Like the British Invasion that touched down on the tarmac at JFK on February 7th, 1964, the Korean Wave reached a new high water mark on September 20th, 2012 when PSY’s “Gangnam Style” became the most “liked” video ever on YouTube and the most watched video of 2012 with over 355 million views as of October 3rd. Another Korean-Pop milestone occurred earlier in the year on January 31st, 2012 when Girls’ Generation became the first South Korean band to perform on syndicated television in the US, bringing their English language version of The Boys to The Late Show with David Letterman and Live! With Kelly. Chances are the assembled viewing audience didn’t match up to the 23 million households watching The Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, a whopping 34% of the American population at the time, but once you factor in the complete absence of the Internet and smart phones back in 1967, the rise of Korean Pop music starts to look considerably more impressive.
Girls’ Generation on Letterman
Translated from the Korean language term Hallyu, the Korean Wave originated in the late 90s with the spread of Korean culture and entertainment throughout Asia. The popularity of Korean drama (K-Drama) cinema, comics and animation initially in China and Japan and then across the wider region gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry, the crown jewel of which is Korean Pop music. Presided over by the “big three” South Korean music industry mega-corporations SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, the current crop of K-Pop superstars is capitalizing for the most part on the prior success of the girl and boy band model. The record companies rule with an iron fist over the creative output of their artists, and 13-year-long “slave contracts,” lopsided profit-sharing and early termination penalties coupled with rumors of manager bullying, beatings and mandatory plastic surgery haven’t stopped millions of aspiring performers from trying to become the next K-Pop idols. The current cream of the crop has survived ludicrously long working hours, rehearsals and tours to become the next swell in the Korean Wave.
The reigning champion of K-Pop, PSY (short for “Psycho”) is the exception to the rule. Nicknamed “Bizarre Singer” for his unusual dance moves and appearance, PSY
attended Boston University and the Berklee College of Music where he began refining his strange breed of satire. Some of his early work was banned to customers under 19 in South Korea for having a potentially negative influence under South Korea’s puritanical "teenage protection" laws and the hit “Gangnam Style” off his 6th album is a jab at the “soybean paste women” and ridiculous wealth of the Gangnam district where he was raised. PSY’s quirkiness and impeccable style have led to a recording contract with Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun as well as appearances on Saturday Night Live
and The Ellen DeGeneres Show
where he taught Gangnam-style to Britney Spears.
Big Bang (or BIGBGANG)
Big Bang is the quintessential K-Pop boy band, brought together through a mix of Nickelodeon-style training, auditions and competition to form an urban-themed industry juggernaut. G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, Daesung and Seungri are a rarity in the K-Pop industry in that they actually write and produce their own music. Like other K-Pop musicians, the band members act in films and TV dramas and host Korean variety shows. Rappers G-Dragon and Taeyang were first recruited by YG Entertainment at age 11. T.O.P. was an underground rapper who was originally rejected for being too “chubby” but lost 44 lbs. over the course of 6 months to qualify. Daesung is often referred to as the “unpretty boy” but secured a spot on the roster because of his powerful vocals. Seungri is Big Bang’s choreographer. He was originally cut for his lack of singing ability but later earned a spot in the band. G-Dragon’s recent run-ins with South Korea’s strict marijuana and teenage protection laws after toking up in Japan and performing sexually explicit body movements on stage probably earned the band some street cred but had the K-Pop blog world wondering if Big Bang
was imploding. K-Drama indeed.
2NE1 (To Anyone or Twenty-One)
The girls of 2NE1
got their start with Big Bang on an LG Electronic commercial campaign which featured the hit song “Lollipop.” CL, Minzy, Dara, and Bom then went on to mark their own territory with their debut single “Fire” which had “street” and “space” versions and acquired over 1 million views within 24 hours of its release. The group has since released Korean, Japanese and English language records, recorded 10 songs in English with will.i.am and were featured in an Adidas commercial with Nicki Minaj and Big Sean.
Girls’ Generation (also SoShi or SNSD)
Why have four girls when you can have nine
? As the faces that launched a thousand brands, Taeyeon, Jessica, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yoona and Seohyun already represent Intel Asia, LG Electronics, Nintendo DSi, Domino’s Pizza and 7-Eleven among others that include hordes of teenage males among the ranks of their customers. Key to the international success of most K-Pop artists are their insanely hyper-stylized music videos, which in the case of Girls’ Generation feature nine girls dancing in synchronicity. You do the math. With Korean, Japanese and English language tracks and a contract with Universal Music Group to release music in the US, Girls' Generation
are poised for global pop domination.
Why have nine when you can have 13? Super Junior was actually the predecessor to Girls’ Generation and brainchild of South Korea’s answer to Simon Cowell, SM Entertainment co-founder Lee Soo-man. Soo-man constructed the first 13-member incarnation of Super Junior from the winners of an elaborate system of casting auditions which featured upwards of 3,000 applicants who could be replaced in different iterations of the band to maintain the group’s youthful appearance and accommodate South Korea’s 2-year mandatory military training. The 2012 Super Junior line-up
consists of Leeteuk, Yesung, Kangin, Shindong, Sungmin, Eunhyuk, Siwon, Donghae, Ryeowook, and Kyuhyun.
JYJ (formerly JAEJOONG/YOOCHUN/JUNSU)
K-Pop’s David in the land of Goliath, the members of JYJ actually went toe-to-toe with SM Entertainment and lived to rake in more endorsements. Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu were three of the five founding members of SM Entertainment’s massively popular TVXQ. TVXQ's Cassiopeia is one of the largest fan clubs in the world with over 5.5 million members and the band once held the title “Kings of Korean Pop and Hallyu Wave” before the JYJ boys
filed an injunction against SM to release them from their “subjugating contract” which was eventually deemed by the court to be inconsistent with Korean labor and contract law. JYJ kicked off their post-SM career with a bang, releasing the Kanye West-produce “Ayyy Girl” as their first single.
United Asia Management and Other International Ventures
In the pursuit of new markets and larger profit margins, the big three along with several other agencies have established United Asia Management to expand their K-Pop empires overseas. International shows like the five-hour-long SMTOWN Live
concerts and the SBS K-Pop Super Concert
organized by the South Korean TV station SBS are just the first breaks on the shore of K-Pop's international adventure.