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(Yonhap Feature) K-pop's hall-of-fame road: Why some stars make it and others don't

2017/05/11 08:45

By Chang Dong-woo

SEOUL, May 11 (Yonhap) -- Many people around the world are familiar with Psy's 2012 mega hit "Gangnam Style." But its not often those outside of South Korea realize what Gangnam actually is: an affluent neighborhood in southern Seoul filled with posh luxury stores and home to the country's cutting-edge fashion, and also to a slew of leading of K-pop talent agencies.

Given the area's attention, the Gangnam District Office for some time has seized on the "Gangnam Style" explosion. It has organized a number of annual K-pop events, including the just-finished C-Festival, and fan meet-and-greets of idol musicians to lure tourists from abroad.

It has also created a hall-of-fame-style street, named "K-Star Road" and has immortalized 17 "hallyu" artists by erecting teddy bear statues, named "Gangnamdols," in Apgujeong-dong, stylized with each team's distinct concepts and styles throughout the 1.08-kilometer-long road from Apgujeong Rodeo Station to Cheongdam Intersection. Hallyu refers to the global phenomenon of the rising popularity of Korean pop culture.

A file photo of K-pop-idol-themed Gangnamdol statues in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap) A file photo of K-pop-idol-themed Gangnamdol statues in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

K-Star Road has a total of 17 statues (18 if you count the nameless one that clearly resembles Psy in the "Gangnam Style" video) and they're all of K-pop heavyweights like Super Junior, 2PM, Shinee, TVXQ, Girls' Generation and AOA, just to name a few. Sounds great, right?

   But the project begs the question: Who compiled this list and how? What does it represent? What factors were taken into account and what about the heavyweights left out? Besides the coincidental "Gangnam" namesake, how is a local government qualified to sort and compile a list of artists?

   According to involved officials at the Gangnam District Office, a lot of effort has gone into compiling the list.

The project initially began with 11 statues erected in March of 2015. The office factored in sales performance on Gaon, the country's benchmark music sales chart operator, and has consulted with the office's advisory committee on culture and tourism in addition to the record labels themselves located in and around the neighborhood in creating the list.

It later added six more by early 2016. The office hasn't been clear on the exact scoring and selection method but said the artists' "overseas activities" were a large factor in the process.

"We factored in K-pop stars' overseas popularity a lot, since it's part of a project to lure overseas fans from abroad to vitalize the area's economy," said a source, who asked to not be named.

A Girls' Generation Gangnamdol Statue on K-Star Road in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap) A Girls' Generation Gangnamdol Statue on K-Star Road in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

Being part of the K-Star Road, let alone any best-of-the-best type list, is probably flattering for an artist and their agencies -- to the point of some talent agencies offering the Gangnam District Office support, for example, to include certain groups to raise their profile and be recognized as a legitimate hallyu star, so to speak.

"We've been approached by agencies to erect additional Gangnamdols. The bears have become somewhat of a status symbol for idol groups," another source said.

"If we place an artist with low name-value, people would probably ask 'why are they there.' We're asked a lot from large agencies whether their fresh artists are qualified to be part of K-Star Road," another official said.

But the offer apparently has gone the other way around as well. According to a music business source, the Gangnam District Office has actively sought out the inclusion of certain heavyweight artists currently not on the list. The final 17 act lineup would be different if the office had everything the way they wanted, the source said.

But some managements did not allow certain artists, albeit their star powers, to be part of the road due to worries that they could flee to another agency after their contracts expired.

The final list clearly prioritizes the size of an idol groups' overseas fandom as opposed to how popular they are at home. Fair enough. But the final 17 were fixed back in late 2015. What happens when a new group breaks out big?

   TWICE, which is without question today's hottest girl group, isn't represented on K-Star Road, for example. Nor is "summer queen" Sistar, which makes its return this month. Given the lack of these big names, what's baffling is that two statues representing disbanded girl groups -- 4minute and KARA -- are still there. Another girl group, missA, included on the list, by all accounts, are expected to disband soon as well.

K-pop fans from abroad were also curious as to whether their new favorite stars will make the list.

Adrian Jiang, a high school student from Suzhou, China, who was staking out in front of JYP Entertainment's office near K-Star Road to get a glimpse of idol musicians asked: "I like that I can learn of the major Korean pop stars by walking down the road. But I'm a TWICE fan. When will TWICE be included?"

   When asked whether the office plans to update and renew the list of teddy bear statues, another Gangnam District Office official said the office hasn't allocated a budget to either produce new or get rid of existing statues, which cost approximately 30 million won (US$26,430) each.

"We did have the idea of pursuing K-Star Road as a public art project that would be refreshed every year, updating the statue lineup. We can't say that the current list won't be updated, but as of now the office hasn't earmarked a budget to reflect the latest K-pop trends," a source said.

Miniature Gangnamdol merchandise sold at the "Gangnamdol Haus" near K-Star road in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap) Miniature Gangnamdol merchandise sold at the "Gangnamdol Haus" near K-Star road in Apgujeong-dong, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

It should also be noted that the exclusion of solo artists was by design. But still, shouldn't the project at least give nod to Psy?

   For Psy, he's immortalized in front of Gangnam's Convention and Exhibition Center, better known as COEX, in the form of a 5-meter-high bronze sculpture of two hands modeled after the signature horse-riding hand motion of the "Gangnam Style" dance.

"Despite the negative press at the home of the statue, foreign tourists love taking pictures in front of the sculpture. Even Chris Martin of the band Coldplay uploaded a picture of himself in front of the statue on his Instagram," said an official.