An Insider’s Guide to K-pop

Keren Song, GW Chronicle Journalist

BTS, Blackpink, EXO, Girl’s Generation, PSY, and the list goes on and on. However, these stars and dramas come from a country across the ocean, in a faraway land called South Korea. Then why are Americans and the world fond of these foreign groups? Why is South Korea suddenly in the spotlight?

As a teenager living in South Korea, I can easily say that even Koreans were surprised by the attention. I believe Koreans’ start was in August 2012, when PSY’s Gangnam Style music video went viral on YouTube. Then American celebrities started tweeting about the song, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Tom Cruise tweeted about Gangnam Style, urging their followers to watch the video. We don’t know for sure how this song was a thing all of sudden, and even PSY himself replied to an interview question asking how the music video became so popular by saying that “it just happened.” We can only guess that this could be a display of social proof; the more people who watch the video and compliment it, the more people will come to check it out and believe that it is excellent. However, what we know for sure is that this was only the start. In 2019, a survey conducted in 17 countries around the world showed that around 37.5 percent of the respondents stated that the genre K-pop was “very popular” in their country. In about seven years, the popularity of K-pop has soared up.

Let’s get more into the actual reason why this happened. Many people try to find the reason for what people have liked in the past. However, if you’ve listened to K-pop music, you would know that it is different from what the world has enjoyed until now. I believe that that difference is what made K-pop so popular. As a person who lived in both America and Korea, the cultures are very different, from eating manners to fashion. I believe that these unique cultures are what attracts the world to Koreans. Korea’s culture is very different from Japan, which is only about 2 hours by plane away from us and is completely different from China, which is also very close. Most of the popular American singers have naturally learned to sing. For example, Ariana Grande has had no formal vocal training. On the other hand, singers in Korea, to be realistic, cannot become popular without vocal training and dance training in an entertainment group. That company will group the trainees up into groups or decide whether they would be better off alone. You could say that it is more hard-work than the talent you’re watching. However, there is no right and wrong in these systems. Also, dancing is as important as singing in K-pop stars. What can be seen with your eyes is part of the music. It applies the same to music videos. Gangnam Style’s music video was filmed in places around Seoul. This characteristic can make some talented people lose their chance to become an idol, but it matches Korea’s competitive culture. 

Also, Korean isn’t a widely spoken language. Only 35 million people speak Korean, and a big part of them live in North Korea. However, Koreans wanted to go out into the world. So, they needed to develop a scheme to make the world people listen to their music. They grouped the most compatible people into music groups like BTS and Blackpink, then gave them or made them compose catchy songs. It was a must to be catchy. No matter what story it had, it had to have a good, easy to sing-along melody. If they didn’t have these characteristics, it would have never succeeded. Also, 24% of Korean people can speak English, so they mixed English lyrics in raps or catchy phrases. However, that does not mean that Korea forgot about their own traditional culture. BTS’s song IDOL was based on a traditional Korean music beat that could only be heard in traditional plays. Also, BTS performed many stages in Hanboks, traditional Korean clothes. It even seems as if Korea just worked for its climax to display their culture.

Nonetheless, I congratulate BTS on their successful first 100 percent English song and hope that K-pop will present the world with more pleasant surprises.

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