How does K-pop work? Let’s get the basics down first.
K-pop stars, referred to as idols, are singers, dancers, and/or rappers. They may be part of a group, or a soloist (though sometimes, an idol in a group may release a solo, whilst continuing to promote and be a part of their group!) They’re also skilled at variety, as a big part of their job when promoting their music is to go on variety programs, such as Weekly Idol or Hello Counsellor. In fact, an idol’s personality is a crucial aspect of their career, as the genre greatly depends on an idol’s persona to attract and maintain a loyal fanbase (which then gets its own specific name. That’s why you’ll hear BTS fans be referred to as Army).
Idols, before becoming celebrities, are trainees at an entertainment company. To do this, they have had to audition, usually at a young age, and be accepted – itself a very selective process. Yet even as trainees, their future isn’t set in stone – they work extremely hard to get a chance to debut. If debuting with a group, they will be assembled by the company, or thanks to a broadcasted survival show. Survival show groups are immensely popular, such as Twice or IZ*ONE (both girl groups), thanks to the attention and involvement they will have gained from the public: certain rounds are fan-voted. These groups tend to be large: Twice are nine, and IZ*ONE has twelve members. Why? Because the more members there are, the more choice fans have to pick a ‘bias’, their favourite, and support them. (It also makes for pretty cool dance formations!)
A group’s first-ever release is their ‘debut’, and subsequent releases are referred to as comebacks. Two comebacks per year are pretty standard, and anything less tends to be frowned upon. Each comeback will promote a new single or title track, and revolves around a whole concept. It’s a really cool thing about K-pop; concepts are crucial to the understanding of a song or album, and greatly enhance it. They’re intensely visual, and idols’ styling, from their clothes to hair and makeup, photoshoots, and even the choreography all come together to form a whole. Concepts range across a wide list of themes, from boyhood or girl crush to retro. However, the word is all-encompassing, as it also refers to a group’s overall style or image. They then tend to explore different concepts or themes within or using their own style.
Within a group are several specific positions. Even if idols are trained to sing and dance, strengths vary – the main dancer is considered the most skilled at dance, as such they will get a dance break or be placed at the front of the formation, whereas the main vocalist will have more singing parts.
Let’s use a concrete example and look at Red Velvet. They’re a five-member group and use these specific positions:
- Irene is the leader, main rapper, lead dancer, vocalist, visual, and center. (phew!)
- Seulgi is the lead vocalist and main dancer.
- Wendy is the main vocalist.
- Joy is the lead rapper and a vocalist.
- Yeri is a vocalist, rapper and the maknae.
Lead and main positions get the most dancing, rapping or singing parts, whereas the center will most often be, well, at the center of the formation during photoshoots, choreography, or events. Visuals are recognized for their looks, which means during music videos they might get more screen time, and are most likely to be picked for brand deals and advertisements. As the name implies, the leader will guide their team, and serve as a spokesperson for the group; they tend to be the caretaker as well. Traditionally, the eldest member gets this position, as is the case in Red Velvet, though other groups will elect theirs (like Twice or BTS) or even ignore the position entirely (such as Blackpink). Other positions include face of the group, the most popular member, who will bring more attention to the group by being invited to more variety shows or events. Lastly, maknae is a Korean word meaning the youngest in a group; in Korean society, age is important as it helps determine social hierarchy.
Interestingly, not all members of a K-pop group are Korean – though they will adhere to the codes of their ‘adoptive’ country. Blackpink’s Lisa is Thai, and four out of the nine Twice members are foreign: three are Japanese, and one is Taiwanese. Foreign idols have to be extra careful not to tread into dangerous territory or inadvertently cause controversy due to the delicate diplomatic relations between East/Southeast Asian countries. This is especially important because their careers rely so heavily on the public; they are as quick to be taken down by a scandal or negative opinions as they are to be adored and fawned over.
A more wholesome aspect of fan culture in K-pop are light sticks; most groups will have their own, personalized light stick, usually representing the meaning behind their name and or using the groups attributed colour. It’s particularly touching during concerts, when they all light up and create an ocean of colour for the artists to see.
So why is K-pop exploding in the West? Acts like PSY, Girl’s Generation or BigBang have garnered attention in the past, but nothing like what BTS is experiencing right now. Several factors are at play for their success, such as the sheer amount of content idols give their fans – most groups will have their own reality or game show, such as BTS RUN. The innovative quality of K-pop music videos, choreography and fashion also largely contribute to their success in the West, and the variety in genres offered can only draw more people in.
– Juliette Simon