In December, Claudine Ebeid talked about the explosion in popularity of Korean pop groups in the United States. We can't stop watching Girls' Generation and 2NE1 videos on YouTube, and we're not the only ones. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao says that K-Pop is also spreading like wildfire in China. These groups are often huge — Girls' Generation includes nine members, Nine Muses confusingly includes eight — and to stoke the flames, South Korea's suddenly in-demand pop factories are looking to the country's youth.
Inside a nondescript building on Seoul's Rodeo Drive sit dozens of teenagers, some with their parents. They're taking part in open auditions held by entertainment giant SM. "The Boys," a giant hit by SM's own Girls' Generation — recent veterans of The Late Show with David Letterman — is playing over loudspeakers.
Girls' Generation is idolized by the assembled hopefuls. "When I see Girls' Generation, I think they are so pretty and so cool," says Young-eun Park through a translator. "I am going to be just like them."
She has zero formal training, but she's hoping to wow the judges by singing "Ballerino,' by Leessang, another K-Pop group. It's her third audition, and she's hopeful that this time she'll get a callback.
"I live only to sing and dance," she says. "If I don't become a singer I won't be happy in my life. I want it so bad." She's almost tearful, but looks up in determination and says she's going to give it her all.
A few famous K-Pop stars are actually from China, Thailand and the United States. And more hopefuls, like 19-year-old Rebecca Chiu, from Taiwan, are here to try out. She especially likes the dance moves that go along with just about every K-Pop hit.
The fact that she doesn't understand the words in the songs — "I can read and I can pronounce, but I don't know the meaning," she says in broken English — isn't necessarily a cause for worry. If the top entertainment companies like her, they'll invest in her study of the Korean language and will spend up to $3 million or $4 million on years of rigorous training in song, dance, acting and more. If she makes it through that, then she might have a shot at contracts worth millions.
Hong Ki-sung, the CEO of BORN Startraining Center, a company in Seoul that trains people to become K-Pop stars, says it's worth the investment.
"There are so many young, talented people in Korea," he says through a translator. "So many that I can't even count them, and they're better singers than a lot of the stars out there now."
Some K-Pop groups have even more members than Girls' Generation, but Hong says not all the performers have good singing voices. "Appearance is important too," he says. "That's why there are so many pretty girls and stylish boys in K-Pop bands."
There may be slots for aspiring K-Pop stars with different talents, but most won't make it. The young people at these tryouts are well aware that thousands and thousands of South Korean kids are trying to get into the K-Pop business, and most will fail.
Only on her third day at the training center, teenager Lim Ji-hey is still optimistic. "I'm going to do my best and train hard to become a great performer," she says through a translator. Even if she doesn't succeed in the music world, she says, she'd love to be an actress. Then she can play any role she wants, including being a K-Pop singer.