Engineering Success: The Story Of South Korea’s K-Pop

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Source: Giphy

In case you had forgotten about Gangnam Style, allow us to remind you of it. The song went viral in the United States in 2012, but in truth Psy’s tune was just one of many carefully engineered Korean Pop — or K-pop — mega hits.

Not unlike pop music in the West, K-pop has an aesthetic, a formula and a flavor. The difference is that in South Korea, almost all of these young music moguls are managed by the same label–and from a very early age. As with the country’s design standards for other exports, even their pop music demands perfection.

A Brief History Of K-Pop

K-pop as we know it today got its start in the ’90s, but it only came to its presently recognizable form after decades of cultural blending. Western culture, which arrived in earnest in the 1950s, largely shaped K-pop. Though there had been an American and European presence in Korea since at least the 1880s, it wasn’t until the Korean War that American stars arrived to perform for troops–and brought the style and flair of American pop culture along for the ride.

USO performances featuring glamorous figures like Marilyn Monroe took the war-torn nation by storm. South Korea in particular embraced these Western stylings and integrated them into their music scene throughout the next decades, starting with “girl groups” similar to The Ronettes or The Andrews Sisters.

SK Monroe

Marilyn Monroe visits Korea in 1954. Source: Korean History

It wasn’t until the early ‘90s, when rap and techno entered the scene, that contemporary K-pop really took off. By the end of the decade, the genre dominated the music scene. Today, K-pop is no longer just a musical genre; it’s an entire teenage subculture.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.
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