Becca Rothfeld is a freelance critic. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, The Washington Post, The LA Review of Books and Bookforum, among others.
On the heels of Big Bang's announcement of a major North American arena tour this Fall, Hopes&Fears spoke to experts to help map the commercial dynamics, social relations and plastic surgery obsessions that drive the K-pop machine.
A specter is haunting Asia—the specter of K-pop. Gracing advertisements across the continent are the larger-than-life faces of immaculately coiffed and complexioned Korean popstars, the object of several nations’ worth of teenage longing.
“Hallyu,” or the so-called “Korean Wave” launched by K-pop and its television complement, K-drama, has swept across Asia in a tide of glitter and gloss, rendering Korean heritage trendy even in hostile nations like Japan. On TV and the internet, on billboards and posters, in malls and supermarkets, the images of K-pop stars beam down at their disciples with beatific serenity, issuing an unspoken promise that glamor can be bought for the price of whatever product they happen to be endorsing. To their fans, these figures aren’t “celebrities” or “stars” but “idols,” a term that reveals the full scope—and obsessive tenor—of their following.
The Korean public treats the darlings of K-pop with a reverence bordering on piety, so there’s nothing surprising about the quasi-religious purity of their personas. Unlike Western pop stars, uncouth creatures who brush their teeth with bottles of Jack and, occasionally, bluff with their muffins, Korean idols are vanilla confections, simple and apparently devoid of artifice. (The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family polices the content of their songs, often censoring allusions to clubbing, sex, or substance abuse so as to provide a cleaner model for Korean youth.) Idols emulate the affect of the demographic that they are, for the most part, courting: those wide-eyed wells of earnest enthusiasm, teenage girls. And yet something about the whole charade rings false if not downright pernicious. Somehow, all that sweetness leaves a bitter aftertaste, the product of a sharply conflicting image and reality.
39,996,873 views at time of publication
Opulence and excess
Though K-pop draws heavily on the American traditions of hip-hop and R&B for its sound, the flashiness of its visuals is distinctly Korean. The groups have names like a plate of mid-2000’s leftovers—Girls’ Generation, the Wonder Girls, Big Bang, Super Junior—and their members perform elaborately synchronized dance routines onstage and in videos. These are exercises in opulence and excess, full of fancy cars and swagged-out costumes, dizzying jump cuts and gaudy props. In the clip for “Turn it Up,” T.O.P, a member of the iconic boy band Big Bang, drinks coffee out of a tiny coffee mug while lounging in a giant coffee mug, dances with a set of dentures, and poses with a woman wearing a spiked leather gag. In the video for “Crayon,” the solo effort of another Big Bang member, rapper G-Dragon alternately shaves his face in a bathroom decorated with paintings of giant grimacing mouths, dances in a brightly colored athletic getup in front of a pixelated vortex, and drives a toy car in the miniaturized, pastel world of a child’s cartoon, where he is later shown donning lederhosen.
These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible. K-pop isn’t subtle, but it’s easy to understand the genre’s widespread appeal: it’s pop in its purest form. Larger-than-life, indulgent as a bowl of buttered popcorn, it’s satisfying in a way that so much Western music, with its pretensions to refined edginess, is not. Unlike the sulky Lana del Rey, who moves in a gauzy miasma of hip mystique, K-pop is highly legible. Idols are beautiful, poised, and successful, it loudly proclaims. By admiring them—and purchasing the associated merchandise—we can share in their aura.
Though K-pop encompasses a wide range of sensibilities, its many iterations are uniformly reliant on tropes that convey this common, uncomplicated message. Some artists are clearly trying to parrot American hip-hop artists: CL, of the popular band 2NE1, emulates Nicki Minaj in the video for her single “The Baddest Female,” where she sports grills and a chain—and, later, a flannel buttoned at the collar, a riff on the heyday of West Coast gangsta rap. Other artists, Super Junior, EXO and Beast among them, cultivate a Bieberesque look designed to appeal to teenyboppers who scrawl hearts in their math notebooks. Their videos abound with frosted tips, heartfelt gazes and sentimental gestures. (The music video for Beast’s “No More” explores a quintessentially angsty teen breakup through the filtered lens of Instagram, showcasing the agony each newly-single party experiences upon witnessing the other’s battery of selfies.)
Other artists are up to something different—something with no Western analog. Prime among them is the wildly popular group Girls’ Generation, which was created in the image of the “kawaii” aesthetic originating in Japan. (Interestingly, one former and two current members were actually born in California.) The girls in question are cute, cuddly, and ultra-feminine. In the video for their hit “I Got a Boy,” they cohabitate in a giant pink house where they host a perpetual slumber party, wearing their hair in pigtails and drinking out of dainty teacups. Clad in a baby-doll dress, one of the girls timidly ventures out to meet a male love interest. She is scandalized when her date reaches for her hand, and delighted when he crouches to tie the laces of her gem-encrusted sneakers.
Top 10 most viewed K-pop videos (views in 2014):
Girls' Generation, "Mr. Mr."
Taeyang, "Eyes, Nose, Lips"
2NE1, "Come Back Home"
Super Junior, "Mamacita"
SISTAR, "Touch My Body"
f(x), "Red Light"
HIGH4 x IU, "Not Spring, Love, or Cherry Blossoms"
BEAST, "Good Luck"
Source: K-pop Maps
The Baddest Female
21,877,852 views at time of publication
Girls’ Generation is the rule, not the exception, the gold standard for the cult of female infantilization that has become a staple of K-pop.
“The Korean gender ideal,” Kyeyoung Park, professor of Anthropology and Asian American studies at UCLA, told Hopes&Fears, “is being cute or submissive”—an ideal that is visualized, if not realized, in K-pop video after K-pop video. In the clip that accompanies the song “Who Are You,” performed by the genre’s godmother, BoA, the female protagonist bursts into a swirl of animated butterflies and lollipops after trying on a short floral number. Idols have even been known to model in advertisements for schoolgirl uniforms.
Predictably enough, the infantilization of female K-pop performers goes hand in hand with their fetishization. In Korea, the coveted look is that of the “Bagel Girl,” a figure both baby-faced and sophisticated. The Bagel Girl is wide-eyed and dimpled, but her childish face accompanies a voluptuous, busty body. “Eye smiles,” eyes that curve to match the shape of a smiling mouth, coupled with “S-lines,” or hourglass frames that resemble the letter S, jutting out at the bust and bottom and swooping in at the midriff, are highly prized. The impossible pairing of childish naivete and adult sensuality enables a commodified eroticism that fits within the confines of an outwardly conservative culture: viewers of K-pop videos aren’t outwardly complicit with overt displays of promiscuity, but they are nonetheless afforded the pleasure of watching their fantasies enacted. Interspersed with images of Girls’ Generation giggling and primping are dance numbers heavy on pelvic thrusting.
Inkyu Kang, professor of Journalism at Penn State and contributor to the Korean Popular Culture Reader and K-Pop: The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry, explained that Korean girl groups are a sexual provocation designed to entice a particular type of historically endangered masculinity. “In a patriarchal society based on economic ability and male power, the loss of economic power equates with a weakening of male sexuality,” he said. To men disempowered by the economic collapse of 1997, women with “childlike faces and adult bodies” were “non-threatening sex objects,” he told Hopes&Fears. In Korea, where femininity is linked not only with eroticism but also with domesticity, female K-pop idols are all but compelled to adopt this bipolar identity. The Korean woman is charged with staging an impossible performance, at once, alluring yet docile. The lyrics of “I Got a Boy” translate to something like: “He wants to see my face without makeup/ I really like him, would it be okay to show it to him?/ Oh! Never!”
K-Pop hype by the numbers:
—The Bank of Korea has attributed the rapid surge in cultural exports since 1997 to the increased worldwide popularity of K-pop.
—2014 saw the most K-pop concerts ever in America.
—Girls' Generation and BIG BANG placed at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively on Forbes Korea's 2014 Power Celebrity 40 list.
—K-Pop industry total exports in the US totaled $235 million in 2012, while K-Pop YouTube videos were viewed over 7 billion times.
—The average annual income for Korean singers rose to 46.74 million won (about $43,000) in 2013. That's more than 72 percent rise since 2010 when the average earnings totaled around 23 million won (or $21,000), according to a recent report by South Korea's National Tax Service.
A vicious cycle
Femininity is such a complex production in Korea in part because female beauty is such powerful currency there. As one young girl quoted by cultural anthropologist Cho Haejoang in the 2002 book Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in Modern Korea recounts, “my mother always tells me one thing, to diet so that she can take me out on the marriage market. She says that if I am fat, I will not have commercial value.” In South Korea, where plastic surgery is so normalized that more than 1/5th of the women in the capital city of Seoul have undergone a cosmetic procedure, beauty is intimately bound up with economics. Physical perfection, which is just another commodity, has become a status symbol. The cycle is vicious and self-perpetuating: many job applications require photos, ensuring that beauty (and the wealth required to “obtain” it) remain requirements of class mobility. The industry has even spawned reality shows on the subject: they’re structured like American home improvement shows, but instead of a new house, kitchen, or wardrobe, you get a new face or body. The dream such programs fulfill is that of a different kind of ownership—not of material objects but of a self that doubles as its own advertisement.
John Song Pae Cho, a fellow at Harvard’s Korea Institute, suggested that the Korean fixation on images is a product of the non-binary worldview that prevails here. Western cultures have always touted the disparity between body and mind, a dichotomy promoted as part of the Judeo-Christian agenda, with its cloying emphasis on salvation and the soul. In contrast, “a beautiful surface appearance is seen to disclose a beautiful interior or good character” in Korea. Beauty is a direct reflection of value, initially spiritual, now economic. It is also something of an ethical imperative. Intentions are less important than “ritual displays of social conduct,” Cho said. In Korea, “taking care of one's appearance is not an individual project of self-expression but part of maintaining smooth social relations. In other words, it may be considered part of the social etiquette of maintaining the social status (or face) of one’s family or company,” he continued.
For idols, who must elevate themselves above competitors in the beauty economy in order to retain their celebrity, exceptional good looks are vital. Most K-pop stars get plastic surgery to westernize their faces, often investing in eye-widening and jaw-narrowing procedures. Fans, in turn, seek out plastic surgery to take after their favorite idols (plastic surgeons commonly provide office questionnaires asking would-be patients which entertainers they most hope to resemble). Koreans remade in the image of their beloved idols are models of models, twice removed from an ideal that is unattainable by design. Attainable ideals, after all, cannot fuel further consumption.
I got a boy (소녀시대)
132,984,340 views at time of publication
Bagel girls and flower boys
Male idols are not free from these overwhelming aesthetic pressures, either. (Men in Korea account for around 20% of the global purchases of male cosmetics.) In the world of K-pop, success is not a matter of musical quality so much as general spectacle. New K-pop songs debut on TV rather than the radio, associating music with image from the start. Like female stars, male stars must look the part if they are to gain traction. Enter the male equivalent of the Bagel Girl, the Flower Boy, a flamboyantly dressed, elaborately manicured figure with heavy guyliner. In imitation of the androgynous characters that populate Japanese manga and anime, Flower Boys cultivate an aura of refinement and sensitivity that appeals especially to teenage girls.
While the Flower Boy’s embrace of effeminate fashions might seem to signal tolerance for non-traditional gender identities, the Korean gender binary is as rigid as ever. A traditionally agrarian society, Korea has always been exhbited contempt for the brawny macho man, who embodies the physique of the low-class laborer. Scholars, on the other hand, have long represented a physical ideal. Now, a new generation of idols are employed in the service of reifying class distinctions.
“Korea used to be a poor country,” Park told Hopes&Fears. “These people became nouveau-riche overnight, so they are insecure. They have means, they have resources, they can afford to buy this or that—so with the resources they want to be stylish. That is how they arrived at this kind of metrosexuality.”
But they didn’t arrive at this level of metrosexuality by themselves. The real engines of the industry are entertainment companies, which employ sophisticated “cultural technologies” to disseminate and popularize K-pop in other parts of the world, even going so far as to author specific guidelines governing how music videos targeted at various international audiences should be filmed. The entertainment companies control and curate every aspect of the idol’s image, transforming them into the consummate signifiers of a high-class lifestyle.
There are three major entertainment companies—all named after their founders—that dominate the K-pop scene: S.M. Entertainment (after Lee Soo-man); Y.G. Entertainment (after Yang “Goon” Hyun-suk); and J.Y.P. Entertainment (after Park Jin-young). These entities recruit idols in their teens or even children and subject them to rigorous training regimens, housing them in dormitories and mandating that they attend school by day and learn to sing, dance, and act at night. “They go through almost military training, without much freedom,” noted Park. A 2010 government report lends legitimacy to her assessment: according to the study, 36% of adolescent K-pop performers worked more than 8 hours a day, and 41% worked nights and weekends. Young recruits are often subject to long-term contracts—known colloquially as “slave contracts”— that bind them to their agencies for long periods of time, sometimes upwards of ten years. A tiny fraction of idols-in-training, about 2-3%, ever make it as megastars.
Budding stars are carefully assembled into groups by higher-ups, who work to ensure that band members are homogenous enough to create a sense of cohesive identity and heterogeneous enough to appeal to diverse audiences, a metaphor for capitalist consumption if there ever was one. Ultimately, bands are more important than their constituent members: the band Girl’s Day remained popular even after three of the four original members were replaced. The model is largely mechanistic, with idols playing functional cogs within a larger machine.
Best-selling K-pop releases (copies sold
Super Junior, "Mamacita"
Girls' Generation, "Mr. Mr."
JYJ, "Just Us"
Infinite, "Season 2"
Beast, "Good Luck"
B1A4, "Who Am I"
CNBLUE, "Can't Stop"
BAP, "First Sensibility"
Source: Gaon Music Chart
No More (이젠 아니야)
6,400,710 views at time of publication
The entertainment companies, eager to exercise near-total control over their investments’ lives, are unwilling to deviate from the script. They grant infrequent interviews, preferring to issue press releases themselves, and even the New Yorker reporter who delved into the industry in the thorough essay “Factory Girls” was advised to stay away from asking the tough questions when he interviewed Girls’ Generation. Before a new video or song comes out, the companies systematically release a series of teasers and previews. “Koreans use the phrase ‘Un-lon Play’ a lot when they talk about this relationship, specifically as an action that the entertainment companies take. ‘Un-lon’ means media/press, so the phrase generally translates to an entertainment company's usage/control of the media to put out the images/articles that will form the desired image of their company’s celebs,” Sophie Sohyoung Choi, a young Korean, told me. Ultimately, the idols whom the Korean public so adores—the very portraits of tremulous sincerity—are more the product of careful planning, plastic surgery and strategically-placed press coverage than hormone-fueled teenage sentiment. “Anything about a person can be created,” S.M. manager Sukhyun Kim is alleged to have said.
If idols are not organic, the K-pop industry is even less so. Korean policymakers intent on promoting K-pop as a form of soft power have made concerted efforts to ensure that entertainment is the nation’s biggest export, issuing subsidies and tax incentives for the all-powerful entertainment companies. These practices date back to 1994, when, following the global success of the first Jurassic Park film, the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology gave the Korean president a briefing called “Strategic Plan for the Growth of the High-Tech Visual Arts Industry.” The report made the impressive point that the entertainment industry has the potential to bring in more money than the material exports like cars—an observation that hit home in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis impressed upon Korean officials the dire need for the successful commodification of Korean culture.
This is how Korea came to foster a creative industry founded on a practiced aversion to creativity. The “inspiration” and “individualism” that are the hallmarks of Western creativity mythologies are anathema to an entertainment industry that leaves nothing to chance. When Lee, the CEO of S.M. Entertainment, gave a talk at Harvard in 2010, he repudiated Van Gogh’s legacy of troubled innovation, telling students, “you don’t have to cut your ears to come up with masterpieces now.” No: you just have to have them surgically altered by a reputable plastic surgeon.
South Korea's plastic surgery obsession by the numbers:
—South Korea owns 24% ($5 trillion) of the global plastic surgery market, which was valued at $21 trillion in 2014.
—1 in 72 South Koreans has had at least one cosmetic procedure.
—1 in 5 South Korean women has undergone some form of cosmetic surgery (compared to 1 in 20 American women), according to a 2009 survey by Trend Monitor.
—300,000 people traveled to South Korea for medical tourism in 2014.
—Men make up 28% of the tourists traveling to South Korea for plastic surgery.
Source: Seoul Touch Up
Cover image: Girls' Generation promotional image