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Try Wait: A closer look at K-pop
BY GARY CHUN / firstname.lastname@example.org
With the phenomenal viral success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” last year, can any Korean music act even approximate the reach of this satirical, culture-specific song by the unlikeliest of superstars?
Probably not. To be blunt, PSY (aka Park Jae-sang) is not representative of what has become known as K-pop. The bulk of K-pop — which has a firm hold throughout Asia — is filled with pretty faces and attractive bodies trained by entertainment businesses to the nth degree to put on catchy if regimented performances, much influenced by equally slick-marketed Western acts.
As quoted in David Bevan’s excellent “K-Pop Fizz Fizz: Life After PSY” that was posted last month on Spin Online, an American college professor in East Asian Language and Literature said that “the tendency and thinking so far seems to have been that you have to erase Korean identity somehow to achieve success in the U.S. or overseas. But I think that’s been proven wrong with PSY’s success.”
Bevan also mentions two acts that have attempted to reach out to a wider audience outside of Korea that happen to be featured in a flashy documentary that was popular at the most-recent Hawaii International Film Festival.
“I Am.: SMTOWN Live World Tour in Madison Square Garden” is part of an expanded 4-DVD set (CJ Entertainment America, $24.98, $29.88 Blu-ray) that adeptly edits together interviews, behind-the-scenes material and the portions of the splashy New York City concert held in October 2011, before all of the “Gangnam Style” furor.
The aforementioned acts are, first, “the queen of Korean pop” Kwon Bo Ah, better known as BoA, who made inroads into the Japanese pop music scene a decade ago and attempted to make a go of it in the American market in 2008-2009 (sorry, nada). In the documentary, BoA’s importance to Korean pop acts that followed her is expressed by a meet-and-greet filmed years ago with the members of Girls’ Generation, who are trying to find their niche in the U.S.
While the documentary and the entire concert that takes up two of the four DVDs will be instantly loved by K-pop fans, for someone like me relatively ignorant about the music, I found this all enlightening and entertaining. SM Entertainment and its stable of artists (which also include featured acts f(x), TVXQ!, SHINee and Super Junior) were well aware that the Madison Square Garden mega-concert was important because it was presented “on behalf of the country and the people,” as one of the performers say in the film.
I was impressed at how the group acts go through an intense audition and training regimen before their nerve-wracking debuts on national television, ready to feed a hungry tween audience. At times, you can see how some of these young and earnest performers struggle juggling a public, professional persona with a personal life, but they carry on like troupers. The pent-up emotions finally spill out after the show when they meet family and friends backstage — all of the performers are amazed that they were able to entertain a racially diverse audience in a venue that their hero Michael Jackson once played.
Comparable veterans like BoA and the duo TVXQ! (originally a 5-member “boy band” back in 2003), while greeted warmly by the NYC audience, doesn’t come close to approximating the screaming enthusiasm for younger acts SHINee (terrific dancers), Super Junior (little more musically diverse and my personal favorite) and the glamorous Girls’ Generation, who still have a shot at the golden ring.
If nothing else, a steel-strong Korean work ethic is evident with every on-stage gesture.
Gary Chun is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.