Bootstrapping their own K-pop band — in New York City

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re with The World. They say if you can make in New York City, you can make it anywhere. The big question this next story raises is if you can make in New York, can you make it in Seoul? You’ll hear some fine examples of Korean pop music, or K-pop, made right here in the US of A. You can trace this American K-pop hybrid back to Lee Soo-Man. He’s the founder of a Korean record label and talent agency called S.M. Entertainment. In the late ‘80s, Lee Soo-Man fell in love with the music and moves of American R&B singer Bobby Brown; fell in love with the Bobby Brown formula, really--hook-driven pop music and nonstop synchronized dancing--and he wanted the girl and boy bands he was developing for Korean audiences to have the same thing. The result was K-pop. It was so successful that today’s companies like S.M. have become mass production star factories. In the process, K-pop has evolved into a uniquely Korean thing, but now three artists in New York City are trying to reverse engineer the K-pop formula. Alina Simone has the story and the results.


Alina Simone: Before 2012, your average American would’ve struggled to name any Asian-born entertainer. That all changed with the success of Psy, who opened the floodgates for K-pop acts like BigBang and Girls Generation.


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Simone: As a graduate student at Columbia, Korean-born artist Bora Kim couldn’t help but notice the change. Everyone suddenly knew about Korea--well, in a way.


Bora Kim: Because the knowledge that they have around Korea, a lot of times it is based on pop culture.


Simone: Bora became fascinated by how K-pop had become such a frictionless carrier of culture. The corporate talent agencies of K-pop had hit upon a winning formula, but could that formula be distilled? Bora decided to find out. With fellow Asian American artists Samantha Shao and Karin Kuroda, she put out a casting call here in New York, looking for singers, dancers, and rappers with that signature look. Here’s Samantha.


Samantha Shao: Yeah, I kind of like jokingly said that they have to look like boyfriend material. You know, like they should be friendly more than just being like, oh, way over-the-top hot.


Simone: Another thing, Bora says: no Koreans.


Kim: We didn’t want to pick people who knew about K-pop too much, because we wanted to document the process of the boys learning.


Simone: They recruited six boys for their boy band, named EXP, for experiment, but these non-Koreans still had to sing in Korean, which meant…


Kim: I’m teaching them Korean, and we have a textbook, and yeah it’s just like how people would learn another language. We start from the alphabet.


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Kim: And we take quizzes, like, once a week.


Simone: They also needed to master other elusive arts of K-pop, like how to be cute. Karin explains.


Karin Kuroda: We called it a “cuteness workshop.” And so, first, explaining cuteness and how it’s different here vs. in Korea or in other Asian countries is that cuteness is something that’s desireable as opposed to demeaning. So we made them watch a lot of variety shows to show how K-pop idols do things that are considered cute.


Simone: The team recently raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter for EXP’s first mini-album, and the band’s second single is being released this week. Here’s a sneak preview.


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Simone: But in creating their own bespoke K-pop agency, the trio is aware of the controversy surrounding Korea’s factory approach to manufacturing stardom.


Kim: It's an industry that seeks perfection, almost at a point where you could call it problematic because, yes, it's a known fact that a lot of K-pop idols go through plastic surgery in order to look how they look.


Simone: But EXP isn’t about nose-jobbing your way to perfection. The trio describes it as a collaboration, with the band helping compose music and lyrics.


Kim: They’re part of the production, too. It’s not that it’s just three of us who’s working on this project. They help in making the content as well, so it’s like a big collaboration.


Shao: It’s more like they're always telling us, ‘girls, keep doing it and we're gonna make it.’ They're like cheerleaders.


Simone: The support team also includes a host of producers, choreographers, and designers who help create the killer hooks, lockstep dancing, and custom tailored costumes that are the hallmark of K-pop. I’m a K-pop fan myself, and watching EXP’s video clips, I’d say while they haven’t quite nailed it, they’re definitely in range. If Bora and her team actually manage to bootstrap a K-pop band without the help of a multi-million dollar corporation, it would be kind of revolutionary. But some K-pop fans accuse the team of essentially whitewashing a Korean genre. So, why isn’t this A-pop?


Kim: I think, firstly they’re singing Korean and they’re learning the K-pop culture. But more importantly, we’re the makers of this band, I think that’s what makes it K-pop.


Simone: Maybe you could call it meta K-pop.


Kuroda: What is EXP? Like, I don’t frickin’ know, but it’s good, and then you just start thinking a little bit about what it is you’re digesting.


Simone: By making their process transparent, EXP heightens your awareness of the artifice of K-pop as you’re enjoying it. Kind of like reading the ingredients on a package of twinkies while stuffing one in your mouth. But the ultimate test of EXP’s success is if they can crossover to Korea, where the cognoscenti can decide for themselves whether this is really K-pop.


Kim: One of our famous hashtags is called #nosleeptilkorea. And yeah, we would love to go to Korea and perform.


Kuroda: And if our boys could be on one of those variety shows, then we'll be like, “We made it!”


Simone: For The World, this is Alina Simone from New York.


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Werman: If you want to see EXP rehearse and decide for yourself if they nailed their moves, we’ve posted a video at Also, later this week there are sounds coming out of New York with roots in Korea that sound nothing like what comes out of that starmaker machinery. Think more David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith.


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Werman: Singer and songwriter Jihae later this week on The World. That’s the show for this tuesday. From our studios at WGBH here in Boston, I’m Marco Werman. Thanks for being here.


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