K-pop’s magnetism, the Korean Wave and the Theatre of the Absurd

K-pop’s magnetism, the Korean Wave and the Theatre of the Absurd

By AKHIL SOOD | | 5 September, 2015
South Korean boy band Teen Top is making waves in the world of music.

whole bunch of the boys from the boybands performing at Siri Fort in Delhi last week — for a showcase of Korean pop music (K-pop) — were wearing jeans that were a few inches shorter than they were supposed to be, baring just a little bit of ankle. It begs the question: Is the ankle the male equivalent of cleavage? After all, pop stars do dictate modern fashion trends the world over, and K-pop is a multi-billion dollar industry.

It’s not just fashion — there’s sort of an overarching impact on popular culture that’s been painstakingly manufactured through part art and part science, in high-level boardroom meetings and in rehearsal spaces. The artists performing — the all-girl group Bestie, six-piece powerhouse Teen Top, 100%, Imfact and others — had this clear understanding of their (often hyper-sexualised) roles. Their expert use of the stage area belied their years as they moved around, controlling all areas to interact with the crowd while leaving enough room for their bandmates to do the same. The big high-definition projection behind them displayed flamboyant visualisations and photos from time to time, while the obscenely elaborate lighting setup made the whole thing seem much larger and grander than it actually was. Everything was timed to perfection; one band would exit after their performance, the lights would dim for a handful of seconds, and the following band would already be in place, ready to start their set. Introductions by the band members were mostly pre-rehearsed and delivered in chorus, collectively, with a couple of Hindi words thrown in — Namaste, hum ko India bohot achcha lagta hai. 

The clothes were carefully selected — all bands had a distinct scheme around which their attire was based, but there was enough room left for experimentation and personal whimsy. It was the same with the dancing. Heavily choreographed performances saw the artists dancing along to the beats precisely. That said, their moves were never entirely identical. This, I presume, is because they’re not backup dancers behind a Priyanka Chopra or Saif Ali Khan at an awards ceremony — where everything around the big names has to look and feel the same, right from clothes and expressions to skin tone and hairstyle, to draw attention to the star leading the pack. In pop music, the attention has to be spread evenly among the (usually five) icons, so that individual fans pick individual favourites, each with a sense of identity and personality (possibly as springboards to future solo careers). It’s why the artists were synchronised in their dance moves, but their natural style and movement was not suppressed — it was encouraged, even. In a good way, there was absolutely no edge, no frayed seams. Everything was watered down to a product that would appeal to the maximum number of people, as a filtered form of performance art.

Every single person in the audience was armed with one of those godforsaken neon glow sticks, waving them around with the beat of the music for a surreal visual exhibition of roving lights. Every song, every band introduction, every utterance by the MC was met with roaring, endless, deafening applause. Maybe it was the enclosed space making the cheers echo a little, but I’ve honestly never heard people screaming adoration that loudly, with as much enthusiasm, before.

Pop has never really been about the music as such; it’s always the peripherals and the aura it builds (that’s why the concept of an ugly pop star doesn’t exist). The songs do have a role to play — I’m still humming the infectious Thank U Very Much (“thank you very, very much”) by Bestie in my head — but, by all accounts, it’s not the pop stars who write the music, it’s the jaded, behind-the-scenes producers, gifted musicians who had real dreams once upon a time, but a lack of appreciation for their craft drove them to writing catchy pop songs for other, younger starlets. And catchy they are. I won’t lie — I’ve been a connoisseur of pop music in my time, and I have the Backstreet Boys and Boyzone cassettes and posters to prove it. (But, in my mid-late 20s, I think I may have outgrown that style of formulaic, snythesised, “perfect” melody structure.) As big as those guys were, the music K-pop offers is also contextually stunning. A solid bass-and-drum groove provides the framework, on top of which major key synth or guitar melodies complement the extraordinary harmony work that the girl/boybands excel at (usually sung in Korean). Surface level elements derived from more progressive forms of music — the odd distorted guitar riff, a rapped out refrain in the mid-section — add movement to the music, all of which is driven by rotating high-pitched exhortations to get crowds to feel something

Yes, at many, many, many different points during the show, I suspected the artists of lip-syncing. (Is that necessarily a better or worse thing than DJs making the act of pressing the spacebar key seem like a gruelling physical and emotional task? Does it matter?) But I have no way to prove it. The effective manipulation of the stage area that the artists are trained in meant that they were never too close to each other, never all in my line of sight. I’m sure some of the harmonies were already on the backing track, but I couldn’t comprehensively catch out-and-out lip-syncing. Maybe it was the fantastic production values (and cynicism) playing tricks on my mind.   

Misplaced or not, my mild cynicism was certainly out of place. I had only heard, from friends and acquaintances, about the Korean Wave and how big K-pop had become in Northeast India, but here I got to witness it first-hand. The Siri Fort Auditorium has a classical design — the ground floor seating and the fancier balcony area face a massive stage — and not a seat at the venue was empty. By my calculation, there were over 1,000 people (a ticket priced at Rs 300) in the lower section alone, the age group ranging from excitable toddlers warring with each other (and their parents) to doe-eyed college kids, each one armed with one of those godforsaken neon glow sticks, waving them around with the beat of the music for a surreal visual exhibition of roving lights. They were all much, much younger than me, unsullied by the burden of insignificant things, living in the moment. And it showed. Every song, every band introduction, every utterance by the MC — in both English and Korean — was met with roaring, endless, deafening applause. Maybe it was the enclosed space making the cheers echo, but I’ve honestly never heard people scream adoration that loudly, with as much enthusiasm and not a speck of judgment, before. No petty finger-pointing, no overtly-critical navel gazing, no indifference or rehearsed apathy, just unreserved pleasure and adulation — it was all very Theatre
of the Absurd. 

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