How The South Korean Government Made K-Pop A Thing : Code Switch K-pop — or Korean pop — makes its latest move toward the center of American pop culture with Nickelodeon's new show, Make It Pop. But beyond "Gangnam Style," how did K-pop evolve?

How The South Korean Government Made K-Pop A Thing

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Nickelodeon is the latest American company trying to cash in on the growing fan base of Korean pop music or K-Pop. It recently debuted a new tween sitcom, "Make It Pop."


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) So make it pop. We make it pop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's everything we've been waiting for.

CORNISH: It's a TV show about three boarding school teams who form a K-Pop inspired band. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team walks us through how K-Pop has become a cultural force in the U.S.


MEGAN LEE: (As Sun Hi) So, this is how it starts. From the high to the low future fans and it's my show.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: The first time we see Sun Hi, the main character of "Make It Pop" sing, she's daydreaming about her future stardom. She's played by Korean American singer Megan Lee who previously spent a year chasing fame in Korea. It's a sign that Nickelodeon is paying attention to K-Pop.

EUNY HONG: Clearly, the marketing people at Nickelodeon said we need to tap into this audience.

CHOW: Euny Hong is the author of "The Birth Of Korean Cool," and she's talking about K-Pop's rapidly growing audience in the United States. The annual K-Pop convention in LA draws in more than 40,000 participants, groups like Crayon Pop and the Wonder Girls - even open for artists like Lady Gaga and the Jonas Brothers. And then there was this in 2012.


PSY: (Singing) Oppa Gangnam Style.

CHOW: That's the rapper Psy singing "Gangnam Style." Hong says it offered only a taste of K-Pop's signature sound and look.

HONG: Techno, poppy, hypnotic, upbeat songs featuring youth and beauty and beautiful well-produced music videos.


2NE1: (Singing in Korean).

CHOW: Videos like the one for the song you're hearing now. It's "I Am The Best" from the group 2NE1. Four band members are dressed in sleek black outfits. They're swaying in perfect synchronization in front of a wall flashing lights. The video has more than 100 million views on YouTube.


2NE1: (Singing in Korean).

JEFF YANG: It's like a commando strike on popular culture when you create a new K-Pop band.


2NE1: (Singing) Oh, my god.

CHOW: Jeff Yang is a cultural commentator. He edited the book "Eastern Standard Time: A Guide To Asian Influence On American Culture."

YANG: The emphasis really is in developing a unique persona for each of the band members but then ultimately assembling them into a highly engineered and incredibly harmonized set of individuals.


CRAYON POP: (Singing) Get set, ready, go.

CHOW: Just like these perfect performances, the rise of K-Pop wasn't an accident. It was nurtured and regulated by the Korean government. The artists often signed seven to 13-year contracts with their labels and may not even debut as performers until they spent years training and practicing. Here's Euny Hong.

HONG: Turns out that the Korean government treats its K-Pop industry the way that the American government treats its automobile and banking industry, meaning that these are industries that have to be protected.

CHOW: This started in the late '90s when Asia went through a huge financial crisis. The South Korean government poured millions of dollars into forming a ministry of culture with a specific department devoted to K-Pop. Euny Hong says the country's leaders decided to use music to improve its image and build its cultural influence.

HONG: They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought.

CHOW: And while Nickelodeon's "Make It Pop" may be a sign of that buy-in, Hong says its music and dancing are not quite as polished as authentic K-Pop. But cultural critic Jeff Yang still believes "Make It Pop" can make it big, especially with a generation of tweens that's racially diverse and globally connected.

YANG: It'll be interesting to see whether this connects with them. If it does, I think after this, the flood.

CHOW: Kat Chow, NPR News.

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