The Multiple Meanings of Manufacturing in K-pop

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Media coverage and scholarly writing about K-pop often negatively characterizes it as a manufactured mode of music. However, there are other connotations of this term that more comprehensively address  the process by which K-pop is made.

It is common for stories about “idol”-based K-pop (singers and groups who sing and dance, appear on television shows and engage in promotional activity) to  characterize K-pop as manufactured, which is regarded as negative, not real, and disposable.  This is common in stories that seek to expose the “seedy underbelly” of K-pop. For example, Kathy Benjamin writes: “And it might not even be their choice. K-Pop bands are highly manufactured, and if your manager says you need to go under the knife to be beautiful enough to be a star, you probably do it.” Benjamin links what she sees as the manufactured nature of K-pop to appearance, rather than the music.  The unqualified assertion that K-pop is manufactured is echoed by Euny Hong: “Bands are treated like consumer products from the beginning. Producers design the band they want—down to the precise look, sound, and marketing campaign—before they even audition members.” Hong extends the description of K-pop as manufactured beyond appearance to the music, but with the same result. Both Benjamin and Hong assert that K-pop is manufactured in a way that makes creativity impossible.

The same approach can be found in scholarly writing. John Lie likens K-pop to a product, produced by “a business in which financial and other business concerns consistently trump musical or artistic considerations” (357). In other words, K-pop is a commodity, and as such, does not embody the creativity associated with other modes of music.

However, these negative characterizations are not the only way to view manufacturing in relation to K-pop. Manufacturing can embody creativity. Instead of being an esoteric, solely personal experience, Gil-Sung Park views the creativity in K-pop as a collaborative effort as part of “manufactured creativity,” which “signifies opening the entire global music industry to musical talents and audiences from all corners of the world, allowing them to participate in an endless interactive communication and discourse about music” (16). Negative characterizations perceive this musical interaction as coercive or manipulative, but Park sees them as creative.

Moreover, the results of such collaboration are truly innovative musical creations. Using SM Entertainment as an example, Park observes that “the internal modification process (or localization) requires a set of creative skills (i.e. tacit knowledge). . . . Production requires creativity and processes created by geniuses, but the SM style of localization also demands a steady supply of high-quality performers, which is the most important factor in local production of K-pop” (25). Unlike the product that Lie purports it to be, K-pop is the result of creative processes on the part of global and Korean music personnel making the music as well as the K-pop artists who perform it. Vocal ability and dance talent are indispensable to K-pop: “Understanding the K-pop phenomenon requires the knowledge of K-pop’s sustainable business model that is firmly based on musical talent and creativity” (16).

While the concept of manufacturing is often applied to K-pop, there are alternative uses of the term that recognize its creativity.

Sources

Benjamin, Kathy. “The Disturbing Truth Behind K-pop Music.” Grunge. n.d. https://www.grunge.com/92002/disturbing-truth-behind-k-pop-music/ (Accessed 29 Jan 2020).

Hong, Euny. “The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-pop Machine.” The Paris Review. 6 Aug 2014.  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/08/06/the-lean-mean-star-making-k-pop-machine/ (Accessed 29 Jan 2020).

Lie, John. “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry, and National Identity.” Korea Observer, 43.3 (2012): 339-363.

Park, Gil-Sung. “Manufacturing Creativity: Production, Performance and Dissemination of K-pop.” Korea Journal 53.4 (2013): 14-33.

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The Multiple Meanings of Manufacturing in K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.