Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about idol pop and its power. Which may say something unflattering about me. Idol pop is a subset of pop music, and pop music is not supposed to have a lot of power. Music can have power, sure. Music can seduce and console and exhilarate; we put it to use for marching armies and in the middle of the night after a diaper change. But why should pop music have power? It’s ephemeral, youth-obsessed, silly. Surely part of becoming an adult is refusing to give pop music any power anymore.
There’s a scene that illustrates this in a book called Balham to Bollywood, whose author, Chris England, appeared as one of the villainous English cricketers in the 1999 movie Lagaan.1 Early on during filming in Gujarat, in northern India, cast and crew attend a local musical performance that eventually becomes a sing-along. “The songs,” reports England, “are vibrant folk tales of love and heroism, and the striking thing is that all of the Indians know these tunes, know all of the words, and have clearly grown up with them and a strong shared culture.” Then the British actors are invited to join in, and one of them breaks into first Elvis and then the Beatles. England continues:
The rest of the evening rattles by in a jolly fashion, and Jon is a big and charismatic hit, but I can’t help feeling a little envious of what the Indians have shared earlier on. Their songs were expressing truths about the world and the human condition that are passed on from generation to generation, solid, rich, and life enhancing. Their singing to us was a gesture of welcome and friendship. And to return the compliment, what did we have to offer? I just wanna be your te-heddy bear…
So maybe the best way to deal with idol pop, or any pop, and its power, is to refuse to give it any more than it’s already claimed. And idol pop—even if you don’t know what I mean by that you’ve probably already guessed that it won’t lead to anything solid or rich or life-ehancing. Let’s all move to cleaner pastures, shall we? I’m listening to Dvořák as I type this.2
But wait a minute. How did England and his fellow Brits come to memorize half-century-old songs produced in the southern United States in the first place? How did Elvis and the Beatles become their shared culture? (And not just theirs: one of the Indian attendees requests some Bo Diddley.) Is it just a matter of how thoroughly pop music is baked into our culture? We hear it in stadia and in advertisements. We can listen to it for free, and that was true for sixty years before Spotify was founded. Maybe we’ve just had pop music forced upon us, as invisible and secretly damaging as carbon monoxide.
That doesn’t quite answer the question, though. If pop music was a by-product of greedy capitalist marketers, and its audience wasn’t interested, you’d think we’d have dried up the market by now. Instead people continue to spend money and time on pop music, even (maybe especially) people old enough to know better. Pop music seems to have some kind of power over and above the help it gets from the dominant marketing culture.
I am old enough to know better, and then some; and yet I cannot tell you a time in my life when pop music didn’t have power. When I was six or so I had a song stuck in my head for the first time, and I remember feeling genuinely frightened of this music that was somehow stronger and more slippery than my own brain.3 When I was eleven I made my own mixtapes by taping songs, often minus the first ten seconds, off the radio; and when I was nineteen and uncertain during a semester abroad I treasured the mixtape my best friend mailed me; and when I was twenty-four I looked up the Pixies song my eventual husband was quoting.
And then a few years ago I discovered K-pop, or, as I’m going to call it, Korean idol pop. And since then I have given hundreds of hours to following Korean idol pop, more than any other hobby during that time. I have spent money on CDs, posters, stickers, photobooks, postcards, T-shirts, concerts, and in one case airfare to get to the concert. I started writing online, because I had opinions about Korean idol pop. I started writing for The Singles Jukebox, a lovely community that lets me express opinions about, among other things, Korean idol pop. I made friends, among the other Jukebox writers and elsewhere. I made good friends. One time a cold-emailed a stranger because his public love for a Japanese group reminded me of my public love for a Korean group, and we ended up writing a book together.4
It felt to me like idol pop gave me the power, or at least the incentive, to take initiatives for myself. And for a long time I wanted to do something in return for the idol-pop performers I followed, even if that did mark me as strange and shallow. Idol pop brightened my life; why not give it credit for that? As Sabina Tang, another Jukebox writer, once wrote in her excellent set of essays on The Libertines for One Week, One Band:
People leave doodles, fan messages, snatches of lyrics. Some get ambitious and write out entire paragraphs of Baudelaire. The notes that touch me, though, are the ones that say simply, “Thank you.”
For saving my life—that part doesn’t need spelling out. Art is only good for one thing.
Does it matter what else the band has done?
But the longer I followed Korean idol pop, and the more I thought about idol pop more broadly, the less simple and benign the power looked. It was partly the question of what else the band has done—with “band” defined broadly, since most idol-pop groups don’t work as independent self-contained bands but as employees of larger firms. In some cases what else the band has done turned out to be a nasty little poison tucked in with the sugar fun. More often it concealed the question of what was being done to the band, and on behalf of the band. What decisions did the idols get to make? How much of themselves did they get to invest in the work they performed? How much power did they, who seemingly had so much power derived from fame, actually have?
And also: how much power did I myself have? If idol pop and its performers brightened my life, did I not have some responsibility to show my gratitude? But what if the ill effects of what-was-being-done-to-the-band came not just from demanding managers and greedy companies but from fans? From me?
So this is the first in the series of essays in which I examine idol pop and its power. And because I am shallow and compromised and easily swayed by such power, I’m going to do it by focusing on my current favorite idol-pop group. I want to give you some idea of the stakes; and demonstrate that the power of idol pop goes well beyond the personal into the political, including the geopolitical; and I want to give you an idea of how much fun this can be, talking about these idols, interesting people willing to sing and dance and make jokes in front of cameras. Fun, uplifting, and perhaps morally compromising, and quite possibly dangerous, and maybe worth it nonetheless.
Let’s define idol pop, first of all. It’s not a genre in the sense of a distinct musical style: on the contrary, idol pop will take whatever musical style you want and happily hoover it up. Korean idol pop in particular is notorious for its genre agnoticism: whether you like surf rock or deep house or something closer to metal or disco or pirate chanty, there’s an idol group hoping to please you. Idol pop’s biggest audience is teenagers, but it isn’t necessarily bubbly as teenpop is assumed to be.5
My preferred way to define idol pop is to put musical style aside and say: idol pop is a subset of pop music in which companies use multiple media streams to portray a performer or group of performers, primarily but not exclusively musical, as both attractive and vulnerable, simultaneously happily eager for and dependent upon listeners’ attention and affection. Groups are supposed to last for a while (the standard contract in Korean idol pop, upon debut, is seven years) and fans are encouraged to follow a group over time. Hearing any given song and watching the music video (there is always a music video) is simply the first step in discovering the group.
There are two different sources for the “idol” in idol pop. One was the 1964 French film Cherchez l’idole, which became a hit in Japan, spawning local demand for entertainers who could copy the modern-yet-innocent airs of Sylvie Vartan, the film’s star idol (aidoru, in the Japanese adaptation).6 The other was the early-1990s group credited with originating Korean idol pop, Seo Taiji and the Boys, or in the original 서태지와 아이들—Seo Taiji-wa aideul, the last word normally translated as “kids.” In theory you can worship the aideul or aidoru of idol pop, but inherent in the idea is that they’re also just kids—perfect and polished sometimes, but not always, and thus perpetually in need of your careful love to accomplish their dreams. As Zan Romanoff once wrote of One Direction: “…we saw those boys, lonely dreamers, and decided it was up to us to make their dreams come true.”
The emphasis on the lonely dreamers dictates a lot of the conventions of idol pop. There has to be a group, since it allows the company to offer different personalities to different fans. In smaller groups, each member sings or raps at least one line individually; in larger groups such as AKB48, members compete to be the “center” for a new video, and fans can participate in voting competitions to boost their favorite member as a potential center. At a minimum, idols have to make themselves available to fans through social media, behind-the-scenes videos, day-in-the-life videos, movies, entire TV series. The stronger and more successful the group, the more varied and complicated the content gets7, and the fans should be left feeling that all of the content is for them, all of the content is a gift the lonely, dreaming idols very much want to give.
Here’s what idol pop is not: geographically limited. Every country has lonely dreamers; any country willing and able to host an industry to showcase those dreamers trying to make their dreams of fame and fortune come true gets to play.8 AKB48 alone has sister groups in six different countries. It’s not that unfamiliar languages and cultural traditions never discourage potential fans—we’ll get to that, trust me—but the costs of getting an idol group in front of eyes worldwide (and thus the cost of following any one group) has fallen steadily alongside data transmission rates. As early as the mid-2000s, Korean groups were becoming smash hits in Japan, and Japanese groups in China; in 2011, French fans staged flash mobs to request extra concerts for their Korean faves. Once Korean idol pop, far away from the traditional Anglocentric industry bases, began gaining international attention, anything became possible…
…up to and including idol pop from a country so obscure it’s mainly known for serving as the backdrop of a movie-long joke.
I told you I was going to introduce you to my own faves, and here they are: Ninety One, based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. They are the self-proclaimed pioneers of “Q-pop,” which shares a lot of similarities with K-pop and yet is wholly Kazakhstani.9 This is not a small detail, and we’re going to be spending some time on it, but for now I’ll give you the bare minimum: Ninety One debuted in 2015 and is managed by a company called Juz Entertainment. Their fans are known as Eaglez.10
All five members (three singers, two rappers) use stage names, and their stage names, in the order of their primary camera time in “Ah! Yah! Mah!”, are: Alem (the one stranded shirtless in a goth Ikea), Ace (wears a hat), Bala (handsomest, and indeed only, man at his own dinner party), ZaQ (in a rare Draco Malfoy-esque phase), and AZ (tries to bite ZaQ’s finger). For this particular single, by the way, the first three wrote the music and the last two the lyrics.11
In some ways Ninety One fits the idolpop mold very well. There are solo parts for each member in more or less every song; there are rap interludes, and dance breaks; there are dramatic music videos and fashion innovations and ridiculous hairstyles. (Fair warning: their collective hair in “Ah! Yah! Mah!” is not that bad, relatively speaking. There’s worse to come.) Their musical output is appropriately catholic, including ballads and upbeat dance-pop and tropical-house influences and trap influences and jazz influences. And, yes, they have a lot of extra-musical videos to watch.
But they also deviate from the mold. Of their singles so far, for example, only about half are about the standard idol-pop subjects of love and sexual attraction. Quite a few of the remaining songs double as social commentary—which is not necessarily common either in idol pop or in a country where the right to speak freely is best known by its absence. Ninety One does have a movie, and the movie is billed as an intimate glimpse of their struggles, but it’s not a heartwarming tour diary. They court their fans, but not quite up to the extremes of self-obfuscation that’s expected of Japanese and Korean idol groups. And while they’re explicitly nationalist, which is actually fairly common in idol pop, they sit at an uneasier angle to their reigning government than the nationalism implies. They play the idol-pop game, but in a way different enough to raise the question of how it should be played.
So that’s what we’re going to do. There’s a lot to talk about: linguistic politics, Soviet history, transnational fragile masculinities, fan-translators, fan-stalkers, and concentration camps in western China, among other things. But first we’re going to get to know Ninety One a bit better; and get to know the process by which we get to know them a bit better. So in the next essay: how the idea of the “adorkable” group was born, how thoroughly it’s been developed and perfected, and how it allows fans to learn a lot while actually knowing very little.
My copy was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2002; the quoted section is from pp. 120–21.↩︎
Specifically, the Cello Concerto recorded in 2005 by the Prague Philharmonia with Jean-Guihen Queyras, Isabelle Faust, and Alexander Melnikov. I know much, much less about classical performance than I do about idol pop, but I’m enjoying it.↩︎
Not about idol pop.↩︎
That said, there are some common musical tropes within Korean idol pop: there’s usually at least one, sometimes two, rapped verses; there’s very little harmonizing, since the emphasis is on each member singing separately, and getting camera time appropriately; one member will be in charge of hitting particularly long high notes. The debate of whether K-pop is a genre has been going on for a while; see, most recently, fellow Singles Jukebox writer Patrick St. Michel’s discussion of the Japanese group Saint Snow and the cues they’ve taken from Korean idol pop in the October 18th edition of his newsletter, Make Believe Melodies.↩︎
I get this point from Patrick Galbraith and Jason Karlin, “Introduction: The Mirror of Idols and Celebrity,” the first chapter of their edited volume Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). They in turn cite Aoyagi Hiroshi’s Islands of Eight Million Smiles (University of Michigan Press, 2005).↩︎
Or, as we’ll see, the aspiring idols come to the industry: current Korean idol-pop rosters include performers from the United States, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Canada, and Indonesia.↩︎
One characteristic that distinguishes modern-day idol pop from, say, 1970s and 1980s teenpop is that the whole process of becoming a fan is much more ritualized and organized from the get-go, right down to an official name for fans, which is usually announced by the group itself. (To contrast: fans of New Kids on the Block are known as “Blockheads” now, but they weren’t in 1990.)↩︎
If you were intrigued by “Ah! Yah! Mah!” and want to hear more of Ninety One’s music, or just want to learn more about the group so you can keep track of who’s who as we go along, I have posted a minimally helpful guide to Ninety One on my regular blog. Juz Entertainment also maintains a YouTube playlist of all the group’s singles to date.↩︎