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The Irony That Is K-Pop: Idol Music and Diversity

  • [등록일]2019-03-28
  • [조회] 5520


When it comes to discussing today’s popular music in Korea, you would be deceiving yourself if you are avoiding the subject of K-pop. From topping the Billboard and selling more than 20 million albums a year to drawing attention and creating immense brand value, K-pop has done it all and gone beyond its main stage of music to penetrate the sectors that are not at all relevant to music, enjoying success at the pinnacle of wherever it has landed. Thanks to its sophisticated and florid music and performance, idol music has never before been loved as much nor by as many, not since the time the term “popular music” first came into use in Korea. The genre, however, is a child born with an inherent irony. The idol music industry exudes unique, singular charms that have brought success but is nonetheless buttressed by an exhausting and exploitative system. Without addressing this birth defect and its chronic disparity, the future is far from rosy for K-pop.



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1. Emergence of the “Great Era of K-pop”


It is the age of K-pop. Some might even call it the “great era of K-pop.” This may sound like a stretch, but you would think differently when you look at the Korean pop music indicators for 2018. Let’s take a look at the album market. For 2018, the domestic album sales broke through the 20-million mark. Watching the market’s rapid shift from album to digital music in the early 21st century, I had once said a lengthy, tearful farewell to the demise of the medium after its golden years. Now, I am just embarrassed by the numbers I see today. That breakthrough past the 20-million mark was the first ever on record since 2010, when the Gaon Music Chart had begun to tabulate album sales.


The addition of 4 million to the 2017 record of 16million in only a year was on account of the remarkable feat by K-pop idol groups. EXO, BTS, and Wanna One ― collectively referred to as EX-Bang-One ― were particularly notable. Of the top ten titles on the Album Chart, seven were by these three. On top of the chart was [LOVE YOURSELF ‘Answer’] by BTS, a double-million seller boasting a record-breaking number of 2,176,863 albums in total. Released in the same year, [LOVE YOURSELF ‘Tear’] came in second, selling 1,838,692 albums. EXO, a previous album powerhouse that had become the first million seller in the Korean pop music market in 12 years in 2013, was still a great force to be reckoned. Its fifth studio album [DON'T MESS UP MY TEMPO] (1,192,975 albums) came in third, while its sub-unit EXO-CBX was ranked eighth with its [Blooming Days] (363,788 albums). Active for only a year and half and breaking all the newbie-related records, Wanna One, too, enjoyed staggering achievements. All of Wanna One’s three albums released in 2018 landed on the top ten chart. The album sales of the three groups combined reached nearly 8 million. What is more astonishing is that of the top 50 albums on the chart, the only one that was not by an idol group was [Be Myself], the second mini album by Hwang Chi-yeul, who is growing immensely popular in China in particular.


But there’s one thing to remember here. It was not just album sales that these groups drove forward in the Korean pop music market. These groups were created, respectively, by SM Entertainment (one of the top three companies), BigHit Entertainment (the “miracle of the small and big”), and <Produce 101> (a survival audition reality show that has virtually turned the world upside down for the idol group market), now seen as the major idol scenes. The K-pop market and the Korean pop music issues have revolved around them. Most of the hot issues, from taking the top spot on the American Billboard to making it on the survival audition show, had to do with these idol groups and the K-pop market. Although not as strong as in the area of album sales, the position of K-pop in the digital market is quite solid. Here’s a simple example. Just take a look at the ranking in music streaming services (a new way that the public consumes its music today). Keeping in mind that the all-out tabulation of ranking began only five years ago, in 2014, in this fresh, new market. This is how it works. We know that when an album sells a million copies, it is called the million seller. Similarly, a song that is streamed 100 million times is certified “platinum.” Among those released in 2018, ten were certified Platinum, five of which were by idol groups: iKON’s Love Scenario (June); Momoland’s Bboom Bboom (August); Mamamoo’s Starry Night; Blackpink’s Ddu-du Ddu-du (November); and Chungha’s Roller Coaster (December). This is by no means negligible.



2. The “Why” of Idol Music: The Reasons for All Sorts of Overload


The rise of K-pop as the mainstream genre is not a recent phenomenon. Idol music is a genre that has slowly seeped into the industry by way of steady sales, tireless efforts at breaking through, and consequential cycles of success and failure. Come to think of it, it has been a long time waiting. It has been well over two decades since the concept of “idol” surfaced in the Korean music industry. In fact, it has been nearly a decade of hearing random claims, such as that “K-pop is loved across borders” or how “the idol industry is running downhill,” wandering the market and the industry scenes like ghosts. Through years of ups and downs, K-pop has persistently expanded its territory. While the previous generation in leadership hesitated before the changes brought by time, K-pop moved forward with remarkable swiftness. It abandoned its prejudice and combined diverse music genres with sub-cultures. It was not afraid of working with international songwriters or of importing music. By taking the initiative, K-pop grew fearless, which is one of the key driving forces behind its series of innovative, high-quality products. The entertainment industry had been characterized by its haphazard management and unfair practice until the mid-2000s, but it began to follow common sense as represented by the “standard seven-year contract.” The improving quality of the performance-driven stage and visuals ― comprising one of the greatest charms of idol music ― was outstanding to boot. In the absence of rising rock stars, this small country in East Asia had the ball in its court in a game discovered and fished out of its blind spot by young minds across the world. Korea was offered a chance at a new life as an unsung hero.


The sweetness of spectacular success and the brilliance of infinite potential captivated the attention of many. The brighter the light was, the darker the shadow grew. Times changed in the meantime, but fingers were still pointed angrily at idol music for inciting all sorts of “overload.” Criticisms were not without ground. Terrestrial television stations began to produce and air identical music shows with popular idol groups. The only difference among them was the channel and the day of the week. Viewers and the public had long lost their power to make any decision. Subtlety in personal taste died out while the industry increasingly grew out of balance. Upon hearing that “idol music pays,” people threw themselves at the virtual pot of gold, just like the miners did in California during the GoldRush. They ranged from teens who dreamed of being a star to producers and investors trying to get themselves a golden-egg laying goose. If anyone ever got curious about how the world and everything else in it worked, they only needed to knock on the door to the world of K-pop. It was a kaleidoscope of desires secreted by the multitudes.


But on what grounds can anyone purely condemn those people, the capital, and the sheer effort poured into one destination for a taste of potential success? Idol music is currently one of those areas of the Korean pop music market that receives undivided attention and one of the rare genres with positive potential for further growth. What is K-pop? a bad Goliath that shakes the ecosystem of pop music at its core or a jackpot striker surfing the zeitgeist with perfect timing? No one has yet to draw an unequivocal conclusion on what the idol industry really is. The differences in understanding and consequential conflict have most likely been due to K-pop’s inherent structure and limitations. Discussed below, the two elements comprise the root of the irony that is K-pop, the Alice of the Pop Music Wonderland that creates success and failure, and hope and despair, sucking in every fiber of the Korean pop music industry like a black hole.


2-1. Molecular Community


Of pop arts, music is one of the areas where the talent of the artist defines the success of all. Look at the history of pop music. It is not difficult to see an exceptional talent taking live clubs, label companies, the genre, and the time by storm. Such legendary success stories have both distinct light and shadow. The greatest strength can be found in the fact that an artist can have both fame and wealth by sticking purely to music alone. But what is really funny about it all is that the weakness is also derived from the same source. Once music and musicians fall apart, even the tallest monument that they built together can collapse at any moment. Designed to overcome such inherent weakness of the pop music market, K-pop’s production system assigns experts to the right place at the right time for maximum effects.


Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment, is described as having introduced the concept of idol group in Korea with the debut of H.O.T. in 1996. In his interviews, he revealed that he had contemplated more on building an efficient system based on the division of work than any other aspects when he had first started. As of 2019, SM is divided into management, producing, visuals and art, content production, business in China, marketing, IT, and business assistance. This is the basic structure of business, with minor differences, that drives most entertainment companies in the market of K-pop. It is all the more interesting to learn that such division of labor applies not only to corporate management but also to artists and musicians. In fact, one of the special attributes that define K-pop idol groups is that there are many of them, which is highly iconic and significant. Idol groups are created by adding or taking away members as needed to or from an average of four to ten persons, and it is not too much to say that they are a small enterprise. Just as an entertainment company’s producing part is divided into domestic and international A&R(Artists and Repertoire), casting, and training, an idol group is composed of main vocalists, lead vocalists, main dancers, and members taking charge of entertainment shows. Members have clearly defined roles to play to make up a team. With more members, groups have more to show for, and their music naturally veers toward a specific genre that can embrace the circumstances. The criticism that so often focuses on the rigid invariability of idol music and the “excessive dependence” on dance music is more or less a habitual form of disapproval that has neglected the reality: dance music is the easiest and most reliable choice for K-pop to catch many eyes with its main dancers and their dance breaks in addition to the extravagant group dance performance.


The division of labor has been woven into the very fabric of K-pop and has become indispensable. Not only does it emphasize the uniqueness of K-pop but it has also fertilized the soil by which K-pop enjoy edits super-rapid growth. Today, the life of idol groups has become an independent and special content by and in itself. The trainee system was built to boost greatest efficiency in the limited time frame, and idol group members no longer think twice about living together in a dormitory once their debut is confirmed. This tight, labor-intensive system, sometimes bordering on the infringement of human rights, has resulted in unexpected synergistic effects still to be found to this day. As compacted and increasingly dense as it was, the K-pop industry expanded as rapidly, and its inner components grew even more sub-divided and professional, requiring more experts and greater capital. From musicians to entrepreneurs, the K-pop industry became strictly divided and specialized, even to the molecular level now. This restructured industry has now made it easier than ever to divide and conquer, and collaborate, be it in fashion, art, film, advertisement, or entirely something else. As infinitesimally specialized as K-pop production has become, the public has also been split into different molecules comprising the vast ocean of K-pop. Before our eyes is a new world where we can add our two cents wherever and whenever we like and enjoy the result of it however we like.


2-2. Fandom-based Profitability


Once upon a time, there was a humble belief: “well-made stuff will one day be recognized by the public.” While simply reading it aloud may make you feel all warm in your heart, be warned. Sadly, it is wiser to forget it altogether if you want to keep your sanity in the 21st century world of pop music. The idol industry may seem reasonable on the outside. But it is efficiency and inefficiency in one ― a brutal trainee system where the fruit of hard work is borne in as little as a few months to as long as seven to eight years, groomed and prepped by the effective division of labor provided by experts from all sorts of fields. Without dream and capital to match that first fruit, then such a career cannot last. The industry is that riddled with self-irony.


If a person of talent and perception were to discover this irony and attempt to fish oneself out of the K-pop industry, then the bait swims over to snatch the potential runner again. The bait is fandom. Whereas they had been scorned and derided with terms like ppasuni (die-hard groupies) in the past, fans are now the most faithful supporters of K-pop with great power at their disposal. The shift was largely led by the two major trends of the time: one is the priority placed on “public opinion” than ever before, and the other is the growing correlation between the size of fandoms and profit. Not much explanation is needed on the role of public opinion. The commitment of fans is already well-known since the time of the first-generation idol groups. They volunteered to promote their musicians to anyone who would listen and blindly put themselves between any trouble and their beloved musicians. Into the 21st century, they grew ever more organized. Today, Korean fans are joined by international fans. The power vested in the K-pop fandom gradually broadened to affect international opinions, campaigns, and media attention.


It is only natural that the trend directly influenced K-pop’s profit structure. By the grace of the internet, the world is packed with infinite possibilities and things to see, hear, and love. But it has become that much harder to captivate the public, probably the hardest thing to do since humans began to walk on two feet. For those who keep themselves up night and day to get a piece of the public’s attention, the presence of the K-pop fandom ― the recipient of which can expect unconditional love and faithfulness ― is an irresistibly charming blue ocean and a mirage.  


Some say that this day and age is defined by this, and that capital goes where people are, not the other way around. The definition is most blatantly and fervently discovered in the TV show <Produce 101>. Made by the South Korean music channel Mnet, the show is aired late spring annually since 2016. Viewers closely watch idol trainees in their game of survival. The only difference that set the show apart from others is its scenario of enabling general viewers ― aptly called “people producer” ― to exercise their voting power, create a group of their favorite trainees, and put the chosen on stage. The national boom that this seemingly simple system created has been phenomenal. The second season featuring male trainees in 2017 was insurmountably popular. That year, <Produce 101> dominated the indicators that reveal the popularity and influence of TV shows. Wanna One, the offspring created at the end of final voting, became the most famous newbie group in the history of K-pop. The recipe had one secret ingredient: choosing favorite trainees and putting them on stage professionally. Promotion, marketing, production, and planning were all in the hands of fans. Like a moth to a flame, people, money, power, and desire threw themselves at the show, dancing around the fire in delirium.



3. The Ironic Mammoth That Is K-pop (Idol Music)



In the end, all of this was sparked by the irony inherent in K-pop. In its attempt to overcome a stream of invectives that idol music is no music, K-pop was able to guarantee a certain level of quality. What it failed to do was to go beyond the genre of dance music. The risk of relying on one talented musician for success was averted by inventing an efficient system based on the division of labor, but it came with an efficient system of exploitation for the sake of greater profit. K-pop worked hard to go beyond fandom and win the heart and recognition of the public, but the faithfulness of fandom already turned into a source of unwavering power and even louder voice. Irony begat more ironies and then some.


An agglomeration of irony continues to blaze and will not go out before consuming another scapegoat that will lead to more ironies. The time is ripe, too, with the international fans of K-pop rising with great force over the horizon. Owing to this golden international era, probably the first ever in the history of Korean pop music, the idol industry will aggressively devour people, capital, attention, and other industrial elements regardless of genre or sector for the time being. Remember the international success of Psy’s Gangnam Style across YouTube in 2012. Ever since, the Korean music market has enjoyed a steady two-digit growth each year. Or remember how often BTS’ BigHit Entertainment appear on the headlines of many Korean business magazines. They all share the same root.


Again the issue of irony and disparity emerges. Sometimes it seems futile to say it because the message ― to do away with imbalance in the pop music industry ― has been repeated ever since the media became involved with popular music. Albeit for different reasons, the targets were MTV in the 1980s and mainstream dance music in the 1990s. But the debate on the idol industry is somewhat different, owing to the distinctive irony that defines the K-pop-oriented music industry. Unless the diverse ironies within the K-pop market are addressed, the idol industry is unlikely to be something more than a dinosaur. Nobody wants to see their work crumble nor do they wish to see opportunities slip through fingers. But see the forest for the trees. Reach a consensus, even if implicit, not just within the circle but also without, and respect it. This cannot be stressed enough.



Written by Kim Yun-ha, Pop Music Critic


Source: Hallyu Now, Issue March + April 2019