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How to Make It in America: K-Pop's Bid for the West

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By Tyler Trykowski

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All illustrations by Patrick Kyle

G-Dragon falls into a folding chair, looking calm and nearly bored. He turns out to be surprisingly soft-spoken for one of the biggest Korean Pop artists in the short history of the genre. I had to pass four burly security guards to get to his dressing room.

He is barely 25, yet he has been a K-Pop superstar since the age of 18. He sits 200 feet and 60 minutes away from the stage where he will debut a new single with Missy Elliott, to a crowd of 15,000 screaming fans. The song will appear on his forthcoming album, Coup D’état, and the collaboration is meant to boost his crossover appeal for a Western market, as well as herald the young artist as a king of his genre.

He’s good, basically. And that’s what he tells me, sans translator, when asked what his main influences are as one of K-Pop’s top producers—not to mention one of its more successful rappers, singers or fashionistas. “I’m good,” he says, as he smirks and windmills an arm over the back of his chair.

 

 

Does it seem strange that the rapper who taught us how to put our things down, flip them and reverse them is collaborating with a Korean star? Or that Diplo and Bauuer are producing another single from the K-Pop king’s forthcoming album? This is a rapper who sports an androgynous bowlcut, rides a gigantic pink Elephant head, takes a piss in a neon, strobing urinal and krumps in a library and warehouse in his video for "Go" (and it’s not even K-Pop’s craziest). Who’s lost their mind: American artists, or Korea’s?

Neither. Last October, Nightline reported that global sales for Korean Pop music now top $3 billion a year. Koreans are producing the most highly refined music videos of any industry in the world right now, both by my own measure and that of outlets like SPIN and Stereogum. The industry was ranked as the world’s 33rd biggest in 2005; in 2012, they became its 11th. In 2010, K-Pop videos were viewed on YouTube 800 million times; in 2011, 2.2 billion times; and in the year since Psy’s “Gangam Style” was released, they have been viewed more than 7.7 billion times globally. Where worldwide music industry revenues have fallen drastically since 2000, Korea’s has figured out how to produce profits in 2013 at near-2000 levels.

The K-Pop genre itself was born 20 years ago, when Korean record labels established an industrial approach to creating music with global export potential, becoming vertically integrated pop music machines. Today, hundreds of thousands audition at major Korean labels each year for a chance to become a K-Pop star. Those selected enter training to perfect their performance skills at ages as young as 12. They attend school, then take dance, voice, media and speaking classes, a rigorous program that continues for as long as a decade. Artists have referred to their agreements with these labels as “slave contracts.”

They face enormous pressure by the time they debut, but when they do, in groups of four to twenty members, they are nearly flawless. The field is crowded to the point that it is common for groups that don’t catch on to fade to obscurity after a few songs. In Korea, the music metabolism is rapid and unforgiving.

In October 2011, G-Dragon—at that point, one of K-Pop’s larger-than-life luminaries—became the center of a scandal when Korean media reported he tested positive for a miniscule amount of marijuana. He claimed he was offered a cigarette at a party, and threw it away upon realizing it was not tobacco. His label immediately cut all promotions for his work and announced he would take time off to think about what he did. And for some perspective, this August, 2 Chainz was arrested for narcotics possession and obstruction of justice after a nine-hour standoff with police, but his album B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time will be released, as scheduled, by Def Jam today.

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G-Dragon, along with seven other groups, performed at this August’s second annual K-Con in Los Angeles, which provided 20,000 fans from across North America and abroad a chance to soak in a culture that, for them, largely exists online. Attendees were diverse, skewed towards their early teens, and put Directioners to shame with their screams of enthusiasm.

“I like it because it’s something different than what we have in America,” said Jonathan, a 26-year-old K-Con attendee who has been following the genre for four years. “I used to be into indie music, and now I listen to something with lyrics even I don’t understand. Everyone could get into it, really, but some people have a shield up, because they don’t want to understand it.”

K-Pop has been making inroads into the Western market, and aims to build a foundation for the genre to achieve mass American appeal over the next decade. This is seen both in the existence of K-Con, which is presented by CJ Entertainment, a giant Korean food and entertainment conglomerate, and in the music itself. Korean pop artists have begun collaborating with Western stars like Skrillex and the aforementioned Diplo and Missy; G-Dragon has triggered a stylistic wave of swagger and western punk that has crossed over into other, more successful groups. Across the convention, Psy’s name was used to herald the forthcoming surge of K-Pop in America, despite his single’s one-off success and its satirical nature, antithetical to the core mission of K-Pop’s major labels.

How do you introduce an Anglophone audience to a genre that, on first blush, they’re not wired to understand? It’s an identity crisis the industry is trying to unpack. When I spoke with Bruce Vanderveer, a producer who has worked with Christina Aguilera, P!nk and most recently Xia, of K-Pop boy band JYJ, whose Vanderveer-produced single “Incredible” hit number five on worldwide Billboard charts in July, he cited the language barrier as an inherent difficulty. “Hopefully, more K-Pop artists will record English versions of their songs,” he said, “but there are so many parallels that if Americans just give it a chance, they’ll realize they like the music as it is.”

“We didn’t even know what K-Pop was,” notes Ebony Cunningham, a vocalist and songwriter who works with Vanderveer, “until we got the opportunity to work with Kim Junsu. And we realized this guy is huge, globally. K-Pop is larger than life. It’s just here in America that we haven’t begun to understand it yet.”

There are a few reasons an American teen might find appeal in K-Pop, as it turns out. First, it is different, and that differentness holds appeal to those whom Justin Bieber might not. Second, it is not actually different—this is American pop and electronic music, refined to its stylistic core and refracted through a new language and culture. Third, it is a genre that provides endless fodder for obsession; between the dancing, clothing and constant barrage of new groups and songs, there is titillation and excitement to last a teen girl a lifetime. There are also the fan communities, unofficial conventions and Twitter gossip intrinsic to many spheres of Chinese, Japanese and Korean entertainment—like Anime, K-Pop fans are a force to be reckoned with. You will be hard-pressed to find Beliebers dedicated enough to memorize the “fan chants” prevalent in K-Pop that, when sung in sync with performers, harmonize and add a second layer to the performance.

 

It seemed fans at the convention were divided into two camps: those who loved the music, and those who aspired to make it. With boot camps and auditions, the K-Pop industry plays into these aspirations in ways America’s doesn’t. Google SM Entertainment, and autocomplete will invariably suggest “SM Entertainment audition.” Winning over a teen audience anywhere, of course, means convincing them it could happen to them, too. Justin could be your lover and Selena could be your best friend. In K-Pop, this also means that you could be chosen by a label to become the next member of Girls Generation. But it will be hard to convince an American audience of the same.

At the convention, one could attend workshops like “Love Connection,” a speed-dating session for K-Pop fans, and “Get Fit and Healthy like Your Favorite Idols.” Panels featured major songwriters with tips on writing for Korean charts, a former star breaking down her day-to-day life in the industry, dancing lessons, entertainment business basics and how to harness YouTube.

A workshop called “Get It Beauty: The K-Pop Face” was led by Hyeon-Jeung Woo, a Korean makeup artist who has worked with the genre’s headliners. Korea is in the midst of a plastic surgery boom, and the idea of beauty is as tied up in the culture as their pop music. By one estimate, one in five women in Seoul have undergone a procedure.

Woo’s workshop began with a volunteer taking the stage for a makeover. We learned how makeup can contour and shape the face, using bronzer to achieve a smaller, more V-shaped look and highlighter to make the eyes pop. She told us the point of makeup was to focus the eyes, using mascara and eyeliner to create a popular Korean “double-lid” look, and to acquire what Woo called a “baby cat face,” curling the lash line up at the outer ends. At several points, the volunteer looked pained as Woo used sponges and wipes to shade her face, a treatment idols undergo daily.

The majority of KCon attendees seemed less bewitched by fame as they did by the sorority of fandom and their love for the music itself. They donned masks depicting Psy and danced on sidewalks, unafraid to let their fandom show. One ran screaming through the crowd, wearing a shirt that read “I <3 K-Pop” and holding two helium balloons to her head. As she passed, she smiled and said to herself, “I’m a weirdo, it’s okay.”

 

 

K-Pop audiences are vocal, and roars from the crowd when G-Dragon ascends on stage are deafening at the convention’s closing performance. When love ballad boy band 2AM appears, a member could so much as wink at the audience and elicit a 30-second screech; cameras panned to a girl who broke out in tears. This February, Teen Top (an R&B boy band whose tagline is “Emotional Teen Pop Band”) set a decibel-level record at a show in Paris, where the venue noted employees had to physically restrain equipment from falling due to tremors from the collective audience’s jumping.

G-Dragon’s performance begins in a pitch-black stadium, with spotlights to herald his arrival from a pedestal 40 feet in the air; the crowd responds with ear-splitting shrieks. During his performance of 2012 single “Crayon,” he paused for a moment just to stare at the audience and stroke his chin, inducing thunder.

Before G-Dragon, the other groups at the convention performed: f(x), five teasing twentysomething women, who danced and sang in perfect sync with the audience. Dynamic Duo arrived with an entourage of skateboarders and BMX bikers, doing tricks as they rapped and pranced around the stage. They wore sunglasses and fedoras, with a sweeping view of an unnamed city projected behind them—a blend of hip-hop tropes with Korean style. As we watched 2 AM work the audience into a lovelorn frenzy, a journalist I sat with posited that the popularity of the comparatively tame ballad genre may be due to Korea’s harsh winters, where a beautiful boy with a sweet voice would be more than welcome.

G-Dragon doesn’t want to be affiliated with the larger genre of K-Pop, because he feels he is of a completely new genre. In an interview with XXL last December, he said, “This K-pop title might be good for now, but looking ahead, it could hold me back, like a prison of sort.” In one of his hits, “One of a Kind,” he asserts his specialness, wealth, and artistry.

And he is indeed different from other K-Pop artists. He writes his own lyrics, produces his own songs, and may be a visionary in the way he dictates his own style and career. But it’s hard to disassociate him with the industry he grew up in. He plays the audience like a K-Pop artist. He sings and dances like other K-Pop artists. He was, after all, raised as a member of Big Bang, a juggernaut K-Pop boy band group. He is trying to be the genre’s Justin Timberlake, but it remains to be seen whether he can break out to become a worldwide star with staying power.

I am curious what challenges he thinks K-Pop will face as it moves into the Western market. As I do not speak Korean, his answers may lack intricacies the language gets across, but our translator’s summary makes it clear he is straddling a line between the world of K-Pop from which he emerged and his new career as a global artist.

G-Dragon cites the language barrier, and then explains fears that the genre could lose its Korean identity. “The music needs to remain Korean,” our translator tells me. “People like K-Pop exactly because it is distinctly Korean.” Which is an odd dichotomy of concerns for an artist who wants to be known as Western but fears his genre, as a whole, will lose its identity.

Many of his peers have had careers half his length. On a lark, I ask what his favorite tattoo is, and he laughs and rubs the right side of his ribs, which bear the words Forever Young. “It is something like a motto for him,” our translator notes. “He thinks a musician should never grow up too much, maintaining their youth and vibrancy.”

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As G-Dragon’s performance winds down, the groups that performed before him trickle into the backstage area. There was Crayon Pop, in white Vespa helmets, neon yellow polos, white skirts and white gloves. There was the 12-member EXO, in slim suits and tousled hair. Amber, f(x)’s rapper, wore a shirt that said “We Are Still Young.”

The groups milled about, waiting to wave goodbye to their American fans. They stood silently, watching the stage, some fidgeting, others visibly tired. G-Dragon then made his exit and a producer waved them up a flight of stairs, as they turned on their bright smiles and the crowd roared once again.

It is hard to imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of teens who want to be them. The manufactured nature of this music means that artistry isn’t the question—one wants to become a K-Pop artist because of a burning desire to become famous, to be those men and women adored by millions. Maybe that’s the reason behind most musical aspirations. Maybe fans love K-Pop specifically because of that engineered perfection, because it is flawless. Achieving that flawlessness, for K-Pop stars, means great sacrifice. Whether it’s worth giving up one’s teens to attain is a different matter altogether.

 

Tyler Trykowski is journalist living in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter - @tylertry

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