How The South Korean Government Made K-Pop A Thing

How The South Korean Government Made K-Pop A Thing

6:57am Apr 20, 2015
Sun Hi (Megan Lee), Jodi (Louriza Tronco) and Corki (Erika Tham) star in Make It Pop.
Sun Hi (Megan Lee), Jodi (Louriza Tronco) and Corki (Erika Tham) star in Make It Pop.
Stephen Scott / Nickelodeon
Sun Hi (Megan Lee), Jodi (Louriza Tronco) and Corki (Erika Tham) star in Make It Pop.

Sun Hi (Megan Lee), Jodi (Louriza Tronco) and Corki (Erika Tham) star in Make It Pop.

Stephen Scott/Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon's new show Make It Pop is a musical sitcom that features three boarding school teens who start a band called XOIQ. Its plot might seem twee, but the network touts it as something a little more unique: It's a "music sitcom with a K-pop twist and EDM beats," starring three Asian-American actresses — including Korean-American singer Megan Lee, who spent more than a year working with a Korean record label after she was discovered on YouTube.

(Nickelodeon denied requests to interview the show's producers, one of whom is Nick Cannon.)

With its "saccharine energy" and mix of EDM music, it's only loosely based on K-pop's style, the New York Times' John Caramanica writes.

"It's almost amazing that it's not genuine K-pop," Euny Hong, the author of The Birth Of Korean Cool, tells me. The typical K-pop sounds have techno beats and are often accompanied by futuristic videos in which the band members — sometimes an enormous gaggle of women or men — dance in perfect sync.

Like in this video for the song "I Am The Best," by the band 2NE1.

YouTube

"Clearly, the marketing people at Nickelodeon said, 'We need to tap into this audience,' " she says, referring to K-pop's rapidly growing audience in the United States. Back in 2012, K-pop became a noted force in 2012 when the rapper Psy's video and song "Gangnam Style" went viral.

But Hong says Psy isn't much like the other successful K-pop stars: he's short, overweight and traffics in irony. And that irony, Hong points out in her book, signaled South Korea's "final stage in its modern evolution." As in, it helped put South Korea on the map, which you can see in the U.S. in various ways: The annual K-pop convention in Los Angeles draws in more than 40,000 participants, with similar events in other cities drawing in crowds. And over the past couple of years, groups like Crayon Pop and the Wonder Girls opened for artists like Lady Gaga and the Jonas Brothers.

"It's like a commando strike on popular culture when you create a new K-pop band," Jeff Yang, cultural entrepreneur and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, says. "The emphasis really is in developing a unique persona for each of the band members but then ultimately assembling them into a highly engineered and incredibly harmonized set of individuals."

And just like these perfect performances, the rise of K-pop wasn't an accident.

In the late '90s, when Asia went through a huge financial crisis, South Korea's leaders decided to use music to improve its image and build its cultural influence. So the country's government poured millions of dollars into forming a Ministry of Culture with a specific department devoted to K-pop.

"It turns out that the Korean government treats its K-pop industry the way that the American government treats its automobile and banking industry, meaning that these are industries that have to be protected," Hong says.

This included doing things like building massive, multi-million dollar concert auditoriums, refining hologram technology, and even helping regulate noeraebangs — karaoke bars — to protect the interests of K-pop stars.

"They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought."

And while Nickelodeon's Make It Pop may be a sign of that buy-in, Hong says its music and dancing are not quite as polished as authentic K-pop. But Yang still believes Make It Pop can make it big, especially with a generation of tweens that's racially diverse and globally connected.

"It'll be interesting to see whether this connects with them. If it does, I think, after this — the flood."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nickelodeon is the latest American company trying to cash in on the growing fan base of Korean pop music or K-Pop. It recently debuted a new tween sitcom, "Make It Pop."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAKE IT POP")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) So make it pop. We make it pop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's everything we've been waiting for.

CORNISH: It's a TV show about three boarding school teams who form a K-Pop inspired band. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team walks us through how K-Pop has become a cultural force in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAKE IT POP")

MEGAN LEE: (As Sun Hi) So, this is how it starts. From the high to the low future fans and it's my show.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: The first time we see Sun Hi, the main character of "Make It Pop" sing, she's daydreaming about her future stardom. She's played by Korean American singer Megan Lee who previously spent a year chasing fame in Korea. It's a sign that Nickelodeon is paying attention to K-Pop.

EUNY HONG: Clearly, the marketing people at Nickelodeon said we need to tap into this audience.

CHOW: Euny Hong is the author of "The Birth Of Korean Cool," and she's talking about K-Pop's rapidly growing audience in the United States. The annual K-Pop convention in LA draws in more than 40,000 participants, groups like Crayon Pop and the Wonder Girls - even open for artists like Lady Gaga and the Jonas Brothers. And then there was this in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Singing) Oppa Gangnam Style.

CHOW: That's the rapper Psy singing "Gangnam Style." Hong says it offered only a taste of K-Pop's signature sound and look.

HONG: Techno, poppy, hypnotic, upbeat songs featuring youth and beauty and beautiful well-produced music videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE BEST")

2NE1: (Singing in Korean).

CHOW: Videos like the one for the song you're hearing now. It's "I Am The Best" from the group 2NE1. Four band members are dressed in sleek black outfits. They're swaying in perfect synchronization in front of a wall flashing lights. The video has more than 100 million views on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE BEST")

2NE1: (Singing in Korean).

JEFF YANG: It's like a commando strike on popular culture when you create a new K-Pop band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE BEST")

2NE1: (Singing) Oh, my god.

CHOW: Jeff Yang is a cultural commentator. He edited the book "Eastern Standard Time: A Guide To Asian Influence On American Culture."

YANG: The emphasis really is in developing a unique persona for each of the band members but then ultimately assembling them into a highly engineered and incredibly harmonized set of individuals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAR BAR BAR")

CRAYON POP: (Singing) Get set, ready, go.

CHOW: Just like these perfect performances, the rise of K-Pop wasn't an accident. It was nurtured and regulated by the Korean government. The artists often signed seven to 13-year contracts with their labels and may not even debut as performers until they spent years training and practicing. Here's Euny Hong.

HONG: Turns out that the Korean government treats its K-Pop industry the way that the American government treats its automobile and banking industry, meaning that these are industries that have to be protected.

CHOW: This started in the late '90s when Asia went through a huge financial crisis. The South Korean government poured millions of dollars into forming a ministry of culture with a specific department devoted to K-Pop. Euny Hong says the country's leaders decided to use music to improve its image and build its cultural influence.

HONG: They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought.

CHOW: And while Nickelodeon's "Make It Pop" may be a sign of that buy-in, Hong says its music and dancing are not quite as polished as authentic K-Pop. But cultural critic Jeff Yang still believes "Make It Pop" can make it big, especially with a generation of tweens that's racially diverse and globally connected.

YANG: It'll be interesting to see whether this connects with them. If it does, I think after this, the flood.

CHOW: Kat Chow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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