What makes a perfect K-pop song

“Why K-Pop is more perfect pop” is taken from MUSIKEXPRESS ISSUE 09/20. Cover story: Helge Schneider. In addition: reports and stories about Bright Eyes, Sophie Hunger and much more, and a detailed assessment of the future of concerts and festivals in Corona times. In stores from Thursday, August 13th.

K-pop is conquering the world. Or better said: K-Pop has long since conquered the world. But most of the media in this country, be it feature sections, Pro7 or, yes, the Musikexpress, still treat this huge, hypermodern wave from South Korea like a temporary quirk of particularly behavioral teenagers. High time to take a closer look at the phenomenon.

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When the world's most successful boy band of today, BTS, played two concerts in Berlin's largest multi-purpose arena in October 2018, tickets were sold out within minutes, and the first fans were spotted on the premises two days earlier. However, if you asked fellow journalists about this event, the answer was usually just a confused: “BT-who?”.

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When most people hear the term K-Pop, the first thing that comes to mind is PSY's “Gangnam Style” - the first music video on YouTube that broke the one billion stream line. He is eight years old, but you can still use the clip for an exciting classification: "Gangnam Style" still generates more than a million clicks a day, but BTS is gaining around ten times as much with its video channels every day. With music and dance videos, videologs and live streams (at least one new clip a week!) They keep their fans, who call themselves “Army”.

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Despite these considerable numbers, K-Pop is still often grossly neglected in the local media world or treated with a mixture of ignorance and arrogance, in moderately researched and, last but not least, latently racist articles. The music itself, the garish videos, the crazy dance choreographies, the professionalism of the staging, the wild fashion - all of this is often denied its artistic or pop-cultural relevance, as it is the product of an industry that is as cool as it is tough.

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This objection may be justified, but it is worthwhile to find out more about the genre, its background and its history. In addition, one can ask oneself whether pop music, which makes no secret of being an entertainment product, is perhaps even more honest than the supposedly authentic behavior of western stadium pop acts. And finally, this storm of colors and sounds is simply a lot of fun!


Korean pop music is quite a challenge when it comes to first contact. The singing is predominantly in Korean, with English cues that sometimes seem a bit generic because they call up the standard pop vocabulary of love, fighting and winning. The crazy tempo and harmony changes, on the other hand, seem downright breakneck: a song that began in a rapturous ambient can tip over into the “Judgment Night” crossover in its first rap part, from there for four bars with wide open arms through the boy band Schmalz der 90s wading and then popping us in the ultracatchy pop chorus until the EDM basses fart. You have to be able to get involved with it - but once you've done that, Western pop will soon find it a bit boring.

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However, the big players have long been working on lower-threshold music offers to the western world. Acts like Blackpink and BTS, currently the most successful K-Pop exports, have long been working with renowned songwriters from the USA and Europe. Big names like Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Charli XCX, Skrillex and Carly Rae Jepsen are in the credits of the K-Pop hits of recent years. Conversely, US pop stars are trying to win over the K-pop fan masses with collaborations. Lady Gaga invited Blackpink to her latest album, Becky G rapped with J-Hope from BTS on the cover of “Chicken Noodle Soup”, and Halsey sometimes jumps on stage at a BTS concert to do her part in “Boy With Luv ”- a song she co-wrote.

But K-Pop is much more than just music. Suga, band member of BTS, aptly summed up the fascination for the genre when he made it clear in an interview that K-Pop is "integrated content" in which music videos, performances, fashion, TV reality shows, live streams and the dramaturgy from the stage - and TV appearances and the music result in a total package.


Sound and style did not originate in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of large production companies. On the contrary: When Jeong Hyeon-cheol aka Seo Taiji founded the band Seo Taiji And Boys with Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno in the early 1990s, the three of them shocked the South Korean music industry. At the time, it still relied on patriotic folk ballads, hymns for the still very young democracy, and shreds of heartbreak, based on models such as Barbra Streisand or Lionel Richie.

Korean mainstream music was primarily a television theme: the major TV and radio stations organized music revues and formats that were very similar to today's casting shows. It was there that Seo Taiji And Boys made their TV debut on April 11, 1992 on MBC. Seo Taiji - singer, producer and songwriter - had previously played in the rock band Sinawe, which is still active today, but still managed to dance, b-boy style and hip-hop beats for his new project. Her first song was called "Nan Arayo", translated "I Know", and sounded like a cross between Snap! and the Beastie Boys in Korean.

The jury hated it. She criticized the aggressive, awkward dance style and the lack of melody of the piece. But with the younger generation, Seo Taiji And Boys hit a nerve. They brought together an interest in current US music with their own Korean identity and were enormously successful, but at the peak of their success they parted in 1996 with a farewell album on which Seo Taiji even wrote explicitly socially critical - a no-go in Korean to date Mainstream. In the Cypress Hill clone "Come Back Home" he sang of young runaways who could not withstand the pressure of their families' expectations. And “Sidae Yugam” (“Shame Of ¥ e Times”) explicitly criticized the government and even had problems with censorship.

BTS covered the song "Come Back Home" in 2017. A good match, because BTS also set themselves apart from their competitors by being the underdogs of an initially quite small production company (which, ironically, is called Big Hit), and they sing about them in socially critical songs like "Baepsae" ("Silver Spoon") in South Korea there is a particularly wide gap between rich and poor.


K-Pop has largely lost its subversive note from its beginnings, although the Seo-Taiji-And-Boys band member Yang Hyun-suk founded YG Entertainment, one of the first three large management companies that have dominated the business to this day. YG has acts like the boy groups Sechs Kies, Big Bang, iKon and the internationally successful girl band Blackpink under contract. There is also SM Entertainment with the girl bands f (x) and Red Velvet and the boy bands H.O.T., SHINee, Exo, NCT, Super Junior, WayV and the Super M. project, a kind of all-star combination from various groups in the house. JYP's most successful artists are the girl groups Wonder Girls, Itzy, Twice and currently the boy bands Stray Kids and Got7.

YG, JYP and SM Entertainment installed the “Idol” system back in the mid-90s, through which pop entertainment has perfected itself in all its disciplines and even makes Justin Timberlake, who is highly valued in Korea, appear comparatively gross motorized. The system behind it can be described as a cross between the Motown Records approach of casting a band and their characters and modeling them according to their own ideas, and the way professional football works when it comes to recruiting and training young talent.


Jennie von Blackpink once said about her apprenticeship at YG Entertainment that it was a "really mean trial" in a "cold-hearted world" where you were rated and criticized every week. She was 14 when she started at YG. Her story is just one reason many fans criticize the methods of the big production companies.

K-pop idols have to work hard and paint a flawless image on the outside. Sex and drugs are taboo, a public love life mostly as well, male and female idols are exposed to an extraordinary degree to the already demanding body ideals and the enormous pressure to perform in South Korean society. The production companies control the output of their acts very precisely, TV and radio stations benefit from the close cooperation with them, there is hardly any critical reporting on the K-Pop operation - a well-oiled machine seems to be running here.

Nevertheless, a few scandals have recently come to light, and there have also been suicide cases among K-pop performers. Shinee's Kim Jonghyun committed suicide in 2017. Two years later, Choi Jin-ri alias Sulli, who had started her career in the girl group f (x) and was one of the few idols who spoke openly about pressure and bullying in the scene and campaigned for feminist positions, did this too. Actress and singer Goo Hara, who was targeted by Korean tabloids because of an argument with her ex boyfriend who threatened to publish sex videos of her, was also found dead with a suicide note in 2019. The most recent death was in June: Yohan from the band TST; 28 years young - without an official statement of the cause of death.

All of these deaths fueled the overdue discussion about the hardships of the Korean entertainment industry - but also about the generally high suicide rate among young South Koreans. For years - most recently evaluated for 2018 - suicide has been the number 1 cause of death for young people between the ages of 9 and 24. One of the reasons is the very selective education system and the university entrance exams, on which the entire career and further social prestige often depend.

The "Burning Sun" scandal made further headlines in K-Pop in 2019, in which it became public that Big Bang member Seungri, as a partner in the "Burning Sun" club in Seoul's in-district Gangnam, engaged in prostitution, drug trafficking and bribery payments was involved with the police. The investigations led to the involvement of other actors from the K-pop scene and meanwhile to the first court judgments.


Good question: Why does K-Pop as the first Asian music trend even work in the western world? The reasons are varied: On the one hand, the Korean state began to push the products of the domestic pop culture industry as an important export good in the mid-90s, which led to the so-called "Hallyu", the "Korean wave", which is mainly drama TV series and pop music first washed into the Asian countries and primarily to China and gradually drew more and more circles.

The already mentioned high entertainment factor, the quality of the product K-Pop itself as well as the clever online distribution, which suggests a close connection to the fans and produces a quantity of content that amazes the competition, show: South Korea has the American-European models further perfected and thereby conquered the world. The attraction, especially for many western genre fans, should still be the demarcation: The international K-Pop community may have long since become a huge world of its own, but you can still move around it from Pforzheim, Padua or Phoenix like in an exciting subculture.


The cliché that K-pop concerts are a bunch of screaming teenage girls is only true to a small extent. The reality is closer to the description of a very colorful bunch, as Sophie Chivanova will make in the following text column. At concerts by BTS, Got7 and SuperM in Paris and Berlin, the duo of authors also observed many young people who are more reminiscent of the style and attitude-conscious fans of My Chemical Romance from 15 years ago than of the teenage ecstasy of the boy group -90s.

A few weeks ago, the K-Pop fans and their most active form - the "K-Pop-Stans", who are often described as "slightly obsessive" - ​​came into the media focus because they were (effectively) politically active: First they flooded the hashtag #alllivesmatter - a racist reaction to #blacklivesmatter - with K-pop memes. A short time later, they blew up a Donald Trump election campaign event in Tulsa by massively promoting the idea of ​​registering for free tickets - and then not going.

Those in the know of the K-Pop movement were not surprised: the efforts to be politically correct, committed against racism and sexism as well as discussing gender issues (which not least also results from the androgynous image of men among boy bands) and above all the criticism of the methods of the K-pop management has long been an issue in large parts of the fan community. Here, very different points of view and factions often crash into each other, but the culture of debate seems healthy and lively. Most importantly, the fans and stans have realized that they have developed an internet power that can do a lot more than post hearts and concert videos.


Because of the restrictive information policy in the industry, there is seldom the opportunity to talk to insiders. The Moscow-based agent and promoter Sophie Chivanova made an exception for us. Until May 2020 she worked as "Head Of Europe" for the Seoul-based company Mymusictaste, which brought some of the most successful K-Pop acts to European arenas.

“It took me almost a year to understand how the business worked there,” she says of her beginnings. But even at her first K-Pop concert in South Korea, she had a grin on her face for two hours: “I can hardly remember any other show that had a similar level of entertainment. The boy band was insanely to the point and the audience was a mixed bag in terms of age and gender. Then I noticed: Jesus, this is really a top quality product! "

She explains how she works on this product: “You don't just work for one band here. It's all more like a big project, with a level of organization, marketing and planning that I didn't know before. "At first, she was quite a bit shocked," by the way the genre is organized - this very hard, precisely marked path to become an idol ”. On the other hand, she recommends "to look at the documentary 'Take That: For The Record" again for comparison. The way the boys were drilled back then wasn't much better either. And, to be completely honest: I've never had an uncomfortable situation with these acts - and that has definitely happened to me in other genres such as rock or reggaeton. "

Sophie Chivanova firmly believes that K-pop is here to stay. And she already sees a process of opening up and changing the industry - brought about by the power of the fans, without whose social media activities K-Pop would still be nothing more than a trend from and for South Korea.

“Why K-Pop is more perfect pop” is taken from MUSIKEXPRESS ISSUE 09/20. Cover story: Helge Schneider. In addition: reports and stories about Bright Eyes, Sophie Hunger and much more, and a detailed assessment of the future of concerts and festivals in Corona times. In stores from Thursday, August 13th.