The nine young women of Girls' Generation sauntered onto the performance stage of "Late Show With David Letterman." Flanked by a DJ and live drummer, the South Korean pop group wore lacy black mini-dresses and thigh-high leather boots, as if they were hosting a goth cocktail party. It was a rare American network television performance from a South Korean music group.
The song they performed on the January show, a slinky bit of minor-key dance-pop called "The Boys," owed an obvious debt to Kelis' catcalling hit "Milkshake." The band's gently lascivious choreography underscored the track's sex-appeal boasts: lead singer Kim Taeyeon made come-hither hand gestures while her bandmates pulled PG-13 versions of Lady Gaga's alien body bends. The song was in English, but the message was clear in any language. This was something new yet uncannily familiar on the American pop scene.
"As soon as I heard that we'd be performing there, I ran screaming and crying up and down our house," said Girls' Generation's Diamond Bar-raised, Korean American singer Tiffany. "The other members were just like, 'Huh?'"
Girls' Generation is arguably the biggest name in an effervescent, operatic Korean pop music culture that quietly has won a fervent fan base of young Korean Americans, and plenty of non-Koreans as well. K-pop artists pull from techno, hip-hop, R&B and top-40; singles are often focused vehicles for elaborate music videos and rarely less than bonkers good fun. Traditional Korean culture can be patriarchal, but K-pop's most famous acts, whose members often have roots in California, are groups of women deploying butt-kicking superhero imagery.
Poised at the intersection of two countries' fast-moving pop cultures and cutting-edge media technology, the sprawling genre colloquially known as K-pop has operated outside the American pop limelight. But that's changing. A-list producers like will.i.am, Diplo and Kanye West are lining up to work with South Korean artists like 2NE1, GD&TOP and JYJ.
K-pop comes alongside a tide of Korean filmmaking (the cult-favorite films of Joon-ho Bong) and culinary interest (L.A.'s Kogi truck, progressive Korean barbecue joints like LaOn Dining) turning heads in L.A. and in the U.S. As K-pop makes its first big moves into America this year with English-language tracks on U.S. major labels, a big question is this — does this music, at the vanguard of global pop, even need mainstream America at all?
For years, Korean pop lived in the shadow of Japan'shyper-kinetic music and fashion scene, whose anime culture stormed American television. But in 2009, one single instantly transformed the country's role in the Asian pop landscape. Girls' Generation's "Gee" was the K-pop equivalent of Elvis walking into Sun Studios: It drew the blueprint for a culture to come.
The song, written by the South Korean duo E-Tribe, used double-time electronic drums, fluorescent synthesizers and a cute-cloying repetition of the song's title. It's so insistent and poppy, it's almost avant-garde.
"It's just really good pop music. It's very hooky and fast and just doesn't sound like Western pop," said James Brooks of electronica band Elite Gymnastics, who wrote an essay on K-pop for the influential music website Pitchfork.
The track stormed Asia — the official version of the video where the nine girls dance around a clothing store clocking in at just over 70 million plays on YouTube. The song topped South Korean pop charts for two months and made Girls' Generation the first non-Japanese Asian girl group to top Japan's singles charts.
It also set a template that, alongside a broad array of peer acts like the more rap-inclined 2NE1 and dance-heavy group Wonder Girls, suggested that South Korea's pop music culture was coming into its own. Though the term "K-pop" is as reductive as referring to diverse U.S. artists like Lady Gaga, Skrillex and Lil Wayne as "A-pop," it captures the scope of the South Korean music celebrity scene.
The overwhelmingly single-gender bands, cast by talent agencies for Korean corporate label conglomerates like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, created fierce and ever-evolving loyalties — imagine picking your favorite Beatle or Rolling Stone if there were 10 of them.
Songs and especially videos were quickly passed over high-speed Internet and mobile devices several times faster than what's available in America. Sites like AllKPop and magazines like KoreAm chronicled the exploits of the young, fashionable and lightly transgressive stars — when GD&TOP and pop singer Hyuna saw singles banned by South Korea's major broadcasting networks, that made for delicious scandal. In August, Billboard launched a K-Pop Hot 100 chart to track the genre's sales.
Catching on in U.S.
The fan scene in America has been largely centered on major immigrant hubs like Los Angeles and New York, where Girls' Generation sold out Madison Square Garden with a crop of rising K-pop acts including BoA and Super Junior. But until very recently, due to the high cost of touring and marketing, fans' interaction with artists has been limited to Internet and social media.
"There's been a combination of distance and needing to go where it's lucrative. You could do two weeks in Japan and do better than a full U.S. tour," said David Zedeck, a CAA agent who handles American management of several K-pop groups including 2 AM, 2 PM and Wonder Girls. "But that's changing. Wonder Girls have spent two years living and working largely in America, and their tour with Jonas Brothers taught K-pop managers that American audiences are open to something that seems foreign. These are Americans coming to their shows, the same fans going to see Gaga and Bieber."
Many of their U.S. fans are young, culture-mixing Asian Americans who maintain an interest in Korean pop culture, but are just as conversant in American pop. That some K-pop stars are actually American-born or raised, like Girls' Generation's Tiffany, influences their personalities and deepens their connection to U.S. audiences.
"There were so many more opportunities in K-pop for a young Asian American singer," the 22-year-old Tiffany, born Stephanie Hwang, said. "It took some adjusting to move there in my teen years. But fans respected that this group wasn't put together overnight, it took a lot of practice to learn our different values and strengths."
Several major K-pop acts have recent or upcoming releases that suggest they have wider ambitions than appealing solely to Korean Americans. Girls' Generation's 2011 single "Run Devil Run" was originally sung as a demo by Kesha, and its minor-key electronic jitters would be entirely at home on American radio as would "The Boys," the title track of its first American major-label release in January for Interscope. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is reportedly helming 2NE1's American debut album, and the group's future-noir swagger (its recent smash single was called "I Am the Best") would seem a natural fit for Will's sci-fi dance pop sensibility.
"In the past, it was the norm to reach out to the Asian music market and/or the Korean communities abroad before reaching out worldwide," said Joon Ahn, executive vice president for the Music Business Division at CJ Entertainment & Media, one of the dominant media conglomerates in K-pop. "However, we believe that now … it's necessary to directly reach out to the world market."
But while K-pop has a lively Internet presence, America lacks a dominant media hub for first encountering K-pop culture. If one emerges, it might the Culver City-based Mnet. Its cable channel, a division of CJ Entertainment, is heavily focused on K-pop and broadcasts a mix of video countdown shows like "M! Countdown," "Jjang!" (a celebrity gossip show) and "Hello Pop!" (a social-media-themed show whose 21-year-old host, Chrissa Villanueva, is L.A.-raised and Filipina).
"We want to organize the space. K-pop has penetrated the U.S. without radio or iTunes support, so the fan base is there," said Adam Ware, the former president and CEO of Mnet (who recently left his position). "There's just been no advocate for Asian pop yet in the way that MTV was an early advocate for hip-hop."
Mnet hosts the annual MAMA awards (the Asian pop equivalent of the Grammys) and through its sister company M-Live, the station is beginning to present Korean acts in L.A. concert venues, like last fall's set from the rapper Drunken Tiger at the Wiltern and a Nokia Theatre show by FT Island and CN Blue. The Korean Music Festival, an annual K-pop compendium, hits the Hollywood Bowl on April 28.
So 2012 may be the year that a K-pop artist makes a genuine American pop crossover. But some fans like Brooks don't want the genre's idiosyncrasies diluted for American audiences. "The last thing I'd want on a K-pop song is a Ludacris verse," he said. "I don't want it to become like harajuku culture in Japan, where the face of it here is Gwen Stefani."
But if Girls' Generation can headline a sold-out Madison Square Garden as virtual unknowns to the American mainstream, K-pop may have already rendered that crossover question pointless.
For artists with roots in both countries, K-pop's late rise in America (and what it means for Korean culture everywhere) is sweet but just the start. "Coming back to America to pursue music is a dream," Tiffany said. "Not just because it's America, but because this is just the beginning."