Searching for K-Pop’s Roots on Hongdae Street

One perfectly choreographed dance at a time.

Park Kyungwoong’s hair is a hue of violet only the most fashion-forward pop stars can rock. The young performer, dressed in black skinny jeans and a stylish oversized coat, is geared up to dance for the dozens of people who have come to support him. His stage is just a few metres of concrete sidewalk that shrinks as his circle of fans grows – he’s the star of this show, but also his own tech crew, as he wheels in a large speaker. The dancer’s playlist is filled with songs by the biggest stars in South Korean pop, or K-pop, as it’s become known around the world thanks to boy bands like BTS and girl groups like Blackpink.

The multitasking performer needs to hit play and quickly get into position to perform the choreography to his selected K-pop track, then hurry back to his aux cord-attached phone before the next song starts. The audience cheers when he nails a high kick and young girls blush when he winks at them, all with their eyes glued to their phones. But they’re not being rude, they’re trying to get the perfect shot. In the neighbourhood of Hongdae, the heart of Seoul’s busking culture where all kinds of performers are vying for fame, a good YouTube video is the preferred currency. As international attention for K-pop skyrockets, a more DIY version of the industry has also exploded on these streets, giving Kyungwoong’s future prospects (and his fans’ social media accounts) a global boost.

August 13, 2019
Park Kyungwoong poses for selfies with his fans
When vying for viral, Park Kyungwoong knows that smiling for selfies is the name of the game.

It’s a Thursday evening in Hongdae and foot traffic is swelling on tightly packed streets that abound with distractions: technicolour phone cases boasting Charlie Brown illustrations, ice-cream stands selling foot-tall green tea soft-serve and edge-to-edge stalls pushing bootleg K-pop merchandise, like holographic band-logo key chains and plushies created in the likenesses of fave stars. With photos of their faces on ads lining the streets, it’s impossible to escape South Korea’s love for its K-pop celebs: Blackpink visited this sunglasses shop, G-Dragon got his tarot cards read by our psychic, Bae Suzy’s favourite fried chicken is from this bar. But it’s not all about forking over hard-earned won. The 500-metre-long Hongdae Street hosts free entertainment day and night: It’s the place to see the rising talent that could soon be one of those famous faces.

Shelves of K-pop records at Youngpoong Bookstore
The red and green neon sign of a Hongdae restaurant
Browse the selection of K-pop records at Youngpoong Bookstore to find out which band could take the scene by storm next.
A Hongdae restaurant boasts about its beef tripe in bright neon.

Whether or not you have heard of Korean boy band BTS selling out stadiums around the world, watched fierce girl group Blackpink in their record-breaking YouTube videos or seen any of their K-pop rivals show up on TV and social media feeds, South Korea has managed to build one of the most influential music industries today. Worth an estimated $5 billion, the country has the sixth-largest music market in the world, only trailing behind France, the U.K., Germany, Japan and the U.S. Despite the Korean peninsula’s rich musical history dating back to the third century, South Korea’s modern pop scene is still growing into adulthood, with Hongdae’s decades-old institution of street performance highlighting its more grassroots side.

K-pop got its start in the early 1990s with the trio Seo Taiji and Boys that mashed genres, blending then-popular New Jack Swing with hard-hitting rap deliveries and the stickiest of pop hooks. The band’s popularity with teenagers inspired larger music companies to commercialize the style via highly manicured boy bands and girl groups. By the end of the decade, pioneering acts like the New Kids On the Block-reminiscent bubble-gum band H.O.T. and the silky R&B-pop stylings of female quartet Fin.K.L had become national treasures.

A crowd of fans waiting for the next performance
A crowd of eager fans waits for the next busking act to take the stage, with phones and record buttons at the ready.

As the genre bubbled up, Hongdae also became a hot spot for the underground and independent music scene. Located in the western end of Seoul, the area gets its name from the nearby Hongik University. Aspiring musicians and artists started moving in during the 1990s to take advantage of cheap rent, a growing number of concert venues and a plethora of studio spaces. Though present-day Hongdae has become more gentrified, music remains its beating heart. K-pop’s rise in the past decade (you can thank the infamous horsey dance from Psy’s 2012 megahit “Gangnam Style” for speeding up the process) has led dancers and pop wannabes to cohabit with the singer-songwriters, hip hop crews and rock musicians who first took over the district in the 1990s.

In 2016, local government stepped in to give the area more structure via an online calendar in which musicians can reserve time slots. Fans can also check the schedule to track their favourite names, though most will keep up to date on social media. With around 14,000 followers on Instagram, Kyungwoong isn’t a huge celebrity, but his performance draws dedicated supporters – some wielding handmade signs like the one championing his “genius face” – and curious pedestrians who overhear catchy tunes. Even before they notice the dancer’s chiselled jawline and precise moves, they will catch wind of his songs synching up with the bass-heavy bops playing throughout the neighbourhood’s stores. About 15 minutes before his time slot ends, he wraps and turns his attention to a long line of patient fans, bowing, thanking them for coming and posing for selfies lit by the neon signs of surrounding restaurants. Kyungwoong is dancing on a sidewalk tonight, but his moves will soon be available for anyone in the world to enjoy, as long as the audience uploads photos and videos, of course – a mutually beneficial relationship for just the price of a selfie.

A cup of sweet and crispy dak gang jung fried chicken, smothered in melted cheese
A girl entering a photo booth on Eouumadang-ro
At Hong Cup, sweet and crispy dak gang jung fried chicken comes smothered in melted cheese.
Photo booths on Eouumadang-ro make for snappy souvenirs.

Throughout the meet-and-greet, his small backpack is open for banknotes or coins, but what he’s really after is recognition for the poster behind him that lists his social media handles. In Hongdae, every performer has a poster listing their Instagram and YouTube accounts, and often where to find them on South Korea’s video-streaming social media platform AfreecaTV. Growing a base of followers leads to monetized content and greater visibility, and almost every viewer is also recording content on everything from phones to high-end DSLR cameras for their own channels. Everyone here shares a common goal: scoring a viral video that can earn the uploader tons of views and take the performer’s career to the next level.

Today, there’s a continuous rotation of up to four concurrent buskers performing just a few feet from one another in two-hour blocks on Hongdae Street. Along with Kyungwoong’s dance covers, the night includes a raspy-voiced pianist delivering folky covers and a rowdy female dance troupe complete with a shouting hype woman. The next day, these same small, circular stages host a live-streamed eating contest looking to find the person who can scarf down two popsicles the fastest (an entertaining recipe for brain freeze), alongside duetting guitarists who have onlookers waving their cellphones like lighters to soft-rock covers.

Everyone here shares a common goal: scoring a viral video that can earn the uploader tons of views and take the performer’s career to the next level.

Every night, busking acts are hoping to hook an audience’s attention and score the video that could land them a record deal. The key is to have the right combination of non-stop performance, on-point music choices, light stage banter and crowds that will cheer louder than the other performers’ speakers. The boy band A.C.E is proof that this street scene can lead to the big time: Before debuting onto the K-pop scene under K-pop entertainment agency Beat Interactive and Sony Music, members Jun, Donghun, Wow, Byeongkwan and Chan began their careers as a busking group known throughout Seoul for dance covers of hit songs. The quintet’s most popular YouTube performance was recorded on Hongdae Street in 2016, where they played BTS singles “I Need U” and “Dope” with a multi-piece sound system, slick dance moves and colour-blocked summery outfits. The video has garnered over 4.7 million views and highlights the street scene’s DIY nature. Like Kyungwoong, the boys have to hit play before running to their positions and move cords out of the way mid-performance to keep from tripping – minor annoyances that became priceless learning experiences for their future careers. “I didn’t know it would be so helpful,” reflects singer Donghun. “Once we debuted, we realized we already knew what fans liked and how to get the right reactions from them.”

LadyB strikes a pose for the cameras
Know your angles: Girl group LadyB finishes their set by striking a pose for the many cameras.
Know your angles: Girl group LadyB finishes their set by striking a pose for the many cameras.

A few nights after Kyungwoong tore it up, LadyB takes over the street. With a tangle of photographers set up like the sidewalk is a Hollywood red carpet, this five-member female dance crew comes out in shining white ensembles. LadyB dances to famous K-pop girl-group hits, rolling on the ground for sultry anthems and blowing kisses to viewers during peppy love songs. The quintet doesn’t have official representation, but once they wrap, they know exactly how to strike poses for photographers in a paparazzi-style photo shoot. They meet fans who want to snap a pic, but who also give the girls gifts, like designer clothes, which they accept with many thanks and a bow before moving on to the next supporter.

Warm weather makes the busking mecca a perfect outdoor hangout, and there doesn’t seem to be an issue when the last performers keep playing past the 10 p.m. cut-off. Acts that found fame in Hongdae claim there’s a deeper connection that comes with singing and dancing so close to an audience. “It’s a whole other language,” says one of A.C.E’s main dancers, Byeongkwan. In this interdependent, pop-filled ecosystem, that language includes what performers show the audience, but also what the audience gives back to the performers. In fact, when plans were put forward to build a bigger stage a few years ago, buskers complained it removed them from the audience. Stopping to watch Hongdae’s street performers quickly reveals a connected and complex music community that is equal parts entertaining and heartwarming. As K-pop’s global influence grows, the time to snap that selfie is now. And don’t be shy, because posts, likes and shares go a long way – around the whole world.
 

Check out the K-pop Lover's Guide to Seoul.

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