What Is It With K-Pop?

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Aruna Balasubramanian

Before the coronavirus, I scoffed at K-pop, the genre of popular music originating in South Korea. During quarantine, my perspective changed dramatically. I wouldn’t yet consider myself a K-pop fan, but now I appreciate K-pop, and have a newfound understanding as to why it has a huge global fan base. This article is being written with the K-pop skeptics in mind, with the goal of hopefully opening their eyes to understand the value of this musical genre.

In November 2019, back when still I woke up at 6 am to go to school in person, and teenage sleep deprivation was the biggest controversy in the school district, I considered (but never went through with) writing an article about why people like K-pop.

I contemplated interviewing some of my friends who are K-pop fans because I wanted to understand why they liked it. I just didn’t get it. When COVID-19 hit, and we all got sent home, I still marveled at K-pop fans.

During lockdowns, something that kept me entertained was playing Just Dance 2020. Oddly enough, I found that my favorite song on the game was “Kill This Love” by the Blackpink girl group. I remember pretending that I didn’t really like the song, because I was shy to admit that I had a fondness for K-pop.

As the lockdown extended from two weeks to the entire school year, my boredom increased exponentially. I have no clue how this happened, but I fell into a Blackpink hole on the Internet. I started listening to “Kill This Love,” then “Whistle,” then more obscure songs like “Don’t Know What to Do” and “Stay.” The songs were always upbeat, even when I was feeling upset by being stuck at home.

There were some things that still confused me about K-pop. Why are there so many girl/boy groups? Why do artists do elaborate dances and try to sing at the same time? How come the members within a group always look similar to their group mates?

What I didn’t understand at first is that K-pop is nothing like the American music industry. In Korea, unlike the United States, singers don’t become famous by gradually rising to fame through their own natural talent. In Korea, music is manufactured.

Teenagers sign on to contracts with huge music-making corporations as teenagers, and the companies train them in dancing, singing/rapping, and endurance. Only the best trainees are picked to debut as K-pop idols, the companies then manufacture bands by pairing trainees with people they have never met before. Some bands, such as Psy are exceptions to this pattern.

After extensive training, the bands are finally given songs to perform. With Blackpink, the four members of the band have never contributed to the music-making process, as they simply aren’t allowed to. It’s cyclical, they get a song, and perform it. With bands like BTS, however, members contribute to the writing/producing process. Some companies allow more freedom than others, but in the end, the careers of the idols remain in the hands of their company.

Another thing to understand is that K-pop isn’t just about music. Offstage presence is quite important in K-pop culture as groups appear in their own reality TV shows, talk shows, and fan events. This industry is one that is based on performance both onstage and off.

The roles of members in K-pop groups also reveal how performance-based the bands are. When K-pop companies manufacture a band, each member gets a signature role.

For example, in Blackpink, Jennie is considered the leader and main rapper, Lisa is the main dancer, Rosé is the lead vocalist, and Jisoo is the top visual. Jisoo’s forté (self-proclaimed by her girl group) is to appeal to South Korean beauty standards and to make the group look beautiful and cool. Beauty is considered her signature, despite her also having a wonderful voice a being a great dancer.

There are very strict rules that K-pop groups have to follow in order to protect their public images as performers. For instance, the members of Blackpink aren’t allowed to drive, drink, or date. That seemed odd to me at first, and although I still don’t approve of those restrictions, I know that the reason they’re upheld is that the Blackpink women are performers, so their image matters a lot even offstage, and it needs to be protected.

And now we come to the ultimate question: why do people love K-pop so much?

K-pop has a huge global fandom because people love the over-the-top performance. The performance is so intricate that there’s a lot for fans to enjoy: the music, the dancing, the fashion, the idols’ personalities, and the music videos. K-pop isn’t about the singers or the music alone, rather, it’s about the performance and the entertainment.