In January 2012, the Fine Bros released “Kids React to K-Pop,” the latest weekly installment of their growing “React” series, which featured elementary school children watching and answering questions about videos—in this case, Korean pop music videos. For the Fine Bros, a pair of YouTube moguls whose 16 million subscriber base is built on videos of kids, teenagers, and fellow YouTubers reacting to viral content, K-Pop videos were merely an addition to their collection of outlandish content used to sustain weekly production quotas.
But for many of K-Pop’s English-speaking fans, the Fine Bros’ video was a modern miracle. K-Pop groups, with as few as four or as many as fifteen members, release multiple albums and high-budget music videos per year, performing with elaborate choreography and colorful fashion. In 2012, after several years of potential blow-ups and no immense international breakthroughs, few of them had much recognition in the West. Influenced by a variety of global music genres, K-Pop was, as fans believed, ready to explode in English-speaking markets once Westerners were finally exposed to it. The Fine Bros, with a significant North American viewership, were giving K-Pop a new platform for global advancement.
In “Kids React to K-Pop,” they showed the children some of the genre’s most over-the-top songs (“Bonamana” by 13-member Super Junior) and highlighted those videos’ most outlandish moments (2NE1 members struggling in straitjackets in “I Am the Best”).
“How do you think they found each other and decided to start a band?” they asked the children, knowing that their innocence (“They were probably long-time friends!” a kid guessed) would be shattered by the reality that members of K-Pop groups are chosen by companies that put them through a rigorous training regime before debut, atypical in the garage-band-rock scene of the U.S. The questions became increasingly slanted as the video progressed: “Do you still like the music, even though it was essentially created by a company and not the artist?”
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By the end of the video, the kids had decidedly negative impressions. “Lots of weird people probably like it,” one said. “If I even liked one of them, I would be liking the person that trained them,” another concluded. When made aware of the genre’s growing worldwide presence, a third cried, “I hate my generation so much! Why couldn’t I be born in the Eighties?”
K-Pop fans were furious — a genre whose musical output they took seriously had been reduced to an exotic spectacle of Asian quirkiness that Americans could dismiss as too foreign and corrupt for their collective taste. With such a dialogue surrounding the genre, it is no surprise that journalist John Seabrook’s October 2012 New Yorker article on 9-member Korean ensemble Girls’ Generation was called “Factory Girls.”
Despite some K-Pop acts gaining momentum in Western markets over time—BTS became the first Korean act to top the U.S. Billboard 200 with their studio album Love Yourself: Tear earlier this year—discourse on the genre is barely advancing. In a recent article about Korean music acts performing at the PyeongChang Olympics, TIME defined K-Pop as “music churned out by South Korea’s music-making factories.” A quick Google News search of the genre yields a variety of articles, like the recent entry from CBC News entitled “The Punishing Pressures Behind K-Pop Perfection,” that portray the genre as the Fine Bros do in their video.
Most fans will not deny the indisputable truth — there is merit to the claim that K-Pop stars are rigidly controlled by companies and contracts. During interviews, four-member girl group BLACKPINK discusses rarely being allowed to leave dormitories outside of official schedules. Passing their third anniversary as a group, seven-member Oh My Girl revealed that their management only recently allowed them to use cell phones following the success of a recent single. Sadly, the term “slave contract” is well-known to many fans, whose favorite idols have suffered at the hands of companies that hoard profits and abuse workers. Laws have been passed in attempts to rectify the situation, but work conditions for most K-pop idols are less than ideal.
This “factory” narrative, however, is more reductive than it is factual—it dismisses thousands of singers, dancers, artists, producers, managers, stylists, technicians, A&R teams, and designers as industrial robots with no independent agency. While the portrayal in TIME’s headline attracts the attention of American onlookers fascinated by outlandish foreign creations, it fails to capture the essence of K-Pop as imperfect, but not worthy of dismissal by Western audiences.
“Authentic music” fans and critics often deem K-Pop meaningless and shallow. The initial impression is understandable—it is sometimes the case that none of the members of a group play a minimal, if any, part in the process of crafting music or choreography, aside from actually performing it (which in itself somehow gets overlooked, as if many Western pop stars don’t do the very same thing). But beneath the narrative that Western media curates for its viewers, one can quickly find evidence of K-Pop stars heavily involved in their artistry. G-Dragon, leader of popular boy group BIGBANG and successful soloist, is credited as the main (and sometimes only) producer of both his solo releases and those of his group; BTS is also often known to self-produce their hits. The same dynamic is true of a variety of male and female K-Pop acts—in recent years, producer royalties reaped by idols like G-Dragon, Jinyoung of male outfit B1A4, the late Jonghyun of SHINee, and L.E. of girl group EXID have rivaled those of K-Pop’s biggest behind-the-scenes producers hired by companies to make music for groups.
Speaking of hired producers, Western music writers struggle to grasp is the idea that K-Pop’s artistry isn’t exclusively about creative musical production—to some Korean artists, onstage performance is far more valuable than lyrics or melody. Unlike the American music industry, K-Pop places heavy value on dancing ability and performative skill. In a way, this system actually makes musical performance inclusive of a different kind of talent, creating an industry in which dancers, rappers and vocalists can enjoy the fame, audience, and respect often claimed by singer-songwriter solo pop stars in the U.S. Those with legitimate musical passion, maybe for singing the lyrics instead of penning them, can occupy the spotlight. Is that inauthentic or illegitimate? To rockists or classicalists, maybe so. But to those who aren’t theory geniuses or lack a natural talent for musical composition, it may just be “authentic” as ever, and no less worthy of the praise that critics and writers give to Western pop stars who work with production teams.
The debate extends to gender politics as well. In his “Factory Girls” article, John Seabrook portrays Girls’ Generation as a group of one-dimensional personalities constructed by their companies, calling member Tiffany’s characteristic eye-smile a “jolt of cultural technology.” But it would be Seohyun, another member of the same group, who would depart from her image as the group’s chaste maknae (youngest member) and pursue a sultry vibe for her solo debut mini-album Don’t Say No in 2017. The album concept and image change were entirely her own choices, some of which she made against her company’s advice. She also recently participated in the North-South Korean dialogue on multiple occasions, becoming a symbol of peaceful intentions of the South through performances in Seoul and Pyongyang.
Just like Taylor Swift’s pivot from country to pop with her album Red or Lady Gaga’s image shift in Joanne, female K-Pop stars can be fluid performers, capable in their own right of forging unique artistic destinies. When the Fine Bros reduce them to props of an industrial complex, they are robbed of the creative legitimacy and individualism they seem to rightfully deserve.
Cutesy K-Pop girl groups are often the first to receive criticism for musical and visual concepts that strike Western viewers are misogynistic and infantilizing. And they’re not entirely wrong—the patriarchy is as strong as ever in K-Pop, and many girl groups’ biggest hits are written by men and targeted for consumption by male fans. But as these groups top the charts and become noticeable fixtures of the Korean entertainment scene, the performers themselves reach a new level of empowerment. Seabrook’s “Factory Girls” Girls’ Generation have now been a girl group for a decade, comprising multi-millionaire members who each own property and run individual ventures, and have their own public personas. On her solo reality show, member Sooyoung recently talked about popular Korean feminist book Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982, explaining her reaction: “Things that I thought were nothing, were actually being treated unfairly just because I’m a girl.” With a platform built on her multi-gender fandom and supported by millions of dollars in the bank, Sooyoung is now one of many female K-Pop idols reading the book and talking openly about feminist issues in the media, despite South Korea’s overall aversion to the term “feminist,” which she has indeed shied away from.
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The cutesy songs may have patriarchal overtones, but the women performing the music have much more to say—the cultural structures they conquer as a group allow the members to use their newfound capital to then subvert those same structures. The Wonder Girls, formed in 2007, debuted to major commercial success singing bubbly pop songs produced by Korean singer-songwriter and businessman J.Y. Park. While the group’s popularity has fluctuated over the years due to a failed American advancement and lineup changes, the members grew to self-produce their music as their careers progressed. Member Yeeun, credited as HA:TFELT in solo releases, co-composed and wrote her entire debut solo EP Me? in 2014. By the release of their 2015 comeback album Reboot, members of the group were credited for lyrics and production on all of the album’s tracks, taking the sound of their music in a retro pop rock direction. Their subsequent 2016 reggae-rock hit “Why So Lonely” was also written and produced by the group’s members.
A similar example of growing into self-production, singer Lee Hyori debuted as a member of girl group Fin.K.L in 1998. Since the group’s disbandment in 2002, she has gone on to become one of the most recognizable women in Korean media. Moving on from the group and into a solo career, Hyori has taken greater control of her music over time, switching record labels frequently and dropping albums for which she designs concepts and writes and produces almost all tracks. Her success as a Fin.K.L member and soloist gave her the power to control her future releases—a narrative common among matured K-Pop acts, but largely overlooked in Western media coverage. From talking about feminism to performing with more empowered stylings, female members of Korea’s entertainment industry are slowly but steadily laying the internal groundwork for change to take place. The gender dynamics of innocent-seeming girl groups in K-Pop may be more complex than a face-value New Yorker article on Girls’ Generation could tell you.
Despite the advancements, restrictive body standards, contractual abuse, sexual harassment, and other horrors do run rampant in the K-Pop industry. Trainees work tirelessly against a low success rate to become stars, and many undergo abuse by companies that push them to their physical and mental limits. But in a world where Hollywood and public opinion have exiled Harvey Weinstein from public consciousness and all-but-convicted rapist producer Dr. Luke still profits off of Kesha’s albums, how can these abuses be in any way unique to K-Pop? Of course aspects of the K-Pop industry do make certain abuses widespread, but the ability to dismiss K-Pop as a whole over its ethical questions is a simultaneous failure to hold the Western entertainment industry accountable for the same problems.
So why do Western media outlets fail to report on K-Pop’s authenticity? The simple answer is convenience. Portraying K-Pop as freakishly quirky and industrially restrictive are worthwhile efforts for the Fine Bros, whose viral video series is based on reactions alone. The same is true of the articles’ authors and publishers, who profit in clicks from those curious about K-Pop’s apparent strangeness.
But the not so simple answer is racism. The Spice Girls and NSYNC may have gotten similar flack about authenticity back in the 90s, but the Korean-American dynamic of K-Pop’s newfound Western popularity makes the “factory” narrative not only musically, but also culturally objectionable. Like Americans laugh at Japanese variety shows, gawk at harajuku culture, or imitate native Chinese speakers, sensationalizing the controversial aspects of K-Pop gives the Western mind an excuse to stigmatize Korean culture as ridiculous and outlandish. Conflating K-Pop’s nonsensical moments with its ethical dilemmas for Western viewership, TIME and the Fine Bros allow the English-speaking mainstream to dismiss foreign-ness simply because it is foreign. Americans won’t have to reconcile K-Pop’s sonic, visual, and cultural values with their own if they can simply call it weird or unethical and go on with their day. Thus, “Kids React to K-Pop” was an exercise in ignorance—a lesson in xenophobia. And as more kids “react” to K-Pop as it grows in stateside relevance, we can only hope that better lessons are taught. They are only kids, after all.