Nickelodeon has always been on top of the latest teen and “tween” trends, so it’s unsurprising to see them introduce K-pop music to a new generation of American listeners in Make It Pop, one of their latest TV shows.
Make It Pop is the story of four teens in Mackendrick Preparatory High School, a boarding school on the United States east coast, who pool their various talents to form “XO-IQ”, a pop band inspired by K-pop music. Star-in-the-making Sun Hi (Megan Lee), fashionista Jodi (Louriza Tronco), and bookish Corki (Erika Tham) team with burgeoning DJ Caleb (Dale Whibley) to make up the musical part of this musical comedy. Much like Glee but toned down for a younger audience, Make It Pop uses music and fashion to tell stories about growing up and trying to fit in when you’re different or talented.
Part of what makes this show work is the K-pop inspiration. “Hallyu,” the word that describes the rise of Korean pop culture into a standard for “cool” around the world, has its roots in active government investment in entertainment. Late 90s South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung decided that rather than focus on manufacturing like so many other Asian countries, the government would begin investing in their pop culture. Nearly two decades later it is paying off, not only with K-pop but also in fashion and television dramas.
Make It Pop, it should be noted, is not pure K-pop by any stretch of the imagination. Producer Nick Cannon told Billboard, “I would say Make It Pop was inspired by that world, but not necessarily trying to be authentic because, ultimately, at the end of the day we’re making a television show for Nickelodeon.” The show draws many of the elements of K-pop such as a musical reliance on American hip hop and R&B as well as a certain level of fashion eccentricity, but in the end it still has to appeal to a North American audience.
One of the ways that the show diverges from the Korean cultural model is that three of the four main characters exhibit a tendency to blur the line between their performance and their lives. American culture expects celebrities to maintain their personas at all times, whereas Korean celebrities are given more leeway to be different people on and off stage. Further, Sun Hi’s confident optimism in her own stardom is endearing to American audiences, but would likely be found arrogant to a Korean audience.
That being said, the show still manages to do its homage with great skill, bringing in the music and costume style as well as the precisely choreographed dance sequences that add excitement to the songs. It begins to bridge a number of cultural divides as well, not only by bringing aspects of Korean culture to American audiences, but also bringing a more electronic dance music (EDM) sound typically associated with 13-25 year olds to a tween demographic.
Of course, it’s important to note that Make It Pop may be at the forefront of the North American trend, but Korean cultural imports are actually quite popular internationally. With the exception of rivals Japan and China, the concept of “hallyu” is well established in most of Asia. France is also a big consumer of K-pop internationally while American teens, thanks in large part to the far reaching capabilities of high speed internet, are quickly catching onto this phenomenon in droves. In fact, many credit the internet age with the rapid rise of K-pop both throughout Asia but also in the West. This helped the once-struggling South Korea find a foothold in the rest of the world after decades of stagnation and obscurity.
While it may not be the first of its kind or even entirely authentic, Make It Pop is still a fun show about believably-talented teens. The show also opens the door to a new culture for many viewers, helping a new audience learn to appreciate a fashion and musical style already popular among many international listeners.