Watching Korean Pop Magic Being Made

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Men, be careful what kind of fatherly wisdom you offer your children. You could end up as I did- freezing outside a Korean office building at seven in the morning. It’s clear, but cold, in the plaza of another futuristic office complex in Seoul. We’re lined up with about 70 raven-haired Korean teens, hoping for a chance to see a concert by Korean pop stars. The show’s taping is tonight, but to get in, you have to come out before the sun rises to get tickets.
Finally a security guard comes by, taking down names. In the complicated business of getting in to the studio audience for “MNET Studio Countdown”, you have to be registered twice, present at certain times and places during the day. Thus the 5:30 wake-up call on an early spring Thursday morning.
“They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.”
Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
The guard, a black-suited young man with a perfectly superfluous Secret Service-style earphone, takes an extra half-glace at me and has us write our names on the list. We are #64 and #65. If we show up tonight at 5:10 exactly, we’re in.
We decide to head back to our guesthouse for a quick nap, but my daughter is so excited that’s unlikely to happen. ‘Too many girls just like the same music their boyfriends like,” I told her five years ago, when my word still meant something. “Don’t be like that. Find your own path in music.”
What I had hoped my sage words would mean is I’d eventually share my Genesis and Van der Graaf generator albums with the girl. Instead, she went and found her own path-and it’s artists with names like U-Kiss, Infinite, SHINee and B2ST. Most North Americans have never heard of Korean pop music. But take what you might have pictured about Japanese music, dose heavily with American rap, hip-hop, and disco, and you are starting to get the idea.
Korean pop music is huge in this country of 50 million, and growing rapidly all over Southeast Asia, China and Japan. With massive corporate backing, and slickly produced videos, the star’s faces are familiar in every household and on the street. Larger than life posters are ubiquitous, the stars being used to hock everything from cell phones to fashion to face cream.
Wannabe stars are put through years of training, and sign five-to-ten year contracts with studios to work for them, exclusively. Most aren’t though high school yet, live in company dorms and are contractually bound to remain ‘available’ for their multitude of prepubescent fans. The band members are disposable and interchangeable at the company’s whim. But the payoff for the successful ones is fame for life.
The music itself is mostly forgettable- studio manufactured dance tunes and ballads, ranging from bubblegum pop to faux-ghetto rap. Just broken hearts, no teenage rebellion. The odd performer stands out- like a Canadian hip-hop artist banned from the airwaves a couple years back for lyrics critical about the government. The ban made him even more popular. All in all, it’s not much different from North American pop music.
My girl’s been lucky enough to see her idols once on the trip already- in Singapore, at an arena. But tonight, we’re going to see some up-and-comers, live in the studio. We meet a pair of young American women, foreign exchange students, who are also coming to the show tonight. “I can’t wait,” says one breathlessly. “They are here, they are live, and they are adorable.” The three of them laugh. I roll my eyes. This will be a long night.
Bismark said if you love the law or sausages, you should never watch either being made. The same goes for television. We are ushered into a large sound studio, walls curtained black with a large stage to the back. The audience is coralled between the main stage and a side presentation area for the hosts, packed in enough to hike the audience energy. The fuss and bother of pre-broadcast preparations flow seamlessly into the actual show. There’s no big announcement, no flash or dazzle. Suddenly, the hosts appear to the side of the stage, and announce the first act. The stage lights come on, and a young woman sings a ballad.
About halfway though, a bored-looking stage director comes on stage, and waves at the performer. The girl stops singing- at least, her mouth stops moving. Her song continues to play over the speakers. She bows to the audience, smiles sheepishly, and exits. There’s a smattering of applause. This happens another two times. Groups of young androgynous men, and lolita-like girls, come onstage, singing and dancing. Then they’re pulled off mid lip-synch.
And the winner is, for the 153 week in a row… corporate profits!
Photo by Jane Robinson-Boivin
I can’t quite figure what’s going on until I glance to the side and see a monitor playing the feed. The bands have pre-recorded their acts, which are going out ‘live’ to the air. Their appearance here tonight is mostly to top-and-tail the show production.
Most of the audience, oddly, isn’t even paying attention to what’s on stage. About a quarter are watching monitors stage right, another quarter are sitting cross-legged on the floor texting friends, and another handful have their backs to the performance, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols as they walk backstage.
It’s no wonder they don’t have a camera on the audience. The performance, such as it is, continues, and the energy increases as the show progresses. It’s a countdown of the top radio and TV pop songs of the week, and the hot bands are saved for last. More of the audience starts to stand up, there’s screaming and some weeping, scarves waved and heart-signs flashed.
Finally all the acts gather on the stage, and a winner is announced. There’s a bit of forced congratulations all around by the bands- the decision who’d win, after all, was actually made in a boardroom months ago. Fireworks go off, confetti falls, spots sweep the studio, credits roll. The crowd leaves, sweaty and happy.
It’s dark as we hail a cab for the short trip home. My girl is happy- she’s seen some of her favorite new bands tonight. She asks if she can go again next week. What the heck, I figure, and agree. “If we’re still here,” I caution. Sure, her music sucks to me. But I’m old. Her music should suck- the way my music sucked to my parents. There’d be something wrong if I really liked her music. She’s found her own path, and it’s lead us here, far away from home. I couldn’t ask for more.
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