Explained (2018) s01e04 Episode Script

K-Pop

1 [narrator] You know these iconic moments in music.
The Beatles landing in the USA, setting off the British Invasion.
Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner.
" Madonna at the first VMAs.
Here's one you might not know.
Seo Taiji & Boys performing on a musical contest show in South Korea.
But you definitely know what this moment created.
The worldwide industry we call - K-pop.
- K-pop.
K-pop.
[reporter] Korean pop culture that's sweeping Asia is now taking hold here.
The explosion of the five billion dollar global Korean music industry.
[Ellen DeGeneres] It's like when they got to LAX, it was like The Beatles were here.
So here's a question.
How did South Korea create such a globally successful music industry? To begin to answer that question, we need to rewind right back to that iconic moment.
You can tell from Seo Taiji's face they're not getting the best response from the judges.
Then again, I don't really think there's enough of a melody.
Everyone who saw the show was shocked about their performance on the stage.
To understand why this performance was so shocking, just listen to one of the biggest hits the decade before.
It was a patriotic anthem wrapped in an '80s pop song.
It was called[speaks Korean] It's old Korea.
I'd hear the song continuously from TV and from radio.
The reason he heard this song all the time was because it was a "healthy song," a patriotic tune commissioned and promoted by the government.
This control of pop culture was imposed by South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee and continued after his assassination in 1979.
During this era the government controlled the broadcast systems, which televised wildly popular musical variety shows.
In order to be broadcast, pop music either had to be patriotic, like "Ah, Korea" or safe, like "You're Too Far To Get Close To," a G-rated love ballad.
Back then, we only had three broadcast agencies, so it was hard to find new culture.
Seo Taiji & Boys' television debut in the spring of 1992 was the defining moment that showed cultural progress in South Korea was possible.
Seo Taiji & Boys might be the cultural symbol that showed all the changes, not only in the culture industry, but also in the whole environment in Korea.
Seo Taiji & Boys rapped, they wore baggy pants, and they danced like B-boys something Korean audiences had rarely heard a Korean group do.
When I was young, people had a negative view of dancing.
The adults did not look at it in a positive light.
In fact, newspapers started describing them as the Korean New Kids On The Block.
If they wore something, it became the trend.
I think they introduced American hip-hop fashion to Korea.
Thanks to them, what we consider normal within popular culture in Korea expanded.
Take their 1995 classic "Come Back Home" about teenage runaways.
This song skirted past censorship, but "Regret Of the Times," another track off the same album, was banned, because its lyrics directly disrespected the older generation.
That didn't stop Seo Taiji & Boys from becoming one of the most popular acts in South Korea.
They wanted to go out on top, and so at the height of their fame, they announced their retirement and understanding the power of an image, released a music video saying goodbye.
We are so sad because they left us.
Nearly 40 years before that, South Korea was an incredibly poor country, but it had developed its economy strategically from the ground up and by 1996, when Seo Taiji & Boys retired, it was the 11th richest country in the world.
Enter Lee Soo Man, a former Korean entertainer turned businessman, who saw music as the next big export.
"Made in Korea" should be stressed, Lee Soo Man's first hit product was H.
O.
T.
Oh, "Candy.
" I performed this in school.
The gloves were the most important part.
Yes, the ski gloves were a thing.
If you look at Seo Taiji & Boys and H.
O.
T.
side-by-side, you'll see some remarkable similarities.
They blended hip hop with dance music, and they wore clothes meant for the slopes.
You have to understand, we love H.
O.
T.
, but their music videos confused us as well.
People were wearing those gloves on the streets.
It was shocking to me as a child.
They wore ski apparel once, and the next thing you know, everyone was wearing the same clothes at the slopes.
And then there was the choreographed dance.
And there was this dance, the Yeah, the This thing.
It was called the man chi chun, which is like a hammer dance.
If you're a kid, and you don't like awesome choreography, then you're not really a kid.
This song was huge, and there were about, like, 200 songs that tried to do what this did.
Lee Soo Man had clearly tapped into something, and a year later, when a catastrophic financial crisis pummeled Asia, the South Korean government had the same idea as Lee Soo Man.
Culture could be the county's next big export industry.
They even passed a law devoted to bolstering the arts, and vowed to dedicate at least 1% of the entire state budget to culture.
There were three main companies ready to take advantage: Lee Soo Man's SM Entertainment, and two other new music agencies, JYP and YG.
YG's founder was none other than Yang Hyun Suk, a member of Seo Taiji & Boys.
These three companies established the formula for making K-pop that still exists today.
First things first, the "K" in "K-pop" stands for Korean, so it's Korean pop.
I would describe K-pop to someone who's never heard it as Pop on crack.
I don't want to call it manufactured, 'cause that feels rude, but there's this whole presentation to the groups.
It's absolutely not cynical music at all.
It is just pure optimism.
Even in the Korean market, We often talk about what K-pop is.
Does it refer to a band made in Korea? Does it only include idols? Across the world, we're used to the term K-pop, but in Korea they're called "idol groups" because they were made through a very specific process.
auditions or scouts the idols, trains them to sing, dance and act, and carefully assembles them into incredibly polished and well-rounded groups.
Now, this process can take years, and it's a process that K-pop didn't invent.
That same factory system was used by Motown, the label that cultivated hit acts like The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Jackson Five.
Speaking of The Jackson Five, K-pop bands usually have at least five members, often a lot more, and they all take on specific roles.
You'll very rarely find a group where two people are very similar.
The K-pop groups will typically have titles to them about their positions.
As for me, I got a role of a leader and a songwriter and rapper.
You have the singer, the rapper, the dancer.
- J-Hope, him.
- Yes.
He's the dancer of the group.
You have the magnae, the youngest one, which is a role unto its own.
That makes the chemistry of us.
It's like The Avengers.
Imagine, like, The Avengers with nine Tony Starks.
That doesn't work.
You gotta have Ant-Man, you have to have the Hulk, you gotta have very different personalities.
Now, they may all be different, but every K-pop idol has to be squeaky-clean.
Idols must be kind and polite, and never be involved with alcohol, drugs, or scandals.
Love is the biggest topic, and it's also the topic that K-pop stars are never allowed to really talk about personally.
There's this idea that every single K-pop star is meant for the fans.
And when a K-pop group looks for an audience, they almost always look beyond Korean borders.
You'll see clues of that international strategy in the very names of the groups.
They're almost always acronyms, so there's no issue translating them for a global market.
It started when the uniquely Korean Seo Taiji was followed by the easily marketable H.
O.
T.
If you take a closer look at the K-pop group EXO, you'll see another marketing strategy: subgroups.
Two members are there specifically to sing and rap in Chinese.
Not only does the group frequently release two versions of one song, they sometimes even shoot two versions of the same music video.
People talk about K-pop as a music genre.
It's not really a music genre, it's a music idea.
And it's as much a visual art as a musical one.
You can see it in the bold colors and impeccably timed choreography of their music videos.
Even at this point, if you're from a small label, your production for a music video is still gonna be a thousand times better than a music video coming out in the U.
S.
A K-pop music video looks like Oh, my God.
Crazy choreography with amazing, intricate sets and weird costumes.
I don't think there's a single group that cannot dance well.
They'll have a vague story element that's just complete inscrutable, so something like BTS's "Blood Sweat & Tears.
" Very European art museum.
But no one's got any idea what's happening and then they intersperse that with beautiful dance moves, which is fantastic.
Music videos like "Blood, Sweat & Tears" have been a driving force of K-pop's viral success around the world, and while K-pop songs are largely sung in Korean, you'd be hard-pressed to find a K-pop song that doesn't have some English lyrics.
Yes, there are occasional English words here and there, but the good thing about the English words is that it makes it catchy.
Over the decades, East or West, there's been a back and forth with the influence.
That's what pop basically is.
You know, you can't really pinpoint, like, a location to it.
In fact, many K-pop songs are written by foreign composers from Sweden and the U.
S.
K-pop is happy to take good ideas from anywhere.
Take "Red Flavor," one of the biggest K-pop hits of 2017.
It was immortalized by Jack Black in a viral video taken from a Korean show, Infinite Challenge.
Infinite Challenge, it's a very popular show here.
The song was written by Caesar & Loui, two Swedish producers.
We actually wrote "Red Flavor" for a Western girl band.
- It was called "Dance With Nobody.
" - It was about a break-up.
We had Dance with nobody, nobody but me SM ultimately changed the lyrics to be a breezy summer hit, but hidden right before the song's chorus is a little ode to Swedish pop royalty, - ABBA.
- [Caesar] A little ABBA piece there.
They always have these parts, it's like they answer the melodies.
[narrator] 43 seconds into "Dancing Queen" you'll hear exactly what they're talking about.
And 43 seconds into "Red Flavor" you'll hear this.
Which brings us to the next key part of the formula: how K-pop songs mix and match genres.
K-pop is all about experimentalism.
You can go from super bubblegum-y pop one minute to a hardcore breakdown the next second.
Most K-pop fans won't even blink at this point.
Take 2013's "I Got a Boy" by Girls' Generation.
There are at least nine moments where different genres work together like here.
Skip ahead just 20 seconds and another unexpected shift happens.
Stop, let me put it down another way I got a look at "I Got a Boy," every popular genre at the time is something packed into one song.
It's a K-pop classic, and hints of its structure can be found in a lot of K-pop tracks.
In terms of how agencies create the music, K-pop is more product than art.
But the fans don't consume it merely as a product, like a car or a laptop.
Rather, they're interpreting and finding their own ways of enjoying it.
In 2011, the K-pop industry hit a big milestone.
The big three entertainment companies organized their first tours outside of Asia and Korean television broadcast those images back home, proof that Korean culture had finally found its global audience.
I saw the news, some European fans made some kind of flash mob in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris.
A year later there was this.
The video took K-pop style to a ridiculous extreme, and it was the first ever YouTube video to reach a billion views.
When "Gangnam Style" happened, we were there with Psy when it was being created to, like, when it exploded.
He was confused the entire time.
Even now he doesn't understand it.
He's like, "What's going on?" I'm like, "How would I know?" But it's awesome! K-pop was now a worldwide sensation.
In 2005, the whole Korean music market was ranked 29th in the world.
By 2016, it was ranked eighth.
That incredible success also put a worldwide spotlight on the long-standing criticisms of the industry, that entertainment companies push their young recruits into long contracts, controlling every aspect of their careers.
The industry still has a way to go, but some criticisms have been met with reform.
In 2009, the Korean Fair Trade Commission began regulating agency contracts, removing terms they deemed excessively long or restrictive.
Of course there are still problems in the relationship between artists and agencies, with how contracts are managed.
That might have been true in the past, but K-pop has changed since then.
This image of idols with no freedom whatsoever is no longer true.
That rigid factory structure also gets to something the headlines often overlook.
That actually gets to the core of K-pop.
It's "so K," so to speak.
To be patient and endure and finally achieve what you want is greatly valued and respected in Korea.
Even after "Gangnam Style's" incredible success, the U.
S.
market was still stubbornly hard for the K-pop industry to penetrate, and for one key reason.
The U.
S.
market has historically been really averse to non-English music.
That is, until BTS.
[presenter] Making their U.
S.
TV debut, make some noise for BTS.
It's like when they got to LAX, it was like The Beatles were here.
BTS will always have a special place in my heart.
I love BTS so, so, so, so much.
I like a lot of their music, but their fans are a bit scary.
BTS has basically smashed every U.
S.
record for a K-pop band.
To understand how, you have to look at Billboard's social media chart.
BTS has been at the top for over a year.
Billboard eventually cashed in on that enthusiasm, releasing collector's edition covers for each band member.
The music's great, but the thing about BTS is social presence.
That makes them very accessible to many fans.
That's something that is impacting other K-pop companies.
A lot of times, they just seem like old friends.
They also are very genuine, and they have a lot of chemistry together.
They're still individuals, but the chemistry between them is almost unmatched in all the K-pop groups.
But what really sets BTS apart from most other K-pop acts is their lyrics.
We always talk about the young people's lives.
BTS deals with some subversive themes that speak directly to a generation that feels enormous pressure.
Those messages are very similar to the band that inspired the K-pop industry in the first place, Seo Taiji & Boys.
In 2017, BTS even covered their classic "Come Back Home.
" And when Seo Taiji gave a concert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their debut, BTS joined him on stage.
South Korea became a pop culture powerhouse by taking Seo Taiji & Boys' style and turning it into a formula.
The formula is so successful that K-pop has now touched nearly every continent.
Hi, I'm Anubhuti from India.
- and I come from Finland.
- from the Philippines.
- Costa Rica.
- I'm from Canada.
This is my K-pop tattoo.
K-pop is my life.
K-pop helped the world understand and open up to a country it knew little about.
If someone sees a video of a K-pop idol group for the first time, with high probability they're going to be kind of confused.
That's not a bad thing.
It's one of the reasons why K-pop is so great.
Fans are able to connect with the artist, even though there's a difference in culture sometimes.
As K-pop acts start going outside of the formula, expressing their own ideas about their country and culture, there are millions of fans ready to listen.