The new neighborhood of Sangam-dong in northern Seoul is home to the World Cup Stadium as well as a mega-sized media complex.
Like many of the “new metropolis” built world over, there is none of the quaintness in the neighborhood that encompasses high-rise apartments and offices. It’s yet a sparsely populated area where the icy winter wind is felt chillingly as the wind travels viciously from the void between the sterile buildings.
On a recent visit to the neighborhood’s media complex, there seemed to be more test-driving cars than people walking on the streets. Maybe it was also because of the choppy winter wind that blew from one sterile-looking new building to another.
Then as one nears the building of a large entertainment agency building, a youthful flock of people are buzzing like bees in the cold weather. They were none other than fans lining up to enter a music show “M!Countdown” that featured such top “hallyu” or Korean Wave fans as MBLAQ, FT Island and a new group named B.A.P., to name a few.
The show airs weekly on the cable channel Mnet. There were fans from Asia as well as from Australia. Korean students on holiday were the dominant group among the crowd. Jang Min-ji, a middle school student in her second year said that she lined up from seven in the morning to watch the program that began filming live at 6 p.m.
There were always music fans who would do the hours or the days of waiting, lining up outside the major networks or cable channels to watch their stars perform.
But watching how the popularity of Korean culture spreads is similar to witnessing when Korean-made televisions and other electronic equipment and gadgets first made a foray into world markets in the late 1980s. It is with awe, slight disbelief and skepticism.
The fever for hallyu seemed like a one-time thing at best, but driven by the impeccably rehearsed idol groups and beautiful visage, its popularity is growing stronger. The members of the so-called idol groups such as Girls’ Generation, KARA, T-ARA have admitted that at their busiest, they have executed up to nine commitments a day or that they have slept just two hours all day because of their back-to-back commitments.
It’s not surprising, because one day you hear the news that the Girls’ Generation is performing in Europe and the next day you hear they are back in Asia. Sometimes, there is a sense of flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s, when the then-poor Korea relied solely on its human resources and “can-do” spirit of working crazy hours to climb out of poverty. One can almost say it’s a “can-do” spirit version of the 21st century.
Could any CEO’s schedule be any tighter? Better to reach for the stars, literally, than try to arrange a one-on-one interview with the top entertainers.
As I listened and watched some 14 Korean groups sing and perform, I tried hard to see what the appeal is for the universal audience. There is the novelty. They are different from the freedom-shouting Western artists. Their uniformity, which is often cited as a downside, is not constantly a bad thing. In the uniformity of their movement, their style, one can detect a note of hard work, discipline, i.e., an expression with restraint rather than expression with assertion.
Of course uniformity without perfection does come across as amateurish ― I must say almost childish. Also, the interesting aspect of the K-pop idol groups in particular is that you can find variety within one group. In sum, what the immaculately dressed and rehearsed young K-pop stars, through their exuberant, happy-feeling and sometimes sexy performance, symbolize is a fantasy.
For some, it could be a recreation on a stage of their childhood fantasy of glamour and glitter of the world not yet known, and others a reminder of the jubilance of youth. And of course, buttressing their popularity is the slight hegemonic shift in the world toward Asia.
Those involved in the industry seem to be working on future paths of hallyu even as they absorb the demanding schedules. There are new stages, markets and fans to be met. But ultimately, it will have to be about what hallyu can proffer for ever-changing demands of world consumers.