Over the past ten years, Korea has perfected a fruitful system for producing top-flight pop stars. Now, as K-pop focuses its careful aim on the American market, that same formula appears to be just as ripe for export.
You would never guess that this is where they live. Lisa Jo is casually pointing to it from her office just across the street: a squat, red-brick apartment building whose only distinguishing mark is the grimy noodle shop tucked into its ground floor. Thousands of houses just like this one carpet Seoul’s hilly northern half, most of them dwarfed by the skyscraping residential towers that line the Han River and virtually every major avenue in the city like teeth. This one, though, functions as the primary residence for as many as 30 young “trainees” signed to YG Entertainment, one of three major management companies headquartered here in South Korea’s capital. And this is where another group of unit-shifting, border-blurring, level-pushing Korean pop starlets sleeps, during those few hours at night when they break from studying their craft. “They are not home right now,” Jo says, minutes before lunch. “They are in school.”
Jo, a Seoul native and overseas business representative for YG, might be referring to the intense high school curriculum that all Korean youths are expected to complete before entering university (YG claims to make educational arrangements for the teens whom they board and train). But as we make our way to the basement cafeteria, Jo swings open the doors to two dance studios: The first is dark, save for the smartphone flicker of someone whose mid-morning nap we’ve just interrupted. In the second, a young girl in a gray Gap T-shirt and black tights is crouched, dropping in her contact lenses as she prepares for an afternoon class in song composition. She smiles and bows, and when I ask Jo why the girl is here rather than in school, the question is misunderstood and met with a giggle: “Hopefully, she is getting popular.” That’s the plan.
From top to bottom, YG Entertainment’s office, a postmodern hunk of glass and dimpled concrete, is designed to both manufacture and maintain a carefully calibrated, highly controlled stream of pop product. Up top, you’ve got an off-limits floor for founder Yang Hyun-Suk, former member of ’90s R&B legends Seo Taiji & Boys. Just below that you’ll find offices devoted to expanding the company’s vast international audition network. Walk down a few flights and you’re met with an assortment of plush recording studios, available to producers both in-house and imported. There’s a fully outfitted gym manned by a celebrity fitness guru. The cafeteria serves home-style Korean fare and boutique coffee until late in the night. And of course, there are those practice spaces built for students who are recruited from all over (including America), all of whom are major investments immersed in a specialized curriculum of dance, voice, composition, and foreign language, meant to prepare each trainee for a career not just at home in Korea, but across continents.
Nowhere are the fruits of K-pop’s training more apparent than onstage. It’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon and throngs of schoolgirls are shrugging off frigid temperatures outside the aging Olympic Gymnastics Arena, one part of the massive Olympic Park complex built for the 1988 Summer Games. Tonight, YG is rolling out its entire roster in celebration of 15 years’ worth of hits. They’ve gone to great lengths to create a festival atmosphere within the Park’s stone plaza, assembling a small village of tents and official merchandise counters (not to be confused with the many bootleggers hawking candy-colored binoculars, glow bands, and luminous, group-specific wands between here and the subway station). The smell of ketchup and fried animal fat is thick in the air, fumes spiraling out from a ring of kiosks serving Korean sausages and lollipops of battered pork.
To the left, check your cameras and recording devices — none are allowed inside the arena. Next door, a tent is promoting SOUL, the Ludacris-endorsed line of headphones. And across the way, there’s an information booth set up specifically for the Japanese fans who have flown in for the event; its line is the longest. In 2011, no foreign fans have embraced K-pop more enthusiastically than the Japanese. If all these acts weren’t performing together this weekend, they’d likely be making short, strategic tours through Japan, a market whose size exceeds Korea’s several times over. For two countries with such a complicated and difficult cultural history, the exchanges between fans here are pure: Kids bow and smile, gesturing nervously to the handmade sign each has brought along and dedicated to the idol of their choice. When this same show comes to Saitama Super Arena outside of Tokyo a month later, over 200,000 fans will attend.
A trainee goes through the regimen for two years. I’m not sure other countries or labels have that patience. Every time they perform a song, it’s got to be perfect.
— Yvonne Yuen, VP of international marketing for Universal Music
Tonight belongs to the guys in Bigbang. Since frontman G-Dragon went into hiding in 2011 after the rare K-pop scandal (he tested positive for smoking marijuana but was never charged), this performance marks a triumphant onstage reunion for the group. They seem up for it; you can feel it in their gravitational pull. They move more like moussed-up panthers or professional athletes than pop stars. When G-Dragon’s childhood friend and fellow rapper-singer T.O.P approaches, it’s as if the city’s been tipped on its side for 30 seconds.
Your once laconic, germaphobic neighbors hurtle and squeeze into one corner of the section like a pile of giggling carp along a catwalk, mouths agape, eyes wild, hearts doing weird things inside their chests. T.O.P swivels and smirks, as if to puckishly half-acknowledge the frisson at his feet. He probably took a class on this. A beat drops, your eyes water. A hook arrives, you laugh to breathe. Kids are running in place, clutching their faces, screaming in so many different frequencies that the sum resembles what it must sound like if someone could roll down the window on a 737 six miles up.
With an hour left, some of them are starting to collapse from exhaustion, their friends catching and carrying them out with such calm it feels like just another part of the ritual. Not long before Bigbang begin their encore, a wavy-haired, thirty something American woman grabs my arm. “How do I get out of here?” she shouts. “How do I get out of here?!”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of SPIN.
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