By: Natasha Budhai
Kpop (케이팝 or 가요 in Korean) stands for Korean pop music and is a genre of music originating from South Korea, part of Korean (audio and visual) culture. Kpop has been around for a long time but has only recently gained attention on a global scale. It’s been dubbed a “cultural phenomenon,” breaking down borders internationally. With its wide popularity and growing support from fandoms worldwide, male idols and groups like BTS, Stray Kids, Ateez and more have made it onto the global market. One key aspect of Kpop is its visual culture. Its visuality is arguably what makes the genre so unique. This puts a focus on presentation and imagery. Elements like concepts, physical beauty, marketing strategies and influence of the Korean Wave are just some to name when analyzing its visuals. With the many attributes present in the musical genre, it is clear how the Kpop industry prioritizes visuality in male Kpop groups.
Concept photos and themes
One common aspect of Kpop is the use of concepts, defined as themes (artistic style) of the visuals for their set comebacks (Wu). Every time an idol/group is confirmed to have a comeback, their team decides on a visual theme that would set the tone for the rest of their album. Concept ideas and themes establish a sense of identity for these groups, adding to their uniqueness (Wu). From the beginning of Kpop to now, concepts have been one of the earliest industry tactics in forming their groups and determining their image. The use of concepts is one thing that makes this genre of music distinct from others. Each concept tells a story. Building on that story is essential in the industry. These concepts would influence their outfits, performances, photos, choreographies, and sometimes song choices and lyrics. Their eye-catching outfits and colour coordination is what often sets concept visuality. Choreographies mostly rely on hard-hitting, synchronized movements, with members switching positions multiple times in a routine (referred to as 자리바꿈 in Korean) (Wu). Each member performing a specific role in well-ordered choreography includes a visual hook – a repeated dance sequence that matches the melody and lyrics of the song (Kim 7). Depending on the group’s concept, these choreographies and other visual aspects heavily depend on choice. When chosen, their management begins preparation in sorting their comeback. Photoshoots are often most important, using the decided theme in determining their positions, outfits and colour coordination. Popular Kpop group Stray Kids released their latest album “Oddinary” on March 18th, 2022 (Wu). With their title track “Maniac,” the concept theme for this comeback was a dark, Halloween, Coraline-inspired aesthetic (taking inspiration from the 2009 U.S. animated film Coraline) (Wu) (see fig. i).
The lead message was “what’s odd will soon be normal,” which takes on an ambiguous double meaning (a common pattern in music). Dark monochromatic colour schemes and Halloween imagery are used. Seeing this in their photoshoots and album is just one of many examples of visuality seen in male Kpop groups.
Plastic surgery and physical altercation
Physical appearance has always been a prominent feature in Korean culture and is very significant in Kpop. As part of its visuality, there is a call for attention to the idol’s physical beauty and appearance. Features like pale skin, double eyelids, slim body and V-shaped jawline are just some of the Korean beauty standards existing today (Jacobs and Zheng). Often dubbed the “world’s plastic surgery capital,” South Korea has one of the largest plastic surgery industries (nearly one million procedures a year) in the world (Jacobs and Zheng). According to The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there were over 650,000 operations of plastic surgery conducted in 2011 alone. With surgery being a big market in South Korea and the importance of physical appearance, there is a lot of pressure to adhere to the high standards of beauty. This is especially true for Kpop idols. With visuality in the industry, a large part of that revolves around the visual beauty of these idols. For many, it’s almost a requirement to undergo these procedures if they don’t already fit the beauty standard set out. For example, V-line surgery is a popular procedure done by male idols. This involves having their faces reshaped to give them a slimmer, sharp, oval-like appearance (adding fragility) (Chancheochingchai and Dowmanee). This procedure, among others, has allowed for the continuation of these standards, keeping so in the industry. Aside from surgery, idols take other measures to maintain their physical appearances like strict diets, intense workouts, and lifestyle changes (Chancheochingchai and Dowmanee). These changes are almost mandatory for those who want to become Kpop idols. Not following mandates can risk public backlash from fans and even being reprimanded or let go of their label (Chancheochingchai and Dowmanee). With the influence of their favourite idols, many Korean and Korean-Canadian/American youths have been affected by these standards. This gives them an interest in taking part in these procedures themselves. Fandoms of these groups are influenced by the standards of beauty these idols exhibit. With that influence, plastic surgery has been a popular option for many of these fans, usually of the teenage demographic. The visual appearance of these idols is very important in representing and marketing the industry, especially for their global audiences.
Audiovisual marketing strategies
The Kpop industry is also characterized by many audiovisual marketing strategies. A nation’s image is a projection of the nation’s perception of its own identity, in particular, of its culture and arts (Jang and Song 9). These strategies are imposed when these idols undergo intense standardized training from the companies before officially debuting. This adds to the importance of (creating) visual culture (Wu). Some of these producing strategies include the diversity of audiovisual content, systematic training of singers, synchronized dance formations, movements in the choreography and rapid distribution via the internet (Kim 6). Many male Kpop groups use these producing strategies to help enhance and create their visuality. From the time they become trainees (training idols) to the moment they debut, the visual aspect of their career is sorted from the start. Different languages (especially English) are added and mixed with Korean lyrics to increase global audiences. This method of multicultural and hybrid production helped popularize Kpop in the global market (Kim 3). One of the top marketing tactics in the industry is the use of visuals within a group. In every group, there are roles/positions that each member is assigned. These usually consist of a lead dancer, vocalist, rapper, group leader, the face of the group, centre, youngest of the group (막내 – maknae in Korean) and visual (Wu). The visual is a role given to the member that best fits the Korean beauty standard and represents the group visually (Kim 12). Visually captivating images of beautiful young male and female idols executing tightly choreographed dances are one of the stronger elements of performances onstage and music videos (Kim 7). Beginning in the 2000s, several Kpop entertainment companies tried to market their singers globally, expanding outside South Korea (Kim 4). This led to records and MV’s (music videos) grossing approximately 2.28 billion views from 235 countries (Kim 15). Using a play on words, subunits and hyphenated/abbreviated names is also a big part of Kpop visuality seen with many of today’s popular male groups (ex. EXO and NCT subunit groups, Enhyphen, BTS etc.).
The Korean wave
“The Korean Wave provides a meaningful opportunity for the Korean government to take advantage of newly emerging cultural and public diplomacy to promote Korean cultural assets” (Jang and Song 2). Several media scholars have coined “The Korean wave” (한류 – Hallyu in Korean). This is defined as the increasing and rapid growth of Korean cultural industries and exports of popular culture, beginning in the early 90s’ (Dal 2). Until the mid-2000s, the Korean wave phenomenon was primarily known as an inter-Asian cultural flow. People in different countries received the Korean Wave depending on political, economic, and socio-cultural factors in each country (Jang and Song 3). Kpop group BTS’s first official North American performance at the American Music Awards marked one of the first transitional cultural phenomena of the Korean wave to the west (Dal 1) (see fig. ii).
BTS has been dubbed the world’s most popular boyband and has been at the forefront of Kpop for the rest of the world. A part of this global expansion of BTS and the Korean wave has a lot to do with social media. Social media has played a role in circulating the local popular culture in global markets (Dal 4). “Tech-savvy young people have shifted their habits in consuming popular culture by heavily relying on social media, which indicates the emergence of social media as one of the most significant breakthroughs in both circulation and consumption of popular culture” (Dal 2). The Korean wave relies on the rapid growth of social media to reach their global fans and increase group fandoms (Dal 6). BTS officially joined Instagram on December 6th, 2021, with each member creating their accounts. This moment was significant for their fandom (dubbed as A.R.M.Y.) as BTS was one of the latter groups to receive their social media accounts. Global fans were ecstatic, flooding their comment sections, reposting their images and expressing themselves online. Here, they promoted their projects, group projects, behind the scenes, personal lives and exclusive concept photos. Many Kpop groups take to social media to do the same, using it as a marketing tool to promote (visually) themselves and their brand (Jang and Song 5). Social media can constitute a meaningful cultural economy of fandom only when it involves users’ engagement and participation (Dal 2). The spread of the Korean wave worldwide has added to the building and increasing visuality of Kpop. The industry has marketed visuality in new ways attempting to broaden its audience.
Outside of South Korea, Kpop’s visual culture is not widely known and is one of the reasons why it’s so popular internationally. The emphasis and importance of its visuals are one of the most captivating aspects of this genre. Many global fans would agree that its role of presentation and imagery is what makes it unique, carrying it globally. As seen with many male Kpop artists, their visuality is very important. Elements concerning training, talent and lifestyle add to this narrative, giving the impression of “picture-perfect looks and life.” Using these elements, the Kpop industry prioritizes visuality in male groups. Their visual culture is keen, maintaining the standards of beauty depicted by society and fandoms all over.
Works cited list
Chancheochingchai, Pakjira, Dowmanee, Siran. “Influence of Korea Culture and K-Pop on Visual Culture.” Visual Culture Journal, https://nettypakjira.wixsite.com/visualculture/single-post/2015/10/24/influence-of-korea-culture-and-kpop-on-visual-culture.
Dal, Yong Jin. “An Analysis of the Korean Wave as Transnational Popular Culture: North American Youth Engage Through Social Media as TV Becomes Obsolete.” International Journal of Communication, December 2018, 19 pgs.
“Find a Plastic Surgeon: Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.” ISAPS, 1 Oct. 2021, https://www.isaps.org/.
Jacobs, Harrison, Zheng, Annie. “People Have the Wrong Idea about the 3 Most Popular Procedures in South Korea, the Plastic Surgery Capital of the World.” Business Insider, 28 June 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/south-korea-plastic-surgery-gangnam-biggest-misconception-2018-6.
Jang, Wonho, Jung, Eun Sung. “The Influences of K-pop Fandom on Increasing Cultural Contact.” With the Case of Philippine Kpop Convention, Inc, August 2017, 28 pgs.
Kim, Aelim, et al. “Korean Popular Music (K-Pop), Youth Fan Culture, And Art Education Curriculum.” University of South Carolina Scholar Commons, 2017, 118 pgs.
Wu, Joyce. “The Paradox of the Visual in K-Pop Groups.” The Cornell Daily Sun, 6 Oct. 2020, https://cornellsun.com/2020/10/05/the-paradox-of-the-visual-in-k-popgroups/#:~:text=Visuals%20often%20face%20a%20paradox,the%20rest%20of%20the%20group.