K-pop is the dominant force in South Korean pop music. It has swept much of Asia off its feet, in the sort of grand, romantic gesture its stars are inclined to sing about. K-pop is ecstatically, unapologetically, exclamation-pointed pop music, a glittery explosion of color and style. And you can expect to take in plenty of it during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
K-pop stars are slated to perform and appear throughout the Games, and the closing ceremonies will showcase “performances by CL, who got her start in the essential girl group 2NE1, and the boy band EXO,” the New York Times reports.
This gives you more than two weeks to get up to speed on all things K-pop, from the North Korean girl group that sings state-sponsored propaganda to the South Korean stars whose songs are starting to win over American listeners and are sometimes blasted over the DMZ to taunt their northern neighbors with the sweet, sweet sound of creative freedom.
“Just complete glam all the way.”
K-Pop is big, bright, luxurious, exciting. All-caps everything. As Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, explained, “K-pop is just really known for being very upbeat, but also glamorous… and it’s very catchy.”
Watch some of the videos and you’ll see what she means: It’s as infectious as Max Martin’s finest earworms, as sparkly and rainbow-brite as Kesha’s early work or Carly Rae Jepson circa “Call Me Maybe.” The choreography is precise, the surfaces all gleam. It is the sound of a thousand Pixy Stix bursting into song simultaneously.
K-pop is as just as much about aesthetics as it is about the songs themselves. “The girls are really pretty, the boys are really pretty,” Town said. “It’s not just a listening experience. It is a full experience, a full-senses experience.” Some of these groups have as many as 12 members, which “means you have really great dances and videos, and you have a lot to work with,” Town said. “They’re really known a lot for their choreography.”
Town sums K-pop’s ethos up like so: “Just complete glam all the way.”
In South Korea, K-pop’s stars are everywhere. “Everyone is trying to dress like them and look like them. You have all the k-pop stars that are on the Soju bottles, even,” Town said. “It’s huge. They’re idols in South Korea.” The New Yorker described this sensation in Seoul: “You can feel K-pop all around you. There is the constant presence of the idols on billboards and in display ads. Life-size cutouts of idols greet you at the entrances of the big department stores. On the streets and in the subways you see echoes of the idols’ faces.”
The first K-pop hit to make its way to the United States was PSY’s “Gangham Style,” which blew up in the United States back in 2012 with a video that, to date, has 3 billion views on YouTube.
The music “is huge in South Korea, and in southeast Asia — Asia in general,” Town said. The region is experiencing what they call hallyu, the “Korean wave,” a sweep of Korean cultural that has been spreading to China and central Asia for a decade now. And some of K-pop’s biggest acts have managed to break through in the U.S. already: In 2016, boy band BTS’s second full-length album, Wings, debuted at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart.
It was the best week ever for a K-pop album and made BTS the first K-pop group to land in the Billboard Hot 200 three times. Last year, they became the first Korean act to win a Billboard Music Award, taking home Top Social Artist over fellow nominees Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes.
American pop music tends to shade even its brightest hits with some sorrow: the ache of unrequited love, the hunger to belong, your standard issue stateside teen troubles. But K-pop is “not so angsty,” Town said. No anti-social pessimists mope in the corner of parties they wish they could leave; no one is told, flippantly, to go and love themselves. Even the American pop of the 1990s and early 2000s was laced with pain that K-pop takes pains to ignore. Hearts are not torn up, babies are not hit even one more time, no one makes things so complicated.
Over the past several years, though, the genre has gotten a more sophisticated, and K-pop bands have ventured into darker territory with their lyrics. The results are more in the vein of Western pop music, where one of the only things that might strike the American ear as unfamiliar is the language in which the songs are performed.
BTS is representative of that subject-matter shift. As Billboard reported:
Since their debut, BTS has stood out in the K-pop scene for tackling social and society issues in their music. Wings takes that dedication a step further by delving into the more complex issues in their young-adult lives including tackling mental health (see the sample-heavy “Am I Wrong”), taking digs at the Korean-pop idol scene (on the aggressive “2! 3!”), and even deliver a female-empowerment anthem (“21st Century Girls”), all over bombastic, hard-hitting hip-hop-heavy dance beats.
Girls’ Generation is another of K-pop’s major players. They got the big New Yorker profile treatment in 2012, as they were recording their debut American album with Interscope. The year before, the nine-member group performed at Madison Square Garden and earned “rave reviews from both critics and press worldwide” for their performance. Billboard declared “the girl group can now rightfully be named one of the international representatives of K-Pop.”
K-propaganda in North Korea
North Korea has its own K-pop offerings, which are, as you might expect, “very propaganda-oriented,” said Town. Its big pop band is the girl group Moranbong.
Since Moranbong is “a state-sponsored initiative,” the girls in the group are cast. Like Simon Cowells of the state, the North Korean government “make[s] sure that the girls are very pretty and talented, and they sort of control the content of what the girls do and the types of shows that they do. It’s all very controlled and choreographed.”
Town was quick to add that “it’s not like [North and South Korean K-pop] are competing against each other. They serve very different purposes… Most South Koreans have never seen a North Korean K-pop performance. And if they have, they watched it on YouTube like everyone else.”
Moranbong mainly sings “nationalistic songs,” Town said, with the message generally being “whatever good things are happening is because it’s the grace of the leader.”
For example, consider the lyrics from “We Will Climb to the Mount Paektu“:
We Will Climb to the Mount Paektu
It’s a place that calls prosperity and wonders to this land
And leads heroic Korea to the road of victory.
The idea of a girl group that can only sing jingoistic anthems seems unsettling — imagine Taylor Swift or Beyoncé releasing concept albums about the glory of the Trump administration — but, on a lyrical level, some Moranbong songs are not that far off from the uber-patriotic songs produced by American country artists in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Take Toby Keith’s “American Soldier”:
I’m an American soldier, an American
Beside my brothers and my sisters
I will proudly take a stand
When liberty’s in jeopardy…
Though North Korean music isn’t consumed much outside of the country’s borders, save for the occasional YouTube video, groups like Moranbong have “adapted to the times” a bit in their styling and presentation, Town said.
“As North Korea becomes a little bit more sophisticated and educated about the world, and as they get exposed to more and more outside influences, the Morabong band as also evolved. They’re a little bit more glamorous than they were in the past [and] they’re known for being a little bit more Western style.”
Launching a charm offensive
As any teenager who has attempted to drive a parent slowly insane by blasting music adults can’t stand knows, pop music can be weaponized.
Two years ago, South Korea revved up the wall of loudspeakers lining its 151-mile border with North Korea and blared propaganda, a response to a North Korean nuclear test. One part of the broadcast: K-pop.
The K-pop is intended to show North Korea that the world has modernized, the Defense Ministry says.
As NPR reported at the time, the South Korean government considers the broadcasts to be “an effective tool in psychological warfare.” As South Korean President Park Geun-hye put it at a news conference, “Truth is the most powerful weapon toward a totalitarian regime.”
Town is not convinced this strategy is particularly effective; her sense is that the music is more annoying than anything else. “There’s a lot of efforts to get information into North Korea, and a lot of that content has been K-dramas and K-pop, geared toward showing the North Koreans what life is like in South Korea. Unfortunately, it’s not a very realistic picture! Because K-pop and K-dramas are over-the-top and super glamorous, and that’s not what everyday life is.” In her view, “It’s a little bit of a misperception and it’s overplayed.”
“If you’re a North Korean and you’re watching K-dramas, you’re going to be entertained. You might be a little bit curious. But it’s not going to change your way of life or thinking, and it doesn’t equip you or empower you to do anything.”
When you can (and can’t) see K-pop at the Olympics
At Friday’s opening ceremonies, K-pop will reportedly have a “limited presence.”
Which means that on top of everything else — icy relations between Vice President Mike Pence and figure skater Adam Rippon, the first openly gay athlete to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympic Games; the looming threat of our collective impending deaths in a nuclear holocaust; this gross flu season — on Friday night, Americans will turn on our televisions for one of the only unifying events left in this increasingly isolating world to find an opening ceremonies all but devoid of K-pop.
But as the Games go on, expect some K-pop performances and appearances sprinkled throughout, including a reunion of the boy band 2PM.
And as CNN reports, “A selection of K-pop stars, including girl groups AOA and Girl’s Day, along with Taeyang, from the mega-popular boy band Big Bang, have been made honorary Olympic ambassadors,” which means they will almost certainly be spotted at official Olympic events over the course of the Games.