The Bigger Picture of K-Pop Girl Groups

Recently I experienced K-pop girls groups for the first time (as detailed in my previous blog post), and it’s only now that I realize how weirdly bias I was in my approach.

In a class called ‘Digital Asia’, the main point of my foray into Korean pop was meant to be to expose myself to Asian culture in order to investigate my cultural assumptions and biases, and yet throughout my entire post I barely make note of the ‘Asianness’ of the experience (whatever that would mean).

I chose to look into Korean girl groups in particular because I am already a big fan of girl groups. I thought this would be an advantage because i would already have some prior knowledge, but i’m beginning to think this is working as more of a disadvantage. By trying to keep an open mind about cultural differences, I instead ignored the ingrained culture of the experience all together. In the back of my mind, I was comparing every video I saw to those I had already seen, even though that was the opposite of what I was trying to do.

Autoethnography isn’t about ignoring your biases, it’s about acknowledging them and the way the affect your research. I thought I understood this, but I’m know realizing that my biases run deeper than I thought, and instead of ignoring them I should be embracing them. This is great in theory but now brings me into another difficult situation; how can I embrace my biases without falling into the trap of reducing my research to east vs west? This isn’t really a question I know how to answer yet, but hopefully the more I delve into my research the more I start to see culture as a spectrum rather than a binary.

Speaking of research let’s get into some actual information because so far this has felt like a very long introduction. One of the points I did make in my last post was that it seems that there is a lot of money behind several of these groups. Two of the groups I watched, Girl’s Generation and Red Velvet, are both signed to S.M. Entertainment.

S.M. Entertainment certainly does have a lot of money. Wikipedia says that last year (2016) they made US$313 million in revenue and a net profit of US$21 million. This makes sense as they are arguably the largest music label in all of Asia. I did worry me slightly that this large profit may not be reflected in the pockets of the artists, but in 2012 S.M. Entertainment gave shares 47 of their signed artists, including Girl’s Generation who each received 680 shares. This sounds like it would earn them a massive profit as the company has continued to nearly double its income every year since, but unfortunately this hasn’t been reflected in their share price which has instead dropped significantly over the past 5 years (small disclaimer I know nothing about the stock market).  


S.M. Entertainment stock price over the last 5 years

Over the years, S.M Entertainment has actually had numerous disputes with acts signed to them usually over unfair pay, being overworked, and the length of their contract, which for some was a shocking 13 years.

Now I know what you’re thinking, how can I be overworked and exploited in order to attract millions of fans? Well you’re in luck because auditions to be a be apart of S.M Entertainment are held almost constantly. If you are a Singer, Dancer, Model, Actor/Actress or Composer/Lyricist you could be the next big thing in Asia and around the world, with auditions held all around the world. In fact, almost all of the members of Girl’s generation and Red Velvet joined their respective groups after auditioning (with a few being scouted) and being accepted into the S.M. Entertainment training system.

Although this may seem a strange system, it’s actually how most girl groups anywhere in the world are formed. Fifth Harmony and Little Mix all auditioned for and were put together on their countries X Factor, the recently broken up Neon Jungle were all scouted in person or online, even the Spice Girls all auditioned for their part in the group. Unfortunately, bad contracts and poor treatment also aren’t uncommon for girls groups across the world. Audio was recently leaked of Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony complaining that the group was being treated like “literal slaves”. I’m not making this point to show that this is acceptable but rather to highlight that girl groups around the world aren’t really that different. I’ve heard people make comments about the way k-pop girls groups are inauthentic and overworked but the same arguments can be made against almost any girl group.

And on that note this post comes to an end. Did I manage to avoid east vs west comparison? Not really, but I think I did it in such a way that looked at the music industry as a whole instead of just comparing the two.

This project has really changed direction in the last couple of weeks but I’m happy where it’s going. I feel like I’m looking deeper and I’m really getting a better understanding of something I thought I didn’t know a lot about.


  1. As you discussed, the nature in which K-Pop production and music studios treat their talent rosters draw parallels with entertainment industries worldwide; however I’d argue that the extent of the infringement on healthy working conditions and work/life balance is much harsher within the K-Pop industry, studios “force their own performers to be complicit in a long–held narrative of female virginity and innocence in K-pop”
    In reading your in-depth explanation of your initial experience in your previous post and reading your analysis through the lens of Ellis et al’s autoethnographic methodology I must commend you on following the money in attempting to identify who has the power in this industry, and you brought up Western artist conditions in a way which did not other Korean popular culture but put a solid exclamation point on the statement you had made. However, I feel you skimmed over a fairly heavy portion of your experience being the different stylistic and aesthetic choices present in individual music videos and the genre as a whole, it would be interesting to find out the creative and production flows present in K-Pop girl group media, as you’d already brought up Popstars from around the world it would have been cool to see you explore those flows further. Overal I really enjoyed your post, an absolute pleasure to read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s