Many Westerners who come to Korea quickly write off K-pop, Korea's mainstream music genre, as a cheesy, sugar-coated excuse for entertainment. They see outlandish costumes, boys in heavy eyeliner, and flamboyant choreographed dance moves. They become annoyed with strange Engrish lyrics and seemingly identical tunes that blare from just about every storefront of the country. But, what they don't realize is that K-pop is much bigger than skinny jeans and plastic faces. In fact, K-pop is transforming Korea as the world knows it.
I should first mention that there is a dark side to K-pop. Performers begin training in their teenage years. After signing 10- to 15-year contracts and moving into company dormitories, all aspects of their lives are controlled by their managers; even after the performers become household names, they receive a minimal portion of the profits of their success. I've also heard rumors of young girls being coerced to make sex tapes with producers to ensure their chances of being signed on to a label. Then, there are the more overt problems, like the objectification of women thing. But more on that later.
With that being said, there are some good things about K-pop. I'll be the first to admit that I do have a nice little selection of K-pop songs on my iPod and I'm not ashamed to say it. Contrary to popular belief, not all of it is mangy, mass produced pop. There are many singers in the genre who are actually very talented and would do well even without the hype of K-pop to hold them up. Lee Hi, a newcomer on the scene, has been compared to Adele, and can hit notes very few others her age (16) are capable of. FT Island excels in playing guitars and drums and Epik High challenges the very meaning of K-pop with their funky styles and hip-hop roots.
Whether K-pop's popularity is related to talent or other reasons (err... six packs), the industry is boosting the Korean economy in more ways than one. K-pop is quickly becoming one of the county's biggest exports; in 2011, exports equaled $180 million, up 112 percent from the previous year. Last year, popular groups held world tours spanning from Indonesia to Chile to France. And lest we forget about that famous horse dance. Since Psy's "Gangnam Style" went viral, there has been a massive influx of tourists to Korea as well as an increase in interest of Korean products and cuisine.
On the home front, the music industry greatly affects the domestic economy, so much so that a single performer has the ability to influence the Korean stock market. Entertainment company YG's shares dropped 10 percent after Big Bang member, G-Dragon, was involved in a marijuana controversy. Similarly, IU, K-pop's girl next door, caused her company's stock price to drop 2.46 percent after she mistakenly uploaded a picture on Twitter deemed scandalous by Korean netizens.
The plummeting of the stocks in these circumstances is no coincidence; everyone from the companies to the consumers know that K-pop performers have the unique ability to influence an ever-expanding audience unlike any other media figure. Some entertainment companies have seen the advantages of this power and have used it in a positive way to address many of the country's social problems that have been swept under the rug for so many years.
As I mentioned previously, K-pop has received a lot of heat for objectifying women; female idols are often dressed in hoo-ha-length mini skirts, shoot sexy, come-hither looks into the cameras, and booty pop their way through televised performances, leaving ajusshi (middle aged men) drooling at the mouth and young girls with unrealistic images of what they should be. Somehow, these acts are still masked with innocence, as sex is very hush-hush in Korea.
K-pop idol group Girl's Day hypnotizes fans with their sexy dance moves and polyester hot pants. [Photo reprinted with express consent of Letz Magazine.]
Recently, however, the messages of some female idols are changing. Take Ga-In's recent music video "Bloom", for example. While most of the sexuality in K-pop is intended for the eyes of men, she changes things up a bit in and portrays a girl discovering and taking charge of her own sexual enjoyment. Note that in Korean culture, sex has always been viewed as an outlet for the pleasure of men and women who are vocal about sex are often considered hussies. "Bloom" is a bold move in the industry and goes where no K-pop video has gone before; in essence, it's a dose of manifest feminism and sexual liberation that the Korean female population is in desperate need of.
Another taboo being addressed by K-pop is homosexuality. Older generations of Koreans actually believe that homosexuality does not exist in their country and because of this, human rights for gay individuals are virtually non-existent. It's a subject that is simply not talked about... until now, that is. The music videos for K. Will's "Please Don't," Nell's "The Day Before" and Baby Soul & Yoo Jia's "She's a Flirt" all address the subject of homosexuality beautifully and in a way that viewers can be empathetic with the characters portrayed. Although it will take some time for the gay and lesbian community to be fully accepted here in Korea, these videos are a step in the right direction.
But, it's not just the videos that are sending messages.
I can't talk about K-pop without mentioning my favorite girl power group 2NE1, whose styles are unique and unlike most other girl groups out there. Their lyrics are fun and empowering, like those in "I Don't Care": "All those girlfriends you call 'friends' Don't think of me in the same way as them. I won't let it fly. From now on, do as you want, I'm going to stop caring.... I don't care."
Miss A is another great act who has no problem embracing their "I Don't Need a Man" independence in a couple-obsessed society: "I want to take care of myself. The other girls may have rich parents or a rich boyfriend and live comfortably but I'm not interested in that. That is why I am proud of myself." These ladies are great role models for the younger girls and will hopefully inspire them to be individuals and independent in a society where such characteristics don't have much value.
It's easy to ignore the fact that there's a bigger picture to K-pop when silly costumes and screaming fangirls are involved. So, the next time you're in Seoul and hear the familiar sound of sugary K-pop sounding from every which direction, don't roll your eyes. Appreciate it for what it is and keep in mind that that very song might just be influencing the future of Korea.