Teacher at the Writing Center
(Yonsei University, Seoul)
The Globalization of K-Pop:
Is K-Pop Losing its Korean-ness?
The recent news of Korean boy and girl bands making headlines in Eastern and Southern Asia, Europe and the US are sending new hopes and energy through the K-Pop (short for Korean Pop) industry following the surge of pride when the Korean Wave first hit Japan and China in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The spread of Korean music and the increasing popularity of its singers is mainly due to the three major entertainment companies that dominate the K-Pop market: SM Entertainment (SM), YG Entertainment (YG) and JYP Entertainment (JYPE). SM is the oldest and largest entertainment company in the Korean music scene. It gave birth to the first generation of K-Pop boy and girl groups, including H.O.T, Shinhwa and S.E.S. It now produces the more recent teenage idols, TVXQ, Super Junior, SHINee and Girls’ Generation. YG is known for its hip-hop and electronic sounds that are well represented by its current acts Big Bang and 2NE1. JYPE also has a lineup of i dol groups under its name: Wonder Girls, 2AM, 2PM and miss A. As K-Pop’s influence and popularity continues to spread, the three entertainment companies are keenly trying to keep up with the demand and expectations of K-Pop audiences around the world. The three K-Pop powerhouses are incorporating experienced foreign—more precisely, Western—talent for both music and choreography in order to make K-Pop more appealing abroad. But a look at the major girl groups of the three labels—SM’s Girls’ Generation, YG’s 2NE1 and JYPE’s Wonder Girls—raises an important question: is the “Korean” element in K-Pop being undermined by its global goals?
SM was the first entertainment company to introduce a Korean boy band reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync. H.O.T still remains a legendary pop sensation in the Korean contemporary music scene from the mid-90s up to this day. It is only rivaled by TVXQ, another five-member boy group produced by SM about a decade later, currently slimmed down to just two members. SM also saw success with its girl unit, S.E.S, in the late 90s. In 2007, SM finally presented a bigger, polished-up version to the market with Girls’ Generation. Although the nine member group was overshadowed by the raving success of JYPE’s Wonder Girls, who debuted a couple of months earlier and took the nation by storm with its No.1 hit song “Tell Me,” Girls’ Generation’s turn in the limelight came in the summer of 2009 with the release of “Gee,” which instantly topped the charts. Overnight, Girls’ Generation became fashion icons, sending young girls and women alike scrambling for their daring primarycolored pants and tight t-shirts. Having won over its Korean fans, Girls’ Generation was ready to woo fans elsewhere. For the group’s next song, SM collaborated with Dsign Music, a group of songwriters based in Norway. In the latter half of 2009, “Genie” was released and was well-received overseas, especially in Japan where Girls’ Generation became a favorite among the K-Pop girl groups. The following single, “Hoot,” was also co-written, using Denmark-based music publishing company DEEKAY Music. Accordingly, after these successful collaborations with foreign talent, SM sought more famous musicians and bigger names. The latest song released by the girl group this month, “The Boys,” was written by Teddy Riley. His involvement was flaunted by SM in the promotion of the song, noting that he is “one of the world’s top three producers” and “Michael Jackson’s producer.” This seems to imply that Girls’ Generation is at a level where it can work with these great producers who have global recognition. It suggests that they are willing to work with and at the sam e time place the group’s name alongside these Western music legends.
Girls' Generation from "Gee" music video, 2009...