Kpop has become a huge phenomenon within the last decade and is still popular now. It is considered the “secret music society” of this generation. It has its own close-knit community and is prized because it seems to reflect pure South Korean culture in a modern way. South Korean officials call it Korea’s “soft power”.
This is all a result of the Hallyu Wave. <—Read More About It Here
Most international Kpop fans get into the genre because of the catchy songs, the perfect dance moves, and the myriads of attractive men and women involved. They may also like the innocence and “purity” of the music and music videos. After all, you will hardly see or hear outright violence and/or explicit sex in their songs or videos. To outsiders, these groups seem like the perfect packaged artists. For those people looking for more substance, Kpop groups may turn you away. For those interested in quality and wholesome music, Kpop is the way to go.
Kpop does for Asian artists what the other nations around the world have a hard time doing: promoting Asian talent.
From the beginning, you already can understand that there is something special about Kpop that makes it stand out from any pop music around the world. Like any pop stars around the world, Kpop artists invest a lot in promotion. But unlike other pop artists, these figures don’t just entertain; they are packaged to fulfill the desires of their audience. Thus, they are worshipped.
For those of you just getting into the genre and into the Kpop community, you may find yourself embraced by a culture all its own: the kpop culture. It comes with its set of friends, fun, and celebrations. Still, several things may confuse you, anger you, and turn you off (even if you like the music). There are many things newcomers don’t really know or understand when they first get involved with this genre.
I’ve been a Kpop fan since the beginning of the Hallyu wave in late 2003 to 2004. My first favorite Kpop artist was BoA. I then went on to liking S.E.S., DBSK (now TVXQ), Lee Hyori, and Se7en. I’m still a Jumping BoA for life though. Even though I was a Kpop fan then, I didn’t see it the way I do know. Much of the fan base has changed over the years. I feel like a newcomer with this “new wave” of fans even though I’ve loved the genre for more than 10 years! There are still some things I’m learning as times change, especially as everything is being shared on the internet. Many of the things I’ve learned confused me, especially regarding the culture. Some things disappointed me before I really understood the culture. But I don’t want any newcomers to come in confused, with unrealistic expectations, or unprepared. I’ve created a list of 24 things newcomers should understand while jumping into Kpop. This list will help you deal with certain trends, habits, joys, and disappointments in the Kpop universe.
Kpop has a surface side and a hidden side. I want to address both sides: 1) what all Kpop fans know about the genre from a surface level and 2) what you newcomers may not see right off, but some hardcore Kpop fans may know.
This article may not sound too culturally sensitive, but it is meant to be down-to-earth and show international fans (especially western fans) what they may be getting into. After all, it’s important to cover all bases, right?
WARNING: The following sections may be long for some readers, but there were a lot of things I felt needed to addressed.
This will not be in any particular order.
What You May See…what you may see
- Labels Are Just As Big As Artists
- Debuts And Comebacks Are A Big Deal
- Labels Want Global Attention
- Fans Are Monstrous
- Korean Music Shows Decide Success
- International Fans Should Buy Hard copies
- Variety shows, Talk shows, K-dramas, Fashion ads, And Magazines Promote Kpop artists
- Check Time Zone Differences
- Be On The Lookout For International Tours
- Groups Are Bigger Than Solo Artists
- Kpop Labels Follow The Trends
Behind the Scenes…behind the scenes
- Labels Are Blamed For Everything
- Many Kpop Idols Aren’t Korean
- Kpop Idols Don’t Last Long
- Idols Can’t Date
- Duty And Hard Work Is prized
- Male Idols Must Serve In The Military
- Boy Groups Are More Popular Than Girl Groups
- Kpop Is Not Extremely Diverse
- Looks Are Just As Important As Talent
- Standing Out Is Difficult In Kpop
- Kpop Idols Are Very Traditional At The Core
- Kpop Doesn’t Always Reflect Everything in Korea
- Kpop Is Always Changing
What You May See…
The “What You May See” section deals with anything that most Kpop fans know from a surface level. There are casual Kpoppers who can even understand what goes under this section if they are curious enough. Most fans may gather information like this from reading the comments sections on Youtube. Still, for those of you who are lost when it comes to the goings-ons of the Kpop universe, I’m here to help.
1) Labels Are Just As Big As Artists
I want to start with this. Believe it or not, labels mean everything in Kpop nowadays. I don’t know what has happened in the last few years that I’ve been into Kpop, but I’ve never seen so many labels pop out with groups the way Korean labels have been doing recently. When I first got into Kpop, I never once heard people talking about supporting LABELS. Maybe it was around, but mostly people talked about their favorite artists like they did in any country around the world. Now, it’s so different…
The labels in Korea decide everything. This is not just from behind the scenes (they do bind their artists in strict contracts), but from the fan perspective, too. Fans of Kpop usually support artists under the same label as their favorite group. This is important to note. You may be surprised to find the most famous groups or solo artists in Kpop are no different from the least famous, but because they are backed by a bigger label, they will get more attention.
You may have heard fans say, “I stan SM” or “I stan JYP”. This shows that the labels are the ones REALLY running the show.
The three “powerhouse” labels are SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Nation at the moment. These labels have contributed to the Hallyu Wave and have helped in putting Kpop on the map. SM Entertainment was the first to market their artists in countries outside of Korea. This brought international attention to Kpop. YG Entertainment has had many of their artists go viral overseas (particularly in America) due to their artists’ “westernized” style of music. JYP’s CEO is infamous himself. He is a Kpop idol and has a lot of influence in Korea. He was a direct contributor to the Hallyu Wave. These three labels have all started many Kpop trends known in the genre today. Even when visiting them in Seoul, Korea, around the area they reside, you will notice how popular these labels are. YG’s building is particularly spectacular and as amazing as entering an art museum. They are tourist attractions all their own.
These labels have gotten so big because they have developed a “brand” just with their name alone. On all of their music videos, their names are stamped on it somehow.
The artists from these labels often support other artists from the same label, which helps the popularity of other groups. They look out for each other. Still, competition can be fierce even from one label, especially if fans think the labels are “playing favorites” with the artists. Labels do rely on the bigger artists to maintain the company. Honestly, they need the bigger artists to maintain and support the lesser-known artists. Some labels do “play favorites” and pour out more promotion for the highly anticipated groups and soloists.
When fans bring so much attention to artists from the same label, they are indirectly bringing fame and longevity (and more money) to the label itself (and making it difficult for other labels to shine). This makes the labels’ brand itself of “idol” status. This can be annoying at times. The real clincher is that there are tons of other amazing artists that are from lesser-known labels. Sometimes, the bigger labels will produce mediocre work in comparison to a lesser known label. But because one piece of work was done by a bigger label, the more infamous song will get more attention, even if it’s not so good. The saddest part is that some fans blindly support a “label” rather than individual artists themselves. This gives more power to the label and less power to the artists.
The real questions you may have: Why do fans only support idols under the same label? How did it get this way?
Well, labels tend to produce the same kind of music amongst their artists. If fans liked the original sound and they mass produce it by many artists, what’s stopping fans from liking it? Their love just travels to other artists. Labels usually use the same recording studios, choreographers, and songwriters for all of the artists. All of the artists seem to have a “connection” when produced by the same label. This is a good marketing strategy. So, when people like a song by one group or soloist from the label, the label will hire the same team for newer groups so they will get attention for having the same “magnetic” sound. This is how the Kpop craze began. After a while, fans get used to associating the artists together under the same label and no longer care if they all sound the same or not, as long as they’re all under the same label.
The second reason fans support artists under the same label is because the money all goes in the same pot. If you support one group, the money will be used by the label to support other artists under that label, especially new artists who start off with nothing. If your favorite group is struggling, it’s refreshing to know that other fandoms will support the efforts of your favorite group. There’s also a sense of family among the fans who stan the same label.
Still, there is back-biting and hating even within the same label’s fandoms. Nowadays, it’s more common to find trolls on the internet who love to pick on less popular groups.
There are more fan wars between the competing labels, though. Every fandom wants to put their label on the map and have it conquer the music industry. I think fans are hoping that if they make the loudest noise, people will pay attention to their favorites. One thing is for certain: The bigger labels always have enough money to do world tours.
With Kpop going international, fans are even more adamant about supporting their favorite idols because they want the chance to see their idols live. If their idols are barely popular in Korea, it will be a slim chance international fans will get to see their idols live.
My advice is not to fall into the trap of the “label game”. Support the artists you like. Reward artists who truly deserve it.
2) Debuts And Comebacks Are A BIG Deal
When you first get into a Kpop fandom, you will notice that all Kpop fans are eager for debuts and comebacks. As mentioned before, fans support the artists from their favorite labels mostly, but neutral people get excited when any interesting groups show up.
Usually, comebacks and debuts are major events, almost holidays, in the Kpop universe. Teasers are usually dropped right before the reveal of the music video and then the album. Some idols may have extra promotion, like f(x)’s art museum exhibit.
Fans in Korea and abroad support their favorites in more ways than just buying albums. Many fans organize fan meetings, create and supply merchandise, come together on “cafes” to strategize how to help their favorites win on music shows, chant their fan “name”, wear the fan “color”, and so much more. If a comeback drops unexpectedly, fans really can’t give it the utmost support they would usually. Some companies are aware of this and will announce comebacks months in advance.
At this time, fans are usually in “rush mode”. In order to get their idols on the charts, they have to purchase albums and stream songs. This helps their favorite idols win on music shows and boosts the egos of all involved. After all, they aren’t doing all of this to just support their idols and keep them around. They also hope to beat the competition.
At this time, fans are also desperately trying to find ways to boost views on Youtube, which also helps their idols win on music shows.
They also try to search on Korea’s biggest search engines, the biggest being Naver. It is a search engine that caters exclusively to Koreans and their country. Google can’t even dominate it.
Korean fans have more advantages than international fans. They have access to all the Korean websites and live closer to idols. International fans have to find clever ways to reach out to Kpop idols.
Sometimes, fans will do all of these “support” tactics even if the comeback or debut is a bust. They may not like the song or the concept, but will still support it anyway, just because they’ve invested their own identities in these artists and the labels involved. They still will try to promote the artists and just have a “better luck next time”attitude about it. After all, they want to keep these idols around longer.
Still, most Kpop artists and their labels try to be the first to bring out their most interesting, attractive, and polished concepts so that everyone will like it. If a group already has a strong identity, it doesn’t matter what the concept, it will still be eaten up. Those groups will have it easier. They could get away with less effort. Lesser-known groups try to come out with something original, but not too different or unusual. They try to strike that balance so they can attract their usual fan base once again as well as attract new fans to the group.
What may be attractive to international fans may not be attractive to Korean fans. International fans do matter, but Korean fans have more power when it comes to influencing Kpop charts like Melon, Hanteo, Gaon, and others. I’ll talk more about this later…
3) Labels Want Global Attention
This can go under both what is noticeable and unseen by the casual listener.
Many international fans may notice that Kpop seems to have a lot of western influences. For starters, the genre of pop is familiar to Westerners (as it took off the ground in America). But hip-hop, rap, and other once-exclusive genres seem to permeate Kpop. English words are sprinkled throughout the songs, even in the chorus. It may have you wondering, “Is this really Korean pop music?” And many music videos nowadays have English captions so that western fans can follow along.
There are even some variety shows, like After School Club, that cater to English speakers. Labels scout out foreigners from the west to bring to their labels.
People also may notice that world tours seem to be huge in Japan and China. Foreign artists from both nations are present in Kpop groups. Chinese versions of Korean songs (like EXO’s Monster) are also recognizably present. I’m sure they are also wondering, “Is this Kpop?”
Kpop labels are also interested in other eastern countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and many more. But they mostly want the attention of America, China, and Japan.
On the one hand, you could just attribute it to the fact that Korea has become more globalized and is interested or just inspired by American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. You might not think this means labels are really interested in these countries, especially not America.
Why would Kpop labels and their idols be so interested in America? One user of Reddit opened an interesting discussion about this topic. I want to borrow these comments because I think they deserve to be read by others (sorry for those I borrowed from, but I will give you credit 😉 )
The poster, Ashyne, starts by listing all of the recognizable differences between the Kpop market and the American market and why it doesn’t seem reasonable for Asian labels to try and break into the Western American market.
1) Language-Most Americans who are not Asian would prefer to listen to music in their language, although music itself can be enjoyed regardless of whether one understands the lyrics or not.
2) Culture-The culture of South Korea is the complete opposite of America’s. The formalities and etiquette inherent in the basic Korean lifestyle cannot be compared to the more informal and individualistic culture of America. Cultural differences create a “me vs you” prejudice that make it hard for those unaccustomed to the foreign culture to accept, appreciate and understand it.
3) Beauty Ideals-This is easily the most visually apparent. Where the American ideal of beauty features and encourages an adult, sensual and seductive look with thick make-up, arched eyebrows and tan skin, South Korea idealizes the pure and innocent appearance with natural-looking and light makeup, pale skin, straight eyebrows and a youthful child-like demeanor.
4) Fashion Styles-For the sake of easily-identifiable differentiation, I will refer to female idols. South Korean popular fashion, driven by K-Pop trends and fads, is mainly about looking girly, delicate and youthful. Soft fabrics with pastel colors for the feminine and child-like look on one end of the spectrum (e.g. Apink/Lovelyz) or vibrant eye-catching styles combining a contrast of elements for the more teenage-chic appearance on the other (e.g. 2NE1/T-ara).
The clothes worn by female American soloists or girl groups are inherently revealing, provocative and deliberately meant to portray an adult look permeated with overt sensuality and sexuality.
5) Choreography-K-Pop choreography for male idol groups features a more artistic, eye-catching performance with very complex and rapid dance routines than American boy groups, who usually value vocal talent over excessively prominent choreographies.
For female K-Pop idols, choreography is light-hearted and dainty on one end of the spectrum for the cutesy groups, or more sexual and provocative on the other end of the spectrum for groups that feature a sexier concept. This is the only kind of choreography that is similar to, but still easily distinguishable from American female singer-dancers, whose choreography are much more sexually-explicit and vulgar.
6) Music-The music between Korean and American idol groups are more similar than the other factors listed above. K-pop idol groups, both male and female, usually sing about innocent romances, first loves, breaking up or love at first sight (teenage topics); while Americans sing about these topics too, they also sing about addictions and more adult topics.
The aforementioned factors are not all, but the main ones that become easily apparent when trying to consider the reasons that K-pop idols will have a difficult time being successful in America.
Let’s now look at simplified statistics:
America has a population of around 320 million. Combining the 6 factors listed above and considering that Asians, to whom Asian music (e.g. K-pop) appeal the most, are the minority of the population, we have a tiny fraction of the American demographic that are a potential source for interest in K-pop music.
Now, on the other hand, K-pop is vastly more popular in East and Southeast Asia also due to the similarities I pointed out above. Besides popularity, K-pop has been a part of popular Asian music scene for decades starting with the earliest K-pop pioneers that received attention outside South Korea.
Also consider that East Asia already contains China, Japan and South Korea who are the 3 largest consumer nations of K-pop. The overall population of East Asia is 1.6 billion people.
K-pop is also highly popular in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia with massive fanbases. There are around 600 million people in this region.
So we have a simple statistic comparison of 320 million Americans (of whom only a minority are potential fans) versus 2200 million Asians (of whom a significantly larger majority are potential fans) and from this we can see that in Asia, there is a vastly larger potential fanbase than America could ever hope to achieve.
With these facts, it is reasonable to conclude that “cracking America” would be a waste of time. This is the question many Kpop fans have, even in Korea. Many posters gave very good responses, but one poster has a real clue what’s going on and how the labels really see it, even if it doesn’t sound too culturally “sensitive”.
affabillyty gives this response:
- America is the global cultural beacon: For better or worse, what gets produced in Hollywood has the best chance of becoming international culture. Kpop has certainly upended Japan’s regional influence in becoming a top-tier cultural beacon in East Asia and SE Asia, but music and film made in Hollywood has the potential to transcend Continental Europe, East Asia, Latin America and, of course, the rest of the English speaking world (UK, Canada, Australia, Oceania). Though it’s almost a non-starter if the music isn’t in English…
- Artistic liberation: as you mentioned in your post, the stereotypical Korean aesthetic is youthful, chaste and pure. American pop culture is sexualized, provocative and mature. I think in the past 1-2 years, the Kpop aesthetic has drastically shifted towards the American norm. Hip-hop is pretty dominant, videos are increasingly sexualized, and both Korean and American artists are being styled in converging “streetwear” clothing. There are even smaller anecdotal signs like BESTie showcasing a gay storyline in “Excuse Me” or Hyorin very blatantly rejecting the “white is right” skin tone every other artist spends so much money on preserving (and enhancing). I think the American market, and by extension American pop-culture, is a counterbalancing force for Kpop artists (and labels) who want to eschew the “Gee” archetype.
- Pride: There is an immense sense of pride among Asian countries to overcome colonial history and reemerge as global economic and culture forces, particularly from a corporate perspective. Japan was first to go through this process and produce companies like Sony, which dominate in multiple industries – including music. SMTOWN, if you’ve noticed, has been not-so-quietly pushing its brand. They built that SM culture center in Seoul, and I believe Lee Soo Man has openly said he wants SM to become Korea’s first ‘global’ music label (sorry, I don’t have a source). Every video released this year by SM also has a very conspicuous SM log in the letterbox. In the same way that PSY was celebrated as a national hero for peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, I think the labels feel equally motivated to achieve corporate dominance – especially SM.
I want to further add to these points. I don’t think these points are just exclusive to America alone. It also applies to why South Korea wants Japan’s attention, too. Though #1 Global Cultural Beacon may sound a little haughty, stats support this. America and Japan are entertainment giants. America’s music industry alone dominates (not even thinking of film, gaming, and technology), with Japan as a super close second (2010 was the year Japan beat America’s music industry market). Before 2011, Americans bought physical albums in millions. When the digital boom occurred, Japan slipped in because they were still buying those physical copies while America mostly downloaded online. Eventually, as the world went digital, America was leading the way, with Japan still a close second (and fighting). The difference between the two is that America is a fresh market for Asian entertainment. Hardly any Asians have made their mark in America YET. Every label wants the honor of cracking one of the biggest barriers to their global success. It would certainly give that label bragging rights.
And as the poster said, if you make it in America, you can also influence the other western nations, unlike if you make it in Japan. If South Korea can dominate both the east and west, they can slowly take over the music market (and slowly take over the minds and hearts of the people with their cultural values and ideas). As well as make a whole lot of money. This will not only add to the labels’ pot, but it can boost the overall South Korean economy. By appealing to these countries, tourism will increase, giving even more to the economy. Last, Kpop helps spread ideas, allowing Korea to dominate both politically and socially.
In 2004, when I first got into Kpop, South Korea was the 28th biggest music industry in the world. But look at it now! It is now among the top 10! This was all due to South Korean labels’ clever strategies. When it comes to reaching out to Americans, they have used the internet as a tool to promote their artists, they’ve included foreigners in their Kpop idol line-ups, they’ve gotten some American songwriters, producers, and choreographers on the team, they have purchased songs from both America and other European countries, they’ve inculcated “Americanized” styles of music, and they’ve sent Kpop idols to America to act as “ambassadors”.
They don’t have to go to such great lengths to appeal to Asian countries as they are more similar in culture, but they still have to try to keep their interest as well. In fact, much of the “Hallyu” wave is owed to Japan. SM’s success as a label skyrocketed as soon as they began working with Japan’s powerhouse label Avex and began releasing their artists through the label. Many Kdramas have also been adaptations of Japanese manga and anime, like Boys Over Flowers and To the Beautiful You (Hana Kimi). Many labels laced Kpop songs in these drama adaptations, which further helped the success of Kpop.
China may not have a huge music industry (mostly because they don’t play the export-import game too often), but they have a LARGE population and they have a lot of influence over the other East Asian countries. There are many Chinese speakers in the countries surrounding China (such as in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia). Getting rich off of the Chinese is nothing if a label can convince them that it is worth it. SM’s boyband H.O.T was the first kpop group to tour in China. Kpop is now a big thing in China.
I want to address #2 next: Artistic Liberation. This is more common in the major industries like the USA and Japan. In Japan, artists like Utada Hikaru (who was actually born in the USA, but debuted in Japan) and Ayumi Hamasaki have been pioneers in the Japanese industry when it came to fighting for the artists’ rights to their music. Ayumi Hamasaki has especially been triumphant in pulling herself from a binding contract and stepping out to make the masterpiece, I AM.
America has always been a diverse industry. We’ve had our share of manufactured artists, but we’ve had equally popular multi-talented artists, like Bob Dylan and Prince, who had creative control over their music.
In these countries, Kpop artists hope that they will be able to get more musical freedom and will get the chance to be seen as true “artists” and not “products”. In these countries, artists don’t have to debut in “manufactured” groups in order to be successful. They can debut individually, with their own sound, or in any group they choose. Contracts aren’t as binding because they don’t monitor the personal lives of artists, just the business side. Pop and hip-hop music are popular in these countries, but many other genres are, too. If someone wants to try country, edm, rock, or any other genre, they could thrive with the right promotion and the perfect sound.
America is more appealing than Japan in this regard because America is perceived as more individualistic (meaning we seem to care about the individual’s right to “be”) and seems to be even less about following one code or system of rules. Though each of us have our own morals, Americans will set aside their beliefs and opinions to objectively enjoy the music. Michael Jackson and Miley Cyrus both had very poor reputations at their prime, but both managed to still pull success from their albums. Why? Because they just made unique and authentic music. Americans especially like artists that are natural or “themselves”. Freedom and independence is prized. Many Kpop idols like the idea that they can take a few risks but still earn respect through their music. It seems appealing from across the globe (just like Kpop seems appealing to the west).
In Korea, kpop idols’ personal lives are monitored closely. Kpop idols who suffer from Korea’s scandals may find the USA to be freer. Those who want to date and start a family while still making music may find America to be freer. Last, those who want their popularity to last more than a few years may be tempted to break into the American market, hoping they achieve huge success. In Korea, kpop idols are lucky to last after reaching 30 years old. In America, artists continue to make successful music well into their 60s, as long as they’re alive!
In Korea, many 20 year olds perform “youthful” concepts. I’m sure there are many of them that prefer to try more “adult” or controversial concepts, like the ones seen in America.
Then there’s Pride. Labels want to give Asians the respect that is long over-do in the west.
All of these things will help Kpop labels get more money in the long run.
The problem with this is that the American industries don’t cater to pop singers with variety shows and dramas. Kpop artists have to promote themselves differently in the US than they do in Korea. The internet is the perfect way for Kpop labels to reach out to America and promote their artists.
4) Fans Are Monstrous
Kpop fandoms are monstrous in two different ways: They can be an idol’s biggest supporters or their worst enemies. When it comes to supporting idols, fans pour out a lot of money into the genre. For international fans, shipping costs for purchasing albums can be very expensive. Merchandise is expensive, too. Korean fans have up-front access to merch and do a lot to include outside fandoms when it comes to organizing events. They pour a lot of money into their artists even in Korea! It seems like a lot of work for some music, but fans do this so that their favorite idols can keep making music. Idols are also very gracious and show a lot of love and thankfulness to fans.
Having a fandom name and fan color are common traits of Kpop groups. Korean internet cafes (such as Daum) and other fan websites helped in promoting the idea that each idol should have a name to call their followers and a color for all of them to wear. Got7‘s fan name, for example, is IGot7. f(x)’s fan color is periwinkle (which is purplish-lavender).
Being humble and gracious is very important in Korea. This is one of the reasons international fans have fallen in love with the genre. Everyone seems to be trying to be polite even as they perform.
Fans really do seem to worship idols on the surface. Still, fans can also be the worst people in the world. Other fans may call the worst “fans” antis or even trolls. Still, they influence the course of Kpop and the longevity of idols.
Idols can’t function without support. This is why they try hard to appeal to as many people as possible. Still, idols are imperfect humans that have personal lives.
Some fans live in such a Kpop bubble, they often forget that their idols have personal lives and are humans. When idols are struggling, some of the time it can be because of the rigorous schedules or the labels they’re under, but other times it’s because of the demand of the fans. The idols don’t say anything because they rely on the fans’ support for income. But sometimes the fans can be a little extreme. Many “fans” feel that idols should be able to take abuse just because they have chosen a career in the spotlight. It’s also important to note that idols take the opinions of others seriously because it really does affect their reputation and career in Korea. Their goal is to get as many followers and fans as possible.
Fans are very critical and hard on idols because they do expect the best, almost perfection. These idols do often look really polished and perfect on stage. I guess they give the false impression that they are perfect. Some fans have also invested their egos and money in these groups and want their favorites to tromp out competition. When their favorite idols aren’t “reaching” for more or not “attending” events, fans quickly get antsy and critical. Some even expect idols to perform sick! Having a vacation is associated with laziness. This “demanding” streak is when fandoms get monstrous in a negative way. It’s supposed to be entertainment and fun, but some fans can suck the joy out of things.
Fan-idol abusive relationships are common and fans hardly feel like they are wrong in this regard. There is a sense of “ownership” regarding fan-to-idol relationships. I guess because so many fans buy heavily into the industry, they expect their biases to pay exclusive attention to them and fulfill every wish fans desire.
And with so much attention, the bigger you are, the more people you have to criticize you. Kpop has more fans now; that means more haters, too.
You may hear the words “bias”, “stan”, and “Knetizens” or “Knetz” floating around.
In Kpop, again, people support their favorite groups HEAVY and they do develop a bias towards these groups. This means they will like this group no matter what that group releases (just because they may be in love with many other releases or attributes). Sometimes, these same fans will refuse to support other groups, no matter how talented they are.
Even within the group itself, people select their favorite members or “biases”. Usually, each member of a group gets their own fandom ( A fandom name may not be present unless an artist goes solo). Sometimes, the “visuals” (the most attractive members) get the most fans. This makes it harder on other members of the group who have a hard time shining. Still, fans will usually support the whole group despite their favorites.
The word “stan” is common everywhere, even for international artists, so I don’t even have to explain. For those who don’t know what it means, it combines “stalker” with “fan”.
Fans of Kpop aren’t always realistic about idols. The fact that they aren’t looked at as celebrities but as “idols” shows that people really do worship these artists. International fans even make fanfictions based on their favorite idols, almost like they aren’t human and like they belong in some Kdrama. In Korea, they aren’t big on the fanfiction game, but they also fantasize about possibly dating their favorite “oppas” and “unnis” (as they call them often). Fans have a very “pure” depiction of Kpop idols. Most Kpop idols are presented that way by their labels and management team. They are all marketed as cute and dorky, even the male idols at times. Romantic songs really bring in the ladies. And Kpop idols are almost always extremely attractive. This is the main marketing strategy of most labels.
Knetizens, netizens, or Knetz is the slang word used to describe Korean citizens who use the internet and Korean internet community websites to build or break idols. Korean fans obviously have a lot of power over K-idols. First off, they are closer to Kpop in proximity. Second, their culture and opinions more directly influence idols because idols have the same values as most all Koreans. If Knetz like an idol, the idol will stay afloat in their groups. If Knetz dislike an idol, expect that idol to be dropped from the group, no matter how many international fans still exist.
Many Knetizens don’t see eye-to-eye with international fans and vice versa. Some get along great; others are very hard on one another. Much of it has to do with culture clash. Though many international fans like Kpop, their tastes may be different from Knetz based on culture. What westerners will support, for example, may not be supported by Koreans, which affects sales and chart rankings within the country. Many westerners also don’t really understand Korean culture and their codes of “honor” and “loyalty”. Some are so dazzled by Korean pop that they forget that Korea is a country all its own with its own laws and ways of living. International fans may find them to be petty in comparison to other fandoms around the world. Mutually, some netizens dislike when international fans criticize their culture and wish they would respect the fact that Kpop is a Korean art first and foremost.
Knetz Explain Why They Dislike International Fans
Some Knetz are so hard on international fans that they make it difficult for them to get invited on music shows (the shows that usually promote the artists, more on this later). Some can be clique-ish and may exclude anyone who isn’t apart of the main “cafes” (fan websites that make it difficult for international fans to sign up for and get into). Of course, the music shows themselves are selective when it comes to who they choose…
International fans are equally hard on Knetz. Whenever there is a scandal or whenever a song bombs on the charts, international fans are quick to criticize fans who live in Korea. They often don’t recognize their own hand in the problem. International fans don’t always feel that Korean fans appreciate all the talented people they have and wish for some of the artists to debut internationally instead. But Korean fans feel that international fans always try to decide what is right for their industries, when their industries have been doing fine without international inclusion.
Knetizen is a word hardly used positively by international fans when describing Korean fans.
Soompi has a really interesting article on the differences in the fans’ reactions to certain scandals. Actually, some of these things wouldn’t even be newsworthy in the USA, where I come from. But in Korea, these matters are taken seriously. Check it out –> International Fans Reaction VS Korean Fans Reaction
There is only one way to get these fans to unite and that’s when an outsider attacks their favorite group. Suddenly, Knetz and international fans will unite against that individual. Fans hate when anyone tries to criticize their “bias” groups, I don’t care what country they’re from. Some fans don’t like when anyone criticizes their biases, even when it’s constructive. However, there are those individual “trolls” who are really destructive with what they say. Nowadays, people are not held accountable for their “opinions” and they are not prepared for the consequences.
Let’s shift gears and talk about the age range of the fandoms…
Keep in mind that while many Kpop fans are tweens and teens, especially in Korea, many fans are actually in their TWENTIES (20s) and THIRTIES (30s). Yes, studies have shown that many Kpop fans are of college age and up. They call them “2030”. This is why many labels are now starting to debut their groups much later and this helps older groups continue their success even after 30! As Kpopstarz pointed out: Adult fans have “high purchasing power”. Though most of the material was originally marketed to tweens and teens, the last generation that fell in love with Kpop have grown up with their favorite idols and have gotten into the newer idols. The difference is now they have more money…Much of Kpop’s newest material caters to adult audiences now.
Most of the fanbase consists of females. The content of Kpop is usually created to appeal to them. Males make up a smaller portion, but they exist. One of my favorite male fans of Kpop is Youtuber JREKML. The girl groups have attracted a large number of males overseas.
The differences in the way Korean fans support their favorite artists and the way international fans support them comes down to how each fandom looks at Kpop. In Korea, Kpop is looked at as regular pop music, not some exclusive “secret” genre. To most international fandoms, it’s a unique, “exclusive” genre, even a subculture, that brings together like-minded individuals looking for classy but catchy music. These differing views affect the way artists are supported.
Because international fans see ALL of Kpop as one big COMMUNITY, it’s not uncommon to find them in multi-fandoms. International fans don’t have a problem supporting two groups from different labels or even supporting all Kpop idols that come out! As long as it’s from the genre of Kpop, international fans will give it a shot. They appreciate it and marvel at it more, I guess, because it’s not accessible in their countries like it is in Korea.
It’s different with Korean fans. They tend to be very selective about who they like and support and cling favorably to artists that they’ve always liked or artists who have a huge popularity. Korean variety shows can make artists even bigger and Korean fans watch these shows firsthand. They know that whoever they support in their country will become a major idol and they know competition is fierce to get into the Kpop world. They don’t just hand over that attention to just anybody. Still, who is worthy of that attention may be baffling to international fans at times…More on this subject will come in the following sections.
Despite the differences, fans can come together when it matters most. While both fandoms can be monstrous, they all help in keeping Kpop a global deal.
5) Korean Music Shows Decide Success
When an album first drops, expect Kpop idols to start weeks of promotion. Usually, this promotion begins when idols start performing on Korea’s biggest music shows. The biggest music programs are not to be confused with variety shows or other music programs that promote artists. No, these music shows are a much bigger deal. First off, most of them have voting ceremonies. These voting ceremonies contribute to the overall prestige of an idol group or soloist. These music shows mostly show performances, are hosted by other idols, and, at the end, give out trophies and other rewards for winners. The performances on these shows are really just for show. They don’t really influence who wins at the end of the show. The winners are decided by a number of things that show idols’ success: Music chart rankings, physical albums sales, digital album sales, search engine results, Youtube views, overall popularity based on previous albums or promotions, broadcasting views, votes both online and on music shows, among other things. You see why they are a big deal? No matter what fans say, these shows decide the success of debuts and comebacks. They mean a lot to the idols as well as the fans.
The main music shows are M!Countdown, Inkigayo, Music Bank, Show! Music Core, and Show Champion. The Show is also climbing up there. Some of these shows are bigger than major awards shows (though the Melon awards are known to be a big deal)! Having an “all-kill” (which means winning 1st place on every single one of these shows) is every idol and fan’s goal. This is why fans invest so much in the promotion of their favorite idols.
Each of these shows have their own ranking:
M!Countdown: Digital Single Sales (50%), Album Sales(15%), Social Media Points (YouTube official music video views + SNS buzz) (15%), Preference Points (global fan votes through Mwave, Mnet Japan and Mnet America + age range preference) (10%), Mnet Broadcast Points (10%) and SMS Votes (10%).
Inkigayo: Being one of the older shows, they have changed their criteria over the years. Just in the past four years, they have been changing. (55%) Digital Sales Based on Gaon DA/Singles Chart (Top 150), (35%) SNS Score Official MV Youtube Views, (5%) Physical Sales via Weekly Gaon Album Chart, (5%) Advanced Viewer Votes via Melon App, (10%) Live Viewer Votes- SMS (paid text vote) and Melon App (free)
Music Bank: Digital Music Charts (65%), Album Sales (5%), Number of times broadcast on KBS TV only (20%), and Viewers Choice Charts (10%).
Show!Music Core: They go back and forth with their ranking system. Sometimes, they have one, sometimes they don’t. Here is what it last looked like: Physical Album + Digital Sales (60%), Music Video Views (10%),Viewers Committee Pre-voting (by 2000 people) (15%), Live Voting (15%)
Show Champion: (50%) Digital Sales streaming + downloads, (15%) Online Voting on MelOn, (20%) Physical Sales from Hanteo, (15%) Ranking from Professionals & Expert Judges from MBC Music
The Show: Prescore-Total (70%) [[Album sales+Digital sales+SNS (Korea) (35%) + Tudou music video views+pay vote items (China) (35%)]], Live voting- Total (30%) [[Text votes (Korea)(15%)+Tudou votes (China)(15%)]]
To watch some of these shows, you can find live streams directly from the Broadcasting stations’ Youtube channels and other places they stream or wait until the websites post some of the older episodes on their channels. It’s best to watch streams so you can contribute to the overall view count.
As you can tell, most of the rankings are predetermined before the shows even begin. On some of these shows, international fans can’t even fully participate in voting, such as on Inkigayo or Music Bank. That might be part of the reason rankings have changed or shows have completely gotten rid of the ranking system…
These music shows have come under fire on several occasions. There is a lot of controversy regarding them. It got so bad, Inkigayo got rid of their ranking system in 2012 (only to bring it back the following year). Show!Music Core has also been back and forth with their ranking system, taking it out and bringing it back in again.
Back when I first got into Kpop, this wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now. Kpop artists made tons more money back then than they do now. In fact, all pop artists made more money around the world because people actually bought hard copy albums. Kpop didn’t have as large of a fandom with so many demands, so labels didn’t barf out new groups and artists as often. They capitalized and promoted the ones they already had. Some of these music shows didn’t even exist yet! Music Bank and Inkigayo were the only two that really existed back in 2003! M!Countdown came in 2004 when I really got into the genre. It was still relatively new and didn’t have the reputation it has now.
Before these shows, there weren’t as many fan wars and there weren’t as many comparisons made between artists. The shows are basically a popularity contest. On the flip side, the shows make kpop more exciting and the joy from all the “wins” make it all worth it. Idols know where they stand at these shows and reap immediate “fruits” from their efforts. There is a certain pride that comes from winning these awards, even if the idols remain humble about it.
These music shows are respected and regarded as the “tell-all” of Kpop talent (though talent is a minor factor in the voting process). This is because these shows have very specific ways they rank artists and also because any fans who wish to attend must be invited by a special “lottery” ticket.
They filter out these tickets the way they do because most of the venues are small broadcasting studios that can’t hold too many people. What it ends up doing is “ranking” fans as well.
The system is political. First off, being a part of a fanclub gives you automatic prestige with these shows. This is the one thing that bothers me about these shows.
Trying to get into these music shows to see your favorite idols is very difficult. You can’t just purchase your way through, like with other venues around the world. To get a ticket faster, you must be a fanclub member. And you can’t just be any fanclub member. Tickets are distributed to fanclub members who have the most merchandise. What does this mean? Those with the most money to buy all the stuff of their favorite idols are on the “priority” list. This is another reason why adult fans have more power and influence in the Kpop world, as well as rich little princes and princesses. Money is power in this case. This also means that the same people who have always gotten tickets will more than likely continue to get tickets (unless they stop supporting the group, meet their match with someone who can hurry and purchase as many items, or lose their income). Everyone else will basically feel rejected from these shows unless they know how to get around this filter. Seoulrhythm.com has created a pretty good “How To” for getting into these music shows.
They choose fans with the most merchandise because during broadcasting they want to show the fans with the products on live television.
This is why fans pour so much money into these idols and also why pride has been invested in it as well. These shows basically put a rank on what it means to be a fan and make other fans feel “less than”. On the flip side, they are rewarding those who show the most support. After all, I’m sure the idols are grateful that there are people willing to buy everything their idols dish out. It is good for business because it encourages fans to buy things. This is why hard copies are still relatively sold in Korea (though streaming may also be important for getting in these shows).
International fans will have an even harder time getting into these music shows. First off, many of us can’t download on Korea’s biggest streaming sites because they require a login username and password. Sometimes, they require “Korean-citizen” information to sign up for these websites (sometimes even credit or debit card information). Everything is in Korean, so reading everything could be a challenge. Brush up on your Korean! The one site that used to allow foreigners to download Kpop shut down. Some fanclubs require fans to have both the physical copy and proof of downloading in order to get invited to the music shows. After all, these music programs rank idols based on these sales. So, most times, international fans are left out of the loop.
Many fans can purchase hard copies and merchandise, but the expenses are ten times more for international fans than for Korean fans. Shipping and taxes eat international fans alive. Still, some international fans try to buy what they can. They especially look forward to global tours where they can buy merchandise in their own backyards!
But this makes music shows very exclusive to well-paid Koreans. That means there is usually one demographic representing everyone’s favorite idols.
After they get in all the Kpop fans who have purchased merch, they bring in those who are a part of the fanclub (which is verified with a membership card).
After that, everyone else is welcome to stand in line after the main tickets have been distributed. That means “first come, first served”. If the fanclub members take up all the space, you’re out of luck, and they will turn you away. The plus side, though, is that the rest of the tickets are free. Get there extremely early and you might get lucky.
There is always a chance, too, that no matter how much you pour into these music shows, your favorites won’t always win. So, you may have sacrificed a lot only for your favorites to come out empty-handed. What would be worse is if your idol was pulled from the show for any reason or if the wrong “winners” were announced by the music show.
CriticalKpop.com has a whole series on why they hate Kpop Music Shows, and I think they make some legitamate points about the policies and “etiquette” that go along with these shows:
Part 1: Meaningless Competition
Part 2: System of Judgment
Part 3: The Format
Part 4: The Ugly Hierarchy of Fandoms
6) International Fans Should Buy Hard Copies
BtoB Press Play
Now that you know about music shows, you know that international fans have less power in influencing music shows than Korean fans. Of course, that should be obvious, considering this is Kpop, but it just doesn’t happen this way in every country.
So how can international fans make a difference? By buying albums hard copy.
Most of us can’t stream or download songs easily from Korean digital download websites, so the next best thing to support our artists, and get them on the charts, is to buy their physical albums.
And the price will be worth it.
Sure, the albums usually cost an arm and a leg. Shipping and taxes can be horrifying if you pre-order for two-day shipping. Buying in bulk may give you a heart attack. But trust me fellow Kpop friend, you will not regret it.
Kpop albums don’t look like other crappy albums out in the world. Their albums are very creative both from the outside cover and design to the beautiful photos taken of each Kpop member in the booklets the CDs come in. For years, I’ve been buying music online. Kpop brought me back to hard copy albums. When Koreans produce something, it is usually of the highest quality.
The outside covers are usually very artistic. There might be a very artistic design on the front, like 2ne1’s animation style on I Am the Best. Or possibly clever words written across BtoB’s album seducing fans to Press Play. And I really can’t forget f(x)’s album Pink Tape which was literally shaped like a videotape (if you all remember them from back in the ’90s).
2ne1 I Am the Best
f(x) Pink Tape
The CDs are usually carefully placed in a folder inside the booklets rather than in cheap plastic. The CD albums are designed to be carefully placed within a home so that they can be shown off. Flipping through the books alone can give fans a lot of pleasure before they even pop in that CD and give it a listen.
Most albums also come with collectible fan photo cards, signed by the members. You never know which one you’ll get. I guess that’s a good strategy for getting fans to buy in bulk. Some of the albums also come with posters.
For these purchases to count towards the charts and music shows, however, you must have purchased an album the week the artist starts performing on the music shows. The rankings are very specific. If you purchase too late, it won’t count. Usually, they are gathering stats the first week an artist performs. The second week artists are ranked and those shows use the tallies of the last week along with the live broadcasting votes to rank them. By the end of the week, they check the major charts like Hanteo, Gaon, and Melon before the next week rolls around.
International fans have to be clever and keep up to date with idols if they wish to support them at these events.
Not all websites support the major Korean charts. Itunes, Ebay, and Amazon are not good options though you may see Kpop albums for sale. The music shows don’t count them.
Here is a list of some of the best websites I’ve used, in order from my favorite to least favorite:
7) Variety Shows, Reality Shows, Talk Shows, K-Dramas, Fashion Ads, And Magazines Promote K-pop Artists
Variety Shows, talk Shows, K-Dramas, fashion ads, and magazines all help promote Kpop artists and vice versa. In fact, a fan’s participation in watching the shows or purchasing these magazines could even affect music show rankings! Usually, this would be the case if people are searching for ads and magazines through search engines.
All celebrities get promotion through magazines and fashion ads around the world. Talk Shows are still big the world over. My favorite is After School Club and Global Request: A Song For You. They cater to international audiences.
Variety shows are a little bit more special. In Variety shows, fans get the chance to watch their favorite idols participate in games, conversation, and challenges. The shows are designed to make the idols feel a little more real, individual, and personable, almost like a reality show, only with other additions such as interviews and even performances.
Some variety shows could host a number of games and challenges in them, like the popular Running Man. Running Man is one of my favorites. It sets up scenarios and has popular Kpop idols and K-drama idols complete missions within the story. Almost like a live game of Clue.
Other variety shows can pitch idols in long-term circumstances that help them understand an alternate life style. We Got Married puts together two popular idols and arranges a marriage for them. They usually have a “wedding” and “live” in the house together. It’s all staged but interesting fun to see idols pitched together.
YG and JYP, the two major label founders, are known for creating reality shows to scout out new talent. YG came out with Who Is Next: WIN (Which produced Kpop groups Winner and iKon) and JYP launched Sixteen16 (Which produced Kpop group Twice)
Real Men helps idols understand the military life. This has particularly been popular for foreign male idols to try because most aren’t obligated to do military service (more on this later) and don’t usually understand the pressure to perform such duties. Women also have tried it. Most women are not required for service but this helps them understand the men serving their country a little more. Foreign idols have it hard on this show. Most can’t speak the language as fluently as natural-born Koreans and even those who can don’t understand the military dialogue.
These are all just examples.
Now on to KDRAMAS.
Kdramas are just as big as Kpop. In fact, the Hallyu wave began because of Kdramas. People who may not be into Kpop may alternatively say they love Kdramas. In their spare time, Kpop idols usually sign on to do Kdramas. Kdramas help promote their groups and can be a good source of extra income for the individual idol (especially during hiatus). Kdramas also give idols a chance to be someone else besides a singer and performer. Many Kpop idols leave their professions as pop idols for a career in acting!
Kdramas also help idols establish themselves as individuals and they help them develop their own fanbase.
The biggest problem many international fans face with watching the shows and dramas is the language barrier. If you don’t understand Korean, you may not gravitate towards the shows (because shows don’t have catchy tunes like music). Still, there are some kind fans out there who will gladly make subtitles in the languages most in demand. Some broadcasting stations are starting to provide subtitles for languages in demand for online streams so that international fans can watch their favorite dramas.
When I say ‘in demand’, that doesn’t mean fans should go and demand these people to make subs. Making subs is hard work, especially getting them to match up right. Some streams already have subs, but some don’t. And guess what? They aren’t required to. This is KOREAN entertainment.
This may be an unusual concept to foreigners. Everything we have comes in various different languages besides English. In the USA, it’s not uncommon to find both English and Spanish channels. Americans also have access to various versions of Amazon.com and Google. If we wanted to, we could change from language to language. In America, it’s important to cater to many different audiences. In Korea, it’s important to uphold Korean standards and values. We are all just along for the ride. So let’s respect them by being patient with subs and maybe try to learn the language.
How can international fans watch these shows? There are live streams online, just like for music shows. Kdramas come out on DVD and Korea just opened Netflix. You can buy them like you do your favorite CDs. Yesasia is good for that, too.
8) Check Time Zone Differences
When thinking about what to watch or even when thinking about waiting for any comebacks, it’s important to remember time zone differences. International fans may get confused and frazzled trying to figure out when their favorite group’s comeback will OFFICIALLY happen. I’m here to tell you, just because it said July 1, 2016 doesn’t mean that’s the date it will drop in your country. The East is a day ahead of countries way in the West.
If you really want to support your favorite idols regarding music videos, variety shows, or music shows, you might have to stay up really late at times or even watch the shows in between breaks at school or work. 😄 This has happened on several occasions for me.
Or you could just wait a day later, but your views won’t count towards anything,
9) Be on the look-out for international tours
It can be a little sad and disheartening to only be able to see your favorite idols from music videos, variety shows, kdramas, and fancams but never in person. After all, most international fans don’t get to see their idols every comeback, live in concert, or during fan signing events (unless those fans have the money). Most fans are happy to be able to buy the products online. Still, it’s exciting when idols organize a world tour.
Usually, only the most popular groups are able to organize a world tour. This is another reason why international fans want to try and support their favorite idols no matter the cost. Most fans hope their favorites will be able to come to their home countries!
If you follow some of the bigger Kpop groups, the ones that have an international following, you might be in luck! There are times when Kpop groups plan their tours in cities outside of Korea. I saw Got7 when they came to the USA last year. I never thought that would happen! But it did.
Just keep supporting your favorite group and try to increase their popularity in your area. Be on the lookout for tours and purchase your tickets early because they do sell out. They are actually cheaper in your own country than if you were purchasing the tickets in Korea!
10) Groups are Bigger than Solo Artists
Based on stats dealing with the major charts in Kpop, it’s clear that Kpop groups are bigger than solo artists. Solo artists are lucky to get one song dominating the chart (and usually it’s because of a Kdrama), let alone win an award on one of the major music shows.
When solo artists make a comeback, their own fans love them, sure. But groups have more people involved; that means more fans for each individual member. These groups can have 5 to 13 individual members and all of their fandoms combined! That creates a large fandom. This largely contributed to the successes of major groups like Girls Generation, EXO, and Twice. If any of these members chose to go solo, it would reveal their real individual popularity as well as exposing true talent. The “group” strategy gives labels the opportunity to debut many kpop artists all at once. There are so many people auditioning for these groups. Sometimes, it can be hard for labels to choose the right one. So, why not debut them all?
Solo artists have to debut and be promoted at the right time, which is hard to predict. The success of a solo artist depends on the label’s promotion and the talents of the artist. SM, YG, and JYP have an easier time promoting their solo artists a little bit more than other labels. Still, even their solo artists flop sometimes.
If you still don’t believe that Kpop fans are obsessed with groups, watch those music shows long enough. They are infested with boy and girl groups. You might see one or two solo artists on these shows. But everyone else is riding on the backs of one another in the industry. Chances are, if you’re a new Kpop fan, it’s because of a group you liked.
There are several reasons why groups are more popular than solo artists. For starters, it’s cool to see so many people singing in harmony and dancing in sync. It feels more challenging than a solo artist doing it by themselves. Of course, solo artists can throw in some back up dancers, right? But for some people it’s still more interesting when all of the main members are doing it. People also like group interactions. It makes the artists seem less lonely. They seem more upbeat onstage.
There are fans who just like Kpop for the attractive figures. Why enjoy just one attractive figure when you can enjoy several? That’s the master plan behind the infamous Kpop groups.
Kpopstarz made a few other points as well:
The reason why there are so many idol groups is because there really is no alternative. Idol groups are able to bring in international revenue, which is necessary in the Korean market, where music revenue has decreased. Idol groups are easy to market, and are “weapons” to quickly get a return on investments.
Labels pour thousands of dollars into these groups to house, maintain, create their music, pay off music video producers and choreographers, hair stylists, fashion designers, advertise, promote, and much more. As smooth as it seems, debuts and comebacks take months of preparation. And yet, groups pull these concepts off flawlessly.
11) Kpop Labels Follow the Trends
This kind of goes along with the last point but there are other things I feel need to be addressed under this heading. As I mentioned before, Kpop is infested with groups. I listed some reasons why, but the broader reason why you may see so many groups is because labels tend to follow the latest trends.
If one label strikes it big with a particular Kpop concept, other labels apparently think imitating the concept will put their idol groups on the map. It actually has worked. When all groups or solo artists do the same thing, it helps the Kpop genre form an identity all its own. When Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” dropped, just about every girl group came out with cute concepts just like it.
The cute, bubblegum trend has continued to take over Kpop ever since. Though other artists have promoted different styles throughout the years, the cute style trend has been stamped on Kpop.
The boy groups just tend to follow BTS, EXO, and Big Bang’s lead.
Again, outfits, music albums, and music videos aren’t too far away from the latest trends in Kpop. To add, they are all the same nationality and they are all speaking Korean. If you’ve grown up in the west, where the celebrities are more diverse, this may confuse you. It’s sometimes hard to know which group is what. But eventually, you’ll be able to see the individual styles. Groups always try to add that one flavor of originality. Of course, the more original groups like f(x) and 2ne1 always stand out because they don’t follow the trends too much.
Why do Kpop labels do this? Well, in Korea, the fans of the genre value conformity, appearances, and charm more than anything. It was what attracted fans in the first place. Certain genres bring out those right appearances and charms more than other genres. Korean fans are also a bit slow to warm up to new and experimental sounds. Mostly, pop consists of “public-friendly” songs. Anyone who steps outside of the norm will be bullied or shamed into conformity by “Naver” trolls or other people who just don’t “get it”. Thus, Korea doesn’t adapt easily to new trends.
“Public-friendly” songs are usually of a pseudo rap and hip-hop style (though mostly pop), catchy bubblegum pop with a positive message, and/or ballads which can then be on the OST (soundtracks) of Kdramas. The rap and hip-hop makes the boys seem fierce and handsome. It can also make the girls seem strong. Bubblegum makes the girls more appealing to men and teens.
There are other genres in Korea like indie, jazz, and even rock. My personal favorite indie band would have to be Love x Stereo. But those genres are hardly recognized in Korean music shows or on the charts. While many nations of the world have adapted to garage-house-edm sounds, Korea is still skeptical about the genre.
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Behind the Scenes…
This next section deals with the shadow side of Kpop, the things that many casual Kpop fans may not know or understand. If you have never followed news articles in Korea (like on Naver) or the Kpop news media outlets for international fans (like Hellokpop, Allkpop, Soompi, and Kpopstarz), you’d probably never know the shadow side of Kpop and would therefore be swept up in the happiness and celebrations involved. Which is cool. But there will be times when your “bias” group meets some rough bumps in the road. Some of these things may seem confusing to international fans, even disappointing or annoying. The culture differences become more realized when our favorite groups come under scrutiny or when Kpop takes a different turn than we expected. Well, I’m here to give you the different, the beautiful, and/or the ugly.
Keep in mind that my goal is not to throw too much shade on Kpop or Korean culture. I love all cultures and all kinds of world music. However, I know that as a foreigner, there were some things that were more foreign than I expected. The glam and glitz of Kpop can create an illusion that makes the genre seem so “perfect”. It can make Korea seem like a perfect place, full of beautiful and well-mannered people. Well, if you’ve been paying attention to some segments above, you could probably see how this isn’t true. Let’s get into this, shall we?
12) Labels Are Blamed For Everything
When everyone’s favorite Kpop group flops on the charts, you might hear them say, “It’s the label’s fault for not promoting them enough”. You might also hear, “The label gave them a mediocre song”. If you remember my first segment about labels, you know they have a lot of power over artists. This can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Because most artists, especially groups in Korea are “pre-packaged” or “manufactured” by these labels, most fans believe that labels create every concept, are in charge of every song that is released, and are responsible for managing the artists in every area of life. When an idol seems to be jeopardizing their careers, some may criticize the artists, but most will blame the label.
International fans more quickly attack the labels, while Korean fans are more supportive. International fans have it in for any one in power who misuses it to bar people from their freedom. Many Korean fans, on the other hand, respect and honor the labels’ attempt at helping the idols make it in a difficult industry.
Where did the “blame game” begin? It began when some of our favorite Kpop idols left their groups and SUED their labels because of strict and binding contracts. This made many Kpop fans question the labels that are controlling everything. Of course, for Koreans, these labels aren’t just labels. They have created tourist attractions for the major cities. They show Korean prosperity. They feel these labels have made Kpop artists as famous as they are and that idols should be grateful that someone even took the time out to mold who they are. To international fans, however, these labels are nothing more than power-hungry monsters trying to get fat rich off of young, naive idols. It’s the same fight that most pop artists around the world have fought (Prince from the USA, Ayumi Hamasaki from Japan).
I say both are right and both are wrong.
It’s true that many labels have binding contracts, like any business. Back in the past, when I first got into Kpop, these contracts lasted for 13 years for most idols! And this is from debut; it doesn’t even include pre-debut and training.
But they do have a good reason for some of these contracts, even if they are stifling. For one, these contracts ensure that the label is able to properly and fully promote their artists with enough time to build their artists. Second, these contracts ensure that the label gets paid in FULL once the groups become big enough (after all, the workers and management team have to eat too, right?). Third, the contracts protect the label in many respects from scandals that could give them a bad name and bring destruction to the label. After all, a label will close down when enough people refuse to support its artists. That would put a lot of people out of work…Last, the labels make sure that they are not used up and dropped for other opportunities. After all, they don’t want someone using them until they get famous and then dropping them. That damages the label and makes them feel like they put money behind someone for nothing. Money is a precious thing.
On the other hand, this puts artists in a bind. What are their rights, you ask? Few rights.
Some contracts allow artists to “own” 1/3 of their music for the first few years of their contract. After that, they have more freedom and ownership of their art, especially if they are famous enough. BoA is one such artist that has so much seniority, she’s been there longer than SM’s current CEO! Her seniority gives her power in her label. She has more freedom than other Kpop idols. Newer idols, especially the really young ones, don’t have as much freedom.
Artists are also not allowed to date (more on this later) until they have given some years to the label.
Part of the reason these contracts are set up so tight is because the Korean idols debut so young (I will also address this later). Without some rules, imagine what a young idol teen could get into! They do need some structure. Labels are basically babysitting these idols before they become adults, ready and able to take care of themselves. Also, the Korean public values purity and a good social status. Idols are looked at as role models. Companies want to maintain a good reputation. If they have to monitor their idols to have that reputation, so be it.
Still, there are some shady things going on with these labels. Many labels distribute funds “unfairly” based on popularity. Even though all the members may have put the same kind of hard work in a group, it doesn’t often matter to some labels. This has been the cause of many issues between artists and labels. Some artists may feel that the labels aren’t promoting them as well as other members and may fight to be removed from the label so they can find better opportunities to shine as an individual. In Korea, though, it creates the opposite of “fame”. Koreans don’t often side with idols who leave their label and even call them “traitors” for “abandoning” their group members. This helps the labels stay powerful. However, there are also some Korean fans who are against the labels’ treatment. Because many Koreans were against SM Entertainment’s treatment of idols, they put pressure on the label to change the contracts.
Read About SM Entertainment’s Lawsuits By Clicking Me
Even though there are many shady things going on with these labels, many times the labels put pressure on artists because of the fandom. The “audience” has a lot of power over Kpop idols, whether they rise or fall from grace. This is where fans, especially teenage fans, fail to recognize their hand in the mistreatment of Kpop idols and fail to take responsibility. One of the main reasons Kpop labels restrict artists from dating is because they know most people get into Kpop because the idols seem like “dating” material. The idols are designed by the labels to appeal to the fans’ “fantasies”, true, but this is also because the labels know this is really the ONLY way to sell Kpop to people.
Honestly, if over half of the Kpop idols were “normal” or “unattractive”, how many fans do you think Kpop would have? It can seem like a shallow industry, from the labels to the fans. This is another subject I will talk about more in-depth later.
The bigger a fandom, the more strict labels are regarding the group. When a group blows up big, fan demands start pouring in:
“Please come to my hometown! When is your concert?”
“Oppa/Unni, you’re so attractive”
“This song is so, so good. Their style is not like others”
They also seem like compliments, right? And they are. But they do put a significant amount of pressure on Kpop idols. How so?
When fans demand idols to “come to my hometown”, this means that the idols have to work extra hard to increase their popularity so that they can get the approval of local venues in other nations and sell them out. Labels will overwork them so that they can meet fan demands. They want the idols to be able to reach as many fans as possible. Sometimes, this means they have to do more.
When fans love an idol for their appearance, the respect that artist gets for his/her talents is often lost (even though people, especially international fans, do appreciate their talents, looks mean a lot to the industry). When that idol gets older or something happens where they are no longer as attractive, the artist will suffer. Thus, labels put pressure on artists to appear a certain way to maintain fan interest.
When people really love a song, labels know that in order to maintain a fan’s interest, they have to keep making good songs. This puts pressure on artists to perform better time after time, which can wear them out. As these idols get older, it gets harder for them to perform the way they did in youth.
Some labels nowadays are allowing artists to explore their own artistry. But labels aren’t pouring out a lot of money or promotion for these solo pursuits. This sometimes angers fans. Labels feel that their priorities are group priorities, which are the projects they’ve invested in and are sure will sell. Any other projects are considered “promotional” for their groups. The reason for this is because labels aren’t getting as much from these solo projects.
Despite what you hear, labels aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes, they are just doing their jobs. There are people, just like in every profession, that do misuse their position. However, there are perfectly decent labels that are just caught in the crossfire. Sure, some may not make the best promotional judgments. Everyone working in a label is imperfect, but that doesn’t always make them monsters. At times, fans can be more monstrous than labels.
Still, it’s best to keep a close eye on everything going on.
13) Many Kpop Idols Aren’t Korean
I think this should be an interesting one for you newcomers. You might hear Korean on the music video, you might see Korean on the music video, but the eyes and ears are deceiving you. This is the illusion labels have developed to both give you a taste of Korea and appeal to a larger demographic.
If you came into Kpop because of the group RaNia, you may notice that they are one of the few groups that have an African American member. She is not the first black artist in the Korean music industry, but she is the first to be accepted into a Kpop group. This caused quite a lot of controversy, which I will definitely have to address later.
Many fans have stated that they didn’t like the inclusion of this member because she takes away Kpop’s “purity”. I suppose what made Kpop special to most Kpop fans was the fact that it seemed more “Korean”. To many, Kpop isn’t just a sound but a “visual” (shows how shallow the industry can be). I will admit that, while the other nations around the world hardly respect Asian artists the way they do Caucasian and African American artists, Kpop has been one of the few to promote and produce Asian talent when the other nations refuse to. Having a black girl in the industry takes more from the industry than it does lift it. Even as an African American, I know that she could make it in any industry in the world if she wanted to while an Asian artist would have a more difficult time. If you look at the record of Asian artists that have tried to make it in the west and didn’t, you would be ashamed.
But, despite this, it’s laughable for anyone to think that Kpop is “purely” Korean. I chuckle to myself at all the people who fall for the illusion every year. Myself included. 😄
That’s right folks. There are some members of groups who, while Asian by face, are NOT Koreans.
Many casual fans of Kpop don’t even realize or recognize this. I didn’t until I was introduced to f(x).
DramaFever, Allkpop, and Kpop Encyclopedia have all created lists of more than a dozen Kpop stars that actually don’t come from Korea or may have lived abroad! These lists don’t even name them all (Busker Busker’s Brad Moore, Yoon Mi Rae, Eric Nam, and Shannon Williams are to name an extra few). Many of our favorite Kpop idols come from the USA, Canada, the U.K., Australia, China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan! Many started off not knowing an ounce of Korean!
This is part of the reason Kpop has become such a global phenomenon. These artists can speak in their own native languages and are taught to speak in Korean, which brings a sense of diplomacy between the nations. They can act as interpreters and help Kpop spread. While many of them have a face that suits Kpop (except the ones who are African American and Caucasian), they represent various cultures and backgrounds at the same time.
These idols also give their lives over to Koreans. Through these idols, Korean fans learn a little more about the world and how different people live. That’s why these idols are good bait for variety shows. F(x)’s Amber Liu, Super Junior-M’s Henry Lau, and Got7’s Jackson are examples of foreign idols who really give Koreans laughter. And don’t even think of putting them in a room together!
Kpop idols from different nations always bring a little something unique with them when they join these groups. Their cultural differences help members loosen up and become more open-minded. Their personalities as well as ideas help Korea become a melting pot and pushes Korea into a more progressive nation.
International Kpop idols also introduce new styles of music to their labels. They bring with them their own favorite inspiring artists from their countries, which greatly influences the music that is created and performed.
Of course, these idols give their lives over to Korea in more ways than one. When these idols begin to train in South Korea, they are giving up their homes, their families and friends, their customs, their beliefs, and often times, their identities to become Kpop stars. They are risking not being accepted or flopping right off the charts, only to return home with nothing. They are really sacrificing a lot. Some make it, some break.
Many of these idols train at very young ages. Many of them have yet to finish high school before moving to Korea! But the opportunities they receive are very valuable and equal any education they can get back in their own home towns.
Seeing how these idols have lived in Korea, many other “normal” (just your average fan :P) people have up and moved there, too! These idols are truly an inspiration.
Why are so many international Asian artists so attracted to the Kpop industry? Can’t they simply make music in their own countries?
Well, many international Kpop idols got interested in Kpop much the same way you and I got interested in it. Many of them will probably say they loved Kpop before they became an idol. They loved the whole feel of it and longed to be a part of the action.
As to why these artists just don’t debut in their own nations…Let me ask you all this: How many Beyonces, Britney Spearses, and Michael Jacksons are there among Asian artists AROUND THE WORLD? NONE. Who has had that kind of fame or influence? None. I know many of the Western Kpop idols struggle to be recognized in their own birth countries. In the USA, as much of a melting pot it’s supposed to be, there hasn’t been ONE Asian American singer that has had significant success to bring them to the level of major “celebrity”. Even foreign Asian artists struggle to break the charts in the USA. Psy has been one of few that has gotten the attention of the west, but to most Americans, he is a one-hit wonder and a joke (though that makes him pretty entertaining to me. 😉 ). His music is hardly played on national radio stations. Bi-racial idols like Yoon Mi Rae felt she wasn’t “black” enough for Americans.
Equally in the UK and Canada, Asians are hardly recognized in the music industry as much as Caucasians and those of African descent.
In China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan, Kpop is becoming the new thing. C-pop and J-pop artists see more opportunities to reach a wider audience when it comes to Kpop because there are many things that are more appealing about it than C-pop and J-pop to other parts of the world. Kpop is more progressive and advanced in comparison to the more conservative C-pop. China has closed itself off from worldly influence, while Korea strikes the balance between reaching out to foreigners and holding close to their culture. C-pop is heavily infested with ballads, whereas Kpop is full of upbeat, catchy tunes and flashy outfits.
The difference between Kpop and Jpop is that Kpop puts more emphasis on “appearance”, making their idols seem more attractive. Japan focuses on substance and original concepts, which tend to be unusual and too artsy to most people of the world.
And neither Japan or China uses popular social media sites from the west as much as Korea. Kpop idols are in touch with Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. They are able to promote music to various different countries around the world this way.
Foreign artists are better able to stay in touch with friends through these websites and better promote their music to their homelands because Korea stays connected with the west.
So, to find better opportunities, these international idols decided to try their hand at Kpop.
So, you might ask me, “Can I become a Kpop star?”
You can audition! I know SM Entertainment hosts Global Auditions all the time. Labels also travel around and scout out talent. It would be even better for you to learn the language, work on your talents, then at least visit Korea so you can experience living there firsthand. Try doing those things to see if being a Kpop star is really what you want. Then, instead of waiting for labels to come to you, make an effort to go to Korea to see them! This will show labels how passionate you are.
Keep in mind that though some of these international idols are a big deal now and seem to be getting along well, there is still prejudice in and outside of Korea. I will have to touch on this separately…
14) Many Kpop Idols Train Early, But Most Don’t Last Long
I think I’ve mentioned twice that Kpop idols train really young. In this section, I will explain more about this.
Labels are always scouting out young talent. Though they may occasionally sign someone on that is older, they know that Kpop’s primary demographic consists of teenagers and those people in their 20s. So, to ensure that they appeal to a young audience, and to make sure their idols appear “timeless”, they often train idols as early as possible to sing, dance, and present themselves in public. These labels hope that by the time of debut these idols will be attractive but polished performers.
When idols are in the training process, many of them dorm with other trainees. Labels provide dormitories. Their training begins early in the morning and ends late at night. They sometimes work an “adult-like” shift long before most of their peers are graduating from school! Many of them also balance school with training. Sometimes, idols go to regular public schools, despite their fame.
Why so young?
There are several benefits for the labels. For one, young people are naive and easily caught up in the glamor/glamour of Kpop. This allows them to be able to find as many idols as they can to feed the factory. Labels can easily persuade young artists to join the label and can better control them, too.
Second, when these artists start young, even as they get older, they will be able to give more years to the label. If someone debuts at 14, for example, 10 years into a label would put them at 24! They would still be young enough to produce music and keep the label on the map. If they debuted someone at 40, they fear their idols retiring too soon and starting families, which will halt many promotions and distract artists (considering the fact that idols usually work rigid schedules). And then there’s military service…
How young do idols start training? As young as 11. BoA and f(x)’s Sulli started their training around that age. That may seem like a very young age for people around the world. After all, how do these kids really know if this is what they want? Most don’t. This is why many grow up tired of the industry. But the labels use the younger ones because they are the most eager to please at debut.
These things may seem foreign to the west. It’s not foreign to have famous kids (Bow Wow anyone?), but foreign to see so much emphasis on youth. After all, it’s not uncommon to see artists as old as 65 still performing and releasing new music, with marriages, families! But in Korea, people don’t feel the life of a Kpop star is “suitable” for a “healthy family”. And most Koreans expect those over the age of 29 to start families. Looking at the lives of American music stars, maybe they’re right…Still, at least American pop stars can continue doing what they love and still make millions.
This is why Kpop idols don’t last too long in the industry. Everyone grows up. In Korea, though they are more progressive than they used to be, traditional roles within the home are still honored by the vast majority. Most women are expected to be married by 30 years old! They are expected to be stay-at-home wives who cook and tend house while the man is out working. For many Koreans, adults shouldn’t be jumping around on stage singing pop songs.
Because labels cater their music to teens and young adults, it’s hard for older idols to be recognized by the younger generation. The younger generation is usually already ready for the next new thing. Koreans are also “age conscious”. The age hierarchy is a part of their culture. It is a rule of etiquette to consider the age of people. Since many Kpop idols are popular for their appearances, Kpop teens would get “strange looks” if they were huge fans of “older male idols”. I guess it seems perverted to them. Most people in Korea think it’s strange to crush on someone older, especially on someone 10 or more years older! In the west, we don’t care about age at all.
Another problem is that labels mass produce group after group, not taking the time to develop the groups they already have. Teens and young adults in Korea are always interested in debut groups and the hottest new trends, so the older groups eventually get forgotten among the wave of newcomers. And if the group wasn’t popular to begin with, they really struggle to stay within the Kpop industry.
The Verge interviewed Ellen Kim, a dancer and choreographer. She stated “…The pace of the popularity of the music is quick. You got one song that can last for a week, and that’s it… that’s really scary. You put so much work into one song, but yet it’s going to get old quick. Korean people want something new every week, and I think that’s the hardest pressure, probably. To come up with something catchy all the time, a hit all the time, and you’ve got tons of artists and the lifespan of one song is so short. It’s pretty hard.”
Artists are presented on music shows weekly, so once the weeks of promotion are over, purchases die down and the hype is over…until the next comeback of another major group. Very seldom does popularity of one song last a whole year. This is also different from the west, where artists’ songs from over TWO years ago could still be popular on the radio and still may climb the charts suddenly! Popularity dwindles easily in Kpop.
Scandals, military service, and a label folding can end the “life” of a group. Koreans have a strong sense of morality. A scandal can permanently destroy an idol’s career. Military service takes idols out of the spotlight for awhile, causing fans to move on and forget about them. Labels that don’t make enough money to keep their groups afloat or labels that get involved with lawsuits eventually fold or close down or get bought out.
As I’ve said, I’ve been into Kpop for over 10 years (since around 2004). I’ve seen major groups go from kings and queens of their kingdoms to obscure little nobodies trying to hold on to what little fandom they had. Some of it seemed to happen too quickly. It was always when I was just getting into an artist or just appreciating their music…
Because of this, I advise you fans to learn to appreciate your favorite artists for as long as you can. Support them to the best of your ability.
15) Idols Can’t Date Easily
One of the biggest scandals in Korea are the dating scandals. For all you western fans, you may find “dating” to be an odd “scandal”. What’s so “scandalous” about dating? If you think about it, this may even be laughable to westerners. Famous artists in the west are dating, married, and have children! In fact, artists in the west date for publicity and status! It makes no difference to their art in western countries. This is because westerners’ values are different from Korea’s values.
This was one of the most shocking revelations I had when first getting interested in Kpop. I think most international fans would be shocked. I mean, with so many attractive people, who wouldn’t want to date them? How can such pretty people stay single for the rest of their lives?
It’s quite simple really.
Labels design their artists to appeal to teen “fantasies”. These idols are not meant to be looked at as “real” figures. If they were, they would not get the same revenue they get from swooning their audience. In order to convince fans to buy into these groups, labels have to produce “available” and “pure” artists that seem untouchable, unreachable, and up for grabs. Every fan has to “feel” like they have a boyfriend/girlfriend out of these idols.
Because of the way these groups are marketed, many fans, especially in Korea, do feel they own these idols. When their favorite idols are revealed to be “dating”, some of them even look at this as betrayal! Fans feel that the idols aren’t doing their jobs. That “job” is to appeal to fans’ fantasies. Some fans are just spitting jealous. But these jealousies can end CAREERS.
When one member of EXO (a major boy group in Korea), Baekhyun, was revealed to be dating, fans were so angry jealous it affected Kyuhyun’s musical ticket sales, and he’s just a fellow member!
Labels have learned that their idols can’t date if they expect to become major Kpop stars in Korea. Some labels prevent their idols from dating by making a contractual agreement about it. Most idols are supposed to be thought by fans to be “single” and “virgins” at the time of debut, no matter how attractive they look or how sexy the concept.
Koreans have a strong moral code. Koreans like their entertainment to be “family-friendly”. So, you may see some sexy concepts coming out of Kpop groups (especially as more international fans get into the genre and as the fan base reaches the “2030” crowd), but the groups still have to maintain a certain level of chastity and innocence.
Kpop idols’ business image affects their real life big time. This is one of the reasons so many Kpop members leave the industry and one of the reasons so many fall from grace. As pretty as Kpop looks, the idols live a lonely existence most of the time. Aside from that, at a certain age, there is pressure to be married, especially among women in their 20s. Many Koreans get married in their 20s. Many kpop idols feel the pressure to be like all of their other adult friends, but also feel the pressure to appear “available” to fans.
For some international fans, dating is nowhere near seen the same. To us, it’s not as big of a deal as having sex (and is in fact super innocent), but for Koreans it’s almost the same thing. Even too much public affection is uncommon. But isn’t that why most of us love the industry? They just don’t tolerate the same impurities other nations tolerate and they make sure they watch how they are seen in public. This can be a blessing or a nightmare.
Perhaps these sex-negative reactions are linked to Korea’s declining birth rate….but most experts argue that it has more to do with economics and progression.
Dating scandals are harsher on female idols than on male idols. Females are already not as respected as much as men are in the Kpop universe (which I will discuss later), but a dating scandal is just a way to completely destroy a female idol’s career. f(x)’s former member Sulli was run out of her group by fans who didn’t approve of her dating! One fan is so obsessed with hating this girl, they created a whole twitter account for their hatred and post hate comments daily! The truth is female idols are supposed to appear as “innocent, without strong sexual urges” in Korea. Being too sensual or sexual is considered an area women aren’t allowed to trespass. If a woman is too sexual or confident about her sexuality, they are degraded in Korea. Men can sometimes get away with dirty jokes in media or music and can even get away with provocative names. Women can hardly skate by sexy concepts.
“Skinship” is a term flipped around in Kpop. This means that the two people involved seem really close or “intimate”. For Koreans, a little hug between a man and woman or two of them taking selfies or even wearing matching clothes could be considered skinship! Little signs of skinship will make Koreans question whether the two are dating. Because open displays of affections aren’t common, it’s hard to tell who is dating. Knetz will find some evidence and piece it together.
Kpop journalists are more respectful than western journalists, so they don’t often get into too many details about an idol’s private life. But Korean fans are pretty good, and often better than journalists, at being the paparazzi.
16) Humility, Duty, And Hard Work Are Prized By Koreans
Ashyne, the poster I mentioned earlier from a Reddit discussion, makes a really interesting point about Kpop idols:
The idol is about being a role model in image, character, etiquette and personality, and that is strictly enforced. In America, people don’t care about these, because these traits about being ‘role-model material’ are not important in their individualistic culture.
Koreans hold themselves to a high moral code, as I’ve mentioned several times. The west honors freedom, liberty, and justice as a principle. We believe that people should be respected as human beings and should be treated equally (regardless of our personal opinions). So when we hear about our favorite Kpop idols suing their labels or leaving their groups, we are very supportive, even still considering those idols a part of the group (just going in a different direction at the moment). After all, in the west, groups break up all the time and come back together for reunions, like the Spice Girls.
But in Korea, when members leave or sue their label, as I mentioned before, that is utter betrayal and abandonment. Koreans have a “duty” culture. When you sign up for something in Korea, they expect you to completely serve out all contracts and do what you signed up to do, regardless of how challenging or abusive the circumstances. For them, why get involved in something you can’t handle? They don’t believe in fickleness and “changing one’s mind.” There is often too much money wasted, too much time spent, and too much involved. When kpop idols take a “break” during promotions, many Koreans feel that idol is being “lazy” and see this as betrayal, regardless of the reason. In fact, in most Korean businesses, “vacation time” isn’t included in the deal.
Many Korean fans expect idols to perform in all situations, as they promised in these binding contracts. This surprised me, a westerner, considering our celebrities take vacations all the time, even halting promotions! Westerners especially don’t mind halted promotions for legitimate reasons like being sick, tired, or stressed by scandals and bad rumors. For Koreans, they may talk bad about Kpop idols, but they’ll talk more trash about an idol who halts promotions because of it. They believe idols should learn to be strong and endure.
There is a strong bully culture worldwide thanks to the internet, but in Korea there are few programs or supporters helping those who don’t fit the “norm”. In fact, the victim of the maliciousness is usually “blamed”. I agree that some people in America should be held as accountable as those in Korea are, but there’s a reason why Korea has a high suicide rate. The pressure to live up to such high standards takes a toll on citizens who don’t fit the “norm”.
This sense of duty extends to military service, too. Though fans love their male idols, they all still expect the males to serve their country. Any idols who avoid military service or take their duty lightly will be scorned by Koreans and will lose the respect of their fans. In the west, we abolished the “draft”. In Korea, it still exists for men in their late 20s to early 30s. Some idols try to skate around it or postpone it but this causes controversy and can result in severe consequences. Korean fans find “draft-dodging” to be a sign of weakness. These people are treated as traitors. Unlike westerners, especially those from the USA, Koreans don’t question their laws or leaders nor do they question the military service draft. It is an insult to all those who have already served their time and can shame a person’s whole family. They believe this is for the good of their country. They are really trying to protect their borders because they are technically still in a 60 year -long war with North Korea. This is no game for them. Even the children feel this service is important and prepare for the day they must serve. It is a sign of manhood. My next section will talk more about this.
Duty is intertwined with hard work. Again, there are very few businesses that offer “vacation days” like in western countries. Some Japanese and Chinese fans may relate more to this than western fans. Idols work their butts off to give their audience the best they can with hardly any sleep. This is why their performances are so sharp and on point! Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see tired eyes from these idols. Makeup and skin cream does wonders to hide those bags though.
Idols train early, as I mentioned before, and the training can be rigorous. Kpop consists of so much. There’s vocal, dancing, fashion, performing, and fan meeting involved. Kpop artists work and are expected to work extremely hard. They sometimes work around the clock, only getting four hours of sleep a day during promotions!
Koreans also encourage humility in their idols. This goes along with duty as well. When someone acts out to get attention or makes themselves out to be more than they are, that irritates most Korean fans. This is partially why Korean fans dislike international fans. Some international fans can be really loud, boastful, and know-it-alls (though you can find these types anywhere, it’s more common in the USA). Koreans believe in being submissive and following rules, especially rules that will protect others. Of course, even they have their limits. Still, they are not likely to encourage their idols to speak up and out. This is part of the reason so many idols don’t speak on behalf of themselves and let their labels speak for them.
Korean fans worship their idols, true, but they also expect idols to show a deep level of appreciation and gratefulness. After all, Korean fans put out a lot to support their favorite idols. In every culture where a “deep bow” is involved, respect and humility is valued over pomposity.
Their “bowing”culture shows how strongly they feel about humility. Though idols are famous, they find it highly offensive if Korean idols forget to bow to their fans after winning awards. They even get offended if idols forget to bow towards other idols at award shows. It is a sign of humility and respect. Bowing to Koreans is equivalent to the “handshake” in the west.
In some ways, people in the USA are not too different. We do like humility, but natural humility. However, we tend to like artists who are down-to-earth and honest, even if they aren’t the most honorable or humble. If someone is naturally humble, that’s great to Americans. But our culture looks down on anything that seems “fake”, even fake humility. Americans have a motto: Be Yourself. Being loud and obnoxious is just as irritating to Americans, but, admittedly, it’s also highly entertaining for us as well, especially if you are just “being yourself”. 😄
Still, we also like Kpop because the artists are so respectful and humble. Very seldom do Kpop idols show that fame is getting to their heads (even if the reality is different).
Earlier I mentioned that this “humble” culture has a lot of respect for the “age hierarchy”. Age is very important in Korea. It decides the kind of “respect” that is given. The oldest is always respected by the younger ones. It’s common for the older ones to eat first at every meal (unlike in America, where the children and elderly eat first). But the older ones have to pay the bill (no matter if the others have jobs and are adults, different from America where the bill is split or paid by whoever offered or paid by the man or paid by the one who proposed the date). The older ones are expected to “take care” of the younger ones (even if the youngest is in his 50s!) It’s common for Koreans to ask your age (whereas it’s rude in America to ask age). It’s just important because it decides the level of “respect” someone should give. The young Koreans are expected to be humble and respectful around the older Koreans.
Kpop debut years are treated like “age” sometimes. Whoever debuts first is considered a “senior”, even if they are younger than all the “juniors”. You can imagine how awkward this makes things if the “senior” is younger than the “junior”. Kpop singer BoA is younger than many members of Kpop group Super Junior, but she is still their “senior” because she debuted sooner.
In Kpop, you might hear “Oppa” or “Unni” being used by the younger idols towards older idols. “Dongsang” may be used by older idols or used by idols that have been under a label longer (They usually tend to be older).
Despite how harsh or difficult everything above may sound, on the flip side, this is actually one of the reasons people have fallen in love with the genre. These idols work their behinds off producing high-quality work so that they can look like royalty, but they still always try to show respect to their followers and always emphasize how grateful they are for their fans, like a humble servant. That balance is hard to achieve for many celebrities around the world.
The humility shown in Kpop and in Korea is definitely one of the most attractive points of the nation.
17) Male Idols Must Serve In The Military
Korea has a law that requires all natural-born Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve in the military or choose compulsory national service. All men can choose when to serve but they must serve. Kpop idols usually choose to serve in their late 20s and early 30s when their popularity has either been established well enough or when their popularity has dwindled due to “age” (XD Let’s face it, the industry’s demographic is Korea’s youth).
There are exemptions:
Certain medical conditions, depending on the severity, either exempts one from service or allows civil service instead. This includes those who have donated organs. Graduates from special high schools may work at selected workplaces for 3 years instead. Those with a master’s degree in engineering may work at research institutes or pass a test and do a PhD for 3 years instead. Those who have been imprisoned for more than 18 months or are in poverty (defined as monthly income lower than 1.5 million won and being the sole provider of income for at least 3 family members, of which at least 2 must be disabled or have an incurable disease) are also exempt.
Current conscription laws stipulate that athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions but still required to do four weeks of basic training. In 2011, the Military Manpower Administration proposed amendments to the exemptions: to include men who have not completed middle school, and to change to a points-based system on a prescribed scale for athletes who win in prestigious competitions.
Sometimes, anyone who tries to get exempt is watched or monitored closely, even if they have a good reason. People do speculate and try to investigate these situations.
Men of mixed races were only recently drafted into service in 2011.
Anyone who is on a visa, visiting, or not a natural-born citizen may be exempt from military service. Anyone who has dual citizenship can be exempt if they fall under the following:
1)They reside in the country they were born in with parents who are permanent citizens.
2) They have resided in another country with their parents since the age of 17.
3) They have resided in another country for ten consecutive years and their parents do not reside in the Republic of Korea.
The government of the Republic of Korea will recognize a male’s dual citizenship until they reach the age of 22, at which time the law requires them to choose a nationality. If a male claims dual citizenship and he is not registered on his citizen parents’ Family Registry, he will not be subject to military service. If he is included on his parents’ Family Registry, he can avoid military service if he formally renounces his South Korean citizenship before March 31 of the year he turns 18. He must register the loss of his nationality through the nearest Republic of Korea Consulate General in the country he resides in.
Trip Advisor-Can Korean Americans Be Drafted?
All men are usually expected to serve about two to three years.
This mandatory service affects Kpop in many ways. It’s one of the reasons Kpop idols debut so early in their lives, why Kpop boy groups are super popular at debut, why many Kpop idols lose popularity, and why many labels are reaching out for talented foreigners.
How is the military law responsible for Kpop idols debuting so soon? Well, labels know that teenage girls are the target for Kpop and that girls like young boys. But they also know they possibly only have male idols for only a few years until they have to serve. The labels figure they can train the idols while they’re really young, work them hard enough to make a profit, and then possibly be able to move on to the next recruit of boys by the time the old group has to serve.
This is also why so many boy groups are popular. Labels exploit their boy groups as much as they can so they can make a profit off of these boy groups before they have to serve in the military. In the beginning phases of the Kpop phenomenon, labels would promote the boys way more than they did the girls because they knew the girls would be around longer. Over the years, this has created an industry that is mostly dominated by boy groups (the most notable rather than in literal number) and an industry dominated by a female fandom.
As I mentioned before, Kpop idols are usually away from the spotlight 2 to 3 years of their service. This gives other boy groups just enough time to replace the older groups on the charts. Sadly, for many Kpop groups, military service ends their Kpop career. It’s sad, really. The industry moves fast and songs get replaced on the charts week after week. Any time away from the spotlight can seriously bring a powerful group back to the point when they were rookies. You’d think that serving the military would make them MORE popular, because the group served their country honorably and helped protect the people within. Apparently, the youth, could care less. Most move on to the latest and youngest eye-candy debuting.
Since many fans are international, I suppose they don’t really understand this military service or honor it as much. Really, these men should be honored more than any of the other groups. They had the courage to sacrifice their careers to protect others.
There are some groups that have done military service and have come out with significant fame, depending on their strategy to get back in the spotlight. Shinhwa and Super Junior manage to stay pretty relevant. But since most supporters of Kpop don’t just like music for music’s sake, and most of the demographic consist of teen girls who want to see “attractive” and “younger teen” boys (sorry gentlemen 😦 ), it’s still even hard for these groups to stay relevant. Perhaps the new 2030 crowd could give them a boost…
Honestly, most labels lose a lot investing in acts that won’t last. And this is why they have been searching for talent from around the globe. Foreigners are exempt from military service. They can speak multiple languages and attract a foreign following. This brings more money to the label with more lasting results.
18) Boy Groups Are More Popular Than Girl Groups
As I mentioned before, because many males have to serve in the military at young ages, Kpop labels exploit the boys much more than the girls. When we look at the overall Youtube view count, the boys are always higher than the girls. When we observe the Korean charts at the time a boy group debuts in comparison to when a girl group debuts, we can see the stark contrast. Labels obviously promote the boys much more and the majority of Kpop fans are GIRLS. This is not just a stereotype. This is fact.
Since Kpop boys are trained to fit the “fantasies” of their viewers, mostly teen girls, they will obviously be more popular than Kpop girl groups, who could spark both admiration and jealousy.
Even Kpop fanboys, even as the minority, like the male groups better. Many boys think the female idols are cute and attractive, especially many soldiers the girls perform for, but some find the girls to be too “cutesy” or not as “powerful” onstage as the boys.
Part of it is the labels’ fault for being too lax with the girl groups and part of it has to do with Korean society and their expectations of women.
Boy groups are given more powerful choreography, more powerful songs, and more interesting concepts than females. If we look at groups like EXO, Got7, Infinite, BTS, Super Junior, and many others, we will see this is the truth. In comparison, the female choreographies and concepts are weaker and more repetitive as well as less original. Of course people are going to pay attention more to the boys! Even on live stages, the boys just shine! The girls are settled with girly, fun, cute or sexy concepts, recycled dance moves, and innocent faces most of the time. I’ve found a few groups to be the exception, like 2ne1 and f(x). I even think Brown Eyed Girls steps away from the norm. But very few are like these groups.
I think I already explained that labels want to get the most out of their boy groups before they have to serve in the military. The money from the large female fandom keeps them focusing on male groups, too.
Girl groups tend to have more scandals and catty behavior that leads to groups breaking up. While some 1990’s idol groups have reunited formally, the most popular girl groups of the day like Fin.K.L and S.E.S have only reunited for short events…
In comparison [to boy groups], girl groups struggle to maintain proper fan bases. Female fans may be loyal, but will generally also have a favorite boy band, leading to split attention, while male fans tend to be less loyal and switch between groups based on their concepts…
There is also more of a saturation of girl groups with similar concepts, making it harder for fans to distinguish between newer groups. Girl groups from smaller companies have to gain attention in unique ways, such as Crayon Pop’s ridiculous “Bar Bar Bar” concept, but then struggle to maintain their identity.
Female idol groups also often lose much of their appeal as they get older, since most idol groups focus on sexy and cute concepts and the majority of fans don’t really want to see mothers dancing in high heels and sexy outfits.
Kpopstarz interestingly mentions that girl groups have more scandals. But I think the difference also has to do with what is considered a “scandal” between boys and girls. The Korean public is harder on women and expect them to live up to higher standards than the boy groups. Men like “Choiza” can get away with a sexual name in Kpop, while any female with a similar name will be looked at poorly. While both male and female idols get scarred for dating, considering most males have a larger fan base, the fans will attack the female for “stealing” the male idol rather than attack them both.
I believe the “catty” behavior among the members is a result of the lack of popularity in comparison to boy groups, the favoritism shown by fans of the group, and arguments with the label to be seen as multi-talented and multifaceted. Female idols probably often feel disadvantaged, especially when one female idol is more popular for being a “visual” while the others struggle to let their individual talents shine.
David Volodzko from PRI shows that female idols’ behavior on stage, in variety shows, during music shows, and the concepts produced are heavily monitored and controlled. There are serious double standards between the idols. He mentions some interesting points:
For instance, when the hugely popular group Girls’ Generation (SNSD) batted their eyes at a boy band during a television variety show in 2008, this prompted fans to publicly humiliate them at that year’s annual Dream Concert, where audience members typically show performers their support by creating oceans of light with glow sticks. When SNSD took to the stage, the audience greeted them with dead silence and pitch darkness for the duration of their set….
Or take the case of former f(x) member Sulli. When Kim Hee-chul, member of the boy band Super Junior, claimed he was the most handsome member of his band, fans found it amusing. Yet when they discovered Sulli had written in her diary, as a 9-year-old child, “I think I’m pretty but I don’t get why other people think so too,” many people virulently attacked her. Then, when Sulli acknowledged she was dating the rapper Choiza in 2014, her career took a nosedive and she later left f(x). Meanwhile Choiza, whose stage name means “big dick,” not only survived the scandal, he cracked jokes about it on SNL Korea.
“Most K-pop videos portray women as sex objects and that includes all the female K-pop singers and groups, too,” says Kevin Cawley, professor of East Asian studies at University College Cork in Ireland. Many have cosmetic surgery and dance provocatively, but are “still expected to adhere to outdated Confucian norms about sexual conduct in their private lives while men can do as they please.”
Nevertheless, slut-shaming remains a societal mainstay, as does the infantilization of female pop idols. Just last year, IU released the song “Twenty-three,” in which she sings about the pressure put upon female stars to appear child-like, despite the fact that she herself is becoming a mature woman. But, because she dresses like a child in the video, rather than spark a national dialogue about the pedophiliac overtones of dressing grown women like schoolgirls, instead she was accused of using pedophiliac imagery to sell records.
Whether or not you agree with these statements, it still makes us think about the issue a little more. Many times we do have to go to the root of issues instead of ignoring them.
You can still like Kpop as a sound, but not every aspect will cater to everyone’s needs.
19) K-pop Is Not Extremely Diverse
Above I mentioned that there were some foreigners who have been accepted into Kpop. It’s true that Koreans have accepted newcomers into the industry. But keep in mind that most of the people accepted into the groups have been of Asian descent, currently classified as “heterosexual”, fitting gender “norms”, and fitting typical “beauty” standards (which I’ll have to dedicate a whole different section to). Though most are Asian, some of the Asians that aren’t “Korean” may be treated like second-class citizens. Korea is a modernized nation and slowly opening up to new ideas, but some people in Korea are still rather conservative, especially the older generation.
Though Kpop has welcomed a vast number of Chinese artists into the nation, it’s clear that the Koreans favor the Korean native idols more. If we observe the Chinese and Korean music videos of the major Kpop group “Exo”, we can see there is a difference in the promotion of the two videos by the “view count”. Because it is Kpop (Korean pop music), some Chinese members may feel treated “second best” because their natural language is Chinese. The Chinese language is not spoken by most Koreans, so it’s understandable. Still, it’s hard for many Chinese to fit in. Most end up doing promotions in China. There are hardly any Chinese idols cast in Korean dramas or on promotional ads for Korean products.
There are still some things Koreans aren’t used to and there are still some things that haven’t been accepted in society yet.
As far as different ethnic groups or races, that’s mostly something Koreans are still not used to. Obviously, the country is homogeneous (meaning the majority of citizens “look” Korean). When foreigners of different backgrounds come into the nation, especially the ones of African descent, they really stand out as “foreign” (even though there are Asians who are also from foreign nations, they just fit in better because they “look” Korean).
With idols like Insooni (a woman who debuted in Korea in the 1970s, a real hard time for African Americans in the country), Tasha, Alexandra, and many others, Koreans are able to better understand black people. But it’s still hard for black people to “fit in”. When Koreans get used to them, most of them will treat these idols like everyone else. But at first, it will feel a bit jarring and different. Koreans may be a little shocked, but most are also curious because they just aren’t used to diverse groups of people.
Not to say there are no black people in Korea. Black people are just among the minority groups living there. Koreans still don’t see black people often and don’t know how to approach them or take them.
Of course, there are those who really are racist and have very narrow perceptions about black people (like in every country). Some Koreans get their knowledge about black people from hip-hop and rap music videos. Koreans, particularly the elders, associate those genres with “bad” or “loose” behavior, particularly when it comes to violence and sex. Though rap and hip-hop has influenced much of Kpop today, most of it is watered down. The actual pure genre is ignored or even shunned. And even though they’ve accepted the genre as a part of “black culture”, many of them don’t really honor black rap and hip-hop artists within the nation. A rapper like CL from 2ne1 will get more attention than a rapper like Tasha Yoon Mi Rae. Part of the reason is because CL is of Korean descent and tried it, which inspires other Koreans to embrace hip-hop culture. They see CL as a representation of themselves. When looking at a black person perform the genre, it feels more “exclusive” to only blacks and many Koreans feel “rejected” from the genre. Not to say they won’t like it, but Knetizens like to feel “inspired to imitate” when they see idols perform. It’s hard for them to gravitate to something they don’t feel “included” in. Again, music is secondary; the way something “looks” or is “presented” usually comes first.
There are a few Koreans that get their idea of black people from American news articles online, which often misrepresent black people. They may not understand that all black people are various and diverse. This is partially because in their own nation everyone conforms. So for them, if they see one black person doing one thing, some will generalize all of them. Of course, there are ignorant people in every nation. Generally, most Koreans are respectful. Overall, again, the culture puts emphasis on respecting others and trying to remain humble. They also respect humility and hard work in others. Black people can prove to Koreans that they are WORTHY of respect by being respectful and humble when meeting other Koreans. The first impression matters, too.
Still, some Koreans may be a little distant or shun foreigners. Some can be angry at foreigners and talk racist trash. Of course, this is most common among the older conservative generation or the younger immature generation.
Many black women in Korea struggle to be seen as “equal” to Korean women. It has a lot to do with Korea’s standards for beauty. Many of their “ideals” greatly conflict with black people’s natural-born features. And I’ll mention later how much emphasis Koreans put on looks…
Still, as hard as it is for the women to fit in, do you see any black men in Kpop? I don’t think so. I think the black men have it harder to be seen as “normal” solid citizens who are respectful and talented as opposed to “thuggish gangsters”.
For many mixed artists, it’s even harder to fit in. They may feel both rejected by the black community for not being “black enough” and may equally be rejected by Koreans for being “black by skin”.
While there are hardly any black entertainers, there are even less entertainers of European descent. Asians can be just as unfriendly towards whites. Though many Asians admire their pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, though many try to adapt these looks, though some may want to have affairs with them, many Koreans don’t really trust white people much for the same reasons they don’t trust black people. They have very little experience with white people, only knowing them from movies and the news (or history books). Many Koreans also find white people to be “too loose”. Their idea of “white” is always associated with being “American”. They don’t often readily think the white people that come into their land are from the U.K., France, Germany, or any other place. They see them all the same. So, if Miley Cyrus twerks in America, that’s a representation of all white people. Some white people have experienced the same kind of racial attacks black people have received in the nation.
Despite the prejudices, blacks and whites are useful to Koreans. They can teach Koreans English.
Most have never come into contact with those from Central and South America, Latinas, and/or Hispanics. The Americans from those ethnic groups are not considered “American” because most are bilingual. How they are treated depends on their skin color.
Most Koreans don’t even know what “Native American” or “indigenous” means. Some even think native “Americans” are white. Still, true “indigenous” people more closely resemble Koreans in comparison to white and black people. If they were to meet them more often, they would find more similarities than differences.
If you’re from areas in Southeast Asia, like India or Indonesia, some Koreans may not know how to respond to people from these nations. Some Koreans associate Southern Asians with “third-world” countries or see their nations as “developing” and not as advanced as Korea is. Southeast Asians that have moved into Korea sometimes work in factories and other laborious jobs. Some Koreans don’t see these jobs in a favorable light. And there is a strong social hierarchy in Korea. Ignorant Americans can treat different ethnic groups much the same way, such as associating laundromats with the Chinese or affiliating “lawn care” with Mexicans.
Three teachers, one of Indian descent, Scandinavian American, and half Filipino American, have shared their experiences on Youtube.
“Foreigners” or people of different backgrounds are never considered Korean. It doesn’t matter if the person was born and raised in Korea, or lived there for twenty years, or married a Korean and had Korean children. The word for “foreigner” in the Korean language isn’t specified by citizenship (unlike many western countries). The word separates “genetics”. So anyone who is not genetically Korean is NOT Korean, even if that person is a “legal” citizen. This makes many foreigners feel misplaced or outcasted. On the other hand, this makes some foreigners feel unique or special. It all depends on your attitude and whether your experience with being “foreign” in Korea has been negative or positive.
Again, there is prejudice everywhere in the world. Generally, Koreans are gracious, but you won’t hardly see these races or any other ethnic groups in Kpop.
Why not? Several reasons:
- Some Koreans want to keep the “face” of Korea purely Asian. It makes Kpop stand out from all of the genres around the world.
- Some Koreans are afraid of other races dominating the media, making Korean children, who are impressionable, “hate their appearances”.
- Some Koreans feel that “westerners” don’t respect Asian entertainers in their own countries (because they assume all blacks and whites come from the west) and may want to return the favor by barring other ethnic groups from Kpop.
- Korean teenagers, who endorse kpop the most, don’t relate to individuals who don’t look like they do. Most of the teens look Korean.
Labels, of course, are trying to sell a “product” to the Korean public. They always consider how their idols will appear to the nation. This, unfortunately, bars most other ethnic groups from the genre.
There are other groups that are barred from the genre. Korea is not very open to the LGBT community just yet. They do have a Gay Pride festival, which is a step forward. This clearly means there are some openly gay and bi-sexual Koreans. However, celebrities who come out gay often face public shame. Even at the festivals, some people protest against it.
Some idols who have dared to come out have lost their friends, their jobs, and get bullied by society. Many commit suicide, adding to Korea’s high suicide rate.
Much of the older generations look at homosexuality like a disease and blame foreigners for bringing it into the nation. This is also why many Koreans are distrustful of foreigners. They often don’t recognize that there were ever people within the nation who concealed their feelings long before foreign influences.
But this is common in all countries. The elderly just have a hard time adjusting to the changing times.
Still, some younger fans don’t relate to homosexual imagery outside of looking at “girl on girl” kissing as erotic or a sexual fetish for heterosexuals. And that is considered too “suggestive” for children. Gay men have it even harder than the females because it’s not even looked at as erotic. Some Knetizens may have a crush on a “boyish” girl based on her appearance (because she seems like their favorite male idols), but may not openly express dating that girl in real life.
This trickles all the way down to “gender norms”. It is very rare to find tomboys in Kpop. Again, most labels design their female idols to appeal to traditional men. Some girls wear baggy pants, sneakers, ponytails, and, occasionally, an androgynous suit and tie if it fits a particular concept. But labels try to promote their female artists as cute and traditionally “feminine”. Social-gender stereotyping is common because Koreans believe in conformity. If one person doesn’t conform in one way, they are considered “odd” or “outside of their gender”.
F(x)’s Amber Liu, has been able to overcome the limitations placed on female idols, despite the pressure from others to conform. But not too many tomboys like her are lucky enough to get a spot in a Kpop group. They really have to work harder to prove themselves.
The men have been able to get away with more feminine looks, like Jo Kwon in “Animal” or Taemin in “Danger”, but it’s clear that the more “masculine” groups are bigger in Korea.
On the other hand, despite the fact that it’s hard to actually come out as gay, blending in as a gay person under the radar would not be too difficult. Many of the things heterosexual Korean men and women do with the same sex are often confused for being “gay” to most westerners. For example, it’s perfectly normal for two men to hold hands, stroke one another, or wear makeup in Korea, no matter their sexuality. In the west, those behaviors are stereotyped with being “gay”. To Koreans, these things are just normal.
No one openly shows affection in public, such as hugging and kissing, not even heterosexual couples, so anyone would get weird stares for doing that. But as long as gay people fit into the culture, no would ever assume their sexuality unless it was actually brought out in the open. Being “gay” is never a usual topic in Korea. The younger generation is more tolerant than the older generation. Still, if a gay person were to come out, it would be hard for them to maintain employment.
Kpop is also not extremely diverse when it comes to body shapes and sizes.
20) Looks Are Just As Important As Talent
Considering that Korea is a homogeneous place, everyone tries to keep up with the latest fashion and beauty tips that apply mostly to traditional Korean appearances. In the western part of the globe and many other nations in the southern part, people come in all shapes and sizes. There isn’t much pressure to look just “one way” like there is in Korea.
Guess who is number 1 in the world when it comes to plastic surgery? Korea! If that doesn’t show you how much they care about their appearances, I don’t know what does.
Some of the beauty standards that exist go way back in Korea’s history! The standards for beauty are
- Pale Skin
- Petite body
- Small features (facial, hands, feet, etc)
- Double eyelids and big eyes
- Pearly, white, straight teeth
These standards exist for both men and women.
Koreans also put emphasis on what is worn. They put emphasis on name-brands and trends. I think Fashion King (the 2014 film) describes the pressure to be beautiful and trendy in Korea’s fashion culture more than anything (though the movie exaggerates it).
I want to first dive into skin. Most Koreans have a lighter complexion. But there are some who have tans. Unfortunately, the ideal is to have pale-looking skin because that is considered most “naturally Korean”. This is what I meant earlier when I said Korea’s beauty standards clash with black people’s natural features.
This is not to say that Koreans think darker skinned people are butt ugly or unattractive, but if they could choose the ideal, for some, that person would be pale. Some do prefer their own “kind”.
For them, wanting lighter skin is no different than people wanting a tan in the USA (to have a darker complexion). Having a tan in America is linked to “prestige” because Hollywood resides in a warmer climate and many celebrities live in California, the home of Hollywood. Living off of the beach is also a sign of prestige in America (because of the weather and view, prices are higher). “Tans” are a reflection of living in a warmer climate with all the rich and famous people.
Well, in Korea, having lighter skin is linked to prestige as well. It means the individuals don’t have to spend a lot of time outside “tending the fields” like a poor farmer.
Unfortunately, this makes it hard for those of a darker skin tone to feel or be seen as “beautiful”.
Koreans spend a lot on whitening cream. These creams do several things for their skin besides make it whiter. For starters, because most of them are already pretty pale, it whitens out any uneven skin tones due to blemishes, freckles, aging, or tans. It’s important for Koreans to look “untouched” or “without imperfections”. Second, it makes their skin “glow”, like putting on a lot of oil. To most westerners, it’s disgusting. Americans are starting to promote natural beauty. Some of us don’t even like the “fake tan” culture we support in America. But in Korea, looks are everything. In Korea, it’s not uncommon for people to point out imperfections when they get comfortable with you. Many Koreans take pride in their appearance.
You might see many Kpop idols promoting skin-whitening creams in advertisements and on commercials. For many Koreans, it’s a part of having healthy skin.
This doesn’t mean that every Korean approves of skin-whitening. Some Koreans feel western standards have “white-washed” citizens into wanting to have a more European look (pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes). Some Koreans prefer people to be natural.
But most associate beauty with glowing, white skin.
Koreans also spend money on makeup. They mostly try to wear makeup that “whitens” them rather than makeup that gives color (unlike in the west). They let it even out with the whitening cream to give them a “naturally flawless” look. Even the men in Korea spend money on makeup, which is considered unusual in the west. In Korea, it is common for men to be just as interested in their appearances as women. After all, for many in Korea, being attractive is the key to success.
Now focusing on body standards…
A petite body is associated with “good health”. Even having a big butt or big chest could be associated with being “fat”. Some Koreans don’t even like chubby faces or arms, even if the rest of the body is slender. The bottom-line is skinny is pretty and healthy to them. Weight is associated with poor health and is not very attractive to most Koreans. Most of the world is like this, but Koreans are a little more extreme at times. There are hardly any thick people anyway in Korea because of the diet. This is partially why the “ideal” is the way it is.
Music labels use their idols to promote Korea’s “beauty standards”. So, you will hardly see any thicker idols, though there are a few.
Fat-shaming is common in Korea. If Kpop idols even gain a little weight, it will cause an uproar.
Of course, there are Koreans who like thicker women. (Reality vs Idol Life).
Small features are also considered really attractive. Idols that usually end up at the top of most of Korea’s “beauty” lists normally have small lips, small noses, small heads, small hands, and small feet! This also has to do with most Asian women just looking petite. The majority travels down to the standard. But the idols who don’t have the “smallest” features rely on plastic surgery to give them the ideal look.
The double eyelid surgery is the biggest in Korea. Most of the far north-east Asians are born with a monolid. Some Koreans say it makes them look tired all the time. Foreign films and music stars have also influenced them. Many Kpop idols want to have wider eyes to have a “neutral” look about them.
Plastic surgery isn’t just a way to get “beautiful” to Koreans. It’s also a sign of prestige. Plastic surgery can be expensive, so mostly those with enough money invest in it. Still, thousands of people try to pour their money into it.
Having straight, white teeth is a sign of prestige, too. Braces are expensive. I think most of the world is on board with this standard!
So you might wonder why labels and idols go to some extremes to look attractive. Isn’t being natural enough? Many idols are naturally attractive without the additional enhancements.
But the truth of the matter, and I won’t mince words, Kpop sells on attractive figures. Beauty is just as important, if not MORE important, than talent. Labels try to find attractive people or those with a unique look that can ALSO sing and/or dance. Often times, the beauty part is more profitable than the talent.
Take Kpop group f(x) for example. Luna is one of the most talented members of that group. But the most popular member is Krystal. Krystal is talented too, but not like Luna. So why is Krystal more popular? Because Krystal is “prettier” (according to Korea’s beauty standards).
Often times groups will have someone in the group just to be a “visual” (meaning someone to bop around onstage and look attractive). These individuals may have mediocre talents at best, but they “look the part”. Labels usually train all idols to polish up their dancing and singing. Still, it’s clear that the industry can be a little biased towards the more attractive idols. In boy groups, it’s common for ALL the boys to be a visual. The song could be the trend, nothing unique, but if the group is full of attractive people, they will stand out.
The idol world is competitive. Korea’s society is competitive. Because most of them are super smart and work really hard, everyone has qualities that are deemed worthy for just about any job or career. But it’s just not possible to hire everyone for every job. Some Koreans have to find a certain”edge”. Some Koreans use their “attractive” qualities as that “edge”.
In Kpop, I suppose anyone could be talented or work really hard to develop “talents”. But having the right appearance does something to the hearts of the main demographic: the teenagers and young adults. Most Kpop songs don’t really require good vocalists. Many are catchy enough to grab attention. But they do require at least ONE idol who fits the “standard” of beauty.
The main demographic consists of young females, so there’s plenty of pressure for males to be attractive. However, males can also get away with singing well and performing killer choreography (the males’ choreographers tend to give them more powerful dances and the males are able to take more risks).
The women are usually given very simple choreo in comparison. For women, their biggest selling point is their appearance. Since Kpop is dominated by a female audience, some Kpop fans may be jealous or hate on female Kpop idols (because these girls not only look attractive but are so close to the male Kpop idols). Yet, kpop fans in Korea may better warm up to female Kpop idols if they are “attractive”.
The idols that don’t fit the “attractive” mold often get bashed for not taking care of their appearance. And the fans don’t feel guilty about bashing others. They simply believe it is the “fault” of the “target”. It’s really common for Koreans to be blunt about another person’s appearance. In America, we find this to be rude and inconsiderate. For many Koreans, this is considered helping someone else improve. They don’t find getting plastic surgery or putting creams on the face a sign of “self-hating”. They simply see these as enhancers, like wearing makeup or styling the hair. Many Americans do like to enhance themselves, but we feel that it shouldn’t be mandatory. Americans embrace differences more and embrace naturalness. We also honor talent over appearance.
In Korea, everything matters to create the perfect idol.
Those who don’t fit with the standards may find it hard to fit in at first, but there are ways they can convince the public that their image is a positive one. Kpop idols like F(x)’s Amber Liu, Lee Hyori, and all of the members of 2ne1 have all been examples of that. One must be strong to be able to endure the Kpop industry, despite the pressure to fit one mold. Sometimes, people let the opinions of others get in their heads. Some people don’t have the confidence to go against the norm (especially when there are so many pressures outside of physical appearance). It takes a brave soul to stand to stand against social pressures. There are four types in a competitive society: 1) The strong ones who just don’t care. 2) Those who feel they live up to social standards and can’t understand how others can’t thrive. 3) The ones who let others psyche them out, the sensitive souls who really care about the opinions of others. 4) The ones who try to be strong in public, but break down from the pressure in private. The pressure is so strong to live up to these high demands, some people commit suicide. And sadly, few have pity on these people. They are simply looked at as “weak”.
In the words of writer Ashley Perez, “In a culture where so many people strive to look the same way, any slight difference in appearance rapidly singles you out.”
However, despite the harsh pressures that go behind the scenes of the competitive Kpop industry, the appearances of the idols are still the most popular part of it. So many people support Kpop because of all of the attractive people involved. These Kpop idols work hard to be appealing and they sacrifice a lot of their natural beauty to appeal to their audience. They really can be like the humble servant.
21) Standing Out Is Difficult In Kpop
With the lack of diversity, labels constantly following the trends, and the competitive atmosphere, it becomes difficult for Kpop groups and their individual members to stand out. This can be a good thing at times. If all of the members have something special about them, it can bring a certain unity.
But when one member is favored more than the others, this is when there’s a problem.
No matter how much labels try to dress and promote their artists similarly, there will always be one that stands out. Eventually, labels will pay attention to the most popular members. Some Kpop idols have accused labels of “distributing money” unfairly according to “popularity”, as mentioned before.
When this happens, sometimes the “less” popular members may have a hard time standing out and being noticed, even if they are more talented. I think I mentioned this before too…
Kpop groups also tend to have way more members than most groups around the world (I think Japan’s AKB48 and Morning Musume are the only two that have way more members than even some of Korea’s groups). Most groups in the west have only up to five members (seven being the maximum). Kpop groups have had up to 13 members! With all of these members, sometimes it’s hard to find the individuality. It’s easier to get to know 5 members as opposed to 13. With so many idols, some members are treated as expendable. To most casual listeners of Kpop, any member can be taken out or replaced in these groups and it really wouldn’t matter.
The other problem with having large groups is that each member only gets a few moments to showcase whatever talents they have within each song. One idol could have amazing vocals but is only given one line to showcase those vocals, just to make room for the other idols. In bigger groups, some idols are left out of the verses entirely!
Some artists try solo projects to showcase their individual talents. Still, the solo projects’ successes depend on the idol’s individual fandom, which they should have gained when they were in their groups. If the person doesn’t have particular “charms” or isn’t attractive, even the solo projects will be ignored. If their groups were super large, like 13 members, all fandoms were split 1/13!
Even Knetizens think the large group numbers are getting out of hand. Some feel that large groups are too difficult to manage. I guess there’s just so many talented people trying to get into the industry, many labels are finding it hard to choose! But this can make it difficult for everyone involved, so I see where the Netizens are going with this…
22) Kpop Idols Are Traditional At The Core
With the pressure to be “pure” and beautiful, the pressure to conform to a homogeneous and heterosexual society, the pressure to work long hours, and the pressure to serve the country, international fans with a different culture might think that these kpop idols should be “saved” from what many westerners would call an “oppressive” system. We might feel that these idols need us to support them by removing them from these “threats”.
We would be both wrong and right. The idols do need us. One of the reasons labels are trying to make kpop appealing to western audiences is because of the “free-minded” views of the west. This means the west will support idols regardless of scandals or hiatuses, as long as the music is good. This means more money for Kpop labels and more creative freedom for idols.
However, let’s not forget that these idols are KOREAN. Many of them have the same beliefs that all Koreans have. KOREA is the country they live in. They don’t see these things necessarily as oppressive. It’s just living. Many of the idols’ ethics are in line with Korean thinking.
International fans have to remember that many idols pressure themselves to be beautiful and look good just as much as society pressures them.
So don’t be surprised if they make prejudiced remarks or rudely ridicule foreigners who are “fat”.
Idols are proud of the hard work they put in and are USED to working long hours. Some Kpop idols’ values are the same as most Korean citizens’ values. For many Kpop idols, getting to know their international fans can be just as much of a culture shock as when we international fans learn about their culture.
23) Kpop Doesn’t Always Reflect Everything In Korea
Whoever did this is hilar!!
From the many sections above, you can already guess that there are some things not visible to the casual kpop listener when watching music videos. Yet, some people may think that everything they see or hear regarding Kpop reflects ALL of Korea. Many international fans form distorted views of both the people and the culture from these filters.
In Kpop videos, we see attractive, skinny, and talented young men and women. They all seem sweet, friendly, and happy. They are presented as young, respectful, and humble. They seem fashionable and trendy. They seem pure and chaste.
But fans of Kpop should keep in mind that media around the world has a way of distorting the truth. Korea is no different. Kpop obsession can cause international fans to generalize a whole group of people. It can cause fans of the genre to suffer from disillusionment.
Foreigners should never tell Koreans, “I’m so interested in Korean culture. I love Kpop.” It’s great to love Kpop, but Kpop can produce unrealistic expectations.
Kpop is only one part of Korea’s vast and glorious history and culture. For some Koreans, it doesn’t even represent Korea (as many think it is over-saturated with westernized concepts). Some Koreans don’t like Kpop. There are many genres in Korea, just like there are many genres around the world. You may run into a Korean who likes Indie music or rock. You may run into Koreans who really don’t care about pop culture at all! Just like anywhere around the world.
After seeing so many attractive and happy faces on music videos and variety shows, many foreigners make it their life’s goal to move to Korea and find them a nice girlfriend/boyfriend that’s just as beautiful/handsome as the faces in the video. Some may say, “I think Asian men/women are hot. I love men like Taeyang/I love women like Taeyeon”…
You’re not going to find a Kpop idol out of a real human being. Being an idol is a profession. Being a human isn’t.
The reality is that Koreans actually come in all shapes and sizes. Though most are skinny, everyone isn’t skinny. Though there are many stylish clothing stores, everyone doesn’t have the same income to keep up with the stylish idols. Some Koreans don’t want to and may have their own unique style. Not all Korean men and women have the same talents that Kpop idols do. Not all Korean men and women are “perfect looking” like Kpop idols (who usually have enhancements, personal stylists, and extra money in their pockets). Not all are sweet and humble, not all are super friendly, not all are dorky and cute, not all of them are ALIKE. There may be pressures for Koreans to conform and be like one another, and there may be a lack of diversity in the media, but when we step outside of media, everyone is average.
It also depends on the city you visit. Of course if you visit the city of Seoul you will see more “jazzed up” individuals. It’s a city for business, culture, and entertainment. But other surrounding cities, especially Korea’s rural areas, are full of individuals who don’t fit what is on the music video.
Though many Koreans try to keep up with one another, some hate the pressures just as much as other people hate pressures in their own countries. No country is perfect.
Seven reasons why 80 percent of young South Koreans don’t want to live in their own country
Though idols are expected to be pure and chaste, many have affairs. Many drink and party. There are some who are irresponsible. There are some who are not. Though idols seem respectful, all are imperfect and will say bad things once in awhile. Some are traditional; some are not.
Idols are different from how they’re presented in music videos. They have to be nice to people in public. This doesn’t mean they will find every one of their fans to be marriage material and this doesn’t mean they will fit every fan’s desire in a REAL relationship. Sorry to break hearts; it’s the reality.
You might find Kpop idols on variety shows eating some of Korea’s famous foods. It doesn’t mean every Korean will like the same foods. Think you’re going to open up a conversation about Kimchi just because you tried Kimchi once and liked it? News Flash: Not every Korean likes Kimchi. My Korean exchange friend, born and raised in Korea, hates Kimchi. She thinks it stinks. 😄 You are entitled to choose what you want on Korea’s menus, but just know that there are tons of foods in Korea. There are even some restaurants that are familiar to westerners.
Even the negative things we hear regarding Korean Kpop fans aren’t all true. Not all Knetz are strict and hard-nosed. Not all bash idols for their actions. Some are sympathizers. Many Knetz are reasonable and respectful. Though Koreans do have their own culture and standards, there are some things they are against in their own nation. After all, if that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t find any Kpop idols who have dated or went against the norm in some other way!
24) Kpop Is Always Changing
Finally, I want you newcomers to be aware that Kpop has and always will change.
Again, I’ve been interested in the genre since 2004 and I’ve seen things change seemingly overnight. Some of my favorite Kpop stars, who were once thought of as “Kings” and “Queens”, have fallen behind a new generation time and time again.
At one time, BoA and Lee Hyori were the reigning queens of Kpop. I remember them dominating the charts and stage. I remember when DBSK (ahem…TVXQ they now call them) were just rookies. I remember when Super Junior was a rookie group! I remember when S.E.S. was the major female idol group next to Fin K.L.
Now, TVXQ’s members are considered veterans. Lee Hyori has dropped out of the Kpop spotlight. S.E.S. and Fin K.L. have disbanded. Se7en and Rain have had to serve in the military. Super Junior is now at that age, too!
I’ve had to readjust my ears to many different Kpop styles over the years. When I first got into the Korean pop industry, hip-hop, R&B, pop urban, and even a bit of pop rock influenced much of the music in Kpop. There was a very urban scene back then, which was why I was attracted to Kpop. The girls had much more sass and didn’t force “cuteness” in every scene in their videos. Solo artists still had a hard time being recognized, but not as badly as these modern-day solo artists.
Over the years, almost too soon, I saw Kpop change into something different. The release of Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” brought a new energy to Kpop, one that I really didn’t like at first. It was very hard for me to adjust to the changes. I also saw electropop take over after Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby”. And kpop still keeps evolving and changing…
So don’t get upset if a new sound begins to take over Kpop. Don’t think “This no longer sounds like Kpop”. Just remember my words: Kpop always has and always will evolve and change. They’ve been following the global trends just like all the other countries. Do you really think they want to be left behind?
Kpop has received more attention for its distinct style, so maybe that will make the current trends last much longer. Still, as more and more people from around the world get interested in Kpop, their ideas will also begin to influence the trends in Korea, whether we want to accept this or not. Labels will be interested in appealing to their demographic and that demographic now includes foreigners of many backgrounds.
For you newcomers, learn from Korean culture: Remain humble. Though not all Koreans live by this principle, it’s still a valuable lesson to learn. Don’t think that your favorite groups are such “kings” and “queens” that no one is capable of stealing their thunder. It can happen and it will.
Admittedly, in the “technology” age we live in, it’s much harder for artists to be forgotten (internet helps you search for anything). This doesn’t mean the next best thing isn’t waiting behind the scenes, waiting to devour your favorite solo artist or group’s popularity. I learned this through all of my global musical experiences (I also listen to French, Turkish, Irish, and Tanzanian pop to name a few), but it seems to be a hard concept to many fans of Kpop. I guess with so many being young, they don’t really know any different because this new age of Kpop is all they’ve experienced.
I used to hear people often shout, “This group is good, but GG/2ne1 are the QUEENS. No group will ever top them!” This was when I was still into BoA. I had to hear others call my favorite Kpop star “washed-out” or “losing her edge”. I had to sit by as my favorite idol was no longer everyone’s favorite anymore. It was the same with S.E.S., The Grace, and many others. As my favorite idols’ popularity decreased, so did the comebacks.
Now that the “3rd wave” of Kpop is entering the industry, fans of the “2nd wave” are feeling it. And the cycle will continue.
Clearly, as 2nd generation groups started losing members, we’ve been seeing a change in the atmosphere among the fandoms. There is a decline in popularity among the “2nd Gen” Kpop stars. The newer stars have risen to take power: EXO, Got7, BTS, Twice, EXID, Blackpink and many other newbies. As these artists gain popularity, and even newer groups are introduced, older groups and solo artists will become veterans, striving to hold on to their fans.
So what can we do about this? Hardly anything. Change is inevitable. But we can continue to support our favorite groups as best we can. We will still have their great songs. We still can appreciate the music for what it is. Forget the petty fan wars. Forget who wins what music show. Enjoy what you have and experience every moment. Every Kpop artist has something to contribute to the industry. If we ignore that now, we might be missing out on something amazing.
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Well, this about wraps up my article on Kpop. I’m truly sorry about the length, but I hope you fans learned a little bit more about the industry and took some thoughts with you.
For all of you major fans, what do you think? Do you agree with my points?
Everyone is invited to leave me a comment and give their thoughts!