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South Korean K-Pop music is a global phenomenon – but underneath the slick production, high energy and positive vibes is a recurring obsession with the pursuit of perfection through consumerism.


SHINee in ‘Get The Treasure’. Image: YouTube

While there’s a strong chance most of us have heard PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, Korean pop music is more than a one-off novelty. In fact it’s a multimillion-dollar industry, and its global fanbase is booming.

From a musical perspective, K-Pop is ear candy. The most popular hits morph a variety of aesthetic materials associated with feeling good. Funk, bubblepop and hip hop. Synths from the 90s. Brass from the disco dance floors. Chilled R&B beats. The elements are fused into stimulating, expertly crafted musical products.

It’s no wonder K-Pop concerts across the globe are increasing at a rate of 82 per cent each year. The biggest production company in Korea right now is SM Entertainment, which provides intensive training to artists before allowing them to debut as desirable idols. And having generated US$357 million in sales last year alone, it’s safe to say K-Pop is a thriving business.

But there’s a deeper side to K-Pop that people aren’t talking about – one that may help listeners understand its addictive appeal. Korean production companies release hits that celebrate consumer culture. And though most pop music throughout the world feeds on people looking to sync the latest hit to their iPods, K-Pop perpetuates this behaviour by sending an even stronger message: consumerism leads the way to perfection.

While consumerism isn’t endemic to South Korea, the capitalist phenomenon plays a fundamental role in the nation’s new music. In particular, it embraces cultural aspects that are distinctly ‘21st-Century Korean’. For instance, South Korea currently boasts the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. Buying a new face is revelled in the hit song ‘Becoming Pretty’ by SixBomb. The girl-group released pre-surgery and post-surgery music videos about their experience, normalising the concept of physical beauty equalling perfection.

Of course K-Pop fans will find the occasional song sharing the pleasant sentiment: ‘Stop looking in the mirror, don’t worry about your weight, you’re already beautiful the way you are’, as heard in Zion. T’s ‘No Make-up’. But even this gives way to subtle consumerist values, which are implied in lyrics quick to follow: ‘Instead of red lipstick, I like clear lip balm, more natural than the clouds in the sky.’ The singer understands that his listeners will inevitably buy some form of make-up to reflect mainstream expectations of beauty – so why not choose a style he labels ‘natural’? And, behind his reflective sunglasses and glowing bleached hair, Zion. T (Kim Hae-sol) reveals nothing about his own natural look. High fashion is natural in his world.

A striking new K-Pop release is IU’s ‘Palette’. Her opening notes evoke an immediate sense of calm, sentimentality and reflection. With mellow synth, high-frequency percussive sounds, and a laid-back beat, it’s a coming-of-age song about a woman finding her maturity in era of technology. ‘I’ve got this – I’m 25,’ IU (Lee Ji-eun) sings in English, reaching out to millennial consumers just like her.

In a gentle voice, IU performs alone (except for an interjecting rap from K-Pop superstar and Vogue style icon, G-DRAGON). Being truly solo on the K-Pop stage is a rarity, and with its minimalist set design, IU’s film clip portrays the vulnerability and bravery of those evolving into adulthood.

IU sings about the person she has become. Against a backdrop of hipster pink props, she tells us she likes ‘pyjamas with buttons, lipstick’, mapping the development of her confidence through the products that have helped her understand her own sense of self.

The film clip is explicit in its respect for behaviour shaped by technology. Brand names have been removed, but Instagram-like icons frame her face, lyrics pop onto the screen in the form of iPhone instant messages, even an iTunes window appears inside the screen. ‘I prefer bobbed hair over long hair, but I did look beautiful when I sang “One Fine Day”,’ she sings in Korean, weaving style into self-identity, while simultaneously promoting her previous album. As well as defining herself through physical objects, IU encourages our culture of self-documentation – collecting memories in the form of photographs we can share with others via the latest technology.

If we delve further into this music, we might see that the changing nature of our consumer behaviour reflects our transition from the physical to the virtual world – from the objects we own to the objectification of our digital selves. But do we ever really change?

‘Get the Treasure’ is a hyperactive single from Korean boyband SHINee (released in Japan due to high demand). In its exquisite film clip, the five singers emerge from a prohibition-era black Mercedes before entering a casino, the band name displayed on a wall in pink neon lights. They walk through the set, objects frozen around them: playing cards and gambling chips, Western barmaids with guns and bunny ears, and high-roller men fist-fighting in suits.

The climax of the video features one band member stealing a diamond as large as his fist. What this treasure is, however, is irrelevant; the message is about the satisfaction in attaining something, pursuing an item and achieving the sense of reward that comes with it. And with fingers pointing ‘come hither’, the singers lure their listeners into this rich and luxurious world.

But there’s a contradiction in ‘Get the Treasure’. ‘Wine, cars, a house in the sky – we can buy everything except you,’ they sing. A message about the superior value of a human heart, while dressed in tailored suits with stylish haircuts, is delicious irony. And when the ‘treasure’ of the heart is achieved, how will it be kept? By engaging in the idea of romance that we’ve been sold – gifting a flower and tickets to the cinema, enjoying picnics with pretty doilies and boxes of fruit. Despite its self-awareness of the triviality of money when compared to human relationships, SHINee perpetuates the deep-rooted capitalist mantra of buying happiness to attain perfection in life and love.

Other K-Pop songs are more explicit about the buying and selling of self. ‘Doom Dada’ by T.O.P is another rare solo manifesto in which the artist markets himself as the ultimate product: ‘I’m a 21st-century extraordinary Korean…I’ll make you go crazy but I’m like a clear pinot noir.’ Injecting himself into a gripping black-and-white film clip reminiscent of iconic cinema – apes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; the fairytale of Dali’s Un Chien Andalou; Studio Ghibli’s giant baby in Spirited Away – T.O.P (Choi Seung-hyun) presents himself as a sexy cult icon. Wearing an ultra-stylish dinner jacket, he buries his nose in a glass of wine while eyeing us through blue contact lenses. He lounges over a Cappellini-branded luxury chair – at once mocking his own status, and enticing his audience to enjoy it with him.

So what does the presence of consumerism in K-Pop mean for its listeners? For some, K-Pop can pave a path to follow for the hottest trends in fashion; the catwalk-like film clips revealing contemporary clothing trends and hair styles we can admire and buy for ourselves. For others, it can acknowledge that we live and love in a capitalist society and despite a priority for material values, there’s a remarkable beauty to be found within.

For me, it’s the choice to design the musical backdrop to my life. And if I’m looking to buy the experience of happiness – to have a song whirling in my mind that will bring me joy; to admire style and sound; to paint the colour of this moment in my life in a way that I’ll remember a decade from now – I choose K-Pop. In the words of IU (‘Palette’), ‘I got this, I’m truly fine. I think now I know who I am a little.’