K-pop: The answer to America’s cultural xenophobia
In the latter half of May this year, the number one album charting in the US was sung and written almost entirely in Korean.
On the 18th May, ‘Love Yourself: Tear’ (LY:T), the latest album from South Korean K-pop group, BTS (방탄소년단, which translates literally to Bulletproof Boy Scouts) debuted at number one on the US Billboard Hot 200. This marked a historic moment for the septet as not only was LY:T the highest internationally charting album for a Korean act, but it was also the first K-pop album to rank at number one in the history of Billboard.
The sonically diverse record’s success comes at a progressive time in the US music industry and one of global reach for Korea’s musicians. Never before in American music history has there been such a high concentration of Korean and generally foreign music topping the charts. More K-pop groups than ever before are climbing chart ranks and Latin music, like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’ (remixed by Justin Bieber), had a record-breaking sixteen-week reign at number one.
This raises two important questions: is English no longer the default language of American pop? Can something that is considered to be a subcultural niche, like K-pop, ever rise to mainstream status in the US?
It is certainly true that the current proliferation of K-pop and its heavy presence in American media marks a new stage for the Korean Wave (or the Hallyu Wave), a neologism that refers to the increasing global popularity of South Korean culture. BTS’ recent historic accomplishments include: being the first Korean act to win two Billboard awards, perform at the Billboards, the AMAs and tying with Barack Obama in having the most liked tweets of all time. Thus, the Hallyu Wave has been propelled into a veritable tsunami that has raised South Korea’s cultural profile on the global stage, in a way that it never has before. However, while it does seem to be virtually impossible to be on social media without bumping into K-pop related content, some remain hesitant to label Korean music as mainstream, or even prominent, in America.
Many assume that K-pop’s prevalence, while seemingly ubiquitous on Twitter, has had no tangible effect on the regular media consumption of the average American. For them it remains a niche subculture noticed and enjoyed primarily by K-pop fans and young internet dwellers. Given America’s notoriously xenophobic tendencies, it comes as no surprise that it seems unable to welcome the rapidly rising popularity of Korea’s (arguably) most successful export. And if it is welcomed, this welcome may not be warm. Hallyu artist Psy’s record breaking ‘Gangnam Style’ became the first YouTube video to reach a billion views, in December of 2012, and proceeded to win multiple awards (including Best Music Video at the MTV Europe Music Awards.) However, the Western accolades were not due to a recognition of the artist, but rather a pejorative fascination with something foreign, unfamiliar and somewhat comic. ‘Gangnam Style’ remains one of the most covered music videos on YouTube; covers most of which seem crudeand culturally insensitive Americanised parodies of the original. Fast forward to 2018, however, and you will find that the American response to BTS seems less xenophobic and more genuine – or at least genuinely curious.
Many major American outlets and publications have been documenting BTS’s unprecedented success in the American music scene with what looks to be great interest and even encouragement, with articles like “BTS: The K-pop group that finally won America over,” from Forbes suggesting BTS’ have garnered the positive response their Hallyu predecessors did not. Billboard, Buzzfeed and iHeartRadio have gone beyond just BTS and interviewed multiple other groups like GOT7, Twice, Monsta X, and even non-K-pop Korean RnB artists like Jay Park and Dean, in an attempt to appeal to larger, more international audiences. Perhaps the days of mocking languages and musical styles we don’t understand are behind us.
While nobody realistically expects Korean-based artists to suddenly overshadow the likes of Drake and Ariana Grande’s popularity in the US, K-pop’s presence in the American music scene is not to be dismissed as a non-impactful fluke. It is no small feat for a K-pop group with no real traction in the US before 2016 like BTS to beat pop giant Justin Bieber for the Billboard Top Social Artist award.
Nor is it a minor accomplishment to be the first Korean act ever to sell out New York’s Citi Field Stadium, and be the producer of America’s number one album – especially when it isn’t even in English. It is worth considering what it means for an East Asian music industry to take up so much proverbial space in mainstream America, specifically when there has been more open discourse on Asian representation in the Western cultural sphere than ever before. So, is K-pop finally mainstream? It could very well be headed there. Is K-pop the solution to cultural xenophobia in the US? Probably not. But it’s a start.