Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why Girls’ Generation and K-Pop Won Big at the YouTube Music Awards

Jeff Yang/The Wall Street Journal

K-Pop supergroup Girls’ Generation took top honors at the first-everYouTube Music Awards, winning Video of the Year for their clip “I Got a Boy” — an eclectic, electric mashup of candy-colored visuals that parallels the song’s peppery stop-start aesthetic. In doing so, they beat out a fairly impressive list of video music titans — including Miley Cyrus,Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, One Direction andMacklemore and Ryan Lewis — sending shockwaves of self-congratulatory glee across the K-Pop fanscape.

That’s because, given the YTMA’s parameters, the Girls’ victory was literally a win by, for and about the fans: Unlike the Grammys and the MTV Video Music Awards, nominees for the YTMAs were selected solely by algorithm, based on likes, shares, views and other metrics of “fan engagement,” and, according to YouTube, winners were chosen based on how many fresh shares the nominated videos got in the month-long runup to the actual event (with YouTube keeping the vote-with-your-browser window open right up to the actual show itself).

So while the song is catchy and the video is cute, musical merit and artistic accomplishment are secondary: These awards measure one thing, and one thing only — the obsessive, insatiable, all-consuming devotion of the musicians’ fan bases.

And in that aspect, K-Pop fans stand head, shoulders and starry eyes above the milling crowd as the most dedicated congregation of idol-worshippers in the pop culture universe — bar none.

“There are numerous fans on Twitter discussing how they stayed up with friends all night to vote,” says Flowsion Shekar, CEO of K-Pop fansite Koreaboo. “Justin Bieber has a much larger fanbase, but they do not have the desperate drive that K-Pop fans have to really be recognized by the rest of the world.”

Susan Kang, who runs Korean pop culture communitySoompi.com, notes that while “rabid fandom and pride for their objects of affection” have long been a hallmark of K-Pop’s adherents, Girls’ Generation supporters are in a league of their own. “Sones — pronounced ‘So-Ones,’ a play off the Korean word for ‘wish’ from the Girls’ mega-hit ‘Genie’ — are especially active,” says Kang, who also notes that the territories where K-Pop has the most followers are also among the world’s leading or fastest-growing social media markets.

Having just returned from an extended trip to Korea, I can attest to that: For Korean consumers, whose mobile broadband cups runneth over, watching video is like breathing — they’re virtually never not in front of a screen, whether they’re sitting on the subway, walking through busy intersections, or hanging out at home. It’s quite common to see family members in Korean households sitting around “alone together,” each viewing their own media on their own respective screens while ostensibly in the same room. I was, in fact, nearly run over by a kid watching some kind of video while riding a bicycle, steering with his elbows. And a huge percentage of the content they watch is music videos — almost all of it via streaming sites like YouTube.

“When country restrictions are in place, like the way every country has its own iTunes Store, one can’t witness the power of a global K-pop fanbase,” says Jeff Benjamin, who covers K-Pop for the music industry’s periodical of record, Billboard. “But when no restrictions are in place, like on YouTube, it’s amazing what they can do. ‘I Got a Boy’ received millions of views in its first few hours.”

What’s startling is that the song isn’t even considered to be one of Girls’ Generations’ unqualified hits — its purposely irregular musical phrasing (one pop reviewer groused that the song seemed to be composed of “nothing but bridges”) and first-time incorporation of rap (not the Girls’ forte, to say the least) had even many fans complaining that the Girls had gone off the rails.

But any criticism of the song disappeared once the opportunity to put the Girls in the spotlight arose.

“The song was definitely progressive and a breath of fresh air, so it was a bit controversial as fans were not accustomed to such music, and it received a great deal of criticism.” says Johnny Noh, CEO of 6Theory Media, which operates K-Pop news siteAllKPop. “But this award goes to show that given some time, fans came around. The reason why K-Pop has become such a global phenomenon is because of the never-ending efforts of the fans, who constantly work to spread and bring more awareness to the genre and their favorite artists. It’s why although many believed and still believe that K-Pop is just a bubble, I’ve been saying all along that this genre is here to stay.”

Certainly that’s true when it comes to YouTube, which still boasts PSY’s unexpected mega-hit “Gangnam Style” as its most watched video of all time — now at 1.8 billion views and counting.

And as for YouTube’s Music Awards, so long as they’re set up as a click-your-way-to-victory contest, they’ll be dominated by artists with vast, wildly motivated fans who have near-limitless Internet access and instinctive social media familiarity.

So let me go out on a very short limb and make a prediction: Next year, another K-Pop artist will win Video of the Year. Heck, until the rest of the world catches up with East Asia’s unbelievable online video saturation and K-Pop’s manic support base, they’ll probably the year after that, and after that, and after that. Which means all you Beliebers, Little Monsters and Cyrus Viruses: Time to lift your game.

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