The Rise of K-Pop in the West

(This article was written by Mason Jar Butterfly and me).

The phenomenal introduction of Korean entertainment and culture around the world, alternatively known as the Hallyu wave, took storm in the late 2000s. Three top companies—SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment—are the sole leaders of the industry’s globalization. What started in merely Seoul, South Korea has since branched out towards the entirety of Southeastern Asia and has made landfall in Europe and the Americas, making history every day.

Artists and groups in the early 2000s began the Korean breakthrough, with Korean pop (or K-Pop)  group, H.O.T being the first to give an overseas performance with a sold-out concert in Beijing, China. The movement only expanded after the ban on Bollywood movies in the Indian state of Manipur in 2000, leading to consumers turning towards Korean entertainment, spreading the breakthrough from China towards West Asia and the Middle East. In 2001, the group Shinhwa released an album titled Hey, Come On! which had great success in Taiwan and China. In 2002, soloist BoA’s album Listen to My Heart became the first Korean album to sell a million copies in Japan. Other groups like TVXQ, Super Junior, SS501, and Baby V.O.X also made breakthroughs in the Asian entertainment market.

Newer groups, however, such as BTS, EXO, Got7, NCT, Red Velvet, Twice, and BlackPink have done what their predecessors couldn’t: find popularity in Western markets. They’ve broken through various worldwide charts, with BTS even reaching the number one spot on both the Billboard top 100 artists and top 100 albums—twice. The group has also held the top ranking on the Social 50 Chart for over 100 cumulative weeks. This group’s major strides for K-Pop were a result of the movements made by earlier groups.

While K-Pop was a pre-existing music genre dating back to the ’20s when Korean artists covered Japanese songs in Hangul (the Korean language), the reformation of the genre began in 1992 with the group Seo Taiji and Boys; Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment, later debuted male group H.O.T and female group S.E.S. These three groups were prominent figures in what is known as the first generation of K-Pop and set the limits and expectations that have shaped modern K-Pop groups and music.

Until the late 2000s, K-pop wasn’t a very popular genre and remained limited to South Korea, Japan, and Chinanot yet accepted internationally. Fans of the genre have shared that they would hide their love for it in fear that they would be judged, especially since so many people were against the idea of listening to music in a language other than their own.

It wasn’t until K-pop’s second generation that it started gaining its popularity. In 2009, JYP girl group Wonder Girls peaked at the 76th ranking on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and the 4th ranking on the Billboard Heartseekers Song Chart with their song “Nobody.” Then, from 2011 to 2013, Big Bang, SHINee, SNSD, 2NE1, and many other groups started winning awards and topping international charts, and thus K-pop’s popularity started to steadily increase over the years.

In 2012, though, male soloist PSY released his unexpected bombshell song “Gangnam Style” and immediately captured the attention of many around the world, though partly negatively. The Korean entertainment industry prides itself on expensive video production, and the attraction towards “Gangnam Style” came from its unique music video and choreography. However, the video quickly became a global meme, and though it has amassed three billion views on Youtube since its release, it has yet to be given the respect it deserves for its lyrical meanings and creativity.

The song won the New Media Award at the American Music Awards in 2012, yet it was the second international award won by a K-Pop group. The year before, Big Bang became the first act to win an international award, receiving the Worldwide Act award in the MTV European Music Awards, beating stars like Sia and Britney Spears. In 2013, female group Girl’s Generation, which has been dubbed South Korea’s National Girl Group since their phenomenal 2009 hit “Gee,” won Video of the Year at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards for their song, “I Got a Boy.” They beat artists like One Direction, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and even PSY, who had claimed the spot of the first video to reach one billion views on the video sharing platform in December 2012.

Despite their successes, all three artists faced plentiful backlash and racism from disappointed fans. They were told to go back to where they came from and were called various racial slurs, with many questioning how groups with very little presence in Western entertainment managed to win international awards. Those that had been against the winnings had been ignorant to the guidelines of the awards: awards were given to the groups with the highest number of votes in a public poll. Although some might not have noticed, K-Pop had quietly infiltrated Western culture, becoming beloved by a majority of, at a minimum, the voters in these polls.

Since 2013, however, no other K-Pop group made accomplishments within the Western markets. It wasn’t until 2016, when BTS unexpectedly won Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards, dethroning Justin Bieber who held the spot for six consecutive years. Though it’d been done before, many recognized the win as a marking moment for the Hallyu wave.

Although it was a difficult process, with plentiful backlash directed towards the group and K-Pop as a whole, many fell in love with the underdog story that is BTS. Debuting under a small company, they faced multiple hardships within their first three years, struggling with low income and popularity, but finally turning things around with the release of their breakthrough song “Fire.” Since then, BTS has continued to grow and has claimed the spot as one of the top K-Pop acts and boy groups, right alongside Big Bang.

In 2017, BTS performed their single “DNA” at the AMAs, showcasing their advanced stage performances with synchronized choreography, stable vocals, and piercing visuals. From 2017 to 2018, the group appeared on American talk shows, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Graham Norton Show. They’ve appeared on radio shows and interviews with BBC Radio 1 and Buzzfeed. Their collaborations with Western artists (Wale, Nicki Minaj, Steve Aoki, etc.) have reached different audiences, and they became the first Korean act to perform at the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. They’ve also started charity campaigns with UNICEF to spread the message they’ve been trying to convey in their recent albums: to love yourself and spread love to others.

Much of the sudden rise of K-Pop in the West comes from the evolution and assistance of social media. A CNN reporter that attended KCON 2012an international event that brings together K-Pop fans from all around the world to watch performances and meet their fellow fans, or even their idolsshared, “If you stop anyone here and ask them how they found out about K-Pop, they found it out on YouTube.” With social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, K-Pop groups can reach out to international audiences and attract people towards their music.

BTS often went viral on Twitter for their appearances on the red carpet. Certain members would be nicknamed, “The Second One From the Left” or “The One With the Pink Hair,” and their fans, known as ARMY, would share information about the group with the curious Twitter users.

As the genre grew in popularity, it also had some minor setbacks. For instance, news reporters and shows would jump on what social media calls, “the hype train,” and claim they are or have been fans of the genre for the sake of recognition from K-Pop fans. Interviewers would invite the groups to their shows while having no knowledge of their names or their accomplishments, making a fool of themselves on television or video. Being a fan of or “stanning” K-pop artists has become a trend now, and as these groups’ fame increases, so does their fanbase. BTS’ fanbase, ARMY, is a particularly large group, and they are extremely loyal to the artistsso much so that they are one of the main reasons why people have accepted BTS in the West fairly quickly.

Many have also taken to social media and go against the genre for being “foreign” and “hard to understand.” Interviewers and music critics alike have even asked Korean acts if there’s a chance that they would provide English versions of their songs, despite the group being Korean. The Western industry has also been proven to show hypocrisy towards K-Pop, especially when considering how accepting the industry was towards Latin hits “Despacito” and “Taki Taki”yet negative towards K-Pop.

Despite all of these things, K-Pop has infiltrated the American markets and music industry. Korean entertainment companies aid in this infiltration by opening their acts towards international sponsorships: BlackPink member Jennie Kim became a Chanel ambassador in June 2018; BTS has partnered with the phone brand LG, the car brand Hyundai, and many more. Groups have released their own clothing and makeup lines, and have brought money and attention to both themselves and their brands. Their merchandise and albums can be found within stores like Hot Topic and Target, even to people who don’t know the genre at all.

BTS is even responsible for breaking multiple records on social media. BTS member, Jung Hoseok, posted a video of him following the trend of people doing the “In My Feelings” challenge. His video not only broke a record, but he made an appearance on Drake’s music video for the song. Fellow member Min Yoongi’s video of him performing his solo song, “Seesaw,” has also become one of the most viewed Twitter videos.

In recent months, K-Pop has undoubtedly made a strong appearance in the West and continues to grow as the fourth generation of K-Pop acts takes over, revolutionizing and modernizing the genre. While the genre has plenty more room to grow in order to be considered a legitimate entertainment market right alongside the Western market, it is strong and growing by the day.

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