The Bolivian Cult of K-Pop

25 Jul, 2014 | Alex Walker


Mention K-Pop to a non-obsessive and their knowledge of the genre will most likely extend to Park Jae-sang’s Gangnam Style and, if you’re lucky, its sequel Gentlemen — think Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel levels of disappointment. Say the name PSY to a real K-Pop fan, though, and they will laugh you off. Samantha Alejandra, a die- hard supporter of the genre, says his only redeeming quality has been ‘displacing Bieber for the most views on YouTube’. In Bolivia, however, for reasons that Alex Walker will curmudgeonly attempt to explain, K-Pop has become something of a religion.

In January this year, Kim Hyung-jun, former member of the appealingly named SS501 and Korea’s answer to Justin Bieber, became the first K-Pop star to perform in Bolivia. Promoting his solo album Sorry I’m Sorry –presumably a pre- emptive apology for the tuneless vocals that await– a YouTube video shows Kim being met by pandemonium at the airport. One fan, Maria Henecia U, perhaps under the deluded impression that Kim reads comments on cult videos of him, professed that ‘to touch your hand was the best thing that happened to me this year!!! I love you’.

The tour was a demonstration of just how popular K-Pop in Bolivia has become, causing traffic build-up on the roads and requiring a police presence to maintain order; some fans were even seen pitching their tents outside the concert venue several days prior to his performance. It is a genre that has yet to permeate Western culture, however, despite having strong Western flavours: notably, hip-hop verses, euro-pop choruses, rapping, and dubstep breaks; not to mention superficial heartbreak. The latter is no more obvious than in a video of a live performance of SS501’s Because I’m Stupid where Kim Hyung-Jun can be seen silently ‘weeping’ mid-song — presumably reminiscing on some past personal trauma or just peeved about his apparent stupidity. K-Pop is a genre, however, that far transcends the music. It is a cult.

I spent an afternoon compiling an all- too-extensive list of fan groups associated with Bolivian K-Pop and, by number462, lost the will to live. Kim Hyung-jun’s group calls itself Junus –dangerously close to Judas one feels– and there is a sense that he is steering Bolivians away from the righteous path of Christ towards the dark-side that is K-Pop. Given the chaos when Kim held a concert celebrating three years since his debut as a soloist, I can’t even begin to imagine the festivities once we reach 2014 years after his birth.
Aside from musical trend-setting, K-Pop has engendered a cult-following of ‘air- port fashion’; essentially shaped by the pre-flight clothing worn by the constellation of K-Pop stars on tour. Worldwide, these items fly off the shelves before the stars themselves have landed at their destination.
In Bolivia, though, fandom has escalated further. So-called K-Snacks are imported and sold at extortionate prices to a willing market and Denise Fernandez –K-Pop connoisseur from the radio group Melómanos– can think of three cases known to her where Bolivians have changed their official names to Korean ones. Far more disturbing, though, is the news that many young Bolivians are seeking gruesome plastic surgery, opening up the skin around their eyes, to ‘appear more Korean’.
Hallyu is the term Asians use to describe the tsunami of South Korean culture that began flooding their countries from the beginning of the noughties. K-Pop has become the most lucrative wave in this tsunami, contributing around US$2billion a year to the nation’s economy. It is an East-West mash-up that, unlike Western Chart-Toppers, doesn’t make reference to sex, drinking or clubbing. Indeed, the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family endeavours to censor such topics: PSY’s first album PSY from the PSYcho World! was widely denounced for promoting this ‘inappropriate content’; his second album was banned from minors; he has been arrested for marijuana abuse and was condemned for ‘neglecting’ his mandatory military service duties. PSY, then, against all expectations, has come to symbolise a satirising ‘bad-boy’: Public Enemy No.1 of K-Pop’s cult.
Interestingly, K-Pop is a cult that has changed the semantics of fandom: you are not a fan but a K-Popper. Ironically, then, being a disciple of K-Pop –a movement with such rigid and antiquated attitudes towards sex and drugs– involves sharing a name with both snortable horse tranquiliser and sniffable sodomy facilitator.
‘Cultural Technology’As is the case with many an organised religion or cult, the reality beneath the surface of K-Pop is far more sinister than its cherubic self-projection. As John Seabrook exposes in his article ‘Factory Girls’, the pursuit for The K Factor begins disturbingly early, with children as young as seven recruited and raised in an idol-engineering system labelled by its first exponent –founder of S.M. Entertainment, Lee Soo-man– ‘cultural technology’.
Along with singing and dancing lessons, these budding stars must study foreign languages, receive media coaching and be prepared for the scrutiny that will haunt their adult lives; the final of these is so intense that, when a female duo called Girls Generation once attempted to disguise themselves in the streets of Seoul, their limbs alone gave the game away. Like members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, it seems, K-Pop idols are force fed their movement’s propaganda until it becomes all that they know. Only one in ten trainees makes the leap up to début.
Inevitably, in such a ruthless industry, there has been backlash for these Machiavellian record labels. Numerous fallen stars have sued their idol-engineers over abusive treatment and alleged ‘slave contracts’. Indeed, three members of KARA, a hugely popular girl group with D.S.P. –one of the smaller agencies– filed a law- suit claiming that, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars they brought in, the girls were only paid $140 per month. Restrictions imposed are not just financial, however, and another label –Alpha Entertainment– forbids its female trainees to have boyfriends while, even more disconcertingly, barring any food or water after 7pm, according to the Straits Times. Neil Jacobson, 35, an executive for Interscope Records ranks the qualities of an idol in order of importance: ‘First, beauty. Second, graciousness and humility. Third, dancing. And fourth, vocal. Also, brevity. Nothing lasts more than three and a half minutes’.
This list presents a worrying reflection of today’s fickle global music industry. K- Pop, though, is an extreme case. Indeed, Seabrook describes good looks as ‘a K- Pop artist’s stock-in-trade’. These ‘good looks’ –chiselled, sculpted faces tapering to a sharp point at the chin- differ concerningly from the flat, round faces of most Koreans. Granted, some will have been born with this unusual bone structure, but the majority can only look this way through cosmetic surgery.
Ironically, while in South Korea double- fold-eyelid surgery –a procedure making eyes appear more ‘Western’– is a popular reward for academically flourishing children, Bolivian K-Poppers are seeking the reverse operation.
Why, God, Why?The question that remains untouched must be tackled with trepidation. Mayán Sanchez, 19, explains, ‘I got bored of watching videos from the same US pop singers like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. It’s always the same thing’. To migrate to what is arguably the most formulaic genre of all seems a queer decision — perhaps some Schoenberg would have served as a more effective musical cleanser, or a monastic silence.
It certainly isn’t a credible protest against the Western charts; rather, an Eastern spin-off. Denise Fernandez, though, takes a more cynical view: ‘it is simply an effectively-placed marketing strategy’, she tells me. She does, however, accept the sentimental appeal of the genre, explaining that Bolivian girls crave a grand amour, that the language of K-Pop represents a ‘revival of romanticism’ and that, for Bolivian girls, ‘sentimentality carries more weight than sex’.
Diamond GirlsIt is a Thursday. 4pm. I am sitting in a photography studio along Calle Guachalla, Waiting For Godot. After several millennia in the bathroom, primming and pruning each other, with the unmistakable sizzle of hair-straighteners interrupted by the occasional fit of giggles, four out of five Diamond Girls –a Bolivian K-Pop dance tribute group– emerge from their makeover chamber sporting pseudo-Korean performance outfits. The other, however, has forgotten her shoes.
The gaggle of girls are the archetypal K- Pop ensemble: affectionate, girlish, giggly, dainty. We soon inflict a major cultural offense when we present them with a banner for them to pose next to. It reads: ‘Te Amo! Kim Hyung-jun’. Unfortunately, after seeing the mortified expressions of the girls, we discover that the subject of our accompanying images is no other than his ex-bandmate and archrival Kim Hyun-joong. Uncertain that we will be able to overcome the shame of this cultural faux-pas and continue with the article –let alone the shoot–, stoicism prevails and we eventually decide to press on.
The girls tell me that K-Pop is the ‘perfect combination of dance and song’; that their ‘very depressing’ Bolivian existence means they turn to the genre as a way out; that the arrival to Bolivia of the former Kim reduced them to ‘tears of joy’; and, that they each got into K-Pop through the well-engineered channel of Ki-dramas. The girls embody the target market of K-Pop in Bolivia, speaking at length about the cult’s generic Christ-figure — a ‘good- looking boy, hardworking, organised, disciplined who doesn’t need to flaunt his body or sexual prowess because he is pure and perfect as he is’.
Despite the shamelessness of Diamond Girls, K-Pop still seems to be a taboo interest in Bolivia — ask someone if they are a fan and they will profusely shake their head, only to rush home to catch their favourite Ki-drama as they do each day.
K-Pop started off as a peripheral epidemic in Bolivia but is fast-becoming part of its mainstream musical furniture. It produces, in Denise Fernandez, a sense of déjà-vu, taking her back over a decade to Eurodance: ‘it used to be a genre for the margins, now it is everywhere: Eurodance from 10 years ago is the K-Pop of today’.
Is this such a bad thing, though? K- Pop, for all its faults –and there are many, from musical to moral–, promotes a balanced and sensible lifestyle: K- Pop Fiestas in Bolivia begin as early as 8am and it is absolutely unheard of for alcohol to be consumed at one of these events — a staggering contrast to, say, the recent Glastonbury festival where, no doubt, stomach-pumping machines across Somerset will have been working overtime.
However, the emergence of K-Pop seems to be papering over the cracks in home-grown musical talent. While Denise Fernandez dismisses the claim that K-Pop’s popularity in Bolivia represents a rejection of Western music as a ‘common misconception’, she expresses concern that people are eschewing Bolivian culture: ‘musically K-Pop is not our roots, sociologically it is not our culture’.
Perhaps, though, subconsciously, as a result of Morales’ persistent deconolisation efforts, young Bolivians are migrating away from the traditional American blonde bimbos to a more tangible idol. Indeed, it is uplifting to see Diamond Girls wax lyrical about the ‘rounded lives’ of their favourite stars. However, while the girls insist on wearing their K-Pop blinkers, the rest of us should not forget that this perfection is only surface-deep. The reality behind ‘cultural technology’ is both a sinister and cynical one. For Bolivians, though, this influx of Korean culture offers a more pressing concern: if Diamond Girls get their way, Hallyu may well prove to shape Bolivian national identity in the same way that American cultural exports have.


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