Over the past ten years, Korea has perfected a fruitful system for producing top-flight pop stars. Now, as K-pop focuses its careful aim on the American market, that same formula appears to be just as ripe for export.
You would never guess that this is where they live. Lisa Jo is casually pointing to it from her office just across the street: a squat, red-brick apartment building whose only distinguishing mark is the grimy noodle shop tucked into its ground floor. Thousands of houses just like this one carpet Seoul's hilly northern half, most of them dwarfed by the skyscraping residential towers that line the Han River and virtually every major avenue in the city like teeth. This one, though, functions as the primary residence for as many as 30 young "trainees" signed to YG Entertainment, one of three major management companies headquartered here in South Korea's capital. And this is where another group of unit-shifting, border-blurring, level-pushing Korean pop starlets sleeps, during those few hours at night when they break from studying their craft. "They are not home right now," Jo says, minutes before lunch. "They are in school."
Jo, a Seoul native and overseas business representative for YG, might be referring to the intense high school curriculum that all Korean youths are expected to complete before entering university (YG claims to make educational arrangements for the teens whom they board and train). But as we make our way to the basement cafeteria, Jo swings open the doors to two dance studios: The first is dark, save for the smartphone flicker of someone whose mid-morning nap we've just interrupted. In the second, a young girl in a gray Gap T-shirt and black tights is crouched, dropping in her contact lenses as she prepares for an afternoon class in song composition. She smiles and bows, and when I ask Jo why the girl is here rather than in school, the question is misunderstood and met with a giggle: "Hopefully, she is getting popular." That's the plan.
Right now, Korean pop music — K-pop, if you're pressed for time — is enjoying an increasingly global moment. In the past year, various K-pop idols have filled arenas from São Paolo to Singapore, London to Los Angeles. When tickets to an S.M. Entertainment showcase in Paris sold out last summer, French fans demanded a second by organizing a flash mob in front of the Louvre, replete with K-pop choreography. In August of 2011, Billboard announced its K-pop Hot 100 Chart and, not long after this story goes to print, nine-member girl group and S.M. standard-bearers Girls' Generation will parade their caffeinated choruses before David Letterman and Kelly Ripa. The Japanese business journal Nikkei has deemed this pop-cultural export "The Next Samsung."
It is, by design, music that demands to be mainlined: Hooks come sharper, choruses larger, visuals brighter, the shine of its often mutated sonics far more intense than that of its Western source material. Elements of disco, hip-hop, house, techno, R&B, rock, and dubstep sound as though they've been broken down at the atomic level, then built back up again, into an elevated form of pop that's also free of the sexual innuendo or striptease that eventually came to define the American late '90s circa Britney. Any barrier that language might provide has also been bulldozed. Verses are delivered in Korean, choruses in graphic-tee English, for maximum impact, a refraction of time-tested formulas, made all the more vivid in practice.
But perhaps most importantly, K-pop's architects are constantly improving upon a highly vertical and similarly hybridized business model that eventually could be Korea's most useful export to U.S. and European labels. "They're systematic," says Yvonne Yuen, VP of international marketing for Universal Music's Southeast Asian office in Hong Kong. "A trainee goes through the regimen for at least two years before they're selected to 'debut' as an artist. I'm not sure that other countries or other music labels have that patience. It's teaching them discipline and caring for their craft. Every time they go out onstage, every time they perform a song, it's got to be perfect, the way it was meant to be."