The VR K-Pop Starter’s Guide

So we are now a week and a half into the Year of the Snake (the year in which I was born, incidentally). To celebrate the Lunar New Year I thought I’d post something with an East Asian flavour and I had this in the pipeline for a while, so here goes. Took me way too long to compile, this one.

So you’re aware of this whole K-Pop thing. You’ve seen Gangnam Style a hundred times and maybe you think there’s something you might enjoy in the genre. Perhaps you have a friend who listens to the stuff and you’re interested in what the fuss is about. Or, perchance, you’ve read my own reasoning for being a fan (a guy can dream) and it has piqued your interest. Regardless, you might be wondering where to start. Well, look no further.
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THE ESSENTIALS

Before you read anything else, watch these clips.

Gee – Girls’ Generation

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: This 2009 mega-hit was the most viewed K-Pop video on Youtube before PSY decided to riff on the Korean elite. It was partially responsible for the whole phenomenon of easily accessible Youtube K-Pop, plus it was the first K-Pop song to make any significant impact on the Japanese charts (the second-biggest music market in the world, apparently). It established Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD) as a group at the very forefront of Korean pop music. Suffice to say they haven’t looked back.
LIKE IT? Check out some of Girls’ Generation’s other hits, such as Genie, Run Devil Run and Hoot. If you like the cutesy style of the clip, well, welcome to like a third of all K-Pop. You’ll be right at home.

I am the Best – 2NE1

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: Just compare this to the previous video. 2NE1 are K-Pop’s most successful “attitude girls”, going for a look and style that inspired a shift in girl group presentation back when they debuted in 2009. This is their biggest hit thus far, released in 2011, and its meticulously crafted swagger is truly something to behold.
LIKE IT? For more 2NE1 ‘tude, have a look at Fire and Hate You. If you’re after more of this kind of devil-may-care style, head the way of Miss A and GLAM.

Mr Simple – Super Junior

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: Though Super Junior’s hugely influential breakthrough hit Sorry Sorry was probably more important, in my opinion Mr Simple is a better track. It captures rather well everything that is so appealing about SJ: super-slick dance performance, pristine production values and a penchant for fun. The very existence of this SM Entertainment mega-group both inspired the formation of SNSD and drove up the average number of members in idol groups of all types.
LIKE IT? The aforementioned Sorry Sorry is pretty awesome, as is Bonamana. For more insanely in-sync choreography outside Super Junior, check out SM’s own SHINee and EXO.

Nobody – Wonder Girls

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: This was the first K-Pop song to break into the US’s Billboard Hot 100. The Wonder Girls release more of their songs in English than most other groups, and while this does come off as cheesy some of the time, it isn’t even the reason they’re so beloved among Stateside K-Pop fans. They just make great, catchy tracks and the retro-themed Nobody is one of them.
LIKE IT? Like Money, which features American artist Akon, was the girls’ last release before their recent hiatus announcement. Tell Me, from the early Wonder Girls years, is worth looking up as well. Pretty much every girl group that’s around for long enough will try on a retro concept at some stage, so there’s plenty of that to dig up if you’re willing.

Haru Haru – Big Bang

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: Big Bang is one of the most popular male groups in K-Pop history and Haru Haru is one of their all-time biggest hits. The song is well-constructed but it’s also notable because its music video crosses over into K-Drama territory, something that quite a few artists attempt on occasion. Delightfully over-acted.
LIKE IT? If you’re keen on Big Bang you could do a lot worse than Tonight, Monster or, for a bit of a laugh, Dirty Cash. If you teared up at the dramatic video plot, try the likes of Taeyang’s Wedding Dress and C-CLOWN’s Faraway… Young Love. So many feels.

Mister – KARA

WHY IT’S A BIG DEAL: The expansion of K-Pop into Japan has been critical to its worldwide aspirations, and KARA is without a doubt one of the island nation’s favourite Korean exports. Mister isn’t only a testament to the group’s Japanese popularity (the song didn’t even get a video in Korea), it also contains one of K-Pop’s most famous choreographed moves: “The Butt Dance”. You’ll know it when you see it.
LIKE IT? If you’re a fan of the Japanese language in a K-Pop context, there’s plenty for you to enjoy. You might particularly want to try GG’s Mr Taxi, SHINee’s Dazzling Girl or 2PM’s Masquerade. Just be aware that it’s a bit harder to track down Japanese music videos on Youtube than Korean ones. For more of KARA, just go nuts, because they are ridiculously good at releasing catchy hits in both Korean and Japanese, but maybe start with Step and Jumping.

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You can find more from these artists on my Top 15 K-Pop Singles of 2012 list.
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LABELLING

Record labels in Korea aren’t really viewed like Western ones are in their native countries. They tend to be so hands-on in their presentation of their artists that they leave an indelible stamp on each new release. As such, each label, or “entertainment company” has its own style and if you like one of a given label’s artists, there’s a relatively good chance you’ll enjoy its others. The majority of K-Pop collaborations come from within the same company, as well. Many fans, particularly the kinds who frequent internet forums, are fiercely loyal to one company and will defend it with just as much blind intensity as any gaming fanboy. While I hope that you, dear reader, never reach such a stage, it is nonetheless likely that you will find a favourite.
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THE BIG THREE

The lion’s share of the K-Pop ecosystem is controlled by three major, multi-faceted entertainment companies.

SM Entertainment is the largest, oldest and most influential of them all, with a stable of successful artists unmatched for sheer volume. BoA, TVXQ!, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, f(x) and EXO are all major stars in their own right and they all call SM home. The company has a reputation for being super-strict, which comes with its downsides, but as a result the public profile of its artists is as squeaky clean as their impeccable dance performances. SM were one of the founding companies of K-Pop as we know it (which, admittedly, is less than twenty years old) and they continue to innovate and set the benchmark for other labels to this day.

The hip-hop focused YG Entertainment is SM’s main competitor in the K-Pop space and they even finished as the number one earning Korean label last year, thanks mainly to PSY, who has been signed with them for the last three years. A gigantic percentage of their usual income comes from mega-popular group Big Bang, with 2NE1 making up most of the rest. In 2012 YG added the powerful dual threat of Lee Hi and Epik High, consolidating their strong standing. YG’s slightly Western structure as a label allows its artists a bit more creative freedom than is standard in K-Pop and while this has provided room for some unsavoury scandals over the last few years, it also allows the sheer brilliance of artists such as G-Dragon to shine through.

Finally, there’s JYP Entertainment. Run by an artist who still puts out music to this day (he’s the one stuck on the toilet in the Nobody clip higher on this page), the company rose to its current status through the popularity of the likes of the Wonder Girls and Rain. While the former is now on hiatus and the latter has left to start his own company, JYP’s multi-armed media reach means it won’t likely be falling from grace anytime soon. The label still promotes some incredibly popular groups, led by Miss A, 2AM and 2PM, and its alleged tight-knit atmosphere continues to make it a popular destination for aspiring trainees.
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THE REST

WARNING: The next few paragraphs are pretty dense. If you’re really new to K-Pop, clicking all of the following links may lead to an overdose, and no-one wants that. You may want to just skim it and head for the final section. Your call.

K-Pop is by no means just an oligarchy of three mega-companies. Said companies certainly dominate market share, but there are many more that taste their fair share of success.

Foremost among them is Cube Entertainment, whose growth in recent times has led to its potential inclusion in a “big four” of sorts. This growth has been spearheaded by B2ST (pronounced, and sometimes written, as “Beast”), a hugely successful male group once known only for being a gang of rejects from other groups, and 4Minute, the girl group that houses Hyuna of Bubble Pop and Gangnam Style fame. Ample support, however, comes from female soloist G.Na, seven-piece A Pink and energetic 2012 debutants BtoB.

Now bear with me here…

Pledis Entertainment is another well-known label, recently adding eye-catching rookies NU’EST and Hello Venus to a stable that includes the ever-changing After School and talented idol Son Dam Bi. From the land of unoriginal naming conventions, there’s Stardom Entertainment, home of hip hop act Block B and edgy newcomers EvoL, there’s Starship Entertainment, who are responsible for SISTAR, one of Korea’s favourite girl groups, as well as new male group Boyfriend and collaboration specialist K.Will, and finally there’s Star Empire Entertainment, where you’ll find Korea’s longest running currently active girl group Jewelry, along with groups ZE:A and Nine Muses. Yeah, it can get confusing.

Many labels stay afloat on the strength of one act alone, despite efforts to expand. DSP Media, employers of KARA, are perhaps the most famous example, although Nega Network (with Brown Eyed Girls), NH Media (with U-KISS), Core Contents Media (with T-Ara) and J Tune Entertainment (with MBLAQ) probably also count, among other lesser known labels such as AB Entertainment (EXID), YMC Media (Ailee) and T.O.P Media (Teen Top, although new group 100% may be changing that).

LOEN Entertainment is an agency that does business publishing artists from other labels as well as running a music download service, but it is also responsible for one of K-Pop’s biggest stars, IU, known affectionately as “Korea’s little sister”. Then there’s the up-and-coming TS Entertainment, one of my favourite labels at the moment, whose infectious acts Secret and B.A.P are known for being unusually curvaceous and unusually prolific respectively. And there are plenty, plenty more.
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WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Like anything with a fanbase, K-Pop uses certain jargon that may seem confusing to newcomers. Some of these terms come straight out of the Korean language, while others are simply contextually different applications of English. Here are some of the most used:

AEGYO: If you’re familiar with the Japanese obsession with “kawaii” (or “intentionally cute”) culture, you’ll understand Korea’s love of aegyo. The main distinction is that kawaii is usually an adjective used to describe cute things, whereas aegyo is thought of as more of a skill or style of behaviour that makes one appear cute. It typically features plenty of obvious blinking and childlike hand gestures near the face. There’s plenty of it in the MV for Gee (see first video above), but Girls’ Generation isn’t actually known for relying on aegyo as a group. For a more saturated example, have a look at this clip by Orange Caramel.

Typical aegyo from one of the best in the business, SNSD’s Sunny.

CF: Basically means “advertisement” in Korea. K-Pop is so commercially structured that idols or groups will often put out songs that function as extended ads for products. Yet some of the coolest K-Pop tracks come out of such partnerships. See Big Bang and 2NE1’s Lollipop, f(x)/Girls’ Generation’s ChocolateLove (both CFs for LG phones) and Younique Unit’s Maxstep (a CF with Hyundai).

COMEBACK: Has a different meaning in K-Pop than it does in the West. An artist or group will have a “comeback” literally whenever they release a song that isn’t already attached to a previous album. It doesn’t matter how little time has passed since their previous release. A “comeback stage” is the first live performance of a new track on a music show.

HALLYU: The word used by Koreans to describe the rapidly expanding popularity of K-Pop, K-Dramas and even Korean food outside of Korea. The word essentially means “wave”.

HWAITING: Koreans don’t use the “f” sound, so this term is their way of appropriating the English word “fighting”. It’s usually used in the same breath as the name of a favoured K-Pop artist, e.g. “MBLAQ hwaiting!” or “BoA hwaiting!” It functions as a kind of encouraging cheer, not unlike “Keep up the good work!”

MAKNAE: The youngest member of a K-Pop group. Age is tremendously important in Korean culture, so maknaes have a certain amount of pressure on them to show visible respect to their elders throughout all their public appearances. They’re also often lumped into the “cute” category due to their age, although several notable maknaes are quite good at circumventing this. They’re also often picked on by older members, in a joking way of course.

The maknaes of SHINee, SNSD, B.A.P and Miss A.

MMS: Mandatory Military Service. Most Korean males have to serve just shy of two years in the armed forces in their early-mid twenties, which puts a use-by date on a lot of male K-Pop groups. Nonetheless, a few have returned to some success after military-induced hiatus while others, such as Super Junior, are large enough to send their members off one or two at a time without affecting their overall integrity and thus stay relevant in the rapidly-moving industry.

MV: Music Video. Who knew, right?

ROLES: Not unlike players in a sports team, K-Pop group members are expected to have a number of all-round skills but also fill designated specialty roles within the group. These usually manifest as Leader, Vocalist, Rapper, Dancer and Face of the Group. The word “Main” (e.g. “Main Rapper”) usually denotes the most specialised member in a certain discipline, while “Lead” (e.g. “Lead Dancer”) is basically the next-best thing. There tends to be only one Leader, who often handles spokesperson duties for the group, and one Face of the Group, who usually has some modelling and/or acting experience and appears most regularly in marketing materials for the group’s activities.

SBS POPASIA: The premier K-Pop-related show on Australian television. It airs on SBS on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to 10:30am and sometimes also on Monday afternoons from 5 to 5:30pm, showing music videos from all over Asia, although 90% of them are Korean. It’s just under two years old.

SUB-UNIT: A trend in K-Pop that started a few years ago but has become absolutely rampant in the last 12 months. A sub-unit is a group within a group, promoting separately from its parent; a chance for certain group members to showcase talents that perhaps don’t get as much attention as they deserve in their usual public environment, as well as a chance for entertainment companies to try out different musical styles without fear of backlash from devoted fans. For example, INFINITE-H , the dual member sub-unit of INFINITE, focuses more on hip-hop than the larger group, Girls’ Generation’s TaeTiSeo (TTS) puts the spotlight on three frankly unfair vocal talents, and the recently formed 2YOON allows two members of the usually provocative 4Minute to try their hand at, of all things, country music.

Super Junior Happy, perhaps the most ridiculous/best sub-unit ever formed.

TEASER: Just like Hollywood with blockbuster movies, Korean entertainment companies like to draw out the pre-release hype of a single, album or “mini-album” (basically an EP) by releasing super-stylised teaser images of the artists in question, specially formulated preview videos and sometimes even making-of featurettes. Occasionally this gets a bit out of hand, like when SM released over twenty distinct teaser videos before the 2012 debut of dual-language group EXO, but it’s all a part of K-Pop’s glitzy appeal.

TRAINEE: What a K-Pop star is before debuting to the public. The lucky ones train for less than a year, but the average training time is well in excess of two-and-a-half. Some train for as long as six to eight years in an agency before they are picked, and some never get picked at all. That highly polished performance aesthetic doesn’t come overnight; K-Pop is serious business.
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And that’s about it. I might update this article later if I feel I’ve missed anything. Happy listening!

Best.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by awayfarday on February 20, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Reblogged this on awayfarday.

    Reply

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