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Crazy for K-pop: western world rides the Korean wave

In June this year, 14,000 fans attended a concert in Paris – a successful show in anyone’s book, made even more remarkable when you consider the face that none of the headlining acts have ever released an album in France. The line-up included artists such as Super Junior, TVXQ and SNSD. Never heard of them? You soon might; they are superstars in the electro-infused, hugely popular genre of music known as K-Pop, which is taking the western world by storm.

But why?

Like pop stars the world over, these young performers are attractive, talented, charismatic – and most importantly, produced to the hilt. It is impossible not to be entertained and slightly hypnotised by the razor-sharp styling and flawlessly polished performances, and it doesn’t hurt that K-Pop is geared towards an international audience, with song titles and a large portion of the lyrics written in English.

Infectious and accessible, this hip hop influenced genre is in many ways no different to the dancefloor-friendly fare that is regularly churned out by Western artists like Nicki Minaj. What does differentiate K-Pop from its European and American equivalents is the age-appropriate content.

While Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” proved this year that bubblegum pop is alive and well, the US and UK music charts are still largely dominated by dance and rap music with provocative lyrics, and suggestive music videos to match. K-Pop provides a stark contrast; the acts are styled to be heartthrobs, yes, but their image always steers well clear of gratuitousness.

Something else that sets K-Pop apart is its complete (and refreshing) transparency; there is no pretence that this is anything other than an industry that manufactures a product for the masses. We are all used to seeing young hopefuls work hard to attain their dreams in shows like The X Factor, but K-Pop youngsters undergo years of coaching in specialist academies. Take, for instance, K-Pop girl group 2NE1. The four-piece were first mentioned in late 2005, but they were not unveiled until 2009. The band members spent four years in training before releasing their debut single, “Lollipop”, a collaboration with all male band Big Bang.

Popular music isn’t Korea’s first cultural export. Thanks to the effect known as “Hallyu” (commonly translated as the “Korean Wave”), the West developed something of a jones for Korean cinema in the early Noughties. Two prime examples of K-Movies that have made it big in Europe and the United States are the psychological thriller A Tale Of Two Sisters, which was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited, and the ultraviolent revenge story Oldboy, which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival (and is also facing an imminent remake at the hands of Spike Lee).

There is a debate to be had over whether the Korean Wave is a genuine trend or simply the result of orientalism in Western culture. Japan has experienced similar popularity since the late Nineties; Haruki Murakami’s latest novel 1Q84 was eagerly awaited by literature lovers in the English-speaking world this year, and the J-Horror genre of cinema has offered a veritable well of source material for Hollywood remakes. So as K-Pop goes from strength to strength, it is worth pondering: which country will be behind the next international craze?

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