Divided over three successive posts, I will give you some information about Kpop (Korean popular music), more specifically about the rise, success and representation of boy bands. Because of my interest in Far East Asian culture, I am fully aware of the fact that my view has already undergone some influence. At the same time, I am a fan of classical music and hardly listen to any pop music. Nevertheless, I will try to sketch an as objective as possible portrait of this music style. The first post contains a general introduction and sketches the historical background of this genre.
A boy band is defined as “a vocal group consisting of young male singers”, what immediately points out their function on stage as well: singing. They do not (or rarely) write their own music or perform by playing instruments. Their performances, on the other hand, are often accompanied by choreographic dance.
Beyond Backstreet Boys
Boy bands have evolved from barbershop quartets over The Jackson 5 towards New Kids On The Block. In the 90s, managers in Europe were inspired by these American phenomena and created boys bands like Take That. The usual number of members was four or five.
Although the highlights of the genre were long gone by then, “new” boy bands formed in the 21st century. And here, South Korea comes into sight. Before being dominated by the American market, the popularity of boy bands shifted towards the East. A Taiwanese boy band called F4 gained popularity all over East Asia.
The members of F4 had their own solo projects and an acting career. Their international success was due to the TV drama Meteor Garden, in which all four of them performed. Meteor Garden is the Taiwanese adaptation of Japanese manga & drama Hana Yori Dango (got it where F4 comes from?). They had to change their name into JVKV because of copy-right issues with Japan, though.
Although still different from Korean pop idols, a change in representation is noticeable. F4 emits the “radiant light” of four pretty sweet flower boys, sensible and well-mannered. They seem to care a big deal about their long, shiny hair, white teeth and clean-shaven chins, and smile heart-warmingly at the female audience. This, in my opinion, is the East Asian perception of masculinity, a different, but equal approach as the one American boy bands promote. More about this will be discussed in the second part.
In 2001, the Japanese boy band EXILE with 14 members was formed. Yes, that’s a lot of members. Their appearance looks like a mix between the American hiphopping-bad-boy-type and the choreographic South Korean style. They are still active nowadays. Outside Japan, where they have sold over 20 million records, they are hardly known.
But Japan’s most famous boy band is Arashi 嵐, formed by Johnny’s Entertainment in 1999 and consisting of Ōno Satoshi, Sakurai Shō, Aiba Masaki, Ninomiya Kazunari and Matsumoto Jun. They have an acting career as well, appear in TV and radio shows, do commercials, host events and have their own variety show. Their fan base is not limited to young girls, but apparently they appeal to older people (men and women) as well. Many fans believe that the closeness between the members, who have been best friends for over 10 years, is the secret of their huge success.
Unlike Koreans however, the Japanese do no grasp the chance to gain international recognition because of a strict application of author’s rights. Audio and music videos are banned from the internet. In a way, I understand this, and they have enough response in their own country, but creating a foreign fan base wouldn’t be a bad idea. The best example I can give is that of Gangnam Style. What would it have been without uncensored Youtube? In South Korea, downloading music for free is the most common thing to do, while Japanese are very reluctant to commit such a “crime” and gladly pay for it. Bernie Cho, head of DFSB Kollektive, a Korean music distribution company, even stated that “a lot of top idols make more money for a week in Japan than they do for a year in South Korea.” However, the biggest part of their earnings comes from international concerts.
Before we leave the Western music scene behind us, a word has to be said on the current two most famous boy bands, i.e. the Jonas Brothers (2008) and One Direction (2011). They reintroduced the boy band concept by throwing out choreography and focusing solely on the vocals and visuals. (Okay, Big Time Rush takes the trouble to put some dance moves in their choreography, but their dancing skills are nothing to write home about, to be honest.) One Direction makes it pretty clear at the beginning of this video clip:
A Booming Boy Band Business
South Korea, Japan and China disagree with One Direction. They prefer the spirit of the nineties, or rather, the modernized version of it. Music is important, but only a part of the game. Especially the visual aspect, the appearance as well as the dance, is a crucial factor, which makes it essential to promote them through media like television and internet. Members of boy bands are the nation’s top idols, not to mention their huge popularity. To meet the requirements and anticipations of the public, they are carefully guided by entertainment companies.
The story starts in the mid-1990s, when South Korea became largely subject to capitalism. The “Korean Wave” or hallyu 헌류 / 韓流 was born. This term stands for the spread of South Korean culture, more specifically, Kpop, Kdrama, animated cartoons, movies, language, cuisine, fashion, tourism and so on, whereof the first two are the most important. The Korean Wave can be seen as a tool of soft power, comparable with Japanese manga and anime:
“Hallyu as a national and political campaign offers the opportunity to cultivate Koreanness, as it were, through the image, the melodrama, and the music of its culture.”
A question that can be raised here is in how far Kpop is Korean. In the nineties, American music styles like techno and hiphop were introduced and embraced. These were however adopted in a Korean way. Scholar Hee-Eun Lee points out that Kpop is originally a fusion of global and local elements, supported by mass consumption in South Korea (and here I go writing again about cultural hybridity, it somehow seems to be an answer to all contemporary cultural phenomena…):
“Korea has served as a compelling example of resistance to globalization and orientation toward localization.”
In terms of music, the global aspect of Kpop is very clear. One cannot deny there is a lot of resemblance with Western pop stars. Nevertheless, Kpop is no rash copy of Lady Gaga:
“it can be seen as an essentially hybrid, yet distinct, cultural product. (…) Thus, K-Pop is not exactly exclusively “Korean”. These hybrid media forms (…) often problematize or challenge “traditional ideas of Korean-ness, traditional assumptions of uniformity and cultural homogeneity”. (…) There is “interaction between two different cultures that create commonalities who are conducive to transcultural consumption.””
Boy bands proved to be succesful in the South Korean Kpop landscape. First idol group H.O.T. won the hearts of many Korean girls, and other boy bands like Shinhwa and TVXQ – in Chinese, or DBSK in South Korean initials – followed. Their popularity is beyond all doubt, as the latter band’s fan base of more than 800,000 members made up for “the world’s largest fanclub” in the Guinness Book of Records 2008.
The official international breakthrough of Korean boy bands internationally was the formation of Super Junior in 2005. They debuted with 12 members, and had 13 at its peak. Five years before, SM Entertainment (not what you think – stands for Success Museum) had started casting auditions and contests to scout the members. From the beginning Super Junior (SuJu) was meant to have an international career: for example, the first audition was surprisingly held in Beijing, and another member was delivered by a casting agency in Los Angeles.
The plan was a rotational system like Japanese all-girl group Morning Musume. Every year, the current “generation” of Juniors would graduate from the group and new members would be added. The plan evoked some strong reactions from the fans and SM Entertainment decided after the scouting of a thirteenth member to drop the rotation system. As a result, leader Leeteuk has reached the age of 30 this year. His youthful look still fits for a boy band, though.
The SuJu members are not just singers. They debuted in 2005, while they were scouted maximum five years before that. Imagine waiting for five years before your real appearance in public. What did they do, except practicing singing? They were trained by SM Entertainment to become true idols who can sing, dance, act and perform. How entertainment agencies make these boys into idols is for later, but the point is here that they are “a mashup of talents”. SuJu members appear in Kdrama and popular television variety and reality shows, act in movies, do musicals and host radio shows. They are called “Kings of the Hallyu Wave”. In other words, they have a successful individual career. Besides the SuJu with its thirteen members, various subgroups were formed since their debut.
Where lies the success of Kpop boy bands? Is it the music? The looks and styling? Or the elaborate training of entertainment agencies? I will try to find an answer in the next part.
Facts for fun: a non-exhaustive list of boy bands in Far East countries
- Chinese boy bands: Top Combine, M.I.C, HIT5, A-ONE, G.I.P
- Taiwanese boy bands: F4/JVKV, Fahrenheit, Lollipop, 183 Club, 5566
- Japanese boy bands: EXILE, Arashi, KAT-TUN, SMAP, NEWS, GReeeeN
- South Korean boy bands: Super Junior, Shinhwa, TVXQ/DBSK, SHINee, B.A.P, Big Bang, 2PM, 2AM, Beast, Boyfriend, C-Clown, NU’EST,MBLAQ, Infinite, EXO, SS501, U-KISS, JYJ, ZE:A, B1A4, Se7en, Teen Top
– Kim, Yong Hee. “Redefining the Real Korean Wave.” List – Books from Korea, no. 14 (winter 2011).
– “Arashi Storms to Crossover Appeal.” The Japan Times Online, February 26, 2010. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2010/02/26/national/arashi-storms-to-crossover-appeal/#.UgAI52b-q9Y.
– “The Price of Fame in South Korea.” The Toonari Post – News, Powered by the People!, n.d. http://www.toonaripost.com/2012/08/entertainment/the-price-of-fame-in-south-korea/.
– Shin, Hyun Joon. “Reconsidering Transnational Cultural Flows of Popular Music in East Asia: Transbordering Musicians in Japan and Korea Searching for Asia.” Korean Studies 33 (2009).
– Park, So Young. “Transnational Adoption, Hallyu, and the Politics of Korean Popular Culture.” Biography 33, no. 1 (winter 2010).
– Hee-Eun Lee, “Seeking the ‘Others’ Within Us,” 137-138.
– Leung, Sarah, “Catching the K-Pop Wave: Globality in the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of South Korean Popular Music” (2012). Senior Capstone Projects. Paper 149.
– Jamie Shinhee Lee, “Linguistic Hybridization in K-Pop: Discourse of Self-Assertion and Resistance,” World Englishes 23, No. 3 (2004): 446.
– Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 19.