“Let me entertain you,” Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque singer and dancer cooed these memorable words in the finale song in the 1962 movie of the same name. The South Korean government has taken this refrain to heart and is focused on developing, from the top down, an unsurpassed and profitable pop culture: K-culture. They are bent on becoming the Gypsy Rose Lee of the entertainment world!
If you are from the U.S., you are probably surprised to read that the government has a hand in developing South Korea’s pop culture. I know I was as I learned this fact on my November 2014 trip to Korea sponsored by the Academy of Korean Studies. The U.S. entertainment scene prides itself on organically producing stars that rely on their innate talent to rise to the top, without government help. How many stars do we know who have climbed to the very pinnacle of stardom from very humble beginnings? But South Korea is pursuing a different model than in the U.S., and has poured billions of dollars into their “entertainment investments.” So far, the investment in K-culture appears to be paying off.
The Korean government is not betting on just one form of contemporary culture, but is producing a variety of forms: films, television dramas, video games, and K-pop music. All have close government and industry cooperation, but let’s focus on K-pop in the rest of this blog.
Critics (mostly from the West) have said that the Koreans are not good at creativity and pop music is all about creativity and producing something new. There is a reason for the lack of an original Korean sound: the Korean pop scene got a very late start because of censorship that stifled musical talent and creativity. For a critical period during the 1970s, rock music was banned in Korea. But that has changed. Korea seems intent on drawing on their strengths of hard work, organizational skills, the close collaboration of government and private industry, and the government’s deep pockets.
Culture is such a high priority for the current President Park that, shortly after taking office in early 2013, she upgraded the pop culture division with a $1 billion investment fund. Korea also has the financial resources and organizational skills to turn the stars into world exports. The K–pop model requires music companies to invest a lot of money upfront for a very distant return. K–pop is a 5 to 7 year plan and the US model, which requires profits quickly from impatient investors, can’t do that.
K-pop is extremely popular among Korean youth and there is no shortage of aspiring stars. For example, a staggering 4% of the population of South Korea auditioned in 2012 for Superstar K, Korea’s televised singing competition. Talented young people are carefully culled and undergo grueling training for the distant hope of future stardom. The youth in very few other countries would put up with such a punishing, star-making process. Korean youth, meanwhile, are used to intense academic pressure, extreme discipline, constant criticism, and zero sleep.
South Korean music producers have found that large groups acting and dancing in unison are popular to fans. The strong collaborative values of South Koreans lend itself to this collective entertainment form, which is not as popular in the individualistic West. K–pop band members must dance in perfect sync, like clockwork, they must have split-second precision. The bands are assembled while the members are still young and hold off their debut until they’ve learned to act as one. The powerful inner drive to succeed and not let others down, pushes them to perfection. They’ll do it if it kills them.
K–pop training is an education of the whole person. Band members are taught etiquette and steered away from drunk-driving, drugs, or sex scandals. Companies want to project a “clean” image, and steer away from what they consider the raunchy behavior of stars in the West. K–pop labels love stars, but not superstars: they don’t want to get into a situation in which one band member become indispensable.
K–pop is a manufactured process; there is no other way to describe it. For example, some K–pop bands follow a specific color theme. Each band has its own color coordinated outfits, such as dramatic blue, dynamic black, mystic white, and dazzling red. The bands are prefabricated and treated like a consumer product right from the beginning.
Can K-pop conquer the United States? In my opinion, the cookie-cutter style of K-pop does not seem an ideological fit for U.S. consumers, who prefer the bawdy antics and individualistic behavior of their favorite stars. Others don’t see why breaking into the U.S. market is even a goal. With an adoring Asian market in their backyard, why worry about the U.S. market. After all, South Korea has been wildly successful in developing its own economic model, and, now its brand of culture, as well.
- What is your opinion about K-pop?
- Do you think it is popular in the U.S. or West?
Some of the information in this blog came from the following book, one I recommend.
The Birth of Korean Cool, Euny Hong, Picador, 2014
Check out the many You Tube videos of Korean performers.