‘K-POP Now!: The Korean Music Revolution’ book review

That K-pop is an unstoppable force is proved by the fact that I’m here, reviewing a book that covers it inside and out, despite (sort of) successfully navigating around it for the better part of last four years. Admittedly, being obsessed with Korea and remaining ignorant of K-pop is a pointless endeavor and one you will fail at for sure.

“K-POP Now!: The Korean Music Revolution” by Mark James Russell was given to me by Tuttle to review together with their Elementary Korean textbook.

What did I know about K-pop before I started reading “K-pop now”? And how much I knew about it by the time I finished? Is this book for people who think K-pop was born with PSY’s Gangnam Style? Or is it only geared towards hard-core fans? Read on to find out.

“K-pop now!” is filled with flashy photographs and uses stitch binding which makes the build of this book not unlike it’s subject – colorful, bright, and here to stay. The photographs are high quality printed on glossy paper, and a real pleasure to look at. A minor fault was that a few photographs were unnecessarily grainy and pixelated, for example one of the 2PM’s photographs, but the great majority are of excellent quality.

With its 128 pages, spanning 6 chapters, it covers everything from the origins of K-pop all the way to up-and-coming groups that may be the next big thing. There are short interviews with Kevin from Ze:A, Brian Joo from Fly to the Sky and even Eat Your Kimchi. Maybe most importantly, the book has sections for each of the most popular boy groups, girl groups and solo artists.

Or at least so it claims.

Kpop now book contents state of K-pop land of what is K-pop boy groups girl groups solo artist future

I’m going to be completely honest, I was less than enthusiastic that I had to read almost 130 pages about K-pop. I figured if you’re not a fan of one of these bands, what is there to look forward to?

But once I started reading I unexpectedly got immersed in it, and it turned out I had plenty of ahhh-that-is-why moments, as things I already knew suddenly started to fall into place, and so this book ended up not only teaching me new things about K-pop, but also showed me that I already knew much more than I thought.

That I have numerous snippets of knowledge about K-pop is not at all surprising when you consider that majority of you, my readers and followers, are K-pop fans. I need but to glance at your Twitters and Tumblrs to be showered with the newest stuff in the K-pop world.

I also realized that I have unknowingly watched a lot of K-pop stars in Korean movies such as “71: Into the Fire”, “Iris”, and even an American one, “Ninja Assassin” that featured not only one, but two Kpop stars!

It turns out K-pop is filled with stunning facts, for example that before 2009 about thirty K-pop groups debuted each year, but then suddenly that number grew to forty, seventy, and then up to a staggering amount of over a hundred in 2012. I also got to find out that K-pop didn’t spring out of nowhere, but as the author said, that Koreans have long been a very musical people. And the mystery why some K-pop songs sound like they’ve been cut and glued from several songs has been resolved for me as well.

The first chapters were my favorite, as they talk more about Korea and how it all came to be, but I appreciated how information of interest to K-pop fans was woven into it. For example, as the author talks about Seoul he mentions locations of entertainment companies, star’s restaurants, K-pop shops, and other places that might be of an interest to a K-pop fan that a regular tour guide would not mention.

There is also a section dedicated to what you need to expect and what kind of grueling training you will go through if you wanted to become a K-pop star yourself.

One thing that did always leave me in awe when it came to K-pop was how incredibly hardworking these performers are. The hours they put in, and the amount of sleep they get, put even the most diligent of us at shame.

The authors covers this in chapter 2, titled “What is K-pop” and while he does mention how difficult it is for the stars, I couldn’t help but feel that his source of information came only from the companies.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I have with this book. Far from a K-pop expert but not living under a rock either, I have heard of one of the most dramatic and famous events in K-pop history – the TVXQ! split. Which is why I found myself very puzzled when I reached the TVXQ! section.

Chapters 3 and 4 are structured around introducing 15 boy groups and 13 girl groups. They are listed alphabetically, save for the first three groups in each chapter which my guess is have been chosen for their popularity, and as such come first and have four pages dedicated to them, instead of the usual two that other groups get. For boy groups it is Big Bang, Super Junior and TVXQ!, and for girl groups it’s Girls’ Generation, 2ne1 and Wonder Girls.

TVXQ DBSK duo SM EntertainmentSo obviously the author gave TVXQ! plenty of attention. However, throughout the whole article he makes it sounds like TVXQ! always were a duo, even when talking about their previous achievements as a five member group. At first I didn’t find this too strange, because while it may not be perfectly accurate, the book is called K-pop now, not K-pop before. But the more I read, the more it bothered me.

First of all, every other band seemed to have their former members listed. I looked into it a bit more (i.e. I opened Wikipedia) and for example, Hyuna was part of Wonder Girls for only a half of a year and yet was mentioned as having been a member, while ex-TVXQ members who were there for 6 years, haven’t.

Second of all, in Kara’s section the author mentions that they were on verge of breaking up and their fans “were shocked and worried that this would turn into another TVXQ!…”, which for someone who was finding out about them just from this book would be confusing as according to the author TVXQ! have always been a happy duo.

The three former members, now in a band called JYJ, are mentioned twice at the beginning of the book, once as an example how Kpop bands have strange names, and once for holding concerts in Europe.

Now, if you’re not a TVXQ fan this may all seem irrelevant, but honestly, the real problem is that it made me question the authenticity of other things the book said, and made me unsure of the exactness of what I was reading since I don’t have the knowledge to verify it.

A pity, because other than that, I really do feel like thanks to this book I learned and got to understand a lot more not only about about Kpop but about Korea as well, and just as importantly, I had fun in the process.



41 thoughts on “‘K-POP Now!: The Korean Music Revolution’ book review

  1. Very suspicious and degrades the whole book which might have otherwise been informative. They managed to list Hyuna yet not JYJ…

  2. Hi Oegukeen: Thanks so much for the review. Very nice of you.

    Yes, I agree with you about the JYJ/TVXQ issue. But, alas, that was not my call. SM Entertainment was quite adamant about how TVXQ was covered. Which is too bad, as I really liked Xia’s “Incredible” (among other songs).

    • I don’t understand how an entertainment company in Korea can influence an author from writing down the facts, especially when the publishing company is not even located in S. Korea. I’m not familiar with the politics of the publishing world so can you explain what kinds of repercussions you and your company can face if you have written the history of TVXQ as it should? I always understood that a book, especially one that is about the history of something, should always lists the truth and not made to mislead it’s readers. It would be sad if you or an established company like yours had to kowtow to an entertainment company from another country. This time, it only involves a kpop band from S. Korea. Next time, what if the topic deals with something that is significantly more important and controversial? Are you and your company going to succumb to outside pressures again?

    • This doesn’t even sound sincere. It’s not about whether you liked their music or not, it’s all about how you and your publishers are trying to sell a piece of erroneous propaganda. It’s so typically spineless and display a total lack of integrity.

    • How can you call your book “The Korean Music Revolution” when you deliberately skipping some significant facts of one the the biggest name in Kpop -TVXQ and I mean TVXQ with 5 members. And I’m surprised that even in writing a book you guys are so ready to vow to SM’s influence, what a shame!

    • Hmmm…That’s too bad that an author does have much freedom to write all facts and truths as they were and are. “SM Entertainment was quite adamant about how TVXQ was covered.” Let us all bow down…(insert smirk and sarcasm).
      But were there any demands from JYJ/CJeS to NOT cover them at all? With any simple research, you can find out that “Xia” is JYJ’s Kim Junsu and his song/album “Incredible” was released way after he left the bondage of SM thus, not a part of TVXQ at all. So, if you really wanted to cover “Xia” or JYJ for that matter, you could have…Unless SM was adamant about how “JYJ” boys are covered (not covered) as well.
      Please do better research and find out more about JYJ (Kim Jaejoong, Park Yuchun, Kim Junsu)…Their struggles then and now AND how they have been coping, rising, and succeeding above all blockages and strife…
      I can assure you that JYJs true story is more interesting and an ultimate better read.

    • It’s a shame that people are still hush hush about JYJ existence. Especially when these three are a bunch of guys who can actually sing. How is that? Singers who can actually sing.

    • Dear Mr. Russell,
      me too, I wholeheartedly agree with Wendy. Also, this book is called Kpop-NOW, so how is it that one of the most important kpop bands in Korea, JYJ, is not mentioned?! Seriously!!

      • OOOOH Honestly, that is the best idea ever! He can cover the true facts about how they called a secret meeting with their fandom to spread lies about the other two and then instead of trying to work on getting Yunho and Changmin into the lawsuit, which is what they said in interviews, they hightailed it out to Japan and made a secret pact with Avex to bench Tohoshinki to debut themselves as a trio. He can cover Avex’s VP’s testimony to the court and how they told Avex to include in their contract that if Yunho and Changmin ever leave SM and want to sign with Avex, that Cjes and JYJ themselves would be in on the negotiations for the two! Yeah, let’s write a whole book about JYJ!


        Part 1:

        I was shocked when I read the following agreement for the first time. How to interpet it. I still don’t know.

        “Avex Management,(hereinafter called Party A) and C-JeS entertainment (referred to as Party B), artists belonging to B: Real name: KIM JAEJUNG, Real Name: KIM JUNSU, Real Name: PARK YOUCHEON (referred to as Artists), whose sound or visual recordings activities, creative activities and entertainment activities, etc with regard to copyrighted material, agreed as follows: you shall be entered into an exclusive contract (hereinafter referred to as the Agreement).”

        Article 29 (Notices – 2)
        By any chance, group members of Tohoshinki [Real Name: SHIM CHANGMIN, Real Name: CHUN YOUNHO], ends contractual relationship (including release) with SM Entertainment Co Ltd and its affiliates, in a case that they no longer belong to a talent agency, modeling agency, or recording companies, if you wish to contract with the said two people, Party A, in consultation with Party B and its Artists, shall be entered into an exclusive contract negotiation and talks for the 2 people concerned. In addition, even if the 2 people became artists of Party B, if Party A wishes to contract for 2 people and Party B, separate consultation is better, you shall negotiate a separate written contract.

    • Hi, Mr Russell, I am just wondering.

      Could more have been written about JYJ if they are discussed separately from the TVXQ section (as in not under the group TVXQ but under their own section for a group called JYJ)? Since then it won’t really be under SM’s jurisdiction for their review and approval (because it is not under the TVXQ section, as TVXQ is their brand but not JYJ).

      Just curious.
      Thank you.

    • Mr Russell, you made a very curious career decision of ditching any credibility you may have had previously as a respected and knowledgeable writer on K-Pop when you and you publisher decided to knuckle under to pressure from SM Entertainment and re-write a significant portion of K-Pop history to SM’s twisted specifications — namely, to attempt to “erase” JYJ from TVXQ’s history and assert that they have always been “a duo.” Leaving aside that anyone who researches SME’s business ethics quickly realizes that they are little better than a criminal organization with a veritable laundry list of outrageous illegal dealings and an infamous and well-publicized industry-wide habit of blacklisting those who displease them, how you and your publisher decided that SM would make a suitable partner to collude with in this ridiculous fiction of JYJ as a non-significant non-entity is a mystery. Your version of TVXQ’s biography is spurious – it is not factual. If you are truly an “expert” in K-Pop you would know well the passion and protectiveness of its fans. And there are no more feisty and protective fans than those of JYJ. When you blithely asserted that you “could do a whole book on SM artists” one can only imagine the tainted puff piece that would end up being. A far better idea for a book would have been to tell the truth about SM and their 20+ year culture of corruption, payola and threats to anyone who crosses them. As it is, any credibility of this telling of the story of the rise of K-Pop is D.O.A. – Dead On Arrival.

      • Mr Russell wrote a blog post and his justification and my my, just at the title http://www.markjamesrussell.com/2014/06/30/about-that-tvxq-thing/
        To him, complying with a powerful company to participate in a ” information cleanse” is just “that thing”. Just reading his post and all the implied meanings, maybe unintended, is making me roll my eyes. Positive. Being part of something dishonourable and dishonest is being positive.
        Maybe he believes negative attention is good publicity but personally I would check the public libraries here and write to them to not have any of his works if they have had the bad taste to have brought them in.

        • @NingK – If Russell had done ANY fact checking (and for that matter, isn’t the publisher required to fact check for a work of non-fiction?) he would have immediately seen that all of the helpful info provided by SM on TVXQ was not factually correct. It was SO incorrect in fact that red flags and warning sirens should have gone off immediately that something was Not Right. Just because a devious company like SM “insisted” that he write their version of the story… what is that?? That’s ridiculous! Who does that: colludes with a company that has a long and very well publicized history of exploiting, cheating and abusing its acts because… they insist?? Did they threaten to break his legs and ban him in Korea if he didn’t do what he was told? That certainly paints a picture of a company to embrace and partner with, profiling 5 of SM’s acts for the book as he ended up doing. Since he claims to be a K-Pop authority, can it really be possible he had no prior knowledge of how SM does business? This is my problem with Mr Russell. He now comes off either as lame or as sleazy as SME.

    • Just few things to say to Mr. Russell .
      It ‘s very unfortunate that my first review about you will be through this book.
      I’m very disappointed that you decided to bow down to SM and write a fiction book when it shouldn’t be.
      If you have valued truth much more than some words from a big company and some pretty pictures for the book I would definitely have been your new fan and recommended your books to others. But you didn’t and now all the books you published and will write in the future will be avoided and your name will be crossed out from my list of reliable authors.Unless you decide to write the real history of KPOP and not the fantasy from SM’s mind I hope to not to see your name again when it comes to JYJ.

  3. JYJ has been blocked unfairly despite winning the court in Korea and Japan. SM has promised not to interrupt their activities, but all their tv invitations were cancelled mysteriously. Invicible hands tried to change JYJ places as ambassadors with their idol groups for Jeju Island (as world seven wonders) and recently, IAG opening ceremony.
    How much South Korean govt loves JYJ cause they gave like 10 at least ambassador jobs in politics, education, science, energy, economic, tourism, health etc. You name it, they had it. The govt even asked JYJ to bridge economical relationship with Jpn thru KBEE when the two countries were bad in shape politically.
    Kim Jaejoong accompanied president of SK to Turkey and had preaidential dinner with Turkey president for a bilateral relationship.
    But in entertainment field it is like the govt has no power. The court even released verdict that would fine whoever interfere their activities.
    We, jyj fans, who have been with them since the era of tvxq, or even new fans dr their dramas/musicals keep waiting patiently.

  4. Mirotic didnt come out in 2006 !!!!! Please check back and make sure everything before you make it into a book ,thank you !

  5. There are millions of fans that know the truth about TVXQ. Their success would never have been possible without the other three members, who are now equally successful on their own and as group JYJ. Write what you want (or what SM wants) but that doesn’t change reality.It’s like seeing a false news coverage of an accident that I’ve witnessed firsthand. After all the unfair treatment, pressures, big business cartel against JYJ within Korea and even Japan.. really, do we need another mouthpiece for SM in English? It’s like seeing a false news coverage of an accident that I’ve witnessed firsthand.

  6. حقاره لابعد حد …..راح يجي يوم اس ام تعض فيها اصابع الندم
    ج و ج و حنا ضدكم ياكلاب و الايام بيننا

  7. I surprise that someone like you, an author, have not research properly into the kpop era and then to write a small insignificant article about, one of the most important and biggest hallyu group in this era., then been told to omit them by a company without any integrity, we has fans may want people to know JYJ has JYJ, but most of us respect their past, it shows how SM professional spitefulness towards JYJ is apparent and that you has an author need to look at your writing ethics.

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  14. I’m disappointed that TVXQ! didn’t get an accurate history attached to their entry due to company influence, but is it really fair to blame the author so harshly for this? I doubt this book could just get publish without the permission of the agencies that manage these groups, so why purposely alienate one of the biggest ones? What was he going to do — push back until SM Ent decided to, IDK, withhold rights to photos or access to their artists? Since SM’s a huge part of K-Pop as a whole right now, it probably wasn’t worth it to ruffle feathers and risk their withdrawal from his project.

    So yeah, it’s unfortunate and super gross that JYJ fell victim to SM (AGAIN ㅠㅠ), but criticizing Russell for something he probably had little control over? Not here for that.

    • Are you seriously claiming that author has no control over what he writes in his own book?

      He could have gotten photographs from other sources and stick with the facts and truth. SM would have been powerless against that.

      • @Anymouse
        Thumb up for your comment. the author is giving his pusillanimous excuses. That K-Pop Now should be thrown in the trash bin.
        JYJ is a WINNER^^ !!! That is why SM is so sore and wanted badly to make JYJ as a victim. But That is not going to happen as long as JYJ’s fans around.
        Give me a break, to say the author has no control over his writing. SM is trying to rewrite the spurious history of TVXQ with the help from Mr. Russell. There’s gone Mark James Russell’s credibility.

  15. You noticed that JYJ was not mentioned but didn’t notice the other mistakes made by the author in the TVXQ! section? Wow.

    To Mr. Author, I didn’t read your book but from the portion that was posted here I would like to highlight 2 things:

    1. Mirotic album was released in 2008 and not in 2006. Since it is one of the defining albums in K-pop, please be more careful with the factual detail.
    2. TVXQ! debuted in 2003 (end). Yes, it is not that far from 2004 but for accuracy sake and since we all want to prevent the distortion of K-pop history, please take note.

    Thank you.

  16. There is a saying “History is written by the victors.’” This censure-ship is a prime example of a corrupt SME trying to make themselves the “victors” despite the fact that their “campaign of harassment ” against JYJ has not stopped JYJ from achieving greater success then they could have gotten by staying with TVXQ.

    This book was supposedly written as a guide to the “history” of how KPOP developed into what it is today. JYJ’s departure from SME and the subsequent changes in law and the industry are significant events that have been selectively and deliberately deleted to provide a false and selective history to the reader.

    The issue is less about JYJ fans wanting them to be recognized for their contribution to TVXQ but MORE about not letting SME continue to get away with the abuse and control they have on the KPOP industry.

    Also, the book has been out for a while the author’s recent “sudden” need to tell about how he was “forced” to write false history concerning TVXQ is suspect. Certainly more people have heard of and shown interest in the book then before his revelation!

    I guess for SME and the author, in the money game there’s no such thing as bad free publicity!

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  18. While I am extremely angry about this, I doubt anyone is going to buy this book. Like the only likely candidates are hard-core fan girls and they obviously know that the facts are all wrong in the book. Who wants a factually wrong book with 4-5 pages about their idols when they can buy their real merch in that money? Yeah but this kind of blows the author’s reputation which is only fair I guess.

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