Shalla and I found ourselves in. The road is wide; the cars in it, few, mostly high-end; the establishments around it, a mix of upscale labels, each with their own building, and more generic structures that are home to coffee shops, wedding suppliers and, yes, plastic surgeons. This, apparently, is where some of the biggest K-pop songs come from: a place that feels very, very exclusive.

We tried to find S.M. Entertainment’s headquarters, but the maps are outdated. Apparently they moved to a new building, still within Gangnam, a few years back. However, their old headquarters are being renovated, apparently being transformed to a training center for upcoming talent. The only clue we have to it being an S.M. facility are the faces of their acts on the outside, the mugs of Girls’ Generation‘s eight remaining members dominating what is otherwise a nondescript street corner.

We had better luck finding the headquarters of JYP Entertainment. Home to acts like Miss A, Twice and the Wonder Girls, it sits on a narrow side street, its existence not being hidden. A huge sign saying “JYP” sits right above its entrance; the faces of its acts adorn the windows. Right across it is a Dunkin’ Donuts, and on there are a bunch of fans, hoping for someone, anyone, to come out. It was, however, a thin crowd, perhaps because of the cold, but most likely because it’s the end of December, a time where K-pop somewhat goes on a break, when releases trickle down to a few winter songs. (K-pop acts don’t get a break, though: the three major television networks each staged year-end concerts, featuring a wide range of Korean acts from then and now, all happening in one week. We watched Red Velvet on SBS, and then on KBS a couple of days later; by the third concert – MBC’s, on New Year’s Eve – they were clearly tired.)

We had harder luck looking for S.M. Entertainment's headquarters: turns out they moved a few years ago. This might be the spot though. Apparently the place is bring turned to a training center for new auditionees, but the sign outside - filled with S.M. acts - is ostensibly for a retail concept.
We had harder luck looking for S.M. Entertainment’s headquarters: turns out they moved a few years ago. This might be the spot though. Apparently the place is bring turned to a training center for new auditionees, but the sign outside – filled with S.M. acts – is ostensibly for a retail concept.

Despite the lack of buzz around the JYP headquarters, the fans seemed to still want to be discreet about fangirling. One at a time they would cross the road and pose for photographs outside the JYP sign. We just went to a convenience store to get some chocolate milk; we walked back to the train station after taking photographs of the fans, and noting that the nearby headquarters for Cube Entertainment – home to acts like BTOB, 4minute and G.NA – had even less activity around it.

The quiet, however, seemed to be a misnomer. The mere fact that we know where these labels are based, the fact that we are encouraged to go there and, maybe, get a chance to see our favorite acts, says a lot about K-pop as a whole. There’s a lot of work that goes in it – anyone who follows the scene very closely knows these idols are pushed to the brink – and there’s a lot of pride in it, too.

Inevitably my mind goes back to the Philippine art scene, and how it is endlessly split down to acts for the masses and acts for the classes. During our time in Seoul, there’s outcry over the Metro Manila Film Festival removing the Erik Matti film Honor Thy Father for the Best Picture race, on the grounds that it took part in another film festival. That film, seen by cineastes as the one credible entry in an otherwise obvious mindless cash grab, became another rallying point in this sad war, where some impose their supposedly superior tastes on a hapless demographic that demand nothing more than be entertained. The same goes for television. The same goes for music. They want to put the Philippines on the map, but tribalism still prevails. They refuse to let everyone in. It seems to be a natural response; make a line, build a fence, revel in the status. In the end, it’s clear that South Korea is way ahead of us. [NB]

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