Joan MacDonald isn’t a Korean teenybopper—not in the slightest. She is 68 years old, she lives in New York, and works as a writer. Yet she’s obsessed with Korean pop stars.
“It’s so vibrant and joyous,” says MacDonald, who in the past five years has gone from novice to devout fan of the music genre known as K-pop. “There’s a certain freshness about it. There’s this happiness quotient.”
She follows the latest album drops, keeps up with celebrity gossip, and even uses a Korean beauty product or two. She’s gone so far as to travel halfway around the globe to visit the places in Korea where her favorite shows and music videos were filmed—though, luckily, she hasn’t yet reached sasaeng levels of obsessive behavior.
As little as five years ago, few people in Western countries had heard of K-pop. Then came the infamous “Gangnam Style.”
The 2012 hit song, and the unusual antics of South Korean rapper Psy, became for many Westerners something of a gateway drug into K-pop, and what began as a niche South Korean export two decades ago is now a more-than-$15 billion industry. MacDonald is now just one of millions of enthralled fans in the West who don’t even fully understand the language in which they’re being serenaded—both via K-pop and its closely-intertwined film and television counterpart K-drama.
For evidence of K-pop’s astonishing influence in the US, you’d only have to look to KCON NY—a Korean culture festival that Quartz attended last month, where MacDonald and thousands of other fans came together in a hectic zig-zag of booths, workshops, food trucks, fan dance-offs, and concert performances.
The two-day convention featured people of all ages and ethnicities swarming the streets for free merchandise and potential glimpses of their favorite “idols,” as Korea’s rosy-cheeked stars are popularly known.
Angela Killoren, KCON’s co-organizer and the chief operating officer of South Korean entertainment company CJ E&M‘s American branch, recalls once meeting a mother and daughter pair who’d driven all the way from Brazil to attend the festival’s counterpart in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of love here, love from fans, love from the artists,” she says. “K-pop is an integrated package. It’s a multimedia genre that’s been embraced by everyone, despite the language barrier. It’s something everybody can enjoy.”
KCON NY was held for just the first time last summer as an off-shoot of the original California-based KCON, which began in 2012—and it’s already tripled its attendance and become the East Coast’s largest Asian culture festival. Now, there are five KCON conventions held in various cities around the world every year, attracting hundreds of thousands of people total.
In fact, some 40% of all KCON attendees come from outside the festival’s immediate region (“We flew here from Texas!” one group of fans giddily told us), and about 60% of people travel for more than two hours. Most notably: Only 10% of KCON’s audiences tend to ever actually be Korean.
Whimsy—manufactured, bottled, sold
To understand K-pop’s maddening grip on so many non-Koreans, you have to know one fundamental thing about the genre: Nothing is authentic. The songs and videos? Carefully crafted. The dances? Rehearsed. The personas? Taught and trained at boarding-camp-like schools.
The stars are entirely manufactured, and their content doubly so. Ryan Jhun, a South Korean music producer with his own production company, walked Quartz through the birth of a K-pop song:
Usually we get a lead from the company, and based on that, we take about two weeks to a month to write a song, and deliver the record for the specific artist. It’s like making customized clothes for the artist. Creating everything as a package. If you listen to it, as a mathematical formula, it’s very eclectic: there’s pop, EDM, hip-hop. If [the song] is for an idol group, it needs to have tons of different color. There is someone who is the rapper, someone who is the soft vocalist … we put everything together.
South Korean entertainment companies meticulously design the entire culture around K-pop with specific images and aesthetics in mind; idols are singled out by talent-seeking agents when they’re barely teenagers and are put through a factory-like training process in which they learn etiquette and proper idol behavior that can take entire years. BTS, for instance—a seven-member male group that performed at KCON NY this year—is the product not of some haphazard teenage garage band fumbling, as you might initially believe, but a rigid two-year recruitment and establishment process.
Take a look at the individuals comprising K-pop’s girl and boy bands (big group acts like Seventeen, BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation, and EXO are vastly more popular than solo artists in the genre), and you’ll notice each member is a perfect complement to the others in every way: height, hair color, “personality.”
If Western radio’s Top 40 hits are already pretty synthetic, then K-pop is the ultimate distillation of that artificiality—a formulaic, paint-the-numbers approach to music that resembles an assembly line more than a genuine process of music discovery and production. K-pop is just like Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker responsible for the success of Taylor Swift and Britney Spears—only on an industrialized scale. It’s One Direction, to the extreme.
That international influence is skewing in the other direction, too. Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes, whose albums have climbed the charts recently, openly admits to loving K-pop and even integrating some of its quirks and riffs into her own music. Ed Sheeran said he’s been inspired by Psy. Western musicians are collaborating directly with K-pop groups.
In part, that’s why it doesn’t quite matter that K-pop and K-drama’s Western fans don’t speak the Korean language or know anything about authentic South Korean culture: The entertainment genres are at this point so globally-oriented that they don’t actually have geographic roots anywhere. K-pop appeals to non-Koreans because it was never very Korean to begin with.
And the crazy thing is, it’s working.
Can you love a machine?
Behind the formula of K-pop is South Korea’s government itself, which has made a mission out of flooding other countries with its own distinctive brand of entertainment—so much so that there is an official term for the international outpouring of Korean culture: the “Korean Wave,” or “Hallyu.”
Live K-pop shows grew by some 400% from 2010 to 2013, and that’s certainly not being fueled just by Koreans. It’s interest abroad that’s behind this wave, which first hit neighboring Asian countries, and is now flooding the shores of the opposite hemisphere.
According to a Euromonitor white paper this summer, the South Korean entertainment industry’s “focus on fun” is just what is driving its still-booming growth. “South Korean products appear to be exotic and special in consumers’ minds,” the paper notes.
The massive irony is not that it takes an entire industry to put together that “exotic” and “special” appeal—but that most fans tacitly know it, and most couldn’t care less.
“The South Korean government has put a lot of money into K-drama and K-pop as cultural exports,” MacDonald, who’s written professionally on the subject, tells Quartz. She reckons that most of her fellow fans at KCON do know that the object of their obsession is a government-sponsored product, though most of them likely don’t understand the exact relationship between the South Korean administration and their beloved idols.
In K-pop’s twin industry K-drama, there’s a similar disconnect. Yale Wang, the head of marketing at K-drama video streaming site Dramafever, says only 10% of Dramafever’s audience is Asian. The rest? All kinds of backgrounds.
Because K-dramas are usually subtitled and because the shows themselves are so “addictive,” you don’t need to understand the actors’ language at all to follow along, he says. “The themes in K-drama are very wholesome, family-friendly. The dramas make life in Korea accessible for everybody.” (Dramafever was acquired earlier this year by Warner Bros., in a move that further solidifies the East-West fusion taking place in Hallyu.)
But while K-dramas may show Korean life, it’s not necessarily an accurate depiction. The government enforces strict regulations on what can and can’t be shown on screen, and the family-friendly chasteness of the genre is one such result of that, Wang admits.
Some critics also take issue with K-drama’s reliance on certain tropes, such as that of submissive, feminine women, which raise the question of whether South Korea’s beloved exports are being culturally and sexually fetishized by people of other backgrounds. Might there be something inherently weird about white fans falling in love with dainty, doll-like Asian stars?
And the whole obsessive aspect gets even more uncomfortable off-stage, where celebrities within K-pop and K-drama essentially live under the thumb of South Korea’s entertainment machine. As noted by a BBC article earlier this year on the “dark side” of Asia’s pop music industry, stars can be pressured into plastic surgery, forced to apologize for their political opinions, and even prohibited from dating who they want. According to the New Yorker (paywall) in 2012:
Unless you’re the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift, public drunkenness, brawling, and serial misbehavior can often enhance an artist’s reputation in the American pop scene; in Korea, a rumored sex tape or a positive test for marijuana can derail a career. On average, only one in ten trainees makes it all the way to a début.
So it’s not just artifice on screen that fans of K-pop and K-drama are buying into—but also artificiality down to the inner core.
In that way, K-pop, the beating heart of the entire Korean Wave, can’t really be considered music in a traditional sense: an emotional, intimate experience that speaks to something within us or around us. But then, what is it? The genre is tied to nothing; it the most marketable snippets of sounds and sights around the world and fuses them into a mesmerizing hodgepodge of color and sound, all so skillfully that you almost don’t register that everything’s in Korean.
Most fans who spoke to Quartz at KCON NY had to pause before trying to explain their fascination with K-pop. Some pointed to the music’s sheer catchiness; others tried to explain how the idols’ glittery, polished presence is such a departure from the graceless antics of Western pop stars.
Many, though, were at a loss for a particularly apt set of (English language) words with which to describe their obsession. Instead, they fell back on one particular phrase, and it’s one that seems to embody both the incredible disconnect between fantasy, reality, and fandom within K-pop and K-drama, and the South Korean entertainment industry’s stunning success in selling a troubling, tension-ridden idea:
“It’s just fun.”