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What is K-pop? To put it simply, it’s South Korean Pop music. The majority of K-pop artists consist of boy groups and girl groups, (similar to NSYNC and Destiny’s Child) followed by solo artists, bands, duo groups, etc. of which they are called “Idols”. K-pop groups are widely popular and are known to be amazingly versatile performers. A typical performance of a K-pop group would have the aspects of at least singing, dancing, and rapping, all while wearing outfits and makeup coordinating to the concept of their group or music. K-pop idols are not all South Korean musicians but are also Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and of other races, mainly from Asia. Despite K-pop being a foreign music genre in the U.S., it has grown with the immense popularity of an international fanbase which has allowed a bigger spotlight for Asians in American media. Although the lyrics are mostly in Korean, K-pop breaks down the language barrier. It brings a variety of people closer together despite the cultural differences, while creating a special relationship between an artist and a fan.
K-pop is one of the major reasons for the spread of South Korean culture and language upon people in the U.S. International fans who listen to K-pop and regularly watch their Idols’ content end up becoming a sponge for soaking up the Korean language and culture. The genre piques interest among listeners to learn a new culture. In 2012, the event called “KCON” was created, which is a convention that holds K-pop Idol performances and features many other aspects of Korean entertainment and culture. Every year, over 800,000 people attend and it has been growing ever since because it used to be exclusively in Southern California, but it is now held in major cities across the U.S. and in countries outside of America like Thailand and Japan.
In an online Los Angeles Times article called “KCON Aims To Ride The ‘Korean Wave’ To Pop-culture Dominance,” written by August Brown, he interviewed a chief operating officer of CJ E&M America (the producing company of KCON) named Angela Killoren. In Brown’s article, Killoren says “Movies, drama, beauty — this Korean wave can be a bridge to other cultural mashups. In such a fractured media landscape, there are more threads to tie together.” Because of K-pop’s success, other aspects of Korean culture and entertainment are being introduced to and enjoyed by the Western audience as well. KCON is one of those effects produced from K-pop, it is an example of how K-pop brings together all different types of people with a common interest in South Korean culture and it presents talented East Asian musicians through jaw-dropping performances and meaningful music.
K-pop has become a gateway to a new and better form of Asian-representation in American media. The “Hallyu Wave” has hit the U.S. (which is a term that refers to Korean Culture becoming globally popular due to K-pop, Korean dramas, variety shows, etc.). Popular K-pop groups like BLACKPINK and BTS have begun to perform on well-known American TV shows, award shows, and huge music venues since 2017, including the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, TheEllenShow, Jimmy Kimmel, Rose Bowl Stadium, and many more. Even though most Idols are not Asian-Americans, their presence in America represents a fantastic image of Asian performers in American mainstream entertainment rather than being portrayed through degrading stereotypical characters on TV or from Yellow-face roles (which is when a non-East Asian person would play the role of an East Asian character with makeup to look like one) Whereas now, Asian-Americans can finally look up to K-pop Idols for breaking out into North America and are able to identify themselves with popular Asian artists on the big screen.
In the online CNN article called “How A Boy Band From South Korea Became The Biggest In The World” by Julia Hollingsworth, the author showcases how the boy group BTS has uplifted the image of Asian male masculinity in America: Cho says BTS’s aesthetic, which is a representation of East Asian masculinity, is helping to change what mainstream viewers think about the possibility of gender presentation and what Asian bodies represent. Suk-young Kim, Director for the Center for Performance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) thinks BTS are doing a lot for Asian males, who haven’t always been presented well in US media. ‘BTS’s ubiquitous visibility and positive image will do much to create cool ‘Asianness,” she said.
Along with other well-known K-pop artists in the U.S., BTS is one of those artists that has been able to represent Asian masculinity and shut down degrading stereotypes of Asian appearances. With strong themes of self-love and acceptance in most K-pop artists’ songs, their music has also become a positive influence and a form of support among K-pop fans. The 7-member self-producing boy group named BTS is a wonderful example because in 2017 they started the release of their three-part album series called Love Yourself that focused on sending out the message of learning to love yourself and not changing one’s identity because of others.
BTS has done inspirational work within their music and has brought their lyrics to life via campaigning against violence towards the youth. Along with the album series, BTS launched their anti-violence campaign called “Love Myself” in collaboration with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). As of 2019, the campaign has gathered over $2 million through 3% of BTS’s physical album sales of the Love Yourself series and through 100% of the income from selling their official campaign merchandise; along with donations from all around the world of course.
With this campaign, BTS and UNICEF hope to “#ENDViolence” among children and teens by spreading and promoting love through their music. At the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, the leader of BTS, Namjoon Kim aka “RM”, gives a speech on behalf of their campaign, and he starts off by introducing himself and how music has changed his life and described it to be his “sanctuary” and “voice” to tell him to speak out. As a part of his speech, he mentions ‘After releasing the Love Yourself albums and launching the ‘Love Myself’ campaign, we started to hear remarkable stories from our fans all over the world [about] how our message helped them overcome their hardships in life and start loving themselves. These stories constantly remind us of our responsibility.” Not only does music influence affect RM’s life to make him become a better person, but his music with the rest of BTS members has also become a crutch for different kinds of people all around the world.
In the Billboard article called “Why K-pop Is Finally Breaking Into the U.S. Mainstream” written by Tamar Herman, the author gives additional information behind K-pop’s growth and its devoted fans: And even without much radio play here, K-pop’s influence is rapidly growing. As social media and streaming platforms have evolved, so too has an ultra-socially engaged fan base – one that not only devotes entire Twitter accounts to sending its favorite artists up the Billboard charts but also buys out arenas to support them and tunes in to splashy TV specials just to catch a glimpse of them, sending Korean acts ever nearer to the forefront of American pop.
Herman is explaining how social media has helped K-pop become more well-known over time and allowed fans to easily help their favorite artists to grow with popularity from all across the globe by promoting them with fan accounts. Aside from this information, it is said that the boy group BTS has “paved the way” for K-pop to become this global phenomenon.
Although the K-pop group BTS has begun to dominate in the West, it’s sad to say that there are xenophobic people and award shows that have not opened up to the K-pop scene. In the online Washington Post article called “The ‘Separate But Equal’ Rules Of American Music Awards” written by Marian Liu, she reports the events of discrimination towards the famous group. For example, Liu describes instances of many racist jokes made to BTS by TV show hosts and argues how the group is being separated from the main awards of American music award shows because they are too “foreign”, even though other foreign musicians like Canadian artists and Non-American white artists are being nominated for the same top awards.
BTS was the first Korean act to become No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and the first group since The Beatles to have three No. 1 albums within a year on the Billboard 200 chart; along with winning an abundance of Asian music awards like Artist of the Year and Album of the Year; and have won awards like Top Social Artist from the Billboard Music Awards since 2017, beating Justin Bieber’s streak of six consecutive wins prior to that year. With sold-out worldwide stadium tours as well, BTS deserves better recognition for their well-deserved achievements as a K-pop act.
In the article, there is a fan quote saying: “snug in that box, to stop them from having a seat at the table… Imagine if BTS were an all-white, English-singing and speaking group. … We have other groups, such as One Direction, as proof of what the ‘proper race’ can achieve and receive from the media and the industry.” This quote argues how the lense of xenophobia is one of the hurdles BTS have to face when becoming well-known in the U.S.
The lack of recognition towards K-pop artists in the award shows leads to a written Rolling Stone article called “BTS Are Shut Out of 2020 Grammy Nominations” by Elias Leight. Leight makes a snarky remark on the American music industry in response to the Grammys:
The failure to acknowledge K-pop at awards shows stands in stark contrast to the music industry’s day-to-day reality: Seemingly every American major label has scrambled to scoop up a K-pop act in the past 12 months. Columbia now works with BTS; Interscope nabbed Blackpink; Epic went after Monsta X; Republic grabbed Tomorrow X Together; and RCA signed Ateez. Just last month, Capitol released an EP from SuperM, a K-pop group that unexpectedly beat out the heavily streamed R&B singer Summer Walker to earn Number One.
Despite all the effort for American music labels to use these popular K-pop acts for their own business toys, it’s still not enough. K-pop has demonstrated that it is so much more than just a music genre, it is a completely influential culture all on its own. All of the lyrics and performances, produced by Idols has become a foundation for people who need support; whether it be songs of encouragement through a well-written album or well-spoken messages from the artists themselves. Because of K-pop’s international popularity, K-pop can be a common interest across the world, allowing people to bond, even though they come from different kinds of backgrounds and cultures. The list goes on and on with the number of achievements K-pop Idols have succeeded in; their presence in America has not been overlooked.
In the 2018 TIME magazine’s list for “Next Generation Leaders,” BTS was a featured name in the magazine, making them the first K-pop artist to make it onto that list and to become the front page cover for everyone to see. Asian Americans can be proud to see familiar faces on a top-selling magazine published in New York City, while having that magazine cover symbolize that no matter where someone is from and how different they may be, music like K-pop can always bring people together. When BTS won the Variety Hitmakers award for Group of the Year in 2019, leader of the group RM presented their speech for the group (since he’s the only member fluent in English), he expressed words of gratitude towards the fans and all the support they have received to earn their award. He ended the speech by saying “… one thing was very clear and it’s been even more clear thanks to you guys and thanks to Variety, it’s that music truly has the power to overcome various kinds of barriers including languages, nationalities, and many boundaries.
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