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“Just be a free spirit”

The K-Pop band, BTS, was named “Entertainer of the year 2020” by Time Magazine.
The K-Pop band, BTS, was named “Entertainer of the year 2020” by Time Magazine. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/zz/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

The colourful, stylish bands with their cool choreographies reach millions of users on social media. The wave of fascination emanating from K-Pop has long spilled over from Asia to Europe. What is it about this South Korean phenomenon that it casts a spell over people throughout the world?

By Sung Un Gang

In 2017 Rodo visited Vietnam, where part of his family lives. At the home of his cousins the TV was on all the time blaring out TV shows with dance groups – colourful, stylish and dynamic. However, the songs were not in Vietnamese. “What’s that?” He asked a cousin, who was also surprised when he asked: “That’s K-Pop. Do you not know it?”

In the meantime the now 16-year-old student from the Dresden area not only listens to South Korean pop music (K-Pop stands for Korean Popular Music), but has also fully embraced the trend. With his group, Ukiyo, he dances the complex choreographies of the K-Pop bands in front of the camera. The group consists of five Vietnamese-German teenagers from the region – PJ (16), Vy (17), Tina (17), Duy (17) and Rodo. They got to know each other through dancing in youth groups or at school. They all share a passion for K-Pop. The fascinating music videos are one thing, the wide range of music and choreographies are another. “K-pop dance routines are very diverse and this allows me to improve my dance skills,” says Duy, who also dances in a hip-hop crew. The cover dance group, Ukiyo, from the Dresden area shows a choreography line-up from the song “Not Shy” by the K-Pop girl group ITZY. The cover dance group, Ukiyo, from the Dresden area shows a choreography line-up from the song “Not Shy” by the K-Pop girl group ITZY. | Photo (detail): © Ukiyo Official So far, Ukiyo has “covered” three K-Pop dances against the backdrop of the city of Dresden, that is, they meticulously rehearsed them, danced them in the street, recorded the performance and posted the video online. They spend several weeks preparing songs such as Lovesick Girls by Blackpink or Not Shy by ITZY. First, everyone teaches themselves the dance routine using the instruction videos on YouTube and then they practice together for three to four days to perfect changes in the line-up and to improve synchronisation. They also try to emulate their idols through fashion. “Sometimes we alter the clothes we buy ourselves,” explains Vy. Then they take to the streets – regardless of whether it is raining or whether there is a heat wave in the city. They then upload the recording onto YouTube. K-Pop conquers Times Square, like the girl band Blackpink. Photo (detail): © picture alliance/RW/MediaPunch/RW

The street is their venue

If you search for “K-Pop Dance Cover” you will find countless videos of groups like Ukiyo who seem to be dancing to K-Pop in all parts of the world - in Paris, Hanoi, Perth, Tokyo or Moscow. Public spaces, mostly shopping streets with a lot of traffic, becomes the backdrop for their appearances. They love it when passers-by stop to watch their dances with a gobsmacked look on their faces or to speak to them. “There were people who even wanted to take photos with us,” says Tina. The videos of such public appearances are an integral part of K-pop fan culture worldwide, which produces its own stars - some groups manage click-counts in the double-digit millions.

The trend is particularly popular with teenagers, but Michelle, a civil servant in her thirties, has also been listening to K-pop since 2016. “Previously I used to have prejudices against pop music. I thought it was thoroughly commercialised and musically less demanding and therefore less valuable.” However, through the South Korean boy group VIXX, she learned to appreciate different qualities. An experience that not only changed her listening behaviour, but also her everyday life. “I cooked Korean food for New Year’s Eve. My husband and I also travelled to South Korea – none of this would have crossed our minds before I started to listen to K-pop. It’s a liberating activity that can make you really emotional.”

The Berlin theatre director, Frederika Tsai, publicly professes her love for K-Pop. She finds the lyrics by BTS particularly remarkable: “In Black Swan, BTS broach the issue of the artist’s inner struggle and especially in these times of the pandemic I can really identify with that.” As part of the work she does, the doctor of musicology listens to classical or experimental electronic music, but that is no reason to demean K-Pop as music. “K-Pop may not be the most complex form of music, but it has a good mix of different genres such as hip-hop, jazz and R&B in it.”

With sold out concerts and cover photos for the German teenager magazine, BRAVO, the K-Pop stars already enjoy a strong public presence among Germany’s youth. The members of Ukiyo say that K-pop is also a way to discover yourself. “The dance-covers help me to get to know my weaknesses and strengths as a dancer,” says PJ. “I was afraid of other people and wanted to conform and blend in,” says Rodo. “Not any more – I wear what I want to wear. I just want to be a free spirit. And people like our group because we are authentic.”