Turn your clocks back to July 15, 2012. A little-known singer outside the Korean peninsula, Psy, has just released his 18th K-Pop single, Gangnam Style. The song debuts at number one on South Korea's Gaon Chart and becomes an instant hit overnight, but few expected it to reach the virality and infamy it would achieve in the coming months.
The song was a social commentary on the lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul and was culturally relevant in South Korea but its undeniable humor and catchy choreography would catapult it to popularity across the planet, in the process making it the first ever music video in the internet's history to touch the hallowed 1 billion mark on YouTube.
While that landmark is no longer special - 100 songs can boast of reaching the count - the fact that the honor went to a K-Pop song is a testament to how much the culture has permeated the global conscious since its debut in the early 90s.
Gangnam Style raced two North American megahits in the form of Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe and Justin Bieber's Baby to the mark, and in the months after its release, clocked over 9 million views a day. The video has since touched the 3 billion view mark and held the record for the most-viewed YouTube video ever until it was recently surpassed by the likes of Luis Fonsi's Despacito and Wiz Khalifa's See You Again.
One cannot understate the sheer virality of Gangnam Style outside Korea. It was being played at weddings, birthday parties, political rallies, and even religious celebrations across the globe, and as it continued to gain popularity and ubiquity, its dance moves were attempted by the likes of US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who went as far as to hail it as a 'force for world peace.'
K-Pop had long been a fringe genre etched in the minds of a few fanatics but Gangnam Style managed to bring it right under the spotlight, drawing attention to Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, which refers to the popularity of South Korean culture in other countries. There never was, or never likely will be, a song that will raise the profile of K-pop in such a manner ever again; after all, it did beat the view count of the previous most-viewed K-pop video on YouTube, Girls' Generation's Gee in just 1.5 months.
South Korea, unlike its more authoritarian neighbor North Korea, has constantly strived to ensure it's keeping up with the times, technologically and culturally. The country's reformation of its democratic government in 1987, along with the subsequent modernization and loosening of censorship laws, set the stage for K-pop to become what it is today.
The government of South Korea has encouraged the genre ever since its inception. To them, it is one of the country's biggest cultural exports, and why shouldn't it be. K-pop was on proud display at the opening ceremony of this month's Winter Olympics, with a select few songs given the honor of being played as the athletes marched during the Parade of Nations. As far as seeking an international audience goes, it does not get better than this.
Its rise in popularity across the globe has seen the country's music industry rake in an impressive $5 billion a year, putting it eighth on International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's (IFPI) list of most valuable industries in the world in 2016.
Hallyu is showing no signs of stopping. Since the Wonder Girls became the first K-pop group to debut in the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2009 with Nobody, South Korean artists have made an appearance on at least eight further occasions.
Seven-man BTS - which stands for Bangtan Sanyeodan - is one such band whose star has seen a meteoric rise, with 2017 arguably the best year in their history by a comfortable margin. They had two songs hit the Billboard Hot 100 - DNA and a remix of their song Mic Drop by Steve Aoki - a performance at the American Music Awards, a New Year's performance in Times Square, and even made it to the cover of American Billboard magazine for the month of February.
The band's popularity, in part, is because their act challenges the traditional boy-band and K-pop stereotypes. While they do boast of the traditional coordinated clothing accessories and excellently choreographed dance moves, their songs level criticism against an outdated educational system, materialism, and the media, and how the younger generation is constantly being gamed by corporate greed and capitalism. It's little wonder then, that millennials are thronging to them.
K-pop is probably the only music genre which can be traced back to exactly one point in time - the emergence of Seo Taiji & Boys in 1992. Before K-pop, Korean TV was punctuated in the 1980s by ballad singers such as Lee Gwang-jo, Lee Moon-se, and Lee Young-hoon. But 1987 was a tipping point, with the year marking the beginning of a rapid expansion of the country's radio broadcasting.
Seo Taiji & Boys revolutionized the genre of K-pop quite literally. At a time when national T.V networks were available in 99% of the country's homes and talent shows were all the rage, giving an opportunity for talented groups to introduce themselves to the nation, the trio of Seo Taiji & Boys debuted in MBC's (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation) talent show with their song Nan Arayo.
With the show being televised on one of the country's leading television and radio network company, it was a chance to make it big. But the group scored the lowest rating from the jury. However, the song's new jack-swing-inspired beats and memorable chorus meant it became an instant hit. It went on top of South Korea's singles charts for 17 weeks, a record which it would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No.1 streak in the country's history. It would pave the way for other songs of the same format to make its way into the scene.
The potential was clear and soon, production companies were set up to exploit what was undoubtedly going to be the next big thing. In 1995, South Korean record producer Lee Soo-man founded S.M Entertainment. Former Seo Taiji & Boys member Yang Hyun-suk formed YG Entertainment in 1996, and K-pop singer Park Jin-young established JYP Entertainment in 1997. They went on to become the three biggest companies in terms of sales and revenue and came to be referred to in the country as the 'Big Three.'
Inspired by Seo Taiji & Boys, soon, idol bands consisting of young boys and girls were forming to cater to the young, growing teenage audience. H.O.T, who came out with songs such as Candy, We are the future, I Yah!, and Outside Castle, saw success in the late 90s, and following in their footsteps were hip-hop and R&B artists like Yoo Seung-jun, Jinusean, Deux, 1TYM, and Drunken Tiger.
But what is it exactly what makes K-pop so addictive? It feels like the genre has been tailored to draw audiences in and hook them with its catchy, fun, infectious, and memorable style, as well as its often-addictive, repetitive lyrics, and smooth transitory dance moves. It also helps that most songs have these few phrases of English that help international audiences latch on to the song and then proceed to hum to its rhythm.
The addition of English lyrics, in part, is influenced by Koreans who had studied in the U.S and took full advantage of their English fluency to incorporate it into their songs. As the genre has tried to reach more varied fanbases, the shift to an increasing number of English words has been visible as well. In 1995, the percentage of song titles using English in the top 50 charts was just 8%. This then fluctuated between 30% in 2000 and 18% in 2005, before reaching a peak of 44% in 2010.
Unlike most other genres where musicians need that one moment of inspiration or several jamming sessions to come up with their next song, everything about a K-pop song is factory manufactured; controlled to a T by studio executives so they have the perfect singing and perfect coordinated dancing that are visible in every immaculately produced video with its high production value.
If you've watched any of the videos, you will appreciate how perfect their routine is. The singers often switch their positions while singing and dancing by making all their moves in perfect synchrony - a strategy that is referred to as Jaribaggum. The routine also often involves what's called a 'point dance,' made up of hooking and repetitive movements that matches the characteristics of the lyrics of the song. That is, to choreograph a dance for the song, the writers need to take into account the tempo of the song.
Such perfection is not conjured out of thin air. The song 2009 song Gee by idol band Girls Generation was a culmination of the nine members going through a combined, grueling training period of 52 years beginning from their early childhood.
The studios are aware of how cutthroat the industry is. According to Vox, children as young as 10-12 are introduced to the K-pop regimen after passing highly-competitive auditions. Training involves attending special schools where they take specifically-tailored singing and dancing lessons, learning how to behave in public and in front of audiences in preparation for their lives as a pop star, spending hours every day in daily rehearsals, and performing in weekend music shows. However, none of this guarantees success. A combination of talent and sheer luck means that if a child is one of a distinct few, their studios will place them into an idol group or launch them as a solo artist.
Because of how much control they exert over the lives of these idol groups, these production companies are directly responsible for the genre's global image. The amount of money involved also means that these industries have come to be incredibly exploitative and almost downright abusive towards its young proteges. Studios often make young performers sign what has come to be known as 'slave contracts,' which are long-term contracts which dictate their private behavior, public conduct, and even dating life.
The recent public outcry has meant that many studios have agreed to contract reform but it's rare that the actual effect of the pressures and stipulations of these stars' relentless lifestyle is visible to the public eye. One such instance was the death of Kim Jong-hyun of K-pop group SHINee, who suffered from depression and committed suicide last December. The neverending performances, TV appearances, commercials, and meet-and-greets inevitably take a toll and lead to a burnout, or in cases such as Jong-hyun's, have much more serious consequences.
Despite the obvious pitfalls, becoming a K-pop star is still considered a very big honor in the country. In addition to the studio auditions, walk-in auditions are now popping up all over South Korea, giving any young hopefuls their own opportunity to seize stardom in a relatively less-pressurized environment.
A new wave of TV shows, which can be likened to American Idol or X-Factor, have also begun cropping up, and are providing competition to the monopoly of studios who, so far, have had the best selection of the talent out there, leaving executives fretting. To them, it's not just a matter of money, which while important, comes second to the fact that they view these shows as producing 'second-hand' talent which infringes on the purity and perfectionism that they are constantly striving to achieve.
These new shows have proven to be a great launching platform for budding stars and provide them with a much greater exposure in a much shorter span of time, circumventing the studios' rigorous and taxing vetting procedures altogether. It's not that its a less honorable way of achieving the stardom either. To many, winning these shows makes for a glorious addition to their CV and the fandom that comes along with the winners' medal is no less passionate or vociferous than those that accompany the studio-generated stars.
The fans' role in making the genre the phenomenon it is today is a massive one as well. K-pop fanbases are some of the most impassioned ones on the planet and throng in the tens of thousands to their idols' concerts. A live performance can often make or break a group, and as such, they give it the attention it deserves, putting in hundreds of hours of practice for just one song.
It helps that the fans have perfected the art of the fan chant, in which fans in a live studio audience or those in live performances shout alternate fan chants over the musical intros to the songs, giving these performances a slightly ethereal feel to them; audience participation in concerts are often what make them special, and K-pop fans take it to the next level.
K-pop's slow but undeniable rise into the global stage has been punctuated by decades of tireless dedication and preparation by countless artists who have continuously innovated and experimented to get the genre to what it is today. The next generation of stars is already setting a trail, deviating from the traditional and stereotypical portrayal that has proved to be immensely successful so far to switch to a more serious tone to strike a note with the current generation.
The genre's star is on the rise and if current trends are any indication, that should be the case for the foreseeable future.
If you're still not impressed by K-pop, we think you should take a look at this video to see the dedication that goes into a performance:
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