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More Than Psy: A K-Pop Primer

Posted by on May 20, 2013 at 9:41 am
Jessica and Krystal Jung

Jessica and Krystal Jung

“Oppan Gangnam style!” Ugh. Those words are enough to make me want to vomit. Being a very casual K-pop and J-pop fan for more than a few years, 2012 brought out the rabid fangirl in me when I (re)discovered SHINee. Months later, Psy would become world-famous and dreaded by K-pop fans around the globe. To some, this was their first exposure to Korean pop music. To others, it was just another song. To those of us already deeply entrenched, it became an annoying, dreadful hit. You see, it’s not easy to be a fan and have the whole genre judged by a gimmicky song and a ludicrous dance. It’s like someone deciding never to watch the original Star Wars because they started with The Phantom Menace. There’s a lot of great K-pop out there, but warned: the road to K-pop addiction is a long and lonely road, wrought with frustration, sleepless nights, heartbreak and anticipation.

How does one become a K-pop Idol? For some, it’s just being at the right place at the right time. Jessica and Krystal Jung are Korean-Americans who were visiting family in Korea in 2000 when an SM Entertainment scout saw them on the street and asked them to join the company. Jessica would go on to be a trainee for seven years before debuting as a member of Girls’ Generation. Her sister was only five at the time and didn’t enter the company for another six years, debuting with the group f(x) in 2009. Others must attend tryouts for the chance to be a trainee, such as Amber from f(x). Amber is a Taiwanese-American who tried out in California during a global audition and won. She was fortunate enough to only trained for a year and a half before debuting. Some will train for years and never get to debut. They may never do so much as a commercial or modeling job, opting to go to university while men might go to fulfill their obligatory service to the Korean military. For them, they just didn’t have that special something that a K-pop company looks for in an Idol, even after all of their effort.

AA (double A): Hoik, WooSang, Aoora, Kimchi, Joowon.

AA (Double A): Hoik, WooSang, Aoora, Kimchi, Joowon.

K-pop Idol groups are collectives of singers, performers and models, sharing the same general structure: a leader (usually the eldest), a main dancer, the visual (meaning the prettiest), a rapper, the lead vocal and the maknae (the youngest). Sometimes, one person is many of these roles while others may have a member that is just simply listed as “sub-vocals.” To further confuse fans, the leader might not be the eldest at all, but simply the person who had the best leadership qualities. Sometimes, the maknae is the cutest one instead. AA (Double A) is a group that exercises both these exceptions: Aoora is the eldest and founder, but gave the reins to Woosang since he tends to keep everyone focused. Hoik is the youngest, but since Kimchi is the super-adorable one, everyone decided to name him as the official maknae. When someone gets into K-pop culture, these things become second nature.

K-pop albums are produced and released differently than in the West. Where US bands might take a couple years to release an album, it’s pretty common for a single K-pop group to have several “comebacks” in a year. A comeback is simply a new album, mini-album/EP or single. For example, SHINee had a Korean album come out in February. A few weeks later they had a Japanese comeback with the single “Fire.” In April, the second part of their Korean album came out, then just last week, it was announced that their second full-length Japanese album will be released in June. But that’s not all. Many albums get “repackaged” or re-released and feature new photos, artwork and songs while the band makes another publicity round. Many SHINee fans are still hoping for a Korean repackage by the end of the year, which would bring them to five comebacks in 2013.

Unfortunately, comebacks aren’t an exact science. EXO debuted in 2012 and while their first comeback was recently announced, fans anticipate a longer wait still.

SHINee: Onew, Jonghyun, Taemin, Minho, Key.

SHINee: Onew, Jonghyun, Taemin, Minho, Key.

One interesting facet of K-pop is that there are sub-units or sub-groups within a single group or within many. Three members of Girls Generation (aka SNSD) formed a sub-unit called TaeTiSeo, the name taken from the three members’ names: Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. A successful album was released and hints of other sub-units have been dropped from SM Entertainment. On the other hand, SM released a somewhat stranger sub-unit among several groups: Minho and Taemin from SHINee, Kai and Lay from EXO, Donghae and Eunhyuk from Super Junior and U-Know from TVXQ. This was created for one performance, for one song, for one night. Only one digital single was released and no other plans for a follow up has been mentioned. Possibly the strangest, but most genius thing that SM has done with one of these “sub groups” is EXO. EXO is a group that consists of twelve members, but is split into two groups: EXO-M and EXO-K, their own sub-units. They both do the same music and choreography, but EXO-M promotes mostly in China while EXO-K promotes mostly in Korea. They do come together occasionally to perform and consider themselves one group.

K-pop is a horse of another color altogether. Although Psy might have introduced a lot of people to it recently, most don’t understand its tropes and can’t fully embrace it. There are so many differences and nuances within the genre that make it interesting and endearing to Korean and international fans alike. The ways that groups are formed is very different from anything done in the West. The fandoms to these Idol groups are wildly loyal, creating a familial following, bringing people from all cultures together for one purpose: the music.

Isn’t that the magic music holds?

Jeannette is a K-pop enthusiast and loves her SHINee.

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