Engineering Success: The Story Of South Korea’s K-Pop

Published July 16, 2015
Updated January 11, 2018
Published July 16, 2015
Updated January 11, 2018

K-Pop Today

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Source: Giphy

K-pop performers are primarily defined by their clean-cut appearance; high-quality live and recorded performances, and their strong emphasis on middle-class values. It’s the last feature that has contributed heavily to the success of K-pop in other parts of the world; these values resonate deeply with cultures other than Korea’s regardless of the language barrier.

Three major labels–S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment–compose South Korea’s music scene, and manage nearly all performers within the K-pop genre. It’s these agencies who recruit, train and oversee the “potential stars.” Conservative estimates put the cost of “creating” a new K-pop star in the millions of dollars.

K-pop as a subculture has its own etiquette and rules, not unlike contemporary fandoms in the Western world. For example, younger or newer K-pop stars are expected to bow to their elders if they encounter them at events. If they don’t–or if they behave in any way that suggests they think themselves in the same social standing as a more established artist–emerging K-pop bands can expect criticism from media and fans alike.

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Source: Giphy

Within the bands themselves, a strict hierarchy governs a given group’s behavior on and off stage. Management or age determines the group’s leader, and while the leader may be one of the older band members, it’s actually the band’s youngest member who often defines its success. Called maknae (막내), the “cuteness factor” of this bandmate is often directly proportional to how well the band is received.

Some phrases are frequently featured or repeated in K-pop songs: you probably remember oppa from Gangnam Style, which in the context of music refers to a male band member. Similarly, habae refers to a junior member or, presumably, a member with comparatively less experience than other band members.

The term sasaeng refers to terrifyingly loyal fans who stalk bandmembers. Demographically speaking, sasaeng tend to be teenage (12-18) female fans who engage in risky — sometimes outright dangerous, like hiring taxis to speed after cars with bandmates in them — activities in order to encounter their idols. In fact, as recently as 2013, the Korean government passed legislation to prevent the stalking and harassment of these celebrities in their private life— something that still doesn’t exist in the West.

While the appeal of K-pop is obvious, one does wonder if manufacturing talent comes at a price: if all future stars are trained in the same way, homogenization seems inevitable. But maybe that’s the key to K-pop’s success: capitalizing on what’s proven to earn.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.