Held in the US last May, ‘KCON’ was a great success and received acclaim from the 53,000 fans in attendance. This was a huge Korean Wave festival. Also, in Milan, Italy last July 7, local people performed a cover of a K-pop dance and showed their passion for K-pop. In examples such as these, K-pop is going global and moreover, is a successful industry in Korea.
In the K-pop industry, there are many people who contribute like artists, composers, producers, directors, critics, etc. But, K-pop idols play a very big role among them. BTS, EXO, BLACK PINK, and SHINEE are Korean representative idol groups that are popular globally, not just locally. One such leader is BTS. They recently topped the ”Billboard Hot 200”, as well as becoming a “Billboard Top Social Artist”, and “Korea’s first highest record 100 million views” in the last 2 years alone. It is a new record in K-pop history and they are continuing to write this history. EXO also made it to number one in the ITUNES album chart in 41 regions of the world, and it is also an amazing record.
Concerning K-pop idols’ exceptional records, not only are the Korean media paying attention but the foreign press as well to this amazing phenomenon. However, most of the media is misinterpreting the cause of the success of the K-pop idols.
■The scope of K-pop
Before getting to the point, let’s define exactly the scope of K-pop. After second generation idols like Super Junior, Wonder Girls, BIGBANG in the middle of 2000s, the word ‘K-pop’ tended to be defined by their music. Solo artists also are in the category of K-pop, but some people disagree on this. So, this article is going to focus on K-pop idols and analyze the cause of how this cultural product found success all over the world.
■Are K-pop idols initially made to target foreign markets?
There is no reason to create an idol group that targets overseas in Korea. When you see the idol groups that succeed abroad now, you can notice that they already rose up to stardom in Korea. In other words, K-pop idols are part of an industry that caters to the Korean mass-media market and they don’t target global markets from the beginning. Otherwise, some people interpret them as “goods for export” because a domestic market of K-pop is inactive and there is no choice but to make a profit in abroad for them. Of course, this statement makes a certain kind of sense. But, the reason why K-pop idols can be globalized is not so strategic. It is just that the K-pop culture that we made to enjoy is “surprisingly” exciting in other countries. When a producer starts to create a K-pop idol groups at first, he doesn’t expect their albums to be sold in abroad form the beginning, nor can he afford to. It is very foolish to think that they can go abroad without occupying the domestic market because it is hard to catch attention of Korean people who are very picky.
■ The first foothold for a global K-pop idol is “YouTube”
In fact, the history of K-pop globalization is short. From the first-generation idols such as SECHSKIES and HOT to now, K-pop idols have been constantly going into the world. But, it is the first time for BTS as an idol group to get worldwide spotlight for two years. The reason why K-pop idols couldn’t be globalized from the beginning is because of the vital role of “SNS”. When you see the SNS platform of idols now, you can watch a huge amount of content such as music videos and personal broadcastings on YouTube. In this way, “YouTube” has sparked the globalization of K-pop idols. There are not many opportunities to hear K-pop in foreign countries. Therefore, it was almost impossible for foreigners to get to know K-pop idols unless they performed abroad in past. However, with the increasing use of SNS, foreigners can watch K-pop idols on Internet and YouTube now. Additionally, the world showed unexpected reaction to their contents on YouTube. In this way, YouTube played a role in bridging K-pop idols with the world, and this became the foothold for K-pop idols’ worldwide success.
■A difference between K-pop and J-pop: an ability to use YouTube
With constant exposure in foreign countries from the mid-2000s, K-pop idols laid the groundwork for introducing future generations of K-pop at the same time. Then why couldn’t J-pop with some of the same features stand out in abroad like K-pop? Then current SM director Kim Young-min appeared on the Japan variety TV show “Tokyo, who is moving the world?” on November 4, 2011. On this show, he discussed the overall K-pop market as well as K-pop idols. At that time, a Japanese journalist Yoshiko Sakurai asked him about the reason why Japanese musicians aren’t able to penetrate the world like K-pop idols. In reply, he said that “it is not because Japanese can’t go abroad but because a domestic demand is too big.” This makes a sense, but his saying was a bit political. Maybe, it was hard to speak frankly on a Japanese TV Channel about the real reason why Japanese musicians couldn’t succeed overseas. But the real reason is that Japanese artists don’t use YouTube as well as K-pop idols. Also, K-pop culture has a trendy beat or melody in most markets, but J-pop culture’s characteristic is too strong. Meanwhile, Japan’s “Galapagos syndrome” *, which is a way to describe Japan’s cultural isolation, made their music more difficult to be exposed on Internet. So, when K-pop idols upload their videos on YouTube, Japanese musicians sometimes delete their videos for all these reasons.
*Galapagos syndrome: a phenomenon of isolation in the global market for developing technology to suit one's own taste
■ Is K-pop for export and J-pop for domestic use?
Meanwhile, in the Japanese media, director Kim’s response turned into the saying, “K-pop is for export and J-pop is for domestic use” contrary to his intention. Also, even in Korea media, they started to report this wrong interpretation. Some foreign media interpreted this to mean that a free distribution of K-pop videos on YouTube is strategy of overseas market, saying “Korea let the worldwide young people know about the K-pop when Japan deleted their contents on YouTube.” But in Korea, these contents on YouTube are not to target the global market from the beginning. It is only used as a window to communicate with fans or to promote their activities.
■ What makes K-pop so charming around the world?
Why does the world go crazy for K-pop idols? What is their charm? We must know about the music preferences of the Korean public to start. Because K-pop idols are in an industry that is entirely suited to the taste of Korean public, can we say that this is why they make the world go crazy? There are many different points of view on this, but the most important point is that Korean public is very sensitive to overseas trends. They have already been sensitized to trendy music from overseas such like brake beat, funk, heavy metal, and hip-hop from the 90s.
As such, K-pop idols’ music have enough of the American pop musical elements that are currently led the worldwide music market, and they have developed and blended their own style with these very well. In addition, their perfect group dance, called “Kalgunmu”, is an enough reason to be enthusiastic about them in abroad.
■K-pop idols still have a long way to go
K-pop idols shouldn’t settle for where they are just because they are now experiencing global success. The biggest problem of K-pop idol’s music is “loosing lyrics.” They have many charming aspects such as near perfect dance moves and engaging pop melodies, but there is a lack of “sincerity” in the lyrics. This is the reason why other K-pop groups are not in the spotlight as much as BTS, the most successful K-pop idol abroad. BTS write, compose, and produce all their own songs. They also are excellent at communicating their own world and story to young people through many projects such like “A School Trilogy”, “A Second Edition of Youth”, and “Love Yourself.” They call this, “storytelling project.” On contrary, there are countless absurd lyrics in K-pop idols’ songs. There are many videos that point out the lyrics on YouTube. For example, in the song of “Boys and girls” wrote by ZICO, there is a saying that women who go out with men should be lavishly treated because “I’m a boy and you’re a girl.” Also, in BEAST’s “Shock”, they sing, "every day I shock" just as a man shocked her when breaking up with her.
There is a poetic license to express freely in a poem. Likewise, in public music, the lyrics change according to the flow of the songs because it is somewhat like poetry, even if it has grammatical errors. There seems to be an obsession with addictive “hook songs” that the public can easily sing. Also, usually idol groups have no choice in making their own songs, so they naturally lack sincerity in lyrics. But now, they have a power that lead the world. To create a mature K-pop market, they will have to show their individuality, beliefs, and sincerity enough so that people can empathize with them.
Domestic and foreign media only report their successes abroad, but don’t but don’t speculate in detail as to how they can continue to succeed. Currently, K-pop idol culture is developing its own style and charm, rather than copying the American pop music. The world is reacting favorably to this. Therefore, we need to look carefully on the expansion of K-pop idol culture. Also, we should analyze K-pop critically and this will help to create a shortcut to the realization of a mature K-pop market.< Copyright © The Gachon Herald All rights reserved >