by Mariia Minaeva
Korean popular culture has always been very distinct from what can be seen in the US or Europe. Korean music and TV shows were considered childish, and not taken seriously by Western viewers as they were too different. So why are Korean songs now topping the international charts? And how is it that American TV shows are desperate to have Korean groups as guests? Why do their clips on YouTube get millions of views in less than a day? What is this emerging Korean phenomenon? And more significantly, why is it so important for humanity?
Let’s talk numbers
In the last few years, Korean music bands have been actively pushing forward, but recently they have made a breakthrough on a level unseen before. The position of the main driving force was taken by BTS, a band whose name is now known to anyone at least occasionally keeping an eye on big music events. BTS stands for ‘Bangtan Sonyeondan’ which is usually translated as ‘Bulletproof Boys’. The band was formed in 2013 by an agency, Bit Hit Entertainment, which at that time was rather small and unknown. Since then, BTS has managed to break the invisible wall which separated Korea from the rest of the world. To the slight surprise of the American audience – and the great delight of the fans – in 2019, BTS became the first Korean group ever to present at the GRAMMYs. This year they made a step further and performed a song together with Lil Nas X, one of the winners at the ceremony. The group is determined to move forward and prove to American society that they deserve even more and can be nominated for an award themselves. Next year will show how it turns out. For now, the fans can enjoy American shows such as The Late Late Show with James Corden whose videos with BTS gave him several millions views when most of the videos with American stars count around several hundred thousand views.
One of the aspects that differentiates any Korean band from a Western one is the attitude of the group towards the fandom. Every Korean fandom has its name which gives people a feeling of belonging to a community which can always support them. And it is not only about going to concerts together or covering the wall with posters. Being in a community gives a sense of responsibility and a desire to meet the level which the band demonstrates. For example, in the first week of June 2020, Black Lives Matter Foundation confirmed a $1 million donation received from BTS and their managing company. As soon as the information was announced, ARMY, the group’s fandom, started a charity project #MatchAMillion, based on the idea that fans should try to be as good as their idols. In less than 24 hours, the sum of one million dollars was collected.
It is not all roses
Being a part of a fandom – any fandom, not only a Korean group’s fandom – is, first of all, a great way of creating a safe space for one’s mental health. When one is among people who do not shame them for their interests and make them feel accepted, is it not the most comfortable atmosphere for personal growth and developing mental stability? To help people, many artists decide to make psychological issues the main topic of their work. In a world where the majority of songs – both Eastern or Western – are about love, songs which speak about hidden problematic aspects of people’s lives can not conquer the charts or be on the radio. In the Korean music industry, this niche is often filled by solo artists who exist despite the popular belief that K-pop is all about groups.
An illustrative example of this is Kwon Jung-Yeol, performing under the nickname ‘10cm’ and his song “Help” which covers problematic topics specific to Korean society as well as topics which are universal. He shows pictures and tells ordinary domestic stories, disarming in their simplicity and honesty, e.g. divorced parents having to go through sharing their child and accepting the fact that the kid will never be able to choose one or the other; a gay couple struggling with expressing their feelings in public; illiteracy caused by the high expenses of education. All of it is formulated as a silent cry for help from a person who knows that their mental stability is broken but society, which is highly concentrated on work and productivity, cannot provide them with any means of restoring it.
Some of the groups, however, also dedicate their work to psychological problems rather than romantic relationships which unquestionably sells better. One of such groups is Stray Kids who are now gaining popularity not only in Korea but also in Europe. Since all of the eight members are still young, most of their song lyrics are concerned with the problems of choosing the way one wants to develop, or the anxieties and pressures of growing up. In a song “Road Not Taken” they refer to the famous same-titled poem by Robert Frost and speak about how scary it is to make a choice, but even regardless of the constant fear of the missed opportunity they promise to be brave and keep going on. In “My Pace” the group addresses the problem of comparing oneself with others, a problem which brings lots of troubles not only to the youth but also to the already successful adults. And it is easy to imagine how relevant this issue is among K-pop fans all over the world: after seeing their idols being almost perfect 24/7, it is practically impossible to ignore one’s flaws.
And that is why such songs are important – they remind people to stop and “go on your own way” (“My Pace”, 1:06).
And is it not a relief, after all these aggressively inspirational songs, to hear “Don’t compare yourself with others / It’s ok to run slower” (1:23)?
When it comes to the question of gender roles, it is safe to say that globally, the situation is now turning for the better in that society is becoming more open and ready to accept new trends. In the USA or Europe, male performers such as Billy Porter or Ezra Miller are constantly challenging assumptions by arriving at film premieres or fashion shows wearing outfits which usually would be considered female. What is so interesting about them is that they are neither transgender nor drag queens. They do not disown their masculinity but rather show that masculinity as a concept (and any gender distinctions in general) should not be seen as limited by imaginary borders.
When it comes to South Korea, the situation concerning men and traditional female attire and makeup is significantly different. There, the fashion and cosmetics industries are as powerful as ever. Asian clothing trends now influence the entire fashion industry and Korean skincare products appear on the shelves of beauty shops all over the globe. The use of cosmetics is not something exclusively for women. Men in Korea can resort to the help of cosmetics as much as they want. And it is not only about treatment or care cosmetics; decorative cosmetics also have importance, especially among the younger generation. Needless to say, K-pop idols barely appear in public without wearing makeup. They always serve perfect looks, whether it be in a music video or in the airport after returning to Korea from a concert in another country.
A harsh industry demands them to look pure and flawless, almost as delicate China dolls. And this is one of the aspects that was a stumbling block at the beginning of the Korean Wave but has now turned into a secret weapon.
These young men, so beautiful that they almost look feminine, made many people confused. So the first reaction of the masses was to call the whole thing “gay” and make fun of the freshly appeared fans who actually liked it. But the times are changing, and quite fast. And so, Western society which has, at least partially, become more open to gender-free practices, has seen that there are other cultures where the elements of the American dream where everyone is accepted already exist. The American music industry has seemed to realize that Korean production resonates with the public and it is time to give it a try. So the appearance of the make-up wearing men with violet hair on the red carpet of the 2019 Grammy Awards was enthusiastically accepted, almost universally.
날 부르는 네 목소리에 I feel loved
The most surprising aspect of the rise in K-pop popularity is in the use of language. Korean songwriters have always worked with the Korean language. And even though now they tend to partially adapt their works to the western market, this aspect has not changed. And yet, what allows non-Korean listeners to get the message of the songs is the peculiar way that occasional English lyrics are used. One or two English words are placed in the text so even if the listeners do not get the full translation, they can capture the main idea. For someone who is not familiar with K-pop music it may sound strange in the beginning. Later, however, one can only appreciate this way of singing since it allows everyone to feel involved. And still, during their numerous American interviews, the singers are often asked when their full-English songs will come out. The answers vary. Some groups have already shown their interest in being promoted on the Western market and released several singles in English. Usually, these are reworked versions of already existing Korean songs, for example, “Regular” by NCT or “Double Knot” by Stray Kids. Interestingly enough, while being the most popular K-pop group in the USA, BTS still prefer to keep most of their tracks in Korean. Frequently appearing questions about the English album sound awkward, so fans have already made compilations of the group leader’s nervous laughs when he tries to politely avoid the topic.
About nice people
Another reason why American production companies turned to Korea is that they could not simply keep on ignoring the elephant in the room i.e. the influence of Asia, and South Korea in particular. Globalization has not stopped yet, different cultures keep mingling and people feel it. People have always been smarter than huge companies.
Corporations take ages to open their eyes and see that the whole world is going the other way.
That is why the overt recognition of different cultures is important. It shows that people are ready to accept something distinct, something not at all similar to them but, at the same time, speaking about the same problems, just in different words. And here the focus is not only on the music: it covers all spheres, for example, cinema.
Now it would be inexcusable to speak about Korean culture in the USA without mentioning one of the biggest breakthroughs in the latest history of the Korean filmmaking: the overwhelming success of the satirical drama Parasite. Taking six Oscars and the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture in a foreign language, the film became the first Asian work to win that many accolades. But what is the most important for the discussion is the speech Bong Joon-Ho, the director, gave at the reception of the Golden Globe. He stated: “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” In that short sentence, he captured the essence of this whole process of culture-discovering. Do not let the barriers keep you, the world is huge, and it is out there. And it is not hard to open. It is quite easy, in fact.