Why K-pop groups are superior in dancing and East Asians in educational achievement

While being in the process of making final revisions on a peer-reviewed journal article on K-pop, I have looked into some K-pop-related scholarly works that I have not previously examined. Such as Wonho Jangs and Youngsun Kims article ‘Envisaging the Sociocultural Dynamics of K-pop: Time/Space Hybridity, Red Queen’s Race, and Cosmopolitan Striving’ (2013).

I will not make any subjective or personal assertions regarding the pros and cons with having a strong work ethic and highly competitive meritocratic education system and social culture. However, this is nevertheless one of the endogenous factors which seems to underlie both the high PISA scores and the hard-working K-pop stars. The quotes – and not the least the imbedded videos – below say something substantial about this general East Asian, yet particularly South Korean phenomenon (at least regarding pop music).

As one may notice, contemporary South Korean nationalism is intimately related to globalization and cosmopolitan striving. That is: to either succeed abroad, at an overseas high-ranked university (preferably in the US or UK), and hence to be acknowledged in South Korea, or to be globally famous within the frames of for example the South Korean entertainment industry (which simultaneously implies some degree of overseas fame, at least in East Asia and Southeast Asia).

One may also note that Jang and Kim emphasize Confucian elements with regard to the general K-pop talent trainee system, which, however, John Lie is skeptical about in his latest work on this subject. Since I have read both of these two contributions, as well as an earlier article on the same topic by Lie (2012), I do sort of take a middle position regarding this very particular subject; hence there is still some degree of Confucianism left in contemporary South Korea, and it seems to affect behavior among citizens such as family values, but it is no longer very distinctive and much of its former doctrines, practices and social structures have been lost in oblivion.

Additionally, since Jang and Kim regard high results and high-quality performances among (young) South Koreans in general as a part of the same socio-cultural phenomenon and dynamics, it should be emphasized that other (East Asian) countries and city regions, such as Shanghai, Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and Japan – and with Finland and Switzerland as prominent exceptions among European countries – have high PISA results while not being particularly successful when it comes to the production and distribution of pop music.

Thus, if the aim is to explain the relative regional and global success of the production, distribution and dissemination of South Korean pop music, i.e. K-pop, then one has to keep other endogenous and exogenous factors in mind too. (In my article I put emphasis upon some of these key factors, which scholars such as for instance Lie and Ingyu Oh have examined, and to whose works I have referred to.) Or rather, one may have to clearly differentiate between particular kinds of socio-economic and socio-cultural domains and activities – school performance is one thing, while pop performance is another (although these may overlap to some extent).

With regard to educational achievement in East Asia and Singapore – particularly test perfomance scores such as PISA (국제학생평가프로그램 in Korean) – and work ethics, Confucian or post-Confucian elements may be – combined with largely Western-influenced capitalism and meritocracy – part of the explanation, but then it is more about general regional characteristics than local endogenous factors. However, the largely export-oriented South Korean economy is definitely one key component in this respect; both in relationship to overall economic patterns and outcomes and pop cultural circulation, and clearly differs from the more insular Japanese economy. [1]

The tenative conclusion at this point is that there is not any single main factor that underlies neither educational achievement nor pop cultural success, but strong work ethics and a vast amount of practice or studies are unhesitatingy linked to all of these outcomes. Over the last ten years or so, K-pop has become the – at least commercially – the superior form of pop music in Asia, and to less extent the entire world, and once its talent system is put into place new stars will continue to be educated within its highly competitive frames. The reason for this may in turn partly be due to what is labeled as cosmopolitan striving.

[1] Apart from the first-mentioned article, among several studies of significance in this respect one may also mention John Lie’s K-pop (2014), Donald Baker’s Korean Spirituality (2008), and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011).

To reiterate, both the exogenous and endogenous features of a particular music genre or a particular group of singers must be discussed in order to explain such massive success. Many scholars have underestimated K-pop’s endogenous success factors, although they highlight the exogenous ones, such as globalization, regionalization, and the influence of J-pop and other Asian pop music on K-pop (Iwabuchi 2001; Chua 2004; Cho 2007; Allen and Sakamoto 2006). Even when endogenous factors were investigated, only the negative factors, such as the long-term contracts which were even referred to as “slave contracts,” were unnecessarily highlighted (Ho 2012), without addressing the validity of the harsh training system based on such long-term contracts. This system has only been effective in Korea and is seen as largely responsible for the global success of K-pop, particularly because such intense training and long-term contracts in other countries, such as Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, have not had any positive influence on singers in the long run. This section, then, attempts to shed light on the endogenous elements that are deemed germane in the formation of the global K-pop fandom. In order to do so, the reasons for K-pop’s success should first be discussed before examining the negative endogenous factors that may cause its possible future failure. We suggest three specific features of K-pop that have been pivotal in K-pop’s ascendance to its present global status: the contemporaneity of the uncontemporary, the synchronized dancing to melodic music (vis-à-vis beat music), and the multi-top dancing formation.

Boy and girl bands all over the world usually dance to beat music in a synchronized fashion. However, the preference of harmonized melodies over beats in synchronized group dancing is not common, as it is hard to dance to certain types of trendy beats, while singing a song that incorporates complex harmonies. A common claim regarding the reason K-pop bands are able to master synchronized group dancing while singing complex harmonies is that these singers were harshly disciplined and carefully controlled by their so-called “slave contracts.” For example, Nusrat Durrani of MTV World pointed out that the nine members of Girls’ Generation perform “every dance move in sync, every [melodic] note precisely hit.”

Cosmopolitan striving is a metaphor for a collective motivation toward upward mobility in a transitional society from Asian or developing economies to modern and Western economies (Park and Abelmann 2004). In Korea, it is widely thought that learning English, for example, is a quick way to become rich and powerful, as English is thought to provide one with new cosmopolitan opportunities, such as studying in the United States and the United Kingdom (Park and Abelmann 2004). Learning about Western culture is also considered to be an important stepping stone to advance one’s economic fate in society. Under this type of biased Western-centric, promodern social rubric, cosmopolitan striving motivates people to pursue what Oh (2009, 436) calls “forward learning.”




Jag håller för närvarande – parallellt med andra sysslor – på och reviderar en peer-review-granskad tidskriftsartikel om k-pop. Inte bara om denna företeelse i allmänhet utan om vissa särskilda aspekter av detta ämne.

I samband med denna process har jag även tagit del av ett antal studier som jag inte har läst tidigare, till exempel Wonho Jang och Youngsun Kims artikel ‘Envisaging the Sociocultural Dynamics of K-pop: Time/Space Hybridity, Red Queen’s Race, and Cosmopolitan Striving’ (2013).

Denna sätter till stor del fingret på unga nutida sydkoreaners höga utbildnings- och prestationsambitioner, och är i sin tur en av orsakerna till att k-popstjärnor och -grupper, som exempelvis TVXQ, Girls’ Generation och Super Junior, kan träna så pass enträget och frekvent att de klarar av att göra mer eller mindre perfekta synkroniserade dansformationer, både i flera av sina musikvideor och live (även om de ibland förenklar sina framträdanden, inte minst danskoreografin, i en del livesammanhang).

Snarlika typer av hårda och envetna tränings- eller studieprocesser tycks ligger till grund för sydkoreaners höga PISA-resultat, och benägenheten att vilja söka till utbildningsinstitutioner i andra länder, allra helst de högst rankade universiteten i USA och Storbritannien.

När det gäller åtminstone PISA-resultat kan man dock notera att andra (till stor del östasiatiska) länder och storstadsregioner som Shanghai, Singapore, Hongkong, Japan och Taiwan, samt vårt grannland Finland, också har mycket höga resultat inom matematik, naturvetenskap och läsförståelse. Därför måste man belysa även andra för Sydkorea typiska faktorer när man förklarar k-popartisternas högutvecklade förmågor. Dessutom är k-pop en transnationell företeelse, som över huvud taget inte kan förstås utan USA, Japan och i mindre utsträckning även andra länder, varför fokus delvis måste ligga på exogena faktorer.

Som ett flertal olika studier visar när det gäller många östasiatiska länders – inklusive Sydkorea – höga resultat kan säkerligen konfucianska element och värderingar spela en viss roll, men ännu viktigare är de västerländska influenserna som har kommit till och spridits inom denna region via framför allt USA och Japan. Den är i sin tur en historisk förutsättning för den kosmopolitiska strävan som finns bland en stor andel unga sydkoreaner. [1]


[1] Se till exempel John Lies K-pop (2014), Donald Bakers Korean Spirituality (2008), och Niall Fergusons Civilization (2011).