The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine


On Music

How Korea mints its pop stars.


From the cover of The Birth of Korean Cool.

Korean pop’s star-making process has suffered slings and arrows from the Western press—some allege that it amounts to modern-day slavery. It’s true that K-pop labels recruit budding stars and bind them to contracts that can last as long as thirteen years. But Korea had no other way of building a pop industry. It had to create it from the ground up.

Most famous rock bands formed independently, without the help of a producer or record label. This was never going to happen in Korea. Kids didn’t have the time to jam with friends. They were studying—all the time—or helping with the family business. Organically formed bands could experiment with new sounds or improvise or goof off, but Koreans had no such luxury. In the unforgiving Confucian culture, a young person who screws up has a hard time getting back on track. Until recently, when K-pop proved profitable, no Korean would have staked his future on music.

Lee Moon-won, a culture critic, said, “Koreans spend the same effort on everything, whether it’s college entrance exams or an office job. Korea stands for hard work.” Accordingly, a conventional K-pop contract lasts seven to thirteen years; half that time is spent training the stars. Shin Hyung-kwan, the general manager of MNET, Korea’s version of MTV, explained, “It takes time to see who has hidden talents. It’s one thing to pick some person and say you’re going to make them a star, but you have to see if they get along with each other and in society at large. If you are not careful, the whole thing can be spoiled. Westerners do not understand. The performers could get into an accident, some kind of trouble.”

Lee offered insight into the necessity of the K-pop star factory system. In the United States, he explained, the pool of hopefuls is big enough that a kind of natural triage occurs. But “the human resource pool in Korea is small … They have to take measures to be competitive internationally.”

A staggering 4 percent of the population of South Korea auditioned in 2012 for Superstar K, Korea’s biggest televised singing competition. That’s 2.08 million would-be K-pop stars competing in a single year in a country with a population of fifty million. By contrast, even the behemoth American Idol only has about 80,000 contestants in a given year, amounting to a minuscule 0.03 percent of the U.S. population.

The K-pop model requires music companies to invest a lot of money up front for a very distant return. It’s a paternalistic system that disciplines its stars. This isn’t just a matter of ensuring that band members get along; it also means steering them away from drunk driving, drugs, or sex scandals. K-pop star training is an education of the whole person.

But the biggest and most obvious difference, Shin said, is in the quality of the dancing. “In the United States, with the popular bands, the choreography is very different.” And by different he means bad: “If you look at New Kids on the Block, for example, the members are not really synchronized. And in Justin Timberlake’s [performances], the dancers are a bit off. Dancers in American bands are freer and go by feeling. The United States doesn’t have singers who dance really well, unless it’s someone like Michael Jackson, and that kind of talent comes around once in a hundred years.”

Dancing well isn’t enough. K-pop band members must dance in perfect synch, like clockwork. If you’ve ever seen a K-pop video, you’ll notice that while no one is Baryshnikov, they do have split-second precision. To achieve that, you have to put the band together while they’re still young and hold off their debut until they’ve learned to act as one.

To see just how manufactured K-pop is, consider that one Korean television program started four simultaneous and separate K-pop bands with a color theme. Collectively, they’re called the Color of K-pop. Two are girl groups: Dazzling Red and Mystic White. The other two, Dramatic Blue and Dynamic Black, are boy bands. Members wear color-corresponding outfits, and each band has its own character: Mystic White is innocent, Dazzling Red is sassy, et cetera.

If this sounds like a marketing plan straight out of the Gap, that’s exactly the effect the producers are going for. You don’t need to know what the individual singers’ back stories might be—who grew up in a trailer park, who started singing gospel in her church. How interesting is a twenty-year-old’s biography, anyway?

K-pop labels love stars, but not superstars: they don’t want to get into a situation in which one band member becomes indispensable. Bands are treated like consumer products from the beginning. Producers design the band they want—down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign—before they even audition members.

* * *

Can K-pop conquer the United States? I asked Martina and Simon Stawski, an ebullient young Canadian couple and self-professed K-pop fanatics. Theirs is probably the best English-language site for analyses and reviews of Korean culture.

Psy, they believe, is popular because he’s funny, but humor isn’t always the right approach. “Sometimes bands will try to go for humor in their videos, but it’s ehgyo [cutesy baby talk] humor. Ehgyo humor is not easily understood [outside Asia].” She’s right—it’s not. Ehgyo is a sort of setup in which a girl infantilizes herself as a means of flirtation; you can’t tell whether she is talking to her older brother or her boyfriend. It’s not quite French-style sexy-baby, like France Gall or Brigitte Bardot. It’s more innocent—picture a petulant child.

Martina had some practical suggestions for broadening K-pop bands’ appeal in the United States. “They’d have to not use a lot of makeup for guys,” she said. “The clothes can’t be too tight … some of the bands [have] too many members.”

There’s also the matter of Korea’s squeamish youth protection laws, instituted in the nineties, partly to clamp down on the sexual exploitation of children and partly to protect children from corruptive material. Record labels assign strict age limits on albums, sometimes for odd reasons. “Mirotic,” a song by the boy band TVXQ!, was originally only for purchase by those over eighteen because of the lyric “I’ve got you under my skin”—it had to be changed to “I’ve got you under my sky” to be legally sold to a younger audience. The penalties for being consigned to the nineteen+ age rating are high; it means the song in question gets no radio or TV play. When Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way Ball” toured in Seoul, her concert was limited to the nineteen+ crowd with another turn of the screw: anyone eighteen and under was barred from entry even if accompanied by an adult.

If I had to pick a male band that had a good chance of crossover success, it would be Big Bang—especially one member, G-Dragon, whose real name is Kwon Ji-young. (Dakota Fanning is reportedly a fan.) G-Dragon was in training for about eleven years before setting foot on a public stage. When I first saw him perform, I didn’t know what to make of him; he arrived solo, which for some reason made me worried for him. He has a slight build with soft features, his eyes rimmed with tons of black eyeliner—more than I used to wear even during the years when I listened to the Smiths and read Nietzsche.

He bellowed to the audience what the non-English-speaking world believes to be a universal cry: “Whassup!” Then he led the audience in a neo-Dadaist chorus.

G-DRAGON (in English): When I say GET YOUR, you say CRAYON! GET YOUR!

Weirdly enough, Korea didn’t even have crayons when I was growing up. It was a source of some wistfulness in my household, actually. The closest substitute was Cray-pas—a more sophisticated pastel cousin. I wasn’t sure I was hearing G-Dragon correctly until I saw that the giant screen behind him was showing images of crayons. And then he launched into one of his biggest hits: “Crayon.” Trust me. It’s a good song.

This essay is adapted from The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong. The Birth of Korean Cool copyright © 2014 by Euny Hong. The trade paperback original published August 5, 2014, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.

Euny Hong’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Europe, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, The Boston Globe, and The Forward. She is also the author of the novel Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners. She is fluent in English, French, German, and Korean.