Everyone seems to have an opinion on the notorious topic of the Korean pop that has taken over our playlists recently - and it doesn’t seem like people are going to get bored with it anytime soon. Many seem to hate it, not only because they can’t understand the lyrics but because everyone seems to be talking nonstop about BTS and EXO and many other Korean bands, and it’s understandable why - K-Pop is like nothing we’ve seen before.
The genre has only risen to the spotlight in recent years but it has been around since 1992 when it spiked other East Asian countries’ interest in South Korea, therefore initiating the Hallyu (한류), a period of time where South Korean culture went global. The term Hallyu quite literally translates to ‘Korean wave’ or ‘Korean flow’. The Korean wave was driven by the beloved K-Dramas and the spread of YouTube where K-Pop music videos were posted which caused not only Koreans to listen but caused people across all parts of Asia to become obsessed with them. Inevitably, it reached us here, all the way across the world.
I personally believe that the song that truly kicked off Korean pop globally was PSY’s Gangnam Style that currently holds over three billion views on YouTube and that we’ve all probably listened to multiple times whether we like it or not. Many do not know that, in fact, this song is in Korean for a majority of it. This song gave global access to many other groups such as BIGBANG, who were active since 2006 but came to fame in 2012 along with PSY due to their popular and upbeat Fantastic Baby which features a music video with a very odd theme that could even rival the strangeness of the song.
We see that, as the music and TV aspect of the country rises, people take interest in the culture and history and so South Korea’s Seoul becomes a favourite tourist attraction. Fans like to visit the hometowns of their favourite K-Pop idols so Busan in the province of South Gyeongsang and Daegu in North Gyeongsang produce some of the largest tourist incomes in the world.
These entertainment industries spread the popularity of the country and practically fund the country’s extensive resources: In 2003, the number of international visitors that arrived in South Korea was 4,752,762 while in 2016 (in time with the release of BTS’s Wings album) it rose to 17,241,823. That is 12,489,061 more tourists. One is bound to think that the sudden spike in interest for the culture is what has brought so many people from around the world to beautiful South Korea. The growing popularity of the South Korean culture around the world has prompted the government to support its creative industries and so, with larger funding, they become even more marketed and elaborate.
So what is this BTS I keep mentioning? The answer is simply: A Korean pop band. That’s essentially what they are, a group of seven Korean men who sing, rap and dance. Yet in addition to that, they’ve attended the Grammys, they have won 20 daesangs, their stadium tour tickets sold out in mere minutes and they have a very big fanbase called the ARMY that consists of millions of people across the world.
BTS stands for Bangtan Sonyeondan which translates to Bulletproof Boy-Scouts. The band consists of Kim Namjoon (RM), Kim Seokjin (Jin), Min Yoongi (Suga), Jung Hoseok (J-Hope), Park Jimin (Jimin), Kim Taehyung (V) and Jeon Jungkook (Jungkook). . BTS is not signed with one of The Big Three* but are managed by BigHit Entertainment - a music label that was very small when the group debuted but that took off sharply shortly after BTS’ debut and that, with their new boy band called TXT that will debut soon, threatens to make ‘The Big Three’ into ‘The Big Four’. For comparison: One Direction’s studio album Made in the A.M. sold 2.4 million copies in 2015, one of BTS’s latest albums called Love Yourself: Tear sold 1.44 million copies only in the six-day pre-order period.
BTS took off globally with the release of their second studio album titled Wings which didn’t portray the classic cute bubblegum concept that many groups take on, such as Red Velvet or NCT Dream. Bangtan became one of the first K-Pop groups to talk about mental health in their colourful and catchy music, they’ve made songs in their debut years like N.O that brings to light the restriction young people feel imposed to. Their successful attempt at normalizing real-world issues in the Korean entertainment industry has attracted many fans and it’s one of the reasons why they are so famous.
The western music industry was revolutionized by Korean pop when these groups came into the American scene, with high-production music videos and audiences ranging from ages 10 - 60. The west was struck by a wave of East Asian entertainment, not only coming from K-Pop but predominantly being from South Korea with the Hallyu, China with its TV dramas and Japan with the infamous anime. It is to be noted that the members of these groups can work up to 20 hours a day and it shows in their insanely intricate choreographies and music videos that intrigue fans with enigmatic plot lines and keep them on edge for their next song: a brilliant marketing technique. Now, non-Korean music record labels such as Sony are putting more of a budget into the promotion of their artists and training them to have a stronger stage presence at award ceremonies, concerts, etc. If you suddenly see your favourite artist’s choreographies getting more elaborate, K-Pop may be the reason.
Once you listen to K-Pop, you’ll get stuck in a spiral of Korean entertainment. Western music record labels tend to spend all their budget on the actual song production but back in South Korea, budget goes towards production, choreography, visual concepts and majorly, music videos and so, when you see the Korean eccentric style of music and fashion and their dizzying dances, listening to Taylor Swift just doesn’t seem as entertaining.
So I encourage you to take a dive into this music genre that you can’t escape from even if you want to. You may find you do like it and it certainly will make you intrigued. Once you listen to a ONEUS or a G-Dragon song, it will take you right into the world of Korean pop and culture and you may even indulge in a drama or two - but beware, K-Dramas almost always end in cliffhangers.
*The Big Three: The nickname given to the three most popular music record labels in the Korean entertainment industry: JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment.