Monsta X performing at K-Con 2019. (Emily Lowry/Courtesy)
Korean Pop has over 36 million people following one of the most influential cultures of the decade.
Walking around the Korean Market at Irvine you can see the windows bouncing from the loud music coming from a shop at the end of the alley. A big screen displaying colorful music videos and people wandering around the tiny store. There was no Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande playing in the background, it was K-pop.
Thanks to the catchy beats, dance choreographies and movie-like music videos, K-pop has become a global phenomenon, riding the Hallyu Wave. The Hallyu Wave is a Chinese term that describes the popularity of the Korean entertainment industry. From the Korean cosmetics and skincare routines to the Korean dramas on Netflix.
“I typically enjoy upbeat and uplifting music,” said Emily Lowry, who’s been a fan of K-pop groups since 2015. “It makes me feel happy and it reminds me of concerts or moments in my life that I’ve enjoyed.”
Modern Korean pop grew in the 1990s, but the genre’s popularity ascended in the past few years. The first time most people heard about K-pop was in 2012, when Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video to top a billion streams on YouTube. Although now the internet sees that song as a meme, it opened the doors for the worldwide sensation that K-pop is today.
“I’ve found a home and a place where I feel comfortable,” says Madelon Hellen, runner of an Instagram fanpage (@jooheonday) with over 76 thousand followers. “I have met so many incredible people because of K-pop. I’ve been to so many concerts, parties and experiences that I would’ve never done before.”
K-pop has become difficult to ignore on the pop culture scene. Even when the tracks are in Korean, every song appears to stand against international competition. Groups like BLACKPINK and BTS hold records for their music videos with “Kill This Love” and “Boy With Luv” having over 56.7 million views.
According to the Guinesses World Records, BTS holds the biggest most viewed YouTube video in 24 hours. “Boy With Luv” currently has over 642 million views making it the biggest music video debut in YouTube history.
“It’s so visually pleasing.” said Maddi Gjovik, UC Berkeley graduate student and BTS fan. “The monochromatic outfits set the tone of the song very well. Definitely caught my attention throughout.”
K-pop has the traditional melody of Western Pop. The only difference between both is that K-pop is in Korean. And even so, Korean groups sing in English, Chinese and Japanese to attract diverse audiences. Their songs have elements from different music genres like rock, R&B, hip-hop, electronic dance and now Latin pop.
Without One Direction, BTS became the biggest boyband in the market. With their “ARMY” fanbase and millions of screaming crowds, they have taken K-pop from an unknown genre to a $5 billion industry.
Korean artists are setting the tone by providing content to the biggest producer and consumer of media in the world, the United States. They hold events like K-Con where the korean culture takes over Los Angeles Convention Center and brings different aspects of the K-pop culture like beauty, food, influencers, meet-and-greets and music into one place.
The first K-Con was in 2012 with only a few hundred fans and locals. Today, there are over 125,000 fans coming together for K-Con LA and K-Con New York. The convention shows a diverse audience of age and culture, which reflects on the popularity of K-pop outside of Korea.
But what makes K-pop music so addictive? Their quality live performances and top-notch choreographies makes every audience turn around and stare. They have a very unique and clean aesthetic, which also attracts more people. The positive lyrics and upbeat songs allows people to relate and explore more K-pop.
Research from the Koran Foundation says there was a 22% increase in the number of fans from 73 million in 2017 to over 80 million in 2018. This was thanks to the success of the boy band BTS, who debuted at K-Con in 2014.
K-pop fans don’t hesitate in learning all the choreographies and buying every version of the same album just to maintain their collection intact. Even at concerts you can find K-pop fans signing lyrics they barely understand. They are creating a revolution to keep this industry international, but fans want you to know that they are not what the media portrays them to be.
“Not everyone who enjoys and actively listens to K-pop is a crazy fangirl,” said Brent Boucher, Monsta X and BTS fanatic. “People can strongly identify with the groups they like while keeping it casual and relaxed.”
Judging people for the way they act, speak or for what they like is outdated. And even though society is more open now than ever to embrace all cultures, there’s still people who like to “trash” K-pop fanatics.
“It’s difficult as a young teenager to be a fan of anything really because you’re constantly ridiculed for something you enjoy,” said Hannah Gjovik, college student. “As I’ve grown older, whenever I see people ‘trash talking’ on K-pop, I pay no attention to it. People should let others enjoy things they like.”
Many fans have to go through the “shame” of liking K-pop, mostly because of the internet trolls. But at this point, their community is so massive that any type of hate is nothing more than background noise.
“It still bothers me a little, but I know everyone has different opinions,” said Gjovik. “It’s OK to like different things.”
Because of the control South Korean music studios hold over their artists, they are the ones responsible for shaping the K-pop genre. It’s been controversial the way they handle their own performers. From long-term contracts, also known as “slave contracts,” to abusive behavior over the artists, most of them are not allowed to have a social life or even date.
Although it seems like these K-pop groups are in need of salvation, that’s the life they signed up for. They’ve become the face of South Korea strategically designed to elevate its culture worldwide. As the consumers continue feeding the production system, the K-pop machine goes on, and it doesn’t look like the hallyu wave is ending any time soon.
Correction- an earlier post cited information from “ResearchGate” when the information came from “The Korea Foundation.”