K-pop is short for Korean Pop. The term has come to mean a particular kind of Korean popular music not all Korean Pop. According to NPR: “The typical K-pop sounds have techno beats and are often accompanied by futuristic videos in which the band members — sometimes an enormous gaggle of women or men — dance in perfect sync.” [Source: Kat Chow, All Things Considered, NPR, April 16, 2015]

In the late 2000s K-pop became Asia’s hottest music industry as K-pop sensations like Rain, TVXQ, Big Bang, and the Wonder Girls attracted large audiences. By the early 2000s, acts like Psy and Girls Generation became stars in the U.S. and had huge global followings. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (2012) became one of the biggest hits ever. YouTube said the video for the song is its most watched video ever, having been viewed almost 4 billion times as of late 2020. The strange thing about Psy though is that he is more anti-K-Pop — he's short, overweight and makes fun of himself — than well-rehearsed, perfectly-synched, slick-back K-Pop. By 2020, the fully-developed K-Pop groups BTS and Blackpink were global phenomena, topping the U.S. pop music charts

Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times: “South Korea’s prime export is K-pop, the umbrella term used to describe the ecstatic, vibrant, outrageously polished and often hyperreal version of pop music that dominates the country’s music industry, thanks to entertainment conglomerates that aggressively recruit and train young talent. The genre is known for pinpoint precision, flamboyant fashion and smoothed-over borrowings from American R&B and hip-hop that, taken in total, have amounted to the creation of a style and sound that’s unmistakable, and without global peer. Along with K-drama and various other youth-driven pop culture offsprings, it’s become essential to South Korea’s global image.” [Source: Jon Caramanica, New York Times, February 7, 2018]

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “K-pop is an East-West mash-up. The performers are mostly Korean, and their mesmerizing synchronized dance moves, accompanied by a complex telegraphy of winks and hand gestures, have an Asian flavor, but the music sounds Western: hip-hop verses, Euro-pop choruses, rapping, and dubstep breaks. K-pop has become a fixture of pop charts not only in Korea but throughout Asia, including Japan — the world’s second-biggest music market, after the U.S. — and Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. South Korea,” a country of 51 million, “somehow figured out how to make pop hits for more than a billion and a half other Asians, contributing two billion dollars a year to Korea’s economy, according to the BBC. K-pop concerts in Hong Kong and on mainland China are already lucrative, and no country is better positioned to sell recorded music in China, a potentially enormous market, should its endemic piracy be stamped out.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

Books: “The Birth Of Korean Cool” by Euny Hong; “K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea” by John Lie.

Hallyu: the Korea Wave

The Korean wave — of which K-Pop is a major component — refers to the Korean entertainment and popular culture phenomena mainly in the form of K-Pop music, TV dramas, and movies that has taken Asia and the world by storm. Known as “Hallyu” in Chinese, the term was first used in 2000 to describe Chinese fans’ enthusiasm for K-pop boy band H.O.T. during their concert in Beijing. The Korean Wave began in the 1990s with the first K-Pop band and acclaimed films in the 1990s. Korean television dramas found a receptive audience in Japan, China and Southeast Asia in the early 2000s. The wave gained momentum when K-Pop music began to really take hold in Asia in the late 2000s and spread its tentacles around the world. Korean popular music, television and film all have carved out large audience for themselves in the international market.

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “ ““Hallyu” is the term that Asians use to describe the tsunami of South Korean culture that began flooding their countries at the turn of the twenty-first century. Korean TV dramas and, to a lesser extent, Korean films have, along with Korean pop music, become staples in markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong. According to the pop-culture scholar Sung Sang-yeon, Korean TV producers established themselves during the Asian economic crisis of the late nineties, offering programming that was cheaper than the shows being made in Japan and Hong Kong and of higher quality than most other Asian countries could produce themselves. While the Korean singers and actors are young and the settings are often contemporary, their themes embody traditional values of family, friendship, and romantic love.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

South Korea’s entertainment industry reached a new level in 2020 when film “Parasite” won four Oscars — including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign film — and pop acts BTS and Blackpink became global phenomenas and topped the U.S. pop music charts. There is also growing international demand for Korean TV shows.

Hallyu literally means "Flow of Korea". It evolved from a regional development into a global phenomenon, carried by the Internet and social media and the proliferation of K-pop music videos on YouTube and Korean dramas picked up by television networks all over the world. Since the early 2000s, South Korea has been as a major exporter of popular culture and recipient of pop culture tourism, with the Korean Wave now accounting for a significant portion of the Korean economy. The South Korean government has supported K-Pop’s creative industries through subsidies and funding for start-ups, with the aim of making South Korea a leading exporters of culture. [Source: Wikipedia]

Creating the Hallu and K-Pop Brand

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “South Korean pop culture has grown in prominence to become a major driver of global culture, seen in everything from Korean dramas on Netflix to Korean skincare regimens dominating the cosmetics industry to delicious Korean tacos on your favorite local menu. And at the heart of Hallyu is the ever-growing popularity of K-pop — short, of course, for Korean pop music. K-pop has become a truly global phenomenon thanks to its distinctive blend of addictive melodies, slick choreography and production values, and an endless parade of attractive South Korean performers who spend years in grueling studio systems learning to sing and dance in synchronized perfection. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

“Hallyu has been building for two decades, but K-pop in particular has become increasingly visible to global audiences in the past five to 10 years. South Korean artists have hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart at least eight times since the Wonder Girls first cracked it in 2009 with their crossover hit “Nobody” — released in four different languages, including English — and the export of K-pop has ballooned South Korea’s music industry to an impressive US$5 billion industry.”

Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu of Nikkei wrote: “When it comes to entertainment, South Korea seems to know what audiences want. Many of its dramas feature intriguing, glamorous stories based on familiar themes, such as love triangles, romance between people of different backgrounds or family relationships. Musicians and pop stars put on dazzling performances that combine passionate singing, complex and flamboyant dance moves, and even amusing chitchat in foreign languages...The success of South Korean entertainment has opened doors for some of the country's other industries. Many South Korean fashion and cosmetics retailers have been ramping up their earnings in Asia through sales promotions using South Korean actors and musicians who have become household names in the region, either through TV appearances or stage performances. These companies are now trying to refine and enhance this strategy by incorporating images of South Korean stars into all stages of their operations, from development to sales.” [Source: Koichi Kato and Ken Moriyasu, Nikkei, January 8, 2015]

Korean Idols

AJ Willingham wrote in CNN: “K-pop stars are called 'idols' because of the intense fandoms they inspire. It may seem like hyperbole, but the term "idol" is pretty accurate when it comes to the passion and devotion K-pop artists command, and you'll often hear the term thrown around for a group as a whole and its individual members. It's long been a convention of boy band fanatics to have a favorite member, and in K-pop circles, fans call their favorite member their "bias." [Source: AJ Willingham, CNN, April 14, 2019]

“All messages of authenticity aside, the reality is K-pop acts don't typically start out as a bunch of people futzing around with guitars in their parents' garage. The groups are usually specifically put together by large Korean entertainment companies, and hopeful members train for years to perfect their dancing and singing skills.

“It's an extremely demanding, expensive and often alienating process, and auditions for groups are highly competitive. Once a hopeful becomes an idol, they are expected to maintain a squeaky-clean and non-controversial presence to minimize any risk to their carefully created images. So even though aspiring idols may end up with untold riches, fame and admiration, it all comes at a great risk and a steep price.

“In addition to being amazing dancers and capable singers, K-pop artists must also be ethereally, invariably attractive. After all, being an idol isn't just about being a skilled performer, it's also about being a easily marketable sex symbol. Perfect skin, slim bodies, stunning hair and a cutting edge fashion sense are absolutely critical to the idol formula.

“It's not just about physical attractiveness, either. Every aspect of the K-pop genre, from pastel hairstyles to red carpet fashion to stunning music videos and album art, is presented with a rich and meticulously curated visual aesthetic. In a way, K-pop is as much art for the eyes as it is for the ears, and while this is a huge draw for fans, it can also be a discouraging reminder of the manufactured image the genre often favors.”

Quick Rise of K-Pop

David Volodzko wrote in Global Post: “K-pop was born with the release of the 1992 song “Nan Arayo” (I Know) by Seo Taiji and Boys, which floored audiences with its catchy swingbeat and use of rap lyrics. Three years later, South Korea debuted its first "idol" group, the boy band H.O.T., followed in 1997 by its first major girl group, S.E.S. From then until the early 2000s, the nascent genre entered the Japanese and Southeast Asian markets. Then it exploded. Export sales shot from US$631 million in 2005 to US$2.5 billion in 2007. In 2010, the record label S.M. Entertainment reported sales of US$84.6 million, but in only two years, sales rose to US$200 million — the same year “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views. [Source: David Volodzko, Global Post, April 25, 2016]

“The K-pop empire is now perhaps the country's biggest export, yet the product it peddles, dripping with bubblegum imagery and witless refrains, is all too often incredibly sexist. To be sure, many of its vapid songs are intentionally light on lyrics — catchiness is king. Besides, K-pop isn’t the only musical genre fraught with sexist content. J-pop and C-pop are hardly better, while American hip-hop is arguably worse. The difference is, when J. Lo brandishes her swagger, it’s clear that she’s a peerless dancer, and Lady Gaga could sing the roof off Carnegie Hall. But when it comes to their Korean counterparts, talent is optional. Physical beauty is everything.

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “Hallyu has been building for two decades, but K-pop in particular has become increasingly visible to global audiences in the past five to 10 years. South Korean artists have hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart at least eight times since the Wonder Girls first cracked it in 2009 with their crossover hit “Nobody” — released in four different languages, including English — and the export of K-pop has ballooned South Korea’s music industry to an impressive US$5 billion industry. Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby” was one of the first K-pop hits to make inroads in American culture and was featured on Glee’s K-pop episode along with “Gangnam Style”. Psy’s ubiquitous 2012 hit is part doofy comedy and part clear-eyed satire, made by a musician who’s part of a wave of South Korean musicians who’ve studied at American music schools. “Gangnam Style” spent five years racking up more than 3 billion views on YouTube, reigning as the most-viewed video in the platform’s history before being dethroned in 2017. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

Gangnam Style and Psy Not K-Pop

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Ironically, for all the money that the agencies invest in idol-making, the success of PSY, the first Korean pop star to break out in the U.S., took place largely outside the factory system. PSY is with the Y.G. agency, but he has never been idol material. His first album, “PSY from the PSYcho World!,” was condemned for “inappropriate content,” and his second, “Ssa 2,” was banned for anyone under nineteen. In 2001, he was arrested and fined for smoking pot, and, during his mandatory military service, he neglected his duties and had to serve again. He’s a Korean pop star, but he’s not K-pop, and by satirizing standard K-pop tropes in “Gangnam Style,” PSY may have subverted K-pop’s chances of making it big in the West. At the very least, that a pudgy guy with a goofy dance can succeed where the most brilliantly engineered idol groups have not suggests that cultural technology can get you only so far.”

"I know a lot of people think 'Gangnam Style' is opening the floodgates," Simon Stawski, of Eat Your Kimchi video blog, told The Verge, , but the song is much different than most K-Pop. "[T]here's a lot of irony and humor in that video, while other K-Pop songs are very serious and sexy and very well crafted." Joseph L. Flatley wrote in The Verge: “Your typical K-Pop idol group is composed of several rather anonymous youngsters, so attractive that they’re boring. "The mainstream success that Psy has," Simon continues, "we don't see that [happening] in other kinds of K-Pop, but we still see a vast amount of success happening on an underground level." [Source: Joseph L. Flatley, The Verge, October 18, 2012]

“The most telling thing about Psy’s popularity in the U.S. is that he avoids the K-Pop "idol" schtick entirely. He isn’t model thin, and the video for "Gangnam Style" is a send-up of the trendy denizens of Seoul’s Gangnam district. Essentially, the song is a comical swipe against the type of image that most K-Pop stars portray. Although the song is sung in Korean, the music is as pure a slice of modern American pop as anything in the states. And the video is really rather funny, in any language.

“It’s probably worth noting here that, unlike the majority of entertainers that came up through Korea’s idol system, Psy (real name: Park Jae-sang) was educated at Boston University and Berklee College of Music. He’s also a bit of a troublemaker. In 2007, he got busted for trying to weasel out of mandatory military service and as a result was inducted into the ROK Army, where he remained until summer 2009. According to the NME:. "One of the reasons Psy's 'Gangnam Style' has been so popular in the west is because he has a very specific personality type." In other words, he has a personality. He isn’t hiding behind a group name or label. "Bands such as SHINee or Girls' Generation are kind of anonymous, whereas Psy or G-Dragon from Big Bang have emphasised personalities, and that's why they've managed to cross over."”

Why K-Pop I So Successful

Aja Romano wrote in Vox: “South Korean pop culture has grown in prominence to become a major driver of global culture, seen in everything from Korean dramas on Netflix to Korean skincare regimens dominating the cosmetics industry to delicious Korean tacos on your favorite local menu. And at the heart of Hallyu is the ever-growing popularity of K-pop — short, of course, for Korean pop music. K-pop has become a truly global phenomenon thanks to its distinctive blend of addictive melodies, slick choreography and production values, and an endless parade of attractive South Korean performers who spend years in grueling studio systems learning to sing and dance in synchronized perfection. [Source: Aja Romano, Vox, February 26, 2018]

Many K-Pop groups “advertises the cross-cultural fluency of K-pop. Twice’s “Likey”... made it to 100 million views on YouTube faster than any other song by a K-pop girl group. (The video prominently features the girls on a fun field trip to Vancouver, marketing the idea that they’re at home all over the world.)

“As a whole, these songs and performers show us that K-pop stars can excel at everything from singing to comedy to rap to dance to social commentary. And their fun, singable melodies make it clear that the South Korean music industry has perfected the pop production machine into an effervescent assembly line of ridiculously catchy tunes sung by ridiculously talented people in ridiculously splashy videos. When Red Velvet sing, “Bet you wanna (bet you wanna) dance like this” in their single “Red Flavor,” they’re sending a message to the world that South Korea is modern but wholesome, colorful, inviting, and fun. None of this is accidental. K-pop has become the international face of South Korea thanks to an extremely regimented, coordinated production system. More than any other international music industry, K-pop has been strategically designed to earworm its way into your brain — and to elevate South Korea and its culture onto the world stage.

“How did we get here? Through a combination of global political changes, savvy corporatization and media management, and a heck of a lot of raw talent being ground through a very powerful stardom mill. "It's like a commando strike on popular culture when you create a new K-pop band," Jeff Yang, cultural entrepreneur and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, says. "The emphasis really is in developing a unique persona for each of the band members but then ultimately assembling them into a highly engineered and incredibly harmonized set of individuals."

South Korean Government Support of K-Entertainment

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “The Korean government has promoted hallyu, using it as a form of “soft power,” by making South Korea the Hollywood of Asia. Hallyu has erased South Korea’s regional reputation as a brutish emerging industrial nation where everything smelled of garlic and kimchee, and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to mini-series such as “Winter Sonata,” a 2002 romantic drama that was a huge hit throughout Asia, middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the “grass-eating” — that is, lacking in virility — males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy. At home, K-drama’s success has brought tourists from all over Asia to visit the sites depicted on the screen.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

Hideo Shinada of Nikkei Entertainment wrote: The South Korean “government has lent a hand” to South Korea's entertainment industry, “with a policy of promoting entertainment and other cultural exports. Since the 1998 currency crisis, each president has pitched in. Kim Dae-jung called himself a "cultural president," Roh Moo-hyun vowed to make South Korea one of the top five nations in the entertainment industry, and Lee Myung-bak set up a national branding committee. [Source: Hideo Shinada, Nikkei Entertainment, January 8, 2015]

“In 1999, South Korea increased its entertainment-related budget sixfold in a year. In setting up the Korea Creative Content Agency, or Kocca, the nation created a joint public-private effort to pitch South Korean entertainment to the rest of Asia. The result? A boom in the popularity of South Korean TV dramas and the emergence of the "Korean wave." In 2012, 279.8 billion won (US$253 million at the current rate) of the national budget was allocated to the cultural-content industry and 118.8 billion won to the media industry, reportedly about eight times Japan's allocations. The nation's exports have been growing along with this effort, from US$2.3 billion in 2008 to US$4.6 billion in 2012.

Kat Chow of NPR reported: “In the late '90s, when Asia went through a huge financial crisis, South Korea's leaders decided to use music to improve its image and build its cultural influence. So the country's government poured millions of dollars into forming a Ministry of Culture with a specific department devoted to K-pop. "It turns out that the Korean government treats its K-pop industry the way that the American government treats its automobile and banking industry, meaning that these are industries that have to be protected," Euny Hong, the author of The Birth Of Korean Cool, said. This included doing things like building massive, multi-million dollar concert auditoriums, refining hologram technology, and even helping regulate noeraebangs — karaoke bars — to protect the interests of K-pop stars. "They wanted Korea of the 21st century to be like America of the 20th century where America was just considered so universally cool that anything made in America would automatically be bought." [Source: Kat Chow, All Things Considered, NPR, April 16, 2015]

AFP reported: “Prominent music critic Kang Hun and others rejected suggestions that promotions by the Seoul government had helped sell K-pop overseas as its home markets become more saturated, saying it jumped on the bandwagon belatedly.” [Source: Jung Ha-Won, AFP, June 23, 2013]

K-Pop Success Boosts the Entire South Korean Economy

Song Jung-a, wrote in the Financial Times: “Hallyu is breathing life into South Korea’s slowing economy amid the declining competitiveness of its smokestack industries. In contrast to waning demand for steel, microchips and cargo ships — which have driven the country’s rapid industrialisation over half a century — exports of cultural products hit a record US$5.3bn in 2014, with an annual average growth rate of 13.4 per cent for five years since 2010. “I see great potential in the country’s creative industries as a new growth driver,” says Woong Park, president of Eastspring Investments, a British asset manager. “The economy can no longer succeed with its old formula, because the Chinese are now better at it, investing aggressively to build scale in traditional manufacturing industries.” [Source: Song Jung-a, Financial Times, April 12, 2016]

“Korean companies, on the back of the country’s growing soft power, are now increasingly focusing on areas that have been boosted by Hallyu. AmorePacific, the country’s biggest cosmetics company, in 2015 enjoyed a 44 per cent year-on-year jump in overseas sales as the country’s cool image gives a marketable cachet to consumer goods abroad. CJ E & M, the media unit of the family-run CJ conglomerate, is seeing its overseas sales grow more than 20 per cent a year while Netmarble Games, South Korea’s top mobile game company, is planning a Won2tn initial public offering as exports of Korean games reached nearly US$3bn in 2014, accounting for more than half of the country’s cultural exports.

“Iconix, a small animation producer, became the country’s biggest revenue generator on YouTube as its Pororo penguin and Tayo bus characters won the hearts of children worldwide. South Korean culture had long been overshadowed by its bigger neighbours, China and Japan, but has punched far above its weight in recent years, as the country, which grew from the ashes of the Korean war to become the world’s sixth-largest exporter within a generation, offers something unique but still universal for global audiences to relate to.

“The country, heavily influenced by the U.S. culture in the past, has successfully combined some magic formula from Hollywood with Asian sensibilities and tastes,” says Yoon Ho-jin, a director at Korea Creative Contents Agency. “Those who love Korean dramas and pop music have developed a liking for Korean products and come to visit Korea.” Hallyu has also boosted South Korea’s popularity as a tourist destination, with 13m foreigners visiting the country last year — up from 8.5m in 2010.

“The main beneficiaries of Hallyu such as AmorePacific and CJ E & M have become the darlings of investors. AmorePacific is now the country’s eighth-largest stock with its market cap reaching nearly US$20bn while CJ E & M was added to the MSCI Korea index last November instead of struggling industrial giants Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Hyundai Merchant Marine. “We’ve learned what works in Asia and beyond by trial and error over the past two decades,” says Mike Suh, senior vice-president at CJ E & M. “I believe Hallyu will last for the next 10 years at least, which means infinite opportunities for content exports.”

“However, there are growing concerns over how long South Korea can maintain its cultural edge in the region as China tries to tap into the country’s magic touch. Its rival has made deep inroads into South Korea’s “creative economy”, investing US$2.5bn in Korean games, movies and entertainment over the past five years, according to the country’s Small and Medium Business Administration. Chinese companies have taken over some Korean producers such as Chorokbaem Media with some famous Korean TV producers moving to China while more Korean entertainment companies partner with cash-rich Chinese firms to produce content together. “Fortunately, the battle in this business is more about creativity and effective planning than lowering production costs like in manufacturing,” says Mr Suh. “But I am not sure how long we can have the upper hand here. China is catching up fast in this industry too.”

BTS Alone Generates Almost US$5 Billion A Year

According to a report titled “Economic Effects of BTS” published by the Hyundai Research Institute in December 2018, BTS's annual production inducement effect is estimated at 4.14 trillion won (US$3.67 billion). The report also estimated that BTS generates 1.42 trillion won (US$1.26 billion) annually in added value. Choi Moon-hee wrote in Business Korea: “The institute projected that 796,000 foreigners on average have visited South Korea for BTS-related reasons every year since the group’s debut in 2013. BTS-related exports have totaled US$1.12 billion (1.26 trillion won), including US$233.98 million (264.28 billion won) in clothing and accessories, US$426.64 million (481.89 billion won) in cosmetics and US$456.49 million (515.61 billion won) in foodstuffs, over the same period. In short, BTS is estimated to have been responsible for 7.6 percent of the 10.4 million foreign tourists who visited the country last year and 1.7 percent of consumer exports last year. [Source: Choi Moon-hee, Business Korea, December 19, 2018]

“The HRI said it analyzed BTS’s contribution to the South Korean economy since its debut in July 2013 by quantifying the search volume in “Google Trend” and analyzing the impact on the value chain over tourism and consumer exports context. When the popularity of BTS increased by one point, the number of foreign tourists went up by 0.45 point three months later, exports of clothing and accessories by 0.18 point, cosmetics by 0.72 point and foodstuffs by 0.45 point in the same month. The HRI expects that BTS will generate an economic value of 41.86 trillion won (US$37.06 billion) and an added value of 14.3 trillion won (US$12.66 billion) for 10 years between 2014 and 2023 if the band continues to maintain its popularity.

BTS’s estimated annual economic value of 4.1 trillion won is 26 times larger than the average medium-sized company in Korea, which earned just 159 billion won in 2016 according to the report. On factors that contributed to the success of the group, the reported said: “All BTS members participate in the songwriting and composing, often writing from their own perspective the concerns of young adults in their teens and twenties, and listeners are able to sympathize with them regardless of their nationality. BTS’s albums and concerts are also structured in a way that has a narrative, which helps attract the attention of fans and raise their expectations for upcoming albums and concerts as well.” Other factors mentioned include active communication with BTS fans - known as ARMY - through social media and the fans’ strong support. [Source: Kim Eun-jin, Joongang Daily, December 18, 2018]

K-Pop: A Clapback to Racism Towards Asians?

Kevin Liao wrote in the New York Times: “I used to laugh whenever my friends would mention their obsession with Korean bands like BTS, Girls’ Generation and EXO. The colorful hair, the dated beats and the quirkiness of East Asian pop culture all stood in stark contrast to what I had come to expect from pop artists. In retrospect, the most foreign aspect of it all was the fact that the Katy Perrys, Justin Biebers and Taylor Swifts of western music were replaced by faces like my own. [Source: Kevin Liao, New York Times, December 11, 2018]

“Somehow, even I got sucked into this strange K-pop universe. Sure, the quality of the music is sometimes debatable. I’m not going to try to tell you that nine women dressed up in tight yellow skirts singing about their love for “Mr. Taxi” is some sort of brilliant artistic feat. So why am I still rambling on about K-pop? We hear a lot of debate these days about media representation of minorities. I cannot say that Asian-Americans have had no representation. But American pop culture has typically painted a disfigured portrait of us and rarely thought to rework it.

“We’ve seen this image in classic films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in which white comedian Mickey Rooney wears prosthetics and squints his eyes to transform into Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord. He also adopts on an over-the-top accent for laughs. Fifty years later, we still see this image in shows like “2 Broke Girls,” where Han, the short Chinese-American restaurant manager, is constantly emasculated by white women. It’s hard not to take away from this anything other than that Asians are punch lines, not people.

“More recently, we’ve seen the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” attempt to combat these kinds of harmful stereotypes. As someone with Chinese heritage, it was mind-blowing to see my culture on the big screen for the first time. But “Crazy Rich Asians” is just one movie. It can’t alone fix decades of misrepresentation. For years, I took these lessons to heart. In school, I’d laugh it off whenever kids would pull their eyes back at me, make fun of Asian names, or otherwise insinuate that we were ugly, undesirable, and foreign. Incidents like these would shape the way I saw the world and myself. Whatever cool looked like to me back then, it certainly didn’t look anything like me.

“K-pop is not the answer to American racism, nor is it even a proper representation of the wide diversity of people that the pan-ethnic term “Asian-American” represents. The South Asian and Southeast Asian representation that Western media fails to demonstrate does not exist in K-pop either. But for me, K-pop has helped me unlearn the lesson that my Korean-Chinese blood somehow made me less than. K-pop never showed me such a tightly restrained picture of what it means to be of East Asian descent, instead its stars show a range of diversity. Some K-pop stars can move audiences to tears with their voices. Others can light up stages with their dance moves. So maybe I, too, a Korean-Chinese American, could be ugly or sexy, nerdy or cool, quiet or loud like the K-pop stars I saw in music videos. Maybe I, too, could be seen as a person, not a punch line.

K-Pop Cultural Feedback Loop

Regina Kim wrote in Rolling Stone: “An interesting pattern I’ve observed with Korean pop culture is that what’s popular in South Korea is often not popular abroad, and vice versa. (This was generally true for Korean films too until Parasite.) When PSY’s “Gangnam Style” blew up globally in 2012, Koreans were shocked and puzzled. While PSY was well-known in South Korea, he was nowhere near the most popular artist, much less someone likely to break into the American market. But when “Gangnam Style” became the most viewed video on YouTube, the Korean media and even the Korean government suddenly couldn’t get enough of him, hailing him as a national hero for catapulting his country to global stardom. His face was plastered everywhere, from Korean cosmetics to instant noodle ads to postage stamps. A statue commemorating his viral hit was erected in Seoul. [Source: Regina Kim, Rolling Stone, December 9, 2020]

“A similar story has occurred with BTS, who became popular abroad before they became popular in South Korea. Once overlooked as a boy band in their home country, BTS is now topping the charts in South Korea due to their international fame, with hit “Dynamite” holding the top spot on the Gaon and Melon music charts from September through most of November. Their newly released album BE, currently ranked Number Two on the Gaon Album Chart, has sparked a steady stream of positive press in the Korean media, albeit much of the coverage focuses on the album’s success overseas in places like the US, the UK and other countries.

“So, popularity abroad shapes public opinion back home in Korea — even if many K-pop artists are crafting work primarily for Western audiences, as in BTS’s work with Halsey, Steve Aoki, Ed Sheeran and Jason Derulo, Blackpink’s collabs with Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, and AB6IX’s remix of Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.”

K-Pop Culture and Tourism in Seoul

The gigantic Seoul metropolis, home to nearly half of the country’s 52 million population, it remains the focal point of the entertainment industry, despite government efforts to delocalize and relocate state organizations including the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) and Korea Media Rating Board. [Source: Patrick Frater, Variety, December 8, 2020]

In 2012, John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “In Seoul, you can feel K-pop all around you. There is the constant presence of the idols on billboards and in display ads. Life-size cutouts of idols greet you at the entrances of the big department stores. On the streets and in the subways you see echoes of the idols’ faces. (On one occasion, in a hotel lobby, I strode up to what I thought was a cutout of a K-pop idol, only to find that it was a real woman, who frowned and moved away.) In Gangnam, the ritzy shopping district on the south side of the Han River, the architecture is as showy as the idols themselves.” [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012]

Regina Kim wrote in Rolling Stone: “This cultural feedback loop is literally changing Seoul’s landscape. When I traveled to Seoul in 2014 to see relatives and friends, many cafés and restaurants in the popular Myeong-dong district played lounge and Korean indie music (if you’re a K-drama fan, think soundtrack of Coffee Prince or Reply 1988). But when I went back in 2018, the streets of Myeong-dong were blasting K-pop and lined with K-idol-emulating vendors hawking the latest K-beauty products, many of which also featured images of K-pop idols. Up-and-coming idol groups and idol wannabes were holding live performances on the street. [Source: Regina Kim, Rolling Stone, December 9, 2020]

“And to my surprise, I saw more tourists than locals, which I found out the hard way when no passerby I approached on the street spoke Korean. In one jarring episode, I walked into a cosmetics store in Myeong-dong and a store associate immediately spoke to me in Thai. When I stared at her blankly, she switched to Chinese. After overcoming my initial shock, I responded to her in Korean — and she apologized and told me, smiling, how relieved she was to finally be able to speak again in Korean.

“All this to say that, while I’m pleased K-pop’s global success has done so much for the country, a part of me is also concerned that many people around the world equate contemporary K-pop with Korean music — when that is far from the case. And I’m honestly not sure how I feel when I see parts of Seoul transformed into K-pop-inspired shopping paradises for tourists. When I spoke to relatives and friends in Korea about this, they remarked that they too felt Seoul had lost some of its charm. (That said, this year the pandemic has shuttered countless stores throughout Myeong-dong and reduced visitors to the district by 90 percent. No one knows what a post-pandemic Myeong-dong will look like, though its image as a tourist trap is ingrained in the minds of many locals.)

Hallyu in Latin America

Dani Madrid-Morales of City University of Hong Kong wrote:The popularity of South Korean popular culture in Spanish-speaking countries is on the rise. In April 2013, some 13,000 fans attended a concert in Lima by South Korean group Super Junior In November of the same year, another band, Big Bang, drew a crowd of 14,000 in Peru and then a similar number in neighbouring Chile (Briceno, 2013). [Source: Dani Madrid-Morales, ‘Transatlantic connection’: K-pop and K-drama fandom in Spain and Latin America.” City University of Hong Kong, 2014]

“Ratings of South Korean dramas in places like Ecuador and Chile are also increasing and some manage to attract more viewership during prime time than local telenovelas (Granic, 2013). In Colombia, for example, Cheon-guk eui Gyedan/Stairway to Heaven (Escalera al cielo in Spanish) was the most watched afternoon program in 2013. On YouTube, K-pop videos with lyrics translated into Spanish get millions of views. Furthermore, according to a recent study, in 2013, the number of online fan groups in the Americas totalled 464, up from 377 in 2012 (Korea Foundation, 2013).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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