Live from Korea, live from anywhere: a review of “K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance”

By | November 18, 2019 | No Comments


Physical presence, as shown by this large fan turnout at a BTS concert at Wembley Stadium, is but one aspect of how K-pop can be “live” | Source: Wikimedia Commons

With all of its glitter and bubble gum glitz, it should come as no surprise that pop culture is strategically produced as a profit-generating commodity. At the same time however, it has the power to inform and persuade, to touch peoples’ hearts and to make them feel connected to something larger than themselves. K-pop, South Korea’s pop music, is one of the most colorful and energetic genres on the current scene, but, as entertaining as it is, there is more to the industry, the music, and even the fans than one might assume. In fact, K-pop inspires fans to study the Korean language at Korean universities, and it brings them together in venues where they share exuberant experiences.

Suk-young Kim’s K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance is one of the few recent studies that have begun to look at South Korea’s pop music as both a commercial industry and as a meaningful interactive fan universe. As with any text, there are many ways to read Kim’s work. In this book review Wonseok Lee, a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University, provides an especially sophisticated review in his debut for Sino-NK. Lee, who has performed with well-known K-pop artists, offers an insider’s perspective laden with sharp analyses, adding value to this already unique and useful volume – Sherri Ter Molen, Outreach Coordinator


Review of K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance. Suk-Young Kim. 2018. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 275 pp. by Wonseok Lee.


It has been over twenty years since Korean popular music received people’s attention from outside of Korea. From CLON’s huge success in Taiwan in 1998 to BTS’s monumental achievement in the global popular music market today, K-pop has existed as an example of cultural globalization. As K-pop expanded and became influential to the world, it developed distinct features that did not previously exist. For example, almost all K-pop idol musicians are manufactured by their agency through a rigorous training system. K-pop fans not only support artists but also relish K-pop in their own ways in conjunction with social media technology. A number of K-pop cover dance clips on YouTube and BTS’s world record for most Twitter engagements represent the influence of social media in K-pop. When it comes to the discourse of K-pop’s global success, no one can avoid three elements: highly polished and manufactured idol musicians, a devoted fandom and the influence of media technology.

As for K-pop’s global success, media technology is often considered one of the most palpable reasons. Beyond its role as a marketing tool, social media and digital technology in K-pop have a tremendous influence on audiences as well as K-pop performances themselves. Suk-Young Kim’s K-pop Live: Fans, Idols, and Multimedia Performance is crucial to examining these aspects of K-pop. Kim specifically suggests five terms to describe multiple features of K-pop. She considers the “K” in “K-pop” as, “kaleidoscopic” pop, embracing a wide range of multimedia performance; “keyboard or keypad” pop, which consumers can access digitally rather than through live performances; “Kleenex” pop, highly disposable in nature; “ketchup” pop, which is premade and has a predictable taste; “korporate” pop (using a “k” instead of “c”), a highly polished commercial product whose sole aim is to generate profit in global marketplaces; and obviously “Korean” pop (p. 9). Through in-depth ethnographic research and cultural analysis, in this book Kim specifically examines K-pop as “kaleidoscopic” and “keyboard/keypad” pop.

The body of this book consists of five chapters. While each chapter deals with different subjects, such as TV shows, music videos, hologram technology in K-pop, and live concerts, it all focuses on K-pop’s distinct features relevant to digital technology in production as well as consumption. By looking at these features, Kim also delves into authenticity, which is a long existing question in the popular music field. Through the chapters, she poses the question “What is authentic live and liveness?” in terms of K-pop. In chapter two Kim describes two TV programs, MBC’s Music Core (쇼! 음악중심) and Arirang TV’s After School Club, to compare how the notion of “live” exists differently. When it comes to Music Core, Kim focuses on prevalent production modes of TV programs on K-pop, which pre-recording, lip-syncing, and live performance are tangled. Under such a complex circumstance, Kim focuses on Georgia Tech professor Philip Auslander’s perspective in order to give an answer if it is live show or not. According to Auslander, the notion of “live” is more flexible in that the live and the “mediatized” are mutually dependent rather than dichotomized. Given that, Kim describes that “Music Core could be labeled as both ‘live’ and ‘mediatized,’ depending on the various levels of the audience and the label” (p. 69). She then focuses on how global K-pop audiences eagerly participate in making “live” TV programs via social media. In After School Club, for example, artists and global audiences communicate with each other beyond time difference, and some fans often boast their cover dance in front of their star.

In chapter four, Kim describes how hologram K-pop stars interact with live audiences. As a cutting edge technology, holograms are embedded in the K-pop industry. Leading K-pop companies, such as SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, rely on this technology as a more lucrative and more effective way to promote their cultural product. In this way, K-pop fans are able to meet K-pop artists whenever they want, even if not through a direct physical presence. She pays attention to this phenomenon along with question of live, liveness, and authenticity. In the same vein, in the last chapter, she describes her experience at a BIG BANG concert held in a large arena in Seoul. Kim focuses on elements of the concert, such as live performance, massive screens, and pre-made videos.


This reminds readers of her main question: what does “live” mean? She casts doubt on the exact digital images on huge screens in the concert, whether it helps live performance or overthrows it. Kim says, “…once again, the questions arose: Is this a live music concert where digital images function merely as a break for costume changes, or is this a digital show in which live musicians appear on stage to prove that the actors in the footage are real-life people, not holograms or digitally synthesized hollowness?” (p. 174 – emphasis added). In order to answer this ontological query, Kim presents a definition of “live” in live performance as a feeling of “aliveness.” In Kim’s view, “that feeling of rapport emerges among community members who occupy the same space with a shared purpose; hence the double meaning of live as in ‘live performance’ and ‘feeling alive,’ which reference spatial and emotional rapport” (p. 175). Kim emphasizes that BIG BANG’s concert is live performance in that every individual was stimulated and had a feeling of aliveness by one mediator, BIG BANG.

This book can be said to be her journey to find the exact meaning of “live” and “liveness” in K-pop. Readers of this book will benefit from her in-depth fieldwork, in particular interviews with people who are involved in the K-pop industry. Additionally, Kim, as a participant observer, conducted fieldwork in all of the types of cultural venues she describes in this book. As other enthusiastic young K-pop fans do, Kim participated in TV show programs, K-pop conventions (KCON), K-pop hologram exhibitions (Klive and SMTWON), and concerts. All her efforts not only are valuable assets to the discourse of K-pop today but also contribute to popular music studies on the issue of technology and authenticity. Some might think that Kim’s view of K-pop as a dance music genre performed by manufactured idol musicians is too narrow. However, no one can deny that the majority of K-pop musicians who achieve global success are dance idol groups. Given that they lead and reinforce K-pop’s global sensation with distinct features, it is significant to fully understand features of manufactured K-pop idol musicians so that K-pop is precisely examined.

K-pop Live is well-suited for scholars and students who study popular music, Asian studies, cultural anthropology, and media studies. This volume will be a particularly useful resource for graduate course on popular music focusing on globalization, media technology and authenticity.


Wonseok Lee is a PhD student in the ethnomusicology program at the Ohio State University. His academic interests are popular music, globalization, transnationalism, and identity.



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