[Feature] What’s behind the ‘K’ in Korean popular music?


Samsung Electronics’ ‘Galaxy Z Flip4 x BTS’ digital ad is projected in Times Square in New York City. (Yonhap)

The first music video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube, the most-streamed group on the global music platform Spotify, and the top-selling foreign touring group in Japan – these are feats achieved by K-pop stars Psy , BTS and TVXQ, respectfully.

A few years ago, getting onto the Billboard charts was a difficult step, especially for non-English speaking artists or those outside of the US market. But recently, Korean singers have carved out a place for themselves on the charts and in the biggest music market in the world.

Groups like Twice sell international stadiums and global streaming services guarantee exclusive rights to Korean content, including for documentary films about Blackpink and BTS. BTS, in particular, are the first K-pop group to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and perform at the Grammys.

At the heart of the growing Hallyu, or Korean wave, K-pop is not just a musical genre, but a multi-billion dollar industry that drives the nation’s brand and spearheads global culture.

And since K-pop has become a cultural sensation, experts have said that K-pop is not a made-in-Korea genre, but made by Korea.

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Samsung Electronics’ “Galaxy Z Flip4 x BTS” digital ad is screened at Shibuya in Tokyo. (Samsung Electronics)

“There are many elements that make up the ‘K’ in K-pop, but one of the main reasons for K-pop’s pervasive influence and resounding success is that it didn’t start like something Korean. It’s a mix of Western music and national culture, so the genre has been well-received by fans around the world and is suitable for Western sensibilities,” said Lee Hye-jin, a professor of communication. at the University of Southern California.

Short for Korean popular music, K-pop is a genre that originated in South Korea as part of its culture. It all started as modern American-style pop music steeped in national culture, paving the way for other artists and entertainment companies to be more experimental and break the mold.

Years ago, idols adapted their images to Western music styles and standards. But K-pop’s sonic aesthetic has gone beyond the “Macarena” craze that took the music scene by storm in the mid-1990s.

Now, more and more K-pop artists are looking for bigger opportunities. The K-pop A-listers land management deals with American music labels for future projects in the pop music market.

SuperM (SM entertainment)

SuperM (SM Entertainment)

SuperM, SM Entertainment’s project group launched in 2019, has entered into a collaboration with Capitol Music Group, an American music label under Universal Music Group. In 2020, Twice signed a partnership with Republic Records, also a major American music label owned by Universal Music Group. Last year, rookie band aespa signed a deal with Creative Arts Agency, home to musicians like Beyonce.

Lee echoed his position that just as K-pop has matured musically over time, American pop music consumers have changed.

Unlike decades ago, the younger generation is more open to cultural diversity. Korean pop has the power to make people more receptive to Korean culture, which means listeners accept Korean culture through K-pop. The music idols and their songs show what Korea is like for foreigners, which can be considered a cultural movement.

While it’s hard to distinguish what makes a Korean-based identity from a slew of all-English tracks sung by idol groups, such shifts were inevitable to create a cultural brand.

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Samsung Electronics’ ‘Galaxy Z Flip4 x BTS’ digital advertisement is projected at an intersection of Samseong Station in Gangnam, Seoul. (Samsung Electronics)

According to Lee, English is a tool used by K-pop groups to break into and branch out into the Western market, and the roots are still based in Korea. The makers, those who sing the songs and the K-pop acts who do the feats are Koreans,” Lee said.

Lee sees the future of K-pop as the center of global cultural production.

“Sony is a Japanese company but does not make Japanese films. Like Sony, K-pop agencies would like to produce musicians who match the global market with its system. If the formula for stardom was through Hollywood, people today aspire to become one by becoming a K-pop star.

Boy group &Team poses for a photo during a pre-debut media event held on September 3 in Japan.  (Hybe Labels)

Boy group &Team poses for a photo during a pre-debut media event held on September 3 in Japan. (Hybe Labels)

Work is already progressing for several K-pop powerhouses. In July, JYP Entertainment announced that they would be teaming up with Republic Records to launch a joint audition in search of a new global girl group. Hybe Labels Japan, an independent label affiliated with Hybe, is also gearing up to launch its first international boy band in December.

Apart from the K-pop soundscape, the lyrics also play a pivotal role in connecting global fans to Korea. Although understanding the language is not a requirement, appreciating it can bring fans closer to their idols and Korean culture. It’s a sentiment that fans share with the hope of creating an intrinsic connection, because music can transcend language, but not words.

The desire to learn a language is also a facet of belonging to a globalized fan base. Since the desire stems from wanting to connect with K-pop idols on a deeper level, a report by the Modern Language Association showed that Korean language adoption in American universities has increased by 14% between 2013 and 2016.

“Language goes hand in hand with culture. Before, we used English to let foreigners know, but now the status of K-pop has undergone a seismic change. The number of people who understand Korean has increased, and it has formed a relationship where fans prefer to listen to the Korean version even if they don’t know it,” said Shin Ji-young, a professor of Korean linguistics at the University. from Korea.

And as more and more fans engage with K-pop, new media are emerging where content is sold and stories unfold.

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Samsung Electronics’ “Galaxy Z Flip4 x BTS” digital ad is screened at Shibuya in Tokyo. (Samsung Electronics)

“The number of prosumers (someone who both produces and consumes) has grown at the same rate as the number of Korean-based content. For example, “Texas Style” is a modified version of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, which is part of the Korean cultural gradient. The shift in social media paved the way for transmedia storytelling, which is why the crossover from K-pop to the Western market has been possible,” said Yoo Seung-chul, associate professor of media convergence at the ‘Ewha Womans University, at Korea Herald.

Yoo added that the perfect storm of K-pop media and content culminated with Korean culture reaping the benefits by exporting Korean content.

“K-pop laid the foundation for spreading Korean culture by allowing others to recreate Korean-based content through new media. It’s not just a product made for Korea or in Korea. , but a culture made by Korea.

By Park Jun-hee (junheee@heraldcorp.com)


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