South Korean Boy Bands – Part Two

Recap of Part One

Boy bands were highly in demand during the nineties in America and Europe. The moment their popularity decreased in the West, Asian countries, specifically Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, reintroduced the boy band. The concept, however, was adapted in “the Asian way”. In South Korea, boy bands played an important role in promoting Kpop (Korean popular music). This gave rise to a growing global interest in the county’s popular culture, called “the Korean Wave” or hallyu. The idea of a vocal group of young boys may be the same as in 1990, but how Korea elaborated “the idol industry” is almost a reinvention.


“Because You Naughty Naughty, SM Entertainment.”

The top three talent agencies who make up for the greatest part of the Kpop industry are SM Entertainment (SuJu, SHINee, TVXQ, EXO), JYP Entertainment (2PM) and YG Entertainment (Big Bang). These agencies do not only scout the boys, but also give them a full training. They attempt to create pop idols, icons that have taken over the  concept of pop stars. Kim Yong Hee explains the link with the economic situation:

“A star enjoyed mysterious, even symbolic status; an idol is by definition manufactured under a commercial system. The rise of the idol in Korea is closely related to the rise of extreme capitalism in the country following the Asian financial crisis of 1998.”

The complete population of SM Town.

Kim also expresses her negative thoughts on the uncertain future of many Korean youngsters who aspire an idol career. In the past, it was almost as good as certain you would become an idol after being scouted. Nowadays, talent agencies select more boys than needed and let them compete against each other. Although many of them have dropped out of school and train everyday in studios, it is very unsure whether they will be chosen to actually become a member of the next boy band. Those who excel will; others will have a hard time finding a job. Kim puts it quite harsh:

“Exposed to this system from an early age, they internalize the fantasy and disenchantment that goes with being a manufactured product. (…) As much as talent agencies might play into the myth of success, the truth is that they are ruthless machines operating in a neoliberal market and to become one of their products is to be programmed and tailored down to the finest detail, rather than to embrace diverse potential and talent.”

Every week, hundreds of Korean boys and girls gather in front of SM Entertainment’s office to take an audition. Training often starts at the age of  nine or ten. Kids visit the training centres after school hours to receive training in singing, dancing, music, performing techniques, and foreign languages like English, Chinese and Japanese. Most of them know how to play an instrument as well. ABC News did a short documentary on a Kpop boot camp.

More negative news about these “star factories” emerged in 2010. Hugely popular TVXQ (aka DBSK) began a lawsuit against SM Entertainment, accusing them of being too strict and unfair. The 13-year-contract gave them no contract fees, and at their debut, the member’s wage would depend on whether they would sell more than 500,000 copies of their album. If not successful, the group would get nothing. The goal was reached, but earnings were not fairly divided over the five members, according to three of the five members. The two others continued supporting the company. A slightly intimidating number of 120,000 fans filed a petition against SM Entertainment, who had seized the opportunity to file a lawsuit as well against the three bad boys. The case came to an end in 2012, when both lawsuits were dropped. There was no need for the troublemakers to come back, though, and they were neatly replaced. In 2010, the three formed their own boy band, JYJ, under C-JeS Entertainment. Luckily, SM Entertainment had already some experience with the Korean law, as the lyrics of TVXQ’s song Mirotic were judged inappropriate for minors by the Korean Commission of Youth Protection. I call in question whether the sentence I got you under my skin is more “overly sexual and provocative” than the music video itself. (My previous declaration of not writing subjectively got lost somehow, shorry shorry shorry…)

Making the Boys in the Band

How do you transform a young man into an idol? It is not an easy a job to undertake. Moreover, it costs a lot of money and time. Luckily, our talent agencies have quite a large sum at their disposal. SM Entertainment, for example, was worth  ₩1.38 trillion (around € 928 million, or US $1.24 billion) in 2012. They employ composers, lyricists, musicians, dance instructors, choreographers, vocal trainers, language teachers, team leaders etc. to make the idol dream come true. Even housing and meals are provided for the trainees. But exactly which factors contribute to their popularity?

“Boom Shakalaka”

You’ve probably noticed already that Kpop is no traditional Korean music. Moreover, Jeff Benjamin of Rolling Stone describes it as “a mixture of trendy Western music and high-energy Japanese pop”. No sign of anything Korean here. On the contrary,  according to Lee Keewoong, a sociologist at Yonsei University in Seoul, “The key to K-pop’s world-wide success is not its Koreanness, but the lack of it”. Kpop is a fusion of different styles like bubblegum pop, ethereal and alternative rock, R&B, hip-hop, rap, electropop, disco, ballad and synthpop. There is even a term for the music style SM Entertainment features: the SMP genre is a combination of rock, hip-hop beats and R&B. The trick is to write a catchy song that gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day. And successfully, I can add. The next clip (“Fantastic Baby” by Bigbang) prepares you at the same time for the incredible visuals I will talk about later on.

the singing

In the strict definition of a boy band, the standard ability of each member would be singing. You will find a lot of good singers, but also some who are better at dancing or performing (or as visual?). Because Kpop is a mix of different styles, every member can claim the part in which he excels, for example a rap part, a lyrical tenor part, a bass part etc. Members are appointed a position like “main vocal”, “lead rapper”, “sub-vocalist”, or even “lead dancer”. In bands with many members, most of them only get one or two lines to sing that suits their voice type. There is one leader and one maknae (the youngest). This system reminds me of Korea’s neo-Confucian hierarchical structure. Fannie of Seoul Beats writes:

Although admittedly there are many more elements that go into producing a successful idol than just pure vocal ability (such as appearance and entertainment value), with singing competition shows (…) people are starting to pay more attention to raw vocal talent than ever before. In addition, idols during current times are no longer able to hide behind loud backtracks to cover their lip syncing or vocal mistakes on stage, as the MR-removed video technology (for better or for worse) is increasingly being utilized by consumers to judge a singer’s worth.

SuJu for example, created a subgroup called K.R.Y. with their three main singers  in order to focus on the vocals only. In their shows or television programs, boy bands are often asked to bring an English song.

“I’m a dancing floor.”

Choreographic dance is one important feature that sets Kpop apart from its western counterpart. In their colorful music videos, we see formations that change in according to who is singing. As a result, a strategy was developed to switch positions. It even is a word in Korean, Jari baggum 자리 바꿈. Amidst all the complicated dance moves, an easier key movement forms the “point dance”, something the fans can reproduce as well when hearing the song. Apart from these moves, I can assure you the dance moves are really difficult, let alone performing them in a group perfectly simultaneously. There are three options: 1) the boys are genius dancers 2) the boys have trained very hard, and 3) the boys are genius dancers who have trained very hard. An example of the third option I find with Shinee. The moment I saw their dance clips my jaws dropped. Nothing but admiration too for choreographer Rino Nakasone, who is behind the choreography of many famous Kpop songs. To demonstrate this is not one of my biases, I show you this clip of a variety show that checks what remains of the choreographic memory of the boy band’s earlier repertoire (debut in 2008), and a dance version of a recent song. The importance of the choreography also points out how bands gain popularity mainly by distributing music videos on the Internet. Buying CDs is considered old. Everyone downloads the songs on their laptops or smartphones with additional movie clip. And, considering the fact that some bands don’t take risks and do lip-syncing during live concerts, the dance performance cannot be faked, so you get your money’s worth after all.

“Loverholic, robotronic”

Is the song less catchy if you cannot understand Korean? I guess not. As with most pop songs, the text is not that important. I mean, it is no poetry. Besides, lyricists do their best to get some English lines in it as well (regarding the quality of it, I suppose they use Google translate). Apart from the fact that these lines are mainly nonsensical and sometimes completely wrong as concerns spelling and lexicon, they make it easy to remember the title and to sing along. And sometimes they are extremely funny. I got the best ones listed for you here:

“sexy, free and single, I’m ready to bingo” Sexy, Free and Single – SuJu

“go kick it in the butt” Spy – SuJu

“I really wanna touch myself” Purple line – TVXQ

“Everybody say hate you one more say” Power – BAP

“I call you butterfly (…) Fantastic, elastic…” Ring Ding Dong –Shinee

“Her whisper is the lucifer (…) Loverholic, Robotronic” Lucifer – Shinee

“I’m a dancing floor (… ) Hey everybody, let’s keep a music on (…) Can you feel the floor?” Dancing Floor – U-Kiss

“Careless, shoot anonymous, heartless, mindless, no one who care about me” Mama – Exo

“Mama, just let me be your lover” Fantastic Baby – Bigbang

“Every I Just can’t control, every night the loneliness is my love” (…) Can’t breath, like freeze (…) Every day I shock, every night I shock” Shock – BEAST

“Bounce to you (…) Break it down to you” Bonamana – SuJu

“Roll like a buffalo” Two Moons – Exo

But the first prize goes to this elaborated poetical piece of rap:

“Probably you’re money is unpublic Try to save my life like a puppy & cream Another hot movie character bumble bee treat me like a slave & I pray is it Halloween Trick or treats oh please don’t even try to pull my head own you’re way Brand new person, A man? So fuck off no more talk Yeah no another sounds can’t make it your body mores Just one truth is without you’re mind and you heart there is no me” Mission – JYJ

Showing off your English when you ought to realize it sucks, is the way to go. And the talent agencies can’t find any native English speaker to check their lyrics, of course. Another mystery is the fact that some of these lyrics are made by foreign people. The earlier discussed “Mirotic” for example, is written by the Swedish Pelle Lidell, who has sold more than 10 million Kpop records up to now. “They wanted a mix of U.S. beats but with a Scandinavian songwriting style,” Mr. Lidell said. “In Korean, the top vocals are more rhythmical, with more 16th notes.” Unfortunately, the Scandinavian couldn’t call a halt to Engrish either.

What did I just watch ???

As the big agencies use a lot of money to promote Kpop visually, music videos are a pleasure to watch. NPR explains:

Korean record labels transformed the way music was released. From the beginning, new songs debuted on national television, not on the radio, like was done traditionally over here.(…) They were watching their music. Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. So early on in their development, record labels had to get good at YouTube. And they kind of perfected it. YouTube videos by Korean record labels were so good, they got tons of views overseas. And that’s how the record labels knew where to tour their acts. They knew their customers wanted them before they even got there.

Sometimes there is a story with (or without) a plot, sometimes it’s just dancing in a room and sometimes the video is … weird?  But still amusing to watch (first impression of Gangnam style?). The Nippaku Award for funniest boy band video clip goes to “What’s Happening?”by B1A4 (suits the title well). For more fun, their other movie videos are worth seeing as well. I like it, like it like this…

the mighty fandom

You have fans. And you have Kpop fans. They are organized units who play an essential part in the popularity of boy bands. The fan clubs have their own name and color. For example, SuJu fans are E.L.F. (EverLasting Friends) and their color is pearl sapphire blue. It is forbidden to take a color that’s already in use. During concerts, these dedicated fans gather together and wave light sticks or balloons in that specific color or shape to create a “Kpop ocean”. They chant parts of the songs or shout the members’ names in unison (“fan chant”). It is previously decided exactly what has to be chanted when. Fan clubs also support their idols by sending them rice and lunch boxes. They translate lyrics too, organize flash mobs and spread their videos on the Internet. A Kpop group’s popularity is established for a great deal thanks to their fan clubs. Because all kinds of variety shows, television productions and appearances in public offer more chances to get to know each individual member’s personality, a sense of closeness is created. A fan is not only interested in the idol as a singer, but as a person as well. For more, here are eight reasons K-pop fans are the most passionate of all fans.

The official fan lights of Big Bang, SuJu and B.A.P.

The official fan lights of Big Bang, SuJu and B.A.P.

You have Kpop fans. And you have obsessed Kpop fans. These are called sasaeng fans 사생팬, what means “personal life”. Sasaeng fans stalk their idols and invade their privacy. JYJ was being stalked by some fans who tapped their private telephone conversations and installed GPS trackers on their personal cars. Other fans try to break in during private moments to take pictures, to steal belongings or to attack them physically. It has been reported that some fans installed CCTV in the vicinity of their idol’s houses. Chasing them by a taxi is no exception either. That is even a special service taxi companies cater. The taxis are willing to break traffic rules or speed up at up to 200 km/h. One such adventure resulted in a chain accident. If the idols are not busy being chased by obsessed fans, they have to watch out as well for poisoned drinks given by anti-fans.

“Sexy, Free and Single”

It is sad, but true. If you’re not young, handsome and considered attractive for an international public, you won’t make it in the Kpop boy band industry. Sun Jung compared the comments on TVXQ’s clip “Mirotic” and wrote about their “trans-sexual soft masculine image”:

A common characteristic of these comments is appreciation of the sexual and physical attributes of the band members. According to their web profiles, the majority of users are females in their late teens to their early twenties. “six pack” abs and popping blood vessels is the highly sexualized masculine images of members. Nevertheless it is not only masculine features, but also what can be considered more feminine elements of their aesthetic that resonate. “Pretty” and “feminine” and some even suggest that the members look and act like homosexual men (gay to describe their highly feminine images). Both traditionally feminine and masculine elements of TVXQ’s image young female users find attractive.

Here we come at an important cultural issue. Korean idols wear make-up, are fashionable, color their hair, wear nail polish and are very focused on their appearance. After all, selling their looks is a crucial role in gaining popularity. Add the effeminate dance moves and their intimate conduct with their co-members and the result is that in the European culture they would be called “gay” without any doubt. I will approach this matter from a personal perspective. I don’t want to offend any fans, but that is how I experienced Kpop for the first time.

Kpop or Gay-pop?

I was already familiar with Japanese Visual Kei. Nevertheless, when I was introduced to Kpop, I couldn’t help but thinking the boy bands quite feminine. The thought “gay” popped up in my head at once when I saw Super Junior for the first time. I bet I’m not alone: I watched the video  with a European idea of masculinity in mind.

Different cultures require different ideas of aesthetics. In the case of South Korea, Sun Jung already pointed out the appeal of soft masculinity. Young, attractive boys with feminine looks are called “flower boys” or hwarang 화랑. The flower boys formed an elite group during the Silla period (57 BC – 935 AD). These young man with delicate features studied mainly culture and arts based on Buddhism, and were known for their use of make-up, decoration and accessories. Today, the term is still in use.

Male Korean idols can be described as rather beautiful than handsome, rather cute than manly. Unfortunately, these words are often used to describe homosexuality in our culture. However, I don’t agree with a generalization of this idea: sometimes homosexuality can be seen, but sometimes it can’t. Therefore, the Korean ideal of masculinity is something that is almost contrary to our perception of such appearance and behavior. Of course, some of the boys will be gay (as about 10% of world’s popularity is estimated to be homo- or bisexual). However, it is not so easy to be open about it, as homosexuality is seen in a negative light or even kept silent in South Korea. (I had a hard time watching the drama “Personal Taste”. How can their way of thinking be so old-fashioned?) One of the cleverest comments I read on this matter:

And this, in the larger picture, is the clash between Korea and America. In the US, you are gay by default, but in Korea, you’ll always be straight (minus some pretty convincing circumstantial evidence that is). I think most of this is attributed to the difference between Korean [culture of shame] and US [culture of guilt] societies at large, but not necessarily views of “masculinity” per say.

As goes for every cultural matter: don’t judge other cultural aspects rashly without realizing you belong to a certain culture, with its own perception, ideas and thoughts. End of the lecture.

The Bromance


The members of boy bands are often close friends. In Korea, physical contact between male friends is very natural. They hold hands, sit on each others lap, give hugs. Considering the fact that homosexuality is “unthinkable” in Korea, this behavior creates a sense of “bromance”, which is highly appealing for their (mainly female) fans. The industry stimulates this feeling by emphasizing it in movie clips, photo shoots and during concerts. Fans make videos about “couples” and write fiction about it. This is called OTP, One True Pairing, or shipping. Fans think this way: “If they can’t be with me then they can be with someone in their band.”

It is positive that men can show their feelings of friendship without being labelled as gay. But the trouble starts when someone merely suggests certain members could be gay or in a genuine relationship with each other. The fantasy is allowed, but the realization of it is not. When homoeroticism becomes real, strong reactions are evoked among the fans. They experience their idols being called gay as an insult, which is in fact no better than marginalizing homosexuality or denying its existence. From an article on Seoulbeats:

While it appears that more people are tolerant of something decidedly “homo”, that is not the actual case. Rather, fans ship the fictionality of a situation that excludes their male idols from a real relationship – and thus within possible reach – into a fandom that allows for these idols to be playful and intimate without affecting their bachelor status. That is, a “bromance” but not an actual, romantic relationship. The possibility of homosexuality does not even register to fans, that perhaps there is more than just warm fondness between two males. I am not suggesting that anyone there is homosexual, but that’s what I call a rejection of homosexuality, the continual assertion that what is shared between two males is strictly a heterosexual friendship and nothing more.

Some factors contribute to the popularity of Kpop boy bands, others give rise to critique. As the basic features are comparable to Western boy bands, there are some aspects that characterize Kpop in particular: the training, the dancing, the fandom and the emphasis on visuals. In the next post I will discuss the following questions: How does Japan react to the effort boy bands make to gain popularity there? Is a breakthrough in Western countries thinkable? What is the first impression European people get while watching and listening to Kpop boy bands?

Facts for Fun

Eat Your Kimchi: one of the best sites to learn a lot about Korean culture, food, life and in particular Kpop, in a highly amusing way.


– Wikipedia
– Eat Your Kimchi
– Lent, John A., and Lorna Fitzsimmons. Asian Popular Culture in Transition. Routledge, 2013.
– “The Price of Fame in South Korea.” The Toonari Post – News, Powered by the People!, n.d.
– “What Makes SM Entertainment So Powerful? Music Performance And Fandoms Are The Secret To Success.” Kpopstarz, n.d.
– “Top 10 K-pop Songs with the Funniest English Ever.” Hellokpop, n.d.
– “Top 5 Ridiculous Uses of English in K-Pop – Soompi.” Soompi, n.d.
– Russell, Mark. “A Swede Makes K-Pop Waves”, October 9, 2012.
– “5 Main Styles or Genres of KPOP (Korean Pop Music).” Modern Seoul, n.d.
– “Talent in K-pop: The Best Singers – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d.
– “Are K-pop Stars ‘So Gay’? – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d.
– “Of Bromance and Homoeroticism – Seoulbeats.” Seoulbeats, n.d.
– “Dream Machine.” The Sydney Morning Herald, n.d.

3 thoughts on “South Korean Boy Bands – Part Two

  1. Pingback: South Korean Boy Bands – Part One | nippaku

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