If pop culture isn't your cup of tea, you might think that K-pop emerged overnight. But in truth, the Korean entertainment industry has been gradually growing over decades. As more idols emerge from South Korea and go international, it’s clear that the Korean music industry has achieved a scale of influence once thought impossible. With a vibrant and creative amalgamation of music, fashion, and art, many believe the modern foundations of K-pop were born in the early 1990s thanks to the unlikely emergence of a musical group called Seo Taiji and Boys.

The Beginnings of K-Pop

During this period, the South Korean music landscape was mostly influenced by American and Japanese folk music. However, as the forward-thinking artists of this time spent their days listening to Western rap, rock and techno, Seo Taiji and Boys combined these genres with classic Korean ballad-style melodies to create the sound that we know and love today.

If you’re a fan of K-pop, you know that the choreography and fashion are almost as important as the music. This aspect of modern K-pop is also attributed to Seo Taiji and Boys, who developed dance routines for their energetic music videos. Meanwhile, the group’s dynamic street fashion aesthetic borrowed heavily from various global cultures and combined them with Korean folk costumes – a hallmark of K-pop that continues till today.

Spreading to a Global Audience

As Korean audiences turned their attention to teen-centred pop music, talent agencies began seeking out the best young singers and dancers from across the country. Using the same so-called ‘idol’ business model already existing in Japan, budding creatives undergo a rigorous training programme from an early age. These intense “trainee days” determine whether they have what it takes to succeed in the K-pop industry and possibly, with a strong enough fanbase, influence the world.

K-pop forms a critical part of what’s known as the Korean Wave, or ‘Hallyu’, a term used to describe the increasing global popularity of Korean culture. Driven by the proliferation of the internet and social media platforms, fan engagement is critical to the success of K-pop. In fact, it’s believed that South Korean artists attained international success over Japanese and Chinese artists precisely because they used social media platforms dominant in the English-speaking world. Backed by fans using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, K-pop artists expanded their influence far beyond their home country. And although the follower count for most of these K-pop idols might not reach those of the Top 20 Most Followed Instagram Accounts of 2021, members of Blackpink like Lisa and Jennie are well on their way to the top, as the top K-pop idols on Instagram themselves.

However, a large part of K-pop's success is also the result of the South Korean government's support. Eager to push cultural exports to international audiences, the South Korean government gives big tax breaks to businesses operating in the entertainment sector. Offering tax credits to companies spending on producing film and television content, with 25% in cash rebates for projects approved by the Korean Film Council, this investment into homegrown media content encourages creators to push out content made on home soil.

Furthermore, with streaming services like Netflix and Spotify happy to capitalise on the growing demand for Korean media, audiences from virtually anywhere in the world can now spend their days watching the latest K-drama and listening to music by their favourite K-pop artists.

However, the South Korean entertainment industry isn’t without its issues. The last few years, in particular, have seen a range of concerns bubble to the surface.

Trouble in Paradise

As the popularity of Korean entertainment has gone from strength to strength, millions of fans naturally can’t wait to find out what their favourite idol is getting up to. Unfortunately, this has also given rise to the ‘Sasaeng fan’ and ‘Koreaboo’. The former labels obsessive fans who take things a step too far, stalking their idols and invading their privacy.

The latter, ‘Koreaboo’, is a derogatory term usually used towards foreigners, typically Westerners, who have become incredibly obsessed with Korean culture. No one has any issues with someone who loves to eat Korean food or watch Korean dramas, but it becomes problematic when international fans start seeing themselves as Korean. Much the same as ‘Weeaboos’ – a negative word used to describe people fixated on Japanese culture – Koreaboos usually fail to appreciate South Korean culture respectfully, instead relying on tired tropes and stereotypes, bordering on fetishisation of what they imagine Korean culture to be. One such example is Oli London, a British singer and social media influencer who underwent plastic surgery to look more like Jimin from BTS. And as Oli London claimed a Korean identity, the resulting controversy has seen a massive backlash from online communities, as many believe they trivialise Korean identities.

Other scandals have shaken the world of K-pop more recently too. Despite the family-friendly appearance of the industry, K-pop talent agencies wield an incredible amount of power over the daily lives of their idols and have faced significant criticism and backlash from netizens and fans alike. With these potential stars asked to focus on nothing but their professional performance, many agencies ban their idol trainees from using their phones or even dating in public. Alongside ‘sasaengs’, incredibly obsessive fans known to break into idols’ homes, purchase idols’ personal information, or seek them out on the street, the relationship between South Korean celebrities and their followers can be complicated at times.

Transforming Passion into Career

Although the K-pop industry has undoubtedly experienced its problems, on the opposite end of the spectrum is an entire wave of artists who have found great success. While no one can deny the huge fame of Korean groups like BTS, SuperM, and Blackpink, other creative individuals have managed to draw inspiration from K-pop artists to create new and exciting businesses. For example, Singaporean visual artist and fashion designer Josiah Chua shot to fame by upcycling the McDonald’s BTS Meal packaging into a pair of sneakers.

With his bright purple creation receiving engagement from millions around the world, Chua also captured the attention of local celebrities like Benjamin Kheng and Jean Danker, and his previous fashion projects reached an entirely new audience. This achievement reflects the beauty of K-pop as a whole, where an entire industry is dedicated to driving innovation through the combination of music, fashion, dance - and maybe even the McDonald’s menu.

BE Yourself

With M1’s BE campaign highlighting Singaporeans who forge their own way, learning from the dynamic world of K-pop might just help you find your passion. Whether you’re new to K-pop and enjoy the fruits of its world influence, or an existing fan of Korean music, art, and culture, BE you, and bring your unique perspective to the table!

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