K-Pop: Why The ‘Next Big Thing’ is Already Here
South Korea’s music scene has an edge over the rest of us, and the jump from “Gangnam Style” to global cultural revolution was inevitable
When my parents decided to visit South Korea earlier this year, the sight that ended up surprising them the most wasn’t any of the country’s famous landmarks, but a rather grand K-pop museum tucked away in the serene city of Gyeongju. On their return to India, the key question posed to me was, “Is K-pop old enough to have a whole museum?” The query was understandable, because despite the genre’s rapidly rising popularity, most people have no idea that K-pop or Korean pop music has been around since the late Eighties and early Nineties, before many of the K-pop stars we know so well today were even born. While K-pop is a fairly new genre in comparison to jazz, rock or pop, it’s monumental enough to have given birth to the entire cultural movement—which includes multiple sub-genres, pop culture and fashion—that is currently sweeping the globe.
The genesisThe roots of Korean pop as we know it can be traced back to hip-hop artists Seo Taji and Boys, who made their debut in 1992 and began incorporating Western references into their music. Rap and R&B were prominent, as were English lyrics cleverly woven into the songs’ hooks. The hip-hop group challenged older audiences’ palates while entrancing younger generations with their offer of an alternative to the ballad-saturated Korean music scene. In fact, the group’s sub-vocalist, Yang Hyun Suk, would go on to establish one of South Korea’s leading hip-hop/pop labels, YG Entertainment, which would in turn launch the successful careers of artists like “Gangnam Style” hit-maker Psy, the ‘King of K-pop’ G-Dragon, boy band Big Bang and girl groups 2NE1 and BlackPink.
Another key figure is Lee Soo Man, a singer-songwriter who established S.M. Entertainment in 1989, after witnessing America’s MTV revolution. He was determined to change the way the Korean music industry functioned by bringing it up to par with global music acts. S.M. Entertainment would go on to introduce some of the leading pop stars of the country, like current chart-toppers EXO, veteran legends like Girls Generation, SHINee, Super Junior and f(x), global projects like NCT and several more. Finally, South Korean pop singer Park Jin Young launched JYP Entertainment in 1997—completing the ‘big-three’ triangle of Korean artist management companies—with artists like Suzy, 2PM, GOT7, Twice and more in their roster. While first generation of groups like Shinhwa, H.O.T and SECHSKIES gave birth to the ‘idol culture’ K-pop is known for, it wasn’t until the second generation that everything began going global. According to several fans and K-pop writers I spoke to, the spread of the genre around the globe started back in the early 2000s, when Korean artists began considering the power of Japan as a potential market.
S.M. Entertainment’s singer-songwriter BoA, also called the ‘Queen of K-pop’ due to her seniority in the industry, is considered one of the key reasons for expansion overseas. “Before then, Korean artists were grounded purely in Korea, with occasional expansion into China,” explains France-based writer Cristal Green, who is popular amongst our September cover stars BTS’ fan community due to her immense knowledge of all things K-pop. “But through BoA’s grasp of Japanese and her success in Japan, a door opened for Korean artists to perform [there.]”
Actor/singer Rain’s Japanese and global success followed soon after: his role in 2009’s Ninja Assassin set a landmark for Asian artists by making him the first Korean actor to bag a lead role in a Hollywood movie. It also did a fantastic job of introducing the world to South Korean celebrities’ sex appeal and breaking the ‘Asian men aren’t sexy’ stereotype, which was further shattered by boy band TVXQ. These artists were instrumental in the process of opening audiences’ minds for the upcoming wave of groups and actors that was about to hit.
The North-East of India wasn’t too far behind on the ‘Hallyu Wave’ a.k.a. the Korean craze, becoming the first region in India to absorb Korean culture. In states like Manipur, where the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) banned Bollywood films in 2000, Korean dramas and films became a key source of entertainment, eventually filtering to other states in the region as well. “I remember watching Korean movies in class seven and eight—my senior’s boyfriend used to send her CDs from Bahrain and we used to take turns watching them,” recalls Lakpa Yanki, a long-time K-pop fan from Darjeeling in North East India. “I mean, if we get a choice to watch 16 episodes of romantic comedies based on school and youth or 100 episodes of saas-bahu (mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law) drama, as a teenager anyone would choose the first!”
Yanki explains that in addition to offering refreshing content marketed specifically toward youth and exotic, fashion-forward celebrities, Korean dramas and music were easy on teenagers’ wallets, sometimes available as bootlegged copies for as little as Rs. 50 (roughly $0.78). The eventual entrance of popular Korean television channels like KBS and Arirang in India helped propel the fascination even further.
From then on, all it took for the movement to truly take off was the involvement of YouTube. Those who were already familiar with Korean music and TV headed online in an effort to discover more. “After 2005, K-pop truly became available to people on a global scale, to people just like me,” explains Green. “The way I see it, it was a question of how visible the groups were online.” Super Junior, Big Bang and Girls Generation debuted in 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively and each group were flagbearers of entertainment that combined outrageous fashion, social media, stellar visuals and tight music production.
Companies like YG, S.M. and JYP, as well as several upcoming agencies, invested millions of dollars into recruiting and training their artists in several fields (singing, rapping, dancing, language skills and more) while the novelty of a platform like YouTube becoming integral for music consumption did the rest. By 2009, Super Junior’s infectious single “Sorry Sorry”, TVXQ’s seductive “Mirotic” and Big Bang and 2NE1’s collective discography in general had brought K-pop a respectable amount of global success. But it wasn’t until 2012 that things really blew up.
Green and Yanki both agree that it was producer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” that set the Hallyu Wave in motion across the world. The hilarious and catchy mega-viral track captured hearts with easy-to-copy dance moves and comedic representation of Asians, prompting it to be played at every event at every venue at almost any occasion. The track’s immense popularity pushed many people into educating themselves a little more about South Korea’s music scene through Google and YouTube.
Big Bang grabbed this new viral Internet spotlight soon after “Gangnam Style” with a single they had released earlier that same year titled “Fantastic Baby.” An anarchistic, electro hip-hop anthem with an outrageously dystopian music video, “Fantastic Baby” presented K-pop’s variety and high production value to new audiences. “Out of all the years during which I have been a fan I have never before, nor since, seen as many people join the fandom as with Big Bang’s ‘Fantastic Baby’,” says Green, although she does add that BTS’ “Dope” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears” are close contenders. Big Bang’s flamboyant hairstyles and dapper clothing incited several rebellious fashion trends and suddenly being cool in most parts of Asia meant having neon-colored hair, leather pants and generous doses of eyeliner.
“Gangnam Style” and “Fantastic Baby” served as learning experiences for the third generation of K-pop artists—the generation we are currently witnessing. These idols stepped into the industry post-2012 with the knowledge of what social media can do and weren’t afraid to use it. BTS began using social media in their pre-debut days, released behind-the-scenes videos of their lives on YouTube, blogged regularly at their fan club website and often posted cover tracks on SoundCloud. GOT7 launched Real GOT7, a reality series on YouTube (now also on Netflix India) that followed the members’ daily lives while members of EXO drew massive attention when they launched individual Instagram accounts. K.A.R.D., who only officially debuted in 2017, built a strong fanbase in 2016 purely through pre-debut releases on YouTube. Companies spare no expense on high production value and ensure that all audio, visual and live experiences are substantially better than even five years ago. The focus on fashion has also grown tenfold, evolving from the “Fantastic Baby” shock-factor rebellion to the sleek elegance of urban couture; BlackPink in particular stunned audiences with their striking wardrobe and makeup during their 2016 debut “Whistle.”
Most acts also weave storylines and/or sharp choreography into their videos and performances, making fashion, music and lyrics just one part of the picture. Language ceases to be a barrier when artists take to visual symbolism to communicate their messages. “While I don’t understand Korean till date, there was something about how these artists have put together their music, the visuals of the music video and the choreography seamlessly into their identity,” says Madhu Gudi, co-founder of ButterNyan Entertainment and an ardent K-pop fan since 2013. “The final product as a whole was intriguing to me.” Combine that with giving fans a glimpse into K-pop stars’ lives via YouTube vlogs, tweets and posts on V-Live (a Korean live streaming app), and it’s a recipe for success. Another unique characteristic of Korean entertainment is featuring idols in hilarious variety shows to highlight their charming (but often carefully crafted) personalities and talents through games or challenges. “Fans pretty much never run out of things to discover about their favorite idols,” Gudi explains.
It’s not all fun and games, however: the grueling years of training young idols have to go through to ‘make it’ and the mass-production of pop groups has received criticism from global audiences. “K-pop groups are put together much like on a conveyor belt in a factory,” says Green. “And to people who are used to groups and musicians spontaneously getting together in their youth, that is a difficult idea to comprehend and an even more difficult one to accept.” South Korean companies know the formula works and aren’t about to let their control on artists and entertainment go any time soon. But groups and artists who do produce their own music and create their own choreography are on the rise; an example is 13-member boy band Seventeen (above) who are known as the ‘self-producing idols’ and create a lot of their own music and choreography. Members of groups like BTS, Vixx, B.A.P. and GOT7 are making the effort to get involved in music production, an effort that international audiences appreciate.
There is also a two-way street of dedication from K-pop artists that fans of Western artists rarely get to experience. Korean artists blend discipline and respect with the West’s flair for entertainment to present a refreshing breed of artists who are as committed to you as you are to them. Big Bang’s leader G-Dragon is a good example of this: in 2013 he injured an ankle badly during a solo tour in Japan, but continued the show with a smile on his face and devised ways to get around the stage to ensure he could finish the rest of his tour—certain Western artists have been known to cancel entire tours for less intense situations.
Fan meetings with Korean idols are also usually very different from what we’re used to elsewhere in the world—the environment is often comfortable, smaller-scale and intimate, giving some lucky fans the chance to have short conversations with the artists and give them gifts personally. Fandoms take on the role of a community, organizing local and global fan projects, meet-ups and more through groups on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, as well as custom-made apps. “Recently during BTS’ fourth year anniversary, many fans put their resources together and clippings about [the group] made it to publications like Mumbai Mirror and T2,” says Gudi.
Earlier this year, fans also used hashtags on Twitter to push channels like Vh1 India and 9XO into airing BTS’ music videos on Indian television and are currently demanding more K-pop content. “To be honest, at that time, neither me nor anyone from the programming team knew what BTS stood for,” confesses Hashim D’Souza, programming head of English Entertainment at Viacom18. “We instantly looked it up and realized that they were a K-pop band. While we knew K-pop was big in Asia and growing across the world, we were pleasantly surprised that we were getting requests for it—and this band in particular—in India.” D’Souza explains that the team at Vh1 India began a massive global hunt for the rights to BTS’ music videos and after seeing the positive reaction once they finally broadcasted them, decided to take it one step further. “We immediately went out and created a database of K-pop artists and we will now launch a weekly K-pop music block on the channel this month,” D’Souza says referring to Vh1 K-Popp’d which launched on September 16th. In addition to BTS, Vh1 India has already broadcasted videos by GOT7, Twice, EXO and BlackPink. Even six months ago, most desi K-pop fans would not have seen this local revolution coming.
This victory for Indian fans, however, was hard won. In 2015, EXO’s Suho, Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, CNBLUE’s Jonghyun, INFINTE’s Sunggyu, SHINee’s Minho and TVXQ’s Changmin visited Mumbai for the KBS 2TV variety show, Dugeun Dugeun India/Fluttering India, and disaster struck almost immediately. The show was criticized for its poor organization, blatant racism against Indians and giving the idols an all-round shitty impression of India. Over the years, that event has served as motivation for Indian fans to bring the groups back and give them a better experience. There’s also the fact that since 2015 the K-pop fandom has grown tenfold, with thousands of fans in several big cities clamoring for concerts.
“The only barrier is the price point—it’s not a cheap affair,” says Gudi. “But maybe soon a lot of the younger fans will start working and have disposable income to spend on concerts.” K-pop concerts are often extremely high-production due to the groups’ sizes, costume changes, background dancers, stage rigging and pyrotechnics—several fans fear India won’t be able to provide a sponsor willing to bear the cost of it all. “We can’t have such powerful artists play at a small room,” says Yanki. “I mean we’ve got [to] have the full experience if they’re here, right?”
‘K-pop,’ of course, is not a blanket category for South Korea’s music industry as a whole. There is a thriving hip-hop and R&B scene which kicked off in the late Nineties and early 2000s, with hip-hop biggies MFBTY, Jinusean, Verbal Jint, Epik High and Dynamic Duo. Today, artists like Jay Park, Jessi, Zico, Keith Ape, CL, Sik-K, Crush, G.Soul, and Dean are leading the movement while giving platforms to other upcoming artists in the genre (Jay Park is CEO of two labels, AOMG and H1GHR Music Records, which have both signed on several underground artists.)
K-rock (which was banned in South Korea through the Seventies) is seeing a resurgence as a sub-genre of K-pop; While there was a scene in the Eighties and Nineties, today’s most well-known, ‘traditional’ instrument-wielding bands like F.T. Island, Hyukoh, Day6, CNBLUE etc. are signed with mainstream, pop record labels and are gaining a foothold in the industry. So it’s only a matter of time before we see a larger presence of Korean artists across every genre.
Korean acts are also making themselves known at international platforms and award shows. According to Forbes magazine, Big Bang took the title of 2016’s biggest boy band, beating Maroon 5 in annual sales, while BTS de-throned Justin Bieber this year as Billboard’s Top Social Artist. BTS’ historic win at the Billboard Music Awards also caught interest from several leading Western artists like Halsey, The Chainsmokers, Major Lazer and more, sparking possible collaborations and bridges to further global expansion, including a bigger grip in India through these artists. BTS also broke barriers with their most recent album Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ charting number one on iTunes in over 70 countries, India included.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been involved in promoting Korean entertainment in India over the last five years by launching an annual K-pop contest, which sees dozens of Indian dance groups, singers and rappers from all over the country perform tracks by Korean artists to win a spot at the K-pop World Festival in South Korea. “This year, the Mumbai regional saw almost 500 attendees,” says Gudi. “A number that would have been larger if the venue had been larger as the organizers didn’t expect this sort of response.” Dance crew Immortals Army are currently in South Korea representing the country through the final rounds.
Teen Top, ZE:A, IMFACT, and 100% are some of the lesser-known K-pop groups who have attended as judges, and the presence of rookie boy band Lucente at the finals in New Delhi this year led fans to flood the arena. To many long-time K-pop ‘stans,’ this is a signal of hope: the K-pop hype is real, growing and with the number of fans joining in each day, it isn’t about to disappear. In fact, there are already discussions happening within fandoms to bring South Korean artists down for a show or two. “Some of us older fans, myself included, have experience with running events,” says Gudi. “It’s not impossible, so we should get this conversation rolling!”
Additional reporting by Anurag Tagat