Story by Tiffanie Lee
K-pop has become a worldwide phenomenon, and one of its great hubs is Los Angeles. Walk into any Koreatown club, dive, noraebang (karaoke bar) or, hell, even a bakery, and you'll hear the genre's famous slick jams and infectious dance beats. Importing elements of American R&B and hip-hop, as well as Euro dance beats, the strain's popularity surged in the new millennium after picking up steam in the Japanese and Chinese markets. Through YouTube, it has gained a strong foothold in the United States as well.
Like Japanese J-pop, the genre's star players often come from rigorous training camps, something like a cross between the old Hollywood studio system and a Battle Royale. Few cadets make it out, but the ones who attain stardom are worshipped as idols.
Here's the lowdown on five groups that are near-ubiquitous in their own country; you're also likely to hear all of them in Koreatown.
Synthesizing hip-hop with Top 40, this all-male fivesome is fronted by solo artist G-Dragon, who can rap, sing and break hearts. The group also includes expert dancer and singer Taeyang, who is something of the K-pop Justin Timberlake, in that his 2010 solo album also was a big hit. Then there's rapper (and actor) T.O.P., a pretty boy who nonetheless has a voice akin to DMX. Big Bang maintain a titan hold in South Korea and Japan, and won Best Worldwide Act at MTV's 2011 Europe Music Awards.
A snarling mass of seemingly Blade Runner-inspired raccoon eyes and geometric, patent-leather costumes, 2NE1 debuted in 2009 as Big Bang's sister act. But they've given their “brothers” a run for their money, racking up national music awards. Their leader goes by CL and spits nasty rhymes à la Lil' Kim, while chanteuse Bom's remarkable R&B pipes have made her a solo star as well.
In a traditionally ageist industry, the group's three members are in their mid-20s, making them some of the “oldest” K-pop girls working. Their hair, meanwhile, is dyed colors you can't even find in a bag of Skittles.
SNSD — also known as Sonyeo Shidae, aka “Girls' Generation” — feature nine ladies. They recently became the first K-pop act to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman, leaving Bill Murray comically beguiled in the process. They're also the biggest-selling K-pop act to date, having moved some 600,000 albums since debuting in 2007. Their most recent work, The Boys, sold 200,000 copies in its first month alone in South Korea, a country the size of Indiana.
2PM originally contained three American members, who hailed from Seattle, Los Angeles and Bedford, Mass., and were of Korean and Thai-Chinese descent. They shot to fame quickly due to their masculine appeal, polished slow jams and break-dancing abilities. However, in 2009 group leader Jay Park was kicked out after netizens found one of his old MySpace notes, which disparaged the South Korean music industry. Having an opinion certainly isn't illegal, but in K-pop appearing thankless or arrogant is grounds for dismissal. The act continues to flourish in his absence.
Under the tutelage of manager JYP — the godfather of modern K-pop — Wonder Girls were groomed as an R&B group along the lines of Destiny's Child. The group's average age hovers around 21, but they've been dominating K-pop for half a decade now, and a few years back JYP announced plans to steer the group to a U.S. crossover. This is a big dream, as no K-pop group has fully succeeded in the U.S. mainstream. If anyone can do it, it's the Wonder Girls.
Be sure to check out the current issue of LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold's Spring Restaurant Guide spotlighting Koreatown.