“When a concept for the group is decided, the songs, dance, and languages that are fitting for the group are also selected and the members go into training immediately… Training periods vary, but they last anywhere from 3-5 years. In the case of TVXQ, they trained for seven years before they made their debut…personality and character training are also very important.”
– Kim Young Min, SM Entertainment
So now that we know who listens to K-Pop and some of the benefits fans get from it, let’s get into the importance of image in the industry.
The K-Pop industry is, at its heart, about music––about listening. But another important aspect is the visuality of the genre. During the 1980s, the music industry began to rely on television to determine the success of a song or artist. As the TV industry liberalized in the early 1990s, South Korean TV needed programs to fill air space. One strategy was to show concert footage, news updates about various bands and artists, interviews, and music videos. The music industry saw this as effective marketing, and took a more active role in preparing performers for the camera. In the current environment, there are loads of ways to see the world of K-Pop, including an explosion of music programs dedicated to showcasing live performances, talk shows, sitcoms, dramas, variety shows, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and music videos.The visual culture of K-Pop is also reflected in the mediation of the body itself. If you’re going to be a Korean idol, you’re expected to do much more than record songs. So when choosing candidates for training, “those singers who ‘merely’ possess singing talent are less welcomed by television than those who have visually entertaining talent.” The issue now has largely become finding and nurturing good-looking talent through vigorous––at times grueling––preparation and competition. Record companies routinely hold massive dance contests and scouting auditions. Recruits can train for years before finally making their debuts, if they manage to get that far at all.
I would argue that the K-Pop industry is more open about its preoccupation with appearances than other music industries around the world that are, at least in some cases, more concerned with talent. On various talk shows, bands have even been asked to rank their band mates based on looks, fashion sense, etc.
It is the visuality of K-Pop stars that make the years of preparation and training seem necessary. When SHINee films a music video, their dance moves must be in perfect synchronization. When BIGBANG appears on an episode of the talk show Strong Heart, they must prepare their variety show “skills” in order to please the audience. Member Seungri has been openly praised for his “skills” in this arena––his ability to pull up funny anecdotes, his energy on camera, his talent for doing impressions of other celebrities, and his charming personality. Idols must also walk the line between their edgy, alluring, or rebellious stage images and their more conservative public images. They must appear “real” while maintaining a careful façade. The realities of the idol factory system in Korea are largely the result of giving people the spectacle or fantasy that they want, while the demands of society and the threat of censorship bring in considerations of propriety.
One thing that that does confuse me about the whole obsession with image is the fact that their fashion choices are sometimes questionable. I really don’t understand what goes through the mind of a coordi-noona (colloquial term for the women who take care of idol image) when she dresses the idols sometimes. I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes I have to laugh at the way the idols are dressed sometimes. Some of my favorite group always manage to slip in a crazy outfit or two, but here are some really good ones:
Next I’ll be getting into the issues of gender and sexuality in K-Pop’s appeal. In the mean time, enjoy this wonderful, visually stimulating music video “CRAYON” by G-Dragon, leader of the five-member boy group BIGBANG. If fun music videos are your thing, I highly suggest checking out his other stuff, too!
Caramanica, Jon. “Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel.” Review of SM Town Live. Madison Square Garden. New York Times, October 24, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/arts/music/shinee-and-south-korean-k-pop-groups-at-madison-square-garden-review.html.
Kim Young Min, quoted in “What does it take to create an SM Entertainment K-pop star?,” Allkpop, November 9,
2011, accessed April 24, 2013, http://www.allkpop.com/2011/11/what-does-it-take-to-create-an-sm-entertainment-k-pop-star
Lee, Hee-Eun. “Seeking the ‘Others’ Within Us: Discourses of Korean-ness in Korean Popular Music.” In Medi@sia: Global Media/tion in and out of Context, edited by Todd Joseph Miles Holden and Timothy J. Scrase, 128-146. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Maliangkay, Roald. “Pop for Progress: Censorship and South Korea’s Propaganda Songs.” In Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave, edited by Keith Howard, 48-61. Folkstone, Kent: Global Oriental, 2006.
Wynn, JaQuess N. “The Influence Of K-Pop Survey.” Interview By Author, March 7, 2012