The international rise of Korean pop music

A star turn at the Winter Olympics. A force for peace with Pyongyang. There’s no stopping K-pop – and it’s coming to Dubai.

epa06641363 South Korean girl group EXID poses during a showcase for its new single 'LADY' at a concert hall in Seoul, South Korea, 02 April 2018.  EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT
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At the opening ceremony of this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the South Korean team walked together in tight formation in time to their native brand of futuristic pop. Then, on Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a two-hour K-pop performance, shaking the performers' hands afterwards. One of the songs that was reportedly sung was Our Wish Is Reunificationshowing that we are now in a very different world to two years ago, when North Korea deemed South Korea playing K-pop on loud speakers at the border "an act of war".

At first listen, it may all sound like a bunch of up-tempo pop numbers, but for those in tune with the nuances of modern pop culture, it is clear that K-pop, which is wildly popular in the UAE, is about more than just the music.

Korean pop, to give it its full name, is known for its blend of well-groomed performers, carefree lyrics and militaresque training. For the past two decades, it has grown from a regional curiosity into a global cultural phenomenon in line with India's Bollywood and Japan's Manga.

To demonstrate its growing reach, Dubai's Autism Rocks Arena will host the festival SM Town Live on Friday. More than 20,000 fans are excepted to attend the showcase featuring nearly a dozen K-pop bands, including one of the scene's leaders, Exo.

SM Town marks a new peak for K-pop concerts in the UAE, which started back in 2011 when pop star Seo In-young and girl group Nine Muses performed as part of the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix celebrations.

This was followed by international festival K-Con, which added Abu Dhabi to its growing number of international stops in 2016, bringing with it a colourful spectacle of South Korean music performances, fashion, the Korean cosmetics scene and social-media personalities. While it all resembles smooth and steady progress, according to associate professor Roald Maliangkay, the director of the Korea Institute at the Australian National University in Canberra, the music began to take hold in the late 1990s in South Korea for reasons that had nothing to do with entertainment – but rather changing gender roles after a financial crash.

“We were going toward the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and that resulted in a reaction when it comes to the portrayal of male body image which, at the time, was all about being macho,” explains the researcher and lecturer on Korean popular culture.


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After job losses, "Korean women didn't trust that character to look after them anymore... so a lot of people, also in places such as Japan, felt that this traditional 1980s male character had become a failure. And that's one of the reasons that led to them being more attuned to these new kind of [K-pop] characters, with their modesty, soft voices and near-perfect looks."

The Asian financial crisis was also behind K-pop spreading across Asia and, ultimately, the Gulf. With the entertainment industry also affected as part of the economic downturn, cultural rivals Japan began purchasing the rights to Korean television dramas, which Maliangkay notes were sold at a fraction of the cost of production of Japanese shows.

These tales of young love and family tradition often featured K-pop stars, who would also contribute to the soundtrack. “In South Korea, acting comes after they become well known,” Maliangkay says. “The show is a way for the singer to become even closer to the fans.”

When it comes to the Gulf, it can be argued that it was Korean television dramas, also known as K-dramas – which first screened as far back as 2005 with early hits My Lovely Sam Soon and I'm Sorry, I Love You – that forged the path for K-pop to take a foothold in the region. Dubbed in Arabic – specifically the chatty Lebanese dialect – these dramas were genuinely sanguine, emphasised noble values and eschewed vulgarity.

Hence, by the time Psy's Gangnam Style arrived in 2012, the region was ready to be swept up by the international viral hit. It was also the song that finally got western audiences – and the American entertainment industry – in on the party. As a result, critics began a genuine appraisal of K-pop's musical sensibilities.

The colourful and vibrant music video (which has now amassed a staggering three billion hits on YouTube) may have propelled Gangnam Style to become a cultural juggernaut, but the track and its ilk, including 2012's Fantastic Baby by Big Bang and 2015's I Need U by BTS, are notable for their crisp, almost-clinical production. They blend modern and popular music styles such as hip-hop, dance and bubblegum pop.

Ironically, while the song helped unleash a new wave of appreciation for K-pop across the world, Gangnam Style's bitingly satirical lyrics hinted at the dark flip side of K-pop culture, which is powered by the relentless quest to achieve perfection in both the professional and personal lives of South Koreans.

According to Psy, such a world view results in the type of “girl who does not wear low-cut dresses, but looks so cute”. When it comes to the fellas, Psy says they “look gentle, but must be ready to play”. While the lyrics are witty, the pressure they allude to is heartbreakingly real.

The suicide of Kim Jong-hyun, the 27-year-old lead singer of SHINee who died in December (his parting note spoke of a depression that "slowly chipped me away"), and the death of Seo Min-woo from a suspected overdose last month shocked South Korean society and shed a spotlight on the gruelling entertainment industry. It is a world in which young singers experience intensive training (vocals, choreography and language) in addition to moving away from home to live with their band and facing pressure to change their physical appearance to conform via styling, plastic surgery or whatever it takes.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 21:  Relatives weep during the funeral of Jonghyun of SHINee at the hospital on December 21, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. The lead vocalist of the K-pop group was found dead, in what is believed to have been a suicide at his apartment on December 18.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Such factors have moved Maliangkay to publicly call for a union protecting the rights of K-pop singers. “They are young idols, who are 17 and 18 years old, and are going through an important phase of their lives, and they wonder how much they can keep this up because K-pop bands come and go.

“South Korean society can be very competitive. The pressures over having the perfect partner and with the rising cost of living, as well as a host of other things, can be extraordinarily stressful for young people. That’s why the best way I can describe the whole K-pop scene is as a pressure cooker.”

Whether it will pop remains to be seen.

SM Town is on Friday at Autism Rocks Arena, Dubai. Tickets are Dh375 at