What the hell are AI K-pop stars anyway?

And are we there yet?

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Since 2021, the rise of AI K-pop stars has been widely touted, and I’ve been covering it with casual interest and even spoken with some of the artists, though to be honest I don’t necessarily think I’m the target audience for virtual K-pop stars.

I also think I’m too pedantic, because I’m baffled by the wide-ranging terminology being thrown around for what is predominantly, if not entirely, face-swap and voice-modulation software.

At KCON this year, I got to “see” virtual boy band PLAVE perform on-screens without being there on stage. It was an experience, and I found it lacking as a realtime event, since there was just an empty stage.

That’s not to mean others didn’t enjoy, or performances won’t be enhanced over time, but since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how K-pop’s current batch of virtual artists are being touted and branded as this otherworldly, super-advanced digital, AI creations when we’re not really there yet.

Virtually-rendered stars utilizing artificial intelligence technologies, yes. Wholly functioning artificial talents? Not quite.

In a recent CNN story covering it, it was laid out very straightforward:

With the help of real-time face-swapping technology and an AI-generated voice, Zae-in [of virtual girl group Eternity] is played by 10 different people, including actors, singers and dancers, who lend their talents to her avatar as needed. In one video posted on Zae-in’s Instagram account, for example, she deftly rides a longboard beside Seoul’s Han River. For the video, her creators filmed the stunt with a stand-in whose face was later swapped out for Zae-in.

“There is the pop music Zae-in, actress Zae-in, reporter Zae-in,” the virtual star told CNN in a Zoom interview, during which she was played by an actor (though Pulse9 said that its AI software can recreate Zae-in’s voice and generate speech without human input). “Various Zae-ins exist, so our unique advantage is that we can do what one person cannot.”

The piece, by Jake Kwon and Ivan Watson, is pretty straightforward in the current limitations of these virtual creations, which do have some AI elements but I feel like are being widely blown out of proportion in many regards when it comes down to conversations about virtual stars replacing real ones.

For one thing, I don’t think that will ever truly happen. I’ve compared it before to live action content still existing despite the popularity of animation. Humanity will always crave the human connection in art, as removed as things are between K-pop fans and artists.

For the second thing, I think that most of these tech companies targeting K-pop fans don’t really realize how much the nuances of personhood is what draws people to a specific K-pop star or another. If only pretty faces and talent mattered, K-pop stars wouldn’t constantly be releasing their own content showing off themselves and their lives, albeit through media-trained lenses. Anyone who is really set on this, knows that, and that’s being relayed, but at the moment AI advances aren’t there and we know there are limitations on generative response technology, like Chat GPT faking information. Even in the future, some researchers think we’ll never be able to exist in a wholly AI-generated ecosystem.

We are seeing some major interest though already, so there’s clearly an audience, with music videos by many of these groups racking up millions of views.

I’m not an AI or even tech reporter, so I’m probably missing out on some nuances, but I think from a cultural reporter I’m writing this today because I’m a little tired of having all these conversations explaining that No, we are not seeing non-human K-pop stars. At least not yet.

What I’m working on

Feeling a bit like a failure, to be honest, since I haven’t published any stories aside from this newsletter in a few weeks, which I think is the longest I’ve gone in years without publishing something. There’s a lot going on in the industry, and I just finished up Jewish holiday season when I spent a lot of time MIA, but in general things are tough so going to be thinking of some projects to try and hit reset on my writing and creativity.

One way I think I’m going to try is reviewing old albums or doing deep dives into discography, so if you have anything you’d like to see, please let me know. I’m also figuring a way to get back into Tiktoking, which I dropped after I got burned out by having to get dressed and do my makeup everyday, versus my tee/sweatshirt and leggings combo when I’m working from home.

Also am contemplating signing up for some writing courses, since I’ve been out of school for years and maybe it’s time to get back to learning, so if you have any favorite writing instructors please do let me know!

What I’m listening to

NCT 127’s Fact Check album. I’m still digesting it, but at the moment my favorite songs are “Parade” and “Misty.” The first song has not only really cool production and showcases some of the hip-hop flavor of 127, but it feels a bit cheeky in how it seems to question listeners if they know what they’re in for while listening to NCT. I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it feels like an anthem to the “Neo” style of music that the overall NCT groups, and specifically NCT 127, have focused on throughout their career, with music that is meant to be exciting and change things up.

“Misty” is a very classic power ballad from the group in line, with some extraordinarily sexy, groovy instrumentals laying beneath the acts’ lyrical poignancy. In general, it feels like a well-rounded album that I’m enjoying, and I’m particularly pleased to hear them utilizing Yuta and Johnny’s vocals better.

Relatedly, I was heavily entertained by “Fact Check” dropping the same day IVE released a song called “Off The Record.” Finally, a release day for us journalists!

My longtime faves 2am also recently were featured on dingo music’s Killing Voice, and the World of Tamar rejoiced at hearing them perform “I Was Wrong” in 2023. When the song came out in 2010, I felt like the only person who really loved it, and it was the last time 2am ever tried to promote a dance song, so I’m very pleased to see them still giving it some time in the spotlight amid all their ballads.

What I’m reading

I was scrolling, and feeling nauseated by, a visual data analysis from  about how many of the Top 5 of Billboard Hot 100’s songs, ever, were written by women. Not just wholly by women, but featuring women. It was bleak. And I feel pretty depressed about this, but hopefully future generations can change things.

I got into a different set of uncomfortable feelings while reading ’s recent piece on falling out of love, at least on a visibly emotional level, with musical acts. As someone who has written about my perpetual struggle to sort out my emotions and express freely, or not ,y passion for artists I love, it got me doing some thinking.

Also, had an engaging, but kinda eye-roll-inducing, read from whynow about boy bands, because a) I don’t really agree with the thesis that boy bands were ever “cool” per say, and b) there are still many boy bands around, just not in the British music industry. It was still a good overview and perspective, despite the limitations.