In Which Lambert Confesses He Stans for K-Pop, and Explains Why

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

After a hard day’s night of reading the news, I usually require a palate cleanser, which tends to be not perhaps binge- but certainly multi-course-watching video clips on single topics: Now snooker, previously cricket, surfing in Bali, Mike Ehrmantraut, Clarke and Dawe, British steam locomotives — I’m giving you all these links in case you have the same requirements — and before that K-Pop, for which I would mount a vigorous defense if I’d had time to do a proper workup.

But I felt that some readers might appreciate something light, so here we are. I’ll start with the economics, and then present a number of glorious pop confections in context. (A caveat: I listen to a group called Twice, a musical juggernaut that’s been rolling since 2015, so to a teenage fan “Your Dad listens to Twice.” Oh well. In any case, my knowledge is pretty limited! In fact, by the standards of genuine stans, who know every, well, manufactured detail about their favorite performers, I hardly qualify as a mere fan.)

Let’s begin with the economics (Stoller has K-Pop filed under “weird monopolies” on his substack). From the International Socioeconomics Laboratory:

“Modern K-pop” can trace back to 1989 when Lee Soo Man founded SM Entertainment, which later became one of the biggest entertainment companies in South Korea. In 1997, Park Jin Young founded JYP Entertainment and in 1998, Yang Hyun-suk founded YG Entertainment. These three entertainment companies are known as the “Big 3” in South Korea because of their massive popularity and economic success; in 2018, SM Entertainment generated $532 million in revenue, YG Entertainment generated $248 million, and JYP Entertainment generated $109 million.

The K-Pop industry has been very good for Korea as a while. From Asia Fund Managers:

The K-Pop industry generates about $10 bn for the country each year, according to estimates.

The K-pop phenomenom is worldwide, with some of the major markets being the United States, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Germany, UK, Philippines, Japan, and France. In 2021, Spotify unveiled its global K-Pop hub and the monthly average K-Pop streams worldwide reached over 7.97 billion per month. The same year, #KpopTwitter broke its own record with 7.8 bn global Tweets, the previous record being 6.7 bn Tweets in 2020.

In fact, BTS — a boy band juggernaut — can have a measurable impact on GDP:

For example, a report estimates that the three concerts held by the boy group BTS in Seoul in 2019 have a total direct and indirect impact of around 923 billion South Korean won.

South Korea’s GDP in 2020 was about $1.64 trillion. That means one boy band helped produce some 0.30% percent of the country’s economic output.

BTS’s impact is global. From The Diplomat:

Among all South Korean idol groups that have debuted in the United States, BTS has undoubtedly had the greatest success in breaking into mainstream America. The Hyundai Research Institute estimated that BTS alone has raised more than $3.6 billion every year for the South Korean economy – equivalent to the contribution of 26 mid-sized companies. In 2017, nearly 7 percent of all recorded visitors to South Korea expressed that BTS was a primary motivation to visit the country. According to the Billboard Hot 100, BTS is the first group to have six No. 1 songs on the Hot 100 in just over one year since The Beatles. Prior to their temporary pause from group projects, BTS has accounted for nearly one-third of all K-Pop-related sales and streaming in the United States, resulting in 3.6 million album equivalent units, 2.56 billion audio streams, 1.3 million album sales, and 3.1 million digital track sales.

Twice, the group I follow, is a global act as well. From Time:

With more than ten albums and EPs dropped since their 2015 debut, the group has consistently released new music, in Korean and Japanese, at least three times a year. That is an ambitious schedule even for K-pop, where the norm is to promote one or two comebacks annually.

The frequent releases have propelled Twice’s rise to the upper echelon of Korean acts. On YouTube, BTS, Blackpink and soloist Psy are the only K-pop acts who have music videos with more views than those of Twice. Besides regularly topping charts and winning music awards in South Korea, the nine-member ensemble has seen almost unparalleled success in Japan. Earlier this year, Twice became the first K-pop girl group to hold a dome tour in Japan, attracting an estimated 210,000 attendees across five concerts. Given that all performance stops in this kind of tour are held at massive dome venues—the ones in Japan have capacities of around 50,000 each—they offer unassailable evidence of a group’s ability to drive ticket sales.

(Nine members! That’s a lot!) Hopefully, all the globalization won’t denature the music, and turn it into mere pop from K-Pop.

With that, let me turn to one of Twice’s glorious pop confections, “What Is Love?”, live in Seoul:

(Note the scale of the auditorium, and the production values. This is not a group without ambition.) New Musical Express comments:

If there’s anyone out there claiming they do not immediately get up and dance to the chorus on this one, they’re lying. ‘What Is Love?’ is often considered one of the pillars of TWICE’s illustrious discography, and for good reason. From the pop culture references peppered throughout the music video to the heart-thumping, alluring lyrics diving into the curiosity of the world’s most complex emotion, ‘What Is Love?’ remains one of TWICE’s most triumphant tracks.

Here is that music video:

Western pop culture references, I might add; right down to the cuckoo clock, including The Princess Diaries, Ghost, La Boum, Pulp Fiction, Romeo + Juliet, Love Letter, La La Land, and Léon: The Professional. So many Easter eggs![1]

None of this artistry — yes, artistry — comes easily. Here, for example, is a rehearsal video for another Twice song, “Scientist”:

I know very little about choreography; I would tend to file this under athletics, as a form of gymnastics performed at a high level. (I did at some point watch a video by a New York hip hop choreographer, who added commentary to another Twice rehearsal video, and who started out in neutral mode and gradually shifted to jaw-dropping admiration; I recall he commented on the choreography’s “intentional hand movements” (very balletic), and how the dancers’ muscles must burn.

In fact, K-Pop is a very hard school, where “trainees” sign contracts to one of the monopolies as young teenagers[1], train for years before launch, and most don’t make it. Here, for example, is Blackpink’s Lalisa Manobal (known mononymously as “Lisa”), another globally successful artist, training some traineees:

One is reminded of a Zen master beating novices with a stick, though for a Westerner, it’s hard not to think that the abused has turned into an abuser.

I admire, I must say, besides the artistry, the discipline and mental toughness of the performers. I also find the sheer scale and complexity of the business that brings the music to us intriguing. Here, for example, are the musical and technical personnel for “Formula of Love,” “What Is Love?”‘s LP:

Quite a bit more complicated than the credits on the liner notes of the “records” (vinyl analog recording medium) I used to listen to. And here are the support personnel for the “What Is Love?” EP; I’ve ordered them by role (“hair and makeup director”), from greatest number to smallest:

hair and makeup director (8)
style director (7)
choreographer (6)
recording and mixing engineer (6)
all instruments, computer programming, and digital editor (5)
background vocals (5)
design (A&R) and album art direction and design (4)
production (A&R) (4)
vocal director (3)
music (A&R) (2)
guitar (2)
bass (1)

photographer (1)
printing (1)

video executive producer (2)
video co-producer (1)
video director (1)

video executive producer (1)
web design (1)

mastering engineer (1)
management and marketing director (1)
direction and coordination (A&R) (1)
producer (1) (J. Y. Park)

I love there are more hair and makeup directors (8) than choreographers (6). But those production values don’t come from nowhere. (And of course there is but one producer, “J. Y. Park,” he of JYP Entertainment.)

Returning once more to the music, the vast wave of Twice fans produces lyrics videos color-coded by performer (because with nine group members, each one will only sing a few words at a time):

(This is not a clever plot to make you listen to the song again; the music video also has lyric subtitles). Pop Matters comments:

TWICE’s music has always been heavily performance-oriented. They were queens of mimicable choreographies that would go viral (like 2016’s “T.T.”) in a time when TikTok dances weren’t even a thing yet. One word to describe their music was “cute”. K-pop “cute concepts” (aegyo) were at the peak of their popularity when TWICE debuted. But ever since they put out their first single, “Like OOH-AHH(OOH-AHH하게)”, in 2015, no other K-pop group owned the cute concept like them.

Music-wise, TWICE have consistently released songs with interesting instrumentals, sometimes even quite experimental and unconventional. These arrangements would sometimes get overshadowed by the group’s charms that are more in-your-face: the easy melodies interpolated with chanting, and their sweet vocals, and repetitive lyrics full of alliteration. You’ll find these same tools in songs by many other K-pop groups but TWICE combined them in a way that sounds unique to them. These are the charms that laid the ground for TWICE to create a special musical identity. That identity still translates to their current music, even if, genre-wise, it sounds quite different than it used to be.

But to me, “What Is Love?” is way beyond “cute.” I mean, it’s a very good question, right? Wikipedia (the fans have naturally made a page) also comments on the music:

[I]t has a bright melody and uptempo dance beat incorporating trap. Tamar Herman of Billboard described the song as having “retro electro-pop styling” and an “addictive choral hook”, with “digital quirks, sparkling chimes, and staccato’d percussion over the bubblegum melody”.

“Trap” is not, I think, ironic; it’s a hip-hop genre. However, the theme of “What Is Love?” is, I urge, deeply ironic:

“[T]he love girls would dream about or imagine after learning about it through books, movies or dramas”

Interesting, the refrains (“I wanna know,” “What is love?” are in English; the verses are in Korean). A translation:

Every day, in a movie
In a book or in a drama, I feel love
Um- I learn about love
My heart keeps beating as if it’s my own story
Makes my heart pound and swell with hope
Um- I want to know so bad

Of course, the humanities are indeed meant to convey “my own story” before one experiences it, but I don’t think we’re talking Jane Austen here:

How it could be as sweet as candy?
How it’s like flying in the sky?
I wanna know know know know
What is love?
What love feels like?
How it keeps you smiling all day?
How the whole world turns beautiful?
I wanna know know know know
What is love?
Will love come to me someday?

For me, as an old codger listening to the song, I see performers — accomplished athletes, artists, performers, businesswomen — who are now old enough to know that the answer to the question “what is love” is different from what they imagined it to be. Yet still they sing the song. That would be tragic, were it not so glorious. There is the irony.


[1] Here is an acoustic version of “What Is Love?”, just to show that Twice doesn’t lip-synch everything, not that I care:

[2] For example, from The Diplomat:

Recruited and trained by SM Entertainment, one of the largest and most successful South Korean entertainment companies, [Korean singer and entertainer BoA] was assigned the unprecedented task of breaking into foreign music charts in 2001 at age 14. Following a joint investment of roughly $3.6 billion between SM Entertainment and its Japanese business partner AVEX Entertainment, BoA debuted in Japan after receiving Japanese language training to ensure her successful transition into the Japanese music and entertainment industry. As a result, BoA became the first Korean singer to top Japan’s Oricon Charts and the Billboard 200 charts, selling 1 million copies of her Japanese single, “Listen to My Heart.”

Age 14!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Raymond Sim

    I’m pretty sure that if I were a tween girl I’d be a deeply immersed K-pop fan.

    The dance practice video for Itzy’s ‘Wannabe’ is pretty amazing.

    On a tangentially related topic, the recent ‘Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury’ included a Gaza-like situation as a central part of its plot. A fine piece of work imo, viewable on Crunchyroll.

      1. flora

        The first video was very US 1960s’ish Girl Group sound, complete with mini skirts and white go-go boots. Motown meets Korea. Reminded me of 60’s groups like the the Supremes, the Shirelles, Martha and the Vandellas, with a faster tempo and modern staging. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          >Reminded me of 60’s groups like the the Supremes, the Shirelles, Martha and the Vandellas, with a faster tempo and modern staging

          No question that “Girl Groups” are part of the heritage (as, on the other side of the gender divide, are “Boy Bands” — which I think in the US came after Girl Groups? If so, I wonder why).

          To the tempo I would add that the songwriting craft is far more complex. And the choreography really is spectacular, particularly considering the size of the groups.

  2. Acacia

    Two questions: (1) do the musicians write any of the lyrics? (2) How is this different from Johnny’s in Japan or corporate pop elsewhere?

    1. lambert strether

      1) Twice writes lyrics. I can’t speak generally.

      2) Since you can listen to the videos I’ve posted, and you have presumably also listened to Johnny’s in Japan, you are better placed to answer your question than I am, unless you’re assigning me work.

      As for “corporate,” get real. Ahmet Ertegun was corporate. Motown was corporate. Any musician that signed with a label is corporate, including every single musician in our Songbook. (See also under “Bourgeoisie, Rising, Urban for Shakespeare and Rembrandt.) And so on. As for why this particular group’s pop isn’t junk like so much pop, the post provides clues. Do give consideration to reading it.

      1. Jorge

        The Who and The Sex Pistols were corporate boy bands.

        There is an after-effect of the industry: the performers are chosen for looks, and have lots of surgery, and then age out of the music biz early (maybe early twenties in Korea and late teens in Japan). They have to do something after this, and they have no college, so they go into TV. As a result, light TV shows in these countries are flooded with freakishly pretty performers. If you watch 80s Korean or Japanese TV, the difference is striking- the old shows are populated by real-looking people.

        I recommend “Sukeban Deka” from Japanese 80s TV: “teen age high school girl police detective”. It’s insane.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > have lots of surgery, and then age out of the music biz early (maybe early twenties in Korea and late teens in Japan).

          Yes, “tragic” is not too strong a word. (I think “chosen for looks” is simplistic, although looks are a requirement, no question.)

        2. Alex Cox

          The Sex Pistols were not a corporate boy band, unless you consider Malcolm Mclaren a corporation. They were an expression of rebellion and disgust for the type of mass-produced corporate youth music described here.

      2. Acacia

        Thanks, Lambert. Of course, I did read the article and I’ve heard some of the music, but aside from the obvious differences of language and culture, I’m not hearing a big difference from Johnny’s-style idol bands, other than that production values of K-Pop seem higher. I understand there is a big debate about this amongst fans, so I thought maybe you could shed some light on it. Not an assignment, of course, more just idle curiosity about your take.

        As you may know, there has recently been a huge scandal in Japan over Johnny’s as literally hundreds of young men that he “managed” have surfaced with accusations of rather serious abuse. The company finally changed its name. J-media more or less suppressed the story for several decades, probably because the whole media industry relied on Johnny’s to mint the stars that appear on TV, in films, in advertising, etc. Too many rice bowls, etc. But after his death, and after a BBC investigative documentary, the whole thing sort of exploded. Since K-Pop seems to have a similar industrial model, with very controlling “talent agencies”, I can’t help but wonder if the stars fare better. As you also know, labor conditions for young people in East Asia are, shall we say, often not so good.

        What strikes me about idol music is that it seems to be almost more about spectacle than the music itself, i.e., that all the visual elements, the look of the performers, dance choreography, and aesthetics of the star image are a very important part of it. Beauty seems very important, not only for the women but also for the male performers. What people are consuming is thus not just the music, but a multi-dimensional experience. To some extent, this has always been the case with pop music, but I think many people also remember the pre-YouTube and pre-MTV era in which a lot of music was just consumed as music, not as music video, images, etc. There were concerts and TV appearances, of course, but a lot of pop music was consumed without any other parallel media. This is not a judgment, just an observation, as I get the sense that the way people consume pop music may have changed over the past few decades — especially Gen Z who grew up with social media.

        Regarding corporate music, point taken, though I’m not sure that “any musician that signed with a label is corporate”. Was Frank Zappa representative of corporate music because his band once signed with Verve? Were The Residents corporate because they signed with Ralph Records? I would say no, though of course people could debate this. Needless to say, there’s a lot of music being published, sometimes very obscure and experimental, that I think we could say very much doesn’t follow the idiom of corporate music or idol music. And going back in history, the dominant mode of production wasn’t corporate. Then again, maybe obscurity in the present precludes even calling such music “pop” (i.e., strictly speaking, no mass audience, ergo it’s not popular), even if the style is recognizably “pop”.

        This points to another interesting dimension of idol music, which is that there’s usually a giant fan following already in place. I can’t help but think this is big part of the appeal, too, in that as a listener, you are very aware that there are millions and millions of other fans — a kind of movement almost —, even if it’s been industrially produced, and there is some attraction in that, i.e., you know that you’re not just listening to the music alone.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          On idol music, I think K-Pop partakes of or is akin to the idol phenomenon, but I don’t they are identical. I haven’t studied the two enough to say why (the closest I can come is Gibson’s Idoru, an AI — we would say today — idol, which obviously is insufficient). I connect the concept of Japanese idols to groups like AKB48, which at points has had membership of over 100, more than 48, and that’s a lot more than 9. I believe they also have their own theatres. So the scale of the group is different.

          > Since K-Pop seems to have a similar industrial model, with very controlling “talent agencies”, I can’t help but wonder if the stars fare better. As you also know, labor conditions for young people in East Asia are, shall we say, often not so good.

          A few years ago there was an enomous and nasty sex scandal involving (I forget the detail) a sex club, videos, and a (male) K-Pop star. A quick search on “K-Pop scandal” turns up a list of scandals involving stars, and a single “music video director” but not the “talent agencies” (which aren’t really agencies but “entertainment companies.”* They are more like Hollywood Studios in the old days, with performers signed to long-term contracts).

          Far be it from me to be naive, but I think the entertainment companies would regard systematic sexual violence as very, very bad for business. And it may be that the collective living and team-creation methods of training (groups live and train together for years) provide a measure of protection by making it harder to cut individual “talent” out of the pack and wrestle them onto the “casting couch.” There are other modes of exploitation and abuser, certainly, but I’m not sure sexual violence anywhere near the top of the list.

          NOTE * JYP is “a record label, talent agency, music production company, event management company, concert production company, and music publishing house.”

          1. Acacia

            My understanding is that the idol phenomenon has little to do with the size of the group, but rather the way the individual performer is cultivated, the particular form of stardom they are to embody, and their relationship with some agency. There are small bands of three singers like Perfume or Babymetal, who are considered idols. There’s been a lot written on this, e.g., Galbraith and Karlin, The Mirror of Idols and Celebrity (2012), and I would consider that literature before Gibson. You will find that Johnny Kitagawa’s name comes up a lot, also in relation to how K-Pop is actually produced. Again, I don’t really see a big difference with K-Pop w.r.t. industrial practices.

            AKB48 is both a more recent and older phenom. More recent than the East Asian idol phenom (again, Kitagawa looms large and predates AKB), but in an important way also much older if you look back to The Tiller Girls (1889), which were the subject of Kracauer’s famous essay “The Mass Ornament” (1927).

            Of course the entertainment companies would regard such abuse as bad for business, but cartels do what they do with impunity, right? Regarding the “protection” of belonging to a group, I draw the opposite conclusion. The individual entertainers are really just replaceable parts in a sort of entertainment machine, and the more people in the group, the more replaceable they are. If you have a band with four musicians and one leaves, it could be a problem. But if there are 48 and 5 leave… ? From the fan perspective, certainly the individual members of AKB48 are more accessible (e.g., for the counter-example, see Kitano’s film Dolls), and that is a big part of the appeal. At the end of the day, though, I think it’s safe to say that management calls the shots.

  3. c_heale

    I live in Korea and don’t like Kpop due to the exploitation of the young people who make up the bands. This is nothing new of course as someome has mentioned above, in reference to Western pop music.

    Two other unrelated points. There is a lot of other Korean music which is overshadowed by the Kpop industry, and that the level of musical skills from singing to playing instruments is much higher than in the UK where I come from.

    I think a better industry to examine regarding Korean artistic innovation would be the Korean film industry.

    1. GramSci

      Juana has taken to binge-watching K-RomComs and K-CriFis. Corporate? Yeah, but no pretense about it, unlike U$ Corporate News. No problem with Korporate, to the extent that K-Whatnot is not in lieu of corporate News. FWIW K-RomComs and K-CriFis do seem to dump (albeit gently) on Korporate Business, but it’s not as if K-Kultur takes itself seriously as an epicenter of World Kultur.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the exploitation of the young people who make up the bands.

      No question that’s real (as I wrote; see the section on Lisa Manobal).

      The post really wasn’t about “Korean artistic innovation” (although I suppose I could watch some clips :-) And I don’t know much about movies. Still, the Hallyu is a really interesting phenomon, so if you or any other readers want to throw some links for reading my way, that would be great.

  4. scott s.

    Personally I think K-Pop has gone downhill and become too commercial and following US trends. I more appreciate the earlier groups like Girls Generation or Kara. But mostly I listen to K-trot. Trot had its introduction as popular music in the early days of recorded music, developing a distinctive style. After the wars it fell into something of disrepute, as the similar Japanese style of Enka made trot seem “too Japanese” and a reminder of the colonial period.

    But gradually the idea took hold that the Japanese “stole” trot, making it acceptable though it came to be seen as “old people’s music”, sort of like Lawrence Welk in the US. Jang Yoon Jeong debuted in 1999 and to me created a demand for a modernized trot. Since then trot seems have grown in audience. In 2019 an audition/elimination style reality show “Miss Trot” aired on Korean TV with good results, leading to a follow-on Mister Trot” show. This seems to have greatly increased the interest in trot, as well as creating some cross-over styles with EDM and latin influences.

    Trot in performance tends to follow a fairly strict style as the singer (or on occasion duets or female groups) is backed by an orchestra and typically employ several back-up singers and a few dancers. Traditional Korean instruments and accordions are often included.

    1. Joe Well

      How could it have become more commercial than it already was? I first encountered it more than 20 years ago and everything seemed to come out of a well-oiled corporate machine, similar sounds, similar looks, even more than Motown (which Lambert mentioned above) or English-language boy bands.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Personally I think K-Pop has gone downhill and become too commercial and following US trends

      Yes, the post mentions this (and it worries me; I’m not following the recent Twice tour at alll; what I’ve seen looks overblown and dull. I think the performers are preparing for solo careers as their contract comes up for renewal, and they will be less interesting alone than together).

      Got any links on K-Trot?

      1. Raymond Sim

        J-pop seems interesting lately. As with K-pop a couple years back, I’m not sure I like it, but I keep listening to it.

        Lately it’s King Gnu’s song ‘Specialz’ and various songs by Yoasobi that I almost can’t tell apart.

    3. autisticsumofan

      I’m with you on K-Pop going downhill and especially on trot. Long ago a friend brought me a cassette tape of trot. I wore it out and, anyway, there are no more cassette tape players I can find. I don’t speak Korean or read hangul but a Korean friend told me the hit song had a title something like “18 Years Old”. Great stuff.
      Everything that makes K-pop great was already there in essence in the work of such bands as SHINee IMHO.

  5. Jeff W

    I listen to K-pop in the car and sing along in my less-than-stellar Korean. That listening choice initially had very little to do with K-pop, actually. Over a decade ago, I could no longer stand listening to NPR and other public radio offerings and shifted to what was possibly the furthest thing from it: bright, up-tempo K-pop tunes. Over time, I recognized, like you, the sheer hard work and talent of the performers—and, undeniably, their exploitation, as c_heale points out—and the sophistication of the music—it wasn’t just bubblegum.

    What’s always fascinating to me is just how successful a carefully engineered exercise in “soft power” K-pop turned out to be. From a nearly contemporaneous account (1996) in the Los Angeles Times:

    This campaign [a government nurturing of creative industries such as film, video and television] moved into high gear in early 1994, after an advisor to President Kim [Young-Sam] explained that the profit from a single film, “Jurassic Park,” was equivalent to that from the export of 60,000 Hyundai automobiles.

    And what would be more satisfying to Koreans than succeeding where the Japanese had failed in such spectacular fashion?

    (In other accounts, such as this one, that advisor is Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology and the figure is increased 25 times to 1.5 million Hyundai cars. And the main focus of the LA Times piece, uber-movie mogul Miky Lee, would, nearly a quarter of a century later, take center stage, literally, at the 92nd annual Oscars, when Parasite snagged the Best Picture award.)

    And, while it’s well-known that the training of K-pop artists can be quite grueling, it turns out that even quite successful K-pop groups still live in dorms (which are just multi-room apartments in Seoul with bunkbeds and often one bathroom), years after their debut, in not-all-that-luxurious conditions. I recall seeing one group, perhaps Mamamoo, on some K-pop game show and one prize was fried chicken, which the group members devoured ravenously. I couldn’t tell if that was due to some caloric deficit from some lengthy dance training sessions or some Rainbow Bridge World-imposed spartan diet or maybe they just really liked chicken or some combination thereof.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Over time, I recognized, like you, the sheer hard work and talent of the performers—and, undeniably, their exploitation, as c_heale points out—and the sophistication of the music—it wasn’t just bubblegum.

      Ding ding ding ding ding, especially on the sophistication of the music. There is another song, 1,3,2, much darker, where IIRC the theme is a relationship where the two parties are always out of synch with each other (“bad timing”). I can’t dig out the article I found on it, but it’s in triple time, like a waltz, but a Latin beat. And the beat of the song reflects the out-of-synch nature of the relationship (“1,3,2” not “1,2,3”). The refrain (in English, naturally) is “Follow follow follow your tempo” — which the woman in the song feels is being demanded of her, but she cannot and will not do. So the depth to which the theme is integrated into the music is impressive.

      So, there’s plenty of bubblegum in K-Pop, but 1,3,2 is definitely not that.

  6. BecksSharp

    I used to enjoy the wild energy of 2en1 (“Fire” and “I Am the Best”) but have failed to keep up. Great post

  7. Joe Well

    The key to understanding pop music in South Korea over the last 30 years is karaoke (norae bang in Korea). People want to be able to sing along in small groups (norae bang are little cubicles that can fit maybe 5 to 10 people, not open bars) and they want to either have fun or have some kind of emotional catharsis. They want to pick up the microphone and be a star. In fact, I think when a lot of people listen to this music, they imagine themselves singing it onstage alone or with the performers.

    So no enigmatic mumbled lyrics. And for the most part, nothing so vulgar that you would be embarrassed to belt it out.

    It amazes me that it took off in countries where people can’t sing along or even understand the lyrics. I’m American and I don’t get its appeal in the US at all.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > People want to be able to sing along in small groups (norae bang are little cubicles that can fit maybe 5 to 10 people, not open bars) and they want to either have fun or have some kind of emotional catharsis. They want to pick up the microphone and be a star. In fact, I think when a lot of people listen to this music, they imagine themselves singing it onstage alone or with the performers.

      Excellent point!

      On why in the US. I left this on the cutting rooom floor because it refers to BTS (boy band), not Twice, but nevertheless:

      ‘BTS helped with my perception of myself as an invisible older woman’
      When I was at my lowest last year, staring at my own mortality after a heart attack, they came to the rescue. The message of loving yourself that pervades most of their music was what I needed to hear. To believe that despite my small, nothing-special accomplishments in life, I was still a worthy person – that was a revelation to me. They helped with my perception of myself as an invisible older woman. It seems minor, but my style has changed. I’m more confident in choosing a youthful style instead of safe, neutral clothes, and wearing makeup more often. They make me feel young.

      Their humility and respect for all people, the politeness they always show was a lesson as well. It’s too easy at my age to think you’ve seen it all and have all the answers but nothing could be more wrong. I’m more open and accepting than I used to be but still have a long way to go.

      Critical care nurses often say that dying patients rarely talk about the money or possessions they had but wish they had given more of their time to experiences, like falling in love, the birth of a child, travelling, escapades with their friends, etc. I know the BTS concert on 1 December will be one of the top experiences I’ll be reviewing on my deathbed. Sharman, 68, retired, Canada

      Putting on my cultural critic hat, I would speculate that the appeal of K-Pop in the US would be an antidote to the extreme atomization (and viciousness) produced by 50 years of neoliberalism. Yes, one can identify with a “favorite” group member (the star whose song one sings in karaoke), but I think it’s important that the star is also part of a group (all the members are stars and reflect each other’s light). There are many clips online of group members helping each other during difficult moments in the performance (slips, muffed lyrics or steps, failed mikes, unexpected emotions). I would imagine these would be especially evocative for a critical care nurse.

      Yes, fandom is a parasocial relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial, in its way.

      1. Raymond Sim

        It’s a gross oversimplification, in fact it’s bonafide stereotyping, but I often find East Asian ‘sincerity’ to be a welcome relief from Western ‘authenticity’.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I think “humility and respect” are shown by what one does. One’s internal mental state (“sincerity”) is simply not important.

          Back when I was an Episcopalian, I was asked to be an usher by one of the older ladies who managed the volunteers who played different roles during the service. I mentioned that I did not have very good clothes. She said [imagine Brahmin accent]: “It doesn’t matter what you wear; it only matters that you perform the required actions.” And so for sincerity!

      2. Joe Well

        Korean culture in general is indeed the opposite of Western atomization (Durkheim’s anomie). It often seems like people don’t go anywhere except in groups of at least 10 and sometimes 30. You can be at a small bar and it just empties out all of a sudden and you realize all those people were there together. That comes through in the music videos in ways I can’t put my finger on…maybe they seem to be surrounded by other people so much.

        And yes, one of the wonderful things about Korea (or Mexico, or Peru, or Singapore or a lot of places) is that over the last 50 years they’ve been on an upward economic trajectory and today’s 30yos have some realistic hope for a better future, the total opposite of the US.

  8. bonks

    As a mid-30s East Asian woman I find k-pop to be highly detrimental to women’s standing in society, especially when some are still struggling to be respected beyond being a pretty flower. Not only are the girls (and boys) exploited by the chaebols but it infantilises women, glorifying an almost lolita-like imagery of women who are perpetually young, weak and in need of an oppa to rescue them. And as a “collection of melodies and beats” it is so generic I wouldn’t be surprised if AI isn’t taking over most of the writing work. K-pop is not a genre of music, it’s a form of entertainment to emasculate and pacify the masses.

    And why is it that the k-pop scene which is much more toxic to women than the mainstream j-pop, encouraged to proliferate by the plutocracy of global music empire?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      We have to agree to disagree. I think for K-Pop as a whole, it’s entirely possible for the melodies and beats to be generic; K-Pop is a industry, afterr all. For groups at the top of the game, like Twice, that’s clearly not true at all (see other comments on this thread). As for “infantilizing” women, I think you might as well call Simone Biles an infant, and for all the same reasons, if reasons they be. She’s not.

      I do think that K-Pop creates an image of young women not as infants — Lisa Manobol an infant? See the Lisa-as-mentor clip! — but as unattainable (beautiful, accomplished, rich, “out of my league”) and that this has social consequences for South Korea’s disproportionately large population of young male incels (who no doubt also think they have to be as on-trend as the boy bands, too).

  9. .Tom

    Wow, Twice is really creepy. These ladies look like they are trained to smile and blush winsomely an when a boy is properly weak at the knees they offer him an abstinence ring.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Project much? (There are, sadly, many Christians in South Korea — Asia has enough problems without Christianity — but none of the members of Twice are, so far as I know, Christian.)

      1. .Tom

        Compare with the 1967 movie Privilege. A pop superstar is contracted by the government to help get kids to go to church. Wonderful movie.

  10. ChrisPacific

    While I think the lower ranks of the industry are as problematic and often abusive as other top-heavy industries around the world, the top performers are genuinely admirable.

    I recall watching a songwriting session in Hyori’s Homestay involving the two hosts and their celebrity singer masquerading as a humble assistant (a different one every season, I think IU on this occasion). They had written a song inspired by the show and performed it together once through, from beginning to end. There was a short, reflective pause afterward and some appreciative comments. Then it was immediately to work – how about we try a different bass track in the chorus, the second vocal line needs to come out more, does the fifth interval in the verse work or should we change it… It was a good reminder that music is a craft as well as an art, and these three were among the best in the business. The clip cut off there but you could imagine them all going on for hours, like home mechanics working on a classic car.

  11. El Slobbo

    Kpop is plastic disposable music (and yes, some plastic products have very sophisticated design). I’ve been exposed to it on and off for some decades, and I remember being impressed on many occasions with the design and technique, but I always forget the music itself six months or so after I’m exposed to it.

  12. caucus99percenter

    Some years ago, a Japanese manga called AKB49: Ren’ai Kinshi Jōrei (恋愛禁止条例 / “The Rule Against Love”) — then still running as a serial — captured my interest. As the story unfolds, one learns more and more about the history and psycho-social context of the idol group AKB48 and its producer Yasushi Akimoto.

    For a while I was very much a fan of the manga as window into otaku subculture — though never that much of a fan of J-pop in general or of AKB48 itself.

    Those were the same years I also listened regularly to the very eclectic mix of musical offerings then being webcast by Tsukuba city’s community radio station (which has since changed a lot and strikes me as less interesting, so I no longer bother):

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I never claimed that K-Pop was for everyone. Still, I think you would accept that my taste in music is not unsophisticated. So perhaps you’re missing something?

  13. Pat

    I worry about how much exploitation there is behind the scenes. But that is a problem throughout the entertainment industry pretty much everywhere.
    And as someone who adored The Monkees when I was young, and still believes they were greater than the sum of the many parts in front of and behind the microphones and cameras, far be it from me to hrumph in superiority about manufactured pop groups and music. :)


      1. Will

        Yes, thank you Lambert. I went for a long walk yesterday afternoon to enjoy the lovely day here in Toronto and to get away from doom-scrolling. Your post was a pleasant capper. K-pop isn’t really to my taste, but it was nice to be reminded that there is much to be appreciated and enjoyed about our human world.

  14. bassmule

    Here are some adults making great dance music. Kassav’ was, in a way, the K-Pop of the Francophone world. They mostly sang in Creole/French, very rarely in English, which is why they never cracked the Anglophone market. The chorus translates as “Zouk is the only medicine we’ve got.”

    Zouk las sel medikaman nou ni

  15. Dr. John Carpenter

    I appreciate this article. I think people in general look down upon finely crafted pop music (see many of the above comments*) and, to my ears, sometimes that is just the thing I want to hear. The whole K-pop phenomenon is one I find so interesting just on how unlikely it is. But as one who is a fan of k-horror, I get it. Very cool to see and hopefully this gets people to open their ears a little.

    * as a lengthy aside, the music business is a BUSINESS first and foremost. Even the “waddaabout?” artists other commenters have mentioned have created an image and, dare I say, market for their music, as removed from the pop charts as it may be. That is not to diminish the value (or integrity) of their music. But that is to be realistic about how one maintains a 50+ year career playing music. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a survival thing and a necessary evil. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s that much different, or superior, than what we are talking here.

  16. overoverb

    A post talking about Twice on NC…what a time to be alive! I Can’t Stop Me and Knock Knock are personal faves.

    The kpop system is probably most comparable to old Motown. It’s maybe a bit watered down compared to its golden age, but there is still some good stuff coming out of there. Many music nerds have a soft spot for music out of South Korea and Japan.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The kpop system is probably most comparable to old Motown.

      It very much is, but the scale is enormous. I think the discipline of the performers is greater, too.

    2. digi_owl

      Many “nerds” have a soft sport for SK and Japan in general.

      Likely because they used the same TV format as USA, and was a hop skip away from the tech savy west coast (never mind the number of US soldiers that have been stationed on bases there). End result was perhaps something akin to a modern orientalism.

      Sadly what made them special is being watered down as they get mainstream attention and US money has started flowing in.

  17. playon

    As a musician I can sometimes appreciate well-crafted pop music if it’s not a blatant copy of another song or or style, but the K-pop thing leaves me cold for the most part. For me it has the worst elements of mass-produced pop music, true “bubble gum” muzak. I realize some people find that is part of its charm. When we were in Thailand I heard a lot of this kind of stuff, as other Asian countries copy the K-pop phenomenon.

    But then I’m mostly a roots music fan, and whatever “roots” there are in that music is western pop girl and boy bands which with a few exceptions is the definition of disposable music IMO. It’s worlds away from Motown, even though Motown was a factory of pop music there was so much soul in it that I think comparing it to K-pop is a non-starter.

    Some of the Indian/Hindi stuff is pretty cool though, like this one from the 1980s, which has amazing vocals (once you get past the intro):

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > mostly a roots music fan

      I like roots music, too. (To me, The Wailers Catch a Fire is new, and when I got off the train). Reggae (Jamaica), rhythm and blues (United States), and mor lam (Thailand) all have interesting musical and sociological (migration from country to city) parallels. It’s interesting that — AFAIK!! — no Korean musical genre ever made the same transition (and both reggae and R&B went global, even if mor lam did not).

      That said, I insist that all K-Pop is not bubblegum (in particular the songs cited in this post). I wouldn’t be listening to it if it were.

  18. HotFlash

    Due to my line of work and other stuff, I have some personal experience with the world of Olympic athletes, stellar martial artists, professional musicians, opera singers, and ballet dancers. The ones striving for the top and those at the top, however fleetingly, work hard and are worked harder by their coaches, senseis, teachers, parents, promoters, and/or parents. Ah yes, parents.

    One of my young musician friends was at the time working on a double major, philosophy and economics, while playing in three community orchestras, incl being concertmistress of one. Unf, she chose UChicago for her master’s (sigh), but perhaps her philosophy will save her. She also belonged to a Facebook group entitled, “I can’t, I’ve got rehearsal”. She and her sister (piano) had debuted as soloists while still youngsters and performed professionally as a duo in their teens. I asked her once if she didn’t feel she was pressed too hard by her parents. She was surprised. “It is the duty of the parents to direct their children, it is the children’s duty to follow their instruction. The parents know what is best for their child and their future.”

    A Cdn music teacher I know moved to Korea to teach piano. “The kids here don’t practice enough, they don’t care, their parents don’t care.”

    I have witnessed a mother taking her young (8? 10?) son by the hand out of the conservatory. The boy was in tears and mama was chewing him out in one of the many languages I don’t understand.

    A famously strict ballet teacher here (former Kirov) was called behind her back “Marie Slapmiyalova”. She was much sought after by serious dance students and some students at the National Ballet School would sneak off to take lessons from her in secret. Because results.

    An enormously talented guitarist, and also exceptional martial artist, told me when he was still 16 that, regarding practice, “most people are both too hard on themselves, and too easy.” Unfortunately, he was a much better musician than his professor. No connections for you, young man! Another fine young musician told me ruefully, “Yeah. It’s pretty common for the biggest block to your career is your teacher.”

    I was also told by a veteran opera musician, “The casting couch isn’t only in Hollywood.”

    Merely personal observations. YMMV.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The casting couch isn’t only in Hollywood

      I’m sure I’m being naive, but don’t understand this mentality at all. Can’t people, men especially, simply take delight in the accomplishments of their students? And yet, Harvey Weinsteins every week.

      > The ones striving for the top and those at the top, however fleetingly, work hard and are worked harder

      I’m reminded of a recent YouTube I posted about rap singers who don’t even write down lyrics (“punching in,” they call it). OK, OK, oral tradition, Homer “the bard,” mental libraries of beats, rhymes, and tropes… Or is it the laziness and inattentiveness of the larger culture? (Or possibly IP issues? If you don’t write anything down, who can sue?)

  19. ChrisRUEcon

    Thanks for this! It’s always good to see musicians/artistes treat their work as “craft” and less as “that thing they do” to earn the greenbacks!

    If I had to opine further, I’d say it looks like K-Pop is channeling peak-MTv-generation vibes with the production values. Sad that MTv is all reality Tv now. They passed on their original charter as it were in search of more lazy eyes and bigger advert money, but yes, there was a time … see Outkast, circa 2003 with Roses! (via YouTube)

  20. John9

    I spent 1971 in S Korea as a US Imperial Janissary(draftee). Because of the weirdness of my assignment, I spent a lot of time in US service clubs from the ritzy officer type to the grungy enlisted ones. One common feature was the live music show, whose quality blew my mind at the time. So Kpop is no surprise to me. The Motown roots are valid too. They really excelled at 60’s soul. The Tina Turner (God rest her soul) version of Rolling on the River was one of the beloved anthems. They covered a whole decade of US pop music…starting with Elvis to the Stones with a lot of Motown in-between. And it was great! And you could see then where S Korea was heading.
    I studied in Japan later and remembered reading somewhere that some of the greatest cultural flowering in Japan and I daresay Korea occurred after a period of overwhelm from China, when they took Chinese culture and transformed into something uniquely theirs. Except post WW2, it has been US overwhelm that they have transformed. And it’s still going on.
    I see in those Kpop performers a fruition of the cultural ferment that their grandparents were experiencing 50some years ago….also informed by their own traditional music and theater.
    Thanks for this post, Lambert!

  21. Lambert Strether Post author

    YouTube’s algo tossed up Jihyo (Twice member) explaining why she doesn’t dance “What is Love?” anymore; I’d really like a translation because I bet the English voice-over isn’t subtle enough. My interpretation is that she’s, well, grown out of it; she’s fully adult. So for her, no irony and no tragedy MR SUBLIMINAL At least not yet, says the old codger. (She is, of course, promoting her solo album, which sounds like scat singing, and good for her.)

    There’s also short discussion of the extraordinary choreography, where Jihyo shows how she forms a question mark with her body at the very end of the song (which she might not want to do any more either). Probably a real fan knows this already, and a lot more, but the very concept is new to me. I mean, Koreans are rightly very proud of their alphabet, so the semiotics of literally embodying a Western punctuation mark… I can’t even begin to interpret (except that I am now more a fan of the genre than ever).

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