What if we tell you that Korean pop music has the ability to bring the world to its knees?
A quick internet search will reveal sold-out K-pop concerts teeming with fans singing their hearts out to lyrics they barely understand. Its stans are known to learn every pop, lock, and shimmy from the choreography of their favourite songs.
Fans will buy out concerts, merchandise and every brand endorsed by K-pop idols. Some fans even learn the Korean language. And if you thought Beyoncé Knowles’s BeyHive dominated social media, you’ve probably never encountered the BTS ARMY fanbase.
Wait a minute … the only thing you know about K-pop is Gangnam Style? Hold on, we have a story for you. PSY’s 2012 song was the first YouTube video to reach a billion views. But apart from being a one-off success story in the West, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The K-pop music industry is a surreal scene that has been around since the 1990s. Its addictive tunes are fused with pitch-perfect, wide-ranging vocals, masterfully choreographed dances and high stage–production values. The attractive K-pop idols spend years learning to perform song and dance routines in synchronised perfection. There are Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai idols because Korean companies hold open auditions and scout would-be idols diversely. All you need is the look (physical appearance or personality), the talent and the willingness to do what it takes to make it to the top.
K-pop groups even sing in Japanese, English and Chinese to capture different audiences, and they don’t stick to just one musical genre. The songs combine elements of rock, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, electronic dance, classical and Latin pop with traditional Korean music roots.
The first group on the scene were Seo Taiji and Boys, who debuted in 1992 and are credited with establishing the more modern form of K-pop by using rap in their songs.
K-pop idols pair their music with videos with elaborate storylines. Western pop music might be catchy and have cool videos, but K-pop is a sensory experience. The stories and worlds contained in artists’ discographies provide enough more than enough content for entire movies.
Popping: In May this year BTS won two awards at the Billboard Music Awards and kicked off their global Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California (Big Hit Entertainment)
Clearly, this concept works. The past five years have seen a worldwide explosion of K-pop, which has gone from being a niche genre to a $5-billion global industry. From the millions the industry makes now, it’s hard to imagine it was created to bail South Korea out of a financial crisis.
The year 1997 was a bad one for Southeast and East Asian countries. It created complicated economic conditions, which led the Thai baht to be pegged to the American dollar. Its devaluing had disastrous effects: stock market declines, reduced import revenues and government upheavals in many countries in the region, including South Korea.
Turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial organisations for a bailout, the South Korean government was left with a $55-million debt. The government had to be creative in coming up with ways to pay back the money and restore economic sustainability.
One of their initiatives involved the entertainment industry. The government pumped money into entertainment and began actively promoting Korean pop culture around the world, mobilising all other industries to sustain the Hallyu Wave.
The Hallyu Wave is a Chinese term describing the growing popularity of the Korean entertainment industry around the world. Its effect is felt everywhere — from the growing number of Korean dramas on Netflix and the popular 10-step Korean skincare regimen and makeup products dominating the cosmetics industry to the growing interest in the country’s cuisine.
But it was the development of artists under businessman Lee Soo Man that helped develop the K-pop industry into a major economic player. His entertainment business was also suffering under the economic crisis. To ensure his company’s survival, Lee went public with it. By listing his company on the South Korean stock exchange and developing groups such as H.O.T, TVXQ and BoA, he became known as the father of Hallyu.
The top K-pop companies SM, JYP and YG are known as the Big 3 and are all worth millions of dollars. A 2017 report by the government’s Korea Creative Content Agency showed that the K-pop export has made the South Korean music industry into an estimated $5-billion industry. The net worth of BTS’s parent entertainment company, BigHit Entertainment, is measured at more than $1-billion. The Big 3 previously had the biggest effect on the stocks, but now, when BTS achieves success, the stocks of other companies rise too.
Money talks. The highest authorities in music have been forced to make way for K-pop. The MTV Video Music Awards announced it would include a category for it in the 2019 edition of the awards. This is only its second foreign language music category, after the Latin pop category was introduced in 2010. Bruce Gillmer, head of music and music talent at MTV International, said the K-pop category was to “reflect the rich pop music landscape”.
The truth is that K-pop has become difficult to ignore on the pop culture scene. Girl group BLACKPINK shattered records when the video for their song, Kill This Love, had the biggest music-video debut in YouTube history, garnering 56.7-million views in its first 24 hours in April this year. The previous record was held by Ariana Grande, whose Thank U, Next video held the top spot with 55.4-million views in the first day. Then, a week later, BTS decimated BLACKPINK’s record by racking up 74.6-million views in one day with their Boy With Luv music video featuring Halsey.
We can’t explain the K-pop success story without understanding the streaming revolution.
Streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music have allowed fans a greater voice in the industry. And dedicated fans hold “streaming parties” that can last anything from 24 hours to an entire month, which make sure their favourite artists stay on top of the charts. K-pop fans have capitalised on this revolution to make the industry truly international. It’s not unlike how fans, rather than executives, ushered in the underground culture of punk, and how hardcore entered the mainstream in the 1970s.
Fans are organised by country and exert their cult-like devotion on social media. They can trend a hashtag in minutes, or drag an unfortunate social media user who dares to criticise them to hell and back. Despite their virtual presence, they have tangible power.
Just look at BTS, also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan, now one of the most popular acts in the world. The group first made international headlines when they beat out Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez for the Billboard Music Top Social Artist Award in 2017. A K-pop group winning this US award was unheard of. The award goes to the nominee with the most votes on the Billboard Music Award website, and with the most tweets using a specific hashtag. In 2018, three K-pop acts — BTS, GOT7 and EXO — were nominated for the Top Social Artist. Winning once more, BTS were undeniably front and centre on the international stage,and they demanded attention.
In the 12 months since, BTS have become unstoppable, the first Korean act to debut an album at No 1 on the United States’s Billboard 200 chart, and to chart a single at No 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Matching a record held by The Beatles, BTS’s latest album Map of the Soul: Persona became their third consecutive chart-topping album in the US in under a year.
Not only did BTS score a Grammy nomination this year, they were also invited to join the prestigious Recording Academy of Grammy voters. Their huge fanbase, ARMY, bagged them some Guinness World Records, and they went on to be named in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The seven-member boy band have collaborated with international artists including Halsey, Steve Aoki, Zara Larsson and Nicki Minaj, making them perhaps the factor most responsible for K-pop’s runaway success in the West.
While there had been several earlier attempts by K-pop groups to break into the international scene, BTS seemed to arrive at exactly the right time, capitalising on a very particular pop culture zeitgeist.
Bang PD, the chief executive of BigHit, took a big risk when he launched the group, who sang about mental health, the pressures on youth, and the importance of loving yourself.
K-pop music, like most pop, is a mixture of dance music and ballads about love, relationships and life experiences. But their message resonated with fans like nothing else in that moment and since — not just in Korea and Southeast Asia, but all over the world. When BTS began to blow up in 2016 and 2017 globally there was a shift among young people towards social consciousness and representation.
Before and after PSY there were one or two other K-pop acts that made it on to the international stage, but none as successful as the most recent acts. One notable attempt was made by the nine-member Girls Generation, who launched a marketing campaign for their Interscope Records debut in 2011 that didn’t quite catch on.
Before them, veterans Wonder Girls had toured as the opening act for the Jonas Brothers, but also hadn’t scored a hit.
Both groups had recorded English versions of their hit songs but still this had not been enough to break into the market. Everything has changed now, though. No translation required.
While the industry might seem like sunshine and rainbows, that isn’t always the case. Hidden behind the aesthetically pleasing music videos and bubbly personalities of the idols is its dark side. Many idols who have left their companies after their contracts expired have spoken about the difficult process of becoming an idol.
Watching a K-pop performance often means looking at a perfectly performed dance with not a single mistake. Yet, for some idols, getting to that level of perfection is difficult. It takes hours and hours of gruelling practice with no leeway for exhaustion.
In many of the Korean entertainment companies, including the Big 3, there exists something referred to as the “slave contract”: Prospective idols must sign contracts that tie them to the company for three to seven years. They undergo extreme training to reach the level of perfection they display on stage.
There is also no guarantee that trainees will ever become idols, meaning they could be stuck in the company for years without ever tasting the limelight. Even after idols make their debut, it can take years before they earn any money from their performances. BigHit is one of the only companies that gives their artists 50% of their earnings. Most of the other companies take the bulk of the earnings, with the artists taking home a pittance.
Three members of the popular 12-member EXO left the group, unhappy about the discrimination they said they faced as Chinese members of a K-pop group, as well as the unfair division of profits. One member, Tao, sued SM Entertainment — but lost his case and had to pay the company out for the rest of his contract so that he could leave.
Idols also face extreme pressures to be perfect, on stage and off. Most companies have clauses in their contracts that do not allow idols to date. Plastic surgery is rife among idols, with many going under the knife to get the desired youthful look: double lids, pointed noses, small faces and small lips.
Although the industry is troublesome, sometimes it is the idols themselves who exhibit questionable behaviour. Some have an unfortunate and tone-deaf inclination towards wearing blackface, for example. Perhaps the bigger problem is that the idols and their companies fail to respond when fans call out this racist and discriminatory behaviour, or simply say they don’t find it to be a problem.But with increased global attention on the industry comes increased scrutiny, and the idols and their companies will surely not be able to get away with brushing their problematic behaviour aside for much longer, if they plan to remain on the global scene.
And then, later this year, BTS will be the first K-pop act to tour Saudi Arabia — not exactly an uncontroversial decision in light of events on the geopolitical stage.
As for South Africa, the K-pop scene here is still growing. But every year, more and more South African fans find their way online, host fan meet-ups or even gather at events organised by the Korean Embassy, dreaming of the day when a K-pop superstar might perform on an African stage, too.