What is K-pop? South Korean music goes global

Take a look inside the music industry whose top super-group is worth more than One Direction

K-pop group 2NE1 onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards Japan in 2012
(Image credit: Ken Ishii/Getty Images)

Most Brits' knowledge of South Korean music ends at Gangnam Style, the viral sensation that has racked up 2.6 billion views on YouTube since 2012. However, a growing subculture dedicated to Korean pop music – known as K-pop – is taking root among music fans around the world.

So what is it?

Upbeat tunes, family-friendly lyrics and fiendishly catchy hooks are the hallmarks of a K-pop hit. Songs are usually paired with big-budget videos in which perfectly groomed girl or boy bands show off flawless choreography in front of elaborate sets.

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To understand the rise of K-pop, it must be placed in the context of the wider spread of South Korean culture across Asia since the late 1990s. "Korean TV dramas and, to a lesser extent, Korean films have, along with Korean pop music, become staples in markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong," a phenomenon referred to in Korean as "hallyu" or "flow of Korea", says the New Yorker.

K-pop's popularity in the West remains limited to a small but passionate minority, but its global selling power should not be underestimated – the second album from EXO, Korea's biggest boyband, outsold One Direction's Four to become 2015's fifth biggest-selling album in the world.


Like the sprawling online subculture that sprang up around 1D, the hype surrounding K-pop's top acts goes far beyond their music. "No one does fandoms like K-pop," says Dazed, noting that one website hosts more than 132,000 stories about EXO written by their fans.

Underneath the tween-friendly bubblegum vibe, however, is a dark underbelly. Every aspect of the industry is carefully manufactured by music executives, who scout teenagers to undergo the rigorous training needed to become a K-pop star.

Commonly referred to as 'idols', K-pop singers are often subject to strict rules regarding their personal life to conform to a perfectly managed public persona. They are expected to be clean-cut girls or boys "next door" and being caught clubbing, smoking or even dating can be career-ending.

The relationship between idols and plastic surgery has also come under scrutiny. One in five South Korean women has gone under the knife and although the phenomenon predates the K-pop boom, many believe the music industry has contributed to its normalisation. In its most blatant crossovers, K-pop stars have even starred in adverts for plastic surgery clinics.

James Turnball, who writes about feminism and pop culture in South Korea, told The Atlantic: "The idea here is that you like the appearance of the 'idols' and you should try and look like them."

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