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(Cover) Bangtan Boys (BTS) in Wings photoshoot. October 2016. Sistar at Kpop festival in Vietnam. November 2012. K-pop as we know it today got its start in the ’90s, but it only came to its presently recognizable form after decades of cultural blending. Western culture, which arrived in earnest in the 1950s, largely shaped K-pop. Though there had been an American and European presence in Korea since at least the 1880s, it wasn’t until the Korean War that American stars arrived to perform for troops–and brought the style and flair of American pop culture along for the ride. USO performances featuring glamorous figures like Marilyn Monroe took the war-torn nation by storm. South Korea in particular embraced these Western stylings and integrated them into their mu2


Even if you don’t speak the language, K-pop music videos and performances are engineered to engage all viewers. The combination of highly choreographed dance routines, vivid visual backdrops, synthesized music and performers’ high-fashion attire aid in the videos’ ability to really stick into the mind of the viewer.

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Bangtan Boys (BTS) at KCON France 2016 in Paris on June 2, 2016.

K-pop’s frenzy of colors and choreography presents a chaotic scene, but behind the flurry of moving hues are years of work and calculation. While PSY became known in the United States seemingly overnight, it was only after he had spent years cultivating fame at home. In South Korea, the road to K-pop stardom is a long one, with larger record labels beginning the scouting process for the next generation of K-pop stars at around the age ten. Once found, the children live together in something of a musical commune where they are trained through their early teenage years for stardom, including strict vocal lessons, dance training and PR skills. The South Korean government has become increasingly supportive of K-pop as a cultural touchstone and a money-making enterprise. By aiding in the dissemination of these tunes and videos through social media and investing in the training of new artists, the government is bolstering a major part of its economy. The country produces around 60 new bands each year. While not all of them garner international fame, K-pop’s ability to churn out potential stars is impressive, if not a little overwhelming. The new bands are debuted in a manner that is highly — and virally, marketed in order to generate buzz, and usually appear for the first time on a television program or opening for a more well-established group. 3


K-POP World Festival in Changwon October 20, 2013 K-pop as a subculture has its own etiquette and rules, not unlike contemporary fandoms in the Western world. For example, younger or newer K-pop stars are expected to bow to their elders if they encounter them at events. If they don’t–or if they behave in any way that suggests they think themselves in the same social standing as a more established artist–emerging K-pop bands can expect criticism from media and fans alike. While the appeal of K-pop is obvious, one does wonder if manufacturing talent comes at a price: if all future stars are trained in the same way, homogenization seems inevitable. But maybe that’s the key to K-pop’s success: capitalizing on what’s proven to earn.