A Peek into Eastern Pop Culture: Idols, Pop Music & Selling your Soul

Pop music has dominated the Western world as early as the 1980s and captivates global audiences of varying demographics. Annually, we see the top 40 charts, and most of those "hits" are American pop songs. In 2012, the Korean rapper, Psy, came out with his hit single Gangnam Style, which became the most viewed video on YouTube and made it to said charts. Literally, everywhere you went, everyone knew that song and the iconic saddle dance. Music in Japan and South Korea have grown in popularity in the last five years, and they're finally reaching Western societies through social media and "idols" that have unique characteristics and stage performance.

***To get the records straight, Psy is not a Korean-pop artist, nor is he idyllic. Both the Japanese and Koreans produce multiple genres like the West, but overall, music and pop culture is gaining popularity on the global scale more so now than before.***


The interesting phenomenon of idols and the growth in J-pop and K-pop has to do with the way these genres tried to branch out to their neighbors. This phenomenon is similar in other respects of music, art, and culture.

Japanese pop music was the precursor to all, if not most, Asian pop music. When Japan's economy boomed in the 1980s and 90s, pop music was grasping the world of music in the West. The idea was to follow some Western ideas that were seen at this time: ridiculously good looking youngsters, ability to sing and dance, and follow current fashion trends. A quirk that J-pop had was the portrayal of "cute" or kawaii personas. Female idols had to present themselves as innocent and modest young women. Male idols were handsome and gentle young men.

The Japanese had a bit of an issue with expanding outside of their nation. Like their politics and cultural beliefs, the Japanese believed that J-pop should be just for themselves. It was gaining popularity with the neighbors, but it took a long time for it to reach the West.

When the "Korean Wave" hit South Korea in the 1990s, their pop music and other modern cultural changes were shared with the world. The did not sustain the Japanese isolationist mentality. When their music gained popularity in South and Southeast Asia, they welcomed their foreign fans and are now incorporating foreign singers to join K-pop groups (many from the U.S., China, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore).

K-pop idols have been known to make "slave contracts" with their record companies,  a slang term used to describe the lack of freedom these kids have in order to gain fame. Some K-pop stars, like Elaine Yuki Wong from Singapore, left their ambitions of becoming an idol due to the intense, unbearable training. There are tons of rumors about rigorous training for the members, keeping up their persona on and off the stage and the popularity of getting plastic surgery done to look more "ideal" or "perfect."

***Plastic surgery is often kept on the down low, so it's the hardest to actually verify for each idol unless they actually come forth and admit to the augmentations. Most hardcore fans can only speculate and analyze the changes as the idols grow older.***

The Japanese music industry also idolizes a certain persona and may even take it to extremes as well. In 2013, Minami Minegishi of AKB48, one of Japan's most popular groups, made a public apology for being seen with her boyfriend on camera. Minegishi said she made the decision to broadcast her apology herself, but most Japanese fans think she was pressured into doing so. Most people around the world think this was an archaic form of punishment, so outdated, even though "head shaving is a traditional form of showing contrition in Japan."


More and more scandals like these are seen every year in both styles of pop, and they are indeed following similar trends as the West went through in last few years. Idols and pop groups are starting to break away from the notion of perfection and more artists are popping up and trying new styles. Many Japanese pop singers go into singing for anime and film soundtracks. The indie and math rock scene is extremely popular in Japan, maybe even more so than in the U.S. In Korea, artists like Psy are breaking political and cultural boundaries to make interesting commentaries on life. There is much to be explored musically in this region of the world, but that which is popular still has a strong grip on most of the world today.

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So what are you into? Pop or looking for something new?