POST: 'KPOP' - tour a "Korean pop music factory"

What it's about.


The diverse and talented cast of KPOP.

The diverse and talented cast of KPOP.

My experience.

I was given a purple wristband upon entering the space that had the word "Epic" printed on it in black. After having it fastened around my wrist, I entered a room that resembled a small concert venue, with a long platform in the center and smaller platforms bordering the walls. There was an active bar in the corner. 

Those of us who didn't arrive early enough to snag a seat on one of the platforms (like me) stood around, mingling and drinking and waiting for something to happen. We didn't have to wait long, because suddenly there were instructions voiced over the loud speakers, first in Korean, then in English, instructing us to turn off our phones and clear all platforms. Then we were treated to a free concert by a Korean solo star, a Korean girl group, and a Korean boy group. It was all super charming, and the music, even if most of the lyrics weren't in English, was definitely catchy. I could truly envision all the people I saw on stage as real life Korean pop stars; They both looked and sounded the part. Jerry Kim introduced himself to us, first as a self diagnosed "Bad Korean," mainly for not being born in Korea and not speaking Korean, but then as the man in charge of the Crossover agency, an agency responsible for getting foreign talent or brands (such as Hugh Jackman, Shakira, IKEA, etc.) to cross over to the United States. Naturally, he was hired by JTM Entertainment (founded by President Moon and his wife, Ruby) to get their KPOP acts (the same three acts we had just witnessed perform) to cross over to the American people. And that's why we were there. We were asked to be a focus group that would observe and critique the talent, being MwE (the solo act), Special K (the girl group), and F8 (the boy group).

I had been in my fair share of focus groups before, and all of them took place at a table in a nondescript room where the moderators tried to get our unbiased opinions on a product or a brand. This was different. We were given a tour of a "Korean pop music factory," only the more I was exposed to the dangerous lengths the stars would go to in order to remain stars and appeal to an American market, the more I understood there was something very, very wrong. 

It wasn't the strictness of the on-site vocal coach or choreographer that really got to me, or even the overbearing managing staff, but the sheer existence of an on-site plastic-surgeon that ultimately convinced me that the way JTM Entertainment was going about getting their talent to "cross over" to American audiences was problematic, at best.

People were called out of the room based on the color of their wristbands. Having a purple wristband, I was among the last group of people to exit the room. We were lead down a hallway where we watched a series of videos about MwE. MwE was 26 years old, and she was JTM's only solo act, after having begun her career at 16 years old. She was very much a diva. When asked if she aspired to be "the Asian Beyoncé," she replied, "Does Beyoncé want to be the American MwE?," before adding that she and Beyoncé were close friends, and that Beyoncé had been the one who had advised her to go Blonde. 

While sitting in MwE's white fur-lined dressing/relaxation room, we were officially introduced to MwE in the flesh, actively lounging and pouting in equal measure, wearing an extravagant gown that couldn't possibly have been comfortable, and whining about how much she hated Q&As to our faces. Ruby Moon, however, managed to coerce MwE into participating. Certain members of the audience were equipped with note cards featuring pre-approved interview questions, such as "Why are you so beautiful?," to which MwE replied, "Because of my fans." It wasn't long before the questions started to cause problems. "What does it feel like to be dating a super-famous action star?" resulted in MwE being, for once, it seemed, honest, explaining that they were only photographed together once, but that the media blew it out of proportion, and that she was actually in love with somebody else. Ruby Moon was not having this, and proceeded to explain away MwE's words by writing them off as nothing more than a bad joke. When Ruby threatened to tell President Moon about MwE's uncooperativeness, MwE was frightened into submission, and only then did she go along with the media-perpetuated story about her relationship status that was clearly a lie. The woman to the right of me asked MwE if she would sing a line from her song, "Wind Up Doll," and MwE threw a full on tantrum, refusing to sing, until ultimately giving in and putting on an impressive, albeit frustrated performance. The end of the Q&A took a dark turn when MwE, at 26, was already being presented as a semi washed up solo artist, Ruby bringing out a fresh faced, composing, piano playing, 22 year old named Jessica, one of the members of Special K. She was going to be JTM's new solo act, not quite replacing MwE, but certainly overshadowing her. Needless to say, MwE was devastated. 

Next I was introduced to Special K, in the dance studio. The choreographer was the ultimate perfectionist, and in her refusal to accept anything less than perfection, she would often push these girls past their breaking points. It was cringe-worthy to watch, and it was easy to see how these girls were so regularly pitted against and compared to one another, and how damaging that was. 

In the recording studio, I was able to listen to each member of Special K's vocals individually. They were definitely all talented, but they had a more memorable sound together than they did apart. One of the girls, Mina, snuck into the room to tell us to vouch for her, assuring us that she'd do anything to make it in the U.S., even if she had to shave her head or hit a car with a baseball bat. It kind of worried me how desperate she was to be successful in America. 

F8 had their own drama. Their newest addition to the band, Epic, was Korean American, born in Seoul, but spoke only English, a fact which separated him from his band-mates. The rest of the band wanted the sound to remain the same, wanted their music to stay primarily Korean, but Epic felt differently. He wanted English verses to be incorporated, so as to better relate to an American audience. I could see both sides, but I definitely understood the tension. 

Jerry Kim felt that he had failed, that he could think of no real way to cross over JTM's talent to the United States. But thankfully, the Moons started to see reason, concluding that no amount of changes, be it plastic surgery or dialect coaching, would make the Korean pop stars any less Korean. Just like Jerry's not being born in Korea and not speaking Korean didn't make him a bad Korean. Therefore, JTM was going to stop trying. Ruby summed it all up rather nicely: KPOP is here, whether we want it to be or not. So it's not a matter of whether or not KPOP is ready for America, it's whether or not America is ready for KPOP. And are we ready? I think so, especially considering the audience (myself included) put all of the craziness we had just observed to the back-burner in order to simply rock out to an encore performance by MwE, Special K, and F8. 

See it.

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