In the last decade or so, the rising popularity of South Korea’s cultural influence (popularly known as the Hallyu or Korean Wave) has literally swept across the globe. You could even say that it is now rooted firmly as an international phenomenon.
The most significant fraction of this wave? Korean pop music or K-pop. Countries in the West have been slower on the uptake. Yet, the people living there are now clamouring for the distinctively fun, frenzied and certainly addictive charm of this South Korean export.
Rise Of The K-Wave
Hark back to the 1990s, when the most popular music coming from the Eastern region were the eclectic sounds of Japanese pop (J-pop) or the stadium-filling legends that came out of Hong Kong’s Cantopop.
The mainstream success of pop music in Asia reached its peak in the decade – but crossing into the millennium, these markets seemingly lost their traction. Music fans in Japan moved away from the pop genre.
Mainstream music started becoming more influenced by rock and hip-hop, as well. In Hong Kong, the death of mega Cantopop stars such as Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui rocked the industry.
In the 2000s, there was space for a new player in the Asian pop market. South Korean culture thus found its way into wider Asian markets through films, fashion and the increasingly popular Korean dramas (K-dramas).
According to Elite Asia, the Hallyu Wave started at the end of the 90s when the Asian financial crisis forced South Korea to limit cultural imports from Japan. It started cultivating its own arts and humanities by creating new cultural-based departments within Korean universities.
The big breakthrough of Korean culture-based imports happened when K-dramas such as Winter Sonata and Autumn In My Heart (not forgetting the accompanying soundtracks) gained cult followings in markets such as China and South-East Asia.
K-pop then went on to break the boyband market, with super-groups such as TVXQ, SS501 and Super Junior debuting in the early 2000s. This triggered a mania of sorts from devout fans and spread quickly across Asia.
Riding The Wave
The early instances of K-wave having a presence in the US market came as the millennium’s first decade drew to a close. By then, one of Korea’s biggest idols, Rain (Jung Ji-Hoon) was already dominating the Japanese and Southeast Asian markets as both a K-pop star and an actor.
Having achieved success as an actor, Rain made his US foray through Hollywood and appeared as an action star in films such as Ninja Assassin (2009). Rain’s immense popularity showed signs of seeping into the Western world when he gained a spot in Time’s 2006 list of “100 Most Influential People”.
Then, in 2012, the worldwide phenomenon that was Psy’s Gangnam Style pushed K-pop front and centre on the world stage. As the first ever video to reach the one billion view mark on YouTube, there was no escaping the chartbusting tune and dance move.
This pushed Psy, as well as the eponymous area in Seoul, into the spotlight. It also unlocked a frenzy toward all things that made up the epicentre of Korean cool.
The song paved the way for K-pop to become an increasingly frequent feature on the US Billboard charts. K-pop acts started to appear in everything from reality television shows to the birth of the first K-pop music festival, KCON, in LA, in 2012.
Worldwide, K-pop was duly acknowledged as a genre of pop all on its own. Artistes such as Big Bang and Girl’s Generation held global concert tours and started winning international awards such as the World Music Awards (2014) and YouTube Music Awards (2013), respectively.
As global appeal surged, so did the use of social media and streaming services. The South Korean music industry cottoned on to capitalising these platforms for a wider reach.
Websites such as Soompi and Allkpop became the go-to portals for translated K-pop news and offered global fans a chance to share updates and interact with local South Korean fan-bases.
A Solid Fanbase
It is the camaraderie and immersive nature of the K-pop world that changed the way pop music fans appreciated the genre.
The mash up of electronic, hip-hop, funk, and rap infused with feel-good, catchy lyrics, no-holds-barred production of concerts, as well as immersive music videos, offered fans an alternate world beyond a radio track.
Kristine Ortiz, a community manager at the company that owns Soompi tells British Vogue: “They’re able to create a sensory experience through clothes and music videos with elaborate story lines.
“That’s not seen a lot in Western music…it’s a process of self-discovery and that makes it really exciting for fans. Users find one song and they start digging on their own. There’s a level of motivation and socialising you don’t see with American artistes.”
BTS, the K-pop boyband group responsible for truly breaking the US market when it won the Billboard Music Award for “Top Social Artist” in 2018, has attributed its success to social media and a giant fanbase.
BTS member Suga told BBC Radio 1: "I think we're so lucky to be born at the right time. Without social media, we wouldn't have been so successful."
One of the reasons BTS’ appeal has grown to the levels it has today is their early usage of live chat videos and social media interaction with their fans. This built a fanbase that was not only devoted but savvy in their power to boost the popularity of the group.
A Force To Be Reckoned With
Today, K-pop fans and artistes alike use their immense wield over social media platforms to their advantage. There are however, certain disadvantages to having the eyes of the world on the industry.
In recent years, numerous K-pop stars have fallen victim to the pressures that the Korean entertainment world present. Suicide and drug abuse due to internet bullying have dominated the headlines just as much as the rising popularity these stars have on the world stage.
The internet platforms that have contributed to the popularity of the industry has also put it under the scrutiny of not just the media but the public at large. Scandals such as corruption and sexual exploitation which may have been swept under the carpet have come to light as a result of public inquiry.
Nevertheless, the globalisation of K-pop has opened up conventional music markets to Eastern culture as well as proved that music transcends language and cultural barriers. It has also proven to be a platform that unites global youth toward worthy causes.
Bands such as BTS are youth ambassadors and often have their fans join in on their call to action against bullying and racism, as well as donate vast amounts to charities.
From television to film and music, there is indeed no denying that the Korean Wave has transformed the way in which we shape and view modern pop culture. It is a force to be reckoned with.
When South Korean film Parasite took home four awards at the Oscars this year, it made history. As director Bong Joon-ho so succinctly puts it, “I think Korea produces a lot of great artistes because we are a very emotionally dynamic people."
Cover Image: CJ Entertainment
Writer l Shakila Rajendra
Writer by craft, storyteller by compulsion. Eco-conscious, sustainability, travel, music, love and life's infinite funny occurrences like grumpy animals and misspelled road signs are things that get her out of bed.