Beyond ‘Gangnam Style’ – A Beginner’s Guide To K-Pop

While Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ this week became the first K-pop song ever to top the British charts, some of the genre’s purist fans argue he isn’t the best introduction. In this week’s NME Grimes argues that Psy’s success is down in part to the fact that he’s actually a rarity: a K-pop star with a big personality. In the heavily manufactured world of K-pop, that makes him heroically odd.

Since the Nineties, South Korea have been churning out pop hits faster than David Guetta can say “Feat. Nicki Minaj” and their success in countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand means their tunes are being pumped into the ears of about a billion and a half listeners. For a country of fifty million people, that’s some feat.

The man credited with getting the scene started is South Korean pop impresario Lee Soo-man. Rather than hosting talent shows like Western counterpart Simon Cowell, Soo-man’s system relies on recruiting very young singers and dancers who are then put through years of rigorous training before being forged into groups. His first major successes were late Nineties boy group H.O.T. and girl group S.E.S., who are credited with sparking the ‘Idol craze’ for manufactured pop groups. H.O.T. had a hit back in 1997 with the presciently titled ‘We Are The Future’:

Lee Soo-man now runs SM Entertainment, the largest record label in South Korea. Their roster includes a new boy band, Shinee, and two of today’s biggest girl groups: Girls’ Generation and f(x). Unlike Western acts who sometimes seem locked in a battle to out-scandalise each other, K-Pop acts deal in more wholesome subject matter and shy away from explicit references to sex and drinking. Girls’ Generation also have a massive nine members, which is indicative of the way the efficient K-pop machine can favour choreographed style over individual personalities.

One of the biggest groups to come all the K-Pop production line in recent years are BIGBANG. Their video for ‘Fantastic Baby’ features the boy band wearing Gaga-style outfits and embracing riot chic. Oh, and there’s a “Boom Shakalaka” breakdown that suggest someone somewhere along the line has been listening to Sly & The Family Stone. They end up slouched on thrones: Kanye and Jay-Z, they’re coming for you.

Big Bang’s girl group equivalents on their label YG Entertainment are 2NE1, and the two groups collaborated on ‘Lollipop’:

BIGBANG’s de facto leader G Dragon is also a solo star in his own right and his been in the limelight since he was 8 as part of a group called Little Roora – making even Justin Bieber look like something of a dinosaur. Unlike the distance former child stars like Britney like to put between their sweet Mickey Mouse club beginnings and their grown-up incarnations, G Dragon still dances around at gigs to recordings of himself singing as a cherubic child. To be honest he doesn’t look that much older now:

Solo rapper Psy is a relatively recent signing to YG, and had been seen as something of an outsider. If the crossover success of ‘Gangnam Style’ has surprised some K-pop fans, it really shouldn’t have. While Korean labels have long had their hearts set on cracking the lucrative western market with their well-drilled groups, by injecting a sense of humour into the already over-the-top world of K-pop videos it’s the man nicknamed the “Bizarre Rapper” who’s gone global.

Originally published by NME.