CUMAH M. HOLT
The Global Success of Kpop
If you have kept up with American pop culture in the past 3 years, you have probably heard of BTS. The seven member boy band has been shattering international records since they first debuted in 2013. They were the first band since the Beatles to have 3 Billboard Number 1 songs in a year, they have the most viewed music video in 24 hours, and they had the most liked tweet of 2018. These accomplishments would be remarkable no matter what, but what makes them even more astonishing is that BTS is a band from South Korea. All seven members were born and raised there, and the majority of their songs are sung in Korean, a language only spoken by 1% of the world’s population. Despite the language barrier, they have built an insanely large international fanbase, and have had multiple world tours throughout their career. BTS are not the only ones doing it, either. Other Korean pop artists, or "Kpop" artists, have sold out concert venues across the globe. KCON, an annual Kpop convention, had 103,000 attendees at their 2019 convention in Los Angeles. Besides the fans, western artists have seemingly taken notice as well, as artists like Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, Sia, Nicki Minaj, and Halsey have all done Kpop collaborations in the last few years. BTS and other Kpop groups are assisting in what is called "Hallyu." According to Aja Romano of Vox, "Hallyu" is "the idea that South Korean pop culture has grown in prominence to become a major driver of global culture, seen in everything from Korean dramas on Netflix to Korean skincare regimens dominating the cosmetics industry to delicious Korean tacos on your favorite local menu." If it seems like an exaggeration to say that a music industry is increasing the spread of Korean culture, you would be surprised to know that BTS alone accounts for $4.65 billion of South Korea's GDP. Understanding Kpop’s success means understanding that it is so much more than a music genre. It is a idea that has been crafted since it’s beginning to be internationally marketable, and that is what makes it so successful.
The Origins of the Kpop Industry
Kpop’s journey to becoming one of the most profitable music industries in the world began with government restriction of almost all creative freedom in South Korean media. In the 1970’s, Korean dictator Park Chung Hee signed an order that imposed strict censorship of broadcasting stations, and this order would continue to be enforced after his assassination in 1979. Any music or TV broadcasted either had to be patriotic or squeaky clean in order to be aired on television or radio broadcast. This all changed on April 11, 1992, when the Hip Hop group Seo Taiji and Boys performed their song “I Know” on a music contest show. Seo Taiji and Boys were unlike anything Korean audiences had seen before. They rapped about defying an older generation, performed hip hop-style dancing, and wore youthful, baggy clothes. As you can imagine, the judges were less than impressed with their song and performance, but the public was blown away. Their song “I Know” would go on to stay number 1 on the South Korean charts for 17 weeks. Seo Taiji and Boys developed a huge fan base, and would go on to be one of South Korea’s most famous music acts. This moment is widely considered to be the birth of Kpop, but it really set the foundation for more creative freedom in South Korean music. The industry was not truly born until businessman Lee Soo-man decided to capitalize on the idea of wildly popular musical groups. The former Korean entertainer believed that culture could be the next Korean export. "Made in Korea should be stressed," Lee stated "and we should market music as cultural commodities." In 1995, he created SM Entertainment, which was followed shortly by the creation of JYP Entertainment in 1997 and YG Entertainment in 1998. These three companies, appropriately nick-named “The Big Three,” are still the front-running Kpop entertainment companies today.
The Group That Started It All
Seo Taiji and Boys perform their song "I Know" on a South Korean music competition in 1992. Their sound and style was influenced by 90's rock and American hip hop.
They were extremely popular until their disbandment in 1996
Lee Soo-man took the cultural relevance of Seo Taiji and Boys and turned it into a science. Everything about SM Entertainment’s groups was carefully crafted to be flawless and marketable to a wide audience. SM’s first group was H.O.T., a five member boy band that adopted just about all the elements that made Seo Taiji and Boys popular. Regardless, they were extremely successful and sold 6.4 million records during their run from 1996-2001. Seeing the potential of South Korean culture, the government passed a law in 1999 called the "Promotion of Cultural Industries Act." The purpose of the law was to "provide a solid foundation for the cultural industry and sharpen thereby its international competitiveness, which should in turn be preceded by a specification of what is necessary for the support and nourishment of the cultural industry (Park, 2014 p. 20)." The act also declared that 1% of the entire state budget would be dedicated to culture (Park, 2014, p. 20). With the government's support, SM went on to create widely popular and profitable groups, with JYP and YG following in their footsteps. All together, they created the system that is used in Kpop today
Creating a Marketable Kpop Group
The process of creating a successful Kpop group is a strategic one. Young boys and girls who aspire to become Kpop performers, or "idols," attend auditions or are scouted by entertainment agents. From there, they attend a training program, where over the course of a few years they are taught to sing, dance, and sometimes rap. Although they are taught to be versatile in most aspects of performance, trainees are assessed on how naturally skilled they are in certain areas. This is essential, because Kpop idols have very specific roles they have to play in their group. If a trainee is an exceptional dancer but passable as a vocalist, they will most likely receive less lines in songs, but more center stage during performances. Titles are given to each member, such as "lead dancer," "main vocalist," or "main rapper" to differentiate their skills. Other titles are given to showcase an idol's role in their group. Role- based titles include "leader," "maknae," who is the youngest idol in the group, and the controversial title of "visual," who is the idol who best represents Korean beauty standards. International marketing is often taken into account when choosing idols for a group as well. In the past decade, entertainment companies have begun selecting non-Korean, or “foreign” members, to be in their groups. Foreign members are often tasked with promoting the group in their country of origin since they speak the native language. For example, SM powerhouse group NCT has members of Chinese, Japanese, American, Canadian, and Thai nationality. Being a foreign member is almost a talent role of its own, and adding them widens the scope of where companies can promote. Having a well balanced and diverse group of nationalities, talents, and roles is a way to show how each member serves a purpose in the group. Each idol contributes to the group in their own meaningful way.
Once a group of performers are selected, they are branded and debut as a new group. Care is taken to ensure that the branding of a group is effective across other cultures. You will notice that SM decided to ditch the Korean-sounding “Seo Taiji and Boys” for the three letter acronym H.O.T for their first group. This is a branding tactic still used today to make translating names across different languages easier. It also leaves barely any room for mispronunciation. EXO, BTS, NCT, EXID, CLC, and ITZY are just a few of the groups that use this marketing tactic today. Companies will also market their bands long before debut by releasing music video teasers, sneak peaks, and short videos where fans are introduced to the members. The goal of pre-promotion is to gather support for the individual idols, so that the group will have a foundational fanbase when they debut. Debuting a new group is financially risky, so any precautions companies can take to ensure popularity of a rookie group are taken. Some rookie groups have been accused of leeching off of their brother and sister groups to push their debut. For example, BigHit Entertainment, the label that BTS is signed to, debuted a new boy group named TXT in March of 2019. Fans of BTS criticized TXT, saying that their popularity was only a cause of BTS fans wanting to support the brother group. Whether this is true or not, its undeniable that BTS fans had an active part in TXT's widely successful debut, and BigHit knew that would be an advantage. However, since then TXT's marketing team has made it a goal to set them apart from their brother group, and now they have their own active and strong fanbase.
Making a Successful Kpop Song
In order for companies to keep their newly debuted groups popular and relevant, they have to release content. When I first began listening to Kpop, I was amazed at how quickly groups released new music. My favorite western artists were taking years to release albums, while Kpop groups were releasing 2 albums a year. The constant stream of new music is sure to keep fans interested in the groups and excited to see what they do next. One might think that the rapid pace is a cause of factory-like production of meaningless music, and that statement is not entirely wrong. A Kpop song is meant to be accessible to everyone, and for many international fans, the language barrier prevents that accessibility. There are a few ways that companies produce their songs to be more accessible. First, it's rare to find a Kpop song that isn't an ear-worm. The tune is meant to be catchy so that you can recall the music without having to know the lyrics. Second, almost every Kpop song has at least a small amount of English lyrics. Some believe that this is because English is a fairly prominent language in South Korea, and many English words are integrated into the Korean language. The word "Konglish" refers to the Korean version of English words. Others believe the use of English in Kpop is just another marketing tactic used to make it easier for international fans to sing along. It is likely that both of these theories are correct. Lastly, companies will often release multiple versions of the same song in other languages. For example, girl group EXID released a Korean, Japanese, and Chinese version of their song "UP & DOWN." They also released three entirely different music videos for these songs with their own unique styles and visuals. Ultimately, what companies strive for while making a song is inclusivity. If everyone can hum it, sing it, or relate to it, then it has done its job.
On the other hand, sometimes companies' efforts to be all inclusive fall flat. In the early days of Kpop, entertainment companies gave their idols virtually no creative freedom over the writing and production of music in order to ensure that they crafted the perfectly marketable song. Songs were often extremely clean, with no curse words or overly suggestive lyrics in order to avoid a negative image. This control over songwriting meant that the topics covered by Kpop songs were overused and too broad to feel truly relatable. However, as the Kpop industry has progressed, many idols are given agency over the production and writing of their songs. In fact, many people attribute BTS's influence in the production of their music to be what makes them so successful. Since the beginning of the group, leader RM and rapper Suga have written many of BTS's songs, and have pushed the envelope of topics a Kpop song can touch. Similar to Seo Taiji and Boys, they have written songs about revolting against the outdated values of an older generation, and the societal pressures put on them as idols. Their song "Black Swan" describes the boy's worries that they will create music for so long that one day they will fall out of love with it. And while they still write fluffy love songs, its the more personal ones that have made audiences stick around. It's hard to know if other companies will take a lesson from BTS and allow their idols to touch more sensitive topics, but it is definitely a possibility.
BTS - Interlude: Shadow
"People say, there’s splendor in that bright light, but my growing shadow swallows me and becomes a monster"
BTS's lead rapper Suga wrote and performed the song "Interlude: Shadow" for their 2020 album, Map of the Soul: 7. The song discusses Suga's struggle with finally getting the success he longed for, but still feeling overwhelmed by the negative effects of that success. He compares his loneliness and insecurity to a shadow that grows bigger the more light and fame is cast on him. The shadow grows throughout the song until the end, where it aggressively tells Suga that it is a part of him, and that accepting their connection is the only way to feel peace.
*Press CC for English translated lyrics
The Impotance of Visuals in Kpop
Although Kpop is a music genre, the actual music is not what truly sets it apart from other music industries. Most Kpop music follows trends very closely, so sounds that are popular in American pop music can often be found in Kpop. What really sets Kpop apart is the image. The music videos, styling, and choreography are some of the most important parts of a Kpop release, or "comeback" as it's called in the industry. In fact, each Kpop comeback is sorted into a concept depending on what kind of overall aesthetic the song, choreography, and visuals convey. There are summer concepts, sexy concepts, dark concepts, cute concepts, retro concepts, and so many more. Concepts usually change drastically across each comeback, meaning that a group can go from doing a cute and lighthearted concept in March, to doing a dark and sexy one in August. The concepts used for Kpop groups usually change depending on what is more marketable during that time. For example, in the early 2000’s, males made up a significant portion of girl group fans. This meant that sexy, mature, and cute concepts were more common. However, audiences have changed over time, and now the majority of girl group fans are female. This change in demographic pretty much ended the sexy concept in girl groups because the mostly straight, female audience was not interested in seeing sexy women, they were interested in seeing empowered women. Thus, the "Girl Crush"concept was born. "Girl Crush" is a concept meant to showcase the female performers in an empowering and powerful light. The song's lyrics usually have to do with being oneself, and the styling is flashy and loud. The introduction of this concept has proven to be successful, as the "Girl Crush" concept is so popular that it is often criticized as being overused. And although the sexy concept has pretty much been eliminated in girl groups, it is still very common in boy groups because of the predominantly straight, female audience.
One of the most anticipated parts of a Kpop concept is the choreography. Every single Kpop title track has an accompanying dance, which makes being a competent dancer essential to being a Kpop idol. The style of dance is expected to match the concept, which unfortunately means that girl groups usually have more elegant choreography, while boy groups have more aggressive and hard hitting choreography. Kpop idol's are expected to be extremely synchronized, and the choreography itself is very collaborative since there is usually a minimum of four idols in a group. Choreography is also used for fan interaction. International fans who cannot sing in Korean will often show their love by learning the dance moves to their favorite songs, and companies find ways to make dances easily accessible for fans. An example of this is the uploading of the infamous "dance practice video." On August 3, 2010, SM entertainment uploaded a video of the group SHINee dancing to their song “Lucifer.” It wasn’t a live performance, just the members in the practice room dancing to the song. Since then, almost every single Kpop song with choreography has a dance practice video uploaded to YouTube, and their purpose is to showcase the intricacies of the choreography. When a dance practice is uploaded, you will often find fans re-uploading a mirrored version of the dance to YouTube to help others learn. You can find fan made- dance tutorials and covers for just about every Kpop song on YouTube as well. You will also find fans gathering together to dance before a concert. Choreography in Kpop songs has become more important to fan engagement than the actual music.
The Power of a Viral Dance Move
Rookie girl group, ITZY, released their third title track, "Wannabe," in March of 2020. Not only was the song praised for its empowering lyrics and catchy sound, it also went viral because of a dance move. Ryujin begins the song by quickly moving her shoulders to the beat. So many fans and idols were attempting the shoulder dance after the music video's release that Ryujin herself posted a tutorial on the ITZY Youtube page. There is even a video online of a fan doing it for 1 hour straight. Now that's dedication!
*Fangirl note- this is one of my favorite Kpop songs, if not one of my favorite songs ever. And yes, I learned how to do the shoulder dance.
Engaging with fans is one of the most important jobs of an idol group. Part of Kpop's success can be attributed to how well it makes its fans feel included and engaged. Idols will constantly post selfies, updates about comebacks, and parts of their daily lives on their social media platforms. Some even have their own shows, like Seventeen's show"Going Seventeen," where the members are given games to play and challenges to complete. There is also V Live, an app where idols can log on and chat with fans from all over the world on a live stream. Seeing their personalities and everyday lives causes fans to feel personal connections to them. You will often hear Kpop fans talk about their idols as if they are friends, rather than celebrities across the world. This connection that fans have with their idols is evidence of how effective this method of marketing is. In fact, Kpop fans are so dedicated that they could be seen as a marketing agent on their own. You will always see Kpop fans advertising their groups in hopes to attract more people to their specific fandom. Many fans feel an extreme sense of togetherness and loyalty to their fandoms, and often times fans of different groups will create their own sub cultures with their own inside jokes, events, and lingo. Each Kpop group has a special name assigned to their fans and an anniversary to celebrate the assignment of that name. This even further emphasizes the connections fans feel not just to their idols, but to the other members of their fandom as well.
A Personal Look at Fan Culture
A video about my Kpop concert experience
Pictures I took at a Seventeen "Carat Cafe" in Houston
At the concert venue
She' s a beauty
They took a picture with us before saying goodbye
Over the last few years, there has always been a sense of embarrassment that comes with being a Kpop fan. Many Americans believe that the Kpop industry is a machine, pumping out industry puppets for young teenage girls to obsess over. And yes, it is true that in some ways the industry is overly controlling about the content and performers it produces. Kpop, from its beginning was meant to be marketable to everyone, but none of the tactics used are that foreign to the American music industry. The trainee program used in Kpop was used by Motown, the label that cultivated groups like The Supremes and The Jackson Five. Overbearing record labels controlling what music artists can release has been a problem in the American music industry as well, as seen through pop acts like Kesha, Avril Lavigne, and Brittany Spears. Even the immense pressure put on young idols to be "perfect" has been an issue American pop stars have struggled with too. Although the two industries are very different in how they are structured, they can be criticized for a lot of the same things, so it does confuse me when people use these arguments against it. Kpop is meant to make money, but so is every industry in the world. Besides, to say that idols are factory puppets dismisses all of the hard work that they put in to write, produce, and perform their music. The concepts and music are not for everyone, but I do think more people would like it if they took the time to listen to it. In the mean time, I will be singing along to my favorite bubblegum pop songs in a language that I don't even understand, and I'll be enjoying it
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