The current investigation involving Burning Sun, Seungri, Jung Joon-young and their associates are one side of a coin. On the other side being Jang Ja-yeon’s life, death, and legacy.
Police have been having a busy 2019. For the past few weeks, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has taken on multiple cases revolving around former BIGBANG member Lee Seung-hyun, popularly known as Seungri, and singer and TV celebrity Jung Joon-young that involves sex trafficking, creating and sharing illegal sexual footage, using and distributing drugs, rape, and collusion with corrupt police.
As the investigation of the two moves forward, several other K-pop idols including Highlight’s Yong Jun-hyung and F.T. Island’s Choi Jong-hoon become implicated in these allegations, their cases have started to expose the seedy underbelly of the K-pop world.
Past reports exposing unfair “slave” contracts, abusive and intense rehearsal and training sessions, and agencies’ tendency to overwork their talent for profit have painted the mechanisms fueling the K-pop machine in a negative light. However, adding in the factor that the stars themselves can be equally unethical adds another profound layer of grime to the picture. It illustrates that the issues exposed in these investigations and the actions that these stars engaged in are a result of larger societal factors.
These factors include but are not limited what Crystal Tai, a writer for South China Morning Post argues is “South Korea’s culture of toxic masculinity” and what Haeryun Kang, a freelance journalist and editor, says it is the “pervasive power inequality between men and women in countless, unseen sectors of Korean society.”
Indeed it is clear that Lee, Jung, and other men who were empowered in their masculinity, fame, and wealth, took advantage of several women wrongfully and illegally for their benefit, entertainment, and pleasure. While Lee and Jung’s victims have not publically identified themselves out of fear, they do have a voice in the form of the late Jang Ja-yeon and her advocate Yoon Ji-oh.
Like these unknown women, the talented, pretty, and well-liked Jang Ja-yeon was victimized by men in positions of considerable power including show producers, journalists, media and entertainment executives at the behest of her agent Kim Sung-hoon who pimped her out for preferential treatment.
Jang revealed this information in a seven-page letter with a list of 31 names she left behind after taking her life just five months after her debut movie role as Sunny in 2009’s film Boys Over Flowers. Notably, while her case was hastily closed in trials following her death, it was reopened in the midst of the 2018 #MeToo movement after prosecutors discovered ack of conduct on behalf of the investigators at the time.
Currently, her case is ongoing with details unfolding alongside Lee Seung-hyun’s and Jung Joon-young’s, acting as a ying to their yang. The interesting juxtaposition of these investigations plays like two sides of the same coin.
On one side are the salacious details of powerful men uninterested in the rule of law as they drugged, raped, filmed, and trafficked women for their own means. On the other, is the heartbreaking tale of a woman who was on the receiving end of their dehumanization and is an example of the real-life consequence to their actions.
Unfortunately, I may have painted Jang as too much of victim. Jang’s side of the coin shouldn’t be viewed as a sad and powerless story, but also as a woman who sought change. Her friend and advocate Yoon Ji-oh who witnessed some of the abuse Jang endured said that she doesn’t believe (link in Korean) that the seven-page letter Jang wrote was a suicide note. Instead, Jang intended those pages of papers were to act as legal documents to enact justice.
But how that coin will land? Will it heads where justice is served a movement to rejects the actions of these men and to expose and punish those like them? Or will it be tails, where only the surface is cleaned but the scum beneath remains?
Who exactly is Seungri, the hallyu star currently surrounded by various controversies in Korea?
Right now, whenever a Korean individual or Kpop fan hears or reads the 2 syllables Seungri, the first thing that comes to mind would be that celebrity who is in the news for various scandals. Keywords are likely to be Burning Sun assault, offering women to investors, illegal filming of sexual content, retirement, nation’s traitor etc. But just prior to a few months ago, Seungri was not a hated individual but a world star who’s influence was especially prominent in Asia.
Who is Seungri?
Seungri also known as Lee Seung Hyun was the maknae of Kpop’s global idol group, Big Bang. The 29 year old idol made his debut under YG Entertainment in 2006 with Big Bang to later become one of the most popular boy groups in the world. Seungri was one of the youngest singers during that time, merely 16 years old, when he stepped into the entertainment industry. Over the years, Seungri experienced various roles in the entertainment industry as singer, songwriter, actor, producer and entrepreneur.
Prior to controversy
Big Bang had their first break through in 2007 with the release of their first extended play ‘Always’, Big Bang took their place as one of the most influential artists as they focused on producing and creating their own songs. During this time, leader and producer G-Dragon was gaining more attention as fans from the group as his songs became hits setting records for continuously topping charts and sales. Some of G-Dragon’s earliest hits were ‘Lies’ (2007), ‘Last Farewell’ (2007), ‘But I Love U’ (2007).
With Big Bang’s continuously growing popularity, the group was having concerts within 7 months of debuting. As they continued to rise in popularity in Korea, they set their sights for Japan just one year after debut. During that year, the members had hectic schedules letting exhaustion pile up to the point G-Dragon, T.O.P and Seungri became hospitalized halting activities. Seungri already had an ankle injury when it was reported he later lost consciousness towards the end of a show on December 29, 2007. Later it was reported Big Bang had earned over $11.5 Million USD just in 2007. Considering inflation in 2019, 11.5 Million dollars was worth a lot more 12 years ago.
The following year in 2008, Big Bang was very successful in Japan becoming one of the groups to solidify the hallyu wave. By 2009, the group was pursuing solo activities during which each member focused on nurturing their individual talents. Seungri was well known for wanting to “shed” his maknae image at this time for a more mature look. He won his first award with his solo ‘Strong Baby’ tasting his individual success at the age of 19.
In the following years, Seungri continued his solo activities while also promoting as a member of Big Bang. He took on various acting roles, released more solo music, developed his DJ skills etc. Seungri was in some ways overshadowed by other Big Bang members in the entertainment industry. Once his hyungs went on hiatus for military service, Seungri’s popularity and activities undeniably surged.
Just a year ago, Seungri was the only Big Bang member who was not serving mandatory military service yet. As a result, his popularity was growing not only in South Korea but also abroad as the only Big Bang member ‘to hold the fort’ before he went on hiatus for his own mandatory military service in Spring 2019. He made several guest appearances on MBC’s ‘I Live Alone’ increasing his popularity as viewers learned he was a considerate, detail oriented person in addition to being a successful businessman.
After his segment in ‘I Live Alone’ was aired, Seungri was widely complimented for his successful ramen franchise company that has over 45 locations all over the world claiming annual earnings of approximately $96 Million USD. From then on, other successful businesses of the idol/entrepreneur was in the headlines like dance academy, clubs, DJ label etc.. Public perspective of Big Bang Seungri was shifting from an immature playboy often in the headlines because of scandals, clubbing and such to a mature and charismatic man. He went on to explain his tendency to pursue all forms of entertainment led him his success today as an entrepreneur in the show.
Seungri further explained on ‘I Live Alone’ that while his current businesses may seem successful he has experienced failure in previous business ventures. He stated he lost many things but learned from those incidents leading to his current identity (in 2018).
Shortly after Seungri’s image as a successful businessman continued to garner positive reception, he was reported to be the new CEO of YGX in June 2018. YGX is a subsidiary of YG Entertainment that merged with Seungri’s DJ label NHR.
This momentum unfortunately did not last as news about his club, Burning Sun’s alleged assault broke the headlines in January 2019. Kim posted online he was assaulted by security and police when he tried to help a female at the club. This case is currently under investigation and with so many articles with various information, the exact details has become unclear.
Soon after, news about Seungri lobbying to investors with prostitutes joined the headlines. It led to chaos in the entertainment industry as various prominent figures were identified during the investigation.
Park Han Byul’s husband was identified to be involved in this case affecting the actress’s long awaited return to the small screen in MBC’s ‘Love in Sadness’.
Shortly after, various celebrities including idols were implicated as many forms of “evidence” circulated on the Internet. Hours later, Seungri declared he would retire on his Instagram which was met with derision.
There are various rumors and speculations about the controversies surrounding Seungri, but this article will not be delving in that direction. Instead, the focus will be what may have led to such controversies in the first place. What makes this such a big deal would be because it forced a lot of the “dirty laundry” in the entertainment industry to become public. It’s not a simple matter of someone caught breaking the law. But of a world star as the cause of the controversies that led to implicating other influential people.
In Korea, there are many situations where superficially everyone verbally supports gender equality and put their faith in the LAW. However, behind closed quarters there’s corruption, bribery and connections that can solve many things. A common plot seen in Korean drama where a chaebol uses their power, money and influence to be above the law is not completely without a grain of truth. In reality, it isn’t just chaebols but also influential figures in all parts of society, not only in South Korea but in every other country of the world. Just a couple years ago, Korea was in complete chaos as a nation because of abused power. If you’re unaware, the previous Korean president was impeached in 2016.
Many foreigners are unaware of Korean culture that takes hierarchy, social connections, “specs” (Korean term for social economic status) etc. very seriously. For a general idea, I would personally recommend watching Misaeng (2014) starring Im Si Wan, Lee Sung Min and Kang Sora.
In Korea, there are still many people who work overtime without being able to request for overtime pay, sick leave and vacations. This is something I myself have experienced when I interned in Korea just a few years ago. Additionally, female employees are still pressured to pour alcohol for male colleagues. An example would be a scene in the beginning of episode 2 in JTBC’s ‘Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food’ (2018). Furthermore, prostitution is illegal but ‘red light districts’ do exist.
This isn’t the first time YG’s celebrities have caused waves in the industry because of scandals. There have been previous scandals in the entertainment industry because of sexual and physical assault, harassment, prostitution, illegal drugs, drunk driving, tax evasion, sponsorship, adultery, underage drinking etc. in all areas of the entertainment world.
Many of the celebrities who were implicated in various scandals mentioned above were able to return to the entertainment industry after a few years. This itself shows society may easily forget and forgive while failing to fix the actual problem resulting in lofty disdain for indiscretions and breaking the law.
The controversies surrounding Seungri aren’t exactly new in Korean society. Seungri’s status whether guilty or innocent doesn’t matter as much as the fact that he isn’t the first nor the last person who will be accused, indicted, investigated etc. There are others who have probably done the same things mentioned in the controversies and there may be more in the future regardless of whether indicted or not. Aside from investigating to find out the truth, I think it is important to consider what this means for Korean society and what can be done to prevent it from reoccurring in the future.
There are a lot of things I could say about Seungri’s controversies that many may agree or disagree. No doubt I would be using lots of colorful vocabulary if I was to write about it. But taking a step back to see how someone who debuted at the young age of 16 ended up becoming called out as the “nation’s traitor” 14 years later, there’s probably various factorsin the entertainment industryand society that played a significant role in Seungri’s current situation.
Could it be Seungri’s controversies are being used to cover something even bigger? Just a passing thought seeing all the attention focused on entertainment these days instead of fine dust levels from China, N.Korea, economy etc. I suddenly remembered SBS’s drama Pinocchio (2014) starring Park Shin Hye and Lee Jong Suk. It’s a drama where the most powerful people hyped up celebrity news to hide conspiracies. (Crying because of Lee Jong Suk’s upcoming military hiatus.)
Korean popular music, shows, and movie are making waves around the world with the help of fans and large platforms in the U.S. Korean stars have appeared at the American Music Awards, the Grammy’s, are featured in Billboard publications, and are streamed on Netflix.
Even so, years before this, there is another aspect of Korea popular culture that went international years ago and continues to be a major powerhouse in and outside of South Korea: video games.
South Korea has fully embraced video games and the culture that its players have spawned. More than 12,000 PC Cafes catering to casual and professional players are seemingly on every block and there are channels on TV dedicated to gaming programs and events.
According to a poll by Nielsen Korea, eSports is the most popular sport among late millennials and Gen Z falling just behind soccer and baseball. Moreover, it to be a professional player is ranked higher than a scientist for elementary aged children in the country, a survey by the ministry of education reported.
It is the fourth most profitable video game market in the world –5.7 billion U.S. dollars — and has around 25 million players, which is just about half the country’s population. It completely trumps the domestic music industry, which has a revenue of about 494.4 million U.S. dollars in 2017, according to the 2017 IFPI report.
As you can see, there is a lot of money in the industry, even more so when you learn that large South Korean conglomerated like SK Telecom back professional eSports teams and sponsor leagues. There is also prestige in the field with the International Olympic Committee considering adding eSports as an official Olympic competition in the future.
News Publications and Video Games
News regularly comes out about eSports and video games every day as it is a keystone of Korea popular (k-pop) culture. It is what some in the industry call a “mass medium,” a communication platform used to reach a large audience like television or radio. Even so, media outlets that specialize in publishing information about K-pop usually fail to include it in their stories.
When a boy or girl group member mentions gaming in an interview it might make it into a story, but if it isn’t attached to an idol celebrity it is forgone. From the information mentioned so far, there is absolutely an audience for this kind of news. Perhaps, it is because video games eschew outside the group of people that these publications believe are their targeted audience.
This argument, however, does not hold up. The bombastic success of Fortnite is predicated on Gen Z and millennials. The Verge reported that around 60 percent of its 200 million payers were between the age of 18 and 24. Moreover, it seems like fans of K-pop music and dramas are into the game too; Fortnite is offering an “exclusive K-pop skin” to those who preorder the Galaxy S10.
It should be a no brainer to it seems like it would be a prescient topic that all these publications should write about. So why don’t they?
K-Pop vs. Video Games
The problem with videos games, it that they don’t explicitly sell a cultural product in the same way that songs, dramas, and films do. In all three of these, facets of Korean culture are on display in language, food, people-to-people interactions, and more. Conversely, some of the most popular video games in Korea (link in Korean) such as League of Legends, Battlegrounds, and OverWatch, weren’t created by Korean companies.
Further, video games are almost always set up to work internationally meaning that they rarely contain concrete cultural touchstones. While these are exceptions like Red Dead Redemption which pays on the Western cowboy mythos, players connect with universal narrative tropes aided by fantasy world constructs.
Sure, cross products between games and K-pop have already been made and are hugely successful to boot. Additionally, several celebrities like Super Junior’s Heechul and LE from EXID have expressed their passion for games with video footage of them playing out on the internet. Nonetheless, without the clearly dedicated fan bases and the human figure that grounds a story, it may be difficult for some writers to see how articles about eSports of games will perform well.
Does that make Korean video game culture an illegitimate as a K-pop product? I don’t think so, mostly because by ignoring it, people are missing a huge part of Korea culture — of daily life. As mentioned before, about half of South Korea’s population plays video games. It that doesn’t legitimize it I don’t know what does.
Get creative writers and let’s start writing about gaming.
As unbelievable as it may be, the 2010s will soon be over in just 10 short months! Kpop has had exponential growth in the last few years, which will also determine Kpop’s future for the following decade!
The hallyu wave aka Kpop wave has definitely become more globalized within the last couple years. There is no doubt that in 2019 there will be more Kpop fans as more Kpop idols (BTS, Monsta X, NCT, Oh My Girl, Red Velvet, Blackpink, Sunmi etc.) continue to promote abroad. Especially in the US, thanks mostly to BTS’s success paving the way for Kpop growth this year.
Hollywood is the Kpop market for this year
Based on previous patterns of Kpop idol groups like Wonder Girls, Girl’s Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ etc. many Kpop idols usually extend their fan base to other countries in Asia before pursuing Europe & the Americas. Kpop’s growth in other countries are indeed significant, but given US is home to global names like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Ed Sherman, Chris Brown, Drake, Justin Timberlake etc. (as well as Kpoplove’s headquarters) Kpop’s future global outlook will focus on the US market for this article.
Kpop before BTS
BTS on American Music Awards (2017)
Just 5 to 10 years ago, prior to BTS’s historical invasion in the US, Kpop was just a new and upcoming genre in the US that originated from a small country in Asia. As a decades old Kpop fan, I can personally attest to instances in the past where people confused North and South Korea and probably couldn’t name any Kpop artist even if their life depended on it.
Other idols’ success in the US
However, this does not mean Kpop has never made its mark in the US. Examining only the idol groups who are no longer “active” meaning either disbanded or no longer actively promoting with all members, idol groups like Wonder Girls and Girl’s Generation have previously tried to break into the US market without as much success as BTS.
JYP’s Wonder Girls (2007-2017) released a single- ‘Nobody’ (2009)- that was No.76 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as the 1st Kpop group on the Billboard charts. This provided the opening for the group to enter the US market and pursue international activities. Wonder Girls can be considered to have been at the peak of their career in Korea (and Asia) prior to moving to the US in 2009 to focus on US activities. However contrary to expectations, Wonder Girls was unable to continue their momentum and ended up with changing the line-up and regroup back in Korea.
Wonder Girls on Wendy Williams Show (2009)
SM’s Girl’s Generation (2007-present) released a single-’The Boys’ (2012)-officially debuting and promoting in the US a few years after Wonder Girls. Comparing various aspects like promotions, fanbase, hallyu wave’s influence and method, there are so many differences that can explain the different levels of success between the 2 girl groups.
Girl’s Generation on Late Show with David Letterman (2012)
Taking a closer look at how BTS did not need to promote in the US to have the biggest US debut stage of all in 2017 as the 1st Korean group to perform at AMAs, BTS clearly did something that sets them apart from others. Not to mention BTS performed in Korean while Wonder Girls and Girl’s Generation performed in English. Based on BTS’s sucess, BTS’s momentum can only be expected to grow further this year.
BTS’s significant role for Kpop mainstreamed in US
In 2019, there are very few individuals who wouldn’t know what the 3 letters “BTS” refers to in the US. Even if one is completely clueless about Kpop, there is a big chance someone’s family, friend or acquaintance is a BTS fan or BTS ARMY.
Similar to BTS’s predecessors (e.g. legendary Kpop idol groups Girls Generation, Super Junior, TVXQ), BTS became mainstream in Asia a few years ago and became more globally recognized as they made their mark on the Billboard charts in 2015. But unlike other Kpop groups, BTS didn’t make any special plans to promote in the US market soon after their first placement on the Billboard charts. Instead BTS continued to release more content and focused on their music letting time to gradually increase their popularity all over the world.
Why is BTS different?
BTS contributed to further spreading the hallyu wave rather than having to focus on establishing the Kpop wave. Currently in 2019, nearly everyone has a smartphone as opposed to 10 years ago. Internet is easily accessible to many age groups enabling the daily use of social media like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube etc. This has allowed Kpop idols, especially BTS, to focus on interacting with fans and growing their fanbase. BTS members are well known for being very active participants as singers-songwriters within the Kpop industry and renowned for sharing many of their content on SoundCloud or V Live which played a significant role for BTS’s success today.
BTS’s timing may have been what led to BTS’s breakthrough to becoming the biggest Kpop group in the world. Rather than jumping on the first signs of opportunity to pursue international activities, BTS bided their time to focus on their work and to further nurture their talents while waiting for their hard work to come to fruition.
The 7 membered boy group became recognized for their global popularity when selected by international corporations like Puma, LG Electronics, Hyundai Motors etc. as global ambassadors and made significant collaborations with Mattel, Medicome Toy, Netmarble Games, Line Webtoons, Line Friends x BT21 and more!
BTS World Tour & BT21
When BTS had their 3rd world tour last summer, Line Friends x BT21 also officially opened their pop-up store in LA situated amongst Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. As someone who has accompanied various people to this store in August, September, October and December of last year, I can personally affirm the lines were unbelievably long not only when the pop-up store first opened but also for the following months. Amazingly, the lines did not really decrease much every time I had to go.
Most of my experience at this store consisted of standing in line for hours while conversing with other people accompanying their niece or cousin to the store. As to why the lines didn’t decrease much even after BTS finished touring in the US would be since BT21 items were often sold out with limited quantities, unpredictable shipments of new items, new seasonal (Halloween, Christmas) items and such.
Initially the Line Friends store was announced to stay for 3 months. Later, due to high demand, the pop-up was extended to January 2019 with plans to locate permanently. Just the fact that BT21 became popular enough to become a permanent store in LA speaks volumes about BTS’s success in the US. Aside from BT21, BTS is renowned for increasing sales for many associated businesses leading to the birth of the term “BTS effect” from major news outlets as many profit from BTS’s influence. BTS has become symbolic as a guaranteed catalyst to enhance micro and macro economics.
Lots of Kpop events in 2019
Just within 2 months of this year, there have been so many appearances or scheduled appearances of Kpop idols and artists in the US. Just to name a few upcoming events- Girl’s Generation’s Tiffany will be having her first showcase as Tiffany Young in a few days, Sunmi will be having her first world tour next month, BLACKPINK will be at Coachella in April and BTS will be touring the US again in May. Additionally, Red Velvet, Oh My Girl, Hong Jin Young and Dean have already performed in the US within the last 2 months.
BLACKPINK made their official US debut on “Good Morning America” and announced their North American Tour during the interview just awhile back. With so many activities planned in the US for the first half of 2019, many are wondering whether BLACKPINK will be able to have success similar to BTS. There is definitely a lot of potential but as previous idol groups like Wonder Girls and Girl’s Generation have proven, it isn’t easy to accomplish.
As an avid Kpop fan whose biases are mostly the first generation of Kpop idols, I can’t help but feel happy and excited to see how well Kpop is doing in the US. There are many idol groups who have also contributed to Kpop’s success like Monsta X, EXO and annual events like KCON LA or KCON NY. But amongst everything I have read, seen and heard, I want to credit BTS for really opening the door wide open for Kpop to take on the US. There have been many attempts but no one has been as successful as BTS and thanks to that, I think Kpop fans are able to have more opportunities to see their favorite Kpop idols shine for Uncle Sam.
All I could hope for would be that BTS’s continuous momentum ushers in even more opportunities for other Kpop artists to enter the US market. Till the day Kpop can be heard on various iheart radio stations in the US, “Hwaiting” to all Kpop artists!
A couple of weeks ago SBS’ long-running entertainment variety show “Running Man” officially introduced a new loveline — an on-screen romance — between two members. While entertaining, it is also disquieting to see people forced into a romantic construct that is not of their making.
Lovelines, the real or faux on-screen romances on Korean entertainment programs, are exploited by both cast members and producers to jump-start interest, provide fan service, and to open a slew of possible entertaining moments notable enough to wind up in the news and trend on search engines.
This kind of entertainment goldmine is especially viable if the participants are attractive and eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. One network, in particular, has become proficient in honing in on popular would-be couples and banking in on the fan-led fantasies.
SBS is behind the massively popular “Monday Couple” of rapper Gary and actress Song Ji-hyo born during the first years of “Running Man” and later capitalized on the viable connection between Kim Jong-kook and singer Hong Jin-young on “My Little Old Boy.”
Just a few weeks ago, the network officiated the loveline between permanent cast members Song Ji-hyo and Kim Jong-kook (the same one on “My Little Old Boy”). In doing so the networks answered the prayers of a dedicated subgroup of the show’s fans who refer to the couple as “Spartace,” a combination of their “Running Man” nicknames “Sparta” and “Ace.”
Admittedly, the episode first episode where the cast, guests, and staff seemed conspired to play up every one of their interactions was very entertaining. More than the embarrassing reactions of the Song and Kim was the ingenuity of the cast in finding ways to tease the two — including an impromptu rendition of Kim’s song “One Man.”
The most recent episode of “Running Man,” the cast was divided into two groups where they had to find and eat a cheaper dish of food than the opposing team. While simple in concept, the dynamics of each team was unique enough that laughs came easily, especially from the team that had the show’s new loveline couple in a group with Haha and Yang Se-chan.
In fact, the episode was so entertaining I decided to watch it again. During the second watch through, the interactions and reactions of the members took on a new somewhat disquieting light.
As the cast members (especially Haha and Yang who deserve an award for their work) and crew continued to bank in on the loveline between Kim and Song, it became clear that while the two took the teasing in good humor that it also made them uncomfortable.
With Kim and Song having been colleagues and friends for close to a decade, the loveline appears to have created a shift on the show that the two may not have been fully prepared for. This is unlike the loveline between Kim Jong-kook and Hong Jin-young on “My Little Old Boy” and occasionally on “Running Man” where the two are placed in clearly constructed situations and understanding their relationship dynamics when on set.
Whether they do have any romantic feelings for each other or are just friends, is it okay to profit from their discomfort that may have repercussions even when the cameras are off?
This issue is connected to the broader topic of fan-service. In fictional works, it is when non-plot affecting elements are added to please the audience. In K-pop, it is when celebrities engage in behavior that is not normal for them for their fans. This can include but is not limited to such acts of physical intimacy like holding hands, hugging, and cheek kissing.
While fans of shows and groups may enjoy and even find these kinds of interactions and lovelines exciting and satisfying, it can also lead to unforeseen consequences — especially if those involved don’t enjoy it themselves.
Kpop has come a long way over the years to become globally recognized in 2019. Looking back from the first generation of idols from the 1990s to now, Kpop idols have always had the burden of being adventurous and trend-setting icons.
With the current trend of older Kpop idol groups making a comeback to the Kpop scene, a lot has changed over the decades. In the 1990s when the first Kpop idol groups started emerging like H.O.T, Sechs Kies, Shinhwa and G.O.D, these idol groups experienced much criticism and love for their music while trying to solidify the upcoming genre, Kpop.
Taking a trip down memory lane towards one’s youth or childhood, there are some groups that can NOT be forgotten! The first generation of idol boy groups who not only created what is today’s Kpop fandom culture but also the foundation for the Hallyu wave! While there are many idols that deserve to be considered legends for each decade (1990s, 2000s, 2010s), these specific groups mentioned in this article were selected based on hours of research, personal memory, today’s popularity/activities and such! As a result, many may not agree with the listing or feel some idol groups should have been mentioned. Please note this is solely the opinion of the writer who may be biased with childhood memories of watching these groups in variety shows like SBS’s X-Men (2003-2007), SBS’s Love Letter (2004-2006) etc!
First generation of Kpop boy groups (1990s)
H.O.T (1996-2001, 2018-present)
Finding anyone who doesn’t know H.O.T would be rare in the Kpop scene. H.O.T is considered the first ever Kpop idol group that was formed by SM Entertainment. Even TVN’s hit drama series ‘Reply 1997’ (2012) has many references to H.O.T where the female lead is a die-hard fan of H.O.T’s Tony.
To signify how much importance H.O.T has in Korean culture, H.O.T had their reunion in 2018 through the famous variety show, MBC’s ‘Infinity Challenge’ (2005-2018).
After H.O.T made their comeback in 17 years on ‘Infinity Challenge’, H.O.T went on to hold their comeback concert in Seoul where fans and idols took a trip back to their youth in the 90s.
Secks Kies (1997-2000, 2016-present)
The second idol group in Kpop history, aka H.O.T’s rival, played an important role for shaping Kpop fandom. The power of Kpop fans gave rise to allowing artists to venture into other fields within the entertainment industry. Secks Kies was the first idol group to film their own movie, perform in a musical and perform at the Blue House for the president serving during that time.
Clip of H.O.T vs. Sech Kies fan war from Reply 1997 Kdrama
Secks Kiss also made their comeback in 2016 as guests on MBC’s ‘Infinity Challenge’ through a guerrilla concert. It was reported news of Secks Kies’s reunion was shared only 5 hours before the concert, which still managed to gather 6000 fans.
To really get an idea for what it was like in the 1990s during the reign of H.O.T and Sechs Kies, I HIGHLY recommend watching TVN’s Reply 1997. It is pretty accurate in depicting how severe or passionate Kpop fandom culture already was back then. Not to mention, this drama in addition to the rest of the Reply series (1997, 1994, 1988) are really great dramas to watch whether to understand Korean culture or to reminisce about your past.
The role model of many idols, the longest active boy group in Kpop history, Shinhwa is the idol group who showed versatility to be possible for Kpop idols. It is common for idol groups to keep to their “color” or “style” but Shinhwa has proven the key to longevity to be due to the constant rebranding and continuous creativity among other things. Shinhwa formed their own company Shinhwa Company with Minwoo and Eric as co-CEOs managing their activities as a group confirming the brotherhood among the members.
Shinhwa members are well known for their talents in various areas in the entertainment industry. Not only are they immensely popular for their appearances on variety shows, each member has successfully proven their talents in various areas like dramas, movies, musicals, producing and much more!
Shinhwa is extremely talented and everyone has such a great relationship, it is no wonder the group has made history by being the longest active Kpop idol group! They spend infinite amounts of time and effort for fans, one of the most noteworthy would be that they have a concert every year. In 2019, it will be their 21st anniversary since debut.
JYP’s first idol group G.O.D has never disbanded, however they were previously on an extended hiatus as each member pursed their solo careers. G.O.D is known for their iconic songs that really reflected Korean culture in the early 2000s amassing fans from various age groups. Labeled as the “nation’s idols” that used lyrics described as “storytelling,” many of their songs are still remembered as iconic Korean songs.
G.O.D is considered to be part of the legendary first generation Kpop idol groups among H.O.T, Seck’s Kiss and Shinhwa.
G.O.D’s songs are one of the best songs to sing in karaoke regardless of how old the songs are. The songs are still relatable and relevant amidst the 4th industrial revolution, simply “classic songs.”
Kpop Boy Groups of the 2000s
Super Junior (2005-present)
The iconic Kpop idol group that broke the stereotype by consisting of many members even 13 at one point. Super Junior can be considered to be one of the earliest hallyu idols that paved the path for Kpop to become globally recognized. Not only are they a household name today in 2019 but their everlasting popularity in Korea and abroad is something many idols aim for.
Super Junior can be considered one of the examples of successful subgroups that has proven to create more opportunities for the idols to showcase their talents outside of their group activities. After dominating Asia, Super Junior has proven their reigning power as iconic Kpop idols by their amazing success in Latin America even releasing songs in English, Korean and Spanish!
Super Junior was one of the first idol groups with so many members creating the opportunity to market to so many different preferences. Each member had their own unique remarkable characteristics that would appeal to nearly anyone. Frankly, it was a genius move by SM and now we have idol groups that follow this strategy! (Thank you SM!)
Big Bang (2006-present)
YG’s first idol group aka “Kings of Kpop” and the MVPs for setting the Hallyu wave ablaze internationally, especially outside of Asia, Big Bang is the group who continuously redefined what ‘KPOP’ is by experimenting out of the norm while expressing their individuality.
Big Bang is renowned for writing their own songs which plays a significant role for their success.
Not only is the group incredible for having so many No.1 songs but also their success promoting as subunits and soloists unbelievable that has become something to strive for the following generation of idols. Is there anyone who doesn’t know Taeyang’s Eyes, Nose, Lips or GD’s Coup d’etat?
Just thinking of Big Bang, the concept of swag, hip, fast beats, clubs and parties come to mind. While is it sad to see that most of the members are still serving mandatory military service, it won’t be long before they will be back!
The boy band of SM aka the “Princes of Kpop” who set the standard for live performances with complex dance moves, Shinee contrasts crucially with other groups of the 2000s. Not only is this group experimental with their music exploring various genres, they are also considered the “aesthetic,” “artistic,” “beautiful” group through their choreography, concepts and wardrobes.
With the sad passing of member Jonghyun (RIP) in 2017, Shinee will never be the same. However, Shinee’s songs as a quintet, Jonghyun’s legacy remains as numerous fans continue to love and cheer for Shinee.
Shinee will forever be that scarred part of my Kpop love. They have had to regroup after the unfortunate experience of losing a member, however I fervently hope that they will be able to recover not only for themselves and fans but also for the legacy of JH to not be forgotten in the future.
Kpop Boy Groups of Today (2010s)
With less than 10 months before the end of the current decade, there are so many boy groups who debuted and deserve to be listed as THE boy group of 2010s. While many would want to nominate for their favorite group, I would say based on the past 110 months (2010-2019.2), EXO and BTS are the ones who will be considered the “legends” of 2010s in Kpop history years from now.
Is there anyone in the Kpop scene who doesn’t know EXO and BTS? EXO is the 3rd generation of SM’s beloved idol boy group taking on the baton from their seniors H.O.T, Shinhwa, Super Junior and Shinee. BTS is without a doubt the “titans of Kpop” if my 90 year old grandmother knows who they are because of the Korean news. So many records were broken and so much history was made by these two idol groups during this decade, I personally would like to bet some dough on whether BTS or EXO will show up in the history or business books in the near future. Having heard that UC Berkley is offering a DeCal class on BTS from a friend attending UCB, my odds of winning are very high.
Looking back on Kpop idols from the 1990s, Kpop itself is still pretty young with so much potential for growth. As a passionate Kpop fan who grew up with the first generation of Kpop idols on my TV screen in the 1990s and 2000s, I genuinely hope that there will be a day when Kpop music can be heard on the radio (outside of Korean radio stations) abroad.
Dean is a writer, singer, an aficionado of artistic picture-taking for Instagram. Besides that, he might be apart of a trend of non-idol South Korean artists looking outside the country for musical freedom.
It had been over a year since Dean released his iconic song “Instagram” that topped charts for weeks before giving way to iKON’s “Love Scenario.”
Prescient in its content and evocative in its narrative, it was a song that stood out on Korean music charts that are usually inundated with songs about love. Similar to its monochromatic video, it had a belied simplicity regarding the complex set of qualities that come into play when one uses social media including but not limited to addiction and depression.
It had a subtle depth — just enough to provoke (a comfortable amount of) thought and was general enough to make it relatable. Further, Ginza, a magazine out of Japan, described the song as ” inspired by the millennial generation,” and as a millennial, myself — though I don’t engage in social media that much because of the abovementioned effects — it is easily one of my favorite Korean songs from the past year.
However, since the release of the song, Dean seems more absent than present. His occasional updates on social media breathe life and anticipation into his fan base and he did release a song called “Dayfly” on different music sites in November.
Additionally, even with the beautiful melody, smooth vocals, and the meaningful lyrics, it didn’t feel like Dean was back; it was not a comeback. So when is Dean coming back and what has he been up to?
According to a social media post, the singer is working on a new album titled 130: mood: RVNG that he is dedicating more time to write, compose, and produce. Moreover, as he works on this album, Dean is also experiencing a personal transformation where he is ridding himself of the idea that he could only show his “perfect and good side to the world,” afraid of being branded after an unfortunate slip of the tongue. In turn, he is acknowledging his “badness, stupidity, weakness, and the dark shadows” of his past.
Interestingly, as he grows personally and musically, he seems to do so mostly outside of South Korea and instead is finding solace someplace in London. Perusing his Instagram account, the singer looks to be out of his native country for months at a time. In his posts, he appears to spend much of his time in England, with short forays elsewhere, working on music, collaborating with artists, and generally living his best life.
At the same time, I see an emerging trend where independent non-idol artists are finding freedom and solace outside of the Korean entertainment market. Similar to Jay Park who is working on expanding in the U.S., like Dok2 who moved to Los Angeles late last year, and alternative rock group Hyukoh that released an all English album last year and is currently on tour, it seems like Korean artists are looking to find their voice and music made and heard outside a system tipped heavily in favor of political correctness, cookie-cutter idols, and deep-pocketed companies.
On the other hand, it could be that other industries are now ready for Asian artists.
In 2019, there have been a lot of historical record breaking in terms of drama viewership for cable TV. Looking back on how much Korean dramas have changed over the last 2 decades, the Internet wins the grand prize for its role!
As an avid Korean drama fan since childhood, all I can say in short is… a lot has changed since the last century. You know time has really gone by when you remember actor Hyun Bin in his lead role in My Name Is Kim Sam Soon (2005) when he wasn’t buff with his spiky hair.
My Name is Kim Sam Soon (2005)
There was a time when a good portion of the dramas airing were historical dramas.
An example of what is Korean historical drama- some in the video would also go on my top historical drama list.
In the past, historical dramas could be expected to have certain traits. Lots of beautiful traditional hanbok, accurate depictions of historical events, usage of Korean like Old Korean or Middle Korean (what is used today is Modern Korean) and traditional Korean music as part of the OST. While there are a lot of dramas I could mention as an example, the ones that many would be familiar are probably Jewel in the Palace also known as Dae Jang Geum (2003), Hwang Jini (2006) and Emperor of the Sea (2003).
Jewel in the Palace (2003)
Many scenes were about traditional Korean cuisine, hence its role in the start of the Korean Wave. After this drama became globally popular, Korean restaurants started becoming widespread in many major cities as many people became interested in trying Korean food like bibimbap.
Emperor of the Sea (2003)
All members of the main cast in this mega-hit drama are today’s household names, Choi Soo-Jong, Chae Shi-Ra, Song Ill-Kook (triplets’ father), Soo Ae and Chae Jang-An. While some had already reached the heights of their career before this show, for others it sent them to the top!
Hwang Jini (2006)
This drama’s theme was traditional arts. The cast had to spend many hours learning to dance from an expert, the costumes were beautiful, the songs were well balanced between traditional and modern (modern classical). The drama’s success resulted in the lead actress Ha Ji-Won winning the 2006 Grand Acting Award.
Historical drama is not limited to hanbok or court intrigue
While many Korean dramas consist of wearing what is stereotyped as traditional Korean clothing, that doesn’t mean there aren’t others. One of the most iconic historical dramas would be Rustic Period aka Yainshidae (2002) depicted in the 1920’s to The Korean War when western clothes like suits and dresses have become widespread. As one of the THE highest-rated TV shows in Korea’s broadcasting history, the drama is based on a historical figure Kim Du-Han who happens to be the grandfather of Song Ill-Kook and the great-grandfather of the nation’s triplets-Daehan, Minguk and Manse.
This drama had many action scenes attracting a male fan-base. Covering romance, bromance, trip to memory lane for the older generation, intrigue for the younger ones, this was considered the family drama to watch all together. Even now, there are references to this drama because of how memorable the drama is.
On a side note for those who haven’t been captivated by the nation’s triplets.
Korean Content Globally Accessible
In the past, before the Internet became widespread, Korean dramas could only be aired from the 3 major public broadcasting companies. During that time, there were limited slots for dramas to air, so with lots of demand but limited supply, each drama to be slotted for a broadcasting company had to go through a very competitive selection.
Accessing Korean content abroad before the Internet
Previously up to the early 2010s, the main TV broadcasters were KBS, MBC and SBS. To watch Korean drama, you had to rent it from a video store (if you live in a city with a big enough Korean population) or pay a lot of money to access a Korean channel. However, even if you paid a lot to watch Korean drama on TV, there was a time when you have to watch it as it airs, not where you can go back on your smart TV and catch up on past episodes at your convenience. Additionally, watching 2 new episodes every week on TV outside of Korea meant you are going to be very behind on your drama. By the time it starts airing in the US, chances were the drama was almost done with its season back in Korea. So what many people opted for (including myself) was to go to the Korean video store and rented videos of the new episodes of Korean drama which would be only 1 week behind Korea’s broadcasting schedule. Note it wasn’t DVDs but video tapes where you need a device to rewind it for you before you can start watching it all over again!
Now in 2019, with the Internet, cable TV, web dramas and more in Korea, there are so much content available it has become somewhat overwhelming to prioritize your time when deciding which Korean drama to watch. Korean dramas have been globally recognized to be a very profitable market, hence companies like Viki, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc. distributing Korean dramas on their sites. Not only that, some of the mentioned companies are even producing or investing in Korean drama.
With lots of demand and supply in the 2010s, it wouldn’t be too strict to say that the quality of Korean content has dropped over the years. From the time when there was only 3 broadcasting options to today where there’s so many options and marketable groups, it has become more profit driven than ever before.
Of course, when there are negative aspects, there are also many positive aspects as well. Korean media has become more accessible resulting in more interest for Korea, more fan bases leading to what is the continuously growing Hallyu Wave. There are more opportunities for those aspiring to go into film and more economic growth. Depending on what is considered more important for each person, the pros can outweigh the cons.
My Take On This
With many positive aspects, I hope that growth (profits) will not blind the entertainment industry in forgoing quality for quantity. In the end once all the profits, growth and potential are temporarily earned, these dramas will remain to become evidence for the future generations as they study history. Just as we ourselves used historical artifacts like music, books, physical propaganda and chess to understand the past, it will apply the same in the future. Or even now where kids (Gen Z) do not know what a game-boy, furby, beanie babies and walk-mans are.
In a recent interview with MTV, musician and businessman Jay Park hints that he is looking to be the first Asian-American hip-hop music mogul. As a pioneer not only in Korean music but music overall, it is not a question of whether he has what it takes, but if the U.S. is ready for someone like him.
It is easy to talk about Jay Park’s accomplishments. Since going solo he has released dozens of songs, and featured on even more; started AOMG and H1GHR Music entertainment labels which house some of Korea’s greatest hip-hop talent; judges contestants on Asia’s Got Talent; Vice cited him as driving the change in South Koreans’ perception of tattoos; became the first Asian-American to be signed to Roc Nation, and performs all over the world.
At this point, he already is a mogul, particularly in South Korea where the majority of his business endeavors flourish.
Even so, Park felt that he has “reached a plateau” in the Asian country, Park has gradually dedicated more energy to his English-language music and other activities in the U.S., as much as it is a new endeavor and stage in his career, it is also a homecoming.
While the Seattle born artist is from the U.S., he sees a lot of parallels with his experiences in Sout Korea. In particular, as it was when he first when to South Korea, entering the American music market has yielded much the same: there is no one really like him doing what he is doing.
While he was a westerner in K-pop when it was still unusual, being an Asian-American in the hip-hop industry today is probably even more trying. The U.S. has a deeply ingrained and longstanding stereotype of Asian men as well, not men. They are (wrongfully) emasculated, seen as feminine, and “model minorities” who are seen are nerd or goofs.
Hip-hop remains a genre and lifestyle that champions hyper-masculinity. It is not by accident that even female rappers like Nikki Minaj uses male genitalia to exert power and dominance as in her song “Stupid Hoe” where she raps “Ice my wrist’s and I piss on bitches/ You can suck my dick, if you take this jizz-ez.” Emasculation, feminized men, and the model minority trope are all still antithetical to most of the hip-hop community.
While shifts in society and influx of diverse voices have served to chip away at the stereotype, it is still a huge reason why there are no prominent Asian-American faces in the U.S. hip-hop community.
Jay is hard working a good businessman who has built himself up from the bottom. There is no doubt that he has the know-how and the drive to create something in the U.S. However, it will be much harder to change deeply entrenched ideas that Asian men have no place in the hip-hop community.
All images are courtesy of Jay Park’s Instagram (@jayparkitrighthere)
On January 12, Trot singer Hong Jin-Young held her first solo concert in Los Angeles, California. Highlights were Hong Sun Young’s surprise performance, wardrobe malfunction and other exciting segments.
Korea’s Trot fairy Hong Jin-Young, held her first solo concert in LA (technically Temecula which is 2 hours away) commemorating her 10th year since debuting in 2009.
Hong Jin Young sang all of her hit songs starting with Love Battery to set the mood followed by all of her singles like Cheer Up, My Love, Thumb Up, Good Bye etc. The concert audience consisted of a wide range of age groups from children to the elderly fans. It was a boisterous environment with lots of excitement. The stadium had a seating capacity of 3260 seats, which was filled to the max. The light sticks from the audience was mesmerizingly beautiful once the ceiling lights dimmed.
Photo of 2nd floor audience:
Permission to take photos and videos were granted!
Generally in regards to taking photos or videos during the concerts, it is not allowed. However in Hong Jin-Young’s case, the Trot fairy gave her explicit consent at the opening of the concert. Her method to convey her permission was witty, “When you all came in, did you see the sign about not taking photos or videos?” (Hearing this all the excited fans have drooped shoulders and are slowly putting away their phones.) She continues by saying, for me you can take as much photos and videos as you want. (People are in disbelief and shocked, myself included.) Hong Jin-Young says “In fact, I look better in videos, for some reason I don’t look so great in photos,” followed by “during the concert I will strike a pose and stay still, you can take photos then so the picture comes out nice.” As a result, I was able to take photos and videos to my heart’s content to share with everyone!
Highlights of the Concert
Hong Jin Young actively interacted with fans throughout the entire concert.
Hong Jin Young made sudden poses during her performance to give the audience a chance to take her picture. It was hilarious at times when the singer would be dancing then casually stay still for a few minutes at the left or right side of the stage to give fans a chance to capture a great photo. Her intent to interact with the crowd was so strong to the point her security detail probably exasperated at the artist’s determination.
Hong Jin Young visits 2nd floor audience:
Hong Jin Young shared her intention to walk to the audience to get a chance to greet them since only the fans sitting in the front can see her. The excitement from that announcement was really amazing. When the artist started walking out while singing a song, many fans blocked her path (security was busy keeping on eye on everything at this point) to take a selfie together or to shake her hand etc. Interesting point was these fans were of various ages ranging from 20s-70s. Grandfather figures were so excited seeing their favorite singer up close that they forgot about their wives and grandchildren seeing them turn into excited fan boys. One of the fun remarks about this from some people around me was “The ride back home will be full of fights for forgetting their social dignity.” Considering Korean social norms play a significant role in Korean-American society, it is understandable that for some it can seem socially embarrassing to see important figures changing into excited fan boys in front of their beloved singer.
It’s probably comparable to this scene from Descendants of the Sun when the officers in the army turn into ardent fan boys in front of Red Velvet in the drama.
Hong Jin Young had to make many attempts to reach the audience in the second floor due to many excited fans blocking her path at every point. By the time she finished her walk around the venue to return to the stage, Hong Jin Young found her shoe had fallen apart and needed to take a quick break to change them. She stated it was her first time seeing this happen although she has performed on the stage so many times, commenting on how memorable it is for her.
Hong Jin Young’s shoe fell apart:
During the segment where Hong Jin-Young reads all the post-its prepared in advance by fans, the most remarkable one was asking about her sister. As a result, Hong Jin Young called out her sister Hong Sun Young to the stage and the two performed a song together followed by Hong Sun Young’s solo performance. To be able to hear Hong Sun Young’s amazing vocals in person, it really reminded me of BMK in terms of her voice and singing style.
Hong Sun Young was shy and taken aback by the enthusiasm from the audience whenever everyone chanted “encore” at the end of her songs. Unfortunately the cheers were even louder for Hong Sun Young than for artist Hong Jin Young, which were remarked by the singer.
Hong Sun Young performance snippets:
Since 2018 there have been lots of speculation and interest in whether Trot singer Hong Jin-Young and former-idol Kim Jong-Kook are (or will be) dating.
Both Hong Jin-Young and Kim Jong-Kook have expressed their chemistry with each other on screen. Many fans who have watched the variety shows when they appeared together have been wishing for the two people to really date. The crucial variety show that broadcasted their chemistry was seen on SBS’s Running Man where Kim Jong-Kook has been a cast member since 2010 with Hong Jin-Young appearing as a featured member various times. Additionally, SBS’s Ugly Ducking where Hong Jin-Young and Kim Jong-Kook are both cast members since 2018 is also memorable. Much of the public have been very supportive of these two to become a couple in real life, including myself.
I don’t think I really understood how much love and support Hong Jin-Young and Kim Jong-Kook had been receiving as an on screen item until now. It has already been established on screen to consider them to be a potential couple with the ambiguous atmosphere and hyping from the MCs. Both have been flirty on screen in various shows with the editing building it up. This was confirmed when a compilation of those flirty scenes were played at Hong Jin-Young’s solo concert in Los Angeles.
Towards the end of the concert, Hong Jin Young started singing any song the audience requested. Lo and behold, Kim Jong Kook’s song was requested with many people shouting for Kim Jong Kook’s One Man. The cheers when Hong Jin Young sang Kim Jong Kook’s songs one after other were the loudest cheers during this segment. People were cheering for them to date, shouting they look great together etc.
Kim Jong Kook covers:
Someone yells “Kim Jong Kook” snippet:
Freebies like light sticks were given to cheer for Hong Jin Young.
Due to many local and corporate sponsors for the concert, there were some free stuff available for the audience before the concert like light sticks, health magazines, vitamin samples and coupons being handed out with some giveaways of skin care, electronics, gift certificates, health supplements and even a grand prize of one round trip to Korea from Korean Air.
Overall everyone had a wonderful time.
Hong Jin Young’s concert was not catered to one specific age group, but for all ages. Whole families from young to old had a great time listening to Korean Trot, ballads and great song covers from Hong Jin Young. Hong Jin Young was very proactive in interacting with the audience, not the mention the unexpected appearance of Hong Sun Young, which made an unforgettable experience.
Personally, I enjoyed the concert very much and glad for the spontaneous decision to go. If it wasn’t for my friend’s acquaintance being unable to go hours before the concert, my friend and I wouldn’t have had the chance to see and hear Hong Jin Young in person. There may be many memorable parts to the concert but what I shared are what was most memorable for me. Looking back to the concert a week later, I hope there are more chances to hear Hong Sun Young perform whether with her own debut as a singer or participating in her sister’s songs. She sounded awesome and would be perfect for Kdrama OSTs.