1. The Selection Process
In American pop, labels generally choose stars based on their natural talent. Singers are expected to already have the training and skill level required to be professional performers at the time of their audition or contract signing. Any training they received prior to signing was on their own time, with their own money.
Idols, on the other hand, can be chosen for a number of reasons. Many, like BTS‘s Jin, were scouted on the street for their striking visuals.
Others, like were chosen strategically, based on their nationality. To appeal to global audiences, K-Pop groups often include members from China…
…and North America.
Would-be idols are not required to have professional-level skills from the get-go because each one undergoes years of rigorous training prior to debut.
2. Trainee System
In American pop, there is no standard trainee system. Popular 1990s girl and boy groups like The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys were formed through open auditions and debuted within 1-2 years. Once a group is formed, there is rarely a question of whether or not the group will debut.
In K-Pop, the training period is much longer and more uncertain. Idols sign on with a company without knowing which group they will eventually become a part of, if they become part of a group at all. It’s not unheard of for K-Pop idols to train for as long as seven years and still not debut. TWICE‘s Jihyo trained for 10 years before debuting!
3. Skill Sets
In American pop, incredible vocal abilities are an absolute must. Additional skills, like dancing and acting, are preferred but not always required.
In K-Pop, due to the trainee system, some idols started out with hardly any singing abilities. SHINee, for instance, said they were such bad singers that they were supposed to debut as a rap group! Years of vocal training helped them become one of the most popular singing groups today.
K-Pop idols may not have the same expectations placed on their singing abilities as American artists do, but they are required to have a wider range of talents. This includes acting…
…hosting TV and radio shows…
…and variety show skills. For many idols, singing is merely the starting point. It is not a life-long career.
4. Career Lifespan
One of the reasons why K-Pop stars must have so many talents is because their idol careers are much shorter than the careers of American pop artists. Most idols’ careers only last as long as their youth and good-looks due to K-Pop’s greater emphasis on appearance.
This is especially true of “visual” members in K-Pop groups who may not be as vocally strong as the other singers or rappers in their groups.
In K-Pop, singers tend to experience a wane in popularity once they hit their thirties but, in American pop, age is just a number. Madonna has been slaying since the 1980s and, at nearly sixty years old, shows no signs of slowing down. This is almost unheard of in K-Pop.
For American pop artists, especially individual singers, there is a strong focus on originality and personal identity. Most singers write or compose their own songs or, if they don’t, they have a significant say in the songwriting process. The songs are often based on life experiences and are deeply personal.
On the other hand, many K-Pop idols rely on producers to create their music for them. Since an idol’s trainee days revolve around singing and dancing, not musical composition, they often don’t learn (or get the chance) to compose until later in their careers.
If BTS is any indication though, this is slowly changing. BTS’s musically-talented members write and produce many of their own songs and are heavily involved in each song’s creation.
6. Label Loyalty
In Korea, artists show much stronger loyalty to their labels than their American counterparts do. K-Pop labels are more than just label: they’re brands. K-Pop fans are usually well aware of which companies their favourite idols are a part of, but the same can’t be said of American pop music fans.
In K-Pop, a strong effort is made to create a “family” environment within each company. Large K-Pop entertainment companies like SM Entertainment hold concert events for their “SM Family” in which their major and rising stars come together and perform together to promote the company as a whole. Most American pop companies seem to lack the same kind of “family” environment.
7. Album Languages
American pop artists release albums entirely in English, and sometimes in Spanish. They don’t need to create multiple albums in multiple languages for specific countries in order to promote globally.
K-Pop artists, however, will often record the same Korean album again in Chinese and Japanese, or release completely different albums in each language. This is done to appeal to a broader audience within the global Asian pop scene.