S.M. had prepared questions for the idols, and they were read out loud, in English and Korean, by the S.M. company man who ran the proceedings. The first question, for the two members of the Girls, was: “Every time you visit the States it seems like you receive crazy love and support. Can you feel it? Can you explain the wonderful reception your fans have given you?”
The same question was put, in slightly different forms, to all the groups. The two representatives of Super Junior, a twelve-member boy group, were asked, “How do you always manage to have an explosive reaction from your fans worldwide? What’s your secret?”
One of the members hazarded a guess. “Maybe it is because of our great good looks?”
Lee Soo-man, S.M.’s founder—people in the company refer to him as Chairman Lee—is K-pop’s master architect. Lee retired as the agency’s C.E.O. in 2010, but he still takes a hand in forming the trainees into idol groups, including S.M.’s newest one, EXO. The group has twelve boys, six of them Korean speakers who live in Seoul (EXO-K) and six Mandarin speakers, who live in China (EXO-M). The two “subgroups” release songs at the same time in their respective countries and languages, and promote them simultaneously, thereby achieving “perfect localization,” as Lee calls it. “It may be a Chinese artist or a Chinese company, but what matters in the end is the fact that it was made by our cultural technology,” he has said. “We are preparing for the next biggest market in the world, and the goal is to produce the biggest stars in the world.” But, while S.M. gets credit for inventing the factory system, its idol groups are seen by some as being too robotic to make it in the West. Y.G. is significantly smaller than S.M. in terms of revenue, but it has a reputation as an agency that allows artists like PSY a kind of creative freedom they would not enjoy at S.M.
Lee was born in Seoul in 1952, during the Korean War. He grew up listening to his mother play classical piano. At the time, the dominant Korean pop genre was trot (an abbreviation of “foxtrot”), pronounced “teuroteu.” Trot borrowed from Western music and from Japanese popular songs, a legacy of the Japanese occupation, from 1910 to 1945. It blended these influences with a distinctively Korean singing style called p’ansori. Lee, however, immersed himself in American folk and Korean rock music, which started on U.S. Army bases and was popularized by the guitarist and singer Shin Joong-hyun, in the sixties. Long before K-pop came along, Korean musicians were masters at combining Western influences with traditional singing and dancing styles.
Lee made his name as a folksinger, and toward the end of the decade formed a short-lived hard-rock band called Lee Soo-man and the 365 Days. He also became a well-known d.j. and the host of televised music and variety shows. Mark Russell, who interviewed Lee for his 2008 book, “Pop Goes Korea,” writes that the Korean government cracked down on the music scene, arresting and imprisoning several prominent musicians on pot charges. When a military coup installed Chun Doo-hwan as President, in 1980, Lee’s radio and TV shows were cancelled.
Lee moved to the U.S., where he pursued a master’s degree in computer engineering at California State University, in Northridge. He became fascinated with the music videos that were a staple of programming on the newly launched MTV. If there is a single video from the eighties that captures many of the elements that later resurfaced in K-pop, it is Bobby Brown’s 1988 hit “My Prerogative,” with its triplet swing on the sixteenth note, a signature of New Jack Swing. Brown’s dance moves—a swagger in the hips, combined with tight spins that are echoed by backing dancers—also found their way into K-pop’s DNA.
In 1985, Lee received his degree, and, he told Russell, he returned home determined to “replicate U.S. entertainment in Korea.” Increasing prosperity, marked by the arrival of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, helped bring market-oriented democracy to South Korea and a general loosening of restrictions on the media. Around this time, Koreans coming back to Seoul from the U.S. brought the rhythms of rap and hip-hop, sung in Korean. The consonant nature of the language, with its abundance of kaand tasounds, lent a hard-edged quality to the raps. In 1992, a three-member boy group called Seo Taiji and Boys performed a rap song on a Korean-TV talent competition, to the horror of the judges, who ranked them last, and to the delight of the kids watching at home (one of the Boys was Yang Hyun-suk, the future founder of Y.G. Entertainment). Korean music historians generally cite this performance as the beginning of K-pop.
Lee founded S.M. in 1989. His first success was a Korean singer and hip-hop dancer named Hyun Jin-young, whose album came out in 1990. But, just as Jin-young was on the verge of stardom, he was arrested for drugs. Russell writes that Lee was “devastated” by this misfortune, and that the experience taught him the value of complete control over his artists: “He could not go through the endless promoting and developing a new artist only to have it crash and burn around him.”
In effect, Lee combined his ambitions as a music impresario with his training as an engineer to create the blueprint for what became the K-pop idol assembly line. His stars would be made, not born, according to a sophisticated system of artistic development that would make the star factory that Berry Gordy created at Motown look like a mom-and-pop operation. Lee called his system “cultural technology.” In a 2011 address at Stanford Business School, he explained, “I coined this term about fourteen years ago, when S.M. decided to launch its artists and cultural content throughout Asia. The age of information technology had dominated most of the nineties, and I predicted that the age of cultural technology would come next.” He went on, “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology.”
In 1996, S.M. débuted its first idol group: a five-member boy band called H.O.T. (short for High-Five of Teenagers). It was followed by S.M.’s first girl group, S.E.S., after the given names of the three members (Sea, Eugene, and Shoo). Both groups were enormously popular in Korea, and inspired other groups. Soon K-pop was pushing both traditional trot and rock to the commercial margins of the Korean music scene.
(To be continued...)
译者：Daisyyu 原作者：John Seabrook
1996年，SM首次推出了第一个偶像团体：叫做HOT的五个男孩组合（是High-Five of Teenagers的简写）。紧接着，是SM的第一个女子组合SES，是三个成员的艺名（Sea, Eugene, and Shoo）。两个组合在在韩国都非常受欢迎，然后激发了其他的团体。很快，韩国流行音乐受着传统的trot和摇滚的推动，韩国音乐界走向商业利润。