Special K - idols unlimited
One of the fastest-growing music genres in the world will take over the world's biggest casino next weekend when the Venetian Macao hosts what is being dubbed 'Macau's first Korean music festival'. The bill features about 30 famous faces from the massive K-pop industry, who come together to form four boy bands, one girl band and a solo act.
This showcase of Korean pop music in the global gambling capital follows Sunday's concert by the nine-member girl band Girls' Generation in Hong Kong, an 'Invasion of K-Pop' show at London's O2 Academy Brixton last month, a 'K-Pop Masters Day' at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in November, and another sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City the month before.
Much like the chiselled physiques of the male performers and the slim waists of their female counterparts, these shows are something of a construct - all part of an intricate system meticulously designed to push South Korean pop music, widely known as K-pop, onto the world.
The popularity of South Korean pop culture in other parts of the world is nothing new. In the early 2000s, mainland journalists were so baffled by the local obsession with South Korean television shows such as Winter Sonata and singers from that country that they dubbed the phenomenon the 'Korean wave'.
The term has been widely used by Western and Eastern media since then. But K-pop - the genre that practically dominates the entire South Korean mainstream music industry - has amassed such a global following that it has outgrown the general term and become a phenomenon in itself.
K-pop is characterised by fluffy, hook-heavy songs that are either hip-hop-influenced dance music or sappy piano ballads, and almost none of the stars write their own music. In a sense, K-pop is not unlike Hong Kong's own Canto-pop, only it is reaching a much wider audience and a level of fame that most Canto-poppers can only dream of.
In November, K-pop boy band Big Bang surprised many when they trumped Britney Spears in the award for best worldwide act at the MTV European Music Awards. Also that month, US producer and Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am announced he was recording an album with South Korean girl band 2NE1. And earlier last year, veteran K-pop superstar Rain (Jung Ji-hoon) was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most-influential people - for the third time.
So why is K-pop achieving a level of worldwide fame denied to other Asian pop scenes? The educated guess - according to Professor Lee Dong-yeon, who teaches cultural theory at the Korean National University of the Arts and has written a book on the industry - is that South Korea's relatively small music market results in telecom companies controlling a large proportion of revenues, meaning they have extra incentive to look abroad for profits.
'The K-pop industry reflects cause and effect,' Lee says. 'Major Korean popular music productions have high production values and require huge investments. It cannot survive alone on regional profits. It must expand outside the country to sustain itself.'
Lee believes that K-pop's international popularity can be traced to a concentrated effort to expand and export. For example, many K-pop bands record both Korean and Japanese versions of the same song, signifying a willingness to adapt to other cultures to widen their appeal.
But there are other popular opinions on why K-pop holds more appeal than, say, Canto-pop.
'K-pop idols are just flat-out sexier and hotter,' says Vivian Lam Pui-sze, a member of the Girls' Generation fan club based in Hong Kong. 'And I'm talking about both sexes. [K-pop's] men are much better built physically, and the women have so many more curves than the Hong Kong starlets.'
There's a correlation between these two theories. Part of the 'huge investments' Lee mentioned refers to the record labels' factory-like system of grooming and training stars in areas not always related to music. 'The major companies - such as JYP, SM and YG - are record labels, and entertainment and management companies all in one,' says Lee. 'They have this system most of us call the 'idol farm system'.'
Lee explains that this system trains stars for three to five years. Besides working on music-related skills, they're taught foreign languages (usually English and Japanese) and are put on strict body-shaping regimes and - in some cases - undergo plastic surgery.
A 2009 report on the industry by Korean-American Edward Chun for MTV Iggy - a US division of the music giant that focuses on foreign music - revealed that pop idol trainees often follow an arduous daily schedule that includes two hours of exercise, four hours of dance and choreography classes, two hours of vocal training, followed by three hours of language studies.
While talent agencies in other parts of the world, including the US and Hong Kong, also groom and manufacture stars to a degree, few industries are as full-on and open about it as the K-pop machine. Every year, the 'big three' companies - JYP, SM and YG - hold auditions for potential K-pop stars, and Lee says up to 50,000 teens turn up each time. SM Entertainment - the label behind major stars such as BoA, Girls' Generation and Shinhwa - has a dedicated idol training school named the SM Academy.
But the work isn't done when an idol 'graduates' and becomes a star. According to Frances Cha, a Seoul-based journalist who's written on the industry, K-pop stars are constantly coached on how to act in public, and are contractually required to remain, or at least appear to be, single. 'When Jonghyun, a member of boy band Shinee, was revealed by a newspaper [last year] to have a girlfriend, the backlash was immediate and vicious,' she recalls.
It is all part of a system, Lee says. 'With the way K-pop has become South Korea's chief export, the machinations will only become more intense.'
Fans of K-pop seem to be equally systematic. Cha says K-pop fan clubs often pass out business cards at multi-bill concerts, with hopes of recruiting fans who have yet to form allegiances. 'K-pop fandom reaches heights seldom attained by other genres,' she says.
Simon Stawski, a Canadian living in South Korea, echoes this sentiment, pointing out that SM Entertainment's newest boy band, EXO, already have a fan club - and they haven't released a single track. 'All we've had in Seoul about EXO is a few teaser videos of them dancing and flaunting their cute faces,' says Stawski, who, along with wife Martina, moved to South Korea to teach. They have since become full-time bloggers on Korean culture.
While music critics and indie rock fans worldwide have a tendency to dismiss manufactured pop music - Canto-pop may be omnipresent in Hong Kong, but it's also a source of mockery among many locals - K-pop seems to be mostly immune to criticism.
'I don't think K-pop ever tried to be anything other than highly enjoyable entertainment that's easy on the ears and the eyes,' says Stawski. 'Yes, these artists didn't get together as teens in their dads' garages to play guitars, but I don't believe that makes them any less worthy as musicians.'
K-pop and its stars have long enjoyed widespread popularity in areas such as Hong Kong and Japan, but the phenomenon has spread to other countries, such as the Philippines, during the past few years.
Jose Wendell Capili, a professor of creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines and a scholar with a range of degrees from universities in Britain, Japan and Australia, also defends the legitimacy of K-pop.
'Critics may say K-pop stars are manufactured or they're all based on looks, but those accusations have been thrown at some of the greatest figures in pop music, from Elvis Presley to The Beatles,' says Capili, whose long-standing interest prompted him to research the industry. 'Looks can only do so much; the stars who've been around for a while are talented and skilled at what they do.'
Interestingly, Capili believes the emergence of the wave - and by extension, K-pop - can be traced to South Korea's economic collapse in 1998. 'The government looked to music and TV dramas to promote South Korea and boost tourism and exports,' he says. 'As the country's economy went up, they put more resources into promoting their cultural products worldwide.'
Capili says K-pop has a small following in the Philippines, mostly concentrated in urban areas due to the hip-hop-driven music's resonance with those living in poverty. 'I think Korean pop is going to be around a long time, and should be very popular in Asia,' he adds.
In Hong Kong, K-pop is seen as an edgier, sexier and hipper alternative to local pop music. 'I think for many Hongkongers, the eye-candy element is a significant element of its appeal,' says Cyrus Lo Sai-man, online editor at TVB.com. 'It's almost always the first thing mentioned about K-pop stars - how hot the guys and girls are.'
This Sunday's concert in Macau - featuring female super group Miss A, male super groups ZE:A, Infinite and U-KISS, hot newcomers B1A4 and Kim Myung-jun from SS501 - promises to be full of precision choreography and flawless vocals. After all, it's all part of the system. While officials at the Venetian Macao declined to provide figures, they say previous K-pop related events, such as Rain's concerts in 2009 and 2010 and the Mnet Asian Music Awards, were huge successes.
'Korean culture has undeniably penetrated the young consumer market in Asia,' says Venetian spokeswoman Evelyn Lau, adding with obvious understatement: 'We're looking to host more K-pop concerts.'
K-Music 2012 Youth's Ambition Concert, featuring Miss A, ZE:A, Infinite, U-KISS, B1A4 and Kim Myung-jun, Jan 28, Sat, 8pm, CotaiArena, Venetian Macao casino, Cotai Strip, Macau, HK$380-HK$1,280, HK Ticketing, Tom Lee. Inquiries: 3128 8288