Published on November 6, 2012 | by Elspeth Merry


K-pop makes its grand entrance, Gangnam Style

A Korean pop star peforming

Korean pop is gaining popularity in the UK [Flickr: danny chop]

The viral internet video, Gangnam Style, has evidently taken the world by storm.

But is the emergence of K-Pop in the UK  just a fad or will K-pop stars take over as the new pop royalty?

When I first heard the infamous Gangnam Style, I was in a room full of people, cocktail in hand, watching in bewilderment at what was going on on-screen.

Was this the alcohol tickling my vision or was there a middle-aged man doing a horse riding dance, whilst rapping in a language I couldn’t understand over a dirty club beat?

The vision was real, this was my first exposure to K-pop, a South Korean phenomenon that is crossing over into Western consciousness.

Dress classy and dance cheesy is the message, layered over hip-hop bitings, dub step strummings, sugar coated pop choruses and synchronized dances with coy winking and hand gestures.

The world of K-Pop has entranced the Asian music market and now it is set to break the Western.

The international markets

A country of less than 50 million people are churning out pop hits for more than a billion and a half other Asians.

They are becoming a pop fixture in the Japanese charts—the world’s second biggest music market behind the US.

As well as huge popularity in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines, with the BBC claiming it contributes two $2 billion a year to Korea’s growing economy.

An article in the New Yorker last month by John Seabrook entitled Factory Girls: the cultural technology and the making of K-pop, outlines the history of the K-pop brand.

It states that the Korean takeover has been dubbed ‘Hallyu’ in Asia, with South Korean culture being catapulted into the front rooms of many Asian countries since the turn of the century.

“There are certainly K-pop bands that might cross over, Girls’ Generation for example – though not singing in English has traditionally been a huge barrier to success.” Dan Stubbs

The larger impact

Korean TV dramas, Korean film and Korean pop, have taken over a market that was formerly driven by Japan and Hong Kong.

The  young Korean singers and actors represent traditional Korean values of family, friendship, and love.

The Korean government have also heavily promoted hallyu by making South Korea the ‘Hollywood of Asia’, creating an image of prosperous, affluent and cosmopolitan life.

The song content of Korean pop is highly scrutinised and must retain cultural values, as stated by Seabrook, lyrics or videos can not refer to sex, drinking or clubbing unlike their Western counterparts.

With state agency, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, keeping minors from hearing or seeing K-pop that makes reference to this.

K-pop artists are moulded from a very young age to fit this perfect ideal that Korean culture is striving to portray.

Korean X Factor

In Factory Girls, it comments that the agencies recruit 12 to 19 year olds from around the world through open auditions and scouting.

Girls’ Generation, the leading K-pop girl group, has two members who were born and raised in California.

Native English or Chinese – speaking boys and girls of Korean origin are highly prized by the record labels.

Mirroring perhaps an elongated version of the X Factor behind closed doors, the ‘idols’ are taught to sing and dance, but also to act and learn foreign languages, mainly Japanese, Chinese and English.

They receive media coaching and are heavily prepared for the extreme scrutiny they will receive on the Internet.

Good looks are another essential part of being a K-pop star. With their chiselled to perfection faces, some are of course born that way, but it is alleged that many go under the knife.

The Economist claims that Korea is the world leader in cosmetic procedures per capita.

Factory Girls also states that public drunkenness and social misdemeanours are also not tolerated for a K-pop ‘trainee’ and can end a career instantly, with only one in ten trainees making it to the final ‘debut’.

The people behind this rigorous, perfectionist, almost extremist machine are the three music agencies which dictate the K-pop industry, S.M Entertainment, J.Y.P. Entertainment and Y.G. Entertainment, the initials standing for the founders, all of which are former musicians and dancers.

“British bands should probably be worrying about how well they cross over to the Asian market” – Dan Stubbs

The music industry

The whole industry might seem contrived, but it is not far away from the process that produced Western artists such as Britney Spears and Rihanna.

Putting what goes on behind the scenes aside, it is their technological presence that is putting K-Pop on the map, with extravagant music videos and flowery pop-anthems.

Assistant editor at, Dan Stubbs, comments that K-pop is huge on YouTube, which is where a great number of kids find music these days.

“There are certainly K-pop bands that might cross over, Girls’ Generation for example – though not singing in English has traditionally been a huge barrier to success.”

Indeed, popular bands such as Big Bang, 4Minute and MBLAQ, sing in Korean, which could scupper their transatlantic appeal, but the industry have already cottoned onto singing the catchy choruses in English, a clever move by music execs.

Nevertheless, musically it appeals to Western audiences, “It tends to be ultra sugary and very poppy.”

It feels very much like it is influenced by western pop music, but it is exotic too.

It is already a big cult thing in the UK —with the popularity of Gangnam Style, but one hit does not make a movement.

It may just be a novelty,” states Stubbs.

Gangnam Style is the only exposure most have had to K-pop.

The future of K-Pop

When asking UAL students about this phenomenon, the majority looked very perplexed, with a slight reaction when asked about Gangnam Style: “Oh yeah that jokes man with the dance moves.”

But Psy’s presence is a global spectacular.

With almost 500 million YouTube hits, Gangnam Style has been an internet sensation— the video gaining an average of 10 million new views each day.

In the UK singles chart it debuted at number 196, but sales of the single accelerated by an average of 20 per cent each day during its release week, reaching the UK singles chart the top spot on the official chart—making it the first K-pop single to do so.

Parodies of the track have also been cropping up around the world, with 14 lifeguards from El Monte California uploading a ‘Lifeguard Style’, using the city’s swimming pool for the video but getting fired several days later.

Even the privileged Eton school boys have joined the bandwagon, creating an ‘Eton Style’ spoof, with over one million hits and a very inspired rap.

Flash mobs have also reared their sneaky heads and on October 13 over 300 hundred people turned up to be filmed by Korean Broadcasting System in London to take part in a huge Gangnam Style flash mob.

The footage will be part of a documentary that KBS is currently filming on the growing popularity of K-pop in the UK.

But whether this K-pop sensation is here to stay is to be seen.

Will Western audiences welcome these Asian manufactured pop stars into their sphere with open arms?

Or is the question do K-poppers even see world domination in their sights?

Stubbs thinks that perhaps we should look at it the other way around:

“I wonder if crossing over to the UK / USA is a major concern for K-pop stars – there is a huge market in Asia right now.

“If anything, British bands should probably be worrying about how well they cross over to the Asian market…”


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