How Korean pop music became an international cultural sensation

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Atticus Ahearn & Michaela Edlin/Bear Witness

Atticus Ahearn & Michaela Edlin/Bear Witness

Atticus Ahearn & Michaela Edlin/Bear Witness

Sydney Uyeda & Atticus Ahearn, Staff Writers

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It was her cousin’s trip to Vietnam that gave senior Kaylie Bui a taste of South Korea.

Her cousin had Bui listen to girl group 2ne1’s single “Lonely,” and she has been “hooked to Korean pop ever since.

Bui is among the millions of fans stateside who enjoy Korean pop, known as K-pop. Once a niche genre, it has in the past decade exploded into the mainstream. South Korean songs have cracked the Billboard Top 100 at least eight times since 2009. In 2012, Psy’s Gangnam style further propelled the genre into the stratosphere, being the first video on YouTube to reach 1 billion views (it’s now attracted a whopping 3 billion views on YouTube, the fourth most-viewed).

“I feel like after PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ [Kpop really went global] because people were more into the music and how aesthetic it was and how much effort they put into it,” said senior Kaylie Bui, who has been listening to K-pop since she was in middle school.

At 2017’s Billboard Music Awards, the boy group BTS took home the Top Social Artist award, beating out Justin Bieber and other top artists. Their flashy clothing, the detailed dance numbers, and catchy music entranced the audience, who were unfamiliar with the tight choreography.

The K-pop fandoms and other K-pop stars, however, were overjoyed that their genre of music had reached this level of fame. It seemed like K-pop fever was about to spread like wildfire.

K-pop first astonished the world in 2012 with PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ which held steady on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 31 weeks- even reaching number two at one point. PSY’s new, funky dance caught on and inspired other Kpop artists.

In the last decade, K-pop fandoms (fan groups) have been the main supporters of these stars.  

Luckily, BTS has been paving the way for Kpop to become a more “acceptable” music genre in the public eye since their debut in 2013: they have performed at the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, and have won Top Social Artist at Billboard for two years in a row. Now, other successful Kpop groups like Seventeen, Blackpink, Red Velvet, EXO, NCT, GOT7 and more are being recognized by the general public as serious artists with real talent.

So what makes K-pop… K-pop? It’s not just the music that mixes English with Korean lyrics; it’s the entire experience that involves a tight-knit community and frequent interaction with fans. If anything, the unique, dedicated fandoms are what define K-pop culture. These fandoms are devoted to their idols; each fandom has their own chant and each fan has their own bias, bias-wrecker and favorite ‘line’. These fans are also the first to post on their fan accounts on instagram about release dates, new tracks, or something funny in a recent tweet.

Some fans even post videos of themselves doing the choreography to certain K-pop songs on dance instagrams. Freshman Madi Leong has 5,000 followers on her K-Pop dance instagram that she created in September of last year.

“I went to KCON (a Korean convention in America) last year and I took a dance class- and I was taking dance classes before that but I didn’t realize that K-pop could put me a step up from the choreography I usually do,” she said.

As for the appeal to actually make the dance videos public, sophomore Anna Ha said that she was really drawn by the connections she was able to form with other fans.

“At first I only learned for fun and honestly I wasn’t very good, but I decided to make an account anyway,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to post and to just put yourself out there for everyone to see, but at the same time it’s so much fun and everyone in the K-pop dance cover community on Instagram is really nice and welcoming.”

Not everything in the K-pop world is this positive and upbeat. A lot of controversy surrounds the process behind the scenes. Kids as young as 10 audition to be ‘trainees’ where they dance, sing and learn English day and night and often still attend school in hopes of becoming a hit in the enticing K-pop world.

“The industry can definitely be very negative in a lot of ways,” said senior Mac Francini of the competitiveness in K-pop. “It takes a lot of people’s dreams and crushes them. But it is also done in a way that is effective and that makes quality entertainment and quality music for a lot of people to enjoy internationally.”

Freshman Shawdie Sadeghian, who got into K-pop when she was struggling last year, sees the training as difficult, but understands where the companies are coming from.

“[Companies are] crazy,” she said, referring to  “They’re beyond anything America could ever do. I mean, the training seems pretty tough, but [the idols] knew what they were signing up for, they signed the contract, they know what they’re doing.”

Large companies like BigHit Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment and S.M. Entertainment have all been under the intense scrutiny of adoring fans who want to make sure their idols are being treated well and are healthy.

“I hope that as much as the Korean entertainment is loved and revered by people all over the world, safety and rights for the actual participants of this industry would be a priority first,” said Ha.

If the idols do make it through training, trainees usually debut together as a group of around four to 13 members where they continue to work together and create chemistry.

It’s no doubt that fans and fandoms like these keep the K-pop industry alive and growing around the world. Many fans are just happy to see their idols finally getting the recognition they deserve.