Korean: Pop, Originality, Power

There is a new hit called “Dynamite,” and it’s not by Taio Cruz. Breaking records in the last month, BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan), also known as Bangtan Boys, became the first K-pop group from South Korea to reach the No.1 spot in the Billboard Top 100. Their hit “Dynamite,” a fun 70s disco-pop song that broke the Youtube premiere record with 101.1 million views in 24 hours, is one of many popular songs this boy band has produced. 

However, it isn’t just BTS that’s been taking over the global music community by storm, many other famous K-pop groups are pushing to make their American debut, and likewise, audiences are consuming their songs at a rapid pace. What started with the 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” by PSY has now become a 564.2 million dollar industry for South Korea. Along with BTS, popular Korean groups, like Blackpink, EXO, GOT7, Monsta X, Twice, are carving out a place in the U.S. music scene with millions of streams and video views. But it isn’t just the art form that attracts foreign fans; Korean music brings dimension to the fan-artist experience through personalized lyrics and pioneers Asian representation for the American music industry.

Many K-pop songs are about very pressing social issues in our society. Popular songs like “Mama” by EXO talk about the negative impact of technology on society and our relationships. Meanwhile, dancing elegantly to an electronic beat, missA breaks down the reality of slut-shaming and judging others on their outward appearance in “Bad Girl, Good Girl.” On the other hand, with impressive choreography and fiery energy, BTS expresses the pressures that young people face, such as criticism from older generations for being privileged to eat from a Silver Spoon (Baepsae).”

In the U.S., this type of social issue messaging through music tends to be limited to BIPOC artists. Songs about mental health awareness, bullying, and gender discrimination in the American music industry are often hard to find. In contrast, Korean artists are usually a lot more engaged with their fandoms, appealing to American fans who rely on K-pop as an emotional support system.

The relatability of K-pop lyrics carries over to the artists’ treatment of their audience as well. Artists are known for being open and emotionally vulnerable about their personal lives when connecting with fans. For example, BTS created the popular hit “Dynamite” with the intention of bringing joy to fans that may be going through challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The artists’ personalities and openness to fans are often what strengthens fan loyalty and engagement. Even the Korean music industry’s concept of calling these pop stars “idols” is a means for K-pop stars to keep a clean and responsible image. This type of role model behavior is harder to find in the American music industry. Those American artists and celebrities who are open with fans — Justin Bieber, for instance — tend not to demonstrate the most responsible behavior. On the other hand, K-pop “idols” are expected to navigate the thin line of being both inspirational in their modeling of exemplary manners and approachable in televised or streamed content. 

This approachability is a constant for international fans who, despite cultural and language differences, can find similarities through personality, humor, music, or food. The language barrier becomes of little concern to fans with Google Translate and automatic translation features on Youtube, VLive, and other social media platforms. Likewise, these K-pop artists often resonate strongly with many Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and especially Asian American fans. 

Looking into the American music industry, the lack of diversity is evident, especially for Asian Americans. Asian musicians, singers, and other related workers make up less than 4% in the American music industry, compared to the largest group being White at 73% and the second largest, Black, with 13%. The few Asian American artists that do exist in these spaces face many obstacles and much discrimination. Artists like Jay Park, born in Washington, often end up relocating to countries like South Korea, where they are more likely to make a career. 

For many, K-pop’s growing popularity has become a sign of Asian acceptance or representation in the American entertainment industry. As such, Asian American artists like renowned DJ Steve Aoki and electronic music group Far East Movement openly welcome artists from Asia, such as BTS. The acceptance of their “foreign music” lessens the underlying stereotypes surrounding these artists and groups — promoting that these musicians are not just passable and “cool for an Asian,” but accepted and cherished for tremendous talent and hard work. 

Additionally, many of these artists are socially active in breaking social and gender stereotypes. For many Americans, Korean male idols fit very unique and feminine beauty standards for their culture. Male artists can often be found showing their skincare routines, putting on makeup, or being affectionate towards male friends. Although toxic masculinity exists worldwide, many of these artists attempt to break it through performance and music. These are all reflections of the belief that “gender presentation does not map onto sexuality in any way,” found in Korean culture. This is another unique aspect of these groups encouraging their fan base of all ages and gender identities to be confident in both their identities and appearances. 

Beyond providing memorable songs and challenging choreographies to their fanbase, many Korean artists are also very active in giving back through service. Many K-pop groups are active members and partners with prominent charitable organizations. Famous groups like EXO and BTS are known for their partnerships and donations to the United Nations. The most well-known and powerful demonstration of the K-pop fandom’s political influence in the U.S. was during the Black Lives Matter protests. Americans feel appreciated and loved by their favorite Korean artists for the consistent support shown toward social issues that directly impact much of the fanbase.

Shortly following #BlackoutTuesday, the hashtags #WhiteoutWednesday and #Blacklivesdontmatter attempted to gain support. However, many K-pop fans blocked out this type of racism and harassment by flooding these hashtags with pictures, gifs, videos, and fancams of their favorite Korean artists. Due to their action, the negative comments from these posts were drowned out by Wendy from Red Velvet’s dancing video, Lucas from NCT’s cheeky wink gif, or pictures of Stray Kid’s Felix posing. 

However, it wasn’t just fans that were actively involved in raising social awareness. Many K-pop artists directly donated money to help the BLM movement, show their support to the non-violent protestors being arrested, and support their Black fans. But the move that received the most coverage was BTS donating 1 million dollars to the Black Lives Matter foundation, which was then quickly matched by the BTS fanbase “Army,” creating a donation total of 2 million dollars. This type of influence and positive impact towards community and social justice is not only extremely impressive and rare but also shocking, especially from non-American artists. 

Their heightened awareness of social issues falls in line with Korean idol groups and artists’ commitment to changing the American music scene with their emotional vulnerability and challenge of social stereotypes. For their fans, this commitment is clear: Kpop artists have shattered records, changed lives, and helped communities to the point of being recognized in headlines as an army. Still, the public needs to realize that it’s unfair to categorize K-pop as “just this Asian thing,” when its impacts extend far beyond music and into reshaping our expectations for the social awareness of celebrities. 

Image Credit: Image by TenAsia is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Leave a Comment

Solve : *
3 − 3 =