Book review: Mark James Russell’s “K-Pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution”

There is no doubt that the Philippines is still very much caught up in the crest of hallyu, or the Korean wave.

On television, Korean dramas are shown alongside local primetime fare, with its stars commanding a fanbase as — perhaps even more — devoted as those of local stars.

Seeing as most of these South Koreans television stars double as pop stars as well, it’s no surprise that K-Pop (Korean Pop) receives practically the same devotion from Filipino fans. It’s something that Korean music companies seem to be aware of and wish to cultivate, if their stars’ itineraries are anything to go by.

For instance, supergroups like Big Bang and Super Junior have held sold-out concerts here in the country; multiple times in Super Junior’s case. Boy bands like SHINee, EXO, FT Island, and Infinite have held successful shows here. South Korean megastar Rain has filmed scenes for a Korean drama here and held a concert here, and popular girl group 2NE1 — who counts Star Circle Quest alumna Sandara Park as one of its members — is holding a concert at the SM Mall of Asia Arena tonight.

But with so many K-Pop starts to keep track of, and with more being produced every day through talent shows like Superstar K, how will people looking to get into this craze manage to catch up?

The answer might be Tuttle Publishing’s 2014 offering “K-Pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution”. Written by journalist Mark James Russell, the book is more than a hundred pages of photos and information on the current lay of the K-Pop land — from boy bands to girl groups and even the solo acts.

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Russell certainly makes it easy for the K-Pop novice to step into its colorful world, starting the book with a description of what it would be like to be in the audience of a K-Pop artist’s concert. From there, he tells a truncated but still informative history of K-Pop, starting with Seoul, the city where it was born, and then tracking how the city and the industry has grown and changed from the early 90s to the present day.

Particularly interesting to read is how Russell traces the beginnings of K-Pop to one group: Seo Taiji and the Boys. One of its members, Yang Hyun-Suk, started YG Entertainment in 1996, and has produced artists like Big Bang, 2NE1, and Psy. Between YG Entertainment, Soo-Man Lee’s SM Entertainment, and Park Jin-young’s JYP Entertainment, it doesn’t look like there will be a shortage of K-Pop acts any time soon.

Russell also doesn’t hesitate to give his readers an idea of how rigorously these companies search and train the people it will turn into K-Pop celebrities. He talks about how young most of these acts begin their training, and how arduous that training can be. Recruits then spend at least four years performing singing, dancing, and language skills, with most of them staying at small dormitories close to the main studio. He also doesn’t shy away from touching on the infamous long-term contracts that these music companies impose upon their stars, some of which stretch as far as 13 years.

But the meat of the book — and probably the one that people are most interested to see — is made up of the profiles of the many acts that have come to represent K-Pop around the world, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Photos abound, and newcomers to the fandom may find interesting some of the tidbits that Russell shares. For instance, it would seem that most K-Pop acts have official colours — Big Bang’s is black and yellow, while Super Junior’s is pearl sapphire blue. Birth days, fan clubs, and discographies are also included, as well as a couple of interviews with K-Pop artists Kevin Kim and Brian Joo.

There’s no question that newbies will find much to enjoy in “K-pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution”, as it is a perfect introduction to this particular genre, a perfect starting point to start one’s exploration. More seasoned fans, however, may find the book lacking.

Superfans, after all, can find more photos and information about their favorite groups online. Sasaengs, or excessively obsessed fans who have been known to stalk and invade the privacy of their idols, certainly won’t find anything new in this book.

Perhaps mainly due to page constraints, Russell’s profiles on the K-Pop artists often only scratch the surface. For instance, the group Busker Busker was embroiled in a bit of controversy when its drummer, Brad Moore, talked to an online blog about his experience on the reality show, Superstar K3. All of it warrants just one sentence on the group’s profile in the book.

The same goes for the other K-Pop stars that have been embroiled in scandals and controversies in the past. Jay Park’s troubles with the Korean public gets one paragraph, while the controversies that hounded Super Junior and TVXQ! aren’t even mentioned.

These faults, however, will only really trouble those who do not need an introduction to the world of K-Pop. For those looking to dip their toes into it, “K-pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution” is a perfect gateway drug.

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