Abstract: This research paper explores the beginning of South Korean Pop music first emerging in the early 1900’s and becoming a global phenomenon. It examines the correlation between lyrical, acoustical values connected to facets of Korean values and cultural influences. The background of instruments, choreography and tempos are uniquely organized giving harmony to Korean music evolution. Lastly, Korean pop has different reactions globally, as its influences in media have both benefits and criticisms.
Mirages of smoke appear from the ceiling as glittering confetti showers fall from the sky; audiences sing and dance along as the ground trembles like two tectonic plates colliding. For the first time, after decades from its origin in South Korea, K-pop has emerged as a global phenomenon. The beginnings of Korean pop can be traced back to as early as the late 1800’s. These first songs were based on popular western music; this type of music was called “changga.”
“The popularity and phenomenon of K-pop doesn’t start until the late 1990s, when Lee Soo Man formed SM Entertainment, South Korea’s largest entertainment agency” (Dara Ho June 1). During the 1800’s, these songs emphasized the Korean peoples feelings at the time, especially when there was Japanese rule and oppression, such as the song “Huimangga”, which translates to hope (Dora Ho June 1). Korean music, like American music is a sole reflection of the times, hardships, and feelings that Korean bands and artists express; in other words, these songs are an embodiment of how musicians feel.
For example, in the popular song “Gangnam Style” by PSY, talks about Gangnam, one of the most affluent upper-class areas in all of South Korea. Gangnam is similar to Wall Street of New York, where the neighborhoods are full of wealthy, privileged people, who are seen monopolizing the country’s business and economical systems. Furthermore, Shinee a South Korean artist, writes songs about religion. In his song, “Lucifer”, he talks about the devil and how society and people are trapped in demonic spells, lust, and tricks created by him. From K-pop songs, we can see that religious traditions and teachings, such as avoiding the seven deadly sins, are prevalent. Also, previously mentioned, the lyrics expressed in the song “Huimangga” show the feelings of Korean people about the rebellion at the time of Japanese imperial rule andoppression.
Korean pop songs are extremely catchy, containing harmonious vocals and melodic beats, simultaneously paired with appealing dance choreography. This type of music is also identified hand in hand with Korean drama (genre of TV). Instruments used in K-pop are vastly similar to those used in Western Hip hop including: keyboards, violins, bass, and guitars. K-POP concerts and performances involve vibrant laser and blinding strobe effects, captivating a variety of audiences from teens to adults. What is interesting is that performers and artists learn a comprehensive amount of skills. “Trainees hone their voices… shape their bodies through exercise and even study multiple languages, artists must go through rigorous training camps and auditions to gain a spot in the industry” (Dora Ho June 1).
Long periods of rigorous training are intertwined with their culture because from a young age, Korean culture emphasizes the importance of education and academics. Notable are the number of criticisms that are associated with Korean Pop: its negative portrayal of beauty, and its mimicking western society. “K-pop slavishly copies from the boy, girl- band that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan… K-pop is a blatant rip-off of successful foreign models and reflects depressingly widespread Korean ‘copy-culture’, where value comes from cloning not originality” (Kelly September 2012). K-pop is viewed as mimicking all of Western Society; it is seen as just cloning other genres of music, lacking originality. Bloggers like Kelly argue, “intellectual property and copyright are all ignored here.”
Another perception of Korean Pop music is that it is hazardous and a plague to modern society. Men (masculine women) wear long dangling earrings, rings, and brightly colored neon-yellow shorts. According to Sinnott, observation from the etic perspective, it is seen that these males often have long highlighted-layered hair, arguing that the men are starting to resemble homosexual women. “This style of dress was ubiquitous of the nightclubs in Bangkok in 2009 that catered to young queer women… Thai-language magazine frames K-pop style specially into an aesthetic for masculine-identifying women” (Megan Sinnott Dec 2012). This shows that this particular sense of subjective “questionable” male-style is dominating the globe in regions like China and even Thailand.
The majority of K-pop bands and singers dress in a flamboyant sense, and possess admirable traits such as: being tall, slender, attractive, and “flawless”. This brings forth the controversial topic of plastic surgery; in the past decade, South Koreans began engaging in plastic surgery. Globally, It’s generally believed that beauty is needed to succeed in the entertainment industry; you must be beautiful, meaning you must have the aforementioned features that define beauty (Jeannette Francis March 19). The popularity of plastic surgery has heightened to extremes in South Korean culture. It is perceived that “beauty” is not in the eye of the beholder, but there is a widespread belief in Korea that a person must be “beautiful” to succeed in life or to get potential marriage partners.
There are even stories about girls receiving plastic surgery as graduation presents, arguably shaping a generation that is fake. “South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita in the world. Some reports place the number of South Korean women who have had cosmetic procedure at one in five” (Jeannette Francis March 19). Subjective or not, it is without question, that this society is obsessed with looks and are vastly superficial. This perceived ideal of beauty is starting to affect many other societies, and could be a negative influence.
Despite the negative criticisms placed on Korean Pop, it is an amazing catalyst for economic expansion and recognition for South Korean society. “Rain’s breakthrough into the US market … “we’re targeting the global market. Rain’s too big for Asia” (SHIN Hyunjoon November 2009). As declared by Shin, Korean-pop has started to infiltrate the U.S, and even globalized in all of Asia around 2005. Rain, one of the notable Korean pop artists, appeared in Time Magazine’s top 100 Most Influential People, in as early as 2006. S.M entertainment, a music record company, has continued to receive positive trending gains in profits throughout the years. In 2008 profits were only 42.5 million; however, recently with PSY’s exposure, the revenues are exceeding 217 million dollars.
In fact, it is approximated that revenues are nearly 7 billion dollars in the South Korean music industry alone. The taxes and revenue increases are a correlation of how well Korean society is doing compared to other countries. In Korea’s globalized society, there are now more culture clubs, organized in many areas of the world. This expansion has created more communities that unite for a specific purpose, to discuss Korean Pop. During the past few months, Korean Pop music was on popular radio broadcast stations such as KIIS FM, and throughout multiple parts of the United States.
An amazing change also affects South Korean culture, the rise of nationalism. “ Since Korea has never enjoyed regional as well as international acclaim for its popular culture, the transitional recognition of its pop culture has become a point of national pride in Korea” (Jeong Suk Joo Nov 2011). This term is coined “pop nationalism.” Korean society is now using terms such as “Hallyu-wood”, the combination of the words Korean Wave and Hollywood. Koreans are celebrating their culture values and even creating a theme park similar to Hollywood with streets, hotels, and shops named after Korean stars. The government is encouraging exporting their cultural context to other parts of the world. “ … Indicate the localization strategy of transnational corporations in order to make their products more palatable to Asians by using Asian talents” (Jeong Suk Joo 2011). This promotes nationalism and ties in with South Korean economic growth as well.
The most influential breakthrough is that South Korea, once a small country non-existent to the rest of the world, is now a global power. With its great influence in media and technological advances, it is definitely recognized with popular names such as: Hyundai and Samsung. Psy, a Korean pop icon, is breaking new ground with his upbeat song “Gangnam Style”, his music video passing one billion views on YouTube. This viral video has been globally recognized and gives him tremendous success. He appears on popular television shows such as Ellen DeGeneres. Park Geun Hye, President of South Korea, even called PSY patriotic! Without a doubt, South Korea’s pop culture reflects their cultural values and society. Now spreading like wildfire, talented artists like PSY are being called global phenomenon.