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The Rise and Criticisms of Idol Culture in South Korean Pop Music

In this article, we'll give you an overview of Korean idol culture in K-Culture, along with some criticisms.

As in the Anglo-American music world, the word “idol” in South Korea is used to refer to those who are admired or loved by their fans.

However, while the word is used in the West for stars in the extensive fields, from film and pop music to sports, in the South Korean context, it is almost exclusively used to indicate K-Pop boy and girl bands, most of whose members are in their late 10s and early 20s.

Seo Taiji and Boys

Since the legendary trio “Seo Taiji and Boys” in the 1990s, modern pop music has become the mainstream in the South Korean music scene, laying the foundations on which so-called “idol bands” emerged. These idol bands are popular not only among teenagers and adolescents, but also those in their 30s and 40s (“uncle fans” or “aunt fans”), thereby forming a socially seminal group of artists.

One of the frontrunners among these bands is the BTS, who recently entered the British and American music scene. They are considered as a successful example of exported Korean pop culture, and their music is regarded as important evidence of the expansion of South Korean soft power, represented by the Korean Wave.

At the same time, however, there has also been a backlash to this commercialisation of Korean pop culture.


One of the criticisms levelled is against the standardised style of their songs, in the form of fast-beat dance music combined with vibrant and showy dancing performance (a.k.a. “gun-mu” (군무), meaning group dancing perfectly in sync). In this regard, some find the reason for such standardisation of idol music and the focus on dance music from the division of labour in music production.

Korea Enterteinment

For instance, one of the largest entertainment companies in South Korea, SM Entertainment, first introduced this division of labour system, comprising various sectors in management, production, visuals, marketing, IT, and management support, with a view to optimising the process of music creation.

Moreover, production itself is divided into several parts, in charge of domestic and overseas A&R, casting, training, and so on. Members of idol bands are even assigned different roles from the outset, for example main vocal, lead vocal, main dancer, entertainer, and so on. While such efforts may help to secure greater diversity among individual band members, orchestrating such diversity inevitably requires the band to take on dance music genres.

On the other hand, sexual commodification is a problem that has been broadly highlighted. One particular criticism that has been raised is with regards to the commodification and marketing strategies of entertainment companies that often aim to maximise the sexual charm of idol bands, even though most members are still teenagers or in their early 20s. Kim Soo-ah (2011) critically discussed the case of girl idols, analysing the PR images of girl bands, showing how entertainment companies and agencies exploit erotic dances and seductive costumes as a strategy to maximise sexuality and increase profitability.

However, some later works by other scholars have pointed out that, more recently, girl groups are working to reform their public image in ways that do not overly appeal to sexuality, and instead wear less revealing outfits or more girly chiffon and lace dresses.

This is due to the fact that girl idols are becoming popular not only among teenagers and boys but also across all generations and genders, so the idol culture as a whole has become the mainstream in the Korean pop music scene. Of course, this may still be understood not as the disappearance of sexualisation of idols, but rather as the diversification of commodification of idol bands, as the size of industry has grown.


● Kim, S. (2011). A Study on the Masculinity Image of Male Idol Stars and the Construction of Fandom Identity: Focusing on 2PM and SHINee [남성 아이돌 스타의 남성성 재현과 성인 여성 팬덤의 소비 방식 구성]. Media, Gender and Culture, 19, pp.5-38.

● Kim, Y. (2019). ‘K팝이라는 모순: 아이돌 음악과 다양성에 대한 고찰’, Hallyu Now, Apr [Online]. Available at: http://

● Kim, S. (2011). A Study on the Masculinity Image of Male Idol Stars and the Construction of Fandom Identity: Focusing on 2PM and SHINee [남성 아이돌 스타의 남성성 재현과 성인 여성 팬덤의 소비 방식 구성]. Media, Gender and Culture, 19, pp.5-38.

● Lee, J. and S. Seo (2017). A Study on the Characteristics of Female Idol Star’s Fashion Image Depending on the Different Type of Fandom [팬덤 층 유형에 따른 여성아이돌 패션 이미지 특성]. Journal of the Korean Society of Costume, 67(8), pp.1-19.

● Kim, J. H., Yu, J., Sya, K., & Son, S. H. (2021). K-Culture Glossary: 100 Terms to Get You Started with Korean Popular Culture. Jikim Publishing Limited.

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