On Friday, Siwon Choi — a member of Korean boy band Super Junior — and SM Entertainment USA director and music producer Dominique Rodriguez spoke about the global reach of Korean pop music (K-pop) in a panel exploring the modern role of K-pop stars and the K-pop industry.
The panel, sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) Korea Program and humanities research support institution Foundation Academia Platonica, was part of a two-day conference on the challenges and future of Korean studies in America.
Siwon traced the path he followed to K-pop stardom, recalling how the Super Junior single “Sorry Sorry” first made the group famous in Asia and beyond. Simultaneously, he acknowledged that many who pursue similar dreams do not find similar success. Nonetheless, he said he is honored to be working in the industry.
“K-pop has become such a global movement now… We can write a new history that was never possible before,” Choi said. “I love this responsibility and [the] honor that comes with it.”
When asked what message he would like to send to those who view him as a role model, Choi emphasized the importance of being a positive force of change for others.
“I hope my work inspires people to speak and to stand up together to make change,” Choi said. “Big or small, it doesn’t matter.”
Choi was also asked about whether he believes artists should publicly take political stances. Answering in Korean, Choi said he believes that popular artists should maintain a safe distance between themselves and politics, adding that artists should generally speak conservatively and avoid making hasty statements. However, he acknowledged that artists will often take greater action if something strongly conflicts with their personal convictions.
Rodriguez said that the international spread of K-pop is only beginning, citing the rising popularity of SM Entertainment artists in America, as with the Billboard debut of the boy band NCT and a recent collaboration between Wendy (a member of the girl group Red Velvet) and John Legend. Rodriguez added that he believes Korean pop culture is no longer confined within Korea but is now a global phenomenon.
“You can call it K-pop, but I call it pop culture, because it’s the world we live in,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez also spoke about SM Entertainment’s model of “culture technology,” a production system involving an ordered process of casting, training, producing and marketing. Unlike in the American entertainment industry, he said, Korean talents are scouted and trained from a very young age, and management and labeling is housed under a single company. Rodriguez added that he believes Korea’s system helps artists see their ideas realized in their work.
“[The Korean system] is a huge benefit to the artist,” he said. “The company and the management are always on the same page with what the vision of the artist is for the future.”
However, the K-pop industry has been criticized in the past for being overly strict with its artists. Members of the audience asked Choi and Rodriguez about whether they feel Korean artists have sufficient say over their own careers.
Choi responded, in Korean, that it is a common misconception that the Korean system exploits its artists financially. He told the audience that each artist’s voice is properly heard with regard to issues such as contract periods and reimbursements.
Rodriguez also discussed SM Entertainment’s marketing strategy. After analyzing the demographics of the global market, the company creates a digital “heat map” to identify areas where people will potentially be more receptive to K-pop.
“It’s not a blind-sighted effort; we really know who we’re trying to get the message to,” Rodriguez said. “The approach today is to take all of that information and say, ‘How can we target [customers] digitally and then get them to go to a place where they’re then talking about it offline?’”
Rodriguez said that, despite relatively unreceptive Western markets in the early 2000s, Korean pop culture is now finding new markets due to the globalization of music and entertainment. For instance, Choi and Rodriguez discussed the expansion of Super Junior into Latin America, including recent collaborations with Latin American artists such as Leslie Grace.
“People in [Latin American] markets discovered the sound of K-pop and, more specifically, discovered Super Junior,” Rodriguez said. “When that type of discovery takes place, it’s up to not only the company but a duty [of] the group to go into those markets and embrace the fans who have embraced them.”
Panel members suggested that the growing influence of Korean pop culture could be a key stimulator of Korean studies in America and the rest of the West.
“I challenge my students to consider… what it means not just to monetize culture but to design culture with specific markets and audience in mind,” said East Asian languages and cultures assistant professor Dafna Zur. “There’s no question that this [thoughtful marketing of culture] is a powerful force that other countries would love to have.”
Rachel Sun M.A. ’17 said her interest in examining Korean pop culture through a scholarly lens led her to attend Friday’s event.
“I’m just curious about how [as] an idol, a pop star, how different [Choi] can be in an academic setting and in an entertainment industry setting,” said Sun.
Super Junior fan club member Liu Cao flew in from Ottawa, Canada to attend Choi’s talk. She said she hopes K-pop and Korean culture will achieve greater popularity in North America.
“I’m really interested in Korean culture,” Cao said. “It would be really cool if we can introduce [it] in North America.”
East Asian studies major Megan Faircloth ’21 said that panels during the language education and social science portions of the conference helped her better understand her own field of study.
“When I got to college, I started taking classes that [were] more in-depth about Korean history and culture and found out that I was really interested in it,” Faircloth said. “[The panels] gave me so much more to think about and contextualize my education and my potential future in academia and East Asian studies.”
Contact Emily Wan at emilywan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sean Chen at kxsean ‘at’ stanford.edu.