Post-"Gangnam Style," America wakes up to K-pop

Factory Girls,” a [paywalled] New Yorker piece this month by John Seabrook, explores the rise of the two billion-dollar Korean pop music industry and "its fraught entry into the Western music market" despite the YouTube-driven viral success of PSY's "Gangnam Style.”

Typical K-pop “is an East-West mash-up,” writes Seabrook. “The performers are mostly Korean, and their mesmerizing synchronized dance moves, accompanied by a complex telegraphy of winks and hand gestures, have an Asian flavor to them, but the music sounds Western: hip-hop verses, Euro-pop choruses, rapping, and dubstep breaks.”

My brother Carl Hamm, a club and radio DJ who regularly spins K-Pop nights (including one this Friday night in Richmond, VA), says, "This is one of an endless stream of articles I have read that sort of 'warns' of a pending K-Pop invasion. But the fact is, it's already happened. Not just PSY, but groups like EXO (which they mention), BIG BANG, SNSD/Girls Generation, SHinee, and 2NE1. All are well on their way to being huge over here among young American kids. And yes, the whole thing about manufactured, assembly-line personas of the artists is, for the most part, true. But despite the much-rumored dark side of this business, many of them really are gifted performers who have worked hard to reach where they are, love their fans, and enjoy what they do." "Incidentally, Big Bang are playing 2 dates in Los Angeles and one in New Jersey this November," Carl adds. "Tickets sold out in less than 4 hours! And 2ne1 also recently played to huge crowds in the US last month. See here and here."


  1. I watched those videos with a certain amount of interest but an increasing level of deja vu – they basically look and sound exactly the same as all the boy/girl bands from about a decade or so ago but with the added horror of the Autotune effect.

    1. I hate to sound old myself, but it’s getting harder and harder to not find a band or artist that couldn’t have been from 20 or 30 years ago.  If you put on early Madonna and Lady Gaga they’re pretty much going to sound the same.  One Direction and NKOTB/BSB.

      It feels like we’ve been stuck in a pop music cycle for 30 years now in a way that stuff that was top of the charts in the 60’s sounded very different from things in the 1990’s.  But, I could be very wrong about that and Sugar, Sugar was always just like Blame It On the Rain and I never really listened to it enough…

      As a side note, we’ve had autotune for over a decade.  It all started with Cher’s Believe back in 1998 (beaten to the top of the charts that year by My Heart Will Go On, it was pain for all of us).

      1. As an “old” myself, I’m totally digging the non-ironic old-school freak/goth friendly mainstream music that the kids are listening to these days! Makes my heart sing! My bf who is not an old-school freak/goth has to ask occasionally “is this old or new”, loving it! (Also, fashion this year has been totally retro and I’m loving it!)

      2. I hate to sound old myself, but it’s getting harder and harder to not find a band or artist that couldn’t have been from 20 or 30 years ago.

        Remakes have dominated the film industry for several decades. Car designs are changing at a slower rate. Clothing is either unchanged or 60s / 70s / 80s retro. Industry perceives change as costly. And entertainment is industry, not art.

        1. Oh, don’t get me started on the film industry.  Where is the Star Wars of today’s generation?  Don’t they have their own Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Will they ever get something that isn’t a III or IV?  And why can’t we stop making terrible movies of moderately okay television shows?

    2. The boy/girl bands of the nineties wish they had the fan base of KPop super groups like Girl’s Generation or Super Junior. I just find them so much more appealing than any wester boy/girl bands, they’re just more fun.

      1. I was going to say something similar… the Asian manufactured pop groups are somehow a lot more tolerable to me than the American (or English) ones. They often are, as you say, more fun and besides the music being catchier and the videos more interesting, it’s also because they don’t take themselves seriously and they don’t sing lyrics that teenagers clearly didn’t write (the lyrics are just as meticulously crafted by adults, but they don’t get into the complex emotional stuff western boy and girl bands so strangely get into all the time). 

        It’s top-notch production values without manufactured drama – it’s pure pop sugary nonsense, 60’s style. Hard not to like it at least a little bit, though I will say that just as in the 60’s it’s rare to hear something truly new and imaginative and not simply a copy of whatever hit single came out the week before.

        p.s. I forgot to say I live near K-Town in Orange County and had a girlfriend who lived nearby (she is Vietnamese and lives in Little Saigon, adjacent to K-Town). We’d go there pretty frequently because they have some of the better food & drink establishments around this part of Orange County. It’s not like I’m fully immersed in it or anything, but K-Pop and other Korean stuff seems so normal to me it didn’t feel at all strange when Gangnam Style got so popular (at least at first). It’s fun to become familiarized with other cultures and IMO it’s overdue that Americans at large are doing this.

        And speaking of Korean pop culture, the past two decades have seen a heck of a lot of amazingly excellent films come out of South Korea. It’s easily the most interesting Asian country in terms of film in recent years.

  2. So…what’s the difference between K-pop and J-pop; other than the obvious.  Is there really that much difference between a Korean idol band and Japanese idol band?  J-pop has had decades to worm it’s way into the American consciousness, but you still never hear it on the radio; satellite radio maybe?  The point is even if you hear K-pop in the clubs, if you never hear it on the radio, is it really all that big?  

    1. jpop is different – i dont know how to explain it, but it’s different.. maybe the “attitude” of the artists – or the production of the music (maybe less hip hop r&b driven? ) speaking of radio, i play kpop on my radio show… but we’re independent/non commercial (wrir -richmond va)..   commercial radio doesnt necessarily represent what people (especially younger folks) actually like/want to hear  these days – judging from the crowds at these kpop parties we do here, alot of american (not just korean) kids already know this kpop stuff by heart – i was amazed to see so many of them singing along to the korean lyrics

      1. The bluntest and most stereotyped response I have re K-Pop vs J-Pop is that I personally find the latter very “squeaky” (from female performers, natch), and somewhat 90s in its approach. K-Pop feels more modern, and the female singers tend to have more range and power in their voices.  IMHO.

    2.  JPOP is to my ear more house/dance influenced these days. lots of heavy
      drum machine and really annoying synth work.   K-Pop has much more
      hiphop influence.  Compare any of the stuff above to… oh… just about
      anything serving as an anime opening these days. 

      I pine for the “good old days” of the mid-late 90s & early 2000s when Megumi Hayashibara and Maaya Sakamoto were popular, myself.

      1. Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru are also big Jpop artists from the limited knowledge i have of that genre. They had huge international sales also btw. as for some more eccentric Jpop faves… Perfume is also a fun, different, and very listenable JPOP group – – they are produced by Yasutaka Nakata, the same guy who did tracks for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu who is also doing some crazy Jpop stuff these days (see Pon Pon Pon - – )

        – and don’t forget the zany trippy likes of Tomoe Shinohara – –

    3.  Jpop is very different. In terms of idol groups specifically, what I’ve found is that Japan prefers the “fresh”, energetic, unpolished idol. The girls are cute and upbeat, but not necessarily good singers (some are really just plain awful – see Morning Musume.’s Michishige Sayumi) and the dances tend to be simplistic. Training is not emphasized and some idol girls debut within months of being chosen.

      K-pop idols are generally in intensive training programs for years before they are allowed to take the stage. They usually show a more sleek image and and singing and dance routines are more complex and demanding. Also as others have mentioned, there is a much more recognizable western hip-hop influence.

      Of course it goes without saying that none of what I wrote is universally true. There are huge differences on both sides. And actually, the Japanese music industry is the second biggest in the world behind the USA, and the Hallyu (“Korean Wave”) took them by storm years ago. Now we are starting to see both pushback and integration. In addition to the many k-groups already active in Japan (everyone in this post except EXO-M has released at least one Japanese single) some newly debuted Japanese groups have an obvious k-pop influence. On the other hand, people were protesting against major tv network Fuji TV  earlier this year for airing too much Korea-centric programming and it has just been announced that Korean artists are banned from Kouhaku Utagassen this year, which is Japan’s biggest and most celebrated annual end of the year music program.

  3. I agree that these are more tolerable than their American counterparts. Not sure why. Perhaps because, in the end, all that matters is sound candy and not whether you “get” the music.

    1.  We may also see fewer intense ballads from our K-Pop counterparts.  If so, I welcome them with open arms.

    2. Others have pointed out that the Western market focuses more on individual expression, with singer/songwriters and so forth trying to put the whole concept together on their own, while K-pop is more unabashedly commodified.  The individualists necessarily have a higher failure rate than the talent factories.

      1.  I dont really mind the music. Not a big fan of pop music at all. But its still fun to watch those kpop groups. Despite being factoried the whole industry thing is much more authentic. Kpop Idols dont consider themselve as artist, they are performers. They dont do art, they just do entertainment. Its not like western pop music where most stuff has become so serious but is still stupid beyond believe. Kpop Idols are not considered to be individuals on stage, but when they do interviews, talk shows or game shows, they are all able to show their different characters. While western pop musicians are mostly talking the same dumb crap, once they open their mouth offstage.
        Western pop is a huge fake and they cant even admit it, while in Korea everyone knows it is fake, from the very beginning. I think this is why many Pophaters are more tolerant towards Kpop.

  4. Boing Boing actually introduced me to KPop a few years ago whent hey posted about 2NE1. I’ve been hooked ever since, although most KPop groups aren’t anywhere near as appealing to Western sensibilities as 2NE1, there are a few, and certainly individual songs from some of the other groups sound great. I’m also a fan of f(x) (younger ‘sister’ group to the KPop giants Girls’ Generation).

    btw – The redhead in PSY’s Gangnam Style video is Hyuna – a major KPop idol in a group called 4Minute.

      1.  Yeah, I saw GLAM’s first video – pretty good, though not quite in line with f(x) enough for me to be a huge fan. It’s just their first single, though, so we’ll see what else they come out with. Very surprising lyrics considering they’re from S. Korea. D-Unit is another new group that I like so far, and Hello Venus is made up of some very likeable girls (watch their Birth of Venus show online some time; all five episodes are now available subtitled if you don’t know Korean). If you like rappers, you should check out e.via; she’s got some great material, and is called South Korean’s fastest female rapper. There’s a new group called AoA which actually has members who play instruments, which is pretty nice to see.

      1. Because I’m still an open-minded and musically-adventurous old fart, I googled “italo disco” and watched six videos.

        You’re dead wrong. Disco does indeed still suck, harder than ever, and you owe me half an hour of my life back. I have a possible solution, though. PM me for details.

        1. I couldn’t resist and it was much worse than I had imagined. I broke out into hysterics it was so lovably terrible.

  5. The original trot / K-pop crossover artist, E-paksa, is also back with a new single. He originated the techno-ponchak style back in the ’90’s and even had some success in Japan about a decade ago. People outside of Korea mainly know him from the Pump It Up video games. Hopefully he will get greater traction in the US on Psy’s coattails.

  6. One of these days K-Pop is going to smash headlong into UK Funky/UK Bass/Future Garage. In somewhere like a club in Kazakhstan.

  7. I don’t think Gangnam Style’s success is reason enough to hail Kpop as the next major American invasion. While it has many of the same elements that made Brit-pop and the British Invasion of the 90s so successful, Kpop handles them in very different ways.

    The fact of the matter is that while some contemporary mainstream Kpop is very good, there’s too much to sift through that isn’t (speaking as an objective Korean music review blogger) and the idol-saturated market doesn’t provide enough legitimate talent to carry the Hallyu Wave that far West. All of the fans that Kpop has in the West are already established Kpop and Korean Indie enthusiasts, while Gangnam Style was primarily a way for most people to enjoy a “funny Asian stereotype” without actually appreciating what the song delivered.

    It still seems to me that fans of American pop music, and the American pop music industry in general, isn’t ready to take Asian performers–even ones as satirical in their efforts as Psy–seriously enough to really get invested. The thing about Kpop is that its not just an industry, its an investment, and the dominating American mindset re: Kpop will likely be that nobody has time to remember names they can’t pronounce for groups with members close to or in the double digits. The images and style choices are appropriate for Korean markets, but most Kpop groups would have to sell out and change much of their image to succeed in the west because of shallow thought.

    For as much as I would LOVE Kpop to succeed in the North American music market, it won’t happen until interests shift toward taking Kpop seriously enough that it can still retain what makes it fun, but also be regarded as legitimate music and not “those hilarious bands from Korea”.

  8. I think, for me, it’s that I like the music and cadence and ‘vibe’ but I have no idea what they’re saying (mostly).  Any of today’s English speaking/singing pop-similar music bugs me because the lyrics are soooo dumb.
    I’m pretty sure that’s why I like the non-English stuff more often.  If I understood their dumb lyrics I might be turned off.

  9. I seem to be unable to escape the K-Pop gravity well (help!) – was up till 4 this morning following links after the literal Gangnam style post:, 

    which led to the Gangnam featuring HyunaA, which led to her “Bubble Pop”, and then this practice session: 

    Sorta reminds me of Tae Kwon do – the moves are so sharp – and so I just searched for “tae kwon do dance” on youtube and found this: amongst others

    If dance could kill – I would die happy

  10. I thought I had seen it all. Learned Japanese since I was like 8, near 30 now, lived in Japan for a few years, the whole bit.

    Then I saw PSY. I found a whole new world of music outside metal, J-pop, and everything in between. I thought I hated pop music until I heard this (and yes, I hate J-Pop! Malice Mizer is more my style..)

    This post did it for me. I speak English, and Japanese, but not Korean. I work with a young Korean watchmaker, and he turned me onto PSY. Now Xeni got me turned onto K-pop permanently! It’s dancable, catchy, I don’t have to deal with repetitive lyrics of love that I can’t stand (or at least, if they are there, understand), and I get incredibly incredibly hot korean women to look at in incredibly entertaining videos. I get cool style ideas from the men. I can’t find one thing to hate about it!

    And to think, if I’d been left without the internets, i’d probably still be listening to shitty Metallica, and not much else. Fuck the DMCA and all that crap- this is what the internet was MADE for. Exposing people to new things and cultures! You kick ass for posting this Xeni.

  11. I’m going to be “that guy”. J-pop, K-pop and anything else pop related is just awful. There is actual good music being made in these countries, only to be drowned out by the plastic sheen and sexy women of pop. I cannot speak for Korea but if you were to express an interest in J-pop to switched-on Japanese youth they would seriously laugh at you because J-pop is for high-school kids and OLs.

    1. yes, the underground stuff is definitely awesome… look at the 80/90s Japanese bands like Hikashu, and singer Jun Togawa, or the Boredoms, the Plastics, Fushitsusha, Zenigeva, etc.. or Japanese hip hop artists like Macka Chin and Twigy and Rhymester… ( that stuff is kinda old school now of course.. i’m way behind on the latest Japanese music – but who isn’t? there is so much music being made over there )  

      Still, American tastes are diversifying thanks to independent media/radio/youtube and sites like this…. and Americans might also get a hold of whatever those new, modern “switched on” Japanese youth are listening to now too.  one can only hope those records will make it over here eventually. 

      Not ALL Jpop and Kpop is awful though… but that’s just my personal opinion

  12. Sorry but K-pop will remain just as fringe as J-pop and pretty much every other non-American music.  It’s even extremely hard for British pop to make its way over here, and that’s even the same language.  While American movies and music might have a big influence in other countries, the opposite has never really been true.  Occasionally a song from somewhere else will start showing up on the radio and elsewhere, but most of the time when that happens it’s at least still in English.  Very rarely does a non-English song become popular here, with exceptions being something like 99 Luftballoons, and even never really surpassing American songs in terms of popularity.  Gangnam Style is mostly just a fad, one which the majority of Americans still have never heard of, and in a couple of months it’ll be gone.

    So as much as I might like certain music from various other countries, we’re never going to hear that kind of stuff on the radio here.  Especially since most of it over there is equally autotuned and synthesized, if not more so, than what we’ve already got over here a dime a dozen.  The American recording industry makes way too much money pumping out our own generic musicians to let other countries butt in on it.

  13. i am a little embarassed that i read this thread half an hour ago, and in that time have watched 4 2NE1 videos, a couple of them twice. shit is well done for what it is though. production is awesome. and shit, any video with gorgeous korean girls and stormtroopers? sign me up.

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