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K-Pop’s PR Push to Win the West

If you’re one of the 430 million people who watched PSY’s “Gangnam Style” on YouTube recently, you are probably both curious and confused by the international phenomenon known as K-Pop. You are not alone!

Luckily, John Seabrook of The New Yorker just published a fascinating article about the carefully choreographed process that fuels the fast-growing world of Korean pop music—and its top PR teams’ plans to win Western fans with their dizzying mix of contemporary production, eclectic stage shows and a shocking amount of plastic surgery.

South Korea’s top three entertainment PR firms have essentially come to run the K-Pop industry by adopting the British/American boy band business model…on steroids. And they’ve completely dominated the Asian music market by beating predecessor J-Pop at its own game and winning the Chinese public over with their bizarre videos and promo events.

Now music publisher and promoter SM Entertainment—whose Twitter profile reads “Follow us for 10 years, we’ll make you pretty and famous”—plans to take over the United States, one flashy tour at a time. Founder and former entertainer Lee Soo-man is often described as the creator and mastermind behind the K-Pop phenomenon who made good on his plans to recreate American pop for the Asian market, and he inspires conflicting emotions among fans.

The industry is hardly limited to music; K-Pop idols frequently star in ad campaigns, soap operas and feature films. There’s even a term, “hallyu”, for the incredible influx of South Korean culture that has blanketed the continent over the past decade, and the country’s government has aggressively promoted its distribution as a form of “soft power.”

It all starts with the promoters recruiting girls aged 12-19 via talent scouts and public auditions all over the world. While most of the “idol” performers in K-Pop groups are South Korean, promoters take special interest in Korean-Americans—many of the genre’s biggest songs feature English titles and choruses. Top contenders go through rigorous training, learning to sing, dance and speak both English and Chinese. They also receive brutal scrutiny from South Korea’s hyperactive blog culture—the whole process is like an extended American Idol competition.

Themes are suggestive but very PG; songs never directly refer to sex, drinking or nightclubbing. If you’re looking for something a little racier, check out the video for “Genie” by K-Pop’s top group Girls’ Generation:

The industry is arranged like a sports league, with ravenous fans wearing color-coordinated outfits to support their favorite groups. Seabrook describes the stars as “distant and frosty, like [figurines] in a glass case”, but a 29-year old American fan posting on the Girls’ Generation website wrote that “You think you love them, but then you see Tiffany point directly at you and wink, and everything else that exists in the world just disappears.”

We’d say this sounds a lot more intense and creepy than the N’Sync/Backstreet Boys rivalry.

We can’t quite imagine K-Pop truly taking over the Billboard charts, but based on the worldwide popularity of stars like Rain we have a feeling that “Gangnam Style” wasn’t a one-time fluke. Girls’ Generation will soon release their first American album on Interscope Records, and promoters hope that superstars like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj can introduce this bold new pop world to their fans.

What do you think? If Ace of Base could do it, why not these ladies?

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