As of November 2019, 27 years after its birth by a trio called Seo Taiji And Boys (the first Korean act to meld American hip-hop to their own brand of pop and cultural commentary), K-Pop has shifted from being niche in the west to become a genuine cultural presence, an influence and, for some industry moguls, a threat.
BTS and SuperM’s albums, both having hit Number One, remain on the Billboard 200. Nearly two-dozen K-Pop groups have undertaken world tours in the past 11 months. In 2018, there were 5.3 billion tweets about K-Pop, a number likely to be beaten when Twitter releases its 2019 statistics.
Blackpink (who wowed at Coachella) have become the first K-Pop group to hit one billion views on YouTube with their 2018 hit, ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’. BTS took out the competition for Best Duo/Group at both the Billboard Music Awards and American Music Awards, scooping four awards in total.
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If you’re unfamiliar with K-Pop, let’s get this out of the way: it’s not a genre. It’s a music industry, which incorporates numerous genres, from EDM to hip-hop to reggae. K-Pop is short for Korean pop, but not all Korean pop is K-Pop. The term is primarily attached to idol groups, whose synchronized dancing and genre-bending songs have turned K-Pop into a multi-billion-dollar-earning soft power.
For most westerners, their first introduction to K-Pop was via PSY’s 2012 ‘Gangnam Style’, which became the first video to hit one billion views on YouTube. But just before the turn of the decade, K-Pop, having succeeded across Asia, was already looking to America and, thanks to the Internet, they had a toe through the door.
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In 2008, JYP’s five-piece group Wonder Girls released the breathy, sparkling ‘Nobody’, a mega-hit in South Korea, which was re-released in English when they supported The Jonas Brothers on their 2009 US tour. It charted at 76 on Billboard’s Hot 100, a first for a Korean act.
A 20-date headline tour followed in 2010, then the English language track ‘Like Money (ft. Akon)’ dropped in July 2012, but further plans were shelved, ostensibly due to changes within the group, although it was clear their popularity in Korea was being usurped in their absence while they struggled in the US.
Girls’ Generation, who debuted in Korea in 2007 and would become one of K-Pop’s legendary groups, signed with US label Interscope and their crack at the market was with a critically well-received English version of their hit ‘The Boys’ in late-2011, which failed to place outside of Billboard’s specialist charts.
Around the same time, YG Entertainment’s five-member boy group, Big Bang, were being awarded Best Worldwide Act (Asia and Pacific) at 2011’s MTV EMA’s, would chart twice in the US with albums ‘Alive’ and ‘Made’, and do two enormous, successful world tours. Big Bang were doing things a little differently; group leader G-Dragon (Kwon Jiyong) was their primary songwriter whereas other idols were simply given their songs. They eschewed matching outfits in favour of high fashion and streetwear, catching the eye of the international fashion press, and favoured a wilder visual edge, as seen on their classic banger, ‘Fantastic Baby’.
Big Bang’s influential four-member sister group, 2NE1, had the same kind of go-big-or-go-home attitude. Embodying the ‘girl crush’ concept - K-Pop’s electro-heavy answer to the feisty independence demonstrated by the likes of Destiny’s Child - they too had accrued a large western fandom by their peak in 2013.
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The year of ‘Gangnam Style’ - 2012 - was a tent pole moment, yet not without problems. Though bitingly satirical pop, PSY’s monster hit was earmarked by the West as a novelty song, the epitome of ‘weird Asia’ and idol groups were swiftly placed into the same bucket as an exotic curiosity.
K-Pop’s process - trainees moulded into flawless popstars seemingly with no creative control nor mind of their own - troubled western critics, who deemed them inauthentic and manufactured, conveniently overlooking their own rich history of cookie cutter pop dolls such as Britney, or carefully pieced together human puzzles like the One Direction, NKOTB and the Backstreet Boys.
Even in 2019, there continues to be a glut of opinion pieces around the “dark side of K-Pop” (its gruelling schedules, pursuit of physical perfection and lack of mental health support), demonising an industry that’s no better or worse than the west’s record of sexual assault, misogyny, drug abuse and cast aside artists.
Though a new path had been struck for and by Korean acts, the big breakthrough predicted never came. For one, no one could actually stay on course. G-Dragon’s creative block and his conscription (every South Korean male must do two years of military service) halted Big Bang after 2014. Girls’ Generation returned their focus to Asia. For 2NE1, 2014’s prescription drug scandal around member Park Bom put the group on hiatus, then into disbandment.
Even a fresh generation of idols such as B.A.P (debuting in 2012) and Block B (2011), who won international fans with their harder edged sound, had their trajectories blighted by lawsuits with their labels.
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BTS, created by Big Hit Entertainment, had begun in a similar sounding vein to B.A.P and Block B in 2013, focusing their lyrics on cultural and social issues.
But with limited success, they changed direction - adopting urgent clattering elements of trap (‘I Need U’, ‘Bapsae’), sax-drenched hooks (‘DOPE’) - on their 2015, two-part album ‘The Most Beautiful Moment in Life’, building a story-led visual universe where their characters, parallel-dimension versions of themselves, faced the trials of youth reflected in their lyrics. They were, and continue to be, the most social media savvy of their peers. Like Big Bang, they did away with K-Pop’s propensity for identikit costumes, and highlighting them as individuals made it far easier to connect to them as a group.
BTS’ approach to content was also key. Although idols regularly appear on Korean variety television and make their own heavily scripted reality shows to keep fans engaged, BTS’ short, fly-on-the-wall videos allowed for the members - particularly rappers Suga, J-hope and RM - to show their creative input into the group’s music, removing K-Pop’s perfectionist shield to reveal their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, and creating a fan-bond rooted in an authentic reality.
Their success in Korea from 2015 created a ripple effect of interest into the west that became waves, then a tsunami. Many have pointed to K-Pop’s early failures to crossover as a combination of language barriers, bad timing and cultural closed-mindedness. Although the latter two undoubtedly played a part, BTS, revelled in their Koreanness yet still succeeded.
Ultimately, there is no singular factor in their global success but, simply put, by combining charm, talent and intelligence with powerfully emotive songs, there’s no need to understand Korean in order to embrace that.
The seven-piece have opened more doors than any other Korean act, but while BTS don’t have a serious Korean competitor in the west, idol groups are finding more international popularity than ever before. These include the self-producing Seventeen and Stray Kids, Blackpink, EXO, and Red Velvet, who have earned international praise for their lavish, trend-setting videos and genre-defying songs.
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Truthfully, K-Pop’s ascension from Internet corner to bona fide phenomenon won’t be simple going forward. Spurred by BTS’ success, Korean agencies have turned their attention west once more, looking for ways to get in front of the American general public. Signing US label deals is becoming commonplace: NCT are with Capitol, MONSTA X with Epic, ATEEZ with RCA, Blackpink with Interscope, TXT with Republic, and JYP Entertainment signed a global distribution deal with The Orchard.
Not everyone is keen to embrace this cultural levelling of music. Simon Cowell, creator of One Direction and Little Mix, announced in early-November that “K-Pop is arguably ruling the world. Now it’s time for UK-pop.” His intention for X Factor: The Band to create a rival to BTS and turn the pop world white again smacks of gross colonialism, but the idea of bottling lightning on demand, and for a perfectly receptive audience, is adjacent to an emerging issue for both US and Korean labels.
In wanting the prestige and dollars of American success, some Korean labels are diluting K-Pop - whether with English language songs or formulaic ideas - from what drew fans in the first place: its exciting, risky juxtaposition to western pop. And, in turn, western labels, eager to cash in, neither appear to understand what makes K-Pop unique nor how to deliver it to audiences still unfamiliar.
The sad irony of this marketing push is that K-Pop’s western growth has been entirely organic. And every deliberate attempt at western success has shown you cannot shove K-Pop down the gullet of the masses; to create a relationship with K-Pop they must find it, thrill in the discovery of it and fall in love on their own terms.
The feeling, however, is that the K-Pop industry believes this is no longer affordable nor satisfactory, as if there’s a timer switch on its global spotlight. Inevitably, as the new decade begins, we’ll see a new chapter of K-Pop where there’s an art-versus-commerce tug-of-war and, as the hugely influential BTS begin their military duties (eldest, Jin, is due to enlist in 2020), the industry’s aspirations and strategies will also alter.
What may well see its CEOs through this transition is one simple reminder: K-Pop companies build castles, but fans build empires.
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Words: Taylor Glasby
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