A Manifest Fabrication: K-Pop and the Cult of Distraction

Nivita Dutta

           If one knows nothing about the sensational global phenomena of K-pop, then Blackpink’s hit pop track ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’ is the perfect introduction that embodies and amplifies the fundamental essence of the genre. What the title of the song implies remains unclear: is it the beating of our hearts at feelings of love? Or perhaps, is it meant to resemble the noise of machine guns, which blare rhythmically as four girls raise their hands like guns and aim them towards us, their viewers and their audience?

           South Korea’s meteoric rise from a third-world country to a capitalist superpower matching Japan and the USA in the last 70 years can be understood through its fervent work culture, which emphasizes hard work as an essential force ingrained in all aspects of their society. According to OECD data, South Koreans worked 200 times more than the OECD average in 2022 (2024). In tune with this culture of productivity, the commodification of pop music, branded as K-pop, has been one of the most successful cultural exports in recent history. The rise of global interest in Korean media products since the 90s has been titled the ‘Hallyu’ wave and is often compared to Beatlemania, the phenomenon of female-led global fanaticism centered around The Beatles. The salaried masses of South Korea, and more recently the rest of the globe today, are completely enthralled by the tour de force that is K-pop–– and specifically the girl group BlackPink; the music itself is harsh yet upbeat, a perfect bubblegum trap/pop song, the quintessential soundtrack for a high school dance, with lyrics recognisable and simple enough for a child to know (hit you with that ddu-du, ddu-du, ddu; hit you with that, hit you with that, hit you with that, blackpink!). Strung together by its bass-boosting chorus with an uncomplicated 4-step dance designed to be replicated en masse by fans on TikTok and Instagram, the song is a pop culture sensation with a signature sound that the band has recreated in all their music since.

           None of the girls write or produce their music. In their 2022 album Born Pink, of the 8 tracks, two of the group members were credited for only one song. Yet their detachment from the creative process is forgotten upon seeing the accompanying video; each production guarantees the unflinching attention of the viewer by lingering on shots of the four girls in dazzling dresses, hair, and jewels. They’re tall, slim, with translucent complexions and faces so beautiful they might as well be dolls (if you squint, you can almost picture them standing in front of a blank screen, holding a Coke in hand, striking a coy smile at the viewer, and beckoning them to “taste the feeling”). There is a faint uncanniness to their appearances at first glance; in fact, one might feel discomfort seeing their perfect looks, which look filtered with a light blur which endows them with silky smooth skin. But not to worry–– aside from their music videos, there are several hundred clips and pictures of the girls trying snacks, making conversation, or hanging out that remind you they are real people, just like us, and that perhaps if we try hard enough, we can be like them, or be with them (both fantasies are sold depending on the taste of the consumer)!

           In his formative essay Cult of Distraction, cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer, whose corpus argued against the fabricated grandeur of early Hollywood and advocated for a shift to realism, regards the rising growth of “picture palaces” in 20th century Berlin to be characterized by ‘elegant surface splendour’ (91) that transforms distraction into culture (92). Kraceur believed that the grandiosity of these early movie theatres worked in edifying the mass consumers by riveting “the viewers’ attention to the peripheral so that they will not sink into the abyss” (94). An emerging notion reinstated by Adorno and Horkheimer in both Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) and Culture Industry Reconsidered (1963) was that the widespread production of artistic properties was dangerous for the masses. More specifically, mass production was harmful because it flattened the public’s taste and risks something greater, such as unknowingly perhaps falling down a pipeline to fascist ideology because one’s critical abilities have been dulled by the entertainment presented to them. Nonetheless, it would be obstructive to argue that the salaried individual does not, within themself, have the slightest cognizant capability to notice when the entertainment being spoon-fed to them might be reheated flesh instead of the steak it pretends to be; after all, nobody likes to feel cheated or duped, especially not for their time and money. As Adorno states in Culture Industry Reconsidered,   

“The culture industry could scarcely exist without adapting to the masses.”

           Nonetheless, the culture industry does not emerge from the masses and, in fact, encourages the masses to adapt to the ‘banal’ entertainment they present until they get used to it. Without high audience expectations, the industry does not have to work very hard. Despite making millions per film, the superhero film company Marvel comes under fire each release for poor VFX quality and reportedly pays its workers 20% less than other production companies (Vulture). Adorno expands in his essay that under late capitalism, the culture industry is the opposite of culture: it is not art; it is the systemic production of a cultural product. These products are thus infected with a ‘sameness’ that flattens audience sensibilities and pacifies the viewer. Kracauer believes that such banal entertainment is a coping mechanism for the worker and, therefore, doesn’t necessarily encourage deep critical thinking. It doesn’t take more than 3 Blackpink songs to recognise their unique but repetitive formula that draws a line through all their music. From its structure to its lyrics, Blackpink’s music has a manufactured sameness that works hard to excite the viewer and gain commercial success; in doing so, it does little to even feign an interest in artistry. 

           When examined through the 21st-century phenomenon of K-pop, the idea that industry must adapt to the masses to flourish starts to flounder. This idea is undermined starkly when one considers the popularity of K-pop, which does not seek to hide its manufactured, machine-made quality. One element which exemplifies this fact is its distinctive preparation process, where individuals as young as 8 years old are chosen to partake in a ‘trainee program’ over the span of an undefined number of years where they will be trained, militarily and rigorously, to become idols, with no actual promise of them successfully emerging into the industry afterwards. For those who are chosen, these idols are meticulously selected to debut in groups and often start their careers at the age of 14 to 21 (rarely older), during which time they live in one shared apartment to promote ‘cooperation’ and work up to 20 hours a day perfecting their music. Learning about this arrangement, much less seeing it showcased, should undoubtedly result in a sense of horror–– for the creative aspect of the music-making process has transformed into something akin to a labour chain or military enlistment. Nonetheless, these K-pop companies flaunt this process openly because the degradation of art into a commodity is something people have become so used to, perhaps because their tastes have been flattened. The industries “raise distraction to the level of culture; they are aimed at the masses” (Kracauer, 92). The dubiousness of art being a mere distraction is nullified since its commodification exists so palpably in all other aspects of culture that it seems standard for this music to be created the same way cars are. 

           This desensitization is amplified in DDU-DU DDU-DU, as the lyrics make little sense, and the song in totality lacks a semblance of artistic unity –– Whether you like me or hate me or whatever anyone says / When the bass drop, it’s another banger. The music video itself is, as Kracauer put it, “elegant surface splendour” (91). Every shot is astutely beautiful, with a stark contrast of colour that forms a larger palette which fits the feel of the song and works to make the girls look better. Yet, if one is able to ignore the overwhelming enchantment (with difficulty), one may notice that there is no rhyme nor reason for any of the shots–– except that they work together to look effortlessly good. Akin to the seamless ‘invisible style’ of Hollywood’s classical era, K-pop’s elements, from its videos to its stars, reflect an effortlessness that compels the viewer to ignore the labour put behind it. There isn’t a narrative nor a visual trajectory, but simply hollow, empty studio sets painted pink and black before which the girls sing along to the music on podiums in gorgeous outfits. During the chorus, they stand on a disembodied, floating grey stage in front of a blank background, and we never know why they are there, or why they are floating, or what any of it means. It is there, and nobody questions it because there is a mutual understanding between both the producers and the consumers that this is a simple, surface-level attraction that serves the rudimentary purpose of rousing the viewer. To expect more from the genre or from an industry driven by the motive of profit rather than creating art would be essentially worthless; it would also mean the viewer rids oneself of the complacency adopted after years of consuming banal entertainment. The consumers, therefore, adapt to what they are given and don’t ask too many questions.

           It is so easy to fall into this “cult of distraction” that, admittedly, I still find myself in it; when rewatching Blackpink’s video critically, I couldn’t help but feel both envy and awe at the production in front of me, viewing it less as a unified artistic entity but more as the commodity that it is. Does it bother me that what I’m viewing has been perfectly constructed by a corporation aiming to foster my feelings of enthralment? Not necessarily, because from a young age, I have accepted that fact as implicit in the genre of pop music. Popular music, meant for the masses, doesn’t need to be artistically ‘good’ to be culturally relevant. Through Billboard’s top 100 charts, Spotify streams, and TikTok popularity, modern pop music is judged by the masses through its numeric, rather than artistic, value. K-pop fans take this to an extreme with mass streaming parties and mass album purchases aimed at boosting their favourite artist to the top of these arbitrary lists. Undoubtedly, this benefits nobody but the music conglomerates. They encourage this cultic fanaticism by selling fan magazines and photocards, implementing a ‘no dating’ policy upon their idols, and promising fans a possible one-on-one call with their favourite idols by purchasing an album. Naturally, this results in mass purchases and thus, the line between the idol and their product is blurred. Thus, the quality of their music matters less than its possible impact on the cultural zeitgeist, monetarily and otherwise. It’s purpose is to be popular. The fabrication of art as a commodity is manifest in K-pop; we recognise its manufactured quality because it is put on display. Yet, we ignore it because we have inherently accepted its role in our world as mindless entertainment. We stand with our knees deep in the modern cult of distraction and accept what’s given to us; we eat the reheated flesh.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


Adorno, Theodor W., and J. M. Bernstein. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Routledge, 2001.

“BLACKPINK – ‘뚜두뚜두 (DDU-DU DDU-DU)’ M/V.” YouTube, 15 June 2018, https://youtu.be/IHNzOHi8sJs. Accessed 18 Jan. 2024.

Horkheimer, Max, et al. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2020.

Kracauer, Siegfried, and Thomas Y. Levin. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Lee, Chris. “Inside the VFX Union Brewing in Hollywood.” Vulture, Vulture, 13 Jan. 2023, www.vulture.com/2023/01/inside-the-vfx-union-brewing-in-hollywood.html?utm_medium=s1&utm_source=tw&utm_campaign=vulture. 

OECD (2024), Hours worked (indicator). doi: 10.1787/47be1c78-en (Accessed on 22 March 2024)

Vol. 5 (2024)