If you hadn’t already noticed, K-pop is taking over the world. It’s a global phenomenon that’s nurtured some of the most renowned musical entertainment groups such as BTS, EXO and Blackpink, creating legions of committed fans who feel connected to their favourite idols. K-pop’s allure spreads far and wide with India, Indonesia and UAE being the countries where fans spend the most amount of time per month listening to K-pop music. K-pop also happens to be the cultural phenomenon most closely associated with South Korea, followed by Korean food and K-Dramas, making its meteoric rise inextricably linked to its home country. But how did we get here?
Rather than a lucky strike in which everything fell into place at the right time, the rise of K-pop can be attributed to a deliberate, concerted effort of the South Korean government. In 1960 South Korea had a GDP of $3.96 billion. Since then it achieved spectacular economic growth, reaching a GDP of $1.67 trillion in 2022. The East Asian Miracle refers to the seemingly miraculous growth of East Asian economies between 1965 and 1990, in which South Korea transformed from a poor, developing nation to a rich, developed East Asian ‘Tiger’.
The South Korean government pursued a policy of export-led industrialization via chaebols, large organizations such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG with close ties to the government. Chaebols would benefit from government funding, tax incentives and access to foreign technology. But when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in the 1990s, the government decided to try a new tactic; using music to build a positive image and widen its influence. The Ministry of Culture had a department whose remit was to promote and grow K-pop. From building million-dollar concert stadiums to ensuring K-pop’s visibility in karaoke bars, the government protected K-pop with the intention of building it into the South Korean version of Americana for the 21st century.
It’s fair to say the South Korean government exceeded what it planned out to achieve. BTS, TXT, ENHYPEN and Blackpink have millions upon millions of fans worldwide. The estimated economic impact of BTS concerts held in Seoul in October 2019 was 922.9 billion South Korean won, equivalent to $710 million. In March 2022, BTS’s pay-per-view live stream concert Permission to Dance on Stage attracted over 1 million viewers. And a significant number of people are traveling to South Korea because of K-pop.
Contributing to K-pop’s massive success is its unique fandom culture. There is a stronger sense of community, connection and organization among K-pop fans that we weren’t exposed to before. BTS fans are ARMY, Adorable Representative MC for Youth. EXO-Ls are fans of EXO. And if you can wrap your head around this, Once are fans of TWICE. K-Pop fans come together in their joint admiration for a group and forge strong friendships. Volunteer-run fan translation social media accounts exist to translate interviews, song lyrics and social media posts for audiences that don’t understand the Korean language. Some fans even support each other by helping with job applications and teaching Korean. Fan labour, as it’s called, helps to create boundaries between casual fans and enthusiastic fans, which can be a source of pride. Fans often feel an emotional bond and a sense of loyalty to their favourite idols.
Taking advantage of this sense of duty among fans, entertainment companies have leveraged fan platforms such as Weverse to allow fans to interact with their idols. These platforms have 2 main benefits. First, they allow fans to connect with each other, providing a sense of belonging and community. Second, there are opportunities for idols to respond directly to fans, which provides fans with a stronger connection to their favourite performers beyond simply watching a video or buying their merchandise. BTS is the most followed group on Weverse with over 20 million followers. TXT and ENHYPEN come in second and third with 8 million and 7 million followers respectively.
However with fandom that runs this deep, things can be taken to the extreme. This is where sasaeng comes in. Sasaeng are obsessive K-pop fans or ‘stans’. They’ll go to questionable lengths to get attention from their idols such as hacking into emails and phones so they know where their favourite groups are going to be or even breaking into a hotel to install cameras so they can get footage of group members. Some sasaeng networks may share flight information of a K-pop group and book tickets so they can ‘coincidentally’ bump into them at the airport.
And when there is a demand, there is commercial opportunity. A market for K-pop group information has emerged in which passport information and hotel addresses have been on sale for sasaengs eager to get as much information as possible, and sasaeng taxis exist to follow idols wherever they go.
While the South Korean economy benefits and fans exhibit loyalty to their bias or ultimate, what about the impact on the idols themselves? K-pop groups have risen to the top of what is a very crowded entertainment market and as a very manufactured form of entertainment, this exerts a toll on existing and aspiring K-pop performers.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s reality TV started to become very popular in the West. Programs such as Making the Band showed the highlights and lowlights of the boy band O-Town, revealing how the band was selected, managed and developed. Behind the scenes things were vastly different from the shiny, polished exterior that you saw on posters, music videos and concerts. One began to realise that the cohesion exhibited among bands such as Backstreet Boys and N’Sync was likely more frayed when when they weren’t on stage. More recently, documentaries about K-pop have reflected a similar sentiment, showing the dark side of this wildly successful industry.
Manufactured pop is one way to describe it but the phrase doesn’t do justice to how controlled some of these groups are. Group members aren’t really individuals. They’re part of an equation. Do they have the right stats? Height, weight, appearance. Can they sing? If they can, that’s good. If not, managers need to calculate the cost of training and the work needed to find a new member if things don’t work out.
A lot of money can be invested in the formation of a K-pop group, taking several years of training for each member. K-pop idol trainees may be given accommodation and their training expenses paid for but entertainment companies that set up K-pop groups often hold a debt sheet for each performer. So although a lot of money is being invested in each performer, all of them are expected to pay these expenses back. The hope is that the group makes it to the big time and the company will be able to recoup their investment costs.
To the public K-pop groups exude an aura of harmony, empowerment and teamwork. BTS has 7 members. Girls’ Generation has 8 members. They’re all about collaboration, right? The reality is that cohesion might not be there. Some will want to stand out and make a name for themselves. Some might have aspirations of riding out the success of the group before moving on to be a solo performer. Then there’s the constant insecurity and psychological stress. There’s always risk of being cut, which leads members to question if they are good
enough. If a member is ill, they might try to hide it in case they are seen as disruptors or trouble makers. Group members will be spending a lot of time with each other. Given how exhausting the schedule can be; PR, dance training, singing practice, learning lyrics, recording music, traveling; there is little opportunity to unwind and have some alone time.
For some groups the image of empowerment is a façade, particularly as footage is available on the internet showing how some of these groups are treated. It’s as if they are primary school kids being scolded for bad behaviour. A common term used to refer to those in K-pop group training was ‘slave contracts’. In a scene from a popular documentary about girl group 9 Muses, one member asks “Why did I choose this life?” and “Why have I given up so much of myself?”