A version of this article first appeared in the Korea Times
South Korea is banking on K-pop being the hook that grabs the world’s interest in Korean culture. Can it crossover?
The phenomenon known as K-pop has created a subculture all its own among young adults throughout Asia. More recently, the forces that be behind K-pop are attempting to broaden its fan base, especially focusing on attracting a North American audience.
As an American, my connection with K-pop is limited. Most of us Westerners have probably only heard a few select songs. One of which is certainly by a man named Psy.
Psy is the main connection between K-pop and the U.S. Some may even say that he has led the way for K-pop to reach a mainstream audience. According to an October 2012 interview with The Verge, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is the only song to be listed on the Billboard Korea K-Pop Top 10 while also appearing on other American charts. The music video for “Gangnam Style” is the most viewed video on YouTube with more than 1.753 billion hits and counting.
However, Psy is a lot different from the typical K-pop artist. When Simon Stawski of Eat Your Kimchi video blog talked to The Verge, he stated why Psy is different from other artists: “…the song is much different than most K-Pop. There’s a lot of irony and humor in that video, while other K-Pop songs are very serious and sexy and very well crafted. The mainstream success that Psy has, we don’t see that happening in other kinds of K-Pop, but we still see a vast amount of success happening on an underground level.”
So, will K-pop be able to make it into the U.S. mainstream? Some say no: K-pop doesn’t appeal to the North American culture, so it won’t have any success. However, according to one fan K-pop fan, America dominance could be the next step for the pop artists. Hannah Waitt, an American intern at Billboard, loves K-pop and is friends with singer Amber of F(x). Waitt says that there are definite differences between American pop and K-pop, “the system behind it is very different from the U.S. They are trained from a young age to dance, behave and sing well.” She should know; she wrote her college thesis on K-pop. But K-pop is not just spreading to American fans, it’s also reaching European fans.
Esmee Mooi, a tourist from the Netherlands, loves K-pop. Mooi first heard of the music after watching anime. But, she feels differently about K-pop venturing out to the states: “I do want it to be famous, but I don’t want it to break through because then the music will change.”
While there are different opinions on where K-pop should go next, there have been recent attempts to broaden the music’s appeal. Quincy Jones, a prominent American music producer, will link up with CJ E&M Entertainment Company in an attempt to promote K-pop globally. But it will most likely take a mass movement spearheaded by a handful of Psys before it is able to regularly chart in North America.
There are several differences between K-pop and American pop, some which may even hinder K-pop from becoming prevalent in the states. For instance, American pop is overtly sexualized, while K-pop traditionally has aimed to be cute and fun. Take the new Miley Cyrus hit, “We Can’t Stop.” The video features Miley rolling around in bed in tight clothes, making out with a mannequin and dancing seductively. And Robin Thicke’s video for “Blurred Lines,” arguably the current top song in America, features topless women. Modern K-pop certainly has its seductress moments, but it stills bends toward the innocent. For example, in the Apink music video for “NoNoNo,” the girls are all dressed in matching clothes, baking cupcakes and singing sweetly to the camera. That trend may be shifting though (case and point: The 10 ‘Baddest Females’ in K-pop), and the push for crossover may be the reason behind it.
The sheer size of K-pop groups may also be a deterrent to entering the American market. There are more groups than solo artists, and more members in those groups than one can’t keep track of. For instance, the aforementioned Apink has 7 group members and Super Junior, one of South Korea’s biggest boy bands, has 12. Most similar Western pop groups, like One Direction, are limited to 3-to-5 members, which seems to appeal to American audiences.
Choreography is another difference with the K-pop artists. Every video or song has a dance move that is meant to join it. America audiences tend to consider such fads as in the realm of novelty, like the “Macarena.” The longevity of the “Gangnam Style” dance will predicate whether this is a viable marketing option within U.S. borders.
While, I must admit that K-pop is catchy and fun, it may take a while for the bands to become popular in the U.S. Can dance moves and performances that are seen as being too silly and cute for an adult audience crossover? What about the language barrier, much steeper for music heading west than east. For now, K-pop is increasingly becoming popular throughout Asia and Europe, and it will be interesting to see if it breaks the boundaries of North America.
Also worth considering is the affect K-pop will have on the way Americans interpret Korean culture. K-pop opens a whole new perspective into Korean society, especially into the world of Hallyu, or the Korean culture aspects that includes fashion, music, film, TV, the arts, and more. Just by getting a glimpse of K-pop, it builds intrigue into the culture that gave birth to such a colorful music industry. And even if the music does not eventually crossover, perhaps the fashion will. Regardless, each Youtube clip a K-pop starlet inspires is another win for South Korea. It helps launch the country onto the world stage of popular culture, and the tourism dollars may not be far behind.
K-pop is a not just a musical fad, even if Psy eventually is deemed one and it fails to enter the North American pop mainstream. It is a cultural wave that will help the world discover South Korea for the modern country it is, one shimmy-and-bop at a time.
photo credit: http://onehallyu.com/