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 visitÂ South Korea earlier this year, the sightÂ that ended up surprising them theÂ most wasn’t any of the country’s famousÂ landmarks, but a rather grandÂ K-pop museum tucked away in the sereneÂ city of Gyeongju. On their returnÂ to India, the key question posed to meÂ was, “Is K-pop old enough to have a whole museum?” The query was understandable,Â because despite the genre’s rapidly rising popularity, mostÂ people have no idea that K-pop or Korean pop music has been aroundÂ since the late Eighties and early Nineties, before many of the K-pop starsÂ we know so well today were even born. While K-pop is a fairly new genreÂ in comparison to jazz, rock or pop, it’s monumental enough to have givenÂ birth to the entire cultural movement””which includes multiple sub-genres,Â pop culture and fashion””that is currently sweeping the globe.
The genesisThe roots of Korean pop as we know itÂ can be traced back to hip-hop artists SeoÂ Taji and Boys, who made their debutÂ in 1992 and began incorporating WesternÂ references into their music. Rap and R&BÂ were prominent, as were English lyricsÂ cleverly woven into the songs’ hooks. TheÂ hip-hop group challenged older audiences’Â palates while entrancing youngerÂ generations with their offer of an alternativeÂ to the ballad-saturated Korean music scene.Â In fact, the group’s sub-vocalist, YangÂ Hyun Suk, would go on to establish one ofÂ South Korea’s leading hip-hop/pop labels,Â YG Entertainment, which would in turnÂ launch the successful careers of artists likeÂ “Gangnam Style” hit-maker Psy, the ”˜KingÂ of K-pop’ G-Dragon, boy band Big Bang andÂ girl groups 2NE1 and BlackPink.
Another key figure is Lee Soo Man, aÂ singer-songwriter who established S.M.Â Entertainment in 1989, after witnessingÂ America’s MTV revolution. He wasÂ determined to change the way the KoreanÂ music industry functioned by bringingÂ it up to par with global music acts. S.M.Â Entertainment would go on to introduceÂ some of the leading pop stars of the country,Â like current chart-toppers EXO, veteranÂ legends like Girls Generation, SHINee,Â Super Junior and f(x), global projects likeÂ NCT and several more. Finally, SouthÂ Korean pop singer Park Jin Young launchedÂ JYP Entertainment in 1997””completingÂ the ”˜big-three’ triangle of Korean artistÂ management companies””with artists likeÂ Suzy, 2PM, GOT7, Twice and more in their roster.Â While first generation of groups likeÂ Shinhwa, H.O.T and SECHSKIESÂ gave birthÂ to the ”˜idol culture’ K-pop is known for,Â it wasn’t until the second generation thatÂ everything began going global. AccordingÂ to several fans and K-pop writers I spokeÂ to, the spread of the genre around theÂ globe started back in the early 2000s,Â when Korean artists began considering theÂ power of Japan as a potential market.
S.M.Â Entertainment’s singer-songwriter BoA,Â also called the ”˜Queen of K-pop’ due to herÂ seniority in the industry, is considered oneÂ of the key reasons for expansion overseas.Â “Before then, Korean artists were groundedÂ purely in Korea, with occasional expansionÂ into China,” explains France-based writerÂ Cristal Green, who is popular amongst our SeptemberÂ cover stars BTS’ fan community due to herÂ immense knowledge of all things K-pop.Â “But through BoA’s grasp of Japanese andÂ her success in Japan, a door opened forÂ Korean artists to perform [there.]”
Actor/singer Rain’s Japanese and globalÂ success followed soon after: his role inÂ 2009’s Ninja Assassin set a landmarkÂ for Asian artists by making him theÂ first Korean actor to bag a lead role in aÂ Hollywood movie. It also did a fantastic jobÂ of introducing the world to South KoreanÂ celebrities’ sex appeal and breaking theÂ ”˜Asian men aren’t sexy’ stereotype, whichÂ was further shattered by boy band TVXQ.Â These artists were instrumental in theÂ process of opening audiences’ minds forÂ the upcoming wave of groups and actors that was about to hit.
The North-East of India wasn’t too farÂ behind on the ”˜Hallyu Wave’ a.k.a. theÂ Korean craze, becoming the first region in India to absorb Korean culture. In states like Manipur, whereÂ the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF)Â banned Bollywood films in 2000, KoreanÂ dramas and films became a key source ofÂ entertainment, eventually filtering to otherÂ states in the region as well. “I rememberÂ watching Korean movies in class seven andÂ eight””my senior’s boyfriend used to sendÂ her CDs from Bahrain and we used to takeÂ turns watching them,” recalls Lakpa Yanki,Â a long-time K-pop fan from Darjeeling inÂ North East India. “I mean, if we get a choiceÂ to watch 16 episodes of romantic comediesÂ based on school and youth or 100 episodesÂ of saas-bahuÂ (mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law) drama, as a teenager anyoneÂ would choose the first!”
Yanki explains that in addition to offeringÂ refreshing content marketed specificallyÂ toward youth and exotic, fashion-forwardÂ celebrities, Korean dramas and musicÂ were easy on teenagers’ wallets, sometimesÂ available as bootlegged copies for as littleÂ as Rs. 50 (roughly $0.78). The eventualÂ entrance of popular Korean televisionÂ channels like KBS and Arirang in IndiaÂ helped propel the fascination even further.
From then on, all it took for the movementÂ to truly take off was the involvement ofÂ YouTube. Those who were already familiarÂ with Korean music and TV headed onlineÂ in an effort to discover more. “After 2005,Â K-pop truly became available to peopleÂ on a global scale, to people just like me,”Â explains Green. “The way I see it, it wasÂ a question of how visible the groups wereÂ online.” Super Junior, Big Bang and GirlsÂ Generation debuted in 2005, 2006 andÂ 2007 respectively and each group were flagbearersÂ of entertainment that combinedÂ outrageous fashion, social media, stellarÂ visuals and tight music production.
Companies like YG, S.M. and JYP,Â as well as several upcoming agencies,Â invested millions of dollars into recruitingÂ and training their artists in several fieldsÂ (singing, rapping, dancing, language skillsÂ and more) while the novelty of a platformÂ like YouTube becoming integral for musicÂ consumption did the rest. By 2009, SuperÂ Junior’s infectious single “Sorry Sorry”,Â TVXQ’s seductive “Mirotic” and Big BangÂ and 2NE1’s collective discography in generalÂ had brought K-pop a respectable amount ofÂ global success. But it wasn’t until 2012 thatÂ things really blew up.
Green and Yanki both agree that it wasÂ producer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” that set theÂ Hallyu Wave in motion across the world.Â The hilarious and catchy mega-viral trackÂ captured hearts with easy-to-copy danceÂ moves and comedic representation ofÂ Asians, prompting it to be played at everyÂ event at every venue at almost any occasion.Â The track’s immense popularity pushedÂ many people into educating themselves aÂ little more about South Korea’s music sceneÂ through Google and YouTube.
Big Bang grabbed this new viral InternetÂ spotlight soon after “Gangnam Style”Â with a single they had released earlierÂ that same year titled “Fantastic Baby.” AnÂ anarchistic, electro hip-hop anthem withÂ an outrageously dystopian music video,Â “Fantastic Baby” presented K-pop’s varietyÂ and high production value to new audiences.Â “Out of all the years during which I haveÂ been a fan I have never before, nor since,Â seen as many people join the fandom asÂ with Big Bang’s ”˜Fantastic Baby’,” saysÂ Green, although she does add that BTS’Â “Dope” and “Blood, Sweat and Tears” areÂ close contenders. Big Bang’s flamboyantÂ hairstyles and dapper clothing incitedÂ several rebellious fashion trends andÂ suddenly being cool in most parts of AsiaÂ meant having neon-colored hair, leatherÂ pants and generous doses of eyeliner.
“Gangnam Style” and “Fantastic Baby”Â served as learning experiences for the thirdÂ generation of K-pop artists””the generationÂ we are currently witnessing. These idolsÂ stepped into the industry post-2012 withÂ the knowledge of what social media canÂ do and weren’t afraid to use it. BTS beganÂ using social media in their pre-debut days,Â released behind-the-scenes videos of theirÂ lives on YouTube, blogged regularly at theirÂ fan club website and often posted coverÂ tracks on SoundCloud. GOT7 launched RealÂ GOT7, a reality series on YouTube (now alsoÂ on Netflix India) that followed the members’Â daily lives while members of EXO drewÂ massive attention when they launchedÂ individual Instagram accounts. K.A.R.D.,Â who only officially debuted in 2017, builtÂ a strong fanbase in 2016 purely throughÂ pre-debut releases on YouTube. CompaniesÂ spare no expense on high production valueÂ and ensure that all audio, visual and liveÂ experiences are substantially better than even five years ago. The focusÂ on fashion has also grown tenfold, evolvingÂ from the “Fantastic Baby” shock-factorÂ rebellion to the sleek elegance of urbanÂ couture; BlackPink in particular stunnedÂ audiences with their striking wardrobe andÂ makeup during their 2016 debut “Whistle.”
Most acts also weave storylines and/orÂ sharp choreography into their videos andÂ performances, making fashion, music andÂ lyrics just one part of the picture. LanguageÂ ceases to be a barrier when artists takeÂ to visual symbolism to communicateÂ their messages. “While I don’t understandÂ Korean till date, there was something aboutÂ how these artists have put together theirÂ music, the visuals of the music video and theÂ choreography seamlessly into their identity,”Â says Madhu Gudi, co-founder ofÂ ButterNyan EntertainmentÂ andÂ an ardent K-pop fan since 2013. “TheÂ final product as a whole was intriguingÂ to me.” Combine that with giving fans aÂ glimpse into K-pop stars’ lives via YouTubeÂ vlogs, tweets and posts on V-Live (a KoreanÂ live streaming app), and it’s a recipe forÂ success. Another unique characteristic ofÂ Korean entertainment is featuring idols inÂ hilarious variety shows to highlight theirÂ charming (but often carefully crafted)Â personalities and talents through games or challenges. “Fans pretty muchÂ never run out of things to discover aboutÂ their favorite idols,” Gudi explains.
Watch Seventeen play a hilarious dance game below. Click ‘CC’ for subtitles:
It’s not all fun and games, however: theÂ grueling years of training young idols haveÂ to go through to ”˜make it’ and the mass-productionÂ of pop groups has receivedÂ criticism from global audiences. “K-popÂ groups are put together much like on aÂ conveyor belt in a factory,” says Green.Â “And to people who are used to groups andÂ musicians spontaneously getting togetherÂ in their youth, that is a difficult idea toÂ comprehend and an even more difficult oneÂ to accept.” South Korean companies knowÂ the formula works and aren’t about to letÂ their control on artists and entertainmentÂ go any time soon. But groups and artistsÂ who do produce their own music andÂ create their own choreography are on theÂ rise; an example is 13-member boy bandÂ Seventeen (above) who are known as the ”˜self-producingÂ idols’ and create a lot of theirÂ own music and choreography. Members of groups like BTS,Â Vixx, B.A.P. and GOT7 are making the effort to getÂ involved in music production, an effort thatÂ international audiences appreciate.
There is also a two-way street of dedicationÂ from K-pop artists that fans of WesternÂ artists rarely get to experience. KoreanÂ artists blend discipline and respect withÂ the West’s flair for entertainment to presentÂ a refreshing breed of artists who are asÂ committed to you as you are to them. BigÂ Bang’s leader G-Dragon is a good exampleÂ of this: in 2013 he injured an ankle badlyÂ during a solo tour in Japan, but continuedÂ the show with a smile on his face and devisedÂ ways to get around the stage to ensure heÂ could finish the rest of his tour””certainÂ Western artists have been known to cancelÂ entire tours for less intense situations.
Fan meetings with Korean idols are alsoÂ usually very different from what we’re usedÂ to elsewhere in the world””the environmentÂ is often comfortable, smaller-scale andÂ intimate, giving some lucky fans the chanceÂ to have short conversations with the artistsÂ and give them gifts personally. FandomsÂ take on the role of a community, organizingÂ local and global fan projects, meet-ups andÂ more through groups on Facebook, TwitterÂ and Whatsapp, as well as custom-madeÂ apps. “Recently during BTS’ fourth yearÂ anniversary, many fans put their resourcesÂ together and clippings about [the group]Â made it to publications like Mumbai MirrorÂ and T2,” says Gudi.
Earlier this year, fans also used hashtagsÂ on Twitter to push channels like Vh1 IndiaÂ and 9XO into airing BTS’ music videosÂ on Indian television and are currentlyÂ demanding more K-pop content. “To beÂ honest, at that time, neither me norÂ anyone from the programming team knewÂ what BTS stood for,” confesses HashimÂ D’Souza, programming head of EnglishÂ Entertainment at Viacom18. “We instantlyÂ looked it up and realized that they wereÂ a K-pop band. While we knew K-pop wasÂ big in Asia and growing across the world,Â we were pleasantly surprised that we wereÂ getting requests for it””and this band inÂ particular””in India.”Â D’Souza explains that the team at Vh1Â India began a massive global hunt forÂ the rights to BTS’ music videos and afterÂ seeing the positive reaction once they finallyÂ broadcasted them, decided to take it oneÂ step further. “We immediately went out andÂ created a database of K-pop artists and weÂ will now launch a weekly K-pop music blockÂ on the channel this month,” D’Souza says referring to Vh1 K-Popp’d which launched on September 16th.Â In addition to BTS, Vh1 India has alreadyÂ broadcasted videos by GOT7, Twice, EXOÂ and BlackPink. Even six months ago, mostÂ desi K-pop fans would not have seen thisÂ local revolution coming.
This victory for Indian fans, however,Â was hard won. In 2015, EXO’s Suho, SuperÂ Junior’s Kyuhyun, CNBLUE’s Jonghyun,Â INFINTE’s Sunggyu, SHINee’s Minho andÂ TVXQ’s Changmin visited Mumbai for theÂ KBS 2TV variety show, Dugeun DugeunÂ India/Fluttering India, and disaster struckÂ almost immediately. The show was criticizedÂ for its poor organization, blatant racismÂ against Indians and giving the idols an all-roundÂ shitty impression of India. Over theÂ years, that event has served as motivationÂ for Indian fans to bring the groups back andÂ give them a better experience. There’s alsoÂ the fact that since 2015 the K-pop fandomÂ has grown tenfold, with thousands of fansÂ in several big cities clamoring for concerts.
“The only barrier is the price point””it’sÂ not a cheap affair,” says Gudi. “But maybeÂ soon a lot of the younger fans will startÂ working and have disposable income toÂ spend on concerts.” K-pop concerts areÂ often extremely high-production due to theÂ groups’ sizes, costume changes, backgroundÂ dancers, stage rigging and pyrotechnics””several fans fear India won’t be able toÂ provide a sponsor willing to bear the cost ofÂ it all. “We can’t have such powerful artistsÂ play at a small room,” says Yanki. “I meanÂ we’ve got [to] have the full experience ifÂ they’re here, right?”
”˜K-pop,’ of course, is not a blanket categoryÂ for South Korea’s music industry as a whole.Â There is a thriving hip-hop and R&B sceneÂ which kicked off in the late Nineties andÂ early 2000s, with hip-hop biggies MFBTY, Jinusean, Verbal Jint, Epik High andÂ Dynamic Duo. Today, artists like Jay Park,Â Jessi, Zico, Keith Ape, CL, Sik-K, Crush, G.Soul, andÂ DeanÂ are leading the movement whileÂ giving platforms to other upcoming artistsÂ in the genre (Jay Park is CEO of two labels,Â AOMG and H1GHR Music Records, whichÂ have both signed on several undergroundÂ artists.)
K-rock (which was banned in SouthÂ Korea through the Seventies) is seeing aÂ resurgence as a sub-genre of K-pop; WhileÂ there was a scene in the EightiesÂ and Nineties, today’s most well-known,Â ”˜traditional’ instrument-wielding bands likeÂ F.T. Island, Hyukoh, Day6, CNBLUE etc. areÂ signed with mainstream, pop record labelsÂ and are gaining a foothold in the industry. SoÂ it’s only a matter of time before we see a largerÂ presence of Korean artists across every genre.
Korean acts are also making themselvesÂ known at international platforms and awardÂ shows. According to Forbes magazine, BigÂ Bang took the title of 2016’s biggest boy band,Â beating Maroon 5 in annual sales, whileÂ BTS de-throned Justin Bieber this year asÂ Billboard’s Top Social Artist. BTS’ historic winÂ at the Billboard Music Awards also caughtÂ interest from several leading Western artistsÂ like Halsey, The Chainsmokers, Major LazerÂ and more, sparking possible collaborationsÂ and bridges to further global expansion,Â including a bigger grip in India through these artists. BTS also broke barriers with their most recent album Love Yourself æ‰¿ ”˜Her’ charting number one on iTunes in over 70 countries, India included.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign AffairsÂ has also been involved in promoting KoreanÂ entertainment in India over the last five yearsÂ by launching an annual K-pop contest, whichÂ sees dozens of Indian dance groups, singersÂ and rappers from all over the country performÂ tracks by Korean artists to win a spot at theÂ K-pop World Festival in South Korea. “ThisÂ year, the Mumbai regional saw almost 500Â attendees,” says Gudi. “A number that wouldÂ have been larger if the venue had been largerÂ as the organizers didn’t expect this sort ofÂ response.” Dance crew Immortals Army are currently in South Korea representing the country through the final rounds.
Teen Top, ZE:A, IMFACT, andÂ 100% are some of the lesser-known K-popÂ groups who have attended as judges, and theÂ presence of rookie boy band Lucente at the finals inÂ New Delhi this year led fans to flood the arena. To manyÂ long-time K-pop ”˜stans,’ this is a signal of hope:Â the K-pop hype is real, growing and with theÂ number of fans joining in each day, it isn’tÂ about to disappear. In fact, there are alreadyÂ discussions happening within fandoms toÂ bring South Korean artists down for a show orÂ two. “Some of us older fans, myself included,Â have experience with running events,” saysÂ Gudi. “It’s not impossible, so we should get thisÂ conversation rolling!”
Additional reporting by Anurag Tagat