In the german youth room, the translation software is used, hardcore fans take language courses to understand the lyrics: boy and girl groups from sud korea have been celebrating huge successes far beyond the country’s borders for years now.
With perfectly fitting choreographies, they dance their way into the hearts of their predominantly teenage fans.
What began in sud korea in the 1990s spilled over into other countries in asia and eventually into the u.S. And europe: K-pop. Abroad, korean pop music is mainly associated with bands like BTS and blackpink. For outsiders, there is an almost incomprehensible number of groups and singers in the industry, whose songs incorporate elements of rap, rock and techno.
Not so for fans. "How the idols interact with us is more than fans and stars," says 20-year-old beyza, a member of the boy group monsta X: "they could be my friends."The exchange with the artists, but also among the fans, takes place via apps. Depending on the band they favor, they proudly carry nicknames: army is the name of the BTS fan club, monbebe (my baby) is the name of the followers of monsta X – the seven-headed boy group played at a K-pop festival in mannheim last weekend.
Thousands of mostly female fans came to see the band, including paulina golovanow. Years ago, she had seen youtube videos from south korea and was thrilled: "they were colorful and very different from what comes out of america."The lyrics are not only about love and partying, but also about social problems, such as depression and bullying. But the 21-year-old was also convinced by the dance performances.
Years of training are behind it, says the editor-in-chief of the german-language scene magazine K*bang: "the principle is actually quite simple. There are three main labels in south korea, and they invest in their artists from a very young age," says isabelle opitz. "Some of them apply when they are only twelve years old or younger." Until about the age of majority, they were then trained: singing and dancing lessons, behavior in public. "When a new group comes, it’s done."
The shows of monsta X, cosmic girls and KARD run smoothly on saturday night in mannheim. The catchy refrains, no matter if in english or korean, are sung along loudly. The speeches after each song euphorize the audience – they also talk about the most delicious korean food and why you should visit the country. The korean tourist board co-hosts the finger heart festival, at the beginning the vice president of the board and a consul general speak.
K-pop is sud korea’s export hit, explains editor-in-chief opitz. A pop machine, fueled by the government and perfectly adjusted. Young musicians voluntarily submit to a strict, contractually regulated training regiment, usually with the strong support of their parents. "You’re invested in, you incur debt over time," opitz says. The costs had to be paid off: "with dubious labels, it is actually the case that artists sometimes perform for years without ever receiving any money."
In 2009, the commission for fair trade had presented "standardized contracts" to improve conditions, including shorter terms. There are hardly any private spheres during the training, opitz says. "You are often not allowed to use cell phones and have to keep the weight down. You can’t have a relationship. The downsides are known to fans. "Many say to the stars, you need to take a rest. But it was also their dream," says golovanow. Her friend, patricia wetterauer, also 21, adds: "you feel for me. But they know where their limits are. And they say they are doing it for us."
None of the festival bands was available for a direct interview. Monsta X sent written answers: "when we just had our debut, we wanted to be singers because we just loved music," it says. "Now it’s different. We go on stage now and make our music for our fans who wait for us and give us their love."
The perfect staging succeeds on stage, but after a series of scandals about sex, drugs or illegal gambling, the glittering facade of K-pop crumbles. While popularity is growing in germany and elsewhere, the sudkorean media are currently keeping a close eye on the status of investigations by the public prosecutor’s office and police against pop stars or representatives of record labels.
Despite all the escapades, K-pop still has a rough meaning in its home country too. In seoul, a city of ten million people and the center of K-pop, the music of BTS and other bands and individual artists can be heard every day in cafes, supermarkets and boutiques on the shopping streets.