Kpop’s increased global presence

Misty Olawunmi, Staff Writer

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “K-pop?” You might imagine popular groups BTS and BLACKPINK and their wide-reaching audience of devoted fans. Both have made history with their accomplishments, with Blackpink becoming the first Asian act to headline Coachella and BTS becoming the first K-pop group to receive a Grammy nomination in a top four category. While both are breaking records as they go, focusing on just BTS and Blackpink does not give a complete picture of the K-pop industry and the increased global presence of Korean cultural exports. Instead, a closer look at the appeal of K-pop may reveal how and why it is such a global phenomenon. 

Dubbed “Hallyu” or “Korean Wave,” the prominence of South Korean pop culture is spearheading globalization — the increasing connectedness and interdependence of world cultures and economies. Everything from Korean drama shows like “Squid Game” to movies like “Parasite” and Korean cosmetics has captured the attention of millions worldwide, but K-pop is even more widespread. According to Forbes, in 2021, the music sector of the Korean economy was the world’s sixth most profitable, despite only accounting for less than 10% of global output. Much of this growth can be attributed to K-pop idol music as, according to Vox, K-pop ballooned into a $5 billion industry by 2018. But what makes it so profitable?

K-pop is not just a music genre. Instead, it is an entertainment vessel with a ton of preparation and resources behind it. With a meticulous training system in place and reality survival competition shows, companies can be cutthroat as they look to develop a group. They are likely intense because they are investing millions in crafting groups that will earn acclaim in the industry and turn a profit. Once picked, training can take upwards of a couple of months to a decade. To build hype, companies typically demonstrate the abilities of their members every step of the way through teasers before their debut. Unfortunately, a debut is not always guaranteed. Even when a group is ready to debut after years of training, the cord can still get cut, as seen with Trainee A in 2022. The effort to create iconic idols is exhaustive but can often prove to be worth it due to the level of attention a company can gain. One advantage of this new influence is the potential consumers who could become lifelong customers by joining a fanbase. 

Fans latch onto K-pop idol groups for a variety of reasons. These groups often fill a void left by mainstream boy bands and girl groups like One Direction and the Spice Girls, providing the same vibe with a twist. K-pop is a spectacle full of intensive choreography, striking aesthetics and a collage of sounds, which create breathtaking moments for fans to enjoy. In addition, variety shows serve as a source of entertainment outside of performances, displaying idols’ personalities when they are off stage by placing them in funny situations. As a result, new listeners develop a stronger connection to the group.

Another reason for the rise in K-pop’s popularity is the variety of genres and cultural fusion. Despite the name, K-pop draws influence from many genres, including hip-hop, R&B, rock and EDM. The adoption of different styles can be seen in ensembles’ discographies as they experiment, producing songs that have English sprinkled in between Korean lyrics. This diversity allows casual listeners to find a group whose concept — the theme of an album or group, they enjoy. As a group establishes its presence through performances, variety shows and discography, a community begins to form, with fans weaving their membership into their identity. Despite language differences, international listeners continue to listen as the lyrical content does not matter. What matters is the emotions K-pop provides.

Whether K-pop reaches the heights of mainstream appeal in countries like the U.S. remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though, for K-pop fans the idols they follow open a whole new world of expression, giving them new experiences through performances and concepts. The music and atmosphere transcend language barriers, helping fans of different backgrounds find confidence in themselves through formed relationships with each other and their idols. In the words of TWICE in their song “Moonlight Sunrise,” “I guarantee I got ya.”