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Gangnam Style: A beginner’s guide to K-pop fandom

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Rain is facing off against Stephen Colbert. The Wonder Girls are opening for the Jonas Brothers. PSY is doing a duet with Justin Bieber. More and more, the peppy, addictive sounds of Korean pop music are crossing international borders and becoming mainstream.

Perhaps someone handed you a link to “Gee” or “Sorry, Sorry” and you effectively got hooked. Or you watched PSY til your ears bled, even though you have no idea what makes a place “Gangnam Style.” (Points if you already knew Gangnam is a place.) Maybe you just heard your friends talking about DBSK. Or was that TVXQ?

Too many acronyms? Here’s a rundown of the slightly obsessive but always entertaining world of K-pop fandom and a list of where to go to get started.

K-pop worldwide

Beyond the few viral hits you might have seen on YouTube, K-pop fandom is evolving into a worldwide trend. As part of the “Korean Wave,” Korean music has been bridging cultural borders at an unprecedented rate.

K-pop studio bands are often considered to be of higher quality than other nations because the level of technical training that goes into the making of Korean pop stars starts at a very young age. Studios have gotten the production of infuriatingly catchy pop beats down to an art form, and with new bands entering the stage each year, the pressure is on to make every new debut and “comeback” more spectacular than ever.

Studio culture

Since the ‘80s, the Asian music industry has evolved a small group of powerful music studios who function roughly the same way that a powerful ballet studio might here in the U.S. They select a group of children at a very young age—generally between 10 and 12 years old—and begin training them to be pop stars. They spend hours in the studio, go to special schools, and learn to dance, sing, and perform like the professional idols they will one day be. When they’re old enough, the studios generate pop songs for them and group them into boy bands and girl bands, most of which go on to drop major hits all over Asia.

Before they even debut, however, studios allow the kids to appear on TV shows, special group performances, and more—grooming them for popularity long before they officially join a group. It’s very similar to what Disney does in the U.S., first with the Mickey Mouse Club in the late ‘90s, then with its crop of ongoing children’s and teen’s TV shows that propel its young stars into solo careers: Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, Zac Efron, and so on.

The music industry in Korea is what the U.S. industry might look like if all pop studios did what Disney does. Pop music in Korea is more heavily focused around studio culture than most other Asian countries, though it’s an influence that’s spreading. Though there are many artists who fall outside of studio culture, most chart-toppers in recent years have come from studio bands: DBSK/TVXQ, Big Bang, 2NE1, Super Junior, as well as solo artists Rain and BoA to name a few of the biggest.

Since all of these bands have contracts under the same studio, studios often like to play mix-and-match with the performers. Performers from various groups within the same studio often do guest appearances in one another’s videos. So if you want to get full access to a band and its members, it’s helpful to know which studio they’re in.

The “Big Three” studios

SM Entertainment

Formed in the mid-’90s, SM Town signs its members young and holds them to long, demanding, and controversial contracts. Wildly popular boy band DBSK caused a scandal when three of its members sued for a release from their 13-year-long contract, won, and split the band. Earlier this year, however, numerous members of the studio’s most successful bands became company stockholders, which suggests performers may have more control over their livelihoods in future.

Among the most well-known names associated with SME are: BoA, TVXQ (DBSK), Super Junior, Girls' Generation (SNSD), SHINee, f(x), and EXO  (EXO-k & EXO-m). SME also holds regular TV specials for its bands and tours them all in a massive performance group called SM Town.

JYP

Founded in the late ‘90s, JYP is smaller and less-insidious than SME, but its stars have proven just as capable of turning out hits. Artists associated with JYP include: 2AM, 2PM, Miss A, Rain, Wonder Girls, and MBLAQ. JYP’s all-studio group is called JYP Nation.

YG

YG Entertainment has longstanding ties to hip-hop and rap communities outside the studio culture, which could explain why rapper PSY signed with them two years ago, after he’d already hit it big. Their string of international successes could be another factor: YG doesn’t have a lot of artists, but the ones it has are huge: Big Bang, 2NE1, Se7en, and PSY are all international hit-makers.

Other artists

Other major artists not signed to the Big Three, but big in their own right include 4Minute, After School, Beast, Brown Eyed Girls (B.E.G.), FTISLAND,  IU, KARA, T-ARA, and INFINITE.

Where to find K-pop fandom

  • YouTube: Entering any band name into the YouTube search engine will allow you to embark upon a magical world of MVs (music videos), PVs (performance videos), fancams, interviews, and more. Just watch out for the anti-fans—fans who make active dislike of certain bands and band members into a subculture of their own.
  • Seoulbeats: Seoulbeats focuses on Korean media, with a subset of reviews and insightful commentary, such as this recent take on why Miss A is no longer a group of Bad Girls.
  • Eat Your Kimchi: Run by YouTube vloggers Simon and Martina, this site updates regularly with fun tidbits about Korean culture, music, food, and more.
  • Hello K-pop: This site features album reviews and commentary along with news. They also have a popular Tumblr.
  • Omona They Didn’t:  This offshoot of popular gossip blog ONTD on LiveJournal is a great source for news and gossip. See also sister community, J-pop blog aramatheydidnt.
  • All K-pop: Featuring news, fancams, and interviews, All K-pop also has discussion forums.
  • Koreaboo: A pun on “weeaboo,” a word that means a fan obsessed with Japanese culture, Koreaboo.com has all the juicy gossip you can desire.
  • K-Pop Secret: Can’t get enough gossip or discussion about your favorite bands? Then the K-pop Anon meme is for you.
  • Tumblr: Hello K-pop and Seoulbeats both have lists of their favorite K-pop fandom Tumblrs to get you started. We’re also fond of hipsterkpop and maddieloveskpop.

Photo via SMEnt/YouTube