In Psy's musical wake, K-pop tries substance over style in star search

Thu Apr 18, 2013 11:11pm EDT
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By Narae Kim and Jane Chung

SEOUL (Reuters) - Singing a duet in front of thousands of fans with South Korean rapper Psy, a world sensation for his "Gangnam Style" and "Gentleman" videos, would be heady for any singer, much less one who's only 16 years old and has just launched her first album.

But the soulful-voiced Lee Hi, like Psy, has been breaking rules for the K-pop music industry since her discovery in an amateur talent show two years ago, including looking more like the girl next door than a diva.

South Korea's love affair with pretty boy bands and doll-like girl groups may be starting to crack and its music industry is becoming more willing to experiment with talented and less lovingly groomed stars, following Psy's megahit "Gangnam Style," YouTube's most popular song with over 1.5 billion hits.

The song catapulted the sunglass-wearing singer with the garish jackets to global fame and gave an additional boost to the growing K-pop industry, despite his difference from the polished K-pop norms - a change that came just in time for Lee Hi, who sang with Psy at an April 13 concert at a Seoul stadium.

"Other singers are very pretty and tall. I am short, no matter how high my heels are," said Lee, referring to the height and well-groomed slimness of the nine-member Girls Generation, one of K-pop's most famous groups.

"I cannot beat them with looks, so I figured, I need to focus on singing well. That's what I'm good at and like most," added Lee, whose demure clothing contrasts with the long-legged, miniskirted look of Girls Generation.

Lee was runner-up in a national talent show while still in junior high school, gaining a contract with YG Entertainment Inc, the same company that manages Psy. The top song from her debut album, "Rose", surged to the top of the charts after its March release.

By contrast, the vast majority of K-pop wannabes go through years of rigorous training at entertainment agencies, sometimes even 10 years. Many in Girls Generation trained for five years.   Continued...

South Korean singer Psy performs his hit "Gangnam Style" during a morning television appearance in central Sydney October 17, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne