You’re ordering a cup of bubble milk tea in Taiwan as K-pop girl group Twice’s newest album blares from the speakers overhead. Your Russian friend uploads a video on YouTube of her joining a K-pop Random Dance Challenge in Public held in Vietnam. In commemoration of K-pop idol Kang Daniel’s birthday, American and Chinese fans alike together amassed thousands of dollars in order to get a picture of their idol proudly plastered on multiple digital billboards in New York Times Square. Just a few days ago, septet BTS became the first Korean act to be nominated for and to win the Top Duo/Group at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards, beating out tough competition from the likes of Imagine Dragons and Maroon 5.
K-pop is a shortened term for Korean popular music. In conjunction with cosmetics, TV dramas, and films—K-pop has remained one of South Korea’s salient cultural exports ever since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. The first wave of Hallyu—or Korean Wave—rippled across Asia from about 1997 to 2007. The second wave is now—and it is global. So, just how did a foreign music genre from a foreign country with a foreign language manage to skyrocket to an unprecedented success in a whole other foreign country, not to mention—all around the world?
As much as BTS contributed to the promotion of K-pop and Hallyu, the full eminence of such an astounding phenomenon cannot be entirely credited to the world-renowned boy group. In order to unearth the root of K-pop’s success, one must delve back into history to examine when, where, and how it all began in the first place. The genesis of Korean popular music left a trail that can be traced all the way back to 1885 when Henry Appenzellar, first Methodist missionary to Korea, entertained schoolchildren by singing American and British folksongs, replacing the original English lyrics with Korean. In 1945, after Korea’s liberation from Japan, Korean and Western culture shared more encounters through the U.S. troops that remained in the country even after the end of the Korean War. Gradually, American pop music started to seep into Korean mainstream society, with trot—Korea’s primary form of pop music—beginning to yield distinctive American style and taste. It was during this era that the earliest Korean pop stars emerged and stepped on stage.
When discussing K-pop’s genesis, most people are usually swift to mention The Kim Sisters. The trio—consisting of two sisters, Sookja and Aija, and their cousin, Minja—started their career by singing country songs for the U.S. troops in 1959, before leaving Korea to pursue a more professional music career in Las Vegas and eventually introducing Korean music to a huge, purely Western audience for the very first time. Another well-known act would be Cho Yongpil who people often referred to as the Michael Jackson of Korea.” He, like The Kim Sisters, also started out by singing for the U.S. troops. He managed to amass Korean, Japanese, and Western followers after releasing debut solo single “Come Back to Busan Port” in 1975.
However, the act that truly opened the door to the modern, beat-oriented, and choreographed era of the K-pop we know today was none other than Seo Taiji and Boys during the early 90’s. Smoothly following in the footsteps of the trio who had revolutionized the format of pop in Korea, idol groups such as H.O.T. (High-five of Teenagers) and S.E.S. (named for the members respectively known as Sea, Eugene, and Shoo) soon gained national fame and success after their debut.
Boy group H.O.T., girl group S.E.S. both shared one particular thing in common aside from their massive contributions to paving the path for future K-pop acts—they debuted under a label called SM Entertainment. Founded by Lee Sooman, SM Entertainment is universally accepted as the most successful and influential record label in South Korea. Crowned the title “Big Three,” SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment are recognized as the three companies spearheading the K-pop scene, producing dozens to hundreds of the most popular K-pop tracks within a year and setting much of the tempo in the Korean music industry. See, in K-pop culture, there is an extremely strong sense of belonging within each music agency. They are more than just a nametag, more than just a label, more than just a trademark—they are prominent brands that represent their artists in numerous ways including reputation, musicality, fashion, and character. When people think of SM, their lasting impressions are usually of the agency’s insistence on strictly controlling the diets, weights, and visuals of their trainees and idols. At the mention of YG, hip-hop and rapping immediately comes to mind, alongside the label’s reputation for prioritizing ability over attractiveness.
Unlike how American and other Western agencies work, K-pop agencies are essentially training camps that children and young adults will go and audition for to join, and where they will be evaluated and possibly eliminated on the basis of their appearance, aptitude, and ability. Some people—young children, especially—are even casted on the streets due to their outstanding attractiveness, without any regard for their level of skill or talent. After all, K-pop agencies are responsible for molding their trainees until they are seen fit to debut, and it is a process that can take months, years, or even an entire childhood—for there is no telling when and if a trainee will even be allowed to debut no matter how long they train.
With their commonly shared motto that “talent can be taught,” K-pop agencies like SM are just as controversial as they are successful. Time after time, SM has been criticized for its “slave contracts” that bind their artists to the company for a ridiculous number of years, for the grueling schedules and standards set for their trainees and artists, and for the vanishingly small percentage of an act’s total earnings actually going to the artists themselves. Not only have many trainees and idols alike left SM Entertainment after complaining of and some even suing the company for their questionable methods, several current SM artists have also openly expressed their discontent regarding their company’s way of functioning.
The suicide of Kim Jonghyun—member of one of SM’s boy groups SHINEE—in 2017 attracted more backlash from the public, drawing even more attention to cruel industry practices and serving more proof that K-pop is not as glamorous as fans prefer to imagine. Discovered young and then having to endure years of singing, dancing, and physique-shaping—K-pop stars are expected to be as flawless and talented as the term “K-pop idol” dictates them to be. However, no human can live up to such unrealistic standards that have caused many Korean trainees and idols alike to end up embracing extreme dieting practices, stress and anxiety disorders, and as mentioned—committing suicide. In the Korean society, culture, and entertainment industry, the concept of beauty is more or less associated with physical appearance. It is in such distinguishing aspects that the beauty and cultural standards of Korean society can seem frustratingly alien and unfamiliar to the West even after K-pop has succeeded in amassing a huge Western following.
Long before BTS started being nominated for Billboard awards and appearing on popular American talk shows, Korean agencies have already been cleverly planning their breakthrough into multiple music markets beyond Korea. SM is known for debuting groups consisting of at least one member who is either from a foreign country or who can speak a foreign language other than Korean. SM groups like EXO and f(x) have Chinese members in order to capitalize on the tantalizing promise of the Chinese music market. Nickhyun of JYP’s 2PM managed to attract Thai fans with his Thai nationality alongside his English speaking skills—and not to mention, he also has Chinese descent. SM’s newest boy group NCT holds more than six nationalities—Canada, America, Japan, to list a few—among its twenty-one members, successfully appealing to an astonishingly wide arrange of audiences from all across the world. While most American artists seldom need to worry about being active in different countries speaking different languages, or releasing separate albums and tours—it is a completely different case for K-pop idols, trying to forge and maintain stable stardom. After all, unlike English, Korean is not recognized as a global language.
It is also for this reason that people who are not K-pop fans often wonder why non-Koreans listen to K-pop when they cannot even understand nor speak the language. Firstly, music transcends language. It doesn’t take understanding one’s language to appreciate one’s voice. Furthermore, online questionnaires conducted in European countries such as Romania show that K-pop fans harbor a deeply emotional attachment to K-pop that goes beyond mere appreciation and enjoyment of musicality. The exciting choreographies and the insane amount of training spent perfecting them, the sincere sense of comradery and family within idol groups resulting from years spent training, performing, and living together, the intimate live video sessions K-pop idols often host at least once a month to communicate with their fans, the light sticks and fanchants representing every idol group that help shape a K-pop fandom’s identity and bond the fans together—these were common responses from the Romanians who had taken the survey, and their answers largely resonate with other fans from all across the world.
The essence of music itself has long ago fostered the glorious ability to transcend languages, cultures, traditions, and races. As the recorded existence of mankind has already progressed to the 21st century, one would expect people to be more accepting of foreign materials—but alas, the blade of discrimination remains ever the more razor-edged even as of today. From being jeered at for being “too girly” and “not masculine enough” and simply for being “too Asian”—K-pop artists have been at the center of many racists attacks, especially with their rising prominence in Western countries.
Just a few weeks ago, a real estate at Highline Residential angered fans of BTS and the Asian community by tweeting: “They look like kids. How old are they? Are Asian women even attracted to their own men?” Fortunately, his company responded with an apology and the announcement that he has been fired for his racists remark. Another case happened in January during which a Greek TV program was responding to TC Candler’s 100 Most Handsome Faces of 2018. In response to seeing many K-pop artists such as BTS and Wanna One landing positions on the list, the Greek hosts showed unprofessionalism and rudeness as they questioned whether they were men or not, whether they were Chinese or Korean, and even calling all of them Asian lookalikes. Alas, such discriminatory comments and behaviors are not uncommon and need not be heeded to as long as fans of K-pop continue to support their idols.
In spite of the fact that many people—especially from Western countries—remain stubbornly doubtful that K-pop artists will ever manage to earn the same level of global recognition and following that Western artists lap up, nobody can deny that K-pop has already made a major breakthrough into the American music market—a billion-dollar global music industry that only a small handful of foreign artists have managed to set foot in.
At the moment, NCT 127 is on the move overseas with twelve concerts planned across eleven cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, marking the most North American cities any Korean boy group has ever toured. On April 12th, Blackpink became the first female Korean act to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—one of the biggest music festival in the world—with YouTube broadcasting their stage live in Times Square and popular English singer Dua Lipa joining them to perform their collaboration song. BTS’s latest album was just recently announced to be the best-selling 2019-released album in America, making them the first group since the Beatles to earn three chart-topping albums in one single year.
While the American language, culture, and music have since long ago become familiar to countless people from across the globe, the Korean wave is a never-before-seen phenomenon just beginning to embark on a path towards international recognition and success. This is the genesis of a brand new era, and we are all watching it unfold before our very eyes.
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