Everybody Wants To Be A K-Pop Star

Apr 10, 2012
Originally published on April 10, 2012 7:18 pm

In December, Claudine Ebeid talked about the explosion in popularity of Korean pop groups in the United States. We can't stop watching Girls' Generation and 2NE1 videos on YouTube, and we're not the only ones. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao says that K-Pop is also spreading like wildfire in China. These groups are often huge — Girls' Generation includes nine members, Nine Muses confusingly includes eight — and to stoke the flames, South Korea's suddenly in-demand pop factories are looking to the country's youth.

Inside a nondescript building on Seoul's Rodeo Drive sit dozens of teenagers, some with their parents. They're taking part in open auditions held by entertainment giant SM. "The Boys," a giant hit by SM's own Girls' Generation — recent veterans of The Late Show with David Letterman — is playing over loudspeakers.

Girls' Generation is idolized by the assembled hopefuls. "When I see Girls' Generation, I think they are so pretty and so cool," says Young-eun Park through a translator. "I am going to be just like them."

She has zero formal training, but she's hoping to wow the judges by singing "Ballerino,' by Leessang, another K-Pop group. It's her third audition, and she's hopeful that this time she'll get a callback.

"I live only to sing and dance," she says. "If I don't become a singer I won't be happy in my life. I want it so bad." She's almost tearful, but looks up in determination and says she's going to give it her all.

A few famous K-Pop stars are actually from China, Thailand and the United States. And more hopefuls, like 19-year-old Rebecca Chiu, from Taiwan, are here to try out. She especially likes the dance moves that go along with just about every K-Pop hit.

The fact that she doesn't understand the words in the songs — "I can read and I can pronounce, but I don't know the meaning," she says in broken English — isn't necessarily a cause for worry. If the top entertainment companies like her, they'll invest in her study of the Korean language and will spend up to $3 million or $4 million on years of rigorous training in song, dance, acting and more. If she makes it through that, then she might have a shot at contracts worth millions.

Hong Ki-sung, the CEO of BORN Startraining Center, a company in Seoul that trains people to become K-Pop stars, says it's worth the investment.

"There are so many young, talented people in Korea," he says through a translator. "So many that I can't even count them, and they're better singers than a lot of the stars out there now."

Some K-Pop groups have even more members than Girls' Generation, but Hong says not all the performers have good singing voices. "Appearance is important too," he says. "That's why there are so many pretty girls and stylish boys in K-Pop bands."

There may be slots for aspiring K-Pop stars with different talents, but most won't make it. The young people at these tryouts are well aware that thousands and thousands of South Korean kids are trying to get into the K-Pop business, and most will fail.

Only on her third day at the training center, teenager Lim Ji-hey is still optimistic. "I'm going to do my best and train hard to become a great performer," she says through a translator. Even if she doesn't succeed in the music world, she says, she'd love to be an actress. Then she can play any role she wants, including being a K-Pop singer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

All-girl and all-boy pop music groups from South Korea can earn millions. K-Pop is massively popular in Southeast Asia and spreading elsewhere, including the United States. One of the most successful groups popped up on CBS's "Late Show" recently.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Please welcome, making their network television debut, Girls' Generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOYS")

SIEGEL: The appearance with David Letterman by these nine female singers reinforced their stardom back home. In Seoul, Doualy Xaykaotha met some of the teenagers who are determined to copy their success.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: Inside a non-descript building on Seoul's Rodeo Drive, sit dozens of teenagers, some with their parents. They're taking part in open auditions held by entertainment giant SM. Guess whose music is playing?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOYS")

XAYKAOTHAO: It's the Girls' Generation's hit song "The Boys," the same song they performed on Letterman, the same song that's been viewed on YouTube a gazillion times.

There's no question 16-year-old Young-eun Park idolizes them.

YOUNG-EUN PARK: (Through Translator) When I see Girls' Generation, I think they are so pretty and so cool. I am going to be just like them.

XAYKAOTHAO: She's got zero formal training, but she's hoping to wow the judges by singing "Ballerino," by another K-Pop group Lee-ssang.

PARK: (Singing in Foreign Language).

XAYKAOTHAO: It's her third audition and she's hopeful, this time, she'll get a call back.

PARK: (Through Translator) I live only to sing and dance. If I don't become a singer, I won't be happy in my life. I want it so bad.

XAYKAOTHAO: She's almost tearful, but then looks up with determination and says she's going to give it her all.

Nineteen-year-old Rebecca Chiu flew in from Taiwan. She thinks she's got a shot, too, since a few famous K-Pop stars are nationals from China, Thailand and the U.S.

REBECCA CHIU: I come to Korea because the YG audition and I just buy the ticket and fly here because it's my dream. I want to make them come true.

XAYKAOTHAO: She says she especially loves the dance moves that go along with just about every K-Pop hit, though she admits she doesn't understand the Korean words in the songs.

CHIU: Just a little. I can read and I can pronounce, but I don't know the meaning.

XAYKAOTHAO: But not to worry. If the top entertainment companies like her, not only will they invest in her study of the Korean language, but they'll spend up to 3 or $4 million on years of rigorous training in song, dance, acting and more. If she gets through that, then maybe she'll have a shot at multiple contracts worth millions of dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign Language Spoken).

XAYKAOTHAO: That's the advertising single of BORN Startraining Center, a company in Seoul that trains young people to become K-Pop stars. CEO Hong Ki-sung says he's helping to mold the next generation.

HONG KI-SUNG: (Through Translator) There are so many young, talented people in Korea, so many that I can't even count them. And they're better singers than a lot of the stars out there now.

XAYKAOTHAO: Some K-Pop groups have even more members than Girls' Generation, but Hong says not all the performers have good singing voices.

KI-SUNG: (Through Translator) Appearance is important, too. That's why there are so many pretty girls and stylish boys in K-Pop bands. Even though some people in the K-Pop groups can't sing well, they have other strengths.

LIM JI-HEY: (Singing in Foreign Language).

XAYKAOTHAO: As the students prepare for the next audition, they know the road ahead is not going to be easy. The young people are well aware that thousands and thousands of South Korean kids are trying to get into the K-Pop business and most will fail.

Next door, teenager Lim Ji-hey is only on her third day at the training center.

JI-HEY: (Through Translator) I'm going to do my best and train hard to become a great performer.

XAYKAOTHAO: Maybe she won't succeed in the music world, she says, but she'd love to be an actress. And then she says she can play any role she wants, including being a K-Pop singer.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.