The Korean pop culture is taking over the world. Hallyu, or the Korean wave, has swept over the world from China to Paris to Argentina.

Hallyu started in mid-1990s with the rising popularity of Korean cinema. Before this, Korean movies were hardly heard of beyond Korea. With media liberalisation and exposure to the Western entertainment industry from mid-1990s to early 2000s, new possibilities for film-making were created. The same was seen in K-dramas, where factors such as more TV channels and rising budgets helped to increase the quality of Korean entertainment. Some well-known dramas and movies during this period include Winter Sonata, Dae Jang Geum, and Old Boy.

Hallyu, which had started with the revitalisation of Korean cinema, then moved on to K-drama, which was becoming increasingly popular with their relatable storylines. However, it eventually exhausted itself into poor and repeated stories, made worse by spiraling production costs. As audiences began to look to the foreign market, Boys Over Flowers (2009), a K-drama with young male actors, rose in popularity and sparked an interest in boy bands and girl groups. This was helped by the hit single Nobody (2009) by a Korean girl group, Wonder Girls, at around the same time. K-cinema and K-drama rode on this new wave, and it is now K-pop that dominates hallyu.

A few features have helped to create and continue to fuel the massive Korean entertainment industry. From dramas to music, every artist and work has been greatly invested in. The drama sets are extravagantly created and some remain as tourist attractions. In the K-pop industry, entertainment agencies invest huge amounts of money in the grooming of a star. Every year, thousands audition for these agencies and a few are selected to go through military-styled training for years. From these trainees, only a fraction eventually make their foray into the industry – many drop out voluntarily or simply miss the mark even if they made it into the agencies initially. As a result, the audience is only presented with the best of the best. The songs may not be the finest – most are characterised by catchy tunes and lyrics, and not musical craftsmanship – but the showmanship displayed by the groups are often impeccable. From the totally synced dance moves and rich facial expressions to the toned bodies, the audiences are presented only with the most excellent act. In this age where shoddy performances may invite sharp criticism that will go frighteningly viral across social media and eventually cause the downfall of a star, artists have no choice but to offer perfection.

However, even if they offer the best, the luckiest of them can only stay popular for a short time and are soon forgotten for newer and younger idols. While a Hong Kong singer can stay popular for two or three decades (for example, the “four heavenly kings”), K-pop stars seldom stay popular beyond 25 years old, which is less than 10 years after they debut. Older idols try to survive in the industry by venturing into other areas like hosting, acting, or variety shows, but can never hope to match their popularity in younger days.

It has also been argued that the democratisation of the industry is a major factor in the K-pop success story. Broadcasting networks, which controlled the way to stardom in earlier days, have given way to entertainment agencies. These agencies are often seen as factories where K-pop stars are manufactured by subjecting young people through torturous training. Regardless, thousands of hopefuls flock to every single audition held by the agencies for a shot at stardom – auditions are so popular that they are held outside Korea with equally huge turnouts. It also helps that the agencies are wildly successful in knowing what the audiences want and giving it to them, thus establishing themselves firmly in the K-pop soil.

Just like K-drama, there will come a day when the fickle-minded viewers grow tired of the repeated tunes from boy bands and girl groups who are indistinguishable from one another. In fact, some have already criticised this repetitive streak in K-pop. That day is not here yet and for the hundreds of trainees who have yet to debut, that day must not come until they have enjoyed their short-lived fame on the stage.

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Apart from spending too much time surfing the Internet on Korean popular culture, I crystallised most of my thoughts in this post thanks to a lecture and a working paper from the Asian Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore. Visit the links below to find out more.

ARI ASIA TRENDS 2011 Lecture – Waxing Korean Wave in East Asia by Prof Doobo Shim & Dr Liew Kai Khiun
ARI Working Paper Series – Waxing the Korean Wave by Prof Doobo Shim

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