facebook search twitter close-envelope printer web-link close
read on
BTS on stage in Las Vegas, 2018 (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

K-pop and me: a love story

Essay | 14 minute read
How has Korean pop managed to take the world by storm? A former sceptic, now an ardent fan, writes about the authenticity and charisma that lies behind the ultra-manufactured world of K-pop

Beijing. Late October, 2009. The city is experiencing a bit of a comedown after its magnificent Olympic Games the year before, and the feeling is mutual. I’m blaming my mugginess on the city’s unescapable smog, but in reality it is 1% homesickness and 99% self-inflicted drunkenness. It is either the late night or the early hours of the morning, but I’m too busy nursing my first real hangover, borne through a concoction of raspberry Absolut shots, Tsingtao beer and other things I am still trying to forget.

I can’t sleep and need something to tame the imaginary baseline thumping against my skull, so I switch on the television and randomly trawl through the channels, hoping for something in English. Nothing. I am shocked – no – astonished.  The classic Brit Abroad attitude. I cannot possibly enjoy something if it is not in my native tongue. I move on to the music channels in the hope of finding the Katy Perry, Timberland or Black Eyed Peas tracks that dominated the charts back at home. Nothing. Okay, surely Coldplay? Nada. At this point, I will settle for that ‘Fireflies’ song. Still nothing. I need something catchy and familiar and I need it now.

I flick through until the sweet familiarity of MTV flashes up on my screen. The music video playing is like nothing I have ever seen before, but I am captivated nonetheless.

It appears to be a girl group with what seems like an infinite number of members. Am I looking at one girl with a group of backup dancers or one giant group? I cannot tell, but I continue to watch and take it all in. I wait with a peculiar sense of giddiness for the song to end before punching in the information in the ‘contacts’ section of my Motorola Razr: ‘Gee’– Girls’ Generation. I press save and instantaneously projectile vomit into my own suitcase.

Girls’ Generation in Seoul, South Korea, 2015 (Photo by The Chosunilbo JNS/Multi-Bits via Getty Images)

Days later, I can’t get the song out of my head, even if I tried – and I tried. I know I don’t really love the music or the overly girly aesthetic, but there is just something about the song and group that makes me feel good.

I guess it reminded me of the bubblegum pop music that emerged in the late 1990s, only to be exclusively regurgitated at primary school discos. But those songs were nothing more than cheesy one-hit wonders that were made to be cringeworthy. This girl group’s performance was undoubtedly serious. The crystal-clear camera quality indicated a high production budget and the perfectly synchronised choreography showcased real talent that must have come from nothing but hours of practice.

2009 turned out to be the breakthrough year for Girls’ Generation (also known as Sonyeo Sidae or SNSD for short), propelling them into stardom across East Asia with their catchy songs. The then nine-member idol group were full of energy and made the dancing and singing look effortless.

Back in the UK, I searched for the song on YouTube and the same shiny video popped up, but this time, with English subtitles translated from Korean.

Korean? In my ignorance, I assumed they were a Chinese group, given the Mandarin MTV channel they were featured on. The video responses directly underneath the video (remember that feature?) showed hundreds of fans copying the choreography and learning the lyrics. The online fan interactions were a clear indicator that K-pop was just as much about the fans as it was the artists.

K-pop, or Korean popular music, is an umbrella term for popular music in the Korean language and has added a whopping $5 billion to South Korea’s economy. Over the years, it has become its own subculture with its own unique practices and language. Bands are referred to as ‘idol groups’ and often have more than the four or five members we are used to in Western pop bands. Idols take on stage names and specific roles in the group, such as the leader, lead dancer and lead vocalist. Fashion and aesthetics are a part of the package too, with one or two members serving up an additional ‘visual’ role. In other words, they are very good-looking on top of their vocal skills.

Individual members usually train to become idols for many years before they debut, thus leading to the controversial side of the industry with alleged ‘slave contracts’, cosmetic surgery, demanding schedules and a lack of freedom to pursue personal lives or even grow out facial hair.

The differences between male and female idol groups are also fascinating. The female idols are typically feminine-looking, have ‘cutesy’ choreography and sing about love. In recent years, groups such as BlackPink and solo artists like Jesi have broken away from the stereotype, offering up more empowering anthems, which are more aligned in the current socio-political climate.

Girl group, T-ara, onstage in Taipei, 2017 (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Boy group B1A4 in Hong Kong, 2017 (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Male idol groups on the other hand often sing about serious issues like mental health, the rigours of the education system, relationship breakups and other social pressures affecting young people. Lyrics occasionally contain expletives in English and/or Korean, as well as more physically challenging choreography.

The music tends to take its influences from Western genres such as hip-hop, R&B, Latin, EDM and rock, and then fuses it with traditional elements of Korean music. Often, one song can offer a mash-up of genres but still maintain a catchy flow throughout. Take ‘I Got a Boy’, another Girls’ Generation hit. The song is comprised of around eight completely different genres of music (pop, hip-hop, bubblegum pop, EDM, etc.). The long and often farfetched videos are distinctive to K-pop and amass hundreds of millions of views on YouTube.

The fusion of mixed-genre, synthesised music, along with vibrant outfits, make-up and carefully coordinated dance routines are all part of the package. The rise in social media and sharable audio-visual content in the early 2000s caused a new Korean wave (Hallyu), which saw a boom in the number of non-Koreans being exposed to K-pop and Korean culture.

K-pop became my ‘happy music’ that I listened to in the gym or whilst studying for exams. Back then I didn’t understand the Korean language so relied on the tempo and bursts of English phrases (often inserted in by Scandinavian co-writers) in each song to give an indication of what it was about. The one advantage of this was that I could concentrate without lyrics distracting me from my studies.

2012 brought the Olympics, my first year at university and a certain song called ‘Gangnam Style’ that refused to go away. The song not only topped the charts in over thirty countries (including the UK), it also broke records with the most number of likes and views on YouTube at the time. Psy surfed the Korean wave all the way to the West and we lapped it up for as long as we could endure it.

‘Gangnam Style’ star Psy, 2013 (Photo by KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty)

And so many of us must have assumed it would come, make us laugh and then die – just like the viral crazes before it (planking and the Harlem Shake, anyone?). But Psy unknowingly paved the way for other Korean artists to break language and cultural barriers abroad. The K-pop hit went viral because of its outlandish music video and the horse dance craze that kept everyone amused. It was many people’s first exposure to Korean music, and consequently allowed some to think that that was all K-pop was – novelty pop music.

In the UK, K-pop and other foreign-language music has received a lukewarm reception over the years. We seem to wait for foreign music to go viral or have an English-language version before we give it a chance.

What continues to fascinate me is the necessity for Western listeners to feel audibly comfortable at all times. We need a silly dance craze to take the edge off the foreign-y foreignness of the unknown, thus we end up dancing along to ‘La Macarena’, ‘Dragostea Din Tei’ and ‘Aserejé’ (you’d know it better as ‘The Ketchup Song’) – but ironically, of course. It was the same with ‘Bonbon’ by Kosovar Albanian singer Era Istrefi and ‘Jai Ho’ by A. R. Rahman. Both artists re-emerged with English-language versions in order to break into Western markets and receive airplay.

It was the same with the more recent universal hit ‘Despacito’ by Luis Fonsi. The Spanish-language song was a smash all over Latin America, however it was only after Justin Bieber offered up his vocals in an English–Spanish version that the ears of the West finally pricked up and caught on to the hype. The original Spanish version is currently the most viewed video on YouTube with over 5.4 billion views, thus finally ‘earning’ its place on the English airwaves.

K-pop song writers caught on to the need for English phrases long ago and continue to not only offer up English phrases in their mostly Korean songs, but translate the song titles into English so that they are easy to find online. With that said, Korean artists are unwavering in their stance to keep their K-pop songs mainly in Korean, despite some pleas for English-language versions. The “K” stands for “Korean” after all, and it is what they do best in my opinion.

Fast forward to 2014 and K-pop is nothing but an old teenage phase in my twenty-year-old mind. I am on the Ilse of Arran and sharing a room with a fellow geology student and low-key (maybe high-key) K-pop lover who cannot contain her excitement about K-pop and Korean culture. I roll my eyes. Unbeknownst to her, I have been down this road before and really cannot take any more. I am now too old and too cool to be drawn back into this world. But this time, there was no mention of Psy or even Girls’ Generation. Apparently some new kings had arrived and they were known as BTS.

This seven-member boy group, known as the ‘Bulletproof Boy Scouts’ or the Bangtan (‘bulletproof’ in Korean) Boys made their debut in the summer of 2013 and initially started out as a hip-hop group. Their early music didn’t appeal to me at all because I found it too try-hard and almost a parody of 2000s American rap. Metal grills, sleeveless leather vests and oversized gold chains? No thanks. I was left feeling awkward and uninterested, and their appropriation of Black hip-hop culture worried me.

]Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Rap Monster, Jimin, V and JungKook, from BTS in New York City, 2017 (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Another year went by and BTS had clearly evolved into a group with a clearer, more authentic musical vision. The gangster image had been ditched and replaced with fresh-faced charmers with smooth dance moves and catchy songs. I was impressed that they had spent a month in the US being mentored by hip-hop legends such as Coolio and Warren G, in order to learn about the true roots of the rap music that influenced theirs.

Their 2015 hit ‘Dope’ went viral around the world and allowed the group’s popularity to spread further outside of Asia. Then ‘Spring Day’, a ballad about friendship, followed; it showcased not only their ability to execute slower songs with ease, but their incredible song-writing skills and beautifully shot music videos often based on books the group had read. The out-of-print 1973 sci-fi book The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin was the main inspiration behind ‘Spring Day’, with clues and references dotted around the video.

BTS’s 2017 Western breakthrough landed them multiple magazine covers and two songs in the Billboard Hot 200, one of which was ‘Mic Drop’ – a remix collaboration with American artists Steve Aoki and Desiigner. Their 2018 album, Love Yourself: TEAR, topped the Billboard Chart – a first for any Korean act in the history of music.

ARMY, the name for the passionate and diverse fans of BTS, are a fandom like no other. It is easy to try to compare them to Beliebers and Directioners, however their tech-savvy skills set them apart from the rest. The 2017 Billboard Music Awards was the first mainstream taste of the power of ARMYs around the word when they came out in droves to vote for BTS in the Top Social Artist category. The award, won by Justin Bieber six years in a row, was awarded to BTS after an accumulated score of 300 million votes. That is almost the equivalent of every person in the USA giving one vote each.

The fans also play a big part in spreading awareness of their favourite bands by uploading English and other European-language translations to YouTube and Twitter. Some of these dedicated BTS translation accounts have over a million followers who are desperately waiting for the account to upload the most recent videos and tweets. But it doesn’t stop there. BTS ARMYs are no strangers to splurging out on ads and features in order to show their devotion to the group. They have been known to take out ads in Times Square and billboards in London. Official merchandise like light sticks and album packages also set fans back a few quid, especially around comeback season.

I get it. There is more to it than being attracted to the members. The music speaks to fans despite the obvious language barrier. The artists are also very active on social media, but still manage to maintain an area of mystery about them, which is different to the celebrities we are used to seeing online.

The impact BTS is making is huge and I think this is wholly deserved. The lasting legacy on the music industry and on society is likely to be just as interesting to observe. With a quick search for #ARMY on Twitter, you will find threads from East Asian people about the important role BTS is playing in Asian representation in a world dominated by white beauty standards. Some people are now embracing their monolid eyes and their culture in a way they had not been comfortable doing before. Some men have shared stories about how idol groups like BTS and EXO are helping to overturn stereotypes of East Asian masculinity. Non-Koreans, like myself, have even taken up learning the Korean language in order to understand the lyrics or, in my case, simply challenge myself to learn something new.

ARMYs across the world are on a constant plight to make sure BTS receive more recognition in their native countries, especially when it comes to radio play. The tides seem to be turning in the UK, however, with their two nights at London’s O2 selling out in minutes, thus proving that the group are incredibly popular here. Despite this success, some radio stations have remained somewhat reluctant to acknowledge their music, much to ARMYs’ chagrin. Request shows as well as local radio stations are inundated with daily requests to play the latest hit songs, however the requests are rarely fulfilled despite the songs creeping up the UK charts.

EXO in Hong Kong (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

It is 2018 and I am waiting for a friend near Leicester Square. She is running late, so I grab a latte and saunter around near the Chinese cinema and the adjoining streets. A diverse group of girls have gathered in front of me, and I brace myself for some sort of flash mob dance performance. Instead, the girls look up towards an ad above the cinema and begin to chant ‘E-X-O! E-X-O!’ with such insouciance, such joyfulness, you’d think the actual band were in the building. Time stands still for a moment as onlookers try to fathom what is going on. The girls continue to chant the group’s name until the graphics disappear. It turns out that they had bought a moving ad space to celebrate EXO’s debut anniversary and met up to finally view the finished ad.

I watch the girls laugh and joke around before they link arms and skip off into the distance. Time resumes and everyone goes back to normal. At that moment in time, I realise a number of fundamental truths:

1) Yes, you can manufacture a group, but you cannot manufacture the chemistry, charisma and sheer talent that groups like BTS and EXO exude. The fans are attracted to authenticity as well as the music.

2) K-pop doesn’t need to win the West over in order to survive. It was flying high before we caught on to it and will continue to, even if we turn our noses up at it.

3) English-language music no longer reigns supreme globally and it is clearly something the industry is still coming to terms with. We can either set aside our snobbery and strive to become more open-minded to foreign art or get left behind. It really is as simple as that.

K-pop and foreign-language music are not going away any time soon, so I challenge you to enter the wonderful unknown and listen with your ears wide open.

Want more great Boundless essays in your inbox every Sunday? Sign up to the free, weekly newsletter, here.