Inside the world of K-pop
Welcome to the energetic, catchy, family-friendly world of South Korean music-better known as K-pop. Its best-known artists maybe the boy band BTS, nominated in three different categories at tonight's Grammy Awards, and the most-listened-to group in Spotify history.
UCLA professor Suk-Young Kim, who has written about the K-pop phenomenon, said, "It's way more than music. It is a total entertainment that incorporates choreography, fashion, lifestyle.
"We used to have very prominent boy bands and girl groups, such as New Kids on the Block, Spice Girls, One Direction. I think K-pop really hits kind of a vacuum that Western pop cultural trends left behind," she said.
"Sunday Morning" visited the 10th annual KCON convention in Los Angeles, an expo dedicated to Korean pop culture. Everywhere you look, you see fans faithfully re-creating their idols' dances.
Pogue asked Kevin Woo, "What are the odds they would be able to recite every lyric, do every dance move?"
"Hundred percent," Woo replied. "They know it better than I do!"
Woo is a K-pop star (a K-pop idol, to use the technical term) who spent nine years in a group called UKISS. "Sometimes it gets dangerous at K-pop concerts, because they're so passionate," Woo said.
All successful bands have fans. But in K-pop, the fan-to-idol relationship is more reciprocal. Kim said, "Fans are extremely dedicated, but they also expect a lot in return from [an] idol."
According to the band INI, a pop idol never declines a fan interaction.
Pogue asked, "Is there ever a time when you don't want a selfie? Like, when you're trying to shop or see a movie?"
"No," replied one INI member. "Selfies are, like, a good opportunity for us to communicate with our fans."
Some KCON attendees are here to audition for scouts and competition shows, in hopes of someday becoming K-pop idols themselves.
If you're chosen, you'll spend up to ten years in South Korea's K-pop training centers, operated by the entertainment companies. "It's kind of like a boot camp," said Woo. "You go to your acting class, you go to your singing class, you go to your dance class."
Your appearance will also be managed: "You get camera tested every angle, hair and makeup. They change up different hairstyles, different colors," Woo said.
Pogue asked, "Is there a dark side to it?"
"When there's a good side, there's always going to be a bad side," Woo said.
Amber Liu is a former member of the girl group f(x). "I went to Korea, and I was around, like, 130 pounds. But I dropped to, I think, 95 at one point."
In 2020, after a series of suicides among K-pop performers, including Liu's former f(x) bandmate Sulli, she went public with her account of those grueling, extremely competitive training camps, where thousands of kids vie to get into a handful of groups.
- f(x)'s Amber Liu speaks out on dark side of K-pop and bandmate Sulli's death (Asia One)
- Recent suicides show the dark side of K-pop ("CBS This Morning")
"You're also thinking, like, 'Everybody's doing it, too. It's part of this, it's normal to us to feel like we're always hungry, to always feel exhausted,'" Liu said.
"And you're 15?"
"Yeah!" she said. "It was a pressure of success."
Angela Killoren, the CEO of CJ ENM America, the entertainment company that puts on the KCON conferences, said that while the training camps may sound intense to Americans, that kind of competitive pressure pervades Korean culture. "I'm not sure that it's unique to K-pop. It's a societal thing in Korea. There is a lot of pressure on doing well in school. They're all up 'til whatever time at night, like, studying, doing the work. There is this idea of wanting to do your best, and not disappoint others."
One thing is for sure: The South Korean music-making system does produce hits. Last year alone, the K-pop industry generated more than $5 billion, and four K-pop albums hit #1 on the Billboard list ("Oddinary" and "Maxident" by Stray Kids; "Proof" by BTS; and "Born Pink" by Blackpink).
According to idol Kevin Woo, that's no surprise at all: "Once you listen to K-pop, you're in for a treat," he said. "I mean, it's a very different culture out there. But I feel like once you listen to the first 30 seconds, you'll fall in love. Yeah, I promise you!"
The 65th Grammy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 5, and will be broadcast live on CBS and on demand via Paramount+ beginning at 7 p.m. ET.
For more info:
- Kevin Woo
- Amber Liu
- KCON, Los Angeles
- CJ ENM America
- Suk-Young Kim, UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television
- "The Cambridge Companion to K-Pop," edited by Suk-Young Kim (Cambridge University Press), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available March 31 via Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
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