Last weekend proved to be K-pop’s biggest-ever week in America, as two of K-pop’s largest groups claimed notable firsts for Korea. BTS became the first-ever Korean act to perform on Saturday Night Live, while on the West Coast, girl group BLACKPINK performed at Coachella. And it’s not just primetime television or concert events that K-pop is conquering. NCT 127 became just the third-ever Korean act to perform on Good Morning America.
To add to that list of burgeoning achievements, K-pop groups are conquering America left, right and center. In just 2019 alone, other than BTS and BLACKPINK, equally popular groups like Monsta X, TWICE and Red Velvet, who performed in Pyongyang, will be touring across North America. Other younger groups like Oh My Girl, MXM, ATEEZ, TXT and Stray Kidz will be hitting, or have already hit, America’s shores.
However, to suddenly attribute the rise of K-pop to just the last few years does not do justice to the entire story of K-pop and the Korean wave, as these groups were not the first to attempt to penetrate the American market. Pop culture observers will be familiar with Rain’s breakthrough performance in the film “Ninja Assassin” (2009) and PSY’s 2012 hit, “Gangnam Style.” Acts such as Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation have performed English renditions of their hit songs on various American TV shows, such as the “Wendy Williams Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman” respectively, while others such as BoA and CL have previously attempted to break into the market with mixed success.
K-pop is also highly international in its approach. Many K-pop groups consist of members from outside of Korea, such as China, Japan and Thailand. Many performing artists around the world also sought to collaborate with K-pop artists. Artists such as John Legend, Steve Aoki, Far East Movement, Snoop Dogg, The Chainsmokers and of course, in BTS’ latest single, “Boy With Luv” (2019), Halsey, have collaborated with various K-pop artists such as Red Velvet’s Wendy, EXO’s Chanyeol and PSY. This work is not limited to anglophones. Two years ago, Super Junior released a Latin pop track, “Lo Siento” (2017) with Leslie Grace, and then doubled down with “Otra Vez” (2018) with REIK.
In fact, one might even say that America is late to the game at recognizing the phenomenon that is K-pop. To the rest of the world, K-pop has been an international phenomenon for a pretty long time, for reasons that perhaps America is just now becoming aware of.
For many fans, a key reason why K-pop resonates with them is due to the intimacy of fan connection. Many K-pop groups have internet fan cafes that allow artists to interact with their fans. The popularity of apps such as V Live, also gives artists opportunities to perform livestreams and connect with their fans in a much more informal and intimate setting. Their appearance on variety shows, whether on national television or company-sanctioned variety shows, also allows fans an insight to the lives of their artists. Korean-American K-pop star Eric Nam has even recently released a K-pop podcast. All this culminates in K-pop’s following on social media platforms, as evidenced by how three K-pop groups — BTS, EXO and GOT7 — are nominated for Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards this year.
This level of fan intimacy is also seen in the strong presence of ‘fandoms’ across the K-pop universe. Fandoms like BTS’ ARMY, EXO’s EXO-L, BLACKPINK’s BLINKS and TWICE’s ONCE provide individual fans with a community to interact with like-minded peers. Fandoms also often contribute to the development of knowledge of K-pop outside the K-pop universe, through their content creation and discussions they have on various social media platforms. The rise of social media and content creation platforms have allowed for K-pop to spread to many fans worldwide, driving fans to push for their favorite acts to trend on Twitter or to be heard more frequently on American radio. Outside of the K-pop universe, fans also donate in their idol’s names for charitable causes, further elevating the status of K-pop on the social stage. Through these various actions, it is safe to say that fans play an integral role in raising the profile of the groups they support worldwide.
Yet perhaps the simple reason for why fans across the world love K-pop artists is for the most fundamental reason of them all: their ability to sing, dance and perform. K-pop songs are often described as “catchy,” and barring language differences, they share many similarities with what American listeners are familiar with. Furthermore, almost every K-pop song features “fan chants,” allowing fans to feel like they are part of the performance as they chant a reply in their groups’ various songs.
What is less talked about is the ability of K-pop artists themselves, in part due to the “‘manufactured’ discourse that has previously prevailed in Western discourse on K-pop. Admittedly, while there are a number of K-pop artists who are discovered through survival programs like “American Idol,” many have been selected through auditions run by entertainment companies and have received years of training on many fronts. While this is a key aspect that generally differentiates K-pop from the rest of the music industry, it should in no way discredit their abilities. Almost every K-pop group has talented vocalists, dancers and rappers that can capture the listener’s or crowd’s imagination. The K-pop universe is also home to many singer-songwriters such as Big Bang’s G-Dragon and Taeyang, BTS’ RM and Suga, IU and Block B’s Zico. The producers’ abilities and willingness to take on society and reflect on their own personal experiences through their lyricism adds an additional layer of connection with their fans through the music.
It is of course, hard to separate the music from its performance. Many K-pop dances also have a “point,” a dance that accompanies the song and allows fans to quickly identify with and connect to the music, and group, by simply being able to repeat that “point move.” Many groups have combined talented vocal performance with equally smooth and well-choreographed dances, executed to sheer perfection. Take for example, EXO’s “Growl” (2013), “Wolf” (2013), “Monster” (2016) as well as their latest release “Love Shot” (2018), which feature smooth vocals with equally memorable and powerful moves that ultimately make their performances and the group extremely popular.
K-pop has often been plagued with accusations of being too manufactured with its perfect choreography, rigid and demanding training and scouting, and allegations of artists having undergone plastic surgery. To describe and dismiss K-pop fans simply as crazed teenage girls is also fundamentally inaccurate and problematic. Ultimately, such descriptions are unhelpful in understanding K-pop’s appeal worldwide. K-pop’s success in America comes at a time when Hollywood calls for more diverse representation across its screens. America’s major media outlets and entertainment industries have sought to answer this call as K-pop arrives in the U.S. As it goes through the airwaves, social media and video-sharing platforms, perhaps America will continue to see just why, despite the language barriers, the rest of the world appreciates the international phenomenon that is the talent of the K-pop universe.