What ‘A2K’ says about the new era of K-pop

The A2K contestants line up before the final performance of the American boot camp. Stakes were high despite the smiles on their faces as the girls who pass this final audition would receive the opportunity to progress to the Korean boot camp. // Photo courtesy of JYP Entertainment

On July 25, 2022, JYP Entertainment released an unprecedented video trailer on YouTube. In the video, J.Y. Park, the founder and chairman of JYP Entertainment, called upon the audience for the chance to be a part of the “biggest project ever” for the company: “America 2 Korea” or “A2K” for short. In collaboration with Monte Lipman, founder and chairman of Republic Records in New York City, “A2K” was born to “develop a super-group… we’ve never seen before” by sourcing American talent through the JYP K-pop system, according to Lipman.

 Auditions were held in Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, Dallas and Los Angeles at the end of 2022, with those who passed the regional auditions progressing to the initial bootcamp in Los Angeles. Finally, those who passed the rigorous training in the bootcamp would be trained in South Korea — the heart of K-pop, and would work with choreographers, vocal coaches and producers to be selected for the final K-pop group. 

In the early days of K-pop, talent was primarily found through scouting. When looking through the origin stories of legendary groups like “BTS,” “Exo” and “Girls’ Generation,” many members of these groups were found directly through auditions or indirectly through public scouting. 

For example, “Exo’s” Chanyeol was scouted at an acting academy he attended, and “Girls’ Generation’s” (“SNSD’s”) Krystal and Jessica Jung were scouted in a mall during a family vacation. Many idols  would also often audition directly to the company, like “SNSD’s” Sooyoung and Hyoyeon who were casted through the “SM open audition” in 2000. However, idol competitions were held relatively rarely and were seen mostly as a non-traditional means of casting members. 

As the K-pop industry was still relatively small compared to today, being an idol was more of a risky business than a lucrative one. “BTS,” one of the world’s biggest K-pop groups, made headlines when CEO Bang Si-hyuk decided to cast the members unconventionally using a “rap battle” format called “Hit It” to put the group together. 

Even still, the members for the group were not all formed through the competition show method, and members like Suga (who was casted through his work as a producer) and Jin (who was casted while getting off of a bus) were still incorporated into the group through traditional casting methods — scouting and auditions. 

Being an idol was not as secure of a job as it is now. While trainee life is known to be difficult, unstable and
risky, debuting has now become a marker of success and, given the boom of the K-pop industry, can offer idols much more security than the profession has ever had before. The K-pop industry is only getting bigger — and so is the demand and supply. More than ever, young teenagers in South Korea are seeing being an idol as a legitimate career goal and are beginning to train from younger ages. 

Especially in the second generation of K-pop, idols were not always expected to be well-balanced. While some K-pop group members specialized in visuals where others specialized in rap or singing, the saturation of industry talent means that K-pop auditionees are good at everything these days. In efforts to set themselves apart from others in such a booming industry, the skill floor has gotten higher than ever before. Thus, the industry has seen a marked increase in competition shows in order to recruit idols, where auditionees are now expected to be more well-rounded at younger ages. 

Additionally, in new generations of K-pop, social media interaction has become instrumental in the marketing and success of a group.

 When a K-pop group’s origin and formation can be streamed online in the form of a competition show where fans can also become involved, especially through online voting procedures, the parasocial connection between the audience and idol deepens. 

These cultural and social conditions in the Korean media industry have culminated in the pronounced success of shows like “Produce 101” season 1 and season 2, “The Unit,” “Produce 48” and now “A2K,” which have brought the concept of idol survival shows to new heights. 

While this is not a new phenomenon, the increased success and skill floor can be attributed to the boom of the K-pop industry and its innate connection to global social media. Additionally, K-pop is becoming increasingly multicultural, with groups like “X:IN” and the newly rebranded “BLACKSWAN” consisting of members from all over the world. 

“A2K” reinvents the essence of K-pop and asks the audience to question what K-pop truly is. The auditionees compete in four categories: vocals, dance, character and star quality, and have an upper age limit of 17. “A2K” capitalizes on this young talent with the competitive aspect of the show. 

Each auditionee must earn a “stone” in each of the four categories to progress to the Korea boot camp. Each stage of the competition is judged by JYP himself as he gives criticism and awards stones. 

While they tell auditionees there is no cap on the number of girls that can make it to the finals, the girls are still in a hyper-competitive environment at such a young age. The finale of the American boot camp exemplifies the cruelty of the environment as only one auditionee out of all 11 does not progress to the
Korean boot camp. 

As certain clips from the show became funny memes online, particularly clips of JYP’s laughably dry criticisms of the candidates, the online support for the show, especially from American audiences, has never been seen before. In the past, idol survival shows were hosted and aired primarily in South Korea, according to
South Korean broadcast schedules. The absence of a live audience from “A2K” means that the support for the show is fully virtual, and thus much more inclusive of global audiences. Interestingly, Lipman says the concept of the idol survival show is a “K-pop system — the JYP system,” largely foreign to American audiences, whose closest equivalent is “American Idol,” a still highly individualistic system in comparison to “A2K.” 

While the projected success or failure of the “A2K” girl group in South Korea is highly controversial as only two of the 11 auditionees are Korean, the girls are certainly supported on home turf. Americans are
rallying behind the members, with Atlanta natives cheering on Christina Lopez Sandiford, a business-major from GSU, Canadians cheering on Montreal native Camila Ribeaux Valdes and fans in general supporting “A2K” auditionees as the show brings K-pop closer to  fans than ever before. “A2K” keeps audiences asking what makes K-pop K-pop —and what “A2K” means for the cultural media preservation of the Korean entertainment industry in an era of globalism.