By Andy Meek

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un can angrily denounce K-pop as a “vicious cancer” all he wants. It’s not just that pop music has become one of the most beloved exports from his neighbor to the south, but the same holds true for pretty much the entirety of South Korean popular culture — everything from movies to music and TV shows, which have combined to form a staggeringly massive entertainment industry juggernaut, with few if any equals.

Netflix, for example, recognizes this and is currently pouring millions of dollars into funding new original Korean dramas and movies, like the newly released emotional masterpiece Move to Heaven, about a “trauma cleaner” and his uncle who pack up the belongings of people who’ve died and help their families to move on. All told, Netflix reportedly plans to spend half a billion dollars in 2021 on South Korean content, which also coincides with a moment that finds South Korean pop groups (like Blackpink and BTS) being among the biggest in the world. Those two groups, in particular, have millions of global fans and incomprehensibly massive audiences across social media — which might explain why the four members of Blackpink, in particular, got their own documentary treatment on Netflix, via their movie Light Up The Sky. Meanwhile, technology is also helping point toward a futuristic and potentially even more lucrative new chapter for Korean pop music. Case in point is the new K-pop group called Eternity, which recently made its debut via the song I’m Real, although this 11-member girl group is much different from anything else in the K-pop universe right now.

That’s because, with apologies to the message conveyed by Eternity’s debut song, the members are, in fact, not real. This new K-pop group, which is the product of AI graphics company Pulse 9, was created using deepfake technology to simulate hyper-realistic images of faux K-pop stars in the vein of some of the genre’s biggest female acts, a la Blackpink, Red Velvet, and Itzy.

“Unlike human singers,” Pulse 9 CEO Park Ji-eun told the South China Morning Post, “AI members can freely express themselves and weigh in on diverse social issues because they are less vulnerable to malicious comments and criticisms. As a creator, I can also add more fantastical and (impactful) elements to them, making them more distinguishable from existing K-pop acts.”

One of the things you’ll notice right off the bat when watching that music video is … well, let’s just say it’s not going to be winning any awards anytime soon for the quality of the song or the performance. Nevertheless, it iseasy to see the potential herein — how, with just a little more time, and even a small improvement in the technology, the singers in this video and the quality of the music could end up soon blowing you away. It’s almost there now. Okay, maybe not “almost,” but certainly in the ballpark.

The industry inadvertently got a taste of how all this might work last year, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Someone might ask themselves how feasible it is to think you could sustain any level of fandom with a group that can’t exactly perform in front of an audience — on account of the group, you know, not existing — nor engage with fans at meet-and-greets. But Blackpink, for example, showed how a group can chart a path around pesky limitations like those, Exhibit A being “The Show.” That was the virtual concert that Blackpink put on, without an audience present and with all participants adhering to rigorous health checks and coronavirus safety guidelines.

I have to say, all of this also reminds me of one of my favorite songs to play on Beat Saber, the track Pop/Stars from the fictional girl group K/DA. That group is an all-virtual act consisting of characters from the game League of Legends, who debuted their Pop/Stars single back in 2018. It is a ridiculously fun song to listen to — and to play Beat Saber to on my Oculus Quest 2 headset — and as of the time of this writing, the music video for Pop/Stars has garnered more than 444 million views on YouTube. So much for wondering whether or not a fake group can produce a hit. “When a game company makes better music than an actual music company …” marvels one fan in the comments section of the Pop/Stars YouTube video.