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South Korean popular culture

Image credits: pixabay.com
Image credits: pixabay.com

I’m going to start by saying that I’m aware that K-Pop is not an interesting topic to many people. When I try to talk about it, most of my friends show me the hand, or roll their eyes and change the subject. Or if they’re having a good day they might even pretend to listen to me while I blab about the latest Korean song release, but they never show a real interest in it.

And I get it! K-Pop is a peculiar genre so I gave up hoping that I can convince people to listen to it. However, what most people don’t know and what I tend to forget is that the stories ‘behind the scene’ are very interesting as well. I use this expression in a very broad way – from the creation of a K-Pop group to their fandom and so on. So, I thought it would be cool to talk about a few South Korean popular culture facts and enhance your knowledge about the world.

Let’s go back to the past for a second, say almost three decades ago, in the ‘90s. That was the time when the South Korean popular culture began to spread its influence beyond its national borders. It didn’t go too far back then, but it was far enough to become popular in other Asian countries, starting with China, where it was called the ‘Korean Wave’. Mostly thanks to social networks and YouTube, the Korean Wave managed to hit American shores and, soon after, Europe followed. But, this has only happened in recent years, which explains why western societies are still not very interested or impressed by Korean popular culture.

At this point I want to make clear that when I say Korean popular culture, I don’t mean just music (K-Pop). It also involves television, fashion and beauty standards, to say the least. However, for this article I will limit myself to facts that are connected to K-Pop.

The first thing I want to talk about is the process of becoming a K-Pop idol, which, I assure you, is a very difficult one. Now, let’s think about what someone has do in our society to become a singer or a dancer. They have to practice their skills in their free time and after they become good enough, they might audition for a talent TV show, sign a contract with a record label or they can become independent artists.

In South Korea, things are different. The music industry is dominated by the entertainment companies, which are equivalent to record labels, but definitely not the same thing. That doesn’t mean that people can’t be independent artists, but it’s unlikely they would be successful. These companies recruit, finance, train and market the new artists. They hold auditions which thousands and thousands of people attend and because there is no age restriction, a lot of them are very young. If they are accepted to one of these companies, they have to go through a very intensive training which lasts from months to years – depending on how skilled each trainee is. Even after years of training, some are still not considered good enough to debut.

For those groups that do debut, the entertainment company they belong to makes most of the decisions for them – from the name of the group to what they are allowed to sing and wear on stage. After debuting, the artists spend most of their time rehearsing. There are many restrictions featured in their contracts: they have very short periods of vacation, they see their families once or twice a year and most are not allowed to date. These contracts have come to be known as ‘slave contracts’ which – as implied above – involve long hours of work, very little control and small financial reward. Because of these contracts, some idols left their companies or even took them to court. However, there is little information out there about these contracts so nobody knows for sure what is going on.

Because the entertainment companies provide very strong marketing, a new group is very likely to have a fandom before its debut. And so, this brings us to the second part of this article: the very weird world of fandoms. After a group’s debut, the entertainment company that owns the group announces the name of the fandom and, sometimes, the colour of it too – both of these are connected to the group’s name and concept. Afterwards, the fandom divides in sub-fandoms for each of the members of the group and each sub-fandom is named as well (I know, this is insane). After a group releases a new song, the fandom will create what is called a ‘chant’ which the fans will shout while the group performs that song at concerts.

It’s good to know that the huge K-Pop fandom is unofficially split into the international fandom and the local fandom. The international fandom could be described as a multifandom (I know I’ve already said the word ‘fandom’ too much, but bear with me) which basically means that international fans like more than one group (obviously, since there are so many good ones out there).

However, the Korean fans usually get involved in the official fan café sites (every K-Pop group has one). The official fans are expected to invest a lot of time and money in the group they support – they buy every CD, attend every concert, they are up to date with everything, promote the group on every social media platform and so on. With all this time and money consuming involvement, a fan cannot support more than one group – although they might like other groups as well – and they have to pick only one. Again, this happens only if they join the official site café of the respective group. They can always switch to another fandom, but K-Pop fans are very dedicated in general.

And speaking of dedicated fans, I’d like to talk about the last point on my list – sasaeng fans. The dedication of these fans are taken too far, to put it mildly. Sasaeng fans are so obsessed with Korean idols that they begin stalking them in a very aggressive way. And I don’t mean stalking just on social media. No! There have been reported incidents where they broke into idols’ houses, stole their clothes, peed on their floor, hid into their closets, broke their windows, hacked their social media accounts and many other unbelievable things. There is also a trend where a sasaeng fan pays a taxi driver to follow an idol’s car. This has led to many car accidents. Because of this insanity, since February 2016 a law was enforced stating that invading privacy can lead to up to two years in prison, besides a huge monetary fee. This phenomenon is peculiar and interesting but there is no clear theory out there to explain this extremist behaviour.

With that last fact, we have come to the end of this article. I know the world of K-Pop seems crazy and it never ceases to amaze me. That’s why I wanted to share a part of it with you today and I hope you found the information as interesting as I think it is.

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Miruna Radu

Miruna Radu

Music Editor, Experience Editor and Deputy Arts Editor 2017/18