It’s been years since the mighty Hallyu took the world by storm.
Coined by journalists from Beijing from back in 1999, it’s a now-famous term that describes the flow of Korean culture outside of South Korea. This includes the sudden interest in Korean fashion, beauty, cuisine, learning the language, learning Taekwondo and of course, visiting Korea itself. It’s probably hard to tell if it’s K-Drama or K-Pop driving the helm, but what we do know is both are doing it. We’re also aware that falling for one gives you a highly increased chance of falling for the other.
What made K-Pop K-Pop in the first place?
Aha, most will ask something like “How did K-Pop start?” but this is a better question.
In essence, K-Pop has always been there.
How did K-Pop become so powerfully global?
The keys to being the perfect entertainer have always been in the hands of the Nine Muses. We’re talking about the ones from Greek mythology, the 9 daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. For generations they’ve guided many folks in their artistic endeavors, including Dante and Shakespeare. It’s no different today, because even if we don’t really know their names artists looking for inspiration will find themselves symbolically drawing from their attributes.
But there’s a peculiar difference between K-Pop artists and their U.S counterparts.
Americans prioritize their music, lyrics and songwriting, so they draw inspiration mostly from Euterpe, the muse of music. So US artist equals musician. On the other hand, Koreans focus on shaping an all round entertainer – the same artist sings, dances, raps, acts in a drama, does archery during the annual K-Pop Idol Olympics (yes, it’s a thing) and takes part in comedy shows. Fans are treated to a large overdose of their musicians, always on the move, always keeping their composure, always groomed well and never seeming to take a break. The perfect role models of the hardworking Korean society. Hence K-Pop artist equals idol, drawing inspiration from all the 9 muses.
So who were the Greek muses? Let’s rewind with Euterpe and Terpsichore to see how K-Pop has been inspired by their unnies and maknaes, and ultimately why we love plus hate it.
Calliope’s Femme Fatale
Remember that feeling of awe when the group’s main vocal sings her verse or the lead rapper drops her sixteen bars? Attributed as the eldest plus the one with the “beautiful voice”, there’s a certain air of superiority about the muse of epic poetry. In ancient Greece she was royalty’s most trusted muse, always with her tablet ready to stamp the will of justice. She’s the one who inspired the beginning of Homer’s Iliad: “Sing O Muse . . .” It’s from her high level of class that K-Pop artists always strive to maintain their image. Because Calliope is unbeaten when it comes to pure swag.
♥ Motivates us to work out and look good
♥ Encourages us to have a cooler fashion taste
♥ Encourages us to have more self-confidence
♥ How do they deal with having a Nikon DSLR shoved onto their face everywhere they go? We fans don’t like this but we can’t really control this
♥ Might encourage us to make dumb wishes like “I wish I were popular”
♥ Gives a false view that their lives are “perfect”, something similar to the Facebook effect
The hardworking muse of history is often depicted holding her clarion instrument. Sometimes books, scrolls and parchments too. In the modern context, the artist guided by Clio is the embodiment of professionalism – hours of training, packed schedules (gigs at TV programs, universities, parks, fan signings, meet and greet sponsors etc.) memorizing choreography, multiple responsibilities (group leader, radio MC etc.) and more. All of it demand nothing less than full commitment.
It’s either work, train or study and time is always short. All these while keeping cool under extreme media pressure. In the K-Pop business model where everything is invested into trainees for 3-5 years pre-debut, they work hard to give everything back. From a fan’s perspective, this “moment of clarity” learning about the idols’ reality is naturally shocking.
♥ Reminds us that idols are people too, people who’re willing to sacrifice a lot
♥ Motivates us to be more disciplined for ourselves too
♥ We know they don’t get a good salary until they catch up to their debts
♥ Their insane diets, lack of sleep and stress is somewhat unhealthy
♥ To the label they’re more “profit machine” than “artist”, and this makes us uneasy because we don’t want them to lose their humanity. Even worse we’re aware of the Open World’s Ent case
♥ Fans mistakenly pity them when what they really need is motivation
The clever muse of music is mostly seen with her flute. She’s the big unnie when it comes to humanity’s seemingly endless creativity at making music from practically anything they can pluck, blow or hit – hence the birth of musical instruments and now software. Music is universal – language barriers mean nothing when you have melody and rhythm. She knows our primal desire for catchy songs more than we like to admit, and she definitely knows how to create the perfect hook.
This is K-Pop’s real power: It’s an ambiguous hybrid of pretty much all musical genres, a freshly baked stew incorporating the best parts from rock, R&B and Hip Hop plus 20+ other genres into one musical masterpiece. If one song doesn’t suit your taste, there’s another that will. Why? They’re designed to cater to all your feelings – there’s a song for you’re happy, emotional, energized, sentimental, lack motivation and in love. Ever noticed how versatile K-Pop idols are in their yearly comebacks?
♥ Bubble bubble bubble pop, bubble bubble pop pop. Such freshness
♥ Music is life’s best remedy, and there’s so much to choose
♥ Language barriers, because sometimes we wanna know what they’re saying
♥ Song gets stuck in your head and you can’t study properly
With terpo being the term for “amused”, this fun-loving unnie is the muse of dance. She’s the inspiration that keeps both artists and fans smiling while they’re dancing, letting down their hair and just enjoying themselves. The joyful feeling we get when we successfully copy our idol’s moves is equal to when the same idol sees that her fan knows all her moves.
A single dance move has the power to melt very different people together in perfect, synchronized choreography or fling the entire dance floor into complete chaos…but it’s so fun we just laugh it off. Wanna look hot, sexy, fearsome, robotic, funny? All you have to do is dance!
♥ Legendary dance moves like SuJu’s “Sorry Sorry” or KARA’s “Mister” butt sway are born
♥ They teach us their cool moves in episodes like “Let’s Dance”!
♥ Encourages dance as a hobby, which is awesome and healthy
♥ Society’s double standards: Guys who go topless and do pelvic thrusts are hot vs girls who do it are vulnerable to slut-shaming (like 4L’s “Move” pelvic thrusts for example)
She’s the cute muse of love poetry, often attributed to be “lovely” and “desired”. The word “erotic” is derived from the Greek eros, the raw description of falling in love.
This is arguably the most powerful magnet that draws fans, especially new ones, to the artist.
With just looks they mesmerize, get tons of selfie likes, arouse our efforts to study their profiles and hobbies, make us wonder how one can be so attractive, face, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, curves, abs, hips, thighs, legs…
♥ Eye candy!
♥ Motivates us to work out and look good
♥ How can one be so beautiful and kawaii at the same time?
♥ There’s so many girl groups to love but only one wallet
♥ Thanks to K-Pop + K-Drama, we falsely assume all Koreans look this pretty
♥ Might give an unrealistic standard of beauty for the Korean youth
Why do K-Pop groups have so many members?
If there’s one thing K-Pop labels aim for it’s all-round perfection. They want their one group to have members with different talents so that they together can cater to all their fans – who will have different tastes. Besides if one member leaves or falls sick the group can still continue.
- Greater stage presence: K-Pop’s ability to sweep the audience with a dance crew is how 9 different people can start off different, giving the sense that so much is going on the stage then suddenly melt together in perfectly synchronized choreography
- Re-packaging: Members could diversify into solo projects or sub-units, to keep the group’s studio music active while the other members are busy with their own schedules (dramas, radio etc.). Just like Hyuna does for 4Minute and Ga-in for BEG.
- Contagious Love: They want to give a sense that they’re giving more than they ask for. As you fall for one member and start following her, you’ll be exposed to the other members, grow familiar and fall for them too. Or that’s the plan, at least.
- Merchandising: There’s more options for things like posters, T-Shirts or even LINE Chat Stickers when you can put more faces in and give fans more diverse flavour.
- Group Leader: Us fans tend to look for “leaders” in any group, because we look up to all the members but are naturally curious if members themselves look up to anyone within the group. This mentality is similar to sports like football or netball – we always ask, who’s the captain?
One disadvantage of course, is that working as a group makes it harder for one person to stand out. There’s also that part where fans might start looking at a member as a weak link just because she doesn’t have a cool role like “lead dancer” or “main vocal”.
Ever heard of singing your praises? This eloquent maknae is ancient Greece’s muse of hymns and mimic poetry who’s usually said to have a contemplative, serious nature. And what better role model to follow when you’re emulating Western culture while presenting it with an Eastern mindset? We might not speak Korean but we know a dance floor, kissing, a garden, fighting, a desert, crying or a bank vault when we see one – all the things going on in that video will always speak for itself. K-Pop music videos are a unique kind of vacation, like travelling the world but never leaving Korea.
♥ It’s super fun to identify the themes explored in the song and review them
♥ K-Pop Olympics! Wow, are you kidding me?
♥ Don’t you just love it when AOA teaches yoga?
♥ With songs like “Bloom”, idols like Ga-In put female sexuality back into girls’ hands
♥ Saturation: Song concepts might get a bit repetitive for seasoned fans ie. dance-in-a-box
♥ Those blatantly obvious product placements
♥ Great. Now the Illuminati conspiracy theory weirdos have new stuff to write about
Laughter is the best medicine, from ancient times until today to tomorrow till forever. Thalia’s a cheeky unnie with a love of theatre, and as muse of comedy she’s inspired our favorite K-Pop artists to appear on many variety programs (talk shows, weird funny shows, game shows, etc.) like Running Man, Roommate and oh yes, Weekly Idol. Then its time to step out of the studio and take the stage live – if you think our video was good check us out on Inkigayo.
Not to forget the more “private” videos like AOA did with Angels’ Cam, or Nine Muses do on their channel. All accessible from their YouTube channels. It’s also from here that fans get more intimate with their idols, learning more about their personalities off-stage.
♥ It’s so funny and adorable
♥ Memes…memes everywhere
♥ Animals, people impersonations and of course, their brilliant Engrish
♥ AOA does things like random free hugs event, and Stellar’s “Oppa, I’ll do whatever you…” FB event
♥ We spend hours on YouTube watching these kinds of things
♥ We know they’re subtly introducing us Korean cuisine which will inevitably make us want it
♥ We know they’re subtly introducing us to landmarks which will inevitably make us want to visit Korea
♥ Concerts: Tickets get sold-out ridiculously fast, sweaty, loud and packed crowd atmosphere
Ever cried watching a really sad drama? How about a horror film so creepy you put on the popcorn basket? The mirror opposite of her sister Thalia, Melpomene’s tendency toward the 101 things in our miserable life that makes us miserable earns her complete rights as the muse of tragedy. It isn’t that we’re a sadistic audience and just like to see people suffer, but more of we want to experience being swayed by her displays of intense emotion. This craving is similar to horror movies and roller-coasters. Part of it is the challenge, part of it thrill, and mostly because we’re human and we’re fragile.
♥ It’s almost as good as watching a K-Drama
♥ Them Koreans can be so deep and relatable
♥ We know it’s very subtly inviting us to watch K-Drama, and we know that when we start we can’t stop
♥ We know they’re subtly introducing us to Korean which will inevitably make us learn it
♥ The “drama” becomes real and we fans start worrying (eg. lawsuits against label, disband)
Urania’s Universal Love
She’s the broadened muse of astronomy, usually with globe and compass in hand she represents the more heavenly attributes like universal love and conquering the world with the arts. If the entire world was at your fingertips, would you be able to hold its weight?
If you think you can, then your first test is to master a new language. K-Pop artists have to attend classes to perfect their English. Test 2 is work abroad, just like all these cool bands when they tour in someone else’s country. Test 3 is go for charity work abroad like Girl’s Day did for young girls in Thailand. Test 4 is dealing with outright, blatant hate like KARA’s Seungyeon who’s received very nasty letters from one “anti-fan” over the course of a year. That’s just the tip of the iceberg – the world’s got so much to throw at us. Some to embrace, some to dodge, some to monetize.
When idols interact with fans as performers, all we need to do is cheer, support them and of course throw money. But if the same idols are trying to interact with fans as a fellow person, will the fans know that they have to react differently?
♥ We tend to appreciate things more when we hear about charity
♥ Encourage us travel to new places, meet new people and be wiser about their cultures
♥ MBC’s Real Men! Our female idols willingly experience military training, as soldiers!
♥ It’s refreshing to learn that idols themselves reach out to help people as a fellow human, encourages us to do good for people
♥ Haters will say the charity was a “publicity stunt”
♥ Some haters take it way too far and actually try to hurt people
The Tenth Muse
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth than those old nine which rhymers invocate.
Plato’s convinced it Sappho the poet. The Spanish say it’s Sister Juana Inés. Darren G. Davies thinks she’s a superhero, Zeus’ tenth daughter. It’s also an organization of female artisans. It looks like the problem is not that nobody can agree. The problem is that nobody really knows. This is your female phantom of the opera, whose origins are unknown but whose influence is there. Your red riding hood, whose face is unseen but persona invoked time and time again. Nobody can put a real name to the Tenth Muse, because she’s so mysteriously cool and enigmatic. Maybe only her sisters know.
So. How’s the Tenth Muse related to K-Pop’s inspiration?
♠ Soft power. This term, coined by one Joseph Nye, means getting others to want what you want them to want. To achieve this you simply have to paint your culture as rich, interesting, modern, friendly…whatever rocks their curiosity. South Korea’s ambition to be the house of cultural power isn’t really a secret, especially with it’s million dollar investment to brand Seoul as a “Hub of Hallyu”. Through its exports, K-Pop being a major part, they aim to promote the country to the world in a positive light and make us all love Korea.
♠ Branding. With Louis Vuitton’s $80 million investment, YG Entertainment has a chance to stamp its mark on the fashion industry. When you’re fast rising into an enterprise, maintaining a trainee school, negotiating sponsorships, trying not to make videos look like product placements, scouting for new talent, paying merchandise upkeep and ultimately aiming to make as much money as an English football club, you’d want to make yourself a brand, right?
♠ Politics. It’s one thing to promote your local cuisine to the world, but there’s got to be eloquent enough to say “hey check out my kimchi it’s so daebak” instead of “you should eat my food instead of your own cultural one” just to avoid any trouble you know? Unless you’re Microsoft and you want to promote your Surface Pro 3 notebook, then by all means go ahead.
♠ Globalization. It’s all about this wonderful connection to the entire world that brings everyone together, promoting the exchange of ideas on a global scale that’ll make K-Pop even more perfect by improving its strengths and removing its flaws.
♠ Technology. As if we’ll leave this out. Unlike the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Hallyu stormed the world with the mobile Internet as its chariot. Packaged in high-quality music videos, lots of theater and stunning performers, K-Pop will continue to enthrall fans, old and new – just through a YouTube upload and some very good marketing strategies.
♠ Business. Music is, after all, an enterprise – thanks to the pioneering works of musicians like the late Micheal Jackson, who paved the way for fresh ideas on the monetization of music, turning “Artist” into “Artist Inc.” K-Pop’s model of focusing on creativity and marketing has been very profitable. Music as a business is beneficial to ancillary services like catering, transport, PR, magazines and all that.
However, if you make money your objective, you’re bound to fail and the reason why is quite obvious.
Case study: After KARA’s phenomenal success in Japan, their label DSP looked to expand their profits by investing in a new girl group Puretty that debuted as a Japanese group in Japan. They didn’t succeed. Little did they realize that the loyal Japanese market loved KARA more then they did K-Pop.
♠ Networking. If you pick the right “friends” from the industry, your connections can prove beneficial. Of course, you’d need a lot of patience putting up with the world’s hypocrisy, like how they wanted to ban, arrest, fine him initially but then made Psy UNICEF’s “goodwill” plus Gangnam district’s “honorary” ambassador after his rise to global super-stardom.
♠ Membership. The fanbase isn’t just a group of “mindless adoring fans”, as the stereotype goes. With proper steering of the artist-fanbase interaction, they’re primed to become a very active group in terms of supporting not just the idols, but getting together to embark on greater things rather than those foolish, but necessary, fan wars.
♠ Music. Because songs are churned out every few months, music itself has become less of an artistic endeavor than it is a product for consumption. This might seem overwhelming to those who treasure their classics in the same way Mona Lisa is treasured, but consider this: For a song in this era to even emerge as a classic, the challenge will become a hundred times harder, because of all the competition and so-called “half-life” of each song.
Which means that if a song today becomes a classic tomorrow, then it really is a classic.
So, as you’ve probably noticed, K-Pop’s tenth muse is the one who does everything in her power to rectify all of her little sisters’ flaws and turn them into strengths. Or at least hide them under the carpet…
As long as the 9 muses plus their secret unnie’s on board, K-Pop will remain a popular global cultural phenomenon, as well as a music genre, for a long, loong time.