Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Korean Idol Invasion

If you've been in the K-pop world long enough, you'd notice that recently there has been an increase of new idol groups debuting in the first 10 months of the year 2011 alone. But did you know in that ten months there were 50+ new groups that debuted?! Can I just say that this is just getting a little out of hand?

In order to understand this phenomenon, I'd like to tell a rather long but surprisingly compact history lesson of idol music. K-pop has existed for decades. Of course. K-pop is Korean popular music and at every point in history there will always be a popular song. But the K-pop we know today, in the form of idol groups, started out in the early-mid nineties. The first form of idol group was made by the legendary Seo Taiji himself in the form of his group Seo Taiji and the Boys. It was the first time Korea witnessed a singing-dancing group of young men catered for teenage hearts. Seo Taiji and the Boys became popular and in turn legendary, having started the whole idol culture themselves.

Idol music as a business, however, began with Lee Soo-man, founder and mastermind of the mega idol-churning factory, SM Entertainment. His first creation? H.O.T or High Five of Teenagers in 1996. The band met with huge response. Their success followed with a string of other companies wanting to rake in the gold. Some of the notable bands who can claim themselves part of the first-generation idols include S.E.S. and Shinhwa also from SM Entertainment, Fin K.L. and Sechs Kies from DSP Entertainment, and g.o.d. from JYP Entertainment. Much to their dismay, the boy band/girl group momentum slowed down in the early years of the new millennium, mirroring the similar phenomena happening in the west. There were still idol music churned out every now and then, but none of the made a lasting impression.

Until 2003, which saw the birth of second-generation idol legend Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK/TVXQ). Their first single "Hug" did fairly well, charting at a peak #4. TVXQ might as well end up like other acts debuting in early 2000s faced with bad luck and people's lack of enthusiasm to idol music, but Lee Soo-man had other plans. TVXQ was sent across the sea (of Japan, that is) and into the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is the second biggest music industry in the world, so Lee Soo-man was smart to send his boys to the busy country. Their success in Japan brought the hope K-pop needed to resurrect.

2008 saw another growth spurt of idol music in Korea. With the confidence boost, Korea began producing more quality music for its idol stars. Some of the most memorable tracks in the second-generation of K-pop idols was released in 2008. Of those songs they include Big Bang's "Lies", Wonder Girls' "Tell Me", and TVXQ's "Mirotic" which swept the charts.

By then, Korea was head over heels in love with their idols. Idol everything was everywhere. But it was time for the world to know about K-pop. That's when 2009 came in. 2009 was marked by many to be the turning point of K-pop into the world arena. This was the year when some countries noticed the K-pop invasion in their own homeland, a boom of fan forums, avid K-pop dedicated clubs and the like. K-pop was now an official player in the world music arena. This was the year that saw mega-hits like Super Junior's "Sorry Sorry" and Girl's Generation/SNSD's "Gee". This was also the year when Korea and K-pop fans alike saw a massive explosion of boy band/girl group debuting.

In 2003, at the lowest point of modern K-pop history, Korea only witnessed the birth of 3 mainstream musical groups (at least according to this Wikipedia page), two of them are hip hop groups. 2004 was also a dead year for idols, debut wise, as there were no idol groups that debuted. 2005-2008 fared a little better, each year debuted between 8-12 groups, the years when today's big players debuted (Big Bang, SS501, Kara, Wonder Girls, SNSD). But 2009, that's when the numbers not only grew but exploded. In 2009 alone there are 17 groups. And the numbers just grew from there. 2010 debuted over 30 groups, almost double the year before. But that number is miniscule compared to the 50 plus that debuted this year.

So what's with the idol invasion? Well of course there's one answer that rule them all: money. The Hallyu Wave is just another way for businessmen to get their dough. Some of you may argue that the explosion is caused by talent, freedom, or whatnot. But if you look closely, is there really any company who has pure intentions of spreading good music in this world? If you're asking me, after being a fan of K-pop for a few years now, quality is horribly slaughtered by quantity these days. Sure there's one or two gems in the bunch, releasing great songs out of the horrid pile of mess, but at the end of the day behind them are men in suits waiting for their paychecks.

And can you blame them? K-pop is probably the biggest thing Korea has right now besides its electronic industry. Add that with the naive minds of prepubescent children who only knows how to dream, it's a pretty soft landing. It's evil right down to the roots. What better way to make money than to literally conduct child labor. Until Korea has a law for child labor and fair contracts, this practice will go on till no end. Or until someone dies, but even then that's least likely.

My question for those businessmen is: is it even worth it? When you look at it, only a small fraction of the groups get decent money and a handful that actually achieve success. Why would you invest on something, or someone for that matter, that doesn't guarantee profit? And if the answer is so the kids can pursue music, that's cow poo right there. Again, only so few of them actually make decent music or even have the talent to produce one. Most of them are the same old recycled material and auto-tuned stuff. This is probably a business aspect that I will never understand. So if anyone would like to enlighten me on this matter, please do so.

Another problem with the whole idol invasion thing is that, besides the poisonous melodies themselves, the idols are everywhere. I don't even live in Korea and I still feel it. Every little thing (programs, products, you name it) has idols on/in them. They are spreading everywhere like a virus. Some turn out good, but others not so much. For example, idols attempt at acting. Boy oh boy, I could write another essay for that. I could only name so very few who are good. T-ara's Eunjung is a prime example, but it's not really fair because she started out as an actor herself. I'm okay with them expanding their horizons. I guess prancing around on stage lip-syncing all day can be a bore sometimes. But why give total rookies a lead role? It is a question that bugs me so much.

Is this actually what the consumers want? Hungry businessmen can only do so much to the invasion. They won't produce unless the market actually demands for more. And the K-pop idol market which are idol fans might be one of the scariest market anyone can cater to. The fan-worshiping culture is something that, to me, is very specific to Korea. There are crazy groupies for all the bands out there. But I have never seen a whole country, or at least a whole group of demographic in a country (mostly adolescent girls and middle-aged men) are flipping mad for these kids. It's just a bad cycle of weird psychology going on there. I feel bad for the music loving people in Korea who tries so, so hard to produce great music but only left stranded in the dark. Are idols like the Jersey Shore or something? It's weirdly addictive (to specific people) yet so incredibly annoying (to almost everyone)?

I just wonder when or if all this madness will end. I comeback to K-pop every once in a while to satisfy my musings, but I think I did the right choice of not listening to K-pop all day long. I might go insane for real. I hope there will come a time when the airwaves of K-pop is filled with beautiful voices and meaningful lyrics. I wish Korean music can be more like late the 80s/early 90s again. Zoo (동물원) anyone? Even if you say no, I'll provide some nice music to this post anyways.

So if anyone read till the bottom, I appreciate it so much. Thank you! If you don't mind, please give in your thoughts! This is a very subjective matter to talk about and I would love it if you (whoever you are) can pitch in for a good discussion. I'm lacking in the comment department, even with a few hundred views a week, so your comments will be highly appreciated. Tell your friends! Forgive me if I sound a little desperate, by the way.


  1. I really like your articles, love. You should pursue a bigger venue for publishing them. ;)

    I have to agree. I am writing the same things these days, about the kdrama industry. Money drives both of them.

    But the thing is, they are everywhere because it does bring in money. It's not up to the quality of music. It's up to the image and how many girls you can get to kyaa over your band.

    As for the acting department, they can "act" in MVs so fangirls scream and demand they be given a role because they think acting is just so easy. And they don't even care about the acting if they can see their idol in a 2-hours-a-week giant MV.

  2. I'd love to publish it on a bigger venue but I'm not ready yet I guess. I feel like my writings still needs polishing before it goes to bigger things. I don't know, maybe I'm a little perfectionist or whatever, but that's what this blog is for. A platform for practicing my writing.

    Money can be a scary thing and make people do evil stuff. As someone who enjoys listening to music instead of looking at it, it's still disappointing what type of material comes out these days and it's not just from K-pop. My country's music and American music has been going downhill for the past few years. Instead of taking time in the studio to really make quality music, they churn out stuff only for the sake of three seconds of fame. It's sad, really.