Annyeong! (As “Arrested Development” fans know well, that’s Korean for “Hello.”) I’m Sam Lansky, music writer and K-pop neophyte, though I’m rapidly getting sucked in to the glittering, glamorous world of Korean pop, which is gaining traction with Stateside audiences.
But are American listeners really ready for the high-octane sonic explosion that K-pop is packing? In this week’s “Pop Think,” I’m exploring whether K-pop is all hype, or whether the invasion really is imminent and why K-pop fans are devoted beyond compare.
K-pop group 2NE1, Credit: Getty Images
2011 was a huge year for K-pop, not just in Asia, but globally. K-pop superstars Girls Generation released their single “The Boys” last month in both English and Korean to rave reviews, while MTV Iggy crowned fellow K-pop A-listers 2NE1 the Best New Band in the World this week (after Diplo lauded 2NE1 for their innovative style), and will.i.am announced his intention to turn them into global superstars. Meanwhile, Wonder Girls are gearing up for another crack at U.S. success, after their crossover attempt in 2009 with a spot supporting the Jonas Brothers on tour ended with their debut single, “Nobody,” peaking at No. 76 on the Hot 100 (making Wonder Girls the first Korean group to ever enter the chart). Due in 2012 for Wonder Girls is their own movie on Teen Nick and an entirely English-language album, helmed by major hitmakers such as Darkchild and Claude Kelly. They’ve even hired Beyoncé’s choreographer and Katy Perry’s stylist to give their image a boost. The industry is taking note: Billboard launched the Korea K-Pop Hot 100 chart in August 2011 to document sales, which Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s director of charts, called “a milestone event.”
It’s no surprise that K-pop is picking up speed: As a form, if I can generalize, it’s breathtaking, packed with irresistible pop hooks that get stuck in your brain even if you don’t speak Korean, meticulously synchronized choreography and uniformly high in production values. It isn’t just a sonic form; it’s visually arresting, too, where the videos and performances play as much a role in staging the spectacle as the music itself does. K-pop functions at breakneck speed, integrating influences from glacial European house music, the sultry sounds of American R&B, and J-pop’s hyperactive electro-crunch. Pop this dizzyingly innovative hasn’t been seen since the heyday of Britain’s Girls Aloud, another group lauded for their creativity and eclecticism. K-Pop groups are frequently large in numbers, too, with some groups featuring upwards of a dozen members, which makes their skill with dancing in faultless simultaneity all the more mesmerizing.
+ Read more about K-pop’s crossover after the jump.
To dig a little deeper into the world of K-pop, I turned to an expert tour guide on the genre: Jacques Peterson, who writes the snarktastic and deliciously hyperbolic site The Prophet Blog, which began as a pop and R&B blog but has evolved to include extensive coverage of K-pop. (When I first voiced resistance to K-pop because the lyrics are in Korean, Proph, as readers have affectionately christened him, pointed out that recent Top 10 pop singles in the United States have contained lyrics such as “la la la la la” and “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh,” which, admittedly, made my concerns over the language barrier look rather silly.)
“The talent and skill of K-pop artists are unrivaled when it comes to pop acts,” Jacques told me. “Nowadays, record labels have gotten rid of artist development to save money, but Korea has done the exact opposite: They sign artists when they’re young and train them for years in singing, dancing and performing, molding them into true entertainers. It’s like the Jackson 5 or a modern-day ’Mickey Mouse Club.’ They deliver a quality of performance that you just won’t find anywhere else.”
And with the high-caliber productions comes a high caliber of fandom, including fans who are so rabidly impassioned about K-pop that they put Stateside stans to shame. Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters might be ferocious in their zeal about their beloved Mother Monster, but they’re up against some tough competition with fans of Super Junior-M, a Chinese-Korean subgroup of members from K-pop boy band Super Junior. When their label, SM Entertainment, announced that they were adding a 14th member to the group, more than 1,000 fans protested outside the label’s headquarters, chanting “13!” and singing Super Junior songs. Rumors continued to leak that SM was adding an extra member, so Super Junior fans purchased nearly 60,000 shares in SM Entertainment (amassing 0.3 percent of the company’s entire stock), and released a media alert that they were taking legal action to keep the label from tampering with the group’s lineup.
If legal tomfoolery underwhelms, K-pop stars TVXQ prove that their listeners’ passion can be medically hazardous. Back in 2006, group member Yunho was busy promoting the group’s third album, when an “anti-fan” (or “hater”) snuck backstage and served Yunho a poisoned beverage, forcing Yunho to be hospitalized for several days and, in my opinion, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “drunk on haterade.”
But then, pop this good invites complete insanity, from all sides. Even if you’re, like me, prone to linguistic xenophobia and prefer only to focus on acts that sing in English, take a look at the video for 2NE1’s English-language version of “Can’t Nobody,” or Girls Generation’s for “The Boys,” and it’s clear to see that there’s a level of showmanship that’s absolutely mad in its over-the-top splendor.
Does that mean that K-pop can actually catch on with mainstream audiences? It’s already begun to, as MTV Iggy’s recent crowning of 2NE1 proves, following August’s news of their collaboration with will.i.am. Jacques, too, is putting his money on 2NE1: “There may be better vocalists and dancers in K-pop than 2NE1, but nobody has a look tailor-made for America like they do,” he said. “They have a very mainstream, Western sound, and a fierce, trendy style that will appeal to audiences new to K-pop. The only way I can see other K-pop artists truly crossing over internationally is if 2NE1 breaks down the door first.”
For my part, I’m going hard for the glamorous gals of Girls Generation after resisting for a few days following the release of their latest single “The Boys.” Once I finally broke down and watched it, I found myself flabbergasted by how good it was. Since then, I’ve probably watched it more than 50 times.
I may not be poisoning their rivals anytime soon, but still, you can consider me a K-pop convert.