Saturday, August 10, 2013

Early Thoughts on K-pop

I've recently gotten into a band named EXO. I still do not consider myself a K-pop fan as I am not into any other K-pop groups/artists. I am not a fan of the genre, just a fan of this latest boyband under SM Entertainment (SME). That said, by way of EXO, I have been learning much about the genre in the past month. I think its important for me as a non-Western Westerner* to jot my impressions down now, while K-pop is still new and fresh to me, and while I'm still amazed and shocked by the wonder of it all. These are some preliminary thoughts.

1. SME is either the Antichrist, or a blessing.

I don't know what to make of this company. Its leader scares the shit outta me and I've never even watched an interview with him or heard his voice. Apart from a picture I saw in an article, and the knowledge that he has a vineyard, I don't know anything about him. But what I do know is that the artists/ popstars under his company tremble at the sound of his name in interviews. I also know that he has a method of boot-camp training program for the would-be stars which sounds like it belongs in the pits of hell. I also know about the rumours that say SME has so many defections from former stars because the stars feel like they are being underpaid and overworked. I know that the stars say that besides sleeping and eating, all they do is train.They train from morning till night. I know that there are ridiculous diets and people dancing till they are bruised or till they faint.
I know that in true South Korean fashion, in order to be a popstar you have to agree to skin bleaching treatments, and unnecessary plastic surgery in order to be the perfect popstar.
But I also know that all of these evasive and ridiculous strategies works. And I know that nobody knows how to build a star like SME does. I have serious respect for a company created by a man who decided that he wanted to build popstars, instead of just lazily signing an already completely formed artist. I think I like this because I'm an Arsenal fan, and our team manager Wenger is known for signing children young players and molding them into great players. I like the idea of family and association a young person gets knowing they have the umbrella of a company over them which just wants to push them as far as they can go. Yes, SME's motives are money, and not the personal benefit of the artist, but if the artist's and the company's end-point align (international success of the star), why not plunge towards it together? Certainly it's not a road everyone can travel, but the hard-labour process is probably also to weed out the weak, and if you can't stand it, well, it wasn't for you anyway.
To make myself clear, I'm not condoning the methods of SME. I think what little I've heard of the training sounds barbaric and strenuous and cruel. Not to mention exploitative and manipulative of young people who probably don't even know exactly what they are getting into when they agree to be a trainee. But the reality is that no entertainment company or music label exists for any other purpose but to make a profit. SME knows how to make a profit. That is business. Business does not have to be kind. So in pure economic terms, SME is working, and working extremly well.
I knew SM was big but I did not know it was so incredibly influential to Korea that it literally created K-pop. As in this company created the genre as it exists today. And it has become so rich that its on Forbes Asia's Best 200 Companies with Sales Under $1 Billion list. Since its formation in the 90's, its only grown bigger and better. There's a great article on the company and its creator on the Forbes website. Basically it discusses how influential it has been and how it set the tone and created the model for other entertainment/music production/music label companies in South Korea. I had no idea that literally all the K-pop bands that I'd been hearing so much about were once all under this single label: H.O.T, DBSK, Super Junior and Girls Generation. All the biggest K-pop bands were led by that one label. Talk about dominance and monopoly!

2. Another thing I've learnt about K-pop is that other entertainment labels do exist.
Like YG and JYP, and TS Entertainment but they are nowhere as rich or as massive as SM. Still, its good to know that SM does not have a complete monopoly of the K-pop market. Competition is always good and healthy. When there is competition it means that each company will try to put out better music than the other. And that is good for the quality of the music, but also great for the audience and the people paying for these albums.

3. The Music Video is still King in South Korea's Music Industry
I'm surprised by how much effort K pop artists seem to put into their videos. All their videos seem so ridiculously epic. Even SM, who is notorious for their cheap music videos in a box, still seem to put a lot of emphasis on the styling and camerawork of their music videos. This is contrasted with the West which puts just about enough into a music video to send it off to Vevo and thats it. We tend to put more interest on the concert/ live performance aspect. Not so in South Korea. Well, they do put a lot into the live performances, but they put just as much in the music video still. This video of Big Bang's Fanastic Baby is a really good example of how over the top their videos tend to be. 

This example shows us that a South Korean pop MV is not complete unless it has lots of insane, neon hair colours, decidedly androgynous clothing for men, unnecessary backdrops, and a needlessly-epic narrative to it. I think some sort of anarchistic revolution is the backdrop to this one, but it could be any struggle cause it isnt explained to us in the video. All we know is something epic is happening in the background while men in tight pants and guyliner and extensions dance around.

4. A good K-pop company knows how to build hype.
One thing I've learnt so far about SM is that it deftly deals in the art of anticipation. Here I was thinking One Direction's marketing team was legit because it gave us 5-day countdowns to new videos on Vevo, with clips and teasers of the upcoming video. SM put to them to bed when it released not five, not ten, not twenty but TWENTY THREE teasers of the band EXO, which had not even debuted or released a single song at that time. In fact, that teaser was released in 2011, and they did not even debut till mid-2012. This way, fans of the K-pop genre were able to glimpse, identify members, and build excitement for a new band they had not even heard yet. So that by the time SM finally got around to showcasing them (months later), it had already amassed a fairly devoted, rabit and starved fanbase. SM understands the fangirl struggle, but instead of pacifying it, it cruelly manipulates it, and feeds it just enough of the rope to hold onto. Its like an S&M relationship. In which SM is the dom who only gives the sub foreplay for ages, and waits till she is almost passed out from frustration before maybe satisfying her, if and when he feels like it. I honestly can't find non-twisted ways to describe the relationship between SM and its fans. All of the company's marketing strategies seem to be based on the pain and agony on the part of the fan. Actually, I don't know how to desciribe this company in a healthy way from any angle. The training is hell, the marketing strategies are exploitative, it bullies smaller companies... (so I've heard but lets not go into that.)

5. K-pop is so factory-assembled, so manufactured, so artificial, that it makes Western boybands look more organic than a Whole Foods aisle.
 In fact, even Western bands constructed in full view of the public on television talent shows like One Direction, still seem about a million times more organic than K-pop bands formed behind closed doors. I've tried to argue that the West is not so different because X-factor which formed bands like One Direction, Little Mix, Emblem 3 and Fifth Harmony are doing the exact same thing as SME does. Its just that X Factor's factory lines are shorter and swifter; by the time the TV season is over, the band is already prepared to record their first album, like Fifth Harmony which already has a single out, though it was only formed less than a year ago. I have tried to make this argument and even as I said it I knew it was a weak one. Its not fair to compare them because the X-factor process only lasts about two months at most, while these Koreans can train from anywhere between 4 to 7 years, before even getting a whiff of a debut. So the factory process isn't a little longer, its a LOT longer and a LOT more rigorous and thats too big a point to ignore.

There can be no doubt that there is a sense of factory assembling when it comes to the groups that debuted. You can look at EXO's pre-debut videos to find completely unpolished boys with no timing and who could hardly dance. Their faces look a little greasy, the haircuts are awful, the clothes are ill-fitting. Fast forward to post-debut videos and you literally cannot believe they are the same people. It looks like they were dissassembled, polished, then re-assembled. For some of them, it looks like they were re-assembled with different parts. A key example of this is Lay. As a child he was chubby and that chubbiness led him into his training period at SM. But by the time he debuted it looked like he had plastic surgery. Except it wasnt surgery, but a drastic diet SM put him under which meant that he lost a ton of weight. Harsh? Maybe, but the kid has never looked better to be fair. When he lost all that baby fat in his cheeks, he was rewarded with deeper dimples than he had before and you could see his smooth collarbones. There are other members in EXO who I can see had actual surgery done, though. I don't wanna call any names though.

6. Appropriation of Black culture galore!
Ok, to be fair, most artists are influenced by black culture in some way because most of the genres created in the 20th century had black roots. From blues, to rock, to rap, to reggae, to R&B. Chances are if you're a singer, you owe a lot of what and how you sing to someone black. Allow it. But I've never seen such blatant copying of black culture in my life as is practised in K-pop. Its like they lifted rap, hip hop and R&B wholesale from America, and dropped them into Seoul. They didn't even say "well, lets fuse this music with some traditional South Korean music, to make it syncretic and like a new form of music that is all their own." Nope. These pop bands just ran with the American formula of making songs. The exact same style of rapping. The exact same type of melisma, the same type of riffs. Actually its so bad that when you hear a K-pop artist sing an R&B song, you also imagine hearing the American lyrics that must have existed on the demo before they turned it into Korean lyrics. A key example of this is EXO's What Is Love. 

You can hear the Boyz II Men influence all over the track, especially in the opening bass voice saying "Girl...I can't explain how I feel..." , the cadence and rhythm of which sounds like the "Girl...I'm here for you..." that Boyz II Men say in the middle of "End of the Road." I tried to play "What Is Love" to my sister and she made me stop a minute into the song because she said it sounded too much like Boyz II Men. EXO's lead vocalist Chen has even admitted that his one of his favourite artists is Boyz II Men, but you could have figured that out even if he hadn't said so because his melismatic ability and riffs at the end of songs are clearly influenced by Boyz II Men. Even his hand gestures when he's getting into the riff look like Boyz II Men's.
Now I don't have a problem with people of other races liking and respecting black culture, because a lot of black culture has in turn been influenced by white European culture. I mean, R&B was still created in white-majority America. Most of black music is sung in English, which is a European language at the end of the day. But what black culture tends to do quite well is take something from the culture they encounter, and make something new out of it, while not disrespecting the culture they took it from. K-pop doesn't seem to get this unwritten rule. They just copied and pasted black music, and didn't take any of the genres any further musically. K-pop is just a mish-mash of Black music sung by Koreans. It's almost karaoke-like in its total plagiarism. A huge criticism people have noted repeatedly is that K-pop doesn't seem to know how to create, that there is nothing original about it. I disagree. I don't think its that they don't know how to be original, I think the companies are not even trying. They have been so obsessed and influenced by America that they figure anything it has produced is the best and can't be improved upon. They are not syncretising/evolving the sound further, they are just taking the business side of it into new heights (pop up stores, photo books with the album, etc). And thats great for the economy-side, but it does nothing for the music. The root problem is that K-pop is motivated by business interests, by companies like SM, and not by the musical artists themselves. So the music is not the central interest, money is. No way are companies gonna mess with a set formula of making music when they see its been so profitable in the States. Its just a pity to me though, because South Korea seems like it has so much culture and such a long history, and it seems like the pop industry has pushed that and all its indigenous music forms aside, in order to reproduce something foreign. I wish there was more collaboration or merging between the foreign and the indigenous, I guess.

7. Fetishisation and Romanticisation of Black Culture
So when K-pop is not blatantly plagiarising black culture with no regard of how to evolve it, it is fetishizing black culture. They say things like "If we can be born again, we want to be born as African-Americans and do their music." Yes, a K pop group, B.A.P, actually said that. 
 I can't blame this on SM as much as TS Entertainment (which manages B.A.P.) because SM tends to stick to more bubblegum pop whereas TSE are more rap and hip hop centred, and it is from those centres that the romanticisation of black people seem to come from the most. A good example of the fetishization is BAP's "Badman" video. 

That's right. Black aggressive thugs. White police. A shootout in an alley by black people. Its like they wanted to see how many black stereotypes they could cram into one video. A lot of people said it denigrated black people because it contributed to a narrative which says blacks are always badmen, thugs, hooligans etc. But I don't think they meant to be disrespectful to black people, I genuinely think they thought it was a great idea to use black people as the hooligans because tit would seem more "authentic" and because they love their fighting spirit and refusal to meet conformity. In other words, they were going for a Black Panther-esque feel, where the militant black is seen as a great symbol of resistance to oppression, rather than a lawless 50-Cent type gangster. The problem here, is that they failed on that count and anyway both of these are stereotypes of black people. One may seem more noble than the other, but both restrict 3 dimensional images of my race. 
And I can't stand it when people of other races say stuff like "I wish I was black". Trust me, its hard being black. You get paid less, respected less, and in every hierarchy you constantly are placed at the bottom. It is rough. My oppression is not a play thing or something to make your Korean hip hop video seem more legit. This is not a game. No one needs the romanticisation of an incredibly tough life. We aren't strong and fierce because we want to be, we are resilient because we HAVE to be., in order to survive And at the end of the day, after they say they wanna be black, they are still not-black, live in a rich, Korean-dominent, fairly homogeneous society and will never suffer the kind of discrimination we as black people faces as a minority in the Americas which is dominated by other races.

8. Despite all of its issues, K pop still has a lot of value, and the Hallyu wave is going to take over the world, led by SM and its latest act EXO.
Its safe to say K pop has perfected the entertainment company business model. Like I said, the company which started the K pop wave is the example all subsequent entertainment companies now follow in South Korea. But globally, it will probably become the model to follow too. It makes a lot of sense to train people from the inside, because it probably minimises the chances of a star fucking up after they become big. And if they do, they can't say they weren't taught better. One can only wonder if Harry Styles had been put into a SM-training-style programme if he could have avoided the scandal at 16 of a romance with a woman double his age or thought better of all those dumb tattoos. Though I'd like to see it less rigorous and cruel over here, I hope more Western entertainment companies adopt the model of training before stars debut. Train them not only in singing and dancing, but how to conduct yourself in public, how to speak in interviews, etc.When you are so involved in a star's development, you see it as insurance and you can be more confident that the star will succeed.
While its on its way to ruling the world business-wise in entertainment, K-pop has been a little slower in dominating the world music-wise. While its very popular in East Asia, especially in Japan, its not managed to spread across to the West so well.With the exception of Gangnam Style by Psy, of course. Everyone says that was the sign that the Hallyu Wave was taking over but in what way? As a serious music genre or as something to laugh at? Because that song was nothing more of a joke to many in the West, instead of the social comment that it was meant to be. No, I don't think Psy succeeded in bringing K-pop as a legitimate genre to the West. K-pop in the West is still largely seen to be a small, weird niche followed by a small but devoted community, which mostly dwells on tumblr or forums like Omonatheydidnt. K-pop still has a long way to go in the West which still exoticizes East Asia loads. But I think they can do it and once again it will be led by SM Entertainment, because it has debuted the boy band to end all boy bands: EXO. An entire post about them is coming up in the following days. That's right, this group is so massive it requires its own post. Its gonna be another long essay-type entry. But its gonna be good; I've spent a long time writing and I'm in the process of editing it now.

So will I be getting into K pop anytime soon? Nope. I only like one band so I can't say I particularly care for the whole genre, and I don't know why, but every other K pop group I've tried to get into annoys me to no end. All the girl groups sound too sickeningly sweet, all the solo artists bore me to tears, and all the other boy groups try wayyyy too hard to be urban and black-cool. I don't know why I can stand EXO, but I do my best to explain why I like them in the next post. It should be up by Monday.


*I call myself a Non-Western Westerner cuz I live in the Western Hemisphere but I don't belong to what people refer to as the "evil imperial" West because they usually mean USA or Western Europe. I live on a Caribbean island in the middle of nowhere and I can't be blamed for imperialism and hegemony. Allow it.

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