Terms like Mandopop (Mandarin pop) and Cantopop (Cantonese Pop) not too long ago were just barely brushing our lips. K-pop aka Korean Pop may be the flavor of the month, even sitting as a genre on the Spotify homepage, but Chinese singers like Kris Wu, Jolin Tsai and censorship-sensitive hip-hop acts like Higher Brothers too have fans go raging bull wild over their music.
South Korea grew from an impoverished country in the 1960s, then worth US $3.9 Billion in GDP, to a worth of US $598 Billion in GDP in 1996. The nation consequently went on to become the 11th richest country in the world.
The late nineties were the same time as Seo Taiji (the original K-pop band formed in 1992) peaked. Enter Lee Soo Man, an entertainer turned businessman who saw music as the next largest export. The man looked to change how the world views “Made in Korea” with music as its perfect catalyst. More on that in a paragraph or two.
This whole “Made In…” revolution may come off as something of an insecurity complex. Nevertheless, it perfectly analogizes how the younger generations of relatively “new” Asian power houses like South Korea and China are introspectively searching for self-improvement and -worth. The question beckons…
What strategic high notes does Asia’s contemporary music hit in this composition?
Made In Musical Asia
The South Korean government jumped on board with the introduction of new music when the Asian Financial crisis hit in 1997, and became evident that the music industry was a perfect way out. The government in 1999 allocated 1 percent of its spending to cultural activities and commodities such as musical performances. Immediately thereafter, three major companies pounced on the opportunity and established what K-pop is known as today. They are SM entertainment, JYP and YG (founded by Lee).
The musical production is catchy, and optimistic, well polished, colorful and seductive — perhaps slightly surprising given the context and location, but true nonetheless.
K-pop is beyond addictive and that’s a promise. Watch a K-pop video and it will feel transformative. This bubblegum happiness that is K-pop unfortunately only appears to be genuine (truly a defining attribute of the genre), when in fact it is a manufactured product.
Mandopop, a subgenre of C-pop or Chinese-pop, includes artists from across China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. Contrary to K-pop, Mandopop was and is highly restrictive due to the censored environment in which it was sprouted. It didn’t really begin to show its colors until Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng launched her career in Taiwan, where the restrictions did not apply with such intensity.
Cantopop singers saw this as an opportunity to commercialize their music as well and began to record Mandopop songs. The success of these artists laid the groundwork for Mandopop in China today. It was known as the Taiwanese Wave.
That Hippity Hop China Pop
China has in the past two years bore witness to a tug of war between hip hop and pop. Pop is notoriously wrapped up and controlled, topped off with a beautifully tied red bow. However, hip hop is met with obvious resistance given its rebellious nature and innate way of speaking to the people through putting social struggles down. Even if hip hop artists aim to create an atmosphere of communal understanding and connectivity, the genre of music features unruly language that the government finds distasteful.
Drugs and sex are just one of those bridges never to be crossed in China, so one can imagine their dislike for pretty much any other hip hop topic.
Mandopop singers, given these intense censorship laws, must refrain from exploring storylines that may seem controversial or do not encourage social stability. In South Korean music, the storylines are mysterious, explorative and seductive. They speak to real issues and connect with listeners in ways other than just love and heartbreak.
K-pop bands are a carefully manufactured product, but the themes are more exciting and dynamic. China’s former President Hu Jintao (2002-2012) once stated that “culture is the lifeblood of a nation,” but rather on the contrary, Mandopop has been described as an empty cultural vessel.
At the end of the day, Mandopop’s singers are repeatedly reciting the same song, delivering the same message, i.e. “fall in love and have fun”. Creativity is limited by the government’s fear for inspiring divergent thought and action.
The Flexibility Of K-Pop
Many fans prefer K-pop for their flexibility in content and lyric, yet some do feel that K-pop bands are too cookie cutter.
In K-pop, the standards for every band member are higher than Everest. Idols don’t just need to be perfect in talent, but must have a squeaky clean record. In every way imaginable. They must be the beacon of kindness and politeness. They should never be involved in any sort of scandal. They should never use, let alone “abuse”, any substance. They are the Avengers, with chemistry as their super power.
Every band has at least five members, each of them trained to fulfill a specific dreamboat role. Singer, rapper, dancer or even just being the youngest, this is one arrangement set in studio stone. What looks like the boy next door band, is actually a well thought-out manifesto.
In the search for band members, scouts conduct a foolproof auditioning procedure. If the budding teenage dream hunks make it through this round, they undergo some intensive training and subsequently are assembled into meticulously crafted groups.
This crafting system is not unique to K-pop. Motown way back when was the OG in this respect, responsible for acts like The Jackson Five, The Supremes and the Temptations.
K-pop has made it a habit to adopt certain traits of Western music, with many of the melodies taken from popular western bands, such as the ABBA notes in K-pop girl band Red Velvet’s song “Red Flavor” — scroll up to for the MV.
Every K-pop song can feature up to nine different musical types, ranging anywhere from Folk to EDM to Rock to Hip Hop.
Strategic Musical Arrangements
K-pop’s strategy of diversity is more out of admiration and desire for connecting with a western audience than it is for the convenience of “stealing” from them. K-pop is an entertainment commodity and thus it needs adapting to a global audience. It is common for bands to create more than one version of its songs and videos, tailoring the content and language to different markets.
In preparation for export, Korean band names are in universally understood acronyms — as to avoid translation issues. Bands also have bilingual members. Take for example EXO, a band in which two of the members are specifically there to rap in Chinese — scroll up to watch their “Overdose” MV.
At times, the group will release two versions of a song; at times even two versions of the music video, all in order to appeal to different listeners.
Politically Sensitive Perspiration And Integration
Nonetheless, integrating into the China and the U.S. is nothing short of difficult. With the current China-South Korea political atmosphere, K-pop has suffered. China is upset with the 2017 agreement between South Korea and the U.S. to build a missile system in the nation’s eastern province of North Gyeongsang for protection from North Korean attacks. As a result, China put a halt to all South Korean imports. A US $5.3 billion dollar industry.
Given its stumbling blocks in China, K-pop aimed for the U.S. market instead. Unfortunately, the music genre is met with resistance. Americans hesitate to consume pop culture in foreign languages.
“Who made us a study machine?
It’s either number one or failure
Adults made this frame and we fall into it.”
BTS in their song “N.O: ENGLISH”
After many years spent in the pursuit of “A Star Is Born” chart success, a band known as BTS (aka Bangtan Boys) broke the barrier in 2017, and hit the top of the U.S. album charts with their release of “Love Yourself: Tear” — listen to the full subtitled track list right here.
Their social presence made them accessible to fans, who say that the band is like “old friends”, “ very genuine” and “the chemistry between them is almost unmatched”. The band swooped in during a time when teens and young adults were in search of themselves. It seems they can do so within
BTS lyrics are very different from those sung by other K-pop bands. The band mainly addresses the struggles of a young generation trying to pave their own path in life.
The Kris Wu Effect
Lyrics resonating the hangups of teenage life aren’t only evident within the K-pop realm. Ragingly popular Chinese rapper Kris Wu actually began his career as a member of the earlier mentioned K-pop band EXO. Wu has managed to carve out a standup reputation of his own for his versatility and global influence. He starred as one the bilinguals that helped to connect K-pop with Chinese audiences.
In his post-EXO career, Wu became an independent musician and actor, succeeding as the first Chinese artist to top the U.S. iTunes charts. When Chinese superstar Kris Wu released his album Antares on November 5 via Interscope Records, it saw quick success on the U.S. iTunes sales chart with tracks soon occupying the top seven song rankings. Ariana Grande and Taytay Swift were not amused and the question rapidly became: Was it bots or just impatient Chinese fans that helped Wu rule the charted roost?
To Grande and Swift, we say: The man has 30 million Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) followers, the majority of whom are screaming millennial pastel hormone-crazy teenage girls. He has another 10 million of those on Instagram. You do the math.
Wu has rapidly transitioned from teen pop idol to Chinese hip hop advocate via musical reality competition The Rap of China, produced by online video platform iQiyi. The show gathered 2.7 billion views online and is therefore considered a cultural phenomenon. Legit.
Not only did this blockbuster elevate China’s hip hop scene, but it cultivated an opportunity to import a Chinese cultural commodity into the U.S. The show in 2019 will be recruiting in North America.
According to Wu, his show resonates with the millennial generation that yearns for self-expression and uniqueness. Sound familiar?
Marketing Business Arrangements
From the branding perspective, this type of mastodon success means increased marketing business. Nevertheless, from the moral perspective, is Wu the right choice? When the idol claims his goal is to help teens in search of self-expression, is this really the image he wishes to portray?
Through his music, yes. Through his brand partnerships, unclear.
And the dilemma doesn’t end with entertainment alone. Commodity brands such as Burberry, Chivas and Bulgari have hired Wu to be their ambassador, saying he has “The Wu Effect.” Wu influences the young generation both on- and offline, showing that young people like him can also sport Burberry, drink Chivas (scroll down for the ad) and wear Bulgari.
With this kind of A+++ list attitude, should society be concerned that such a young crowd is being influenced to indulge in expensive luxuries or to consume alcohol? Another KOL|influence(r) question mark for 2019.
Sing Me A Love Story
Perhaps most jarring of it all, is that “love” is one of the most talked about, yet one of the most taboo, topics in K-pop culture. Idols or band members can tell the tales of ultimate love and heartbreak, but as human beings are not allowed to actually date or explore love in real life. The intention is for every single K-pop star to directly relate to the fans. One wouldn’t want the fans feeling as if the attention is on anyone other than themselves. That would just be bad marketing.
It’s concerning that fans look to these idols for support in times of need, especially when it relates to heartbreak and loss. How does one seek comfort from one who has never experienced those emotions? Confusing, but successful. And so very intriguing.
Mandopop artists do not struggle with similar restrictions when it comes to dating, but given that they cannot sing about anything else than love, K-pop picks up right where Mandopop leaves off.
All of the above done and dusted, a conflicting sensation of questionable admiration slash longing for exquisite performances that are a product of what some would call “abuse” exists.
Within the K-pop industry, slave contracts describe the conditions under which band members essentially sign away their lives. The industry has taken a stronger stance against these types of contracts ever since 2009, when the Korean Fair Trade Commission regulated agency contracts. They now prohibit long-term restrictive clauses that could lead to abusive behavior.
Goodbye My Lover?
The 1992 debut of Seo Taiji & Boys was the very first indication of cultural change in South Korea, not only in music, which included serious rap ballads, but in dance style and fashion. The Boys in 1996 decided, at the height of their career, to retire. They bid all of their fans goodbye through the production of just one last, memorable music video. The fans were personally devastated, blubberingly uttering phrases like, “I can’t believe they left us”.
If we go by the current landscape of China’s Mandopop and South Korea’s K-pop shows, it doesn’t seem that fans of Mandopop or K-pop will be let down again anytime soon. The bass runs deep and seduces everyone in its path.
On that treble-ing note, Temper wonders…
With still yet a ways to go, is admiring K-pop a guilty pleasure or should it just be a feeling of guilt for indulging in an industry that promotes such intensity and control? Does the same apply to Mandopop?
China’s musical arrangements may be all-inclusive, excluding rap, but music is in fact the nation’s next level export love. The Higher Brothers have already promoted “Made In China” and “WeChat” to the world, ergo…
To Beijing, we say: Time to hop to it.
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Written by Jessica Laiter for Temper Magazine
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Featured Image: Mandopop band Century Egg. Shane Keyu Song is the frontwoman of Century Egg, a multicultural Mandopop band from Halifax, singing in both Chinese and English. Image courtesy of Century Egg, 2018.
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Laiter went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Chinese Studies and Communications Rhetoric at The University of Pittsburgh and a Master's Degree in Translation at NYU. Immediately after college, she moved to New York City and since then has worked in a number of different industries such as branding, manufacturing, fashion, public relations and real estate. China always acting as the common denominator.
Inspired by her career, Laiter launched a website called Chinese Graffiti, on which she features emerging Chinese designers, talks about the intersection of tradition and modernity in China, as well as the evolution of society and business culture. As time went on, she sought out like-minded businesses individuals who were interested in a similar market, which is how she became involved with Temper Magazine.
The China market is creating a whirlwind around the glob and it’s only just getting started.
The world can be a small place with a dash of mutual understanding and Laiter loves to be the storyteller who helps to bridge that gap.