[Elisabeth Gwee] K-pop is my escape from treadmill
Published : Dec 16, 2011 - 20:27
Updated : Dec 16, 2011 - 20:27
Last week, my colleague Adeline Chia wrote a controversial article dissing K-pop. It resulted in more than 800 comments on her Facebook page from outraged fans and her name trending as the No.1 topic on Twitter for two days.

Some friends jokingly asked me if I had signed an online petition demanding that she apologize to everyone she had offended. I’m not surprised they did.

Those who know me know that I am crazy about K-pop. I could cite numerous examples of mad fangirl behavior (queuing five hours to get in the mosh pit’s front row so I could be within eye-groping distance of Big Bang’s TOP and signing up for K-pop dance lessons), but I think the most recent episode says it all.

Over 12 days, I attended four K-pop concerts in two countries ― the recent Mnet Awards and both nights of Girls’ Generation’s gigs here, and in between, the 15th-anniversary YG Family Concert in Seoul. YG is the record label that my favorite groups Big Bang and 2NE1 belong to.

I don’t fit the stereotype of a K-pop fan. I like to think of myself as a mature, normal-functioning, happily married adult. I try not to brainwash my friends into liking it, unless they ask me about it.

K-pop happens to be something that my husband, who introduced me to it, and I enjoy indulging in when we need an escape from mundane adult life.

So, no, I didn’t sign the petition. But I am writing this column to defend something that is close to my heart and one which, until the start of this year, I knew little about other than it involved groups of similar-looking hot people dancing in formation and singing annoyingly catchy songs.

It was the music videos that got me hooked. Okay, to be exact, it was the cute Super Junior boys who made me take a closer look, and the more I watched and listened, the more I liked what I saw and heard. Many of the music videos are super slick productions and boast insanely impressive choreography.

Aside from some bad K-pop out there ― highly processed vocals and heavily synthesized sounds from groups who cannot sing or dance ― there isn’t much not to like about the genre.

Who can say no to infectious melodies and hooks that induce a hands-in-the-air kind of exhilaration? Even if I don’t understand most of what they’re singing or rapping about, it’s good enough for me and loads of fun to watch and listen to.

Much has been made about how manufactured K-pop groups are but it isn’t different from the formula that Western pop has long followed. Perhaps what sets the Koreans apart is the years of dedication and discipline that they put into training to become idols and they deserve props for that.

Practice makes perfect and when you have from four to seven years of it, it shows. Just look at their highly synchronized dances. With five, nine or 13 members on stage, it would be easy for performances to verge on the chaotic but the top groups pull it off with military precision.

Nor are they just going through the motions of a well-rehearsed repertoire. When they perform, especially live, they give their 100 percent. And it’s got to be because of something more than the fact that it pays the bills. After all, it’s a well-known fact that idols are not well paid. After the management gets half or more of the group’s earnings, the rest is split among the many members in the group.

So what do they go all out for? Most likely for the pure love of it and to be adored. Perhaps it also goes back to the collectivist nature of Korean society, where there is a long-term commitment to the group you belong to and where it is all about cooperation and perseverance.

Nowhere is this dedication, earnestness and group ethos more apparent than at a Super Junior concert. At their Super Show 3 here in January, when they weren’t impressing with their slick song-and-dance routines and aerial stunts, they kept the audience entertained with their goofy antics and ― a Super Show staple ― endless displays of affection for one another, from kissing one another on the cheeks to jumping on top of one another. You could tell that they went all out to keep their fans entertained.

That’s the thing about the top groups. They are all-round entertainers who give great fan service. They’re all heart, no matter how manufactured their origins.

K-pop idols also have to be among the most hardworking celebrities around. Life doesn’t get much easier after they debut and K-pop stars being admitted to hospital for fatigue is common.

As a fan, I appreciate the hard work and dedication that they put into being an idol. Which brings me to another reason the whole K-pop experience delights and intrigues me ― the fans at concerts.

Their enthusiastic shows of appreciation for their idols is whole-hearted and infectious. To be surrounded by thousands of like-minded fans, all singing and chanting along with their lightsticks aglow, can be a truly moving experience.

On the second night of the Girls’ Generation concert last week, at the end of the song Complete, almost the entire audience held up A4-sized sheets of paper that had earlier been distributed by fan club Soshified.com and which were printed with the words “So Nyeo Shi Dae (the group’s name in Korean), you make our lives Complete.”

Call it cheesy or cult-like but it was a goosebump-inducing moment. A few members of the group were moved to tears at the unexpected display of fan love. So was the teenage girl near me and so was I.

And at the YG Family gig in Seoul’s Olympic Park Stadium, when Big Bang suddenly turned over the mike to the 13,000 fans during their acoustic performance of their hit Haru Haru, we all continued singing the song to them with no prompting for 30 seconds in perfect harmony. At the end of it, the crowd erupted into screams and cheers, thrilled that we actually had it in us to serenade the group.

Friends and family think this is a phase I am going through and I will soon tire of collecting Big Bang DVDs/files/stickers/photobooks or getting excited at the mention of anything K-pop. But as long as it keeps giving me that feel-good vibe, and as long as those idols keep giving their all, I’m quite sure I won’t be putting down my lightstick anytime soon ― the one I queued two hours in 3 deg C cold to buy.

Crazy? Yes. Dedicated? Most definitely.

By Elisabeth Gwee 

Elisabeth Gwee is the former editor of Her World, a leading women’s magazine in Singapore. ― Ed.

(The Straits Times/Asia News Network)