Given its mainstream popularity in South Korea, k-pop is still relatively uncommon in Western countries. However, the music genre has its breakthroughs here and there; the most recent was Korean boy band BTS’s appearance at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards. K-pop is widely known for its audiovisual elements that take place in their music videos, which sets them apart from other artists around the world.
Back in 2012, Korean pop artist Psy rocked the globe when the hit song “Gangnam Style” was released. Not only did the song’s catchy rhythm have English speaking listeners singing along with the wavy chorus, “hey sexy lady,” but the song’s music video entertained people with its iconic dance.
The dance went viral and became one a pop culture hit alongside American dances like the “superman,” “cat daddy” and “dougie.” “Gangnam Style” is arguably one of the k-pop songs that put the genre on the radar for most western countries, specifically the United States.
In addition, 2012 introduced the k-pop group Girls Generation on the David Letterman show. Their performance of “The Boys” wooed the American crowd. But since Psy and Girls Generation, k-pop has become one of those niche branches of music that only “that one friend” listens to, but everyone should dabble in k-pop.
K-pop puts an intense focus on dancing and performance, which is why k-pop music videos are the best in the world. Every k-pop music video includes an iconic dance. Psy mentioned that he had five other hit songs and dances in South Korea before “Gangnam Style,” but the previous five just never became a global phenomenon.
Not only do k-pop music videos have iconic dances — most k-pop is done in music groups instead of a single artist. Each k-pop group brings a synchronized dance to the video, which is a pleasing aesthetic to the eye and it’s fun to watch. For example, the music video for “Dumb Dumb” by girl group Red Velvet has dance blocking that makes viewers feel like joining in.
The special effects and colors in the music video are reminiscent of American pop art except for the fact that everything moves and there’s music included. The song also includes some verses paying homage to Michael Jackson and references plenty of his songs. In fact, many k-pop songs and music videos have elements borrowed and then adapted from the American music industry.
Another popular song to take a look at is “Shangri-La” by VIXX. The song and video have completely different vibes than “Dumb Dumb,” and lack any English words, sticking only to Korean. Even though the song is performed in another language, it’s still enjoyable to watch the music video and feel the rhythm of the song. Afterall, one doesn’t need to understand the language of a song to grasp the message it’s trying to get across.
“Shangri-La” is an emotional song, and Western fans can understand that by the tone the Korean boy band sings in, and how they perform as a unit in their music video. When each member of the band is depicted in solo scenes, each guy is in a setting that portrays solitude, which includes one member facing a solitary deer, another sitting in solitude with the moon in the background and another singing alone while surrounded by flowers. A combination of the video, tone of voice and song beat allows non-Korean fans to connect with the song.
Some k-pop songs are also known for conveying positive messages for their listeners. For example, the music video for “Just Right” by boy group GOT7 opens with a young girl crying in front of her bedroom mirror because she’s insecure with her image.
The beat starts while at the same time the drawer in front of her shakes, she opens it and members of the band appear in miniature form and sing to her, telling her that she is perfect just the way she is. The song is playful while at the same time projecting a message about beauty that is uncommon in western music.
Although k-pop is amazing in all ways as an art, the industry is filled with controversy. Potential k-pop stars have to endure a sharp lifestyle change when training to become an artist. They are groomed to be the best artists in the world from a very young age unlike in other parts of the world where artists are more often discovered rather than trained.
To become a k-pop star, potential artists must become trainees at entertainment agencies. Auditioning for an agency is stressful because of the hundreds of applicants that are competing against each other. Once trainees are selected they are educated in singing, acting and dancing. Trainees endure long work hours and often times they have to balance five- to six-hour work schedules with their schooling.
Unfortunately, entertainment agencies see their trainees as expendable since there are so many applicants, so any slip up can lead to termination from the company. People enduring the process usually also go through training that forces strict diets to maintain a “good looking” body image, and they are trained in dealing with publicity and potential drama.
Nonetheless, those trying to become k-pop stars will go through the two- to four-year training process because becoming famous is their life goal. Attempting k-pop fame is a respectable pursuit, and k-pop stars have indeed captured fans around the world.
American celebrity Emma Stone has said that k-pop is “a global phenomenon,” and TBS late-night show host Conan O’Brien has even gone on to make his own k-pop music video with k-pop legend Jay Park called “Fire.” If you’re not listening to k-pop, I suggest you start now and hop on the bandwagon of the performance empire.