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Saharial’s Guide to Kpop – part 1

Saharial commences a journey through the many attractions of Kpop, which will lead her wherever you want her to go
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I’ve been following the Korean music scene since late 2004, after a small detour from the Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop scene turned into one giant change of direction in my interests in Asian culture. The industry itself was still relatively young and not as internationally aware as it is now, and the changes over the last seven years alone have been quite phenomenal as the Korean market, just like the West, battled illegal downloading and falling album sales. Today, those interested in Korean Culture who want to dip toes or even take the plunge into the Hallyu music wave, finding a place to start is not easy considering the ocean of information, debuts, scandals and gossip that is generated daily.

So, with today’s SM concert in Paris, and hopefully some Kpop acts in London before not too long, I thought it would be an ideal time, and LKL an ideal place, to make a start on a guide to all things Kpop – the music, the performers, the companies and the surrounding culture. I’ll be doing my best to unravel the information and stories that form this fast paced and ever changing industry and present it, as best I can, in a less chaotic form than its reality and hopefully provide enough observation and insight into this fascinating side of modern Korean life.

Expect a feature on Shinhwa before long
Expect a feature on Shinhwa before long

[Image source]

My own personal interest in the Korean music scene is more R&B, and rap, with a touch of rock and Indie for good measure, but I do take guilty pleasure in some fluffy, catchy pop. The main group I am interested in is Shinhwa and run an unofficial International fan forum and site for them, but I would be lost without my Epik High, Drunken Tiger, and YB, plus solo artists such as Sung Sikyung, Yoon Jong Shin and J. I love drama soundtracks and film scores and perhaps, with enough soju, I might just let you know which group is my guilty pleasure to listen to…

A (Very) Brief History

The modern Korean pop scene as we know it today is still a very young industry compared to that of the west, but has had an exponential change and increased globalisation in the last seven years. Before 1992 there were a few popular styles, the main one being Trot music – a simple two beat style of music with distinctive rhythms and vocal style. Naturally there was classical music, traditional, folk and folk revival, soft acoustic rock and the song movement that advocated socio-political songs along with work that was derived from US hits and bands thanks to the presence of American troops stationed in Korea.

Seo Taiji and the Boys
Seo Taiji and the Boys - where it all started?

[Image source]

The genesis of kpop as we know it was born in 1992 when the group Seo TaiJi and the Boys released their first album, dance that was heaviliy influenced by rock and rap, a new style that had not been seen before in Korea. The trend continued when 1995 saw the birth of SM and the start of manufactured boy and girl groups – H.O.T., Fin.K.L, S.E.S, Shinhwa, G.O.D. and Sechskies that introduced more original R&B, Hip Hop, rap and fluffy pop to the nation. This paved the way for more underground rap and R&B artists such as Drunken Tiger and Epik High to begin their musical journey and influence. YG Ent opened its doors in 1996 to bring a hip US influenced style of hip-hop and R&B with groups such as 1TYM, Jinusean and solo artists such as se7en, Lexy and Wheesung. JYP Entertainment followed a year later – now the big three of the Korean music Industry.

Se7en - a YG artist

[Image source]

Artistes were promoted on variety shows, music shows and through dramas, and with the increasing use and popularity of the internet the fandoms and enthusiasm grew for the artist who set fashion trends, dance trends, catch phrases and daydreams for countless teens and ajummahs. Everything might seem like it was ticking along nicely but the sales were dropping and the internet brought a battle against illegal downloads.

Artistes already working hard found themselves needing to double track by taking on more drama roles, more variety shows, fanmeets and promotions and the companies began to introduce more and more acts into the market to capture the ‘fresh new’ appeal and enthusiasm. For established groups the merchandise available increased as did versions of albums; groups began to work as individuals as well as together or simply went it alone after being disbanded. Promotions across the rest of Asia increased focusing on places like Japan, that had more money to spend, and Chinese fans.

Today the industry is far more globally aware than before, and the world is far more aware of the Korean industry, not always in the most positive light either. Singers now debut into a saturated market, with many hopefuls training for years before getting a chance, some not at all. The potted history I just gave you barely scratches the surface of the triumphs, tragedies, politics and trends but in the coming weeks I will be doing my best to show the best and the worst the industry has to offer – groups, companies, scandals, fandom, trends, blogs, globalisation and of course, the music.

If there is any particular area or group you want me to write about or have questions you want answering, please do leave a comment here – it will provide me with a better idea of what people want to know!

4 thoughts on “Saharial’s Guide to Kpop – part 1

  1. I hope you’re going to talk about girl bands as well as boy bands: all the images you sent me were of cute boys ^_^. I had to redress the balance in the post image, so I hunted down a vintage pic of Fin K.L as well as reusing a couple of pics from Maashallah’s article.

    Where to start on such a big topic? So many things you could cover. A couple of suggestions:

    As you may know, I have a lot of respect for BoA, now a 10-year veteran in the industry, who wins her quiet success without (as far as I can see) generating all the media noise that most of the other popsters do. So a feature on BoA would be great. Is she media-shy, is she always hard at work in the US or Japan so out of the Korean media eye, have SM made a conscious decision to market her differently, or am I not reading the right k-pop blogs? How do her Japanese albums differ from her Korean albums? And how was her US album different from both and how did it sell?

    In fact, that last question can be rounded out to a bigger question on how Korean musicians try to make themselves appealing to different markets – apart from trying to sing in different languages, is the sound engineering different? Will a Korean artist ever make it big in the States? Was it just Asian Americans buying Wondergirls singles or did they achieve more of a breakthrough (eg evidenced by their mentions on Perez Hilton)? Rain might be the most influential person according to netizens rigging the Time poll, but does this translate into bums on seats in American concert venues?

    Another spin-off from a BoA article could be popsters and their product lines. Didn’t BoA launch a jewellery range? Baek Ji-young some lingerie? Rain a menswear line? How successful are these celebrity branded products? Do they appeal to a market other than fans of the celebrity?

    Some ideas to be going on with. I’m sure you have shedloads of your own as well.

  2. Thank you for reminding me that fandom isn’t populated with only girls. It does seem that way a lot, but yes – i will cover female groups as well as female solo artists. There are some great suggestions there from you all of which should be covered. Its an extensive topic and I have a feeling will be an ongoing series!. I am making careful note of the questions and requests!

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