By Courtney Suciu
In February 2019, music history was made when the boy band BTS became the first Korean pop (K-pop) group to present at the American Grammy Awards.
The appearance indicated that the mainstream is finally catching up with millions around the world who have been growing the K-pop fanbase for decades.
So, what is K-pop and why has it become such a global phenomenon? It turns out, the skyrocketing international popularity of the genre reveals much about issues of identity, inclusion and aspiration among young people, as well as the impact of globalization in the music industry.
And, in many ways K-pop represents the future of popular music. It looks like it’s here to stay.
The simplest answer is that K-pop is popular music that comes out of South Korea. But this definition is misleading. It’s more accurate to say that K-pop is a complex fusion of numerous influences, and its significance varies depending on who you ask. From fans to scholars, the genre means many different things to many different people.
In his book The Korean Music Revolution1, Mark James Russell wrote, “At first glance, the beats and dancing and videos look familiar, much like a variation of American pop music. But the more you look, the more you listen, the more differences you notice.”
He traced the origin of K-pop to the early 1990s and a Korean hip-hop group featuring Seo Taiji and dancers Yang Hyun-Suk and Lee Juno. Influenced by a “jumble of musical ideas,” the group baffled older generations with energetic sounds and moves. But young people went crazy for it, and the entertainment industry noticed.
According to Russell, Soo-Man Lee, a popular singer in the 1970s, realized that budding artists inspired by Seo Taiji and the Boys “needed to learn much more than just singing and dancing. They needed a range of skills, such as humility, attitude, language and the ability to deal with the media.” So Lee founded SM Entertainment, one of the “big three” Korean pop music labels and developed a “rigorous training system designed to create young stars.”
Numerous auditions are held throughout the year in the search for the next big Korean pop idols – and not just in Korea - increasingly auditions are also held in countries such as the U.S., Australia and Canada. For the performers who get selected in this process, it’s just the beginning of a long, intense road to becoming a star. Russell said it takes more than four years of training to even have a shot at fame.
During training, aspiring performers live in dormitories near the studio, and spend long days learning to sing, dance, speak multiple languages and act like stars. “It can be a fiercely competitive environment,” Russell wrote. And expensive. Room, board, clothing, lessons, transportation and other needs are estimated to cost labels about $100,000 per year for each trainee.
K-Pop performers are also discouraged from dating. The author noted that K-pop “idols are presented to fans as a kind of virtual boyfriend or girlfriend, so relationships ruin the illusion.”
From this perspective, it might be hard to understand the appeal of K-pop. The training process can seem dehumanizing and the music has been criticized as formulaic and overly commercial. Young K-pop hopefuls are sometimes vulnerable to exploitation, Russell acknowledged – the often-wholesome image of K-pop has recently been blighted with scandals involving sexual, verbal and physical abuse incidents and allegations.
So, what is the appeal of K-pop?
In the documentary How We Imagine Ourselves: K-pop, Fandom and Identity2, former K-pop trainee Ed Kang explained how the genre helped him feel more connected to Korean culture and his Korean ethnicity.
For Kang, a student at University of Southern California (USC) who moved from South Korea to Canada as a child, K-pop seemed like an avenue to pursue his own music. He thought, "You've got to do the mainstream stuff first and then get your name out there and then you could do your own music."
Though Kang decided that the training process was not compatible with his creative ambitions, the genre still resonated with his sense of identity and made him feel connected with the Korean diaspora.
“I identify with being Korean a lot more than being Canadian even though I lived in Canada a lot longer,” he explained. “I think it's a common thing among Koreans for this to happen. There seems to be like this uncanny tie that every Korean, whether you're Korean-Canadian, Korean-American, feels to their home country.”
As a global digital music phenomenon, K-pop is essentially available to anyone anywhere with access to a music streaming service like YouTube or Apple Music. This means, as Kang pointed out, that K-pop can be a way to bring together members of the international Korean community, even as they are spread all over the world.
But K-pop also provides a sense of identity and inclusion for people who are not of Korean descent. Tia Johnson, also a student at USC interviewed in the documentary, remembered her first K-pop concert in Anaheim, California, where she overheard someone wondering about the largely white audience. Initially she was offended by the suggestion, but then came to understand his confusion.
“I think he just did not understand why K-pop was appealing to people who did not speak the language and were coming to a concert where they couldn't understand the lyrics of the music,” she recalled. “He didn't realize how [K-pop] can resonate with someone across this lingual barrier.”
Johnson said she became a fan of K-pop during a bout with depression her Freshmen year:
It would have just been a really lonely and sad time for me and then my mom shows me this music video that's nothing but bubbly, and peppy, and happy, and it just made me feel good and I kinda like started to self-medicate with K-pop and it was… it was really important to me.
Being a K-pop fan helped Johnson discover a sense of belonging with other fans. She’d recognize someone wearing a K-pop t-shirt or hear them talking about the music and she’d feel “an instant comradery. And I'd never had that before really.”
While K-pop helped Kang and Johnson find a place where they felt like they belong, for other fans the genre represents an aspirational lifestyle.
In his article “Development and Dream: On the Dynamics of K-pop in Brazil,”3 scholar Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri explored the relationship between the popularity of the genre with the desire for upward social mobility.
Regatieri conducted a survey through online Brazilian K-pop websites where the majority of respondents indicated they discovered K-pop through streaming videos, were females between the ages of 16-25 and were from lower income or lower-middle class families.
“Besides consuming Korean audiovisual products, Korea became a goal for these fans,” he observed. A high percentage of survey-takers expressed that, in addition to being fans of K-pop music, they were interested in learning the Korean language and studying or working in Korea.
For Regatieri, this desire to relocate to Korea suggests that for young people in developing countries like Brazil, the music and images found in K-pop videos represent an “idealized society” – a “celebration of consumption and glamour taking place in a dreamlike atmosphere” of fashion and beauty that they wished to emulate.
In other words, in parts of the world where socio-economic upward mobility might be limited, “K-pop’s world is evocative and celebrative of the successful and rapid modernization of South Korea and its present affluent lifestyle.”
But hasn’t this always been true of Western popular music, as well? That it presents an ideal of modern beauty, riches, glamour and romance that most of us will never actually achieve?
Some critics of K-pop suggest the genre has been inspired by Western pop culture standards – beauty and consumerism as well as music and dance styles like hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll – which have been packaged as Korean content and simply sold back to the world, resulting in a homogenized (and Westernized) mass culture based on a fantasy.
But his dissertation, De-Nationalization and the Re-Nationalization of Culture: The Globalization of K-pop4, Gyu Tag Lee rejected such a criticism as diminishing audiences to simply “passive consumers.”
Rather, Lee argued, the K-pop phenomenon – and K-pop fans – are more complex than that.
While it is clear K-pop exhibits the influence of Western pop music, what does that mean? Especially when taking into consideration that Western culture is far from monolithic, but rather dynamic and pluralistic?
As Lee pointed out, “Western (or American) popular music has continued to combine elements of musical traditions drawn from elsewhere, often due to histories of migration and diaspora.”
In the digital age where people are more easily exposed to various musical traditions and communities, we should expect that elements of popular music will become even more intermingled, but, Lee insisted, not homogenous.
Rather, he noted, “much local popular music is the result of complex reinterpretation of imported styles and technologies.”
That is, elements of global popular music influence regional musical traditions, and it’s the regional influences that give music its unique local flavor – which, in turn, influences the music of other regions.
As a result, Lee wrote, “globalization of K-pop is a new kind of phenomenon,” dependent on our increasingly interconnected world. “K-pop is definitely Korean pop music,” he observed, “but it is also a kind of transnational hybrid music that refers to other global popular music in various ways.”
Rather than creating a mass culture, K-pop demonstrates how the globalization of music “promotes the meeting of musical cultures, while simultaneously encouraging regional differences.”
From this perspective, it’s easy to understand why K-pop appeals to such a broad audience that includes people like Kang who belong to the Korean diaspora, as well as fans like Johnson and others around the world who do not, but still find comfort in its bright, catchy melodies and aspire to its glamorous aesthetic.
Given the genre’s ever-increasing popularity among such diverse populations, some predict it won’t be long before K-pop acts like BTS aren’t only presenting Grammys but winning them.
For further research
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu