The training ideology itself is a tweaked interpretation of the one first put to use by Johnny & Associates, a dominant force in Japanese pop (J-pop) since it rose to global prominence in the '80s. It's also the latest development in a phenomenon called hallyu, a Chinese term for the rising "Korean wave" of cultural exports throughout Asia that began with television dramas in the '90s and has been shot into hyperdrive by a continent thirsty for both material goods and high-speed connectivity.
"The way I felt watching Chinese, Korean, and Japanese music videos ten years ago in China," says Dr. Charles Armstrong of Columbia's Center for Korean Research, "is that Koreans were the most Americanized. They understood the idioms of popular culture and music and dance. For much of the rest of Asia, South Korea is sort of their dream of the future: a more modernized, Westernized society." What's most uniquely Korean about K-pop, however, is the aggressive manner in which it's surging across borders in all directions. Because local markets for American and Japanese artists are so large, artists can remain at home and enjoy hugely successful, prolific careers. Koreans are exporting K-pop simply because their local market is too small to satisfy or contain it.
And just like Justin Bieber's "Beliebers," a hyperactive, devout community of online K-pop fans known as "Netizens" has been cultivated to provide the social media numbers that keep bands/brands trending worldwide. Digital service comprises 80 percent of the music industry in Korea, the world's highest share.
"If you look from afar, these K-pop acts moving into foreign markets could be looked at as another form of neo–cultural imperialism," says Bernie Cho, 41, the cofounder of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based creative agency which acts as an intermediary between Korean artists and brands all over the world. "It's not as forced as you think, though. It's finessed." Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, raised just outside of Buffalo, New York, and educated at Dartmouth, Cho came to South Korea in the early '90s for grad school, only to get sidetracked after taking a part-time job at a newly christened MTV Korea. "Twenty years ago, this place was pretty third-world and Tokyo was like Blade Runner," he says of Seoul's development. "Now it's the other way around. Koreans didn't invent cars. Koreans didn't invent mobile phones. Koreans didn't invent flat-screen TVs. But they've somehow tweaked and twisted the formulas to the point that they feel fresh."
From top to bottom, YG Entertainment's office, a postmodern hunk of glass and dimpled concrete, is designed to both manufacture and maintain a carefully calibrated, highly controlled stream of pop product. Up top, you've got an off-limits floor for founder Yang Hyun-Suk, former member of '90s R&B legends Seo Taiji & Boys. Just below that you'll find offices devoted to expanding the company's vast international audition network. Walk down a few flights and you're met with an assortment of plush recording studios, available to producers both in-house and imported. There's a fully outfitted gym manned by a celebrity fitness guru. The cafeteria serves home-style Korean fare and boutique coffee until late in the night. And of course, there are those practice spaces built for students who are recruited from all over (including America), all of whom are major investments immersed in a specialized curriculum of dance, voice, composition, and foreign language, meant to prepare each trainee for a career not just at home in Korea, but across continents.
Nowhere are the fruits of K-pop's training more apparent than onstage. It's the middle of a Saturday afternoon and throngs of schoolgirls are shrugging off frigid temperatures outside the aging Olympic Gymnastics Arena, one part of the massive Olympic Park complex built for the 1988 Summer Games. Tonight, YG is rolling out its entire roster in celebration of 15 years' worth of hits. They've gone to great lengths to create a festival atmosphere within the Park's stone plaza, assembling a small village of tents and official merchandise counters (not to be confused with the many bootleggers hawking candy-colored binoculars, glow bands, and luminous, group-specific wands between here and the subway station). The smell of ketchup and fried animal fat is thick in the air, fumes spiraling out from a ring of kiosks serving Korean sausages and lollipops of battered pork.
To the left, check your cameras and recording devices — none are allowed inside the arena. Next door, a tent is promoting SOUL, the Ludacris-endorsed line of headphones. And across the way, there's an information booth set up specifically for the Japanese fans who have flown in for the event; its line is the longest. In 2011, no foreign fans have embraced K-pop more enthusiastically than the Japanese. If all these acts weren't performing together this weekend, they'd likely be making short, strategic tours through Japan, a market whose size exceeds Korea's several times over. For two countries with such a complicated and difficult cultural history, the exchanges between fans here are pure: Kids bow and smile, gesturing nervously to the handmade sign each has brought along and dedicated to the idol of their choice. When this same show comes to Saitama Super Arena outside of Tokyo a month later, over 200,000 fans will attend.