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Will America ever idolize K-pop?
AUSTIN, Texas — Chung Ha is all angles and precision. Backed by four dancers, dressed in white to offset her black getup, she leads a tightly choreographed number and sings largely in Korean, except for peek-a-boos of English that pop up in the chorus. Some fans sing along to the song's lyrics, as they capture the 23-year-old and her dancers — undulating to the club beats of "Roller Coaster" — on their cellphones.
The star from Seoul is performing on a stage that belongs to "Austin City Limits," the longest-running American music show that, in its early years, showcased outlaw country music. Now, Chung Ha is one of several K-pop acts who traveled to perform here at this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, seeking a bigger fan base in the U.S. at a time when their genre of music is reaching new levels of visibility.
Chung Ha's performance of her big hit from last year — it has more than 46 million views on YouTube — is all literal. If you don't know that the song is exactly about, Chung Ha's fast-and-slow movements and propulsive vocals mimic the "emotional roller coaster" of romance, perhaps evoking an American pop star whose smash hit about punch-drunk love is almost as old as the 23-year-old K-pop artist.
In the U.S., pop music idols are primarily thought of as musical artists, said Suk-Young Kim, author of "K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance."
"K-pop doesn't stick to that rule," she said.
Under the tutelage of entertainment management companies, South Korean performers transform from "would-be idols" into "versatile, almost vaudevillian" stars, Kim said. They devote years to learning how to act, sing, dance on the level of professional breakdancers, craft a stylized persona, and build an ever-expanding social media following. As moonROK's Hannah Waitt explained in her thorough breakdown of K-pop history, the nine members of Girls' Generation trained for a combined 52 years at SM Entertainment, one of the three largest entertainment companies in South Korea. Chung Ha said releasing an all-English album is on her wish list. That way, she could reach more international fans.
But these stars are not solely singers, Kim said. They can do it all. Among American pop idols, "Justin Timberlake did really well as an actor, but that's kind of an exception to the rule," she added.
K-pop is a multi-billion dollar industry. It may not get much radio airplay in the U.S., but it asserts its dominance on YouTube, where views for music videos are a major measure of success. Legions of fans around the world have also helped propel K-pop outside South Korea's small music market, allowing the entertainment companies that scout and audition talent to crack into a much more lucrative foreign market — including the U.S.
Chung Ha was born in South Korea, but she lived in North Texas for about eight years as a child.
Between songs at her SXSW set, a fan shouted out, "Coppell loves you!"
The connection between the Dallas suburb and the K-pop artist was a revelation for the Texans in the crowd.
"Coppell? Oh! You're from Coppell!" Chung Ha said into her mic. "I used to live in Coppell! Oh my god, you're my hometown friend!"
Much has been made about K-pop's ascendance and whether it'll finally break through in the U.S., especially as K-pop boy band BTS breaks Billboard chart records, sells out U.S. tours and earns opportunities like to perform on "Saturday Night Live."
But the Coppell moment with Chung Ha also echoes a truth about K-pop: It's no stranger to audiences here.
K-pop's visibility in the U.S. began gaining traction in the mid-2000s. While there were acts a decade earlier who tried to gain a bigger U.S. audience, the five-member girl group Wonder Girls were the first K-pop group to appear on the Hot 100 Billboard chart with 2009's "Nobody." The song and the music video evoked the style and sounds of girl groups from the 1950s. Around 2007, when TV talk show host Wendy Williams described the group to her studio audience, who were maybe unfamiliar with the K-pop sensation, she noted how the group was opening for the Jonas Brothers, whose 2007 album eventually went platinum twice and reached no. 5 on the Billboard 200.
"So, this is a pretty big deal," she told the audience before the Wonder Girls performed the all-English version of the song.
Their songs were also hits on the then-nascent YouTube. By the time they performed on an American daytime talk show, "Nobody" was the third song in group's oeuvre that resonated with an online audience on the video platform, where it racked up millions of views. That's not an accident.
"What really caught fire was how K-pop, as a spectacular, visual genre, had such an appeal in YouTube," Suk-Young Kim said. "K-pop's history really merges with the development of media itself." With the ascension of YouTube, K-pop shifted into a new epoch in the mid-2000s, Suk-Young Kim said.
Since then, K-pop has appeared on the Billboard chart multiple times, including Psy's smash "Gangnam Style," with its 3.3 billion views, to date, for his comedic music video, which — then and now — is often dismissed as a novelty hit.
Last year, the boy band BTS became the first K-pop group to get a No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. They did it again months later with a "repackaged" version of their hit album. And at their sold-out shows, they're no longer just the opening act.
In recent years, K-pop music video concepts have gotten grander, the dancing sharper, helping K-pop stars distinguish themselves from boy and girl bands familiar to U.S. fans.
South Korean artists are also doing more live tours in the U.S., Suk-Young Kim said. BTS' latest U.S. tour this year hits major U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Chicago and right outside New York — but there are more concerts in smaller venues and cities too, like Austin, Kim said. This year BLACKPINK will be the first K-pop girl group to perform at the Coachella festival, and they're not relegated to the fine print on the music festival's official line-up announcement. Attendance at and festivities around KCON, an annual festival that bills itself as bringing "All Things Hallyu," or "The Korean Wave," to an American audience, continue to expand. When KCON first started in 2012 in Los Angeles, attendance was estimated to be around 20,000 people. Since then, KCON events also happen in New York, with attendance in both locations exceeding 147,000 last year.
The first SXSW showcase for K-pop first began in 2013, when it attracted a few hundred people. It's organized by the Korean Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), a promotional arm of the country's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, tasked with the goal of marketing its artists to other parts of the world.
The early years of the showcase featured groups like f(x) and Red Velvet, who have exploded in popularity and visibility in the years since. (A showcase fact sheet called it an "export accelerator" for K-pop.) This year, the showcase moved for the first time to the Moody Theater downtown, a live music venue that can hold around 2,700 people — an upgrade from the past. That night, however, the venue was about two-thirds full.
Yung Duk Kim, vice president and chief operating officer of KOCCA, told the PBS NewsHour through a translator that there's already a market for K-pop all over the world, with deep-seated footholds in China and Japan. The U.S., though, has some of the biggest potential for growth in promoting not only South Korea's K-pop stars, but other forms of music as well, he said.
The evolving question of what South Korean pop music sounds like is reflected in the showcase's name change, from "K-Pop Night Out" to "Korea Spotlight" in 2017, broadening the event's focus. The roster this year included Jambinai, a rock band that uses traditional Korean folk instruments in their music, experimental hip-hop duo XXX, and Kirara, who snuck in a snippet of ABBA's "Dancing Queen" in her big beat set.
Kim said the KOCCA is still trying to figure out what kind of artist is the best fit for the U.S. market. He added that he feels that "idols" — the modern term for Korean pop stars shaped by entertainment companies — are the most popular in the U.S., despite America's diverse musical tastes, and that those stars also have the most potential for building a large fan base.
"The mentality in K-pop is that stars are not born, they're made," no matter how talented the artists are, Suk-Young Kim said.
For this year's "Korean Spotlight," top billing belonged to the tried-and-true K-pop acts. Past midnight, K-pop boy band iKON took the stage in their first American appearance.
Many of the fans up front had handmade signs and red lights that donned the 7-member group's stylized logo. Elsewhere, a fan made a collage-like sign that read, "iKON in America." Another fan's sign said, "I waited for you."
Watching from the seats above ground level, one could appreciate iKON's precise choreography, like birds moving in unison into a V formation.
Bobby, one of iKON's members, often stayed out front. His jeans were ripped at the knees and wore a billowing red-and-black button-down that wasn't buttoned — allowing him to "float," despite rapid movements on stage. At one point, he led the crowd in a shout-and-call response.
"Say, hey iKON," he instructed.
"Hey, iKON!" the crowd shouted back, worshipping the icon.
To inoculate against the criticism of manufactured idols with predictable talent, K-pop management companies will frame a star as a "self-made, young genius artist who also happens to be beautiful," Suk-Young Kim said. The companies have come to understand that these self-made qualities are desirable to fans, she added.
The degree of intense training that many people call a "factory system," starts at a young age, around 10 to 12 years old. From there, aspiring artists train for years before they're ever presented to the public or earn a strong-enough fan following. A vastly smaller group of trainees are placed in a pop group or supported as a solo artist.
Some former idols have spoken out about the conditions of such rigorous training. In 2017, Prince Mak, one of the former five members of the group JJCC, posted a YouTube video about the "dark side" of K-pop, saying that "half famous" idol groups are forced to commit to so-called "slave contracts" — yearslong contracts with terms restricting things like dating and their diets, and mandate a round-the-clock training schedule.
In recent weeks, several male idols have been named in a widening investigation into sex crimes, including Seungri of the group Big Bang, who was arrested by South Korea police on suspicion of brokering prostitution services for businessmen.
It remains to be seen how much of BTS' success will elevate the K-pop industry as a whole. But Yung Duk Kim said interest for K-pop has indeed "skyrocketed" after BTS, helping to create more jobs around building and supporting these idols. Yung Duk Kim also hopes this means more doors will open for other artists, those not necessarily interested in the factory-made trajectory for K-pop.
Outside the Moody Theater, near the bronze Willie Nelson statue, is an iKON advertisement with the names of all seven members in the group — Bobby, B.I, Chan, DK, Jay, Ju-ne, Song — next to their floating heads.
I think back to the way the group opened their set. B.I stands on stage as the rest of his fellow group members lie down, face-up, on stage in a circle around him. B.I stomps every time a beat pours through the speakers. At the same time, the rest of the group jerks upward, as if being temporarily awoken from a slumber, a perfectly timed resurrection orchestrated by B.I, wearing a jean jacket.
I decide then and there that B.I is my "bias" in iKON.