TV Critic Charlie Murray applauds this BBC Four series for diving deep into the world of K-pop and emerging with a fresh perspective
K-pop fans know all too well how K-pop tends to be reported on and represented in the West. It is treated as nothing more than an industry that manufactures slave-like robotic idols, with no substance or care put into their music. Of course, the industry has its flaws, but BBC Four’s recent documentary delved deeper into the nuances of this controversial business, investigating it in a more open-minded way.
The documentary was created by music journalist James Ballardie, who travels to the city of K-pop itself, Seoul, South Korea, to investigate the appeal of Korean pop music and what has made it so popular in the West. He starts by watching some music videos, approaching them in a non-biased way and discussing how the expensive-looking sets and production values make it easy to see why it’s so liked.
This sets a precedent for the rest of the documentary; Ballardie meets K-pop groups GFriend and VAV, and Byun Baekhyun (member of EXO and SuperM). Ballardie treats them with respect and asks them genuine and respectful questions about their careers. He even goes to concerts and waves their light sticks with the audience, takes selfies with the groups and learns Korean phrases (calling Baekhyun ‘handsome’ in a sweet if slightly awkward moment in a lift), fully immersing himself in the fandom culture without mocking it. He admits the culture shock as the Korean fans religiously wave their light sticks and chant in unison to specific points of the songs, but not in a way that comes off to the audience as rude. He genuinely seems interested to know more about the fandom.
He talks to Soyeon Yoon, a culture reporter, about how the fan-idol relationship differs in K-pop compared to the Western music industry. This includes how fans expect their idols to be more squeaky-clean and avoid drugs, alcohol and relationship, in a stark contrast to how Western celebrity culture views these things. Instead of being altogether judgemental about this different culture, he listens and even comes to fascinating conclusions about K-pop being a more honest version of the more covertly controlling aspects of the Western music industry.
For those less familiar with K-pop, the documentary gave a reasonable amount of information into the beginnings of K-pop, being honest about how the South Korean government developed from condemning it to seeing it as a marketable export. And even if you’re not interested in K-pop, the fact that Ballardie travels to Seoul to investigate it allows for the audience to appreciate the sights of the city.
We see statues of bears and cats representing different groups as a cuter and more K-pop version of a Walk-of-Fame. We also see fascinating tourist sites like the SM museum (SM being one of the ‘Big 3’ K-pop companies) where you can see such incredible products as albums with DJ turntables on the cover, and mannequins dressed up in iconic costumes from SM music videos.
The excitement of seeing all these unique products and the backgrounds of Seoul streets covered in posters of popular groups adds to the experience of the documentary. Even if you are not into K-pop, you may find it hard not to want to visit this bustling city filled with flash mobs, streets lined with street food stalls and stores selling adorable collectables.
Towards the end of the documentary, Ballardie interviewed ‘Niki N Sammy’, from the YouTube channel Twins Talk K-pop, which was an intriguing discussion on how, despite selling out two Wembley Stadium performances within minutes, the well-known Korean group BTS are still rarely given airplay on UK radio. It is a discussion that deserves a platform, as it brings to the forefront the idea that the West is still intolerant to music from another language.
This part of the documentary showed a certain care that Ballardie seemed to discover about the genre; he became interested enough in the genre to investigate what it would take to fully break into the West. This cemented the documentary as one that delved into the K-pop industry and took it seriously, acknowledging its shortcomings while regarding it as a respectable genre of music.