“Shinin’ through the city with a little funk and soul / So I’ma light it up like dynamite,” BTS belts out its upbeat English hit song ‘Dynamite’. With lyrics exuding positivity and appropriately connected to its Bangtan Sonyeondan (translated to Bulletproof Boy Scouts) or Bangtan Boys moniker, the song gave the band many firsts, including the first all-South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also helped that the song was used for an advertisement promoting Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE smartphone globally too. Overexposed is better than non-exposure indeed.
Does this mean the band has peaked popularity-wise or is at its best yet? Even before ‘Dynamite’ exploded, BTS was already gaining traction in the western hemisphere, especially in the US, since 2018’s ‘Fake Love’ and ‘Idol’ (featuring Nicki Minaj) and 2019’s ‘Boy with Luv’ (featuring Halsey).
Prior to this ‘BTS fever’, America’s introduction to mainstream Korean pop (or K-pop) was through Psy’s 2012 viral earworm, ‘Gangnam Style’. Specifically, it created world records as the first Korean-presented track to become number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and the first YouTube video to reach one billion views.
Both artists are instantly recognisable with their stylised physical aesthetics and signature music footprints. But beyond aggressive coverage on media platforms and virality in play, K-pop has way much more to offer through other musicians in the same genre. Thus, its advancement in the West is no fluke due to the tunes’ catchiness and synchronised sleek dance formations. You have to give it up to them.
The Generation Game
My first taste of K-pop was at age 14 through Japanese pop. BoA aka Kwon Bo-ah crossed over from South Korea to Japan and was introduced to the Japanese music market with her debut Japanese- language album Listen to Your Heart. Well, because anime was trendy among peers around my age back then.
BoA, at 16, dominated the Japanese Oricon charts (peaked at number one) with that venture. An impressive feat that mirrored the careers of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. She debuted in South Korea in her native language with ID; Peace B in 2000 and trailed with another album, No. 1. This was the first K-pop album I bought and it’s widely known that the versatile star belonged to the second-generation idol group in K-pop’s timeline. This particular period saw the rise of Hallyu (Korean wave) in Asia, especially East Asia (China, Japan) and of course, Singapore.
Kyong Yoon from the University of British Columbia Okanagan points out in his article, ‘Postcolonial Production and Consumption of Global K-pop’ for the book The Korean Wave Evolution, Fandom, and Transnationality, that “SM Entertainment [one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies] has actively accommodated J-pop’s idol system (like Johnny’s Entertainment), as shown in the case of BoA, who was trained through the J-pop system and enjoyed stardom in both Korea and Japan”.
The 35-year-old performer also attempted to break into the American music market in 2009 via a self-titled English-language album, with the help of hit-making producers such as Bloodshy & Avant and Sean Garrett but to lukewarm results. Interestingly, that was the year Wonder Girls achieved fame with ‘Nobody’ with its retro sound and signature choreography.
K-pop began in 1992 with Seo Taiji and Boys who debuted with ‘I Know’—the song contains western music elements like hip-hop and R&B, according to Carmin Chappell of CNBC. Years later in 1997, the five-member boy group H.O.T formed by SM Entertainment followed. Rivals, DSP’s Sechs Kies and JYP Entertainment’s Groove Over Dose (g.o.d) spawned shortly after. On the other hand, girl idol groups such as SM Entertainment’s S.E.S, DSP’s Fin.K.L, Baby V.O.X and Diva experienced popularity with their public-friendly band concept image like pure and cute or girl power. Korean drama Reply 1997 by cable television channel tvN reflected extreme fandom culture in the ’90s where first-generation K-pop idol groups were blossoming.
Millennials in Singapore will definitely be familiar with K-pop idol groups from second-generation (noughties) onwards due to the Hallyu phenomenon. Legends they’ll always be—from TVXQ, Super Junior and Big Bang to Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls and Kara; their hit songs are still recognisable. Third-generation idols (2010s) such as Red Velvet, Twice, Blackpink, Exo, BTS and Got7 emerged from the sea of budding groups. Currently leading the fourth generation are Stray Kids, The Boyz, Itzy, Loona, TXT and æspa.
Why’s there a generational differentiation? The answer lies with the Korea Fair Trade Commission. In 2009, it was announced that exclusive contracts between agencies and celebrities could only last a maximum of seven years. This is dubbed the seven-year curse. So, members of idols groups who choose not to renew contracts with their management companies will be at risk of disbandment. Thus, leaving a legacy.
Members of Wonder Girls, Sistar and, lately, Got7 left their parent labels to pursue their respective endeavours. However, Got7 didn’t break up but instead continues to release music via Warner Music Korea as a group despite its members getting signed on with different management companies and record labels respectively.
Interestingly, male idol groups tend to enjoy longevity and escape the dreaded seven-year curse. Super Junior, TVXQ, Highlight (formerly known as Beast) and Shinhwa are the better known ‘survivors’, albeit losing a member or two in the process due to individual member controversies. For the girls, Apink will celebrate its 10th year in 2021. Soloists fare better in this scenario also.
Similarly, banded groups in the West suffer such fate too. One Direction, Danity Kane and Fifth Harmony come to mind.
The Propelling Platforms For Globalisation
The noughties ushered in the tech boom. Everything started to digitise and fast Internet was widely available. Information could be obtained immediately on demand. What sparked the first Hallyu in Asia is South Korean soap opera (K-drama). John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, cites “the phenomenal popularity of the 2002 KBS drama series Winter Sonata, which became an overnight sensation in Japan and heralded for many the beginning of the Korean wave, coming as it did on the heels of the joint hosting between Japan and South Korea of the 2002 World Cup”.
Internet, cable television, radio and online music streaming sites offer easy access to K-pop as long as one’s connected. Backing this theory, Lie says, “Technological transformations played a significant role in facilitating the Korean wave. The two landmarks are the introduction of digital music in the form of MP3 players in 1996 and the appearance of YouTube in 2005. Even if music is said to be a universal language, the resistance to a foreign-language lyric could be overcome easier with beauty standards and dance routines of the prevailing global norm. What digitised music and music video, which in turn could be disseminated with relatively low cost,
did was to generate a condition of possibility of reaching a mass audience outside of national borders without a massive investment.” Spotify’s recent hiccup with Kakao Entertainment saw the removal of K-pop songs on the former’s platform, causing a stir with international listeners as a result and affecting streaming data such as the number of plays. Kakao Entertainment, also a music distributor that owns Melon, South Korea’s leading music streaming service, had a dispute when its licensing deal with Spotify expired and failed to agree on new terms, which coincidentally happened with Spotify’s launch in the country.
Songs by popular artists like IU and Epik High were omitted, affecting more than 345 million global listeners across 170 countries, according to Spotify in a press release. Fortunately, both parties settled their differences within the same month and it was business as usual.
Reality television programmes are another rewarding avenue to obtain global outreach. Music audition shows including K-pop Star and Superstar K à la American Idol recruit potential participants and aspiring singers around the world. Auditions were held in Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Notable acts who carved out careers are Lee Hi, Akdong Musician (AKMU) and Sam Kim.
Mnet’s Produce 101 series also created worldwide buzz with its competition format since 2016. Alternating between forming girl groups and boy groups via odd and even seasons, it involves votes from viewers and fans to decide on the group’s final line-up. There’ll be emotional investment from fandoms, so the spotlight will be always on.
The winning K-pop idol groups from Produce 101 such as I.O.I, Wanna One and Iz*One all performed at KCON USA (New York and Los Angeles), an ‘original convention dedicated to bring all things Hallyu to the American fan base’ to sold-out crowds. This is similar to Comic-Con as well as South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and conference in Texas.
SXSW, although primarily headlines English-language interactive media, music and film, also hosts Korea Spotlight (formerly named K-Pop Night Out at SXSW—KPNO). This annual music concert started in 2013 and is organised by Korea Creative Content Agency with the purpose of encouraging exports of Korean music and K-pop in particular. A good mix of musicians and bands was introduced across genres, like f(x) (experimental pop), Jay Park (hip-hop and rap), Dean (R&B), MAMAMOO (vocal-focused pop) and Love x Stereo (electronica). It certainly became a staple and draw of the festival till the COVID-19 pandemic affected live performances in 2020. In addition, prominent US festivals such as Coachella have featured Big Bang, Epik High and Blackpink as headliners.
K-pop artists have also received calls from American talk shows such as Good Morning America, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live. These appearances greatly boost K-pop’s exposure to wider demographics and audiences.
Billboards and luxury fashion campaigns are other key factors in promoting K-pop’s presence. For example, all of Blackpink’s members have been appointed global ambassadors for luxury fashion houses including Celine (Lisa), Chanel (Jennie), Christian Dior (Jisoo) and Saint Laurent (Rosé). This speaks volumes on their influence and accessibility to the general public following popular culture.
On the other hand, Kai’s relationship with Gucci is a close-knit one with the Exo member designing a capsule collection attached to his name. His bandmates, Chanyeol and Sehun, front Prada and Zegna respectively.
Proof Is In The (Music) Pudding
As mentioned earlier, K-pop uses western music elements in its compositions. So, what makes it outstanding? Before K-pop, the prevalent popular music was ‘trot’, a Korean variant of Japanese enka, folk and pop ballads. Lie explains that Trot is often cited as the oldest form of Korean popular music and laid the foundation for the musical elements employed in K-pop as we know it today.
With the influx of American soldiers relocating to South Korea as a result at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War that saw the US and South Korea sign a treaty of mutual defence, both countries agreed to collective self-defence should either be threatened in the Pacific region. This deal provided the basis for the stationing of US forces in South Korea. There are about 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, America’s third-largest military presence outside its country after Japan and Germany, according to data from the US Defense Manpower Data Center and reported by Reuters.
As such, hybridisation is essential. Sarah Brand from Dickinson College remarks in ‘Marketing K-pop and J-pop in the 21st Century’, “By illustrating ‘the heterogeneous creative mixings of the global and the local,’ hybridisation provides a convincing theoretical framework in analysing the changing nature of local popular culture.”
She adds that “in order for the local culture to retain its local and innate cultural attributes, it needs to adapt or alter the incoming force enough to make it into its own new product”. And she goes on to say, “By outsourcing artists and producers from, mainly, Western industries, the Korean popular music industry is able to take advantage of the Western’s technologies and expertise while also emphasising K-pop’s global tendencies.”
Citing Ingyu Oh and Hyo-Jung Lee in ‘Mass Media Technologies and Popular Music Genres: Kpop and YouTube’ for Korea Journal 53, they discern “what makes K-pop startling different from other non- Western recording companies is the fact that K-pop entertainment/ venture capital companies (or recording companies in the traditional sense) are actively recruiting or outsourcing music creativity to non-Korean artists, songwriters, producers, and choreographers… the traditional creativity network that linked Korean artists with Korean recording companies has been replaced by a new global network that links global artists with Korean recording companies. By actively incorporating the global into a new localised type of music, K-pop has situated itself as an innovative and intriguing new genre and industry.”
Such music structure can be easily digested by all audiences despite the songs being presented in Korean Hangul. SM Entertainment enlists international producers like British duo LDN Noise (consisting of Greg Bonnick and Hayden Chapman), American R&B/ pop production duo The Underdogs and Melanie Fontana. The result is a tighter sound and eclectic melodic arrangements which can be identified as undeniably K-pop. From f(x)’s deep house thumps to Junny’s sleek alternative R&B sensibilities and Hyukoh’s carefree indie rock smashes, these artists are at the top of their game.
Most fourth-generation idols are now being represented and distributed globally through major record labels such as Universal Music Group ((G)I-DLE), Capitol Records (SuperM), Columbia Records (BTS) and even Asian-focused label 88rising (Chungha). With K-pop leading predecessors already paved the way to the challenging western market, especially America, it’s up to the successors to ride on the wave and maintain their groove.