In Depth

What is K-pop? South Korean music goes global

Take a look inside the music industry whose top super-group is worth more than One Direction

Most Brits' knowledge of South Korean music ends at Gangnam Style, the viral sensation that has racked up 2.6 billion views on YouTube since 2012. However, a growing subculture dedicated to Korean pop music – known as K-pop – is taking root among music fans around the world.

So what is it?

Upbeat tunes, family-friendly lyrics and fiendishly catchy hooks are the hallmarks of a K-pop hit. Songs are usually paired with big-budget videos in which perfectly groomed girl or boy bands show off flawless choreography in front of elaborate sets.

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To understand the rise of K-pop, it must be placed in the context of the wider spread of South Korean culture across Asia since the late 1990s. "Korean TV dramas and, to a lesser extent, Korean films have, along with Korean pop music, become staples in markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong," a phenomenon referred to in Korean as "hallyu" or "flow of Korea", says the New Yorker.

K-pop's popularity in the West remains limited to a small but passionate minority, but its global selling power should not be underestimated – the second album from EXO, Korea's biggest boyband, outsold One Direction's Four to become 2015's fifth biggest-selling album in the world.

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Like the sprawling online subculture that sprang up around 1D, the hype surrounding K-pop's top acts goes far beyond their music. "No one does fandoms like K-pop," says Dazed, noting that one website hosts more than 132,000 stories about EXO written by their fans.

Underneath the tween-friendly bubblegum vibe, however, is a dark underbelly. Every aspect of the industry is carefully manufactured by music executives, who scout teenagers to undergo the rigorous training needed to become a K-pop star.

Commonly referred to as 'idols', K-pop singers are often subject to strict rules regarding their personal life to conform to a perfectly managed public persona. They are expected to be clean-cut girls or boys "next door" and being caught clubbing, smoking or even dating can be career-ending.

The relationship between idols and plastic surgery has also come under scrutiny. One in five South Korean women has gone under the knife and although the phenomenon predates the K-pop boom, many believe the music industry has contributed to its normalisation. In its most blatant crossovers, K-pop stars have even starred in adverts for plastic surgery clinics.

James Turnball, who writes about feminism and pop culture in South Korea, told The Atlantic: "The idea here is that you like the appearance of the 'idols' and you should try and look like them."

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