K-pop and the Eastern Wave: Is the West Ready?

American audiences are always late to the party on new music. It doesn’t matter if it’s within their own borders or outside of it. Whether it’s because of the egotistical thought of everything having to be in English, general American ego, or xenophobia, things that aren’t perceived as American often aren’t accepted in the pop culture vein. But in that, there are exceptions and even success stories.

Countries that have found musical success in this lane are Britain, Australia, and other English speaking territories. But of course, in that observation, all these countries actually speak English. While it can still be hard for acts outside of the country to succeed, they have the advantage of singing in the common language. Naturally, when they sing, these acts don’t “sound” foreign. It’s right at home. So, what about the acts that don’t perform in English? This is not to say that there has never been such successes. Daddy Yankee, Luis Fontaine, and Marc Anthony are among some Spanish speaking artists to have thrived internationally. Even with that, what about those that aren’t “American-based”?

Over the past few years, there has been a rise in artists finding success in the west that hail from across the pond and their songs aren’t in English. Welcome to the world of K-pop, ladies and gents. First hitting the states in a major way with Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, K-pop has been building an international fan base thanks in part to the internet and Youtube. Barriers that were there because of location difference are now eliminated through the click of a button. K-artists can rack up millions of views and can now even be heard on Top 40 radio. But with these new tools, one has to ask, is this enough? To do so, we have to examine K-pop in its full scope. Take a look at how I found it. It goes without saying, but my journey in discovering it wasn’t how audiences usually find their playlist rotation.

In 2015, I was in college and bored on a regular weekend. As whenever I was bored, I would go to Youtube. My regular viewing included The Fine Bros. and they were doing a Youtubers react video to K-pop. I was mildly curious so I clicked on it. From there, my world was opened up to something new. I always listened to J-pop and J-rock, as I watched a lot of anime, so I was already used to listening to music in another language. But this was different. After my interest was peaked, I did my research to find out everything I could about K-pop culture.

There is history to this machine. While it may seem like a new thing to us, K-pop came to be in the early 1990s. The first blueprint came in the form of the group Seo Taiji & The Boys in 1992. They appeared on leading Korean network MBC, not faring well initially but later finding popularity with teen audiences. They could be called the godfathers of K-pop. Lee Soo-man would later use this blueprint of his formation of the modern “idol” group with his company SM Entertainment. One of the members of Seo Taiji & The Boys, Yang Hyun-suk would go on to form YG Entertainment in 1995. Pop soloist, Park Jin-young, would form the next huge company in JYP Entertainment in 1997. These three giants are modernly known as “The Big 3” because of their placement in K-pop history with their legendary groups and impact.

The idea of “idol bands” has long been a corporate and manufactured idea. Upon their formation, “The Big 3” and other organizations would hold auditions to find talent and those suitable would be taken in and trained rigorously. Think of it as pop star boot camp. Depending on a trainee’s progress and the company’s release schedule, they could be up for “debut” – where they would perform and earn heavy marketing support behind a new song or album. To this day, the groups have to be a perfect mix of vocal, rap, dance, visual, and charisma in order to obtain the dedicated promotion.

With all this training, talent, and money behind them, you would think that any idol group that debuts becomes successful afterward. That couldn’t be farther from the case. Unless they are a part of “The Big 3”, groups may not have substantial resources to promote themselves and it can also be a struggle to catch the ear of bigger audiences. Even groups under larger entertainment companies still have to work incredibly hard and need the opportunity to take off. The chances are slim in every way. With this knowledge now in hand, you can see how it might be hard for a group or artist to even make their mark. But where there’s a will, there is a way.

Enter the late 2010s. As I was finding K-pop, the rest of the world was too. Artists like SNSD, Big Bang, 2PM, and Rain found mild commercial success in the early 2000s, but the next generation sought to make noise on a global level. Major city festivals like K-Con found groups of varying size successfully performing in arenas to millions of fans – fans that had found them on the internet and were giving them legitimate support in the United States. GOT7, EXO, and BTS were taking the world by storm, the latter becoming the first Korean act to top the Billboard 200 twice within a single year in 2018.

But even with this recent ascension, at this very moment, there is still a barrier. A gap that still fails to be broken. To find out about this barrier, I went to someone that has a foot in both American and Korean culture.

Sydney is an American who hails from Chicago, IL but currently lives Daegu, South Korea. She is Managing Editor at Look & Hue Magazine, a teacher, and a Youtuber. More specifically, a reactor and content creator.

When asking her about the biggest differences between the cultures she said, “The culture here is very fast paced which I find to be a double-edged sword. Good because you can expect things to be done very quickly, especially the important things. However, in some cases where you wish you had more time to give more quality work, being quick over quality is usually the option you must go with. Thus, fast mentality can be applied to different aspect of Korean society like education and work. The second thing I can think of is the homogenous society of South Korea. It’s a given that foreigners make a very small percentage of people living in South Korea, let alone black men and women in South Korea,” she says. “It may be a little hard to get many different or diverse perspectives outside of the ones of Korean society, in some cases.”

Speed and efficiency are two concepts extremely relevant in the modern music industry. Often times, artists will announce a project a month in advance, spend a few weeks teasing it, release the work paired with a music video, and then promote for a month or so on music-focused shows. The speed being a point of concern, Sydney doesn’t think it would be too much of an issue, but instead believes the language barrier to be one of the biggest obstacles. “Korean is one of the hardest languages to learn if your first language is English, let alone understand the significance and meaning it holds for many fans.”

On top of that, due to the saturation of the market, it can be hard to get into and follow one specific artist extensively. In comparison to the 2000s and early 2010s, there now seems to be a new group popping up every few months. For those still getting familiar with K-pop culture, but Sydney has some advice: “It can be hard to keep up, so I usually say to new fans that they need to find the artists they love and they can add on from there.”

One of her favorite acts is indeed BTS, the name that is leading the charge into the American market. When asked about the extent of their crossover appeal, she believes it is their mixing of genres, which is done at an exceptional level (from roots in pop to hip-hop) that has helped the cause. Their fanbase’s loyalty and appreciation set them apart too. In regards to who has next stateside, Sydney thinks Monsta X, NCT, Gi-DLE, and LOONA are all capable of blasting off with their growing fanbases, the appeal of international members, and most importantly, quality music.

While of course there are all these land and language barriers, there are other things that may stop K-pop from crossing over, one being blatant misogyny and racism. In this era of heightened social awareness, behavior like this can hinder groups and artists from appealing to international fans. While some chalk it up to South Korea being so isolated in their culture, there is a knowledge and admiration of hip-hop culture that shows they aren’t completely isolated. SK Rapper San E recently released a song called “Feminist” that is almost contradictory in the title, so although there is a clear lack of knowledge, there are sources to research the dos and don’ts as well. Sydney and other outlets like podcast “Ohh Kpop Off With Your Melanin” converse about idols and other K-artists doing racially and culturally insensitive things. Their longevity potentially being hindered if they cannot act accordingly. While there have been statements and apologies, in this age they can easily be canceled and may not be able to see western success because of it. Ultimately, it is all determined by fans on whether or not they can withstand these things and move past them.

While K-pop is making the loudest noise so far, K-hip hop/R&B has been making strides as well. The seeds Drunken Tiger placed back in the ’90s are bearing fruit. Jay Park, the first Asian-American from signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, is prepping for his stateside takeover and DEAN has collaborated with a few American artists like Syd and Eric Ballenger. Eric Nam who hails from Atlanta not only makes music but has been working as an MC and personality on Korean television. The possible avenues are endless. Chinese artist such as Lay, Jackson Wang, and Kris Wu are readying their splash as well, Lay and Wu both having released albums in English.

There is this thirst for Asian voices to be heard in popular media and this might be one of of the most viable ways for that to happen. America has always had trouble embracing change, but the change is here. The gates have already been opened and the streams are coming. The question isn’t whether or not America is ready, but whether if the wave that has already started can turn into a flood. Only time will tell, but I for one am ready to swim.

Get started on K-pop with these specially curated playlists:

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