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Factory Girls
October 14, 2012 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Cultural technology and the making of K-pop
posted by beisny (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Warning: Mr. Taxi is 100% pure earworm. I think this article showed up the other day on longform, or one of the other feeds I use for feeding Instapaper, and it's good stuff.
posted by jquinby at 7:45 AM on October 14, 2012


I played the Generation Girls song "Gee" after reading this the other day and it's cheerful. I thought it was interesting how the factories recruit young girls from the US as well as other locations. However, since it's a system, there doesn't seem to be much room for song-making that breaks the mold.

Also, I liked how the article pointed out that PSY is making fun of K-Pop with "Gangnam-Style". So maybe there's more room that I thought for outliers after all.
posted by dragonplayer at 8:42 AM on October 14, 2012


My god...it's full of...attractive asian girls!
posted by Thorzdad at 8:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a shame for Girls Generation that their try at an American audience came pre-Gangnam Style. I honestly think that they might have had better luck now that most Americans know that K-pop, y'know, exists.
posted by maryr at 9:06 AM on October 14, 2012


I think there's a surprising variety of interesting hooks in 'Gee'.
posted by Anything at 9:11 AM on October 14, 2012


The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups).

I want to read this manual so hard.
posted by RobotHero at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


Don't forget 2NE1 who are, arguably, at the front of the K-Pop global push.

It's an interesting article which reveals a lot about how the Korean music scene works. There's lots of online commentary on whether or not K-Pop can make an impact on the West (PSY's success notwithstanding). Looking at the petrified forest that is the Western Pop/R'n'B market, I suspect it's inevitable.
posted by panboi at 9:21 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm generally pretty wary about an article on k-pop from a Western journalist (because some of them are truly awful "point-and-look at this weird thing" puff peices) ,but this is actually a really excellent k-pop primer. I can see it being useful for those times when I am trying to explain why "Gangnam Style" doesn't equate to "all of k-pop music ever made."

Please don't tell me I was the only to chuckle over this: And please don't tell me I was the only one who chuckled over this: The rapper and producer Swizz Beatz has spoken of wanting to pair Chris Brown with Y.G.’s BIGBANG. As if Taeyang needs encouragement for his Chris Brown man-crush.

There was even something new to me: I'd never heard of Alpha Entertainment, and had to look them up before realizing their one artist (I think? That's all that is listed on their page) is a rookie girl group that debuted a few months ago. While there is still a lot of attention given to "slave contracts" and companies mistreating their artists (I'm thinking of the near-constant "controveries" regarding T-ARA and Core Content Media), a company that only has one group is going to have work really hard to even make it in the k-pop market that is already overwhelmed with rookie groups from not only the "big three" (SM, JYP, and YG), but from other companies that are also hoping to crack the k-pop market.

I was slightly surprised the author didn't address the most notable "slave contract" controversy that still is going on today: DBSK. Especially since that is a SM group (and the one group I personally would have thought might have been able to crack the Western market if they hadn't split and been mired in lawsuits. And looking at the Wikipedia link, I see that they debuted in 2003. Which makes them ancient in k-pop time and makes me feel old).

However, I do agree with a lot that he says. I've always viewed SM artists as technical masters of k-pop, and the unabashed "faces" of k-pop (I personally am not a fan of SNSD, but I can appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into making them the most popular girl group in Korea), but musically their groups sound alike (when casually listening on my ipod, I will frequently misattribute a song to any of SM's boy groups because their distinguishing qualities are minimal and only apparent if I'm already familiar with the song or paying close attention), their MVs are all similar (the incessant use of the slo-mo 360-degree cam, and Super Junior never being let out of their "box"), and while the song itself isn't ground-breaking, there's a 99% it will become ear-worm whether I like it or not ("Gee gee gee gee BABY BABY").

JYP artists, on the other hand, seem to have a little more musical -- although, alas, it sometimes seems as though the marketing team has failed them. I, too, wonder what would have happened if the Wonder Girls had focused less on trying to make it in America and instead continued their reign in Korea -- would SNSD be the undisputed queens as they are now? It's a bit sad how much JYP has been relying on the popularity of "Nobody" for three years and only recently have been making comebacks with some pretty solid material. But JYP seems to be determined that the Wonder Girls are going to crack the American market one way or another -- when most fans would just like to see more of their presence in Korea.

As for YG, I agree that he gives more freedom to his artists which is why I think his groups are typically more successful in the West than other groups. (I say all this with the caveat that I'm a bit of a YG stan.) That's not to say there isn't still that strict control that is apparent in most k-pop groups -- because there is. But his groups also have a lot more creative freedom in writing and producing their music, instead of using the same in house writers over and over again (which a reason I think I confuse so many of the SM artists -- they all use the same producers and songwriters).

However, the reason for PSY's worldwide success has little to do with YG and all to do with PSY. That MV was classic PSY -- any PSY fan would expect nothing less from him. That it was picked up and went viral was pretty much pure fluke. His success sent the k-pop blogosphere into a tizzy as everyone was trying to analyze what this means for the future of k-pop and how it will now "make it big" in the American market.

But k-pop is still k-pop -- and part of k-pop is that manufacturedness that the author describes so well. PSY is, as is pointed out, an anomaly. He doesn't fit the k-pop mold. His success means little to the world of k-pop except there are a few thousand more eyes on it -- for now. Until the next new shiny thing comes along. (Which, admittedly, is just about every week in k-pop). But I don't see many sustaining arguments over how "Gangnam Style" going viral now means that k-pop is going to be a household word. (Unless we're assuming those households are using "Gangnam Style" interchangeably with "k-pop," which leads to the now involuntary eye-twitch among all k-pop aficionados whenever this grievous mistake occurs.)
posted by paisley sheep at 9:36 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I heard on the California Report on Friday that this weekend K Con was happening in Irvine. Among the music there would be sessions on dancing and presentation. HyunA the woman PSY meets on the train in the video and singer of Bubble Pop was said to be there.
posted by birdherder at 9:40 AM on October 14, 2012


2NE1 feels more familiar to western audiences, I think. They only have the four members and they try harder to give each a unique style, so it's not so different from Western groups. And PSY is very much his own animal.

And I'm serious about that manual. I'm hoping there's a leaked version translated into English somewhere, but I have no idea how I would find it.
posted by RobotHero at 9:47 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


While SM does turn out some good product, like paisley sheep I find there's a sameness to their stuff. Super Junior's last couple of singles all sound the same, and SNSD's more recent stuff is also pretty monotonous.

My very casual summary would be,
SM - the robot factory
JYP - trying to recreate Berry Gordy's Motown
YG - the rap mogul and his posse

(and for those feeling a bit k-popped out, have some Bamseom Pirates)
posted by needled at 1:09 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Psy is successful because he doesn't have the machine thing going on. He's pudgy and weird, and it looks like he's having fun because he might actually be having fun. Although his participation in Hyuna's awful version of Gangnam Style makes me wonder. I suppose this was the price to get her to be the butt of the joke in his own video?

Thank goodness, that's what makes him difficult to replicate. Anyone who thinks that k-pop is about to blow up in the West because of Psy is being silly. Just as well predict the meteoric rise of pansori, which is at least interesting.

totally hating on k-pop because my wife went to Tokyo just to see DBSK once, not even kidding.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:52 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I want to read this manual so hard.

The Manual
posted by Tom-B at 3:00 PM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Manual

But what hand gestures and camera angles am I supposed to use in my music videos? I am completely adrift at sea, here.
posted by RobotHero at 3:34 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hyuna's awful version of Gangnam Style

Oh good god I'd managed to forget this. Talk about fundamentally missing the point. This was tone-deaf in a fashion reminiscent largely of political base-baiting.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:04 PM on October 14, 2012


I'm sorry, I can't get anywhere in that Manual because I picture Timothy Dalton and The Master trying to sing K-pop and now I can't stop laughing.
posted by maryr at 4:05 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


That photo of Girls Generation is so unflattering.

Whenever I listen to SNSD/GG's first English language single "The Boys" I can't stand it. I hate the lyrics; the Korean lyrics, which have substance, are drastically different from the English lyrics.

Translation of Korean ver. rap:
I wanna dance right now! I will lead you - come out
The boys of the world, I am Athena
the one who gives the number one wisdom. Check this out!
Enjoy the excitement of the challenge
you already have everything in this world
Just keep going like that - keep up
Girls' Generation we don't stop

English ver. rap:
I wanna dance right now
We can show ‘em how the girls get down
Yes we go for more than zero
Number one everyone should know, Check this out!
All’a (all the) Boys, All’a (all the) Boys want my heart
Better know how to rock and don’t stop
Oh gee we make it so hot
Girls’ Generation we won’t stop


Yesterday, at KCON, fans got a preview of a GG English song "cheap creeper," and while I like the music, which is reminiscent of a Britney Spears song, I really hate the lyrics I heard. Typical song knocking on loser guys. So when I read the following sentence in the article, “I don’t want to lose the Asian flavor. I want songs that speak to Girls’ Generation’s brand and also speak to the sound in America right now," I think the GG foray into the American/Western market will likely, as it has done so far, do nothing but disappoint me. (Not to mention that 'Asian flavor' makes me side-eye the guy who said it.) Both "The Boys" and "Cheap Creeper" have nothing Girls Generation, nothing Korean about them. Cultural technology? Sure, uh-huh. If I had it my way, they wouldn't release any more English songs. SM Entertainment already made a vastly superior effort with BoA, an album full of amazing dance tracks. It's unfortunate that it didn't catch on, didn't work.

So it goes. I'll continue to listen to songs like Checkmate and Wake up, wait for their Korean releases. And watch fancams.

P.S. Hyuna is in a group, 4 Minute, and their most recent Japanese release Love Tension is good.
posted by one teak forest at 5:52 PM on October 14, 2012


I'm also fascinated by the concept behind EXO-K and EXO-M releasing the same songs simultaneously in different languages. I'm vaguely reminded of the DEVO plan to have franchise bands, only for serious.
posted by RobotHero at 6:18 PM on October 14, 2012


I'm also fascinated by the concept behind EXO-K and EXO-M releasing the same songs simultaneously in different languages.

SM groups have been releasing the same songs in different languages, most often Korean and Japanese, for years. DBSK was the first group to do it consistently, and then Super Junior. EXO-M breaks new ground in that it's the first SM group with majority non-Korean (Chinese) members; it's interesting to observe the relative popularity between EXO-K and EXO-M, in Korean and China, and outside those two countries as well. Though the fact that EXO-K has Kai, SM's golden boy out of the whole EXO, kind of skews the comparison.

I was slightly surprised the author didn't address the most notable "slave contract" controversy that still is going on today: DBSK.

It's illuminating that the author chose Han Geng's case to address the "slave contract" controversy. My pet theory: Han Geng won. His legal victory was clear and decisive. He currently enjoys a successful career in China, where SM has little clout. He's so comfortable that he can afford to extend olive branches to SM. It's a nice little David vs. Goliath story that can be neatly told in one paragraph. Perfect when you're writing a primer piece but not inclined to do real investigative work.

In contrast, JYJ (the new group by members who left DBSK) remains mired in the lawsuit against SM, who has successfully stalled the legal proceeding for three years. Variety programs on Korean TV, the primary channel for K-pop promotion, refuse to let JYJ on. JYJ are doing very well despite everything, but their struggle is an ongoing process with no end in sight. To write about the DBSK case with any depth would require solid investigative journalism, which in turn would require a journalist with more than a passing interest in K-pop, which I don't think the New Yorker writer displays.
posted by fatehunter at 10:04 PM on October 14, 2012


It's illuminating that the author chose Han Geng's case to address the "slave contract" controversy. My pet theory: Han Geng won. His legal victory was clear and decisive. He currently enjoys a successful career in China, where SM has little clout. He's so comfortable that he can afford to extend olive branches to SM. It's a nice little David vs. Goliath story that can be neatly told in one paragraph. Perfect when you're writing a primer piece but not inclined to do real investigative work.

In contrast, JYJ (the new group by members who left DBSK) remains mired in the lawsuit against SM, who has successfully stalled the legal proceeding for three years. Variety programs on Korean TV, the primary channel for K-pop promotion, refuse to let JYJ on. JYJ are doing very well despite everything, but their struggle is an ongoing process with no end in sight. To write about the DBSK case with any depth would require solid investigative journalism, which in turn would require a journalist with more than a passing interest in K-pop, which I don't think the New Yorker writer displays.


Interesting. I hadn't thought of it in that way -- although I did notice that the article was primarily positive (which is fine, if taken as a primer piece to introduce people to k-pop). I was relieved when he finally touched on some of the more troublesome aspects of the industry, even though his examples seemed fairly obscure, and as you pointed out, fairly positive. Almost as if he's implying that "once upon a time" there may have been issues with SM's contracts, but now everything is all sweetness and light. Oh, and that other label that no one's ever heard of. Which in turn made me wonder, after being impressed at his knowledge thus far, how much he really follows k-pop that isn't part of the SM cartel. (Seriously; nothing about T-ARA? Or is attacking CCM just too easy?)

I do think that JYJ/TVXQ is a fascinating case study of what happens when idols decide they are more than just entertainment fodder and want to instead showcase their artistry. The SM idol mill may seem clinical and unimaginative, but it has proven it works -- provided you are willing to work within that well-oiled machine. But once an idol wants to break free? Yikes.

And you're right: to mention DBSK would require an article in-and-of itself, especially since that three-year lawsuit is still going on with no end in sight. Which is why I take issue that (in his words) "perhaps the most notorious case" of slave contract lawsuits is Han Geng -- because anyone who's bothered to research k-pop enough for this piece should know that the most "notorious" is JYJ vs SM, full stop.
posted by paisley sheep at 11:58 PM on October 14, 2012


how much he really follows k-pop that isn't part of the SM cartel

To be fair, even at the peak of my K-pop obsession, I was only marginally aware of artists/groups outside SM/YG/JYP. The "major groups" like DBSK, Big Bang and Wonder Girls were shiny on their own, OMG adorbs when they intermingled. They were the in-crowd of K-pop High. The only ~alternative cliques on my radar were Epik High and Brown Eyed Girls (cue hysterical laughter). I was just a stan though.

Journalists should try harder. You don't get to "know" a high school just by studying the jocks and cheerleaders, or the drama club presidents and award-winning science geeks.
posted by fatehunter at 11:01 AM on October 15, 2012


Kpop. Kpop is great, though the constant image control coupled with pretty bad stories on the margins (sexual favors required of girl-group hopefuls, companies that are fronts for money-laundering, online bullying and rumor-mongering, putting bipolar artists on variety shows when they haven't slept in days or weeks and trying to get an emotional reaction out of them, the near total lack of perspective and tendency toward overreaction of the teen fanbase) does make it easy to be, like, a bit of a conspiracy theorist. It's nice to see a piece that acknowleges some of this stuff while still being generally positive.

I went through the whole cycle as a fan: the idealistic honeymoon stage, the disillusionment stage, the acceptance stage. And I went from being a stan of a particular group (bigbang) to following their company to following the industry, and now am at the point where I follow, like, particular sonwriters and mv directors and makeup artists. One thing I really like about kpop is that none of this stuff is a secret at all. In the US, at least, it's so important for "serious" pop singers to be "artists" who are 100% corporate-taint free everyone (the single, the label, the label's marjeting department) will avoid talking about other people who also worked on the record or video or stage show. In korea there isn't that same distrust of corporations, I think, so "behind the scenes" workers are a much bigger part of the discussion. Well, amd also the industry as a whole is a lot smaller and more insular,even now with lots of new companies trying to get in on the action.
posted by subdee at 12:30 PM on October 15, 2012


It's a shame for Girls Generation that their try at an American audience came pre-Gangnam Style

Not entirely true, I'm seeing them at a concert in Irvine/LA next month, along with a bunch of other groups.

Even mainstream concert stuff like KIIS's Jingle Ball this year has KPop groups (Wonder Girls and PSY) alongside big American acts (Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber).

Of course, LA has a large Korean population so there is probably more activity here than in other places in the US, but it's not a bad place to start / spread from.

PSY has definitely given it another level of visibility in the later part of this year (I mean I hear KPop on regular pop stations now...)
posted by wildcrdj at 1:20 PM on October 15, 2012


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